by GR "Maya" Cogman
His hand closed round my wrist. "Talk to me," he said.
"We don't have time for talking," I replied. The words were a shield against the shock of his face, his eyes. He hadn't changed.
"Talk or fight, then." His grip would have looked innocuous to someone passing by. "But I don't think you want to fight at the moment, and if we do battle, then it's to the death."
"It always was." The crowd streamed round us.
"One cup of coffee," he said. "That's all. Then you can go, and we deal with the situation as we must."
I weighed possibilities. No convenient way to lose him now, and I had a latitude of an hour or so before I needed to report in. I could tell the Seneschal about this. It was the optimal course. Then again, the Malakite might be lying; but if he were, he could already have set an ambush on me, or had a Cherub attune to me.
I tilted my head a shade. "Very well. Coffee."
He nodded towards the small tables on the balcony beside us. "Here will do nicely."
My eyes flicked to left and right. No obvious backup, but he was intelligent enough to have made sure that they were well-concealed, and I had to assume that they would be there. Worst-case scenario. Another reason why I had to report back to the Seneschal: there was clearly a strong leak in the command structure somewhere for him to have known where and when to intercept me like this. Other Servitors of the War might be in danger.
"Come on," he said, impatiently, and towed me towards the nearest table, still not releasing my wrist. How sensible of him.
We stared at each other across the formica top of the table, ignoring the two steaming cups of black coffee that sat between us. His hair was still the same mixture of dark and iron-grey, his face still the same angular profile, his hands still notched with tiny white scars. Something burned inside me, aching and raw, and I refused to acknowledge it or give voice to it.
"Faber," I named him, a mortal enough term for a Celestial name.
"Caliah," he said in return.
"How did you find me?"
My tone was idle, but he knew the purpose behind the question, and it showed in his eyes. "Information received." His voice was flat and neutral.
"Why?" It was a simple enough question. The last time that we had met, he had killed my Vessel, slammed a makeshift iron blade through my chest and pinned me to the ground, held me there as the last of my blood ran out, watching with the burning eyes of a creator and a killer.
"We worked together once." He gave nothing away through tone or expression. I considered extending my resonance towards him, but something held me back.
"We had mutual goals, then." The light caught his eyes and laid a slant of gold across the table, making the spirals of steam from the coffee mugs into tangible things. "That is presumably over now."
"I resonated you." He reached across to take his mug of coffee, eyes still on me, and spoiled the effect by managing to put a finger into the coffee. Little drops spattered on the table as he extracted his hand and shook it, muttering in Enochian.
I picked up my mug of coffee, face bland, and sipped it. The coffee was tolerable, if undistinguished in practically every way. Faber glared at his own coffee, and picked it up, folding his hands round the mug. A gesture to reassure me that he didn't plan to pull a gun at once? Perhaps. I was not reassured.
"I resonated you," he repeated. "You are an honourable being."
"Don't you mean demon?" I asked politely.
His eyebrows twitched. "Angel, demon, what the bloody ever. Can we please try and keep this conversation on a sensible footing?"
"Surely." I sipped my coffee again. "So, you resonated me. Somehow I am not surprised."
"I was." He took a swig of the coffee. Some sort of demonstration of machismo, doubtless, drinking it that scalding hot. "I hadn't expected you to be honourable, or worthy of..."
"Don't say it." I cut across him, my voice flat and bone-dry. "Just don't say that word. You don't understand what you're talking about and we might as well finish our coffee and go."
He leaned a little towards me, and something twisted again in my chest at his eagerness, the sheer burning flame of his presence, his strength. "Are you going to tell me that I have to Fall in order to understand? Or just that I can't possibly understand because I'm not like you?"
I looked for words; I owed him that much honesty. "You don't accept that I'm doing something that is necessary."
"Hurting people," he said.
"The guilty," I replied.
He made a gesture that took in the humans around us. "People. Innocent and guilty both."
I had hoped not to have to say this, but it was too obvious. "And you kill them." I did not repeat his last sentence; it was not necessary.
"You are unsane." It was not said kindly, which would have been unendurable, or unkindly, which would have been comprehensible, but with a flatness and resolve that nailed the words into the air. "Unsane and wrong."
I shrugged. "You will not believe me."
"Prediction?" he asked.
"Truth." I sipped my coffee again, and let my eyes drift briefly away from him, over the area. Too far to conveniently run for the mass of the crowd on my right: possibly one could go over the balcony and drop on the left, but if he had set this up, then he would have taken care to leave somebody down there and waiting.
"Okay." His change of tactic was quite perceptible. "Just explain to me how you can work for Baal, then, and fight other "angels". He's a Demon Prince. I'm perfectly sure you've got a good reason, Caliah, I just want to hear it."
My voice was colourless, even to my own ears, as I said, "He does not realise that in the end he serves God's purposes. As do I." Faber's words were too close to something that I did not want to consider, and that I still ruled myself enough not to consider.
His eyes stayed on me, not content with my answer, and hungry for words from me. It was a devouring silence, one that ate away at my control and demanded more. It was pure anger that fetched out my next words and broke the drawn-out space: how dare he question me like this? What right had he to judge me? "Seen Eli lately?"
He drew composure around him like his worn trenchcoat, and shook his head. "Not for a while. I'm sure he's doing fine." There was the edge of frayed rawness behind his eyes that suggested a concern, an insecurity, but for another person and not for him himself. No way in there, no gap to exploit.
I sipped my coffee again.
He didn't lean forward this time, but the sense of closeness was still there. "So, if God gave you this mission, and if you're doing the right thing, and if you believe it and so it all makes sense to you... okay, Caliah, I accept that. But I don't accept that God could have had the right to ask that of you."
"Stop," I said, light and breathless.
"We kill," he said. "We're the Malakim, the Virtues, the warriors. We are God's wrath forged into flesh. But we are not made to be cruel, and we are not made to be evil. You believe that God has sent you out to punish and hurt and cause people pain, Caliah, world without end. I tell you that that isn't what God is. Never has been, never will be, and what sort of God do you believe in that can ask you to do that, ask you to become evil?" His voice burned with passion, a light too harsh for my vision.
My pulse was fast in my ears. "Tell me what sort of reasoning you use when you have an order to go and kill somebody. It's like that. We accept it. We do not expect to understand God."
"And what if it's all a lie?" He deliberately held back rather than shouting it in my face. I could feel the restraint in him, the muscles tense in arms and shoulders and thighs. "What if it's all a lie, Caliah?"
"You have to have faith." I had lost my faith once before, I had been wrong once before. I would not do it again. "That is the only thing that holds any of us, Faber. You have to have faith."
"And whose face do you see when you pray?" he asked quietly. "What is your image of God?"
Not for over a hundred years, oh no, not for longer than that. I could not remember Michael's face. I was even further than that from God. My place was to serve, and that was written on my body now, tattoos of my Prince's name and my purpose. I knew that God was not merciful, and least of all to the Punishers: we accepted that and dealt out punishment in return.
"That isn't an answer," he said, as I twitched my hand in an attempt to shrug the question away. It was all the answer that I would give him, though. I would not, could not let him know how far away from Heaven I was. My Choir have their pride - and I could not have borne the pity in his eyes.
"Why are you here?" I asked, turning his questions against him.
He shrugged; the movement was painfully familiar, and I thought again of two bodies intertwined in a bed, skin and bone and scars. "How often do I get the chance to talk to you?"
I felt my lips twist into a half-smile. "Seriously."
"I want you back," he said, eyes suddenly fiercer, a force unveiled. "I want you back as you once were. Free of the lies, free of the cruelty. I can see echoes of it in you even now, Caliah, like the moon through smoked glass. I'm selfish and I love you and I want you pure and I want you free. It's as simple as that."
Breath stops, time stops, heartbeat stops, the world narrows to a dark face and old, burning eyes. I must have known that was what he meant, from everything that he had said earlier. Why did it surprise me so much to hear him speak the words?
"Impossible," I said, forcing out something to fill the gap.
"No." There was that passionate certainty to him. "Oh no. Do you think I don't know that you could be Redeemed? That you could..."
I cut across him, harshly, and I knew my face was twisting into fury. "I. Can't. Change. I made my choice and it is what I am. Stop this."
