It made Neil's stomach turn. He hadn't been sure that the movement he thought he saw under the loose dressing on his father's calf was anything more than an odd reflection from the window or some misunderstanding between his eyes and his tired, half-panicked brain. "It's what?" he asked.
"Maggot therapy," Bruce Coburn said.
Neil turned his head. "I think I'm gonna be sick." He really did feel like he could puke up the nothing he'd eaten since getting to the hospital at three in the morning.
Phaedra laughed. "I think it's kind of cool," she said. "When all the medicine fails, nature has
"It's not that I don't think it's cool. I do. It's a cute trick, but still ..."
"It was either maggots or lose a leg," Bruce said. "I'd rather keep my leg if it's all the same to you."
Neil said nothing.
"You know, Dad, you could have mentioned the ulcer a few days ago," Phaedra said. "That might have saved you a leg and a round with the maggots."
"I didn't want you to worry."
"We worry about you anyway."
Nausea fading, Neil took a deep breath and looked at his father again. He saw the dressing bulge and squirm, and a fat, white maggot pushed out from under the gauze and dropped to the floor.
* * *
Gershom drops Plague onto the floor in the outer room of Ely's private chamber and slips uneasily into his vessel. He hauls Plague to his feet.
"What happened?" Plague asks.
"I don't know," Gershom says. "I took that girl home, and I was on my way back to the warehouse when I felt ... look, just ... just fix him."
Plague doesn't like the look on Gershom's face. He almost wishes Gershom would quit his vessel. He'd much rather be blinded by Gershom's blur of green fire than to see the fear in the vessel's eyes. "All right, look. Go find Phae and send her here. I might need her help. And then you go run a couple hundred marathons or something," he says.
Gershom clenches his teeth against a protest and looks away from Plague.
"You're not going to do Ely any good if you stay here."
"I know, I know. I just ... when I felt that ... that pain ... I've lost him before, you know. And I'm not going to lose him again."
"I won't let that happen. Go."
Most of the time, Gershom's exits leave afterimages. This one is too fast for that. Plague takes a deep breath and steps into Ely's bedroom.
The room smells of rot and infection, stagnant blood and sour sweat. Bloody rags have been tossed carelessly on the floor. Ely is propped at a slight angle on a nest of pillows. He's almost too still, as if whatever infection he has has turned his body into wax. His face is pale, and his wings have turned a dirty, mangy brown.
Plague pulls a chair up to the bed and sits. He touches the back of his hand to Ely's forehead. The fever he feels there is so hot he almost expects his skin to blister. "Ely," he says.
It takes some time, but Ely manages to open his eyes half way. He focuses on Plague for a few seconds before closing his eyes again. "It was Pestilence," he says. His voice is fragile but clear.
"I know. Can you tell me exactly what happened?"
"I got too close."
"Answers. Why you're different, why the Boss's boss is doing this. Who the Boss's boss is. I was coming to get you and Gershom and Phae. Pestilence was waiting." Ely pulls the blanket aside. There are two deep gashes across his abdomen. The edges of the wounds are red and swollen. Inside, maggots writhe in dying tissue.
Plague jerks back and puts his hands over his mouth as nausea bores into his gut. He feels something squirming under the scars on his arm from Pestilence's attack on him, years ago it seems.
Ely grabs Plague's arm. For a second, his grip is as strong as ever, but then it loosens. His eyes are fever-bright and dry. "Don't waste time on me," he says. "You have to stop him."
His stomach settled, Plague takes his hands from his mouth. "Stop who?" he asks. Ely's talking about Armageddon, of course, but "him" is specific. They haven't had anything specific since this whole thing started.
Ely's eyes are already losing focus, and the lids are easing down like heavy drapes. His fingers slip from Plague's arm, and Plague catches Ely's hand in his, squeezing hard and hoping the pressure keeps Ely awake for just a little longer.
"Ely, who? Who's doing this?"
Ely whispers one word. His voice has lost all power, and Plague isn't sure what the word is. Abandon? Absalom? Abbadon?
Abbadon. Plague knows that name somehow, but he can't quite place it. He pulls the blanket up to hide Ely's wounds and sits there with his fists against his mouth and his teeth locked tightly together against the crawling under his scars.
* * *
Neil paced outside Bruce's room while a doctor examined the maggot-filled wound and Phaedra went to grab coffee. He wasn't sure why, but he kept feeling that something was wrong.
Medically, Bruce was fine or would be fine once the ulcer healed. The maggots only ate dead flesh. They couldn't reproduce, and they were treated like any other prescription drug. There was little chance of adverse reaction compared to traditional drugs or surgery. Once all the necrotic tissue was gone, the maggots would be removed, and the most complicated procedure Bruce would have to deal with after that was a skin graft. Still, Neil wasn't comfortable with the treatment, and he wouldn't be able to relax until it was over.
