Night. A night like any other in Starhollow: the headlights of cars, small and lost between the skyscrapers; the smell of hydromel and wine wafting from those few bars still open; and above me, the distant light of the stars, a constant reminder of the inaccessibility of Heaven.
I climbed the stairs to my flat, exhausted, my arms covered in claw-marks. At the shelter I worked at, drunken Fallen had started attacking some of the newcomers—and had turned on me when I’d tried to intervene.
I fumbled in my bag for the key, wincing as the leather scraped against my skin. I didn’t blame the Fallen for attacking me or getting drunk: I knew all too well how former angels balanced on a knife’s edge between despair and madness, and how easy it was for them to let go—in a city which sold their bones as drugs.
I turned the key in the lock, dumped my grocery bags in the darkened hall. I was looking forward to lying on my bed, to sleeping without dreams.
All the lights were off in my flat. I was about to press the switch when I realised what had been bothering me for a while.
I always locked my flat with two turns of the key—yet I’d only had to turn the key once to open the door.
Someone had been there.
Someone was still there, I realised, as I made out a dark silhouette, sitting at my desk. My heartbeat quickened in fear—I felt veins quivering in my rigid jaw.
I hit the light switch anyway. It’s just too hard to fight in the dark.
“Ah, Miss de Viera,” my nocturnal visitor said.
I froze, my fingers still clutching the wall. Not many people had that effect on me, but Arvedai was an exception: he was a Fallen—tall, commanding, and with their supernatural strength; he was a gang-lord and a body-looter who owned a sizeable chunk of the town; and more importantly, he carried a long-standing grudge against me for having thwarted him.
“What do you want?” I asked when I had regained a modicum of calm.
He smiled—an expression that reminded me of feral cats and sharks. His eyes, glinting behind his tortoise-scale glasses, were unreadable. “There’s something you need to see. Will you come?”
I stood, not knowing what to say. Behind me, the door closed; I turned, briefly. Arvedai hadn’t come alone. He’d brought along two thugs: a beefy human with arms like tree-trunks, and a slender Fallen who moved with the lethal grace of a fighter. They just stood by the door—but they nevertheless made the threat very clear.
“Cal will find me,” I said, although it was a futile wish—Cal, as usual, would be roaming Starhollow, looking for fellow Fallen she could save from the body-looters—and her mobile would be turned off.
Arvedai’s face did not move. “Believe me, that’s been taken into account. Will you come?” he asked, again, and it wasn’t an invitation after all—at least, not the kind you could refuse.
Arvedai and his thugs drove me to a small, dingy basement in a building in what I guessed was the Marsh District: I caught a brief glimpse of the Tollbooth skyscraper, towering over us, as we walked from the car to the entrance.
We walked past a set of revolving doors, into a windowless room with tiled walls. The sharp smell of disinfectant filled the place, strong enough to make my nostrils itch.
In the centre of the room was a metal gurney, and on the gurney—
It might have been human, once. I saw strips of bloody flesh, hanging on snow-white bones; scattered pieces of organs I didn’t want to dwell on; a whole finger positioned on the edge of the gurney, pathetic in the surrounding mess; and, wafting from the whole, a smell that was old blood and decayed flesh and decomposing perfume…
My stomach heaved—a good thing I hadn’t had the time to eat anything since early this morning. I forced myself to look closer—to make out the skin of the face, torn from the skull and laid aside like a macabre mask.
I lifted it from the gurney and held it before my eyes, fighting the nausea welling in my throat—the cloying smell was worse from close-up.
Empty eye-sockets looked back at me. Trying not to focus on what I was actually doing, I hefted the skull: it was quite light, and the cheekbones were higher than a human’s…
Holding the skull in one hand, I carefully ran a finger alongside the jaw—and felt the slight, very slight twinge of magic within the bones.
It wasn’t a human, but a Fallen. Quite an old one, too, if the magic from the Divine City had worn so thin.
I turned to Arvedai. His face, lean and sharp, was the hunter’s face, the gambler’s face—the Fallen’s face: revealing nothing of what he felt.
I thought of what that Fallen must have felt as they died—as the pain of their exile from the City was replaced by another, sharper one—as the skin and organs and muscles were torn from their bones and blood scattered everywhere—and anger tightened my throat until I could hardly breathe. They could have been any of the Fallen our shelter had saved from the body-looters—they could have been Cal—
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked, my voice simmering with rage. “I’m not here to witness your handiwork.”
Arvedai watched me without expression. At length, he held out his hand, as if admonishing a young child. “You are mistaken, Miss de Viera. This is not mine.”
Not his work? “Then how do you explain this?” I asked.
Arvedai pursed his lips. “O’Connor found this,” he said. The human thug took a step forward, identifying himself beyond all doubt. “In the Golden Horn.”
The Golden Horn was the western part of the city: the squat, soot-covered buildings in which poor families slowly starved to death. Even Fallen had enough good sense to avoid the area—but I supposed Arvedai saw money to be made from despair.
“Found—?” I asked, stupidly, still holding the skull in my hands.
O’Connor took it from me, and carefully laid it back on the table. “He’s not the first,” he said.
Arvedai gestured to a low table in a corner of the room—I hadn’t seen it as I entered, focusing only on the gurney and its contents.
At one end of the table was a pile of sample bags—but most of the space was occupied by printed photographs. In a way, it was better to see the bodies—what was left of them—on paper, rather than standing by them.
No, it wasn’t any better.
Five of them. Five bodies, including the one on the table—torn to pieces as if by a rabid beast. “Fallen?” I asked.
“Yes,” Arvedai said—right behind my left shoulder. I managed to hide my surprise—I hadn’t hear him move.
“A ritual?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.” His voice was quiet, reflexive. “The bodies were randomly placed within Starhollow, and the times of death don’t follow any regular pattern.”
“Someone hating Fallen—” I paused, turned to look at him. “You—”
“I’m no monster,” he said. He must have seen my skeptical face, for he added, “The angel bones I sell, I took under anaesthetic—and I don’t kill that way.”
In other circumstances, it might have chilled me to hear him talk so casually of what he dealt in. Now I felt deadened, as if the Fallen body on the table had overloaded my senses.
“I want you to find out who did this,” Arvedai said.
I turned round, stared at the gurney again—closing my eyes for a brief moment to banish the image of the eyeless skull. “Why?” I asked. “Why do you care at all?”
He smiled—sarcastic again. “We’re one big, happy family, aren’t we?” he asked. “If someone is after Fallen, it’s only a matter of time until my people are threatened—”
The revolving doors snapped open, banging against the wall with a loud noise. My heart started beating faster and faster—especially when I saw Arvedai slip his hand inside his jacket pocket, a sure sign that he hadn’t expected whoever was coming—
Light filled the room: a soft, sloshing radiance that made everything else seem drab and meaningless. The smell of crushed flowers floated up to me, bringing with it the memory of golden summer afternoons, and of my parents fondly watching me on the park lawn…
A silhouette stood in the door, framed in the light—a tall shape with the shadows of wings at its back—and I knew who it had to be then.
“Sam?” she called, stepping into the room—and then she froze, her head turned towards the gurney. “What—”
I could only guess what she’d be feeling—she, who’d dedicated her life to helping out her Fallen brethren—she, who blamed herself every time we lost a life—
I walked to her before she could focus on Arvedai. “It’s not what you think,” I said.
“Indeed?” Cal’s moon-shaped face snapped up, golden light filling her eyes—she wasn’t looking at me, but at Arvedai.
Cal knew of Arvedai’s existence. She knew of the grudge, which also included her as my associate and fellow trouble-maker, butI’d never seen her and Arvedai in the same room.
They both looked as though they were inches from leaping at each other’s throats. Cal’s face was ablaze with anger. Over my safety? She’d never shown that level of concern previously. “Cal! I’m okay,” I said.
“It’s not about you, Sam.” Her voice was harsh; her body quivering, caught in the instant before the leap.
O’Connor and the Fallen thug moved, coming up with weapons in their hands as they stood by their master’s side—but Arvedai made a twisting gesture with his right hand, and the guns’ aim moved away from Cal, towards the floor.
A moment later, Cal spoke. “Well, well. Involved again, I see.”
Arvedai spread his hands. “I’m not responsible.”
“You never were—not even for what you’d engineered.” Cal’s voice was bitter. “I’m not fool enough to think the mortal world would change you.”
“It’s changed you.” Arvedai’s face was deeply ironic. “Quite the saint you’ve become.”
Cal clenched her hands. “Don’t judge me.”
“I’m not,” Arvedai said. “But then that’s never been our prerogative.” Acid dripped from every word.
“What happened to us was only fair,” Cal said.
Arvedai laughed, briefly and without joy. “Maybe.” His gaze slid away from Cal’s, caught mine. “But that’s not the point, is it?”
Cal walked closer to the table, picked up the pile of photographs and leafed through them. Throughout, her face didn’t change expression. By now, she should have been crying—but she wasn’t. She was—harsh, completely cut off from the world—frighteningly different from the Fallen I’d known for seven years.
“Cal—” I said.
She didn’t turn round. “Go home. And be more careful next time.”
I’d never seen her so—cutting, so distant. “I wasn’t given a choice. They jumped me in my flat.”
“We did.” Arvedai’s face was creased in an ironic smile. “You really shouldn’t blame your friend.”
Cal turned to me, for a fraction of a second. “You need to leave. It’s none of your business, Sam.” Her face was cold: she was not concerned. She saw me as an embarrassment.
It hurt. I hadn’t thought it would, so much. “Cal—”
She didn’t answer. Arvedai was standing by her side, hovering almost like a bird of ill-omen. He appeared satisfied—and why shouldn’t he be? It wasn’t me he’d wanted all along, after all—but Cal, an angel with real magic, with real knowledge.
“And then you’ll find me as you’ve found me here? You’re tracking me, aren’t you?” Like I was a child. Like I couldn’t be trusted.
Cal shrugged, but didn’t deny it. “Go home, Sam.”
My hands closed on the sample bags. It wasn’t even a conscious gesture—I never stopped, for instance, to think of the consequences should the two Fallen realise what I’d done—but I did it, all the same. I pocketed them stealthily—like a thief—and left the room without a backward glance. They’d still be talking, Cal and Arvedai—and the Light knew what they’d be telling each other. The real reason, no doubt, why Arvedai had stooped to ask for help—the reason he was so worried.
In the meantime, I’d make my own inquiries.