He reached across the table to grip my wrist. It wasn't an attack; I permitted it. "Look at yourself." His voice was soft. "What happened to you between then and now? You were so proud, Caliah, staring down at the little humans round you, but you weren't a wanton killer. I felt that in you even then. Why..."
I jerked my arm, a twitch, but his grip was firm.
"... do you think I could tolerate you? You didn't punish them because you didn't believe in punishing those who didn't deserve it. You spared the weak because they didn't know better. It wasn't much. It was something. You wouldn't have tried to save them, though, any of them. But you were so proud. I watched you across the floor, the chosen one, God's own Punisher, ice-blade in a sheath of silk. Look at you now. What happened?" His release of my wrist was unexpected, and I could still feel the imprint of my fingers as I dragged my arm back to my side.
"I learned priorities." I could hear the hiss to my voice.
"Priorities?" There was a controlled disbelief in his tone. "Why do you care enough to choose not to punish, Punisher? Why are you letting them be?"
Anger closed focus to a tiny channel of time and space between us. "You have no right to judge me or to demand answers of me."
"I have as much right," he said, deliberately, "as you would have to judge and punish me."
I stared at him for a moment, trying to find words for the answer that I knew existed.
His fingers toyed with the edge of his coffee mug. "Tell me, Caliah, do you punish anybody as much as you punish yourself? Do you despise, do you hate anybody as much as you hate yourself?"
I pulled control over myself, and felt it settle in my skin like a blanket of barbs. "You will not goad me to a fight, Faber, nor will you have another answer from me except that it is faith. Proud unFalling Malakite. Save your pity for some better object; you have the option of being kind."
"Caliah." Something fractured in his voice. "I want that option for you."
"Stop." I would not feel his pity in my bones, I would not see what was in his eyes. "Wasting your time. You wanted to talk. We have talked."
He sighed. "All right. Drink your coffee."
I didn't. Some reflex halted me, and I watched it thoughtfully, then looked into his eyes again. Guilt moved behind them, and indecision. He hadn't acted yet; he didn't want to. The coffee was still coffee, and nothing more. No transmuted drug to make me sleep and coddle me in lies for however long he had wanted. He had not acted yet, had not been the first to lie.
I folded my hands and let the black liquid coil its steam away. "I think that it is unnecessary."
There was relief in his face that he had not had to choose. I could give him that much, and I felt vaguely glad of that as I rose; then I reproached myself for the weakness. How fragile was I, that he could call me so easily and I could almost go to him? I was Punisher. He was Malakite. Lines once drawn cannot be undrawn, signatures written in flesh cannot be erased, and nothing wipes away blood once shed.
"Goodbye, Faber," I said. "I do not know that we will meet again. The protection of God be on you."
His gaze was very dark as he rose in turn, very furious. "I want nothing of your God, Caliah, nor of his cruelty."
"Go in peace," I said, as I turned my back and walked away.
There was no strike, no attack, nothing. I ached for some word or touch, and I hated myself for it.
Naturally, I turned directly into the female restroom along the corridor.
When I checked out the area earlier, I had been expecting possible pursuit after my mission, so I'd made sure I knew of several spots where I could break my trail. This restroom had two doors, one opening onto the opposite corridor, and I was trusting that he wouldn't have enough people with him to be able to cover it directly. In case he had, I paused for five seconds in front of the mirror; quickly pushing my hair back into a viciously taut ponytail, scraping two thick lines of green eyeshadow and triangles of dark blusher onto my face till it was a vaguely fantastic mask, and reversing my jacket so that it was now a faded pale denim and not a faded dark denim. Not much, but it might gain me a few seconds at some point. I couldn't just dump the jacket, unfortunately, as I was wearing a holster and gun underneath it, and I wasn't prepared to dump them or to wear them quite that publicly.
A painted face stared at its cheeks and eyelids in the mirror. I hate mirrors.
Memory lives inside mirrors.
"Shall I break it?" the Calabite had asked me. We were sitting in one of the rec rooms, and the whole far wall was a sheet of rippled metal that dimly reflected our forms, misshapen images. It bore the scars of other attempts to deface it or warp it, dints and ripples of concussions.
I shook my head, and turned another page of the magazine that somebody before us had left lying there. It purported to be some sort of account of what Heaven was really like, written by a once-Redeemed who had returned happily to Hell.
"Is that any good?" His eyes turned to the paper between my fingers. "If not, just throw it across."
"It's all lies, you know."
He shrugged. "So? I'm going to tear it up either way." Something brightened in his eyes. "Hey, if that's all lies, what's it really like?"
My mind flinched away. "Bright."
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "No, really. There's got to be more to it than that."
"There is." I tasted monotone words. "It just isn't like here."
"You're Fallen." I made some small gesture, and he went on, "Come on, people know. You used to work for an Archangel. You have to know what it's really like up there." His voice took on a greasy, cajoling tone. "Look, Caliah, it's not as if I'm asking you to tell any state secrets or anything, right?"
"If you were," I said, blandly, "I would probably kill you."
He laughed, taking it for humour. "So, right, I figure it has to be nice? Or the angels wouldn't keep on hanging up there and trying to keep us out of it. So that's sweet. And the fluffy souls hanging round with them. Cute sex and shininess. And lots of singing. Something like that?"
"Not really," I replied.
He wasn't listening. "And I suppose the territory is split up like it is here. All the Archangels have their own turf, right? Yeah, that makes sense. I can see that."
"How nice," I murmured.
His chin wagged like some inane cockerel's wattles. "So you got the thing about serving, right? I've talked to some of the other Punishers about it. It's like being called, right? Duty?"
"Duty, yes," I said, watching my distorted reflection in the mirrored wall, a crumpled pile of ornately scripted flesh that squatted in a seat and did nothing, springs coiled in on themselves in painful tension.
He misunderstood, again. "Hey, look, Caliah, I didn't mean to be rude or anything. I guess it's nice to know you have a purpose? It's not like the rest of us don't know about duty, so don't get all touchy on me. It's a war."
"Yes, it's a war." I wanted to run. It was preferable to having to think.
"So what is Heaven like?" he asked. "Bright? Pretty?"
"Bright." Pain was a rush of salt blood inside me, coming from wounds that had scabbed a little when I left them alone, but now open again and flooding me with agony. I could not forget the light, the wind, the trust and the companionship. The love. I had been able to forget once, but now even that comfort was beyond me. A Punisher should be beyond such weakness, and it shamed me. Had a member of my own Choir been in the room with us, he would have sensed my grief and set marks in my flesh for it.
I watched the Calabite's waiting face, and decided to give him a moment of truth. "There is love there. Companionship without fear, peace after battle, duelling that ends in joy. Where an elder angel will see his juniors grow stronger and rejoice for them. Where the stronger guard the weaker, and feel no shame for it, and the weaker serve in happiness and are not cast aside. There is a love..."
He had all the stillness of his breed as he watched me, that deadness of the body which accompanies a whirling inner fury and destruction. He was as much of a weapon as I was. As much of a thing. "Go on."
"A love," I said, feeling each word cut me as I spoke it, "which burns because it will not accept anything less than your best. It demands excellence, everything that you could be. It is there as a support when you fail, it is glad for you, in you, when you succeed. It is bright and furious and painful and it is love."
There was puzzlement in his eyes. I knew that my own face was calm enough, bland and unfeeling and uncaring. "You left it."
"Heaven is a place for angels and the blessed," I replied. "I had duties elsewhere."
"Yeah." He didn't speak for a few minutes, grunting out wheezing breaths between his teeth. "You came here to punish."
He shrugged. "I suppose you knew best."
"I suppose I did."
My reflection stared at me now from the mirror, just another mask. I remembered the old human tag about whether I or the reflection was more real. Perhaps the reflection should just move away from where it was, on the other side of the mirror, and let me vanish. A ghost, haunting the corridors of earth and Hell, trying to find some definition for myself that wouldn't hurt...
... this wasn't helping. I should not have allowed Faber to affect me so, and I should certainly have used my resonance on him in order to make him tell me how he knew I would be there. I puzzled for a moment, as I walked towards the other door out, why I had not done so automatically: the answer came as I moved aside to let another lady in, then dodged past her. It would have been an attack, and I couldn't run from a fight.
I was nearly managing to approve of my common sense, as I stepped out of the door, and the waiting ambush hit me.
