by GR "Maya" Cogman
Dark wings trapped the light in a shifting pattern of purple shadows, as the Malakite fretted with the twig that he was pulling to pieces. Fragments of bark dotted the ground at his feet, scattered among the footmarks and scuffs in the leaves.
The Mercurian perched in the branches above his head seemed preoccupied with putting an edge on the axe balanced in his lap. He said, without looking up from the steel, "How many times does that make it now, Maher?"
"Five," the Malakite grunted. The twig snapped again.
"And how many refusals?"
"Four." He imagined the twig as a Seraph's tail, and twisted angrily at it.
Stone grated against metal. "Even if they do send someone down to look into it, it'd be someone with more experience. Which means, not you."
The twig snapped. "You're annoying me, Joseph. Can't you go sit somewhere else?"
"Light quality," the Mercurian explained blandly.
"It's an artistic thing. You wouldn't want to know about it."
"Why you have to keep on assuming..." He paused. "If you are going to bring up Bushido and meditation on flowers and writing poetry one more time, I am going to throw something at you." He would hit, too. Everyone in his set agreed that he was one of the best fighters, close-range or long-range. Why did nobody seem to be taking this into account when he sent in his application for service below?
Joseph fluffed his pale, shining wings. "It isn't my fault if you aren't interested. You're the one sitting here waiting for Rigziel. I'm just sharpening my axe."
Maher picked up a leaf and began to separate it between his fingers, parting it along the veins. "You know perfectly well why I want to go down there. You know I hope there's still a chance to find her and bring her back. You know she was my friend..."
"She had a lot of friends," Joseph interrupted.
"_Had_." Maher's tone dripped with disdain. "You talk as if she were dead, as if there weren't any chance of her coming back."
Joseph's face had lost something of its usual humour as the other spoke, growing serious. "You still don't understand, do you? She _Fell_. She's a demon now. She won't want to come back, and if she sees you, all right, there's a chance that she might remember you and realise that she's wrong - but it's a very, very, _very_ small chance."
"So why should she have Fallen?" he asked. "She was steady. Balanced. Everyone says that's how Elohim are supposed to be." It wasn't as if anybody had been shy of telling him what a good person she had been, and he'd liked her in spite of that. A fragment of leaf matter joined the pile at his feet, and he wondered again what Falling felt like. What it was.
Joseph shrugged. "I don't know. Somebody's going to have to investigate..." He caught himself, mid-sentence. "Someone who's probably not going to be you."
Maher carefully ripped the leaf in half, down the central spine, and muttered something inaudible. The Mercurian was too nice, that was his problem. Someone sufficiently concentrated could handle things, someone who just went down there and put his mind to sorting it out. Like him. An excellent thought. Like him.
There was a churning sound among the trees, a stirring of wind that prickled cold against the spine and tore at the pinions of the two celestials. Both looked up sharply, the whetstone falling from Joseph's hand to tumble down and bounce among the leaves.
Clashing wings of gold and fire and iron beat among the changeless trees, the feathers making a dreadful music of war and triumph, and the Seraph descended into the clearing. He was taller than either of the two humanoid figures, tail curling and knotting in a spiral of noon-forged scales, and his outspread wings brushed the branches above and the leaves beneath their feet. Both angels fell to their knees before him, Joseph descending from the branch in a flurry of brightness, and bowed their heads.
"Rise," said Michael. His voice was a surprise after the shining of his entrance, modulated for lesser ears and yet full of the trumpets of war. "Get up, the pair of you. We've no time for this."
Maher rose first, then the Mercurian. Their own wings seemed to catch fires in them from the reflected brightness, shimmering with shadows and dawn-pallor. "My Lord," said Joseph, and the other repeated the words, half choking on sudden excitement and hope. He had only seen Michael twice before, once at his birth, and once watching the practices. He tried to calm himself, to hold the demeanour appropriate to a soldier.
"Maher-shalal-hash-baz," the Archangel sang, and the leaves whispered in echo. Maher flushed. "You have five times now requested assignment to Earth. I give you command that you are to journey there, and bind you to a Heart which will be your own. A Vessel and Role will be prepared for you."
The Malakite's head lifted, and he held back words, but his whole face glowed with unexpected triumph. Something at the back of his mind muttered that it was far too easy. There had to be a catch.
"Now listen." The Archangel's tones modulated back towards more human ones. "Rigziel is briefing you on this one, so pay attention to what he has to say. I want to know what happened, I want an overview on the situation, and I don't want to lose anybody else. Do I make myself quite clear on that?"
The Malakite bit his lip and nodded. "Yes, my Lord."
"Good." The wings spread again. "Joseph, my Servitor, you are to travel to London within the week: make your preparations. Maher-shalal-hash-baz, get to Rigziel's tent before he has to come and drag you. And don't make the mistake of thinking you're expendable, either of you..."
Light crisped around the edges of the wings, outlining the serpentine form and making a jewel of every golden scale.
And the clearing was still again, the Archangel gone.
Maher's wings flexed nervously, dark pinions fluttering, as he eyed the empty space. A minute passed in silence. He still had a sense of loss, as if something immensely vital had been removed. Perhaps it would go away in time, but for a moment he had felt a sensation of true and absolute purpose, of direction, and now it was gone.
"You'd better be moving, Maher," said Joseph. "And so had I."
"I didn't expect that."
"One doesn't." Joseph's tone was dry. "Well, you've got your assignment. I'll try and catch you if I see you round, though I doubt we'll be meeting for a while."
Maher folded his wings against his back, uncomfortably. "I thought he'd deliver it formally in front of a council or something." That was how it happened in all the stories, after all. He'd spent the odd moment imagining it, and all his noble replies, which he'd somehow forgotten or been unable to give in this, the reality.
Joseph sighed, picking up his whetstone. "We're at war. It's not as if things are always going to be formal. I'd have thought that you'd be _glad_ to know that he cared enough to come in person and say that sort of thing."
"I am. It's just..."
"Nothing seems to work out the way I expect it."
"Hold onto that attitude, boy. You're going to need it."
Maher eyed the tent, panelled in shades of black and gold, by which he was loitering. Nerves, he told himself sternly. I should face him as courageously as I will the demons who prowl on earth, and - no, I'm not going to try and pull _him_ to pieces, but I will withstand his practical and pointed comments. I'm a Virtue. I can handle a sarcastic Seraph.
He rapped on the front panel, and called, "Rigziel? May I come in?"