Cal didn’t show up at the shelter the following morning—somehow, I wasn’t surprised. I opened the iron shutters, wincing as the wounds in my hands scraped against the metal, and cleaned the place with a vengeance—clearing away the empty plates, the broken bottles and the odd syringe on the floor.
For a moment, as I started the computer and checked the accounts for the day, I contemplated calling Cal’s mobile—but it was a foolish idea, dismissed as soon as it occurred to me. She wouldn’t want to talk to me in any case.
I hadn’t held onto the sample bags for very long: I’d sent them to Lucifer with a note in my best handwriting. If there was one person who could identify an angel from scraps of feathers and bones, it was Lucifer, Star of the Morning, Son of the Dawn, oldest and most powerful among Fallen. He and I had a prickly, distant relationship: I’d long gone past the fear and awe I’d felt when first meeting him, and he was now more of a distant informant, more than anything. I called him occasionally to give him news, and he provided help on cases that amused him—being thousands of years old apparently came with boredom, in his case. I was hoping I’d pique his attention enough for him to take a look at the bags.
Morning at the shelter was quiet—most of our residents didn’t get up until midday, if not in the evening. Fallen were very much creatures of the night. I wasn’t expecting any visitors: when a shadow fell across the doorway, I assumed for a fleeting moment that Cal had come back.
But it wasn’t Cal—not at all. One of Arvedai’s thugs—O’Connor, the beefy human one—stood on the threshold, almost hesitant to enter.
I sighed, trying to make abstraction of my disappointment. “Come in. I won’t bite.”
He shuffled in; given his girth, it was almost comical—had I been in the mood to laugh.
“What does he want?” I asked, trying not to appear scathing—never a wise thing when your opponent is twice your size and not bothered by casual violence.
“He—” he wouldn’t meet my gaze. “He doesn’t know I’m here.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Taking some initiative? I’m sure he wouldn’t approve.”
His face was grave. “No,” he said, finally. “But he—he can’t see what’s safe.”
No matter which way I turned the sentence, it didn’t make sense. “Safe?”
His gaze roamed over the kitchen, the piles of dirty plates in the sink—the fridge, its door wide open, its shelves stained with grease and bloody remnants of meat. “He thinks your friend will help him—for old times’ sake or to save his skin, whichever. But I still think it’s wrong to put all your eggs in the same basket. Your friend’s gone soft, Miss—no offence, but she spends too much time saving souls and not enough opening her eyes…”
During that tirade I’d stood motionless—trying at first to piece things together, giving up when it became obvious I couldn’t. Finally I said, slowly, “They’re both in danger?”
His fists clenched. “I—we know who some of the dead are, Miss. He didn’t have time to tell you—” he paused again, his broad face creased in thought. “He knew them—and so did your friend.”
The picture remained hovering at the edge of my mind, tantalizing in its incompleteness. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”
O’Connor spread his broad hands over the kitchen table. “Him—your friend—the dead angels—they were all in it together, you see?”
I thought of what Cal had said, back in Arvedai’s hideout, and suddenly things coalesced together. “Fellow rebels?” I asked, finally, aghast. “That’s why they all fell.” That was why Cal and Arvedai hated each other so much—because they both blamed each other for the fall.
O’Connor nodded. “One of the bloodiest in Heaven.”
One of the bloodiest—no, not Cal, why would she have been involved in that? I remembered her attitude with Arvedai, and I understood: she’d been drawn into it. She’d fallen because of someone else’s acts.
“And now some of them are dying, and you think it’s connected.” No. He wasn’t the one thinking that—no, O’Connor, for all his worldliness, remained a mortal. Arvedai was the one who’d made the connection. Arvedai was the one who was afraid.
“Revenge?” I asked, finally, my hands automatically playing with a red-and-yellow sponge.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. But I know who was in it—some of them, at any rate.”
“And you want me to help. Why?”
Again, an expansive shrug. “Told you. Two heads are better than one, and four even more so. The boss and your friend—they’ll find what they find, but they’re too involved in this. Too afraid to think clearly.”
“And I’m not?” I asked, sarcastically—even as I realised that yes, I was—that if someone, anyone was hunting down Cal to butcher her like those poor angels, I’d do anything to find her, anything to save Cal.
O’Connor didn’t move.
“You haven’t told me why you’re here,” I said, softly.
He wouldn’t look at me. “If the boss dies, we’re all back on the streets,” he said—and although it was the truth, it was only part of it—there was a deeper motive in what he was offering me, and I didn’t know what.
I sighed. “All right,” I said, resolving to keep an eye on O’Connor. “Let’s try working together.” I didn’t like it. I knew all too well there was blood on O’Connor’s hands—and angel essence, too—but at the moment it looked like the only viable option. “What can you tell me about the rebels?”
He foraged in his impeccable suit for a while, aligning the contents of his pockets on the table: an empty holster, aspirin tablets, a map of Starhollow—desk junk, staples, paper-clips—” Got it,” O’Connor said, adding a grubby piece of paper to the pile.
I picked it up, stared at the elaborate loops of the handwriting. It was a list of names and addresses, headed by Arvedai and Calariel. Little crosses in the margin—three of them, all in all—were a grisly reminder of the stakes.
Most names were unfamiliar—but there was one, near the beginning: Vazrach—and an address in the Golden Horn.
“First Circle?” I asked, my finger pointing on Vazrach.
O’Connor shrugged. “I don’t know about Circles,” he said.
First-Circle Fallen were extremely rare—-in all of Starhollow, there must have been half a dozen at most. Lucifer had once given me a list; that was why I remembered Vazrach’s name. I wasn’t familiar with the intricate network of alliances that defined the City above our heads; but I did know that a First-Circle would have lost much from the fall: trust, power, influence. All the more reason, perhaps, to keep hatred burning.
And the latest body had been found in the Golden Horn.
“Come on,” I said to O’Connor. “We’re going to see an archangel.”
I’d been in the Golden Horn before: with Cal, on jaunts to recover a young Fallen before the body-looters got at him. As O’Connor and I walked past the dilapidated buildings, I felt Cal’s absence all the more keenly—and it wasn’t a body-looter in an immaculate suit who was going to compensate for Cal’s gravely amused voice, or the golden eyes trained onto mine.
1027 Magus Row must have been a condominium once; now the gates were broken, and famished children chased each other in the ruined gardens. We walked up to the doors of ebony and rang the bell.
A woman opened the door—her sharp features vaguely reminiscent of a fox’s, her aquamarine eyes lost in the paleness of her face. “Yes?” she asked.
“My name is John O’Connor, and this is Sam de Viera. We’re looking for Vazrach,” O’Connor said.
Her gaze took in the striped suit, the polished, gleaming leather shoes; the almost baby-ish roundness of his cheeks. “I see,” she said. She sounded half-weary, half-angry. I’d seen that expression before, in hospital wards—and I suddenly understood that whatever we were going to find here, it wasn’t an angry, vengeful Fallen.
“He’s inside,” she said. “But you can’t see him long—visitors always leave him drained.”
The implications of this were unmistakable. “There have been others to see him?”
She shrugged. “Yes. Fallen, mostly—it’s funny, how news of misfortune spreads quickly.”
She led us down a crooked corridor—past empty rooms with closed shutters—into a wide bedroom. Sunlight fell through the open windows, limning the still figure on the bed; the air smelled of soot and dust—and underlying it was the sour, acrid odour of sickness.
A shuffle of cloth, from the bed. “Martha?” The voice still had the singsong tones of Fallen, but it was weak—almost spent.
“Visitors,” the woman said. She stood in the doorway, watching him as a tigress watches her young. “Don’t be long.”
“You know I won’t.” A chuckle—which halfway through turned into a coughing fit—in the doorway, Martha tensed, ready to rush into the room, but the fit died.
Carefully, O’Connor and I moved closer to the bed.
Once, Vazrach must have been handsome. In the sunken lines of his face you could still see that beauty—and in the golden, slanted eyes, and in the long fingers folded over the sheets.
But time and sickness had taken their toll: through the parchment-thin skin protruded the bones; the hands, like aspens in the wind, wouldn’t stop shaking. Only the eyes were still clear, still filled with ironic amusement.
“Mortals.” Vazrach sounded surprised. “I had no idea I was so popular among your kind.” His eyes narrowed to slits as he considered O’Connor. “Not quite mortals. You consort with Fallen—both of you.”
“How do you know?” I asked, before I could help myself.
“It leaves traces.” Grimacing, he pulled himself into a sitting position, winding the sheets around him as he did so. He was fast; but not fast enough to hide his naked torso—and the huge, infected wounds that ran across his ribs. Claw-marks, I thought, sickened. Claws—like those that had torn the other Fallen to pieces.
“You’re not sick,” I said, slowly.
“It’s not sickness that’s going to be the end of me. Although—” His lips pursed in an ironic smile—”the infections might yet win over the loss of blood.”
“Where did you get the wounds?” O’Connor’s voice, a bare thread of sound in the chamber.
Vazrach didn’t speak for a while. He looked at us—and some of the sarcasm was gone from his eyes. “Late at night—” he whispered. “Walking home…there was—darkness above my head—darkness and claws, and the Light dimming forever…” His hands clenched over the sheets. “Martha—found me—she drove it away.”
“Whatever it was,” O’Connor muttered, sombrely.
Vazrach started to shrug, and then gave up with a grimace. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never found out.”
“You must have some idea,” I said, slowly—he was an angel of the First Circle, after all, he had the knowledge, the power…
And he was dying. I could smell it in the tang of the air, hear it in the raggedness of his breaths. “Darkness,” Vazrach said, and all the light seemed to have fled his eyes. “The enemy of the Light—the hatred that will kill everything, drown everyone…”
“Do you know who it is?” I asked.
Vazrach wouldn’t look at me. I pressed him: “Other Fallen died—other soldiers of your rebellion. Do you think it’s a coincidence?”
His eyes were bleak again. “Few things are coincidence.”
“Tell me about the rebellion,” I said, finally—because it burnt in me, to know how Cal could ever have joined it—how the angel I knew, calm and level-headed, obsessed with her own virtue, could ever have been drawn into such madness—and why she was in danger now.
Vazrach closed his eyes. When he spoke again, something had shifted in him—his frail skin was opalescent, as if hiding some hidden radiance. “It was Arvedai who convinced us—he was always such a smooth-talker—but Calariel was the one who started it all.”