The flat of the sword took me squarely across the temple, and I can only say in my own defence that I had not been expecting something quite so blatant. Reflex sent me rolling backwards, but the blow had already connected fairly soundly, and my head rang like breaking glass, vision shot across with sheets of black light. Faber clearly had arranged to have this exit watched. I kept moving sideways, half forcing myself up, and caught the swing of the free-standing ashtray squarely in the stomach; my body jerked backwards from the impact, and I choked for breath desperately, tasting bile in my mouth and trying to get my balance.
"What are they doing, Mommy?" a child's high voice bleated somewhere in the distance. I moved on instinct, pushing off the ground and into an arcing roll, and felt the brush of air as the sword-blade hissed past my face again. Fragments of colour meshed into a face, a snapshot in the middle of motion as the ashtray-stand connected with my knee and sent pain running up and down my leg. How long ago had it been? Sixty or seventy years since I had seen that proud Seraph of the Sword and reduced him to tears and begging, smeared blood on his face.
Balance, pivot, move. Drills that had been hammered into me three hundred years ago forced me onto my feet again, staggering as my right knee nearly gave under me, and permitted me the moment's pause that I needed to invoke my resonance. Aceris was a tangle of sheer bladed pleasure, cold and justified delight as he stood to battle against the Punisher who had once driven him to his knees. Light ran along the blade of his sword and caught in the blued steel of his eyes, furious and precise.
He shouldn't have tried to meet my eyes. I discounted the other man to my right, who was circling to get another swing at me with his ashtray, and breathed in sheer paralysing fear, cold and bitter and bloody, then let it out in a long exhalation at Aceris.
Fall, I willed him. Break. Run.
"It's some sort of martial arts demonstration, dear." The crowd hung back, but I could hear the mother's lower tones answering her child's question. "Don't get in the way of the nice people, now."
Oh no, don't get in our way.
I felt the wind of fear run around Aceris as my resonance rang like ice carillons, and I felt each piece of it cut into him. His sword sagged, the tip moving down to touch the floor with a tiny sound, and I saw the muscles tense in his face, jaw set and high proud cheekbones showing rigid as he struggled with the impulse to get away from me. I felt the impulses in his body, the twitches in hip and shoulder and stomach, and felt the sheer naked terror moving in him, a dark river of remembered humiliation and promised pain. And still he did not run. Every part of him was locked in an absolute striving against me: he did not raise his sword, nor did he manage to step forward again, but neither did he break in my onslaught.
The second man moved in, his pattern precise as he swung the tall ashtray in a feint, then a cross-blow towards my shoulder, and I was forced to shift my attention, moving into a block, dodge, block again. I didn't recognise his face: young, enthusiastic, somewhat appealing in a boyish way, the eyes amber-pale and somehow familiar.
Strike, block, strike again. He had the reach on me, even without his ashtray, and my fear wouldn't cripple Aceris forever, and Faber must be following.
The pattern was a Michaeline one, something in the back of my mind noted, as I jumped a leg-sweep and kicked out, catching him on the shoulder as I spun, my bad leg locked straight beneath me as a pivot. The ashtray went flying from his hands, going racketing across the floor in a heavy crash of sound. A single note sounded off-true in the Symphony around us as the metal tube fetched up in a tangle of plastic seats, denting one and crushing another.
I let my resonance extend towards my opponent, watching his eyes and losing myself in them as I slapped the edge of a hand towards his face. He parried, a standard movement, and brought his elbow in towards my side. I bent round it, feeling the swing of my jacket, the play of my own muscles, and tasted his eagerness as I slammed the heel of my hand into his kidney, courage and sheer delight and anticipation mingled with sudden pain, recognition and hope flawed by the sensation of my strike.
He knew me.
Aceris was visible in the field of my perception as a knot of terror and courage, still holding position five yards away from us. I caught my opponent's right wrist with one hand, still at an angle to him, and brought my elbow round into his armpit, nearly dislocating the joint and making him choke on the agony of it. He was stronger than me, I had gauged that already, and I needed to take him down by any means necessary. This was a fight, and I could not retreat.
It showed in his eyes as well as in the whorls of his emotions. He knew me, he had been waiting for me, and he would not lose me again, because he cared for me.
I spun round in front of him again, balancing round my bad knee and sparing it as far as I could, and ducked the hammerblow from his left fist. Motion slowed as I locked my hands together, bringing them round for a hammerblow into his trachea. Kill him, take Aceris down, get out of this situation.
Amber eyes and dark wings, that was the memory. Trusting eyes with a familiar eagerness and a familiar passion, whetted blade of the Lord's fury, young untrained strength in the Groves, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, Maher, Malakite, o my pupil, o child, what do you here? You were supposed to still be in the bright lands, not here, not in my world, never in my world.
I looked into his eyes, and I knew that I must kill him. He was a Malakite, and of Michael; he would understand. There would not even be Trauma.
My hands slammed into the side of his neck, not the front, under his ear, and he crumpled in a long slow motion, body swaying as it folded down on itself to the floor, right arm at an angle, worn sneakers smeared with dust and grit. He might have been sleeping, his chest heaving in coarse short breaths. He might have been dreaming.
Behind me, Aceris strained again. He was working free, I could feel it, now that he knew he had held my fear in check once. My gun was a weight in the small of my back, and the knife that I had never had a chance to draw burned cold against my arm. I was of the War, and these were my enemies.
My pulse hammered in me louder and louder, each beat seeming to shake me as I turned my back on the unconscious Malakite, the frozen Seraph. Something tore inside me, bitter and hot, and I heard the dissonance screaming in my ears, settling in my bones, as I turned, turned and ran.
People walked round me in an unhearing, unseeing whirl of colour and motion. They were raw against my skin, every word and chord an atonal shard against the dissonance that I still couldn't control. I could feel the muscles tight over my cheekbones as I clenched my jaw, the tendons rigid in my forearms and hands as I took every careful step.
They came stalking out of the boutique, proud and high-stepping in leggings and silk and lycra, wide-sleeved glossy jackets and thin bodies, jewel-coloured and gorgeous. One had frizzed-back black hair that framed her face in a wide mane, and she laughed as she swung her head, making the cascade of hair dance like feathers. Her face was painted in gold and brown, and the same gold glittered at the ends of her nails.
I stepped back, some remnant of sense moving me around the edge of their stalking. Urban fashion warriors, painted and plumed for battle, shrieking with the cutting edge of certainty and confidence.
You ran from a battle, something whispered in me. Dishonored. Shameful. How could Aceris have been so strong and I so weak? I was empty of answers.
Each movement of theirs was a challenge to the group of young men who loitered by the donut-stand opposite, blowing powdered sugar from their hands and laughing, low-toned and cheerful. I watched the posturing fools and thought of Shal-Mari.
No, that was a lie, but I wasn't sure why.
The floor was cheap plastic under my feet, the shop-fronts empty shells of glass and consumer goods, the mob as light and airy as jeering balloons. They were casual and cheerful and too close to me. Words made their way out of the general confusion, and I heard without wanting to hear.
"...but I thought she said she'd be by..."
"No, Mummy won't buy you that, Gerald, sit down now..."
"...want, I want..."
"Honestly, that colour is so retro..."
It felt as though I were drugged, high on some psychedelic that made everything bleeding raw and clear, trails of colour scraping past the edge of my vision. I saw more clearly than I wanted to see. Snapshots of emotion, not fogged by comforting walls, but as harsh and close as they had been once before, when I hung in a cage above a brothel in Shal-Mari, and in a way even more painful, because now I knew who I was and could feel my own shame and fury.
...and he was feeling good, he knew it, he strutted with it, and Meg was going to just be all over him when she got a load of his new jacket, she'd love it, she was so hot on that stuff, and she was just round the corner, a tightening of anticipation...
Breathe. Breathe more slowly. The dissonance sang in me.
...bones ached with his age, these young people had no idea how to behave, it made him furious sometimes, but not now, not on a day like today when he was supposed to be seeing his niece for the first time in five years, and her with twins, it was enough to make him remember when she was a baby too, remember that sudden and unexpected and absolute protectiveness that he had felt towards her then...
No. I was not supposed to protect them. I was supposed to punish them.
...Lucy was a bitch, the way she looked down her nose just because she had some kind of high-and-mighty idea about how she was so much better, so much prettier, so much cuter, all the boys went for her, well, soon they'd see her, just let them pay a bit of attention...