There was a grunt from inside, and the sound of something heavy being moved, then Rigziel's voice replied, "Maher. Take three steps to your left. Look up into the tree above you. Yell, "Give it back now or he's going to come chop your branch off!""
Maher blinked. "What?"
"Just _do_ it."
Maher eyed the tent for a moment, then shrugged. He took the requisite three paces, and looked up. Perhaps more tentatively than had been suggested, he called, "Rigziel says give it back now or he's going to come chop your branch off?"
There was a whistle and a thud, as a small dagger embedded itself in the ground just ahead of his toes. Someone in the tree giggled, and vanished upwards in a scorching wheel of fire, skimming among the leaves.
Maher sighed, picking up the dagger. He called to the tent, "Got it."
The flap shifted, coming undone, as Rigziel called, "Come on in, then."
Maher ducked inside, then straightened, letting the flap fall closed behind him. The tent had several cushions scattered round it, plump ones upholstered in black cotton, and a table in the centre covered in documents. Several weapons were hung on the walls at various points, and a large battleaxe held down the documents on the table. Rigziel's own Heart glowed in a small niche at the side, flickering from time to time with tiny images of the room.
Rigziel himself was coiled to the side of the flap, his wings stirring with annoyance in shades of amethyst like strange dried blood. He plucked the dagger from Maher's hand as the Malakite entered, muttering, "Bloody Wind-thieves. Can't leave anything alone for a moment."
Maher couldn't help it. "Have they ever tried taking your axe?"
The grin that crawled across Rigziel's face was not a pretty sight. "Bloodkiss? I'd like to see them try. Just once."
Maher swallowed, and quickly said, "Actually, sir. I've been ordered to report to you. By Michael. I'm to be briefed and then go down. To investigate. Caliah."
Rigziel's grin vanished. He swept across to the table, pulling several documents out from under the axe then dropping them again. "All right. Have a seat."
Maher settled himself on one of the cushions, folding his wings. Hopefully this wouldn't take too long, and then he could get down to business.
"It's a war." Rigziel leaned forward in the undulating way that most Seraphim probably practiced in front of a mirror, Maher thought. "Crimean war, to be precise. You'll be going down to a Tether of Stone in the nearest town, and from there Thahash - one of our Wheels - will be taking you out to the army base camp. He's the last contact we had with her, so see what you can find out from him. Caliah was with the nursing corps there, so that's probably the place to start, though Thahash said something about her being assigned to an outlying camp. Trace where she went, watch out for signs of diabolical influence, and be careful if they left any surprises or if she's still around. Get it?"
"Yes, sir." Maher grinned inwardly. If he could find her, then he was sure he could take her down. She wouldn't be expecting him, after all, and he was just as capable as the next angel at using strategy. If he had to, he'd haul her back to the Stone-Tether till some senior people could talk sense into her. Falling made no sense, after all, and Caliah had always been sensible.
"Try and avoid getting involved in any spare missions while you're down there." Rigziel's voice was dry. "You've been assigned specifically to this one - and while you're probably going to see a pile of human sleazeballs down there, punishing them is not your job. At the moment."
"Yes, sir." Perhaps he could persuade the Ofanite to stay around and help. Surely he could explain that the mission was important enough to require his help.
"You're going to be on your own down there, Maher. Are you listening to me?"
"Of course, sir." Anyone who wanted to be worthy of the name of warrior had to manage on their own, after all. Did Rigziel think that he was going to lose his nerve and try and back out of things now?
Rigziel scowled. "You're going to remember this, later, and you are going to wish that you had asked me about some things, and, trust me, I'll remind you of it when you turn up here." The edges of his wings scraped against the carpets.
Maher began to grow worried. Was this what the hyena-servants of Judgement talked about when they said that angels could grow cynical and bitter and disaffected? Could it be that Rigziel had been corrupted by the Corporeal world, or by too many fights, and that he was coming near to Falling himself? Surely not. "I'll be very careful, sir."
For some reason, Rigziel twitched at that.
"I don't want you to worry about me."
Rigziel's scowl expanded till all three pairs of eyes were squinting at him. "_In_ the meantime, you'll be carrying a Feather-token from me. I expect you to use it if there's any serious trouble." A wing curved round to in front of him, proffered towards Maher.
Maher took a breath. "Sir, I really don't expect..."
Rigziel's glare deepened.
Oh, what the hell, Maher thought, I don't have to use it. "... this level of consideration. If you want me to..."
"That," Rigziel rumbled, "is an order."
"Sir." Lowering his eyes, Maher pulled out a feather from the wing, and hoped that it hurt. It glittered darkly purple in his hand.
"Now on your way." Rigziel pulled back his wing in an arc of colour, and lowered it to stroke the axe in what seemed an unhelpfully yearning way. "Get to it, soldier."
Maher nodded respectfully, got out of the tent rapidly, and stretched his wings thankfully once he was out under the trees again. Seraphim weren't _supposed_ to try and intimidate you like that. (Or succeed, an inner and resentful voice added.)
Oh, the hell with it. He unfurled his wings, and went swooping through the trees towards the nearest drop-point. Watch out, Earth, he thought with a purely delighted grin. Here's where I make a difference.
The landing on Earth caught him in a sudden gravity of flesh, imprisoning him in a cage of blood and bone and sinew. For the first time in his existence, he no longer felt his beautiful rainbow-black wings arching from his back, no longer knew their weight or power. It was like crippling. His eyes were less keen, and he knew that his hand was less strong to smite.
"Get a move on," said the man beside him, a stocky fellow with granite-coloured eyes, grey and full of crystal sparks, putting a hand on his shoulder to move him into the corridor. "We've got a room that you can wait in for Thahash to show up."
Maher took careful steps in his new polished boots, looking down at the dark leather, then following up his blue uniform. "Is all this braid necessary?" It felt ridiculously gaudy. An honourable soldier didn't need this much decoration.
The other kept on moving him along, hand firm on his wingless shoulder. "It's normal for your Role as a young officer. If you blend in, you'll have less trouble." The speech seemed to have the air of rote, of something repeated to a dozen other people already. "We're expecting Thahash by soon, if he's going his usual route."
Maher found himself relaxing. There was something reassuring about the man. "All right." He paused, thinking, show some manners. "Sorry if I was a while getting my balance." They were approaching a door at the end of the corridor.
The other man chuckled. "At least you got to grips with it better than some people. Ever seen an Ofanite in their first Vessel? Twitching like an eel out of water."