“No,” I whispered. Not Cal—I’d never asked her why she’d fallen—deep down, I knew there had to be a reason, but naively, stupidly, I’d always assumed it would be something—something forgivable—that she’d been led astray, that she hadn’t understood what she was getting into…
And now Vazrach was telling me Cal had instigated a rebellion—one of the bloodiest in Heaven. That she bore the responsibility for the fall of hundreds of angels, in addition to her own.
Not, I thought dimly, something that would be forgivable. No wonder Arvedai hated her so.
“Calariel didn’t understand—why things had to be so—why humans endured so much suffering—why so few of us could come down to Earth, why we were forbidden from incarnating or helping…why we could only watch…she wanted to throw open the gates of Heaven…” Vazrach’s voice trailed off. “Arvedai was her voice, but we all knew whose words had convinced us.”
“No,” I said. “She wasn’t—”
“She’s always been like that.” Vazrach’s voice was amused. “Always wanting answers. Always trying to do something, even if it’s the wrong thing.”
“And he fell,” O’Connor said, his voice like the shutting of a book. “You all fell.”
Vazrach’s hands clenched again, so tightly his skin turned white. “Yes,” he said. His eyes had grown distant. “Never to see the Light again, never to fly over the streets of the City—every night staring at the sky and remembering the breath of the wind over your wings. Knowing it’s lost forever.”
Because of Cal. Because of Cal and her endless questions and her endless doubts. I thought of her, standing by the window of my flat, twirling a glass of wine between her hands, gently chiding me for my lack of faith. What a lie. She herself hadn’t believed.
Vazrach was saying, “Beimon never forgave them for that.”
O’Connor had been turning away from the bed, his face the bright red of embarrassment—but when he heard those casual words, his head snapped back towards Vazrach. “Who—?” he asked.
“Beimon,” Vazrach said. “Second Circle and never happy with it. He wanted more out of life, even if he had to take it himself. And he’s spent the last few millennia in a gutter—because he once made the mistake of listening to Calariel and Arvedai. And I don’t think he’s quite happy about that, either—” He coughed again—blood came up, a liquid red staining his outstretched hands—and again and again, and the blood flowed from his lungs onto the sheets, he was bent on the coverlet, his face twisted in agony.
O’Connor rushed to support him, but it was obvious he couldn’t stop what was happening—no one could—I stood for a moment in sheer horror, trying to wrap my mind around the idea that he’d die, here and now…
I turned, and screamed for Martha through the closed door, my hands fumbling with the handle—it gave way, and Martha was striding into the room, light spilling between her fingers. She knelt by Vazrach’s side, and the light wrapped itself around him like a cocoon. The coughs diminished, faded away; all that remained in the room was Vazrach’s ragged breaths.
“You know you shouldn’t stretch yourself,” Martha said, bitterly.
Vazrach’s smile was unreadable. “The end…will…come soon…enough.”
Martha stared at him for a while. Then, softly, “If that’s what you want, I don’t even know why I bother. Killing yourself should be easier, shouldn’t it?”
Vazrach’s face had twisted again—in pain, in hatred. He said, finally, “You know I won’t.”
Martha brushed her hands together, as if to remove dust. “No,” she said. “You won’t.” Then, with a visible effort, she turned towards us, pasting a pained smile on her face. “I’ll see you out.”
As we walked back, Martha was silent—uncannily so. Unobtrusively, I studied her—grey hair, face sagging in the folds of late middle age. Nothing remarkable at first or even at second glance. Odd, that Vazrach would stay with her—but then what did I know of Fallen’s whims—of why Cal had stuck with me for so long, when there were other, more talented witches in the city that could have helped her better?
Nothing, I thought, not without bitterness.
“He’s such a fool,” Martha said, as we went past the last of the open doors. “You know why he clings on?”
I thought of Cal and of her burning need to be forgiven, and said, “Suicides can’t ascend into the City.”
Martha turned to stare at me, her green eyes slightly wider. “I have a Fallen friend,” I said, with a shrug—I felt slightly embarrassed, without really knowing why—was it because Cal was still healthy when Vazrach was dying? “I know what they want above all else.”
She nodded, curtly. “His heart’s desire.” Her voice was bitter again. “But he’ll never have it now.”
“Because someone is meddling,” O’Connor said.
I almost jumped—he’d been so silent I’d almost forgotten he was there at all. O’Connor went on, “What did you see, when he was attacked? What did you drive away?”
Martha shrugged. “He thinks I drove it away. I think—it wanted no witnesses for what it was doing—just my being there was enough to defeat its purpose.”
Somehow, it didn’t ring true—not after I’d seen the way she’d tended to Vazrach’s wounds. “You’re a witch,” I said, slowly. “A powerful one.”
Again, a shrug. “I get by.”
She was clearly frightened—and I reckoned I knew why. Power was valuable in Starhollow—and, especially in the Golden Horn, it was unwise to draw attention to your abilities: you’d be blackmailed or pressed into service or killed, but never respected for them.
“We’re not here to cause trouble,” I said, finally. “We’re just—trying to stop things.” To safeguard Cal—Cal, who’d let me go without a second glance—no, I couldn’t afford to think of it, not now…
On the doorstep, Martha turned to look at me. “You’re here for your own reasons. Not to help him.” Her eyes defied me to contradict her—I couldn’t, and she knew it.
“I—” I hesitated, but I couldn’t leave her hanging. “I have a friend who may be in danger.”
“Arvedai?” Martha asked, ironic. “Calariel?”
She must have seen the way my face blanched. “Calariel, then,” she said with a sigh.
“She was there—without you.” Her eyes weren’t looking at me; but her voice was shrewd—too shrewd.
“And Arvedai?” O’Connor asked—slowly, deceptively softly.
She shook her head. “No. Too afraid to go out, that one.”
“There have been other visitors?” I asked.
She didn’t answer—I thought at first she wanted to get rid of us, but then I saw that her gaze looked beyond us—towards the wide gates of the garden, where a tall, elegant man was weaving his way through the press of begging children.
As he got closer, I saw that he was no man—his eyes were the colour of freshly-cut wheat, his hair as dark as ebony, glistening in the sun like underwater jewels. His fingers, folded over the silver pommel of his cane, were slender, curved like a feline’s claws.
He stopped when he saw Martha, bowed to her—in a gesture that belonged more in gentlemen’s parties than in the Golden Horn. “Greetings,” he said. “My name is Beimon.”
So that was the mysterious Second Circle—the one who’d never accepted his fall was the result of his own actions. He was, like Vazrach, like Cal, handsome—except that his beauty had never withered. I could almost believe he still belonged in the City—and imagine how much Cal would have envied him, how much he’d have reminded them of what had been lost.
He had a presence, like Cal, like Arvedai—except that it wasn’t simply power he exuded—but something that tightened around your throat, a snake that writhed in your chest, ready to eat your lungs from inside—
I raised a shaking hand to my lips, pretending to cough—or perhaps it wasn’t pretence, perhaps I needed to reassure myself that I could still move, that my will was still my own—and muttered the first words of an incantation. They left a burning trail in my mouth, as if the whole world were fighting against me.
There was darkness, trailing after him—gathered in the folds of his long cloak, spread across his path like slime. And it roiled—extending claws to ensnare the courtyard, the children—to ensnare us…
I bit my lip not to cry out, tasted blood on my tongue—my fingers were digging into my palms, so deeply I could feel the bones of my hands.
Darkness, Vazrach had said. The enemy of the Light—the hatred that will kill everything, drown everyone…
A hand, laid across my shoulder—large and reassuring, an anchor to the world—I turned, slightly, and saw O’Connor standing next to me, smiling grimly—and I knew he’d saved me, I ought to smile back, to thank him in some way—but it wasn’t his hand I wanted, nor his smile, nor his gaze…
I shook my head. It wasn’t the time to grow sentimental—not over a Fallen who’d let go of me.
Martha was still staring at Beimon; if she saw anything of what made me tremble, she gave no sign of it. “I know why you’re here. All the same—drawn to misery like carrion birds.”
Beimon coughed, elegantly, contriving to make me feel uncouth in spite of all I’d seen about him. “I’ve come to see an old comrade, that’s all.” His eyes stopped on O’Connor and I, moved away, dismissing us.
Who did he think he was, I though, suddenly angry—and that emotion was enough to scythe through my shock. “Comrade?” I asked, loudly. “I doubt you like each other.”
Beimon smiled—a brief, utterly unamused expression that only added to my annoyance. “We still look out for each other. And—” his lips pursed again, “it’s sad, to see a First Circle brought so low.”
He didn’t sound sad—he sounded smug, almost proud of himself—because he was healthy, or because he’d finally brought Vazrach down?
“He didn’t do anything to you,” I said, almost instinctively.
His lips pursed again—underneath, his teeth were white and sharp. “Vazrach? He’s a fool, like so many of those who followed Calariel and Arvedai. A—painful reminder of what they’ve done to me.” He stressed “painful” in a slow, lingering way that sent goose bumps through me—and I knew that, whatever I did, I didn’t want his enmity, didn’t want him speaking of me the way he spoke of Cal and Arvedai—or even of poor Vazrach.
Martha, who’d watched us trade hurtful words, said at last, hands on her hips, “Carrion birds. You’re not welcome here, Beimon.”
He smiled again. “I could ease his pain—or perhaps even tell him what struck him down—”
Martha made a sweeping gesture with her hands, and all the sunlight in the courtyard suddenly converged towards her face—her eyes blazed, her skin shone like balefire. The air throbbed with unreleased power, with the heavy feeling that comes before a storm—in the second before the lightning strikes. We all stepped back from her—even Beimon.
“You’re not welcome here,” Martha repeated, and every one of her words made my ribcage tremble. “Go away.”
Beimon’s hands clenched on the pommel of his cane. “You have no idea of the stakes, young witch. But I’ll humour you, for the time being.” His voice was calm, but no longer as assured as it had been before—and when he walked away from us, some of the swagger had gone from his stride.
“We’ll take our leave,” O’Connor said, abruptly—his eyes still on the retreating figure of Beimon.
Martha stared at us vacantly—the power gradually fading from her face, taking its toll as it vanished. Her hands lay by her side, harmless once more. “Yes,” she said, finally. “It would be best.”
She looked so frail, as she turned to go back inside the house—so worn, already defeated by Vazrach’s agony—that my heart twisted in my chest. “Be careful,” I said.
She didn’t look back. “I will. Thank you, Sam.”
“An interesting person,” O’Connor said, as we walked into more affluent streets—and the dreariness of the Golden Horn disappeared like a bad dream.