Yes. I tried to hold my stability. Humans deserved to be punished. Only the worthy would have mercy, would have proved themselves deserving of heaven.
...and it wasn't as if it mattered if he got hurt, he should have known better than to get into trouble anyhow, the smart people did the deals and the slow guys paid for it, that was how life was, and anyhow it wasn't his problem...
I closed my eyes, trying to hear above the sound of my own pulse and the screaming of the dissonance. Trying to hear my own voice and to be sure that it wasn't someone else's.
"Tell me that any of them deserve mercy." Not my voice, Ashekai's voice from the Crimean war, from the mud and blood and emptiness. The lantern-flame reflecting in his eyes, my knife at his throat, the tiny drops of acid spattered across my hands and beginning to burn.
...and I want ice-cream and I want the new doll and I want mother to be happy and I want to see David after school and I want it all to be good, happy, nice, and I cannot see any way that it will not be so, because I believe that I will be happy, I believe that the world is a kind place, I believe that I am safe...
The world wasn't safe, that much I knew, and God was a punishing God, and there was no mercy for those who did wrong. I had failed. Even when I followed Ashekai on his dark scaled wings down to Hell and accepted the truth, I had failed what I had once been.
"Are you all right?" I opened my eyes. I was leaning against one of the palings of a stairway that climbed to the next level of the mall, and I could feel the slow hopeless tears that cut trails down my face from the corners of my eyes, sparkled on my fingers as I raised my hand to brush at them. A small woman was standing next to me, right hand raised uncertainly. "Are you all right, honey? You look like you're about to fall over, tell it true."
"Fine." The words were grit in my throat. "Thanks. I'm fine. Problems. Man troubles." Any excuse to make her go away, to leave me alone. I should be strong enough to handle this.
She nodded, mildly enough, but I could feel the concern in her like the waves of heat from a fire. "You watch yourself, honey. Have some coffee or something."
I tried to suppress the feeling of betrayal as she walked away. It wasn't reasonable at all: I had told her to go away, and she had. I had turned away from Faber, and he had let me walk away. I had tried to manage on my own without calling upon Michael, and I had Fallen...
The gap after that thought seemed to be the distance between life and death. Two grains of dust danced in the shaft of light beside me, moving around each other in a constant shifting spiral. I tried to encompass the idea, but it seemed too big to hold in my head, and I was numb, as frozen as Aceris had been. If I had asked for help, would it have been different? Would I have still been a Power, never heard...
Shut up, something inside me said. Don't think it. Don't believe it. Throw this idea away, leave it be, close up the doors and bar the shutters, hack off your hands and blind your eyes and break your heart, but don't believe that it could have been different. Don't even think it.
...never listened to a Balseraph. Never believed that I should punish. Never Fallen.
You are an angel still, the voice within me yammered. Don't you believe that the work you do is vital, necessary, blessed by God? You were chosen, given power and focus...
...given pain to give it again, I thought...
I reached out and closed my hand around the ragged edge of the paling, feeling the coarse metal grate against my palm.
You have to have faith, the voice repeated. Do you want to fail again?
I closed my eyes till little fragments of light showed behind the lids, and tasted blood in my mouth. I had failed Michael. I acknowledged that. And what I was doing now was no recompense, no atonement at all. I was standing in the darkness and listening to the voices in my head and doing what my Balseraph Prince told me, because he knew the will of Heaven. Because he served God.
"The paradox of the Elohim." I remembered Merab's voice, half lecturing, half amused, the purring tones of a winged panther who was sprawled on his cushions, the distant sounds of steel on steel from the practice grounds nearby. "They have no honour to bind them as do the Malakim, no truth to constrain them like the Seraphim, nothing save themselves to remain true to. And so they give themselves into the hands of others, obey their orders and find definition in their Words to remain true to what they are. Otherwise the weapon swings too far - for that is what you are, Caliah, a weapon - and forgets which side it is on. I've watched you. You don't seek unrestrained liberty, because then you would lose yourself."
But I still knew who I was, didn't I?
My hand closed tighter on the edge of metal till I felt flesh give and warm blood begin to seep between the fingers.
No. I didn't know who I was. But I knew who I was not, not now, not any longer. Freefall was shrieking round me, the empty whiteness reaching up to swallow me in an endless drop, but my eyes were dry now, and my pulse had slowed. Red beads trailed across my palm as I unfolded my hand from the paling. It wasn't vengeance, or hatred, or even bitterness, but a cold clean wind that blew through me and left me balanced. Baal was not Heaven's servitor, and nor was I, but there was one thing that I could do before the wind took me entirely and shattered me, and that was everything. The Tether of the War was something that I could not abide, and so I would destroy it. I had been wrong: this was my payment for pride and wilful blindness. Then let the darkness take me.
I ducked my head as I walked through the low-ceilinged door: the taller, more muscular Vessels who came through this way probably loathed it. A smell of gun-oil and plastic hung in the air, and the refrigerating units hummed gently somewhere behind the walls.
Explosives are so temperamental around heat, after all.
The Djinn closed the door behind me, and I heard the metal of the bolt snicking shut. I counted steps as I walked into the centre of the room, where the Balseraph was sitting at the table and cleaning her gun. The pieces were laid out neatly beside the cotton wool and oil, darkly absorbing the fluorescent light that shone from above, white and pitiless.
"You're late," the Balseraph said. Her name was Jachin, I remembered. She had pale hair, as luminous as the fluorescent light, swept back into short spikes that seemed to crown her with a halo of white gold, and eyes of a sudden deep blue, set beneath brows as pallid as her hair: ivory fine-boned hands toyed with the gun as she surveyed me, her black suit and black silk blouse the vestments of a polite and decorous Death. "Why?"
I could track the Djinn behind me, near-soundless as his footsteps were, but I needed a better idea of where the others in the Tether were. Time to make my appearance do some work for me. "Got jumped by a Malakite and a Seraph, sir." The bruises on my face were showing up nicely by now, I knew.
Jachin made an irritated noise, and gestured for me to take the seat opposite her, as she began to reassemble the automatic. I could feel the Djinn drifting closer again as I slipped into the chair, his brooding presence a heavy pressure against the threads I cast outwards. He was there, Jachin was opposite me. I needed to know where the two Calabim stationed here were, and where the Hellsworn mortals were. Just an hint, that was all. Just enough.
"Report," Jachin said, her eyes on me as she locked barrel to stock, and slid the clip of ammunition in. I returned her gaze with all the cold pride that she would expect from a Punisher, and leaned forward onto my elbows, bringing my lower legs round and beneath me; it was difficult, not letting the strain show on my upper body as I opened my mouth, keeping my shoulders balanced so that hopefully the looming Djinn would not notice. He was directly behind me. Good.
"I was returning from the handover," I said, carefully, keeping my eyes on her face and tasting her emotions on my tongue. No definite suspicion yet: it was a good enough reason, and I had the signs of some sort of fight upon me. "Passing through the Mall, I got jumped by a couple of men, one with a sword and a Seraphic look to him," and I spread my hands on the table, feeling the plastic cold and sticky under them as the muscles flexed, "and the other using a standard War attack-pattern." I tilted my head again: yes, there, beyond the walls and to my left, I could track three patterns of emotion. The two Calabim and a Hellsworn, by the feel of it. That would be the rec room. Might be more upstairs, but I knew the four demons were the only regular staff assigned here. "I froze the one with the sword, who I think was a Seraph of Laurence, sir, and..."
I had not even breathed out of pattern, keeping my voice entirely level. The table and chair creaked beneath me, a settling note, as I rolled my weight forward over my elbows, locking my right leg into a straight line for balance against the chair beneath me and ignoring the scream of the knee joint, and slamming the left foot up over the back of the chair like a hammer into the Djinn's throat and jaw, legs like opened compasses. I felt the cracking bone and cartilage, felt my foot go deeper into something soft, and heard the rattling in his throat.
Jachin was bringing the gun round to point at me, her shock only momentary, and I felt her emotions settling into a seething point of violence. It was exactly how I had expected her to react. It was exactly as I might have reacted.