Maher tilted his head to get a better look at the other man. Brown-haired, in a sober grey outfit, hands like hams and feet of similar size, nose broken a while ago and heavy club hanging at his belt. "Servitor of Stone?"
"Yes." The man pushed the door open. "Go on and sit down, it won't be long."
Maher walked in. Three men were arguing about something in a corner of the drab room, a piece of paper on the table between them. He turned to give his guide a smile. "Better than a hyena of Judgement, definitely. Thank you, again."
His guide's mouth twitched as if he had bitten into lemon. "I'll send Thahash by as soon as possible." The door closed behind him with a shnick.
The Malakite blinked, not quite sure what he'd said wrong. Everybody knew what people thought of the Servitors of Judgement, surely, and David's people usually agreed with Michael's on that subject. Strange. Perhaps it was some sort of rule of behaviour here on Earth.
Three sets of footsteps came ticking from behind him. Maher turned, to find that the men from the corner had risen, and moved across to surround him. The blazing gaze of the tallest almost made him feel guilty of something, till he forcibly reminded himself that he had nothing to feel guilty about.
"Allow us to introduce ourselves," said the tall man. His hair was wispy and white, and his shoulders bowed slightly - like a vulture, Maher couldn't help thinking. "We are Servitors of Judgement. A Triad of our Master Dominic."
"We deal with ... guilty people," said the second, a more muscular man with black hair and eyes and a snub nose. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his uniform, but his whole posture was one of restrained violence.
"And I can see guilt," said the third, his tone light and uninflected. He was frailer in build, wiry and short, with close-cut hair and pale eyes. "Like blood dripping across a person's face. What do you feel guilty about, angel?"
Maher looked between the three, and swallowed, feeling unfamiliar muscles clenching in his stomach. "I'm fresh out of Heaven. I don't see that I can have done anything to feel guilty about."
"Liar," said the first, on one note.
"I'm not a heretic!" Maher was surprised - and worried - to hear the undertones of nervousness in his voice. "I'm here to find out what happened to Cal- that is, to one of our Powers who went missing..."
"Caliah, her heart shattered, herself Fallen," murmured the first. The third man nodded, as though mentally noting it down.
"... and I'm on a perfectly legal mission, it's _none_ of your business..."
The second man growled deep in his throat. "Everything is our business."
"... and I'm just waiting for Thahash. And I didn't realise who you were."
"Ah." The first man - he must be a Seraph, Maher realised - began to pace round to one side. "So you normally call Servitors of Judgement 'hyenas' behind their backs?"
Maher hastily considered the truth of this. "Well, we don't normally talk about them much." Like pestilence, or greenfly, he thought to himself.
"And what," said the third man, more gently, "are you feeling so guilty about? It will impede your functioning if you allow it to affect your emotions."
Maher scowled at that. "It's none of your business."
"Isn't it?" he prodded.
A twinge of guilt prodded at Maher. Perhaps things like Caliah Falling _were_ their business. "It's personal." Well, it was personal, it had to be, his own feelings were his own affair.
The Seraph had his head cocked, examining him like a worm on a fish-hook. "Not entirely true, I think. Not entirely."
The second man removed one hand from a pocket, and flexed it. "Perhaps we should have your orders rescheduled, boy. Here you are, bad-mouthing Archangels, displaying guilt, involved in this matter of a Fallen Elohite..." The tip of his tongue touched his lips, and he turned to the Seraph. "What do you say, Most Holy?"
The wood of the door grated against Maher's back. This isn't retreat, he tried to convince himself, it's merely walking out of a situation that I don't have to be in. The attempt wasn't working particularly well.
A fusillade of blows rocked against the wood, and someone shouted cheerfully on the other side, "Open up in there! I'm Thahash, here for Maher-shalal-hash-baz, is he there or has he already gone on?"
Maher jumped away from the door, almost stepping into the bruiser who was flexing his fingers. The other man gave him a dark stare which said he knew precisely how nervous Maher was feeling, and would be delighted to make it worse.
Maher set his teeth, and called, "In here!" He pulled the corners of his mouth into a smile as the door was shoved open.
The man who entered was lean and whippet-like with energy. Mud stained his trousers, and his uniform cap was pushed back on his head. His nose twitched with enthusiasm. "Maher? All right. Got you. Ready to go." He flipped a hand at the other three men. "Nice to see you, hope everything goes well, I'm sure we'll run into each other later..."
The Seraph coughed. "We were just discussing the matter of heresy. It is entirely possible that we will have to detain Maher-shalal-hash-baz a short while, for some brief questioning."
"Sorry. Not possible." The Ofanite shook his head vigorously, and the cap stayed on by some miracle. "This is my last drop to this post for a week or two, so if he wants to get the briefing from me - you are supposed to be getting information from me, right?"
Maher simply nodded, not wanting to give the Seraph any more words to pick the meat from, and tried to avoid the gaze of the Triad.
"Okay. That means he comes with me now, or he's in direct violation of Michael's orders, which means I have to report why he's in violation, and you can always catch him later anyway. Can't you?"
The Seraph didn't seem to realise that it was the end of a sentence for the moment, and the other two waited on him to speak. Eventually he said, "Yes. Well. Unfortunately we have no Cherub to attune to him at the moment..."
Maher took a deep breath and silently thanked Heaven for that. The small man gave him a look of disapproval.
"... so we will simply have to contact him later. We don't want to interfere in an assigned mission, after all. We merely do our _job_," and he bent a scathing glance on Maher, "when and where we find it, or it finds us. Honour be with you, Maher-shalal-hash-baz." His tone suggested that he would not be forgetting the name any time soon.
"Truth with you, Seraph," replied Maher, backing towards the door. "And you other two. Honour and truth." He was trying to think of something else to say, anything else, to fill the awkward spreading silence. It made him wince with guilt all over again.
Thahash had somehow got round behind him, and tugged him out of the room by a spare arm, closing the door on the retreating view of the Triad. "For pity's sake, boy, can't we leave you alone for five minutes without you getting grilled by Judgement or worse?"
Maher slouched as the Ofanite dragged him along the corridor, seething quietly. "I just _walked_ in there, nothing more, said something that _could_ have been taken a little badly, and the next thing I know I'm getting accused of heresy!"
"What did you say?" asked Thahash.
Maher coloured. "Um. I didn't realise who they were. Something about hyenas."
The Ofanite sighed. "You're doomed, boy. Doomed. Anyhow. Ever ridden before?"
"Ridden?" This hadn't been mentioned in the briefing, had it?