I shrugged, trying to appear unconcerned—but in truth, Beimon had badly rattled me. I dealt with Fallen daily—but at the shelter they were young, and still filled with that boyish charm, not suave or malevolent, but simply bewildered by what had happened to them. Without consciously passing judgment on them, I’d assumed that they had not known what they were doing—that somewhere, somehow, they could be redeemed—that they were worth nursing through their vomit-stained drinking binges, through their assault attempts and the insults they hurled at me—that I wasn’t trying to save the unredeemable.
But Beimon had known what he had been doing—and so had Cal, a treacherous voice whispered within me. They’d both Fallen for a reason—and Beimon, at least, didn’t seem repentant. I could imagine him waiting centuries to take his revenge, preparing it like a rare course at a banquet, savouring it in advance.
“Do you think he’s behind it?” O’Connor asked, bluntly.
I said, “He’s no stranger to dark magic, that’s for sure.”
“What makes you—” O’Connor stopped, stared at me. “I’d forgotten. You’re a witch, like Martha.”
I shrugged, trying to tear my mind from Fallen—from Cal. “Not as powerful, but yes.”
O’Connor sighed, exhaling from his nostrils. “Fallen,” he said. “They do carry long grudges.” Then, innocently, carelessly—but I was starting to understand that few things about O’Connor were careless—“I wonder what the boss is up to?”
I didn’t answer—but it would take more than that to stop him, of course. “He’s always accepted his part in the order of things,” O’Connor said.
Unbidden, an image, in my mind, a scene I’d witnessed a year ago: Arvedai listening to angel music, his face filled with inhuman longing—nothing of acceptance or meekness in his features, nothing at all…
I clenched my lips on the denial I’d been about to utter. “Maybe. I wouldn’t know,” I lied.
O’Connor’s eyes tightened, but he didn’t insist.
I said, “You want to help him. You said you didn’t want to be back in the streets.” It was a stab in the dark, but O’Connor’s face altered.
“Do you know what they’re like, miss?” he asked. “When they stride into the hovel you call home with the light of Heaven in their bodies, and the wings at their backs beating against the walls, pushing back the darkness? When they”—he shook his head, and swallowed—”when they look at you and see you, and you know that whatever happens, you’ll never be alone again?”
I thought of Cal—of sitting side by side on a sofa, sharing a glass of wine and looking at her, and that slow-rising hunger, that feeling I could almost touch and possess her, reach the City through her. I shivered. “No,” I said.
A laugh from O’Connor. He didn’t believe me. “You know. The boss picked me from the tenements in Black Water when I was fifteen. And he—” he spread his hands. “He can’t help it, can he. They can’t help what we feel when we look at them. But he’s always done right by me.” There was something distant in his gaze, now, some disturbingly serene happiness. “He’s always been there when it mattered.”
“I guess so,” I said. O’Connor’s rapture and happiness were disturbing, and even more disturbing considering it was Arvedai we were talking about, the Fallen I couldn’t imagine being a reliable or steadying presence to anyone.
O’Connor’s face closed. The moment, such as it was, was over. “What now?” he asked.
Well, for one thing, I desperately wanted some quiet time to sift through what I’d learnt of Cal—not to have to endure O’Connor’s disturbing shrewdness or misplaced curiosity, or to dwell overmuch on his real motivations for joining me.
But this wasn’t about my caprices—it was to save Cal, to save all those Fallen who might be in danger—
“Can you find out more on Beimon?” I asked O’Connor.
He shrugged. “Probably.”
“Then you do that. I’ll be checking on some of the other Fallen on your list—to see if there are any dead we haven’t yet found out.”
He looked up at me, sharply—and in his eyes was the same fearful hope as mine—that the five butchered Fallen were the only ones, that we wouldn’t have to deal with more mangled corpses.
I wish I could reassure him—reassure myself—but we both knew I couldn’t.
I spent the afternoon hopping from bus to bus, going in a wide arc that took me from the exclusive houses of Pendragon Hills to the crammed apartments of South Herne Field, from the quaint cafés of Prester John Avenue to the seedy bars of Grace Street. I gleaned little. Most Fallen on O’Connor’s list weren’t at home, or weren’t willing to receive me—or knew nothing of what had happened to their former comrades.
When I arrived at the shelter at seven, completely exhausted, Dee, one of the night volunteers, was already there, aligning frozen breads on the oven grid. She smiled wearily when she saw me. “Hey, Sam.”
“Hey. How is it going?” I asked, opening the fridge to check on tonight’s collective meal.
Dee shut the oven. “Could be worse. Most of them are still in their rooms.”
I nodded. I’d seen a few Fallen in the relaxation room, playing a game of cards as if their salvation depended on it; a few lounging in the dining room, doing their best to appear nonchalant; and a few outside, smoking foul-smelling cigarettes in the courtyard, their gazes obstinately turned away from the heavens.
Dee fiddled with the oven controls, cursing under her breath, and finally leaned on the door until it clicked shut. “Cal’s waiting for you in your office.”
I froze, one bottle of water in each hand. “She is?”
“Yeah.” She looked at me with curiosity. “Something the matter?”
Carefully, willing my hands not to shake, I set the bottles of water on the table. “No,” I lied, as I’d lied to O’Connor. “I just wasn’t expecting her so early, that’s all.”
The lights in my office were all out—for a split second I entertained the illusion that Dee had been wrong—but in my chair sat a tall, motionless figure; and when I pushed the door Cal spoke up.
“I see you’ve had a busy day.”
I reached for the switch, turned on the lights—buying time. “So have you,” I said, trying to bite back my sarcasm. “You weren’t here this morning.”
Cal shifted in the chair. She looked—old, as faded as Vazrach, and for a moment—a moment only—my heart contracted in my chest. “There are—other things at stake,” she said, finally. “I’m not subservient to the shelter.”
“And I am?” I asked—I knew it was unfair, I knew the shelter wouldn’t have existed without Cal—but the words welled out of my throat, uncontrollable.
“You—” Cal made a sweeping gesture with her left hand—”you’re human, Sam.”
“Yes.” Human—I was human, and the internal struggles of the Fallen weren’t my domain—I trespassed, that was why she was trying to tell me. “Is that why you’re tracking me? How are you doing it anyway?”
Cal sighed. “Tracking spell on your mobile. You get into scrapes too big for you, Sam. I’m only trying to help you.”
My mobile. I stared at it. Nothing seemed amiss. I’d not even noticed she’d changed it. I— “You’re not helping,” I whispered, my hand tightening on the phone. “You’re treating me like a child.”
We stared at each other for a while. Cal’s golden eyes held me, without anger, without shame—with only weariness, and disgust—at me, at Vazrach, at Arvedai?
“I’m human,” I said. “Dee’s human. Most of the volunteers at the shelter are human.”
“It’s—” Cal sighed. “It’s not the same. This is—dangerous.”
I laughed. Dangerous? I’d lost count of the number of scrapes we’d been involved in—of how many times we’d had to move the shelter after yet another assault by body-looters. “That’s just an excuse.”
“No,” I said. “If you don’t want to tell me what you and Arvedai are up to—fine. If you don’t want me to know what was up with your little rebellion, or why your veterans are getting killed, fine. Just don’t go around telling me it’s for my own good. I won’t ever believe that.”
Cal had frozen—going as still as a feline before it leaps. Every feature of her face was sharper, growing more dangerous with every second. “Who told you?”
“Vazrach,” I said, quietly—I had enough sense left not to involve O’Connor.
“Vazrach,” Cal’s voice was toneless. “Vazrach.” And this time the expression was unmistakable. Contempt.
“He’s dying,” I said.
Cal didn’t answer. She’d hauled himself out of the chair in a swish of cloth; she stood near me, tall, towering—and part of me longed for the anger to leave her face, to have her smile at me once more—surely we weren’t going to quarrel over petty secrets? But another, colder part of me remembered Vazrach’s words: it had been her rebellion. Her doubts.
When Cal spoke again, her voice was quiet—as silky as a sword’s blade. “Stay out of this, Sam. I know you don’t understand everything—”
“You understand nothing,” I snapped. “That’s the whole point—I’ve known you for seven years, and you still feel you should lock me out of your universe—”
“We’re not the same—” Cal started, and, seething, pierced to the core by what I secretly suspected to be the truth, I was about to fling something scathing at her, something that I wouldn’t have been able to take back—when the phone rang.
We turned as one, and watched it ring, stupidly.
“Oh, for the Light’s sake,” I said, and grabbed the receiver. “Hello?”
“Miss de Viera?” The voice was familiar, but distorted—by fear, by anguish.
“Speaking,” I started—and stopped, because I did know that voice. “O’Connor?”
“You have to come—have to come, Miss de Viera—Samantha—come—here—have…” It was as if floodgates had opened in O’Connor’s mind—he spoke quickly, jumbling words together into sentences that made little sense. The gist of it, though, was clear enough.
“Where?” I asked, a hollow deepening in my stomach. Silence, on the other end of the line. “O’Connor? Where?” Damn it, please answer me, you idiot, please…
“Miller’s Lane,” O’Connor said. His voice was marginally calmer, but I wasn’t fooled. Something was deeply wrong. “I’ll—I’ll be waiting for you—take you there—” Then he hung up.
The receiver was warm, silent in my hand. Gently, I lowered it, met Cal’s eyes. “We’ll sort this out later,” I said.
I couldn’t read her expression, but at length she nodded. “Let’s go.”
From the outside, I didn’t recognise the building O’Connor took us to—but once we’d walked past the wide, gleaming lobby—once we’d settled into a lift panelled with mahogany, going upwards—I knew where we were: the discreetly opulent decoration, the faint, acrid smell of Mother Essence (manticore heart, myrrh and frankincense)—and the two thugs waiting at the end of the final corridor, wearing three-piece suits as elegant as O’Connor’s.
Arvedai. Not his office—I’d already been there, and the two-panelled gates in front of me weren’t familiar. His private rooms, maybe?
What could have happened, for O’Connor to be shaken so badly?
I glanced at Cal. She held herself straight, almost rigid, staring stubbornly ahead—refusing to meet my gaze.
Inside, more opulence: a tamarisk secretary strewn with parchments, yellowed oil still-lives; and a huge four-poster bed, the sheets stained with blood. The rank smell of carrion filled the room—strong, too strong not to feel queasy.
A silhouette in a scarlet dressing gown leant against one of the bedposts, their face turned away from me; but even from the back, I’d have recognised Arvedai anywhere. Still alive, then, and I couldn’t decide whether I felt relief or a sense of regret.