The momentum of my kick sent me moving forward as the Djinn staggered backwards, and I rolled with it, thrusting down with my hands against the table, the gun-oil smell heavy in my lungs, and bringing my legs in a high pivot over my head and down to slam into Jachin. Her shot ripped through the shoulder of my jacket as it dangled loosely from my shoulders, laying a stripe of white pain against my arm as the bullet soughed against the skin, and then we were both tangled on the floor as her chair collapsed beneath our combined weight. I had landed atop her, my legs tangling with her arms. She was opening her mouth to call for help as I slipped the blade from my sleeve and slid it into her right eye and watched the scarlet blood come pooling out across that lovely vivid blue, twisting the knife up and into the brain. She gasped and was still.
I felt it with her. It was an honesty that I owed her, though I could not have put words to it. This new truth of mine demanded it. Her heart spasmed with disbelief and anger, bitterness at betrayal - I forced myself to taste that, to know what I had done and what it meant to her - and at the end a kind of acceptance of the blood and the last breath, a knowledge of the fitness of the thing as darkness opened on her like an eye and she was gone.
I rose, wiping the knife in a long smear across the throat of my leotard and down the front, and slipped it back into my sleeve, turning to look down at the Djinn. He had almost regained enough coherence to say or do something, and his eyes focused on me as I slid my gun from inside my jacket and put two bullets into his head. He slumped, hulking there in a starburst of blood and bone, and I was moving across the room to throw the bolts and slam the outer door open, yelling, "Reinforcements! Now!"
The feet of the Calabim were light and quick on the concrete as they came running down the corridor beyond, throwing open the opposite door and rushing into the room: both in big, bruiser vessels, both with guns drawn. I staggered back a step from the door, keeping my gun pointed outwards, and raised my free hand to the wet spreading stain of blood at my leotard neck, balancing against the wall. "Two of them," I gasped, nodding towards the alley outside. "I wounded one..."
The bigger one grunted, and charged through the door, hurtling across the alley and dodging into the alcove opposite, his gun swinging to cover the end of the alley: the second one, his shirt still half-unbuttoned from some moment of relaxation, stayed in the doorway with his back to me, covering the opposite direction. They were both full of the burning urgency of the moment, and spared no time to question my words or suspect me. The situation was, after all, so absolutely obvious.
I took the moment to bring my other hand round and steady the gun, then put two more bullets into the Calabite positioned in the alcove opposite, both head shots. If one has the luxury of time and aim, it's safer for taking down a Vessel. Amazing how many lung wounds a demon or angel can keep on going with, but blow off their head and they start having difficulties.
Snapshots of vision. He jolted back against the wall of the alcove, the blood spattering out in flashes of red to paint the bricks and leave them dripping, and crumpled, sliding slowly down as his knees gave way beneath him, eyes still wide open but blank marbles in a surprised face.
The other was already turning, comprehension blooming in him like a black rose as he brought his gun round toward me. I stepped back into the room, maneuvering for space, as I fired: my bullet went into his chest, and jolted him back a step, but he was already firing in return, and I had to dive for the table for cover.
He spat blood as I rolled; I heard the tiny sound, followed a breath later by the hot thunder of the bullets against the surface of the table, and then by the screaming of plastic and metal disintegrating in a rush of entropy. Fragments of dust and shards of rusty steel scattered around me as I kept on rolling across Jachin's body, her blood still hot and wet against my hands and chest as it began to soak through my leotard. Her face looked up, empty and expressionless, and then my own blood spattered across it as one of the Calabite's bullets took me in the left shoulderblade.
My tumble collapsed into an ungainly mass of limbs, and I screamed. Perhaps if I had had the time to collect myself I might have been able to hold silence, but it was too sudden: the explosion of agony, the feeling of bone grinding against bone, the torn muscles and tendons all giving way. I felt the Calabite's satisfaction, dark and certain as mine would have been, and he barked, "All right, just lie there, bitch."
Stupid idiot. Jachin's own gun, loaded and untouched, lay not three feet from me. I would never, never have let anybody have such an advantage, even in my most newly-fledged days. I let my own gun drop from the fingers of my right hand, and whimpered, partly raising myself from the floor.
He snapped, "I won't tell you again." His voice was still coming from by the door; at least he'd had enough training not to get within my reach. I held my breath for what I knew he would do, feeling the anticipation building in him, and then screamed again as his resonance hit me - oh, most gratifyingly, and without any difficulty - as my shoulder came further apart, and more blood ran in a bright puddle across the floor. Is that enough payment for you, Jachin, I wondered stupidly, letting the obvious spasm of pain throw me across to my right, far enough that my body shielded my hand as I grabbed for the butt of the gun.
He enjoyed my apparent submission for a moment too long, and I put three bullets into his chest before he could fire again. No time for aiming carefully, no time for anything except the moment and the pain. His own return fire went wild as he tried to stay upright, laying a trail of sparks and scars on the floor beside me and running up the wall as I put the remaining three shots into his belly.
His gun clattered on the floor, falling from loose fingers, and he tumbled to lie beside it, eyes closed and mouth bubbling slow blood, a thick liquid that stopped as his head rolled loosely to the side. He was still, so still, all motion gone.
Blood pooled on the floor and was splashed across the walls. The room smelt like an abbatoir.
There wasn't time to spend in sitting about and indulging in shock, pleasant as it would have been. I rose to my knees, and set my teeth as I shrugged my jacket off, managing to do it with only a small gasp. Jachin's pretty black vest made a rough bandage to strap round my shoulder and stop it from grinding too much. I might need the Essence, so I couldn't afford a Song of Healing for the moment. My jacket went back on again, reversed so that it didn't show the blood too obviously, and I picked my own gun back up. Keep moving, something repeated at the back of my head, you're running out of time.
The inner door was still swinging open from where the Calabim had come running through, which at least saved me one effort. I could feel the Hellsworn in a whorl at the edge of my consciousness: he was holding the inner comms room as he must have been ordered. Yes, that would fit procedures.
He was a Hellsworn. No great matter.
Still, some prickle insisted that I sweep the rest of the Tether before I took the next step. It was not any definite feeling of morality, or even any great belief that they were holding innocents here. It was only the same kind of passionless justice that had made me share Jachin's death and that had stopped me from using a Habbalite's resonance on my enemies. I would live and die as what I chose to be, as the person who I had once been, and I would not be a Punisher again, however much it cost me.
Ground floor was empty. I felt the seeping blood warm against my left side, and tried not to move my left arm at all.
First floor: some noises coming from the room to the right of the stair-head. Gentle creaking, regular moans. I wondered for a moment what sort of martial exercise would produce those noises, and then nearly smiled at myself as the answer hit me. Oh well, at least these should be easier to clear out.
My foot hit the door under the handle, jarring it open and interrupting the coitus in progress. Two yelps from the bed, one tenor and one soprano.
I smiled, knowing precisely how bloody I was, and how large the barrel of a gun appears when it is pointing in your direction, and nodded towards the window, keeping my pistol squarely targeted on them. "Congratulations. We're testing emergency evacuation drills. You have ten seconds to get out of the window."
The man was admirably trained to obedience, and didn't even pause to pick up his underwear. I hoped for his sake that his improvisational skills were as good. The woman hesitated a moment, trying a sisterly pout. "Look, can't we just..."
"Next up are Trauma drills," I said, and walked towards her, steadily, keeping my eyes as empty as my smile was cold.
At least she had the sense to grab her wallet.
Down the stairs again, and I was feeling chilled now, nauseated and beginning to shake slightly. Blood loss, the functioning part of my mind clarified, blood loss and shock. I was grateful that the Seneschal had included a briefing on her Tether, in case I should be called upon to help defend it. It left me knowing where the explosives were stored in the armory.
It was cold down there, and the humming of the refrigeration units was much louder, buzzing at the back of my skull. I did my best to ignore it as I snagged a few claymores and some plastique, depositing them at various points through the Tether and restraining the urge to whistle one of those cheerful songs the Servitors of Janus so favoured about love and high explosives. My functioning mind pointed out that I was definitely in shock, but I ignored it.
A beautiful blast, all fire and light and smoke and thunder, burying the blood and bodies and hatred that tied this Tether to Hell. I was a block away, leaning against the wall of a sandwich shop that had closed for the night and breathing deeply, trying to centre again. It was getting harder to hold back from the rising white shadow. I could do so many things. I could walk through the city until my legs gave way beneath me, and then just lie there, watching the patterns of the pavement and the crawling of insects. I could run to a Tether, angelic or demonic, say anything, do anything. I could try and find Faber again.