Thahash closed his eyes, not that this stopped him towing Maher along the corridor and round corners at a rate of knots. "Boy, this is clearly going to be a day full of interest and variety and new learning experiences for you..."
So this, Maher pondered, is the mortal world. Triads of Dominic ready to jump on one at the least provocation, manic Ofanim riding far better than you, and a saddle that was at some point going to become actively painful.
"When did you last see her?" he tried.
"About a week and a half ago." Thahash sat his horse easily, moving with a flowing grace that garnered a certain amount of resentful envy from Maher. "It must have been about a day or two before she Fell, from what I can work out. From what I've been told."
"And how was she acting?" This felt more like it, he thought. A representative of Michael, on the spot, questioning the witnesses and ascertaining the truth.
"Well... much as usual, really." Thahash waved a hand vaguely. "Normal. Quiet. Pretty much. She just stood there with her hands folded looking all calm and precise. She said that her current role was bad for her, and asked if I could do anything about it, but I had to tell her no. Didn't have the authority."
"What were her precise words?"
The Ofanite considered, then shrugged. "Can't remember. That was basically it, though. She did look unhappy at the end of it. Strained, if you like. Worn and fraying."
Maher's head came up with anger. "And didn't you do anything about it?"
Thahash shrugged again. "It was her mission, her assignment. If she'd asked for help, I'd have done what I could. Or she might have reported back to Heaven, asked for a new assignment, whatever. She didn't say anything."
Maher bit on his lip with anger. None of this made sense. Tentatively, he said, "Could a Demon Prince have showed up or something?" It couldn't have been her fault if a full Prince had appeared.
The Ofanite's eyes held an emotion close to sympathy, but it flickered past and was gone. "No, that we'd have noticed. Can't be sure there wasn't _someone_ round the place, though. Whoever it was, they would have to have been deep cover. And calm. If their emotions had been off-balance, she'd have resonated that."
Maher said, slowly, "Which means I have even less chance of spotting them."
"Well." Thahash slowed the horse's pace slightly. "Yes and no. You can get diabolicals with emotions all over the place but with some sense of honour, and then _you're_ in trouble. Or you can get diabolicals with controlled emotions but with no sense of honour, and then _she's_ in trouble. Or some mixture of the two. It's a big world."
"She should have been able to cope," the Malakite muttered. He was beginning to feel some sense of personal betrayal, at Caliah, the horse, the situation, the Dominicans, and the drizzle that was slowly but definitely soaking his uniform.
"Yup." The Ofanite spurred the horse again. "So should Baal, of course. And Asmodeus. And Andrealphus, definitely, he should have been able to cope. And don't forget Beleth. Or Kobal. They should all have been able to cope, right?"
Maher tugged at his reins to try and imitate the Ofanite. "What are you trying to say?"
Both horses picked up speed. "I'm trying to say that however innocent she was or wasn't, and whoever you want to blame for it, and whoever is to blame for it, we've now got to cope with the results. Or rather, you have. Because it's your assignment. Right?"
Maher frowned into the oncoming rain. "Right." He couldn't see what the Ofanite was getting at.
"And I'm not going to be there to help."
This wasn't going the way he'd hoped. "I'd thought that you might be able to spare a little time to help me scout around, gather intelligence, that sort of thing..."
Thahash snorted. "Why do you think that I'm not there now in that case? I've got half a dozen messages to carry, and I've had to reorganise my route to fit you in as it is. I wasn't lying to those Judgement-Servitors. If it hadn't been now, it'd have been another week - or two. I won't be able to do more than drop you off there, Maher-shalal-hash-baz."
Damnation. Very well, then, he'd just do it all on his own. "Point taken. I'll do my best to handle the situation without messing it up."
Thahash's face softened, worn lines shifting into something like a smile. "Believe it or not, Maher, I do trust you. _We_ trust you. Or you wouldn't have got this job. All right? Now just remember, they're all going to think you're as human as the next man, so don't expect any of the usual allowances we get in Heaven. Got that?"
Maher felt a touch mollified. "No problem. I'm used to being at the bottom of the ladder, anyhow. It can't be that bad."
"Shut your eyes and think of Heaven," recommended Thahash.
Maher blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"Corporeal reference." Something made the Ofanite grin. "Don't worry, you'll get used to it."
The Ofanite left Maher on the outskirts of the camp, with instructions to get his horse to the stables and seen to before he did anything else. The parting cry of, "Good luck!" was tacked on as he galloped off, mud splattering from his horse's hooves.
The place had traces of organisation, Maher realised. He approved of that. He just wished he knew where the stables were or what the passwords were or who he was supposed to be saluting or who was supposed to be saluting him. This stuff definitely had _not_ been in his briefing.
He gritted his teeth and determined to manage. First things first, see to the horse. He wasn't going to be one of those angels who was careless about the humans or animals in his ward. Even if the beast had an unduly hard backbone. Someone could surely have done a better design job.
When he found the stables, he interrupted a pair of young men dicing in a corner out of the straw and mud. They straightened to attention as they surveyed the amount of braid on his uniform, then sagged out of it once they made some internal classification of his rank.
"I need this horse rubbed down," he said, repeating the Ofanite's comment verbatim.
"Certainly, sir. Rags are over there, and there's a spare box three down on the left. Usual feed with the rest of the beasts?"
Maher nodded, uncertain of the precise answer, and led the horse to where he had been directed. The rags were at least dry, and the horse showed a touching pleasure in being dried off. He suppressed the wish that somebody would do the same for him.
As he finished, the stablehand leant over the partition, a bucket of grain in one hand. "Nice to see someone who recognises a good horse, sir. A beast like that, you want to look after it yourself. I don't suppose you'd be interested in any arrangements?"
"What sort of arrangements?" Perhaps this was the standard way of organising matters down here.
The man shifted his position. "Well, sir, it does happen that you get couriers or officers passing through and requisitioning a horse. For a bit of a consideration, we could make sure that they don't get _your_ horse, if you take my point."
Maher's eyes narrowed. This sounded rather like dishonesty, not to mention dishonourable if it would prevent the best functioning of the post. On the other hand, he might need a fast horse. "What's your usual price?"
"Shilling a week," said the man promptly. "Look at it this way, sir, it's not as if I can run away if I double-cross you on this one."
True enough. Maher found a coin in one of his pockets, remembering what he'd been told about the coinage, and offered it. "Shake on it?"
"You're a gentleman, sir," said the other, and took his hand.
Maher felt the Symphony ringing about him, a constant stream of rhythm and music, and for the first time he resonated a human. Honour, he thought. What honour has this man?