On the bed…
All that remained was a vague human outline, drawn in blood and scattered, glistening organs—not retch, I must not retch, I must force myself to see—see the bones of the arms, extended on both sides of the ribcage; see the golden necklace still hanging around the meat of the neck—see the skull casually resting on the pillows, grinning at me—
Nausea welled up, uncontrollable: I turned, and vomited over the parquet.
When I rose, Arvedai hadn’t moved. “Who?” I asked.
“A Fallen. His name was Malakiel. Young, and a joy to behold.” His face was grave, ironic as always—but his hands, his usually impeccable hands, were covered in claw-marks.
Cal had been kneeling by the bed to stare at the Fallen, her face utterly expressionless, as if the body—the remains—were nothing more than an abstract problem. The tightness around her eyes, though, suggested otherwise—save that all I could read in her face was the same freezing contempt she’d shown me earlier. Why?
“Drained of magic, like the others,” she said, rising. “What did you see?”
“I saw—darkness,” Arvedai whispered, fear in his eyes—a fear that chilled me, for I’d never seen him display such an emotion. “The night deepening everywhere, and fangs and claws to rend our skin, and tear our souls from our bones. But I wasn’t its target—not this time.” His voice was bitter. I thought of the marks on his hands, and of the only way he could have gotten them—of how, despite his Fall, despite his trading in angel essence, he’d tried to stand between the darkness and Malakiel—he’d tried to make a difference, no matter how small, and who was I to blame him for that?
“Darkness.” Cal laughed, without joy. “It comes for us all in the end, doesn’t it?”
Arvedai stared at her, his eyes narrowing. “Are you drunk?”
“Angry,” Cal said. “That we should have come to this.”
“This?” Arvedai asked. He made a sweeping gesture with his left hand, taking in the bloodied bed, and finishing with Cal herself. “Yes. That would be a reason to be angry.”
“And you’re not,” Cal said, shaking her head.
“No,” Arvedai said. “Whoever did this wanted me to be afraid, or angry, so I wouldn’t think clearly. I refuse to play this game.”
“This isn’t a game!” Cal screamed. “People are dying, damn you!”
“We’re already damned. You keep forgetting that,” Arvedai said. He still hadn’t moved. He could have been a gentleman in a country house, receiving his guests in his private apartments.
“Because I won’t believe it,” Cal snapped.
“As you wish. And I won’t believe in grief, or in anger.” It was a lie—even I could see it was a lie—but Cal couldn’t.
“Then you’re beyond redemption.”
“Perhaps,” Arvedai said.
As before, they talked among themselves, utterly ignoring me. I turned and searched for O’Connor, who was watching me, but making no move to approach. I guessed he didn’t want his involvement with me to be highlighted—after all, sooner or later, when the grief wore off, Arvedai was bound to ask himself how Cal and I had arrived in time to see the remains.
Well, while they were arguing about their principles and the Light knew what else, I might as well do something useful—such as working out how the killer had got into the room, since the door was obviously unbreached. I walked around the room, muttering simple incantations to check on the magical protections. Sure enough, a trail of roiling darkness—the same that Beimon had spread in his wake—led from the bed to the only window in the room. Standing on tiptoe, I managed to stare at the vertiginous height: fifty or sixty floors of skyscraper, and far, far below, the dizzying headlights of cars reflected on the wet asphalt.
It seemed our killer not only had fangs, they had wings.
Which currently felt about as useful as a subway ticket to a man lost in the woods.
“O’Connor,” Arvedai said.
Startled, I looked up. Cal and Arvedai were standing at the exit to the room, Cal leaning against the doorjamb, gracefully waiting. It was Arvedai who’d walked back into the room, towards the waiting thug.
O’Connor remained motionless as Arvedai looked at him, grey gaze taking in everything from the shaking hands to the expressionless face. “You’re exhausted. Get some rest.”
“Boss. Someone needs to clean this mess.”
“Yes,” Arvedai said. “That someone is not you. You can barely stand, and you look like you’ve run a marathon.”
O’Connor’s face was a mask of anguish. “I thought you were dead.”
“Yes.” Arvedai’s face, for a moment, twisted into something terrible—not anger, not rage, but a chasm of that same fear he’d shown earlier, except it wasn’t fear for himself, but for O’Connor. I hadn’t thought he was capable of this. “I apologize for that.”
“There’s no need for sorry.”
“There always is, when the apology is warranted.” Arvedai’s voice was grave. “O’Connor…” I expected him to tell O’Connor it was none of his business, the way Cal had with me, but instead Arvedai merely shook his head. “You want to help. I understand. But no one is getting helped if you work through that kind of exhaustion. Get some rest, and come back tomorrow.” He looked at me. His gaze was ironic again. “And walk Miss de Viera home on your way to your own place, will you?”
“Arvedai,” I said, sharply. “Surely you don’t expect me to stand by.”
A hiss, from Cal. “Sam, please.” The same old thing: don’t interfere, this is bigger than you. The same message: you don’t belong there.
Arvedai’s gaze held me—in the depths of his pupils was a slow, spinning light that would draw me in, given half a chance—a hint of tall buildings, of domes and wings, of never-ending summer…
He laughed. “Avenging the paramour of a Fallen you despise? Have some standards, Miss de Viera.”
And then he was gone, and Cal followed him out.
“Miss.” O’Connor had moved to stand next to me, his face creased in thought. He didn’t look like he was going to talk about what had happened between him and Arvedai, which was good, because I didn’t want to talk about it, either. The stench in the room didn’t appear to bother him. I guessed he’d seen worse things. “Did you find anything about the other Fallen?”
I shook my head. “Nothing relevant. You?”
O’Connor pursed his lips. “I followed Beimon to an esoteric bookshop, The Landgrave’s Deeds. He had a chat with the bookseller about why his order hadn’t arrived yet, and how much he’d ‘enjoyed’ the previous one.”
“He’s taken to witchcraft?” I asked the obvious, even as my mind raced. “Did he give any book titles?”
O’Connor frowned. “Nomarchia Venarum, I think.”
I didn’t know any books by that title—unless— “Are you sure it wasn’t Monarchia Ferarum?”
“Yeah, maybe,” O’Connor said. “I couldn’t hear very well from my hiding place.”
Monarchia Ferarum, “The Monarchy of Beasts”. A Book of Summoning—I hadn’t taken Summoning at university, preferring to focus on Wards and Spell Combinations, but I’d heard about the book. It dealt with summoning animals—starting small with ants and cockroaches, and moving upwards to dolphins, sphinxes, unicorns…“An animal?” I asked, incredulous.
“What?” O’Connor said.
“Monarchia Ferarum deals with how to make animals do your bidding.”
O’Connor turned to stare at the mess on the bed—the blood, the bones, the skull—and then back at me. “Claws did this.”
“Yeah,” I said, with a frown. “But it came in through the window. Claws don’t get you in here.”
O’Connor scratched his head. “Wings? I’m not really—”
It did make sense. A really twisted kind of sense, but… “I can find a copy of that book,” I said, finally. Jenny, one of my friends, had taken Summoning at university. “Can you keep an eye on Beimon?”
“Yeah.” O’Connor shrugged. “I still don’t understand—why go to all this trouble now?”
“What do you mean?”
“How long ago was the rebellion? How old is Cal?”
I—I didn’t know. I’d never asked, I realised, my heart sinking. I’d been content with Cal’s company, day after day, but I’d never really sought to know her better—perhaps because I was afraid—of what I’d find, that we weren’t the same at all, afterwards, that she’d been right since the start…
O’Connor was still speaking. “See, they’ve all been here centuries—if not millennia. There’s been plenty of time for revenge. Why wait?”
I shrugged. “Something happened. Something changed. Beimon had a setback? Or perhaps it took him all this time to learn how to use witch magic.”
“There are other ways to kill Fallen,” O’Connor said stubbornly. “You don’t need a complicated book.”
No, you didn’t. But…I stared at the bed again, deliberately not dwelling on its grisly contents—at the opulent room around me, crawling with magical protections. O’Connor was right: to kill a Fallen, all you needed was a silver knife, or a gun loaded with silver bullets.
To get at Arvedai, though—a gang-lord, one of the powerful of this town—you might want heavy artillery.
I called my friend Jenny and recovered her electronic copy of Monarchia Ferarum—telling her a lie about something I had to check. Jenny was a witch, and she was used to my needing her books or her help. She just smiled darkly, and sent me what I needed.
Alone in my flat, I opened the file, entered my ID and password to unlock it—and started to peruse its contents. As I remembered from my university days, the grimoire dealt with every beast upon the Light’s earth: ants, salmons, horses, condors…
The last section was mythical beasts, which needed to be summoned from another plane of existence.
Right, so what was I looking for?
Something Beimon—a newly-minted warlock—could have used to destroy angels. Something magical, obviously. Something with claws, something that was capable of entering a skyscraper’s fifty-first floor through the window—so, both something capable of flight, and something fairly small.
Unfortunately, the number of mythical creatures that had claws and wings, or some other flying method, was astronomical. From the griffins to the chimaeras, from the pegasus to the wyverns…
I looked up from the screen, biting my lip. I was going about it the wrong way. What else did I know about that creature?
Darkness. It brought darkness with it. That had been the first thing both Vazrach and Arvedai had mentioned.
If you added some connection to night, or shadows, the number of possibilities plummeted. I clicked on the most probable link—and finally found what I wanted.
It wasn’t a bird—and to call it a beast was a long shot at best—but it was included near the very end of the “powerful beings” section, almost as an afterthought.
“The Erinyes, or Furies, personify vengeance, and darkness always accompanies their coming. Their precise aspect varies, but they generally have bats’ wings, and claws with which they rend their victims.
“Their number is indeterminate, but it is not recommended to attempt to summon more than two at the same time…”
The Furies. Revenge. Darkness. Madness. I read a bit more of the article, which focused on necessary preparations, on the proper candles and propitiations, but my mind wasn’t on it.
Revenge. Given Beimon’s state of mind, that had to be what he had summoned.
Now how in creation did you banish that?
I scanned the article: it failed to mention any specific method. Great. We were down to basics: either I could convince Beimon to banish the Fury, or I’d have to kill him. Not a good set of choices when dealing with a high-level, powerful Fallen.
I dropped the book and called O’Connor’s mobile, but all I got was his voicemail, telling me to leave a message after the tone—I hung up—it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d want.
After checking on the Internet where Beimon lived, I sighed and geared myself for battle—body-suit, silver knife and distilled water.