Or I could do the most tempting thing of all, which was to put my gun to my head and use the last bullet. I might never wake up out of Trauma, after all. That would be easy: sleep and peace, no knowledge, nothing more ever again. I might wake and be punished by Baal. Perhaps it would be a circular thing, the cage in Shal-Mari and the unshielded screaming as it had been once before, but I had done wrong. I deserved punishment and atonement.
It would be so easy to give my life over into the hands of another person once more, and shut my eyes, and be done with it.
The cold metal was soothing against my forehead.
"Caliah." The cut-glass tenor was desperately restrained, as though its owner were afraid to move. I turned my head to see Aceris, eyes wide and shocked, the lines of his sword showing through his trenchcoat. He was some five yards away, and I had enough sense left to be ashamed that he had come so close without my realising it.
"Caliah," he said, again, raising both hands to show they were empty. "I swear by my Truth that I want to help."
I could feel the difficulty that he had with the words, the humiliation of saying them to me, to a demon, and the surprise at what he thought this demon had done. I was so tired that it was difficult to think about it.
Pulling the trigger would stop it all, make him go away, make the world go away. I did not want to hear what he had to say, because if he trusted me then I would have to make a choice, and I was afraid to make any more choices. I was not sure that I could choose anything else.
A man stepped round the corner of the block, another ten yards behind him, dark-haired and in a neat business suit, and reached a hand into his jacket, bringing out a gun. I saw the light on the metal, a sudden glint of danger.
It wasn't even conscious thought, so there was no morality to claim for it, no ethics, nothing at all. Only instinct. I saw Aceris's eyes widen as my gun swung towards him, and he flung himself sprawling to one side - good reflexes there - and I put my last bullet into the business-suited man, who had just begun to smile.
The gun seemed heavier than worlds as I let it sag to my side, and yet I couldn't make myself let it go. I needed something to hold while the world came apart round me, what with Aceris picking himself out of the gutter and babbling words that made no sense to me, and Faber now coming round the other corner, thundercloud furious and burning, and the two of them balancing me between them as they took off down the road.
"Her shoulder's a mess," Aceris said over the top of my head, towards Faber.
"I am here, you know." The words came out of my mouth automatically, as if I was trying to prove to myself that I was here, and that this wasn't all some fantastic jolting dream.
Aceris didn't slacken the pace. "I know, but you don't seem to be noticing me at the moment."
Faber had hold of my right arm, and I could feel the warmth of his fingers through my matted jacket. "We'd do some Healing, but there isn't time and Hell's going to have people on your tail."
I felt some slight annoyance at this perception of myself as a brain-damaged child. "Of course they're going to have people on my track. I just shot one back there." I jerked my head backwards towards the body, nearly missed my step - dizzier than I had thought, careful, careful -- and muttered, "And given the Hellsworn in the Tether might have been able to alert other people, they're probably looking for me personally."
Faber muttered, "Shit," and upped the pace.
"Where are we going?" I asked. Something was grinding more seriously in my shoulder now, and every step wrenched at it.
"Local Tether of Michael." I could trace the edges of nervousness in his face now, and feel his tension in my own bones. It helped me hold together. "We'll call the others when we're safely there."
I tasted bile. Did I really want to crawl back to Michael's feet and beg for forgiveness, grovel and cry for all my sins? It would be bitter. And how much of that is pride, the cold voice inside me asked.
I was tired of pride, and tired of fear, and tired of weariness.
"Others?" I asked numbly.
"Maher and Merab..."
"Merab?" I interrupted. "He's out of Trauma?" It seemed painfully recent, the memories of sitting by his sleeping body and watching the glowing of his Heart.
Aceris coughed dryly. "It has been a while." One might almost have thought that he'd developed a sense of humor.
Faber gave Aceris another look. "They're out looking for you too. We thought it was safer to stay in twos. They should be okay together, doll."
"Caliah," I muttered.
"Sorry." He gave me a friendly smirk. "I forget these things. It's been so long since we last had a chance to chat."
"What, two hours?" We turned a corner. Aceris had clearly given up on understanding our conversation.
He dropped the smirk. "I told you I wanted you back. I'm just glad to have you back."
Perhaps it was the pain that brought the burning shimmer to my eyes and seemed to halo him in light for a moment. "I'm not back yet." His face darkened, and I said, forcing the words out, "Michael may not want me back. Or it may burn me all away."
He shrugged. "I have to believe that it will work, Caliah, or I might as well have left you there and tried to forget about you. Besides, don't you want to be Redeemed?"
Did it count if it wasn't true? I wanted to want it so badly, but I couldn't seem to find any beautiful gleaming urge in myself towards light and Heaven and what I once was. I tried to find some truth to give him that he wanted to hear, and in the end all I could say was, "I'm tired of punishing."
We turned a corner, onto the main street - it was quiet now, all the traffic gone in the evening light, shops shut and upstairs lights burning.
"It stops now," I said. "One way or the other, it stops now."
Some sort of light was cutting its way down the road behind us. I turned to peer over Faber's shoulder, and saw a police car heading our way. This could be awkward: I was not precisely dressed to impress. Faber's head turned, and he muttered something in his throat as he pressed closer to me, gesturing Aceris in on the other side. I bit my lip as Aceris brushed against my shoulder, and did my best to snuggle between the Malakite and the Seraph. If we were really lucky, they might not notice me.
The car slowed and drew to a stop a short way ahead of us, and I cursed silently as one cop leaned out of the window. "Hey, you there, mind holding a moment?"
I leaned towards Aceris, turning my face so that the less bruised side showed, and hoped that the growing darkness would mute the bloodstains on my clothing to simple stains. Faber swung in front of me, and I could taste his forced cheer as he called, "Sure. What's the problem?"
"Nothing important, sir." The policeman climbed out of the car, and the burly driver got out on the other side, beginning to move round the front of the car and towards us. "Just a check. You sure that lady with you is all right?"
I kept my face turned away, but let a smile show on the side that faced him. A somewhat gritted-teeth-smile, but a smile nonetheless. He looked bland enough, neutral, and might have been any policeman in the city. His partner had rounded the front of the car, and was looming in support of him.
The jangling in the Symphony from the Tether that I had destroyed still hung in the air, throbbing like a thousand mistuned harps. It would be a while before it died.
Faber shrugged. "Sure. You want to talk to the officer, honey?"
I shrugged, tilting my right shoulder in a lazy gesture, as the policeman approached. "I'm fine, officer."
The policeman frowned. "Lady, you've got bruises all over your face."
I didn't want to have to use my resonance on him: I wanted to leave that behind with what I had been, what I didn't want to be again. Hanging my head, I put on an expression of acute embarassment. "Yeah, well, I'm sorry. I, uh, was trying to be clever in the bar, and this guy clocked me one. My friends had to pull me out of it. Like, I didn't mean no trouble, and I don't want none now. I just want to get cleaned up." I let my lower lip tremble.
It seemed to be working. His emotions were guarded things, and I couldn't read them, but his face showed a certain sympathy. "Hey, it's okay, lady. We aren't going to make no problems for you if there wasn't anything illegal going on. Any of you people got ID on you?"
His friend was getting closer, still hovering a dozen paces or so behind him. Something twitched at the edge of my memory as Aceris and Faber reached into their pockets. Remembered patterns, a style of movement that I had seen before, the manner of ...
... Servitors of the Game.
I wasn't fast enough. I had begun to move, and it must have showed in my face, because the policeman - or whatever he was - let the mask of sympathy fall away and gestured with his left hand, his right hand going for the gun in his holster. I was dimly conscious of Faber breaking into motion, and of the driver slamming into him, a whoosh of expelled air and the sound of fist against flesh, tiny things on the fringes of perception as the Song of Charm hit me. It was like water that stole the speed from me, a slap of wind that drained my skill. There was a laxity in my muscles and a slow clogged heaviness in my joints, and I knew that I would not be able to dodge a bullet or blow.
Behind me I heard the whisper as Aceris' sword came free of its sheath, and his indrawn breath. He was about to speak, or throw me aside, or both. Snapshots of motion, always fragments of vision, nothing in combat ever survives as a whole picture: his upsurge of tension, and the Game-Servitor's deadly quiet.