The answer came back in a ripple of tonalities, blending together to form shape and meaning. Kind to the animals, honourable in that he kept his agreements. He was betraying his wife with a harlot from the nearby village. He swore. He took the name of God in vain. He stole food.
Maher turned away with a nod, staggered by the scope of the resonance. He hadn't thought that it would be like that. Angels had been different, when he had tried it on them. Humans were so .. mixed. Irregular. Unexpected. How was one supposed to judge absolutes on such beings?
"Move!" yelled somebody as a wagon came jolting by, the wheels leaving deep ruts behind it. This, he mused, was not doing any good. He ought to be seeing to things. He ought to be acting. He ought to be finding the nurses and questioning them about Caliah.
Sunlight slipped through a gap in the clouds, and, for a moment, the bustling camp was beautiful: the activity and movement, the thriving busy humans, their life and eagerness and their possibilities of honour.
Perhaps they weren't that strange after all.
"Excuse me," he said to a passing soldier, "Which way is it to wherever the nurses are encamped?"
He halted outside the hospital tent, and settled the line of his sleeves. This, at least, would be easy. Walk in, ask some simple questions, get the answers, walk out again. The nurses were here to help the soldiers, so naturally they would be ready to assist him. They'd probably be glad of the chance to talk to a front-line soldier. They might even sense the inner power that every Celestial carried within him, sensitive healing creatures that they were. He felt glad for them.
"Out of my way," snapped the first that he tried to corner, jabbing at him with the tray she carried. "Not now."
"I'm busy," whined a second as she attempted to bandage somebody's foot.
"Later," said a third, busy making up a bed with clean sheets.
"Any time, sweetheart, except now," murmured a fourth, casting a glance to the end of the tent. "The matron's watching. Mess tent tonight?"
Maher was fairly sure that the last response had not been the usual sort of dismissal. It felt more like the mucky temptations of Lust, of which he had been warned. He attempted to disregard the tight cut of her bodice, and headed for the matron instead.
She was seated at a portable desk, making notes in a ledger. Her greying hair was coiled back under a cap like all the other nurses, and a golden watch hung upside-down on her apron. The Malakite watched it for a moment, fascinated and trying not to wonder why too obviously.
"Well. Lieutenant?" Her tone was astringent.
"Ah, Matthew Shell. Ma'am." He added the last word as her regard began to shift from cold to positively glacial. "I've come to ask about Nurse Andrews. Cecilia Andrews."
"I see." She put down her pen. "And what precisely do you want to know about Nurse Andrews?"
"I need to know where she is." He tucked one foot behind the other, trying to scrape some of the mud off the boot that had been so beautifully polished earlier. "Ma'am."
She tapped the pen against the open page. "And by what authority are you asking me for this information, Lieutenant?"
Why did everything seem to be conspiring against him on his first mission? Maher desperately sorted between reasonable lies, and decided on, "It's private, Ma'am."
"So," said the matron, "is information about her." She continued to watch him, her light eyes unmoving and stern.
"It's not some kind of romance," Maher muttered.
"Of course it isn't." Her eyes softened. "You're clearly far too young for that."
Maher wasn't sure whether to take that as a compliment on his Vessel's appearance, or to lodge a complaint later for having been given something so evidently baby-faced. He made a show of glancing from side to side, then leant forward. "You see, ma'am... we're related. But our family..."
The matron was nodding slowly. "They don't want it to be public? I think I see."
The Malakite hunted for words, waving a hand vaguely. "It would be... well, I wouldn't mind, ma'am, but it could be awkward in some areas."
She scrutinised him again. "There is a resemblance, now I look at you. Very well. She was sent out to the Delacroix outpost, with Captain Asher and a hundred or so troops. Last mention of her in dispatches was about a week ago. She was dealing with the injuries very competently."
"And she's still out there, ma'am?"
"I would expect so. It's about a day's ride from here, if you can get some leave from whoever your officer is."
Maher nodded. "Thank you very much, ma'am." He turned to move away.
"Lieutenant?" she called after him.
He turned back. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Why are you so worried about her?"
His hands clenched. How obvious could he have been if a mere mortal could read his concern. "Well, she is a relative, ma'am."
The matron gestured him closer. "Beside that, Lieutenant. You look more as if you've already heard bad news than as if you're expecting to hear it."
He swallowed. "I suppose that I just worry about her, ma'am. I hadn't expected her to be assigned out like that."
The matron reached across the desk to pat his hand. He was taken aback by the gesture, and managed to control the automatic threat-reaction. Actually, it was surprisingly comfortable. "I'm sure she'll be doing her best, Lieutenant. She's a nice, quiet, competent woman. She'll probably see you walking up and offer you a cup of tea."
If only she would, Maher thought. If only she would.
It was a few hours later, as he was riding for the outpost: less swiftly than the Ofanite had led him, as he had neither the Wheel's sense of direction nor his careless speed. The horse seemed comfortable with their current pace, so he did not try to hurry it on. Mortal flesh had limitations, after all.
On the brow of a hill to the east stood the charred skeletons of three twisted trees, wrenching their branches to the sky as though to cry to Heaven for aid. He thought of the Groves as he guided the horse onward, and he thought of Caliah.
It had been their first meeting. Two of the other young Malakim had been sparring with him, on the Duelling Grounds, and he had had a victory hard-won enough to be a challenge, yet definite enough to be pleasant. It was sweet to feel the cool air on his body as he stretched, and to enjoy the play of muscles as he extended his wings fully. Perhaps later, he thought, he would see if he could persuade a few of the Servitors of the Wind into aerial practice - assuming they could be dragged away from their tiresome habits of theft and frolicking.
There was a discreet clearing of the throat from behind him. "Maher-shalal-hash-baz?"
He turned, letting his wings flare before he drew them in. An Elohite was standing there, pale in his shadow, one hand closed around a staff of dark steel, balancing it neatly.
"Yes?" His tone was polite, as the Elohite looked as though it might have some seniority on him, but he found himself hoping that this would not take long. Probably another boring piece of training in self-analysis. So much of that was pointless, as everybody _knew_ Malakim couldn't Fall.
"My name is Caliah," said the Elohite, its tone impersonal. "I have been temporarily assigned to you, for some tutoring regarding Earthside matters."
Caliah - he'd heard that name somewhere before. A few people had mentioned it yesterday, saying that she was just back from some assignment. They'd commented that she was professional, polite, mild-mannered. Sounded like any other Elohite of Michael. He was getting ready to sulk at her, until the last two words sank in.