I was about to close the door when my phone rang. I hesitated over whether to answer, but it could have been O’Connor, it could have been Cal—I ran back inside my flat and picked up the receiver.
“Sam?” A rheumy voice, echoing as if under a great ceiling.
Lucifer. Damn. I’d completely forgotten to tell him we’d identified the bodies and the perpetrator, and that we no longer needed his help. “I—”
“It’s about those samples you sent me,” Lucifer said. I could hear a rustle of clothes—him shifting in his chair, no doubt.
“I assume they all died in the same circumstances?” He sounded—well, not worried, because I’d seldom seen him get riled about anything, but slightly more intense than usual, and it made me ill at ease—I had a feeling I wouldn’t like what he was about to say.
“More or less,” I said. “What’s the problem? We’ve identified some of them—
“Not enough, I’d wager.” Lucifer’s voice was grim. “What else do you know about them?”
“They were all in the same rebellion,” I started. Except—except Arvedai had said Malakiel was young, which meant he couldn’t have fallen with the rest of them. “Well, save for Malakiel—”
“Malakiel?” Lucifer paused, shifted again. “Arvedai’s latest partner?”
“Yes,” I said. “He died tonight.”
“I see.” Lucifer fell silent—which only unnerved me more.
I said, to cover the silence, “It’s one of them—Beimon, who’s never forgiven them for causing his fall. He wants his revenge—”
“Whatever he wants, it’s not revenge,” Lucifer said. “I have five dead angels, Sam, and a sixth whose name you just mentioned—and together they make up six different circles.”
The room seemed colder. Six circles. “A ritual,” I said. “But Arvedai—”
“Arvedai is far from being wise,” Lucifer snapped—there’d never been any love lost between those two, either. “We have a crest pattern, as the initiates call it, alternating between inwards and outwards: second, fifth, fourth, sixth, third, seventh, and then back to the first.”
I said, slowly, “But there were only six bodies.”
“It’s not bodies,” Lucifer said. “It’s an old, obscure ritual that requires great power—not only that procured by the murders, but something drawn from the victims’ substance.”
He was pontificating again, damn him—why couldn’t he just get to the point? “Lucifer—”
“In this case, the heart, ground into powder and used to draw a heptacle on the ground—a seven-branch figure.”
“I know what heptacles are,” I said, trying to keep my calm—but the more hysterical part of me was remembering the bodies, torn apart—and the chest, always empty. There had never been a trace of the heart. “There’s lives at stake.”
“Only one,” Lucifer said.
“More than one,” I snapped. “And what’s the ritual?”
Lucifer said nothing for a while. “It’s a rite of opening,” he said. “It tears through the fabric of reality to make a gate.”
“A gate?” I felt as stupid as a parrot repeating the words of its master. “What the hell—” and then I understood. “A gate to the City.”
“It’s what the grimoires says,” Lucifer said. “But frankly, I doubt it. If it were that easy to get to the City, Fallen wouldn’t congregate in Starhollow.”
“Then where would it lead?”
“There are other realities.”
I closed my eyes, trying to flip my perception of everything that had gone on since then—to cast Beimon, not as an angry, vengeful angel, but as a Fallen desperate for just a glimpse of heaven. It wasn’t easy—the disguise didn’t fit him—or rather, my blinkered perception of him. “You said seven hearts.”
“Yes,” Lucifer said, and for once understood what I implied. “Only the First Circle is needed to close the pattern.”
First Circle. “There aren’t many First Circles,” I said, slowly, working the reasoning out as I uttered it. “You’re one.”
“Yes,” Lucifer said. “But I doubt anyone would be so foolish as to attack me on my own ground.” It wasn’t a boast—just a quiet certainty.
Vazrach, however—Vazrach, already weakened by a previous attack, not in a state to defend himself—
“I see,” I said. I held the phone—knowing that the moment I hung up I’d have to start running. “Thank you, Lucifer.”
“My pleasure,” Lucifer said. He sounded faintly amused. But then he said, more quietly, “Take care, Sam.”
“Sure,” I said.
I tried getting hold of O’Connor before I left home—heck, I even tried to get hold of Cal, notwithstanding how annoyed I was at her. From O’Connor, the answering machine—from Cal, only static, dwindling into silence.
I didn’t like what was happening—not a jot. I left a message on O’Connor’s answering machine, telling him about Beimon’s true target—and took a taxi into the Golden Horn. At any rate, that had been the plan, in order to avoid walking ten miles to Magus Row—but the cabbie was afraid and left me on the outskirts of the Horn, half an hour’s walk away. I walked the rest of the way on foot, whispering a simple spell of invisibility—and praying no thieves with magical abilities were planning on attacking me.
In Magus Row, the doors to the courtyard lay open—no ragged children, no angry Fallen lying in wait for me. Inside was only darkness, hiding the skeletal, sickly plants and the dried-up fountain—normal, everything was too normal, the Fury should have been there…
I crept up the driveway, my heart leaping within my chest at each shadow—it had got past Arvedai, who was I, fooling myself that I could beat it? That I could unsummon it to whence it had come?
The door of ebony gaped open, exuding only silence—and the musty, acrid smell of old graves.
I slipped inside the house—walking down what seemed like an endless corridor, going for Vazrach’s bedroom—
There was darkness, flowing in—and the smell of blood, strong enough to gag me—and I started to run, knowing it was too late—but the smell grew stronger and stronger, and the universe started to crinkle inwards, like a piece of paper held to the fire—
What a foolish metaphor, I thought, dazedly, as my knees gave way under me—and the shadows rose and engulfed me.
I woke up propped against something hard—a wall, my struggling brain informed me. My head felt split in two by some kind of spell.
I tried to move, and pain flared up in me—climbing from the tips of my fingers to my heart, filling my ribcage until I thought I’d burst open.
My blurry vision finally stabilised enough to let me see what I’d missed: a white line curving around me, with annotations at each quadrant.
A circle of salt. It would hold a witch such as me in an impenetrable prison, every grain on that inscribed line burning me like holy water.
There was a voice, speaking—after a while, I recognised O’Connor’s.
Slowly, cautiously—wincing with every movement—I turned my head. He stood framed in a doorway, holding a gun in his hand—and he was pointing it at Martha.
Martha—something was wrong with her, something hurt my eyes…
Around her russet hair was darkness, congealing like drying blood—and huge wings, beating in the shadows. Her hands, like Beimon’s, ended in yellow, curved claws. The Fury. Martha was the Fury?
“Did you think you’d get away with it?” O’Connor asked.
Martha smiled—a slow, sick smile. “Why not?” she asked.
O’Connor’s hand moved, slightly, to encompass her—and the rest of the room: Vazrach lying on his bed, unmoving, and, spread around the centre, the paraphernalia for the ritual of opening: various jars and containers; yellowish wax candles neatly aligned in a circular shape. “You’re lost,” he said. “Sunken in that thing.”
Martha shifted positions, and O’Connor pointed his weapon to follow her.
“Clever,” she said. “You came prepared.”
“I’ve dealt with witches before.” He gestured to his gun with his free hand. “Rowan, holly, and silver. A painful death if they touch you.”
Martha shifted again—drawing him away from the doorframe, I suddenly saw—why?
And then it hit me.
Rowan, holly, and silver—and salt. All the things that burnt witches, that negated their powers.
But Martha wasn’t a witch anymore.
I rose, heedless of the pain that shot through my outstretched hands, and screamed, “O’Connor! Don’t—”
But it was too late. With the fluidity of a Fallen, Martha had unfolded—the darkness around her spreading and rippling like some huge mantle.
A clatter of metal, as O’Connor’s weapon was swept from his hand—he cried out as her claws sank in his hand—and then she’d toppled him, they were grappling on the ground—come on, O’Connor, please come on—a sweep of her hands, the sweet smell of magic in the air—and she rose, but he didn’t.
Martha stood for a while, watching the body under her—as if it could still move. Then, taking hold of it like a sack of vegetables, she dragged it through the room, dumping it by my side.
“You won’t be able to interfere either,” she said. I’d expected satisfaction, but her voice was frighteningly expressionless. Without a backward glance, she moved away from me, and knelt to touch each of her candles in turn, whispering the beginning of an incantation.
“Why?” I asked. With the circle of salt binding me, it was all I could do to open my lips—every word I uttered seemed to sever my vocal chords. “Why keep me alive?”
She finished her round of the circle before she turned towards me. “You were kind to me and Vazarch. You tried to stand between us and Beimon. That’s a rare enough thing in our lives.” Her voice echoed, as if she stood under a vaster ceiling than the one of the room; but her tone was utterly matter of fact. She was so used to being shunned and driven out that it didn’t even warrant upset anymore. It was so wrong.
“Martha—” I whispered. “Please.”
Bitter laughter. “I had nothing to lose, you see. It’s a simple enough spell to become a Fury, if one is ready to pay the price.”
“Your soul,” I managed, frightened by what she had become. Furies didn’t have souls. To become one, Martha had to have sacrificed hers, and it was that sacrifice, and the revenge that drove her, that currently lent her so much power.
She shrugged. “Not much value to that, Sam. I thought you’d understand.” And she turned away again.
“I—don’t,” I whispered, but she didn’t answer me. My throat ached, as if I’d swallowed burning oil. I knew instinctively that if I ever wanted to speak again, I wouldn’t open my mouth, wouldn’t say anything.
Moving only my eyes, I glanced at O’Connor, who lay in a heap at my side. Blood had pooled under him, but his chest rose and fell with a strong, regular rhythm. Unconscious, then, and the only reason he was still alive was because Martha, focused on her preparations, hadn’t bothered to finish him off…
All of which didn’t help.
Martha had moved to the jars, and carefully spread their contents on the ground: fine, white powder that shimmered with a secret light, that still seemed to beat with its own rhythm. I closed my eyes—for even as powder, they so obviously belonged to Fallen—they still reminded me of the bloody corpses, hacked to ribbons.
I had to do something, to do anything. But I couldn’t.
Martha’s heptacle was almost complete now. Six branches spread out in the centre of the room—the lines shimmered, each with their own colour, each with their own rhythm. I could hear a faint song, like a memory of the celestial choirs—a canon with six voices, endlessly repeating the first bars of a hymn.
The dead. Lirael. Barthemy. Malakiel. And, I, powerless, as trapped as a corpse under the earth. I shifted positions slightly—even that sent searing pain up my back—and felt something hard under me.
Cal had put a tracker spell on the mobile—angel magic, not witch-magic: the circle wouldn’t block it—if only I could reach it…
My hand spasmed when I tried to move towards the phone, fiery pain spreading to every finger and nerve.