The policeman's gun centred between my eyes. He said, voice low but pitched to carry, "Nobody attacks or the Punisher gets it. You don't want her waking up next to her Heart, do you?"
I watched the dark circle of the gun-barrel, and the demon's eyes beyond it, an odd floating perception bearing me up. He was satisfied now, his trap as neat as mine had ever been; I could not run now, and the two angels would not risk my Trauma and reawakening beneath the eyes of Baal if there were some other chance.
The throbbing of the scuffle between Faber and the driver suddenly halted, both men grunting. In my peripheral vision I could see them drawing apart, each eyeing the other, then glancing for half a second towards us. Faber couldn't afford more of a look than that, or the other would probably have jumped him again. I understood that. I hoped that he knew I understood it.
The white gulf opened under me again, but with dark temptation twisted at the heart in a black rose. Nothing stopped me from using my resonance, and if I could catch this Game-Servitor's mind and twist it into fear or despair, it might be enough for me to escape, for us all to get out of this.
I was not a Punisher any more. Dear God, I wanted to believe that.
"Damned thing," spat Aceris. Light flickered on the pavement, and I realised that it must be reflecting from his drawn sword. "What has she left if you take her?"
The policeman shrugged, reaching out to touch my chin with his free hand. He was smiling as he folded thumb and forefinger against my bruised flesh, forcing me to meet his eyes. "Hey, buddy, if you've coerced her into this, then she's innocent. She'll be fine. And if you didn't, well, she's a traitor, she just killed her fellow soldiers. You don't really want to be associated with scum like that, do you?" Malice danced behind the mirrors of his eyes, the shell of his face, inlaid itself into his words and spun truthfulness to my ears. "Trust me on this one, you don't want her. One way or the other..."
"Bastard," spat Faber, his voice inflectionless and desperate.
The gun didn't move, and the man's hand tightened against my chin, parody of a lover's gesture. "One way or the other, she'll get what's coming to her."
Act. I had to act, to use my resonance one last time and force myself free, or I was lost. And yet if I retreated to the Habbalite boundaries, would I ever be free of them again? The tattoos offered purpose and comfortable blindness, security in prejudice, warmth in condemning. The wind that blows between the worlds is so very cold to pale skin, when you only have faith to light your way.
I remembered the burning eyes of Asmodeus, the contempt of Baal, the blood as I wept and screamed before. The weight of the Song dragged at me, pulling me all the way down and back to Hell with it.
White void, black rose, burning eyes, which choice to make? I had thought that I was past choice, and yet I did not want to die. I found in myself a sudden burning wish to live, one that shook me with the force of it. I wanted what Faber had wanted for me, and for a moment I saw it in my mind's eye, and I could remember the echoes of the light.
The Game-Servitor thought that I trembled with fear, and smiled again. "I'm glad that we're going to be sensible about this." He released my chin, dropping his hand to his pocket to fish out something golden and glittering.
I considered my precise proximity to him, and the fact that Aceris behind me had his sword drawn, and I hoped that Aceris had good reflexes.
I let my corporeal Vessel fall away, and put on celestial form. Pale skin, cicatriced with the markings of Baal's ownership and my service to the War, dark stormcloud eyes that watched the policeman from the edges of the void. Around me the Symphony rang in a single deep note, chiming clear as it shuddered from the impact of a celestial presence, cutting through the high jangling from the Tether's destruction.
The Game-Servitor's eyes went wide for the single moment that he had to register it, and he spat a curse in Helltongue, gesturing with his free hand. Chains spun themselves from the air, oily links that writhed slowly as they flung themselves upon me, running from wrists to ankles and neck.
Of course I had seen the things before - it was one of the showier tricks of the Servitors of Asmodeus, to summon chains from a Renegade's own dissonance and use them to restrain the struggling victim, dark heavy things that twined round wrists and ankles and torso, slowing motion and dragging heavily down. I had never felt them myself, though, and they were not what I had expected. It was my own dissonance binding me, and there was something cold and clammy and personal to the feel of the shadowy links against my flesh, as if I were clasped by my own corpse.
He had nobody to blame but himself that he identified the wrong threat.
I watched in an endless breath of silence as Aceris' blade swept through me, sliding through my celestial form without pausing, and sheared through the demon's neck and down into his torso. Blood spattered out as he jerked backwards, body thrashing in spastic jerks, and collapsed onto the street, twitching more slowly as the scarlet halo round him grew and trickled into the gutter.
Faber had slammed into motion at the same instant, and done something quick and precise and nasty. I had not caught quite what it was, but when I looked towards him and the burly driver, the other man was lying on the ground and not trying to get up again.
Slowly, slowly, I pulled my Vessel back around me again, feeling it settle on me like a blood-soaked shroud. The chains still clung to me, and would do so for possibly hours yet.
Aceris wiped his sword neatly on the coat of the body at our feet, and resheathed it. "So what do we do now?" he barked in Faber's direction.
I pointed at the empty police car. "I don't suppose we could drive?"
I huddled in the back of the police car, wrapping my chains against me as we swung around a corner. Faber was apparently trying to dig a hole in the floor with the accelerator, and Aceris was going an whiter shade of pale as he clung to his seatbelt.
"What if they have the Tether guarded against us?" I had to force the words out. It would have been easier to sit here and say nothing, let Faber take charge of things, but my bone-deep training in strategy made the question necessary. It would explain why the Asmodeans had found us so easily, if we had been going in a straight line for the Tether.
Faber snorted as he turned a corner - or, to be more acurate, massacred a poor helpless defenseless little corner. "You telling me that the Michaelites going to let anybody barricade them in their own Tether, Caliah?"
Put like that, it did sound somewhat stupid. "No. I suppose not." I curled back into the corner of the seat, and tried to think straight, closing my eyes against the blinking of streetlights outside and the occasional screaming of aggrieved car horns.
"Where is the War-Tether, anyhow?" Aceris muttered.
"The old dojo off Third." Faber braked abruptly for a crossing, and Aceris and I had to hang on. "Look, if they've got any sense, one thing they will do is stick a sniper outside."
I had to nod. "Makes sense. They won't have had much time, but it would be the logical thing to do."
The gears squealed as the car ground off again from a standing halt. "Right," Faber went on, "so we get opposite the Tether, all jump out, and run in."
"That's not awfully complex," I protested.
"You have a better idea?" asked Aceris hopefully.
I thought. "Either of you have the Song of Shields, Corporeal form?"
Faber shook his head, but Aceris nodded.
I thought aloud. "All right, so Aceris Sings it just before we turn into that street, and we run into the Tether," odd, odd how easily the words slipped out of my mouth when they burned so in my throat, "and we should be reasonably safe. Someone else will have to ditch the car."
Faber sounded a touch aggrieved. "I didn't think of that."
"Too much operating on your own?" I asked gently. It was easier to banter than to think.
Aceris clicked his tongue. "Come now, you know that I mentioned my capabilities at the planning session..."
The skid around the corner was perhaps a shade more brutal than necessary.
"Two streets away," I interjected, recognising the geography. "Better do it, Aceris. They may hear us coming, but we'll need it."
He nodded, bending his head. I heard a ripple of chimes in the Symphony around us, and tried to wrap myself in the structure of it, and ignore leg and shoulder and the whole of my body. This was what I wanted, wasn't it?
To throw away everything that I had achieved in Baal's service, to throw away the freedom to serve God purely and truly as one of his chosen, to be pale and hollow of feeling, never making another choice for myself again. The chains clamped tighter on me as fear and bitterness rose around my heart in a black sea. I couldn't even feel what a demon seeking Redemption ought to feel - no love, no protective instincts, no great joy or hope or yearning. All that was in me was a cold wind of distaste for things that I had done, for the shape that I had been formed into...
Surely this is illogical, something in me said, that you should hate it so and still want it back.
...an arid emptiness and a wish that I could feel those emotions. If I had really wanted to be Redeemed, to be an Elohite again, wouldn't I feel more than this, want more than this? I was deluding myself and walking into the fire. Committing suicide.
We turned the last corner, screeching down the street and coming to a halt in front of the dojo; it was an unobtrusive entrance in an old brownstone, the door closed, with a battered notice on it that gave practice times. Faber stamped on the brake, and Aceris threw the door open.