He took an eager step forward. "Does this mean I'm getting sent Earthside at last?"
She raised a mild eyebrow. "I have not been informed on that matter. Are you at liberty at the moment, or do you have other commitments?"
"No. No." Maher shook his head eagerly. This was the sort of thing that he'd been hoping for. Clearly somebody had noticed his talents.
"Walk with me, please." Caliah clearly did not expect the request to be refused, turning to head towards the trees. Maher sheathed the practice blade hastily, and hurried to catch up.
"So you've been Earthside?" He couldn't restrain his questions. "Did you have a Vessel? Or Vessels? Did you end up fighting demons? Baal's forces?"
Caliah's tone had an edge of humour to it. "I had a Vessel, yes, as one must have one to go Earthside unless one is a Domination. I fought demons, and will doubtless fight others. Most recently I was dealing with an Impudite of Belial, but I have met the forces of Baal in the past and will likely do so again."
"What sort of Vessel?" asked Maher. Perhaps it had been a large man, with great heaving muscles that one could whet knives on, and who could put a fist through a wall or a demon's head.
"Female." Caliah tilted her head as Maher twitched in shock. "It is my preferred modality, though I have had male Vessels in the past. In my usual positions or Roles, it is convenient to be able to pass as unthreatening, and I find the female form more comfortable at that."
"Oh." He considered, worrying in case he might find he liked a buxom female body if he got stuck with one. He didn't think he would. He couldn't see why anybody would _want_ a Vessel that wasn't optimised for combat, unless one was stuck with Flowers-type missions.
"One tends to find a shape which suits the wearer," said Caliah, her tone reassuring, as though she had guessed his thoughts. Probably she had. It was easier to think of her as female, in some ways: less of a threat.
"So what are you supposed to be teaching me?" The words came out more grudgingly than he had meant. He had already had enough schooling in philosophy and ethics and the like to last him an angel's lifetime.
"Oh," said Caliah, strolling onwards, "dirty tricks, practicalities, useful information, the like. Strategy, common sense, and everything else which one needs to know."
"Needs to know?" His tone was sceptical.
She glanced up at him again. "Need to know. Trust me on this one. You'll need to know."
The moon was rising over the camp as he rode through the valley towards it. One man was standing watch on the pathway, stubble showing on his chin, his uniform stained with mud at the knees and elbows.
"Lieutenant Shell," Maher said briskly, reining in his tired horse.
The sentry stared up at him, focusing on the braid and uniform, then gave a shaky salute. "Right on in, sir."
"Where is your commanding officer?" Maher could smell the raw sewage and burnt food on the air, gun-oil and horse-dung. The place was a mess, and a dangerous one at that.
"In his tent, sir." The man's voice held an edge of bitterness. "Right on in that way," he pointed, "and along there, and the fourth to your right. Ain't been out of there much since yesterday."
Something in the tone made Maher twitch. "What happened yesterday?" He kept his tone as neutral as he could.
The man turned aside and spat into the mud. "Took out those villages, didn't we? Can't tell me that the other side's going to ignore us much longer, with that sort of thing going on. Supposed to be a quiet outpost, weren't we? Just a matter of time now before they come down on us, and give you the truth, sir, I'd just as soon not be here when we do."
Maher nodded, and pulled gently on the reins, directing the horse further into the camp. He was hurting in places that he didn't even want to think about, but the physical pain retreated in the face of his worry. Sensible military officers shouldn't be _acting_ like that. What in the name of God had happened to this place?
The defile between the lines of tents was thick with mud. He slid off his horse, leading the exhausted beast slowly along. Lights flickered behind the thick canvas, and drifts of coarse laughter or complaint were caught on the night wind. He knew that this wasn't the Groves, but even so, it shouldn't be as bad as this.
Three tents ahead, the one that he'd been told was the commanding officer's, this Captain Asher. From the tent directly beside him came the sound of moans and voices thick with pain, and the smell of sickness and urine.
If this is the sick-tent, he thought, perhaps she was working here. He tossed the horse's reins over the hitching-post beside it, and opened the flap, stepping inside.
The lantern overhead swung as he entered, sending the shadows dancing in dark malevolent streaks. Five men lay on beds, in various stages of bandaging: four still lived, one was dead, his eyes set and unchanging. A sixth man looked up from where he was holding a mug of water to the lips of one of the bedridden soldiers. "What do you .. oh. Pardon, Lieutenant." His voice was ragged with fatigue. "Wasn't expecting nobody, this time of night."
"I'm only just in." He looked across the tent for some sign of Caliah. "What's happened to the nurse on duty here?"
Another bedridden man, his face criss-crossed with healing scars and bandages, grunted something unintelligible. The first man shrugged. "She's gone, sir. Wasn't there in the morning. Eight days ago, and nobody's seen a sign of her since. There's been talk, but..." he trailed off.
"But what?" prodded Maher. He tried to keep his voice level and reasonable, but he could hear a thread of urgency creeping into it. If she wasn't here, how was he ever going to find her?
The other man looked down at the mug of water which he still held. "Well, sir, people do say that she might have cracked. It happens to some women, you know. They can't take it. And if she'd got it into her head to run off on her own, heaven only knows what could have happened to her."
Maher gritted his teeth. "I see."
"It's a pity, sir." He held the mug to the other man's lips again. "She was a nice kind girl, she was. Ain't got no nurse now, neither, and we've been having more casualties. The captain, he sent out some men on a sweep to see if they could find something, but there weren't hide nor hair of her."
There was clearly nothing more to find out here. "Thank you," Maher said, turning for the entrance.
"You couldn't put in a word, could you, Lieutenant?" called the man behind him. "Get us a new nurse from base camp? We need someone out here."
"I'll see what I can do," Maher temporised, as he let the flap fall shut behind him. Something like music rang in his ears - other Malakim had told him of it, that it was the sound of coming danger, and that the stronger his body was, the more time he would have before it came upon him. It mingled with his thoughts like fire.
The night air was cool on his face, and he closed his eyes to think. This was appalling. The camp coming apart under a lax commander's hand, no trace of Caliah for eight days, enemy attack quite possibly imminent, low morale... no wonder the angels of Michael were needed on Earth, if only to stop human beings managing to hurt themselves even more than they already did.
He pushed the limp blond hair back off his forehead, eyes still closed. These thoughts were not being comfortable. He couldn't just take charge of the place. But if he didn't act, and they managed to destroy themselves, wouldn't that be his fault if he _could_ have acted?