Breathe. I had to breathe. There had to be a way.
I couldn’t open and close my fingers in one go. But if I moved, a little—if I could bear the little jolts of pain that came with the minute gestures…
Martha was walking towards Vazrach’s bed. She laid a hand on his chest. I’d assumed he was already dead—that she’d killed him—but his eyes opened, a faded golden, and stared at her in silence. “It’s time,” she said.
“Time?” He looked at her, and I couldn’t read his expression. “Yes, it is.”
Of course. They had been accomplices all this time, planning the killings of the angels. Making sure Vazrach was wounded, to throw others off the scent, or perhaps as a needed part of the ritual.
Vazrach pulled himself upwards, letting the sheet fall—and even in the dim light the wounds on his chest were horrible to behold. Without a doubt, claw-marks made by Martha’s claws. His face was sallow, and he breathed quick, shallow breaths that never seemed to fill his lungs.
As Vazrach moved, so did I. Inch by inch, I pushed, slowly and agonizingly and sucking in burning breaths, towards the phone on the floor, fingers slowly extending, palm stretching open.
Leaning on Martha, Vazrach made it to the centre of the room, and knelt inside the circle of candles, near the missing branch. Martha withdrew a knife from her belt, and moved closer to him. His face as she stood over him was utterly expressionless.
“It won’t hurt,” she said.
He shrugged, a quick movement interrupted by a grimace of pain. “Of course it will. Like the first wounds did—the beginning of death, the beginning of the opening of the gate. But it’s worth it.”
Worth it. I remembered what he’d told me—what he wouldn’t give, in order to see the City again, to be, no matter how shortly, what he had once been. She was doing this for him.
But the door they were going to open, I thought—struggling to focus as Martha made the first cut into Vazrach’s chest, and her magic spread over him, quenching the flow of blood, keeping him alive—the door they were going to open—it wasn’t Heaven, Lucifer had said.
My fingers brushed the metal of the phone. Slowly, ever so slowly, trying not to cry out, I wrapped them around it. Everything burnt, like salt on open wounds. The screen was dim, and there was no signal. Not that I expected any: that wasn’t what I was after.
Ahead of me, Martha had withdrawn the heart from Vazrach’s chest—something that wasn’t meat, that wasn’t even flesh—a luminous, throbbing sphere in her hand, that she laid upon the ground, almost with reverence.
There was little time left before the irreparable.
Somewhere in the morass of agony that was my hand, there was metal—and plastic, and the familiar touch of the phone’s screen—and deeper within, something that wasn’t alive yet beat like a living heart: a beat as familiar as my own, a thread that I recognised, that had always been wrapped around me.
Cal, I thought. The tracking spell. She hadn’t come, which meant she wasn’t paying attention to me anymore: the spell was still on, but had become a distant thought she could ignore. I needed to get her attention back. I needed to tell her to come.
Beyond the circle of salt—beyond Martha’s chanting and Vazrach’s harsh, arrhythmic breathing—I could feel her, distantly—focused on Arvedai, on some question the other Fallen had asked. Something about the price of magic, about whether the dead Fallen’s magic could be mastered.
She wasn’t listening to me, or seeing that I currently was where I shouldn’t have been. Of course. Why would she? You’re human, Sam. Your place isn’t here. Don’t meddle. She was nodding gravely at Arvedai, thinking about the murders. She was with a peer, not some pathetic human hanger-on…
Martha was tracing the last of the lines, with Vazrach’s heart. The heptacle was glowing: a sick, unhealthy miasma that made me want to retch.
She was rising, taking her coat and leaving the room—and her thoughts moved to the shelter and to how she hadn’t heard of me.
The magic wall that separated us suddenly flickered—and I pushed. There was no other word for what I did—and the circle of salt seemed to crinkle and fail, and for a brief second I was on the other side, sliding through Cal’s thoughts like a knife.
Have to come—something bad. Quickly…
A silence. You’re at Vazrach’s place? No, that’s too dangerous, Cal protested, but the wall was back again—the circle of salt’s warding magic like fists pummelling my flesh, and I laid back against the wall, watching blood pooling under O’Connor.
Even in my dazed state, I knew when Martha had finished.
The temperature in the air plummeted. Something floated in the air behind Martha—a hole, torn in the fabric of reality—and darkness was pouring out from it, with vague, formless shadows that writhed, clinging to the walls and the ground like grime.
The candles remained lit, but their flames were green, and gave off the smell of plague and rotting bodies.
There are other realities, Lucifer had said. I ought to have panicked—but I couldn’t move—couldn’t think, couldn’t feel anything, the circle held me tight—and even Martha’s ashen face, framed by the wan shadows of the Fury, wasn’t enough to draw me out of my torpor.
In the growing mist, shadows flitted—misshapen things that seemed to be all sharp teeth and glowing eyes—weaving their way closer to me, hissing like a pack of hyenas.
I could barely see the candles now; where Martha and Vazrach had stood was a thin beam of white light, a wavering radiance that still kept the encroaching mist at bay—but not for long.
Mist oozed in, over the outline of the circle, as if it didn’t even exist. Something clammy brushed past me, sending goosebumps down my arms.
That wasn’t good.
I looked at O’Connor. He was lying where he’d fallen, his eyes open, his face as pale and bloodless as white marble, his breath congealing in the miasma-filled air. Voices whispered around us all—of plague and blood, and rot and death…
“We’ve got to get up,” I whispered, my voice catching in my raw throat. “We have to close the gate.”
Except I didn’t know how, and O’Connor wasn’t moving, and we were going to choke to death here…
There was light, piercing the gloom—light, and the slow beating of massive wings—the shadows around me scattered, withdrawing to the walls.
The smell of crushed flowers filled the room, overlaying that of pestilence.
And then Cal was striding through the mist, calling out my name in a voice like the trumpets of Judgment Day.
“Here,” I whispered—unable to speak more than that through my burnt throat.
But somehow she heard me. Somehow she was at my side, scattering the circle of salt, holding me upright. And the shadows seemed to part before her—as if her presence cut through the mist.
“We’re here,” she said.
We? I glanced around, and saw Arvedai, helping O’Connor to rise. Light streamed from his features, transfiguring his thin, harsh face—a light that spread in a wide circle around us—and I understood: he was keeping the mist at bay. Protecting us.
On his smooth Fallen’s face was an expression I’d never seen before—anger, disgust?
“It’s come to this,” he spat, and Cal said nothing.
“You knew?” I asked, struggling to say something meaningful—as always, they seemed to reduce me into insignificance by their mere presence.
Cal shook her head. “Later,” she said. “How do we close the gate?”
“You’re asking me?” I said—torn between a foolish girl’s pride and anger at her—for not being on time, for keeping me out of her thoughts, for not having seen this earlier. “I’m not that kind of witch. Ask her for the answers,” I said, pointing to the centre of the room. I was being unfair to Cal—she’d rescued me, she was protecting me, even now—but I was tired of being protected, tired of being kept out.
Cal stared in the direction of my hand, at the light that marked Martha and Vazrach’s presence—the light had sunk down, and barely anything remained visible through the mist. Arvedai’s circle still held, still kept the hissing shapes at bay; but beads of sweat ran down his face.
“If we move, can you move it with us?” Cal asked.
Arvedai shrugged, in what must have been an attempt at nonchalance—but it was belied by the grimace of pain on his face. “Perhaps,” he said. “It’s worth a try.”
We cut a path through the mist, the circle following us, growing ever smaller with each step. O’Connor’s eyes were closed, and he hung limp in Arvedai’s arms; Cal supported me on her right shoulder, her eyes staring straight ahead—refusing to see the ever-shrinking circle.
“How did you know?” I whispered.
She didn’t turn to look at me. “We haven’t been idle, Sam. I knew Vazrach had fallen ill some months before; and I recognised it was a Fury from the moment Arvedai showed me the corpse. All that remained was working out who’d summoned it.”
I said, haltingly, “I saw Beimon—darkness trailing after him…”
Cal smiled without joy. “Beimon is strong—but not, I think, strong enough in witchcraft to attempt this. What you saw was Martha’s trail, I fancy. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d had something in store for him, once Vazrach had gone through the gate.” She shook her head, as if to clear a persistent, unpleasant thought. “There’s such hatred in her.”
No, I wanted to say, for I understood, all too well, what was driving her. No hatred, not vengeance—but grief and anger at what she couldn’t change, at what Vazrach had lost by Falling.
“I’m sorry it took me so long to come,” Cal said after a while.
I thought I’d misheard the words at first—her tone wasn’t one of apology—but she was looking straight at me, expecting something. My acceptance? I couldn’t find any words that would fit.
“It’s all right,” I said, knowing it wasn’t enough.
At what had been the centre of the heptacle, the mists congregated most strongly—the miasmic creatures were prowling, hurling themselves forward, and making a wet, mewling sound when they tumbled against Martha’s barrier.
She was kneeling, holding Vazrach close to her chest. Not three paces from her, outside her shrinking wards, the gate she’d opened shimmered—a rent through the fabric of reality, oozing mist like pus from a wound.
She raised her head when she saw us. “Come to gloat?” she asked Cal. “To tell me how prideful I was, to believe I could send him home? That doors to the City would open at my bidding?”
Cal shook her head, slowly. Once again, her face had shut—but I thought I could read the sadness in her eyes. “I’ve learnt not to judge the sins of others.” A joyless laugh. “Lest we be judged. No, we’ve come to close the gate.”
She smiled, bitterly. “It doesn’t close, Cal. It’ll be Starhollow and whatever lies beyond—whatever creatures come out of this to devour us all. What a fitting ending.”
“Everything has a key.” Cal knelt, laid two hands on Vazrach’s pulse. I wondered what she heard, now that no heart beat in the Fallen’s chest.
Martha shook her head. The dark halo of the Fury still surrounded her, but it seemed almost comforting compared to the mist that obscured the room—and the smell of putrescence that hung like a pall in the air. “Don’t worry. He’s still alive, and I’ll keep his heart beating until I have no magic in me.”
She had loved him, so much that it had eaten her from the inside, like a canker in her chest. I should have hated her: for the situation we were in; for threatening Cal and imprisoning me. But I couldn’t find any hatred in me—just pity, and the fear that we were, after all, not so dissimilar. “It didn’t have to go this way.”
Arvedai put O’Connor down. O’Connor’s eyes were open; he stared at his boss, hungrily. “Boss—” he whispered.