I made an objective choice. Some deaths are better than some lives. Throwing my own door open, I scrambled out after Aceris, and Faber wriggled across the centre of the car and out of Aceris' door, bringing up the rear. He grabbed my left arm to haul me along, and I bit back most of a scream. It hurt so very much, and the chains were like lead or worse, hobbling me and making me stumble.
The flat whipcrack of a bullet rang in the sudden silence, and the Shields that Aceris had sung flared a brief and brilliant white where it had ricocheted off them. The door in front of us swung open, and Faber and Aceris yelled together, "Stay back, sniper!" as we ran for it. I felt Faber's grip loosening on me as we reached the threshold and another bullet hissed past us, flattening itself inside the hallway. Whoever had opened the door was sensibly staying out of view.
I nearly tripped on the threshold, and Aceris grabbed my other arm to pull me in. The door slammed shut behind us.
Panic churned in me; I was trapped inside a Michaelite Tether, among people who would interrogate me and then put me to death, because a traitorous soldier deserved no better...
"Love," I said to the Calabite.
...and I couldn't seek Redemption, because I had to want it, and I wanted to want it, but I knew that I didn't have the passionate desire...
"Help me with her." Faber's voice to the thin Oriental woman who had slammed the door.
She looked down at me, eyes cold and still like ice-water. I had fallen to my knees, and was uselessly cradling my shattered shoulder.
"I can't," she said.
Aceris' voice now. "She made it all the way here. She deserves the help."
The woman's voice was a thread of empty light in the dark hallway. "She has to make it the rest of the way herself. If she wants Redemption, then she has to come and ask for it, herself, with no help and no dragging and no carrying."
Faber's breath came quickly between his teeth, and I felt the frustration in him. I spoke before I could think, pushing up and balancing myself against the wall. "It's okay. I can walk."
I knew that was mostly a lie, and I saw Aceris wince, but it didn't matter. I understood what she was saying, perhaps better than Faber did, sweet clear unFalling Malakite. It was choice, and as my Fall had been a choice, so this also had to be a choice. No reservations, no holding back, nothing left behind.
The void opened beneath me again, clear and white and inviting, tempting me to let go and drop into nothingness, into the silences where the winds blew forever.
"I can walk," I repeated.
She nodded, and moved down the corridor, her jumper shifting across her shoulders as she reached out to open the door at the far end and stood there, holding it for me. There were stairs up, beyond it.
I closed my eyes, and looked for words. "Faber. I don't know that I want this in the way that I should. I don't know that I will still love you the way that you want. I've lost track of who I will be afterwards."
Dead, I thought. Maybe dead. I'm sorry, Faber.
His voice was rough. "We've already been through this."
I blinked, opening my eyes. "We have?"
"Look." He folded his arms. "Get your damned objectivity in gear and start walking before I go up the wall. All right?"
"No problem," I said mildly, and saw Aceris wince again.
It was walking, no more, step by step in chains that were ignorable, through pain that could be controlled and forced down, and into a fear that I could neither ignore nor force away. It wasn't so much the fear of destruction, as the fear of failure yet again. I was going to have to kneel and confess my errors, beg forgiveness of someone that I had betrayed once already. Perhaps it would be better if I just turned and ran now. Faber and Aceris would be safer free of me, this Tether would be safer if it were clean of me. Better for all of them, less humiliating for me...
It was the last step to the stairwell that nearly undid me, as I looked at the woman who held the door open and saw my reflection in her cool eyes; battered, bloodstained, and yet with pride in the reflection's face, a cold pride that was forcing her onwards. The chains pulled at me, and I knew that I could not climb the stairs.
"Help me." My heart seemed to break inside me as I said the words, a surprisingly painless fracture. Help me, I thought, for all the times that I never asked for help before, for every moment when I stood in Hell and tried not to regret Heaven, for every time that I turned aside from the light. Help me, because I cannot do this alone and because I believe that there is forgiveness and because I am tired. Help me, because I believe that you love in a way that I have forgotten. "Please."
She put her shoulder under my arm, without speaking, and part-assisted, part-carried me up the stairs. Two sets of footsteps followed behind us.
The room at the head of the stairs was the practice room of the dojo, boards brushed and clean, practice bokkens and blades hanging on the wall in neat lines. Curtains had been drawn across the inset windows on the far wall, cheap dark cotton, and the electric lights above made the room harsh and uncompromising.
The woman helped me a few more paces into the room, then stepped away to let me stand on my own. I allowed the weight of the chains to balance me a little, and blinked, the light shimmering as my eyes fuzzed for a moment.
"Lady," I said to the Seneschal, for that was who the woman must be, "and once my sister in service, of your kindness, I ask you to call to the Lord of War, who once I served: for I confess my sins and seek his pardon or punishment, whichever he may choose."
I could sense Faber and Aceris behind me, nervous, anticipatory, hoping; they had stepped to either side of the door at the head of the stairs, and were standing quietly, watching.
Time seemed to stretch in an endlessly long moment as the Seneschal raised her arms, crying out in the tongue of angels, and it hung in the room like falling sunlight, warm and dry and gentle but untouchable. We all heard the shaking of the Symphony as he came, the notes of a new theme that trembled around us and stirred what was into a new pattern. He stood there, at the centre of the room, and I could not raise my eyes to look at him, because I was so very ashamed of all that I had become and all that I had done. Before his brightness, I knew myself for what I was, and I could not bear to try to meet his eyes.
"Bright Lord," I said, "forgive me or unmake me, but do not send me away."
He walked to me, and put his hands on my shoulders. I remembered touch, remembered security, and through the mists of pride and shame I managed to look up at him. Flesh is a veil, it always is, but I could see him behind it now and see what I had forgotten. It burned, and it was still kind.
"I will not unmake you," he said, "for you are my child, Caliah, and returned to me. What do you want?"
"I want to be who I was," I replied, feeling the echoes of memory in my body. Remembered patterns of movement as I sparred with friends, remembered touch, remembered trust.
"I cannot do that." The overtones of battle sang in his voice, strife, war, conflict, but purer than Baal's had ever been, filled with a joy that had been gone from me. "But I can Redeem you to be angel again, Caliah, if that is your desire."
I could hardly feel my body now, pain and sensation gone alike, but I raised my own hands to cross on my breast and touch his as they rested on my shoulders. "Bright Lord, I am sick at heart of what I have become, and I repent it. I will be what you and the Symphony make of me, but I will no longer be a demon."
The light grew around us, blending into a fire and wind and sound that was stripping the flesh from my bones, tearing parts of me away. My awareness of Faber and Aceris was gone, cut off by the rising storm of power, and I felt myself flaking away, shred by shred.
There, look, the memory of Faber's face as I stepped daintily across a bar, nacre-pale Punisher walking among the weak humans; but it was the emotions twined with that memory that burned now as I examined it, the pride and the contempt, lust and hatred.
Here the form of a Djinn of Belial, looming above me in the Marches, and here again my pitiless scorn of such a foolish creature, the utter certainty that I was chosen of God.
Here two human souls, twined round each other in Shal-Mari, and my spurt of anger that set them tearing at each other, anger born of my own bitterness and weariness. So easy to enforce my pain upon others.
I was losing myself. Panic gripped what was left of me, the heart within the fine-boned skeleton, and screamed to me to hold on to myself, remember who I was, and not to be gone, not to embrace oblivion and remaking into some puppet, some empty-headed pallid doll. I had been who I was for over a hundred years now, lived, existed, loved; was my love for Faber worth so little that I would throw it away? Did I want to lose every emotion, every capacity for expressing feeling?
Faber had come to try and find me because he loved me. I remembered this, knew it in what was left of me. Maher had come because he loved me. They had both known what might become of me, and accepted it.
But it wasn't theirs to accept! the last voice wailed inside me.
No more excuses, I thought as I let go, no more justifications, no more lies. There was a blinding clarity to the light that took me, and the Symphony was painful as it beat around me, but it was my choice. They had risked their lives to give me that choice, and I took it now, feeling Michael's wings fold round me and bear me up, hold me together as I gave myself into his hands. It burned worse than when I had Fallen, but it didn't matter any more, none of it mattered, because I could finally see his face again, and however little of me was left, however much it hurt, I was home at last.
I was Caliah at last, Caliah defined by Caliah's choice and free will.
And there was the love, and that was everything.
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