If there's demonic interference, then it would be, the thought came to him. He was duty-bound to act against _that_, certainly. And if that also happened to involve shaking some sense of duty and honour into these humans around him, so much the better. Not that they were all bad. Some of them even seemed quite, well, reasonable, quite loyal to their own codes of behaviour.
This wasn't helping. He opened his eyes again. The priority was to check for signs of demons, and therefore his first task was to speak with the commanding officer and try and find out the truth of what was going on here.
A few steps took him along to the tent which he had been told was the Captain's. His horse stayed where it was, head hanging, and he felt a moment of guilt till he rationalised it with the thought that he could see to it later, and that he had at least treated it well earlier.
He raised a hand to knock at the canvas flap over the entrance. The moonlight made his skin pale and fragile, delicate over bones and muscles, and the edges of lantern-light from round the flap glittered like a more earthly gold.
"Come in," a bored voice called from inside.
Maher pushed the flap aside, and stepped into the tent, letting the canvas fall closed behind him. The man who had answered him was sitting at a worn table, a half-full glass of brandy and a near-empty bottle of it propped on the edge of it, beside a set of maps and pen and compasses. He was tall and hazel-eyed, neatly shaven and with well-trimmed pale hair; a good ripple of muscles showed under the cloth of his uniform, and he wore a captain's insignia.
His eyes flicked to Maher's sleeve. "Ah. Lieutenant. New in camp tonight? I wasn't expecting anybody from base."
Maher gave a neat salute, as it would be expected. "Fresh from the base camp, sir." He quickly considered excuses. "Sent out to check if you need any reinforcements or anything. Heard there's been some trouble with the local villages."
"Have they now." The man hoisted himself from his chair, balance steady and not showing any signs of drunkenness. "Forgive my manners, Lieutenant. Captain Asher, at your service." He offered his hand.
"Lieutenant Shell, sir." Maher stepped forward to take the hand in response, and invoked his resonance.
It was like a slap of cold sewage in the face, slime against bare skin, a choking darkness which every part of him recoiled from. He could see his hand clasped around Asher's, see Asher's bland face and friendly eyes, but overlaid on it were images like tracings of poisoned sugar. A village in flames. Caliah's own face, twisted with fury.
"Lieutenant?" Asher's voice was concerned, with all the lying friendliness that one would expect from a Balseraph. What else could be so vile?
Maher wrenched his hand from the demon's, pure fury driving him, and struck him across the face.
The blow took Asher by surprise. He staggered a pace, catching himself on the table, and the mark of Maher's hand stood out red on his skin. His lips curved into a smile that promised pain, and he murmured, "Like that, is it?"
"Balseraph." The word curdled in Maher's throat. "By whatever name you call yourself, I know you now, and I am resolved to destroy you."
Asher spread his hands, beginning to pace slowly to the side. "I name myself Ashekai, in service to the War. And who are you, little Malakite? Why do you react so violently? We are both akin, here in the midst of strife."
Maher kept his eyes on the demon. "I am Maher-shalal-hash-baz, in service to War, demon. My reasons are my own business. I condemn you for your dishonour, and shall carry out that sentence." Something in the back of his mind was screaming caution, trying to point out that he might be outmatched here. He ignored it. Honour demanded that he destroy this - this _thing_. He couldn't turn away, couldn't run now, couldn't leave it be.
Ashekai smiled. The movement of his face seemed a shell over something deeper, something fouler. "Death - such an impermanent thing, with these little fleshly Vessels. Don't you want something more definite?" The shadows began to gather round him, forming six dark wings as his body began to shift, to be discarded, his Celestial aspect coalescing around him like a mantle. Six eyes regarded him as the voice sang, "Meet me where we can settle this for once and all, little Malakite. Is it for that Elohite's sake? Was she involved?"
Maher hesitated, as a cold knowledge touched him. If he died in Celestial form, then he would be destroyed entirely, black feathers and blood upon the wind. His fists clenched at his side, as he looked up at the hovering serpent that shimmered in patterns of blues.
"Who was she to you, warrior angel?" sang the Liar. "Was she close to you? She followed me down to Hell eagerly, as if the way was familiar to her. Do you want to come down there and join her, is that it? Or are you simply afraid..."
Maher heard the growl in his own throat, as though from a distance, and the Symphony rang around him again as he spent his Essence, drawing his own dark wings around him. The weight of his oath-chains was a familiar one, Rigziel's amethyst feather still tucked among them, and comforting: his pinions unfurled, lifting him from the ground and partway through the surface of the tent to face the hovering Balseraph.
"Of course." Ashekai kept moving, wings fluttering dizzyingly fast, too uncomfortably close to a real Seraph. "You're a Warrior, aren't you?" He circled in, closer. "Can't refuse a fight, can't run from one any more than I can..."
Lightning crackled behind Maher's eyes, and he gave it voice, raising his arms and crying out as he Sang Thunder. His wings snapped out behind him, rippling in the wind as the rush of power struck the Balseraph, sending it spinning and flapping its wings feebly. He dived at the demon as it struggled for balance, grasping for a wing and for its neck. It squirmed in his grasp, and he couldn't quite get a decent grip on the neck, but he felt the left upper wing shiver in his hand, bones beginning to separate and tendons to rip. He growled again, slamming his elbow into the side of the demon's head.
Ashekai hissed, half a scream, and its tail came writhing up beneath him to entangle an ankle and yank him down and away, as at the same time it Sang, acid spitting from its mouth across his shoulder and one wing. He cried out in pain, his wing involuntarily wrenching back as the acid ate into it, and Ashekai managed to wrench its neck free of his grip.
"Come here," Maher muttered through his clenched teeth, as he tried to work his hand among the demon's ribs. Ashekai's tail was dragging him down across the demon's body, but he still had a good grip on its upper wing, and he could feel ichor slicking his hand as he dug his fingers in deeper. "Come here and die, damn you..."
"I'm. Already." Ashekai's arms came round and up, rocking Maher's head with a straight sideways blow and making him struggle for breath. "Damned." The tail wrenched again, dragging him free from his grip and slamming him backwards at the ground.
Maher backwinged, trying to break the fall, but the impact was quite definite. Ashekai came forward in a swirl of motion, Singing as he did, and the Symphony screamed again around them.
"Demon, "Maher hissed, rolling to one side. His wings raised wind and dust about him, the right one aching and stained from the acid burns.