“Spare yourself,” Arvedai said, curtly. “You’re safe here, as much as anyone can be safe now.” He picked up O’Connor’s mobile phone, stared at it. “No signal. Not surprising.” He put the phone back in O’Connor’s pocket. Then, without a backward glance, he crossed the edge of Martha’s wards, and scrutinized the gate, his face creased in thought—as if it were an abstract problem.
I remembered what he’d said when Malakiel had died: I won’t believe in grief, or in anger. And I wondered how much self-control it would take, to be attacked in your own fortress, to lose someone who mattered to you—and to go on as if nothing had changed. A lot more, surely, than I’d give Arvedai credit for.
Cal was bent by Vazrach, whispering something to him in the language of the City. And all the while both Martha’s wards and Arvedai’s circle of protection were shrinking, dragging the prowling mist-beasts closer and closer: I could see fangs, glinting green in the sickly light—claws, unsheathed with a wet, unpleasant sound—eyes shining with malevolence, eager to consume us. Every single magic user in Starhollow had to be feeling it, but we were cut off from them, and we didn’t have enough time left. Soon, the entire city would be engulfed. I tried to think back to my university days—to those Summoning courses I’d spent mooning over my latest crush, or talking clothes with Jenny. If I’d known how much need there would be…
“What if we disperse the heptacle?” I asked Martha.
She laughed. “Then my wards break, and they pour in. I told you: this gate doesn’t close.”
“There has to be a way.”
“There isn’t,” Martha said, curtly. “Now leave us in peace.” This last, presumably, was addressed to Cal, who was still talking to Vazrach. At Martha’s words, Cal rose in a single, fluid gesture, and walked to Arvedai, studying the gate.
“Killing the summoner…?” Cal asked.
Arvedai pointed to something I couldn’t see. “No, that wouldn’t solve it. It doesn’t take its energy from her anymore.”
Unsure of what else I could do, I knelt by Vazrach’s side, and took his hand—ignoring Martha’s glare. His skin was dry, and as cold as frozen metal.
He smiled at me, weakly. “All…that…for…nothing…”
I didn’t answer. What could I tell him?
“I…would…still have…liked…to see it,” Vazrach whispered. “Its light…and…its…glory. You…haven’t…been there…wouldn’t understand…Samantha.”
But I could—I’d seen it in all of them, the hunger in their gazes when they spoke of what they’d left behind—the light that seemed to fill them, as it now filled Vazrach—light spilling from his face like a beacon in darkness, the same light that Martha, holding in her cupped hands, was fashioning into her last-ditch wards…
I stared at my hands—which for a split second hadn’t been mottled with the greyish stains of the mist; at the creatures beyond the edge of Martha’s wards, who’d recoiled, ever-so-slightly, when the light had touched them.
I thought of a verse in the Book of the Light, spoken by Metatron, first among the angels of the City: even in the darkest places, I will be there to cast away the shadows.
The Light of the City.
Why hadn’t I seen it earlier—what else was Arvedai using, to protect us?
“Tell me about the City,” I said, loudly enough for Cal and Arvedai to turn towards me—and I gestured for them to join me.
Vazrach smiled, slowly, sadly. “You…wouldn’t…understand…streets so wide…ten…cars…could pass…side by side…Fountains…and everywhere the…breath of…water…”
His ashen face was transfigured—his eyes had turned molten gold again, and the silvery shape of his bones shone under the taut skin.
And the mist was receding as the circle of light widened, as word after halting word conjured a place with no sickness, with no plague or rot—where the trees were ever in bloom, and angels sang the praises of the Light.
Vazrach fell silent—and his eyes closed.
“Cal…” I whispered, and somehow she heard me.
Cal stared at the gate—which was noticeably thinner—and then back at me. She brought the palms of her hands together, and said, “I used to fly through the gardens, early in the morning, when no one was yet abroad—I remember how the fountains whispered their endless song—” Her face twisted. “We’ve lost it, Sam. Because of what we did. Because I lost patience. Because I lost faith.”
The light wavered, and died. The shadows pressed closer—the smell of rot was stronger now, and bile rose in my throat. “No!” I screamed. “You have to—” Keep talking. You have to keep talking.
It was Arvedai who spoke next, slowly, softly, “Once, I gave a young angel peach flowers. He set them in his hair, and day after day after day, they never withered. I wondered, then, what it would be, to live in a place where everything comes to an end.” He stared through all of us, his eyes unfocused. “I’m sorry,” he said, finally.
Vazrach’s hand tightened in mine, so strongly I thought he was going to crush my fingers. “Sorry for what?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
“For making it end,” Arvedai said. “For our exile. Once, we scythed through the sky, and we rode the thunderstorms as humans rode horses. Once, we could make a flower bloom with a touch of our hand.” Between his outstretched fingers was a great radiance—and he was weeping, tears running down his harsh face like water over rocks.
“Our…exile,” Vazrach whispered. “We…all…took…part, Arvedai…we…all…” He was saying something, over and over, in the language of the City—and somehow I knew what it was: a lament for the Fallen and a paean to the City they had betrayed, an apology for all the doubts and the lack of faith, and a yearning for what was forever lost.
And then there wasn’t just one voice, but three—and then a multitude, and light spilling everywhere, a blinding, searing radiance that forced me to close my eyes, a great power that lifted me into a timeless place—and for a moment, a moment only, I saw white, blinding walls, and I heard a warm, vast voice, whispering in all our minds, I will stand even by the least of my children…but you have turned your backs on me…
It was speaking to the angels—to the Fallen, to the ones so far beyond me—but then for a brief moment it turned, and it saw me—and the warmth spread to cover me, too, and it was as if I’d been stung by raw electricity.
All of us. We were all the children of the City, angels and Fallen and humans. And it remembered us.
When the white walls faded, I found myself kneeling on the floor, still holding Vazrach’s body, still shivering and filled with the memory of that light.
The creatures were gone, and so was the miasma. Vazrach’s eyes were closed, and he was a dead weight in my hands—I couldn’t even tell whether he was alive or not. O’Connor was slowly pushing himself into a standing position, supported by Cal.
Martha’s dishevelled face had gone pale; her gaze moved left and right, encompassing the whole of her failed ritual.
“It’s over,” Cal said.
Arvedai was standing on the edge of the heptacle, his feet sweeping back and forth, scattering the ashes of the Fallen’s hearts. “Yes,” he said. “I should think so. A lesson learnt,” he said to Martha. “Don’t tinker with what doesn’t concern you.” His voice was acid.
Martha’s eyes narrowed. “Tinkering?” she asked—and she rose in a heartbeat, her face darkening with the shadow of the Fury. “It’s your own damn fault we’re here at all—your own damn fault we’d failed.” She jumped—a leap like an unfolding, the shadowy wings trailing behind her, darkening the light of the City.
Too late, I understood what she meant to do—of how her leap would carry her to Arvedai, and how her claws would sink into his chest.
Without conscious thought, I threw myself in her path—but she was already gone past me, and Arvedai still stood frozen, as if unable to believe she’d dare to strike him down.
“Boss!!!” O’Connor screamed—and somehow he was out of Cal’s embrace, and onto Martha’s path.
A ripping sound, as the claws sank into human flesh, grating on the bones of the ribcage. The liquid sound of blood poured on the floor—and Arvedai’s face, contorted in inhuman fury, as he gripped Martha’s neck, and twisted.
Bone snapped, and she fell to the ground, her eyes staring at the ceiling.
Arvedai was already kneeling by O’Connor’s side. But there was nothing to be done. The claws had sunk in deep. We’d all heard them.
“I’m—sorry,” O’Connor whispered. His voice was almost inaudible.
“For dying? Don’t be. The apology isn’t warranted.” Arvedai’s voice was curt, emotionless. A dry, hollow laugh. “Everything has an end, and every field must face the harvest…”
“Boss…” O’Connor whispered.
“Ssh.” Arvedai touched, gently, the place above the claw-marks with one hand—his other one holding O’Connor’s. Light blossomed around him, and the shadow of wings. “I am here. I am holding you.” His lips moved, slowly and silently at first, and then his voice steadily rose, and in my mind was a memory of beating wings, and of great light. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name…”
At some point during the Lord’s Prayer, O’Connor’s face went limp, but Arvedai’s grip never wavered. Only when it was over—only when he had whispered about kingdom and power and glory lasting forever and ever did he rise, holding O’Connor in his arms—head lolling back, legs dangling. His face was smooth and emotionless once again, and he walked towards the door without so much as a backward glance.
He paused, once. Said, aloud, “I saw you move to stop Martha, Samantha. I owe you a debt, or a favour.”
He’d used my first name—not an ironic, distant form of address—and I didn’t know, anymore, how I was supposed to feel about this all. “I don’t—” I started.
“You wouldn’t want to collect it from a body-looter? Fair.” I could imagine the shadow of an ironic smile on the face I couldn’t see. “I’m sure you and Calariel will both see the need to remain silent on this.”
And then he was gone, and the room was full of salt and blood and mist, and I tried to pull myself upright and found only jellied legs.
A hand, thrust towards me, shimmering with light. “Cal.”
“Sam. You all right?”
I didn’t trust myself to speak. I reached out, let her pull me up—she was warm and comforting, and everything I’d ever longed for. She let me go, stood watching me. I couldn’t read her face.
“They’re both dead,” Cal said. “She was keeping him alive.”
Martha and Vazrach. “Cal—” I finally said.
She shook her head. “You’re exhausted, and it’s not the time. Come on, Sam, let’s go home.”
I didn’t move. I said, finally, haltingly, “I’m sorry. I intruded on something that meant a lot to you. I didn’t think it through.”
Cal stopped, peered at me. She said nothing.
“I heard. A voice.” I shivered. “It was speaking in my mind.” My children.
Cal cocked her head. “Yes,” she said. And then, more softly, “I’m sorry. It’s so easy to forget, isn’t it? That we’re not superior or closer to divinity. That, out of everything under Heaven, we’re the ones who made the choice to rebel and fall.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“No, that’s not on you.” Cal shook her head. “And you’re right. You’re not a child. You don’t need to be protected.”
I couldn’t help it. The laughter came welling up out of wrung-out lungs. “Maybe we’re all children.”
“Fair,” Cal said. She smiled, and it was almost like old days—except things had shifted and changed, and would never quite be the same.
But change, perhaps, was exactly what we had needed.
“Let’s get a drink,” I said.
Cal laughed. “All right.”
We walked together out of the room, side by side.
© 2020 Aliette de Bodard