Ashekai came down on him like an avalanche, dark and thundering and unstoppable. Pallid flowers bloomed in Maher's mind as the Song hit him, and he vaguely heard himself screaming in tones that scraped his throat, flowers of bone and sinew and pale Elohim peeling their skins away to show blood and writing marks with the crimson in the dust about him and touching him with fingers that were nothing except bare flesh and that moved on his body and that...
"Listen." Ashekai's voice came from a very long way away, ringing in his ears like atonal bells. Something crunched into his ribs on the left side of his body, and he gasped on blood. "Listen, little Malakite. Get up and fight me. Aren't you going to fight?"
Maher's fingers moved on the ground like the bloody fingers in his dream, and he tried to push himself upright. Something blue and snakelike wrapped around his neck, and as clarity returned he tried to grasp it. It coiled and uncoiled like a whip, leaving a bloody line behind it, and throwing him down again with a snap that ached all the way down his spine.
"It's War, little Malakite, little Maher-shalal-hash-baz." The Balseraph's tones were pure delighted malice. "Open your eyes. Let's finish this. I'm going to tear your body apart and your wings to pieces, and I'm going to let the enemy in here and watch the humans fight each other till only the strongest are left. You ought to agree with me." A buffet from a wing knocked him to his knees again. "You ought to thank me. Thank me. You've failed." Truth rang in his voice like the wind through the Groves. "Open your eyes."
The words hummed in Maher's ears, like a music that he could not quite catch. He was going to die, and it would not just be the death of his Vessel, it would be a permanent death. He still couldn't quite understand that, even if he could face it. It wasn't like a human death... Humans. They were defenceless.
He thought of the eyes of the humans he had seen, those unperceptive, unseeing eyes, and the chime of honour in that one man he had resonated. The patterns of their motions as they obeyed their duty, as they sought for their own ideas of honour.
He couldn't afford to die now. However much it might shame him, even if he were permanently disgraced for it, even if he had failed as the demon said, he had to live.
He groped for the amethyst feather still tangled in his oath-chains, trying to find the breath for a word.
"Open your eyes." He could feel the Balseraph's shadow above him, colder than any mortal lightless shadow. It wanted that moment of pain from him - good, he could use that. "Open your eyes before I tear them out and finish this. Warrior."
His fingers closed around the feather, matting it with blood, as he gasped, "Rigziel." It fell to dust in his hand, so easily, powder and then nothing. The Symphony kept on ringing around him.
"It's too late for that," breathed Ashekai as it leaned towards him, the chime of war and death in its voice.
Maher braced himself, trying to dodge and throw himself to one side. His leg failed beneath him, and he stumbled, taking another buffet from the Balseraph's arm and going to his knees again.
Ashekai spread his wings to full extension, the top left one dangling and bleeding, and laughed.
The blow from behind him took the Balseraph entirely without warning, and the great axe hammered straight into his side like the weight of a thousand years. He screamed, the tone cutting through the night, and folded round the blade, swivelling on his tail to spit a six-foot-long tongue at the man who stood behind him.
The scene seemed like a moment cut out of time to Maher's eyes. The man with the axe was corded with muscle, in singlet and trousers, his long hair caught back in a ponytail. He grinned like the wrath of Heaven as he pulled the axe back, all smeared with ichor and blood, and dodged Ashekai's tongue lightly.
Comprehension built itself into resolve, and Maher howled in fury - or at least in what he hoped was fury, it was such a tangle of pain and anger and bitterness - as he leapt for the Balseraph's back, snatching for the flailing wings.
Ashekai hissed again, head rearing back bonelessly as he tried to break Maher's grasp, and the axe cut into him again, prosaic as any woodcutter and bitter as judgement. "No... curse you!" Panic glowed in his eyes, and his mouth twisted as his tongue and tail lashed at Rigziel.
Maher felt the wings break under his hands as he wrenched at them, and it was good, so very good.
"Off him, boy," came Rigziel's voice, cutting through the haze of fury. "Give me a clear blow."
Maher gave the wings one last pull as he threw himself backwards, the command-reflex moving him even before he quite thought about it. He knew he could trust Rigziel. Rigziel was a Seraph, and this, this thing...
Ashekai screamed again and again as the axe did butchery on him.
Maher blinked to find Rigziel's hand on his shoulder, pulling him to his feet. "Come on, boy. Up we get. You all right?"
He worked his jaw, and found that he could speak. "Um. Not sure."
"Vessel all right?" Rigziel took his jaw in the other hand, turning the Malakite's face so he could look into his eyes. "You able to stand upright and talk coherently?"
Maher almost found himself laughing at that. "Think so. Thanks. Didn't think... thought I could handle it."
"You and the rest of the Malakim." Rigziel released him. "All right, he's soul-killed. Was he the one that got Caliah?"
Maher nodded, not having words for the moment. Could Caliah have become as much a parody of her nature as that thing had been of Rigziel? He didn't want to imagine it any longer. He didn't want to look. If he met her again, he'd have to try and resonate her - and then act. If she were a thing that dishonourable, then she couldn't want to live. She shouldn't. And he would fulfil her unspoken wish.
"Right. That's sorted. Anything else?"
Maher looked around at the oblivious camp, the untouched tents and sleeping soldiers. "He was setting this place up to be destroyed. He's been provoking the enemy locally, letting the men get slack here. It'd leave a route open to the base camp, and if the enemy struck through there, then they'd have the drop on them."
"So you know what to do." Rigziel's tone was businesslike.
Maher bit back the words, "I do?" as he thought. "I have to... counteract demonic influence by getting this entire camp back on its feet and defending it?" His tone was faintly plaintive.
"Exactly." Rigziel rapped him on the back. "Get that Vessel back on - you're probably the ranking officer in camp right now - and I'll stick around a while, give you a few pointers. Don't worry, you've got a nice site here, you should be able to defend it fairly well." He paused. "You've had the easy part of the job, son. Now we get down and dirty."
This wasn't what I wanted, thought Maher. Or then again, what did I want? To be a hero and to save everybody, to shine in the Groves, or to defend the mortals and do my job? Am I prepared to pay the price if I leave them, the price that they'll pay?
The answer ran within him like a chord of his own honour. This was his task.
Rigziel watched him as the Vessel reformed. "Come along. Let's roust them out of their tents.We've got work to be about." Somewhere behind the spoken words, Maher could read the implication. Time to live up to your duty, boy.You're a warrior, aren't you?
Yes, he replied silently as he walked towards the nearest tent. Yes, I'm a warrior.
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