The doctor, a young man who had probably finished his internship the week before, came out of Bruce's room and grinned at Neil. Neil glared back.
"Your dad's doing well," the doctor said.
Neil said nothing.
"He did say you were a little uncomfortable with the maggot therapy. I promise you this is the best way to treat the ulcer. The maggots eat --"
"I know how it works."
"I've used this treatment successfully on a number of other patients. They're just like any other medication we could use. We don't go through the garbage and pick out whatever we find."
"I know. That doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Well, could you tell me why specifically? I mean, if there's anything I can tell you that will ease your mind about the whole thing, I'm happy to talk about it."
Neil shook his head. He didn't know why it bothered him. He'd need several hundred hours with a therapist to figure that out. But he thought of his mother, rotting in her grave, her decay helped along by bacteria and maggots. He thought of other dead relatives -- Bruce's parents, Great Grandpappy Padrig, others he never really knew. He thought of Owen.
The doctor put his hand on Neil's shoulder and smiled. "Your dad's in excellent hands."
"He better be."
* * *
"Neil?" Phaedra calls as she steps into the outer chamber of Ely's room.
"In here," Plague says. He doesn't like the alarm in Phaedra's voice.
Phaedra enters the bedroom. She pales and presses her lips together when she looks at Ely. "What happened?" she asks.
"Pestilence attacked him."
"Will he be okay?"
Plague doesn't answer. He doesn't know yet.
"What about you?"
Plague had almost forgotten about his own injuries. The wounds have been healed, but his pants are still soaked with blood and his chest is still smeared with it. "I'm fine."
"Gershom didn't tell me anything. He just scooped me up and dropped me here."
"He's not taking this well."
"What do you need me to do?"
"See if you can find tweezers or something. And a big bowl or pan."
Phaedra nods and rushes out of the bedroom. She comes back a few minutes later with a large stainless steel bowl and a pair of bamboo salad tongs. "No tweezers," she says. "Will these work?" She holds up the tongs and squeezes them a couple times.
Plague nods. "They'll work to start with," he says. "Pull up a chair."
Phaedra does and sits down with the bowl in her lap. "What are we doing?"
Plague folds the blanket down to Ely's knees.
Phaedra gasps. When Plague looks up at her, her eyes are wide and swimming in a film of tears.
"I'll save him," Plague says. He sounds confident, but he doesn't believe in himself. Phaedra doesn't question him, though. He hopes her faith is enough.
2. Opportunistic Infection
Bruce had tried to insist that Neil didn't need to stay at the hospital. Neil hadn't listened. He still couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong, and he was determined to stay with his father until he could figure out what was bothering him and do something about it. Bruce knew better than to argue. He had passed his own stubbornness on to his son, and the only way to placate it was to let Neil have his way.
Towards mid-afternoon, Bruce had fallen asleep under the influence of painkillers, and Neil was dozing, trying not to let himself fall any deeper asleep. Suddenly, he was awake, all traces of drowsiness vanished. He couldn't tell what had awakened him. Some unfamiliar hospital sound maybe. He sat still for a minute but heard nothing that might have startled him out of sleep. He stood up and headed for the bathroom.
Neil went to the bed. Bruce's face was flushed and damp with sweat. He checked Bruce's pulse at his wrist. It was way too fast. He jammed his thumb against the call button. He didn't think whoever was on the receiving end of the buzz truly understood his urgency. He hit the button twice more.
"Dad?" he asked.
Bruce's eyelids fluttered as if he were trying to wake up, but the effort was short lived.
That time, the only response was labored exhalation.
Neil shoved his thumb against the call button and held it down.
* * *
Ely's face twists in pain. Plague tries not to notice, tries to focus on getting the last of the maggots out of the wounds, but it's hard. He wishes he had on gloves at the very least. He doesn't like feeling the maggots between his fingers as he plucks them out. They cling to the insides of the wounds, tearing out tiny bits of tissue as Plague pulls them free. They wriggle violently, muscularly, in his fingers. Tiny sharp teeth poke through his skin before he drops them into the bowl Phaedra is holding. Most of the blood on the inner surface of the bowl is dark brown, Ely's infected and rotting blood.
Plague drops the last maggot into the bowl and sits back, resting the backs of his hands on his knees. His fingers ache as much from the plucking as from the maggots' bites.
"Is that all of them?" Phaedra asks.
"That I can see, yeah," Plague says. If the maggots have burrowed any deeper, it doesn't matter if he can get them out. They'll eat Ely alive from the inside out.
"Now I need to find out exactly what the infection is and figure out a way to stop it."
"All right. You take care of that. I'll stay with Ely."
Plague stands up and takes the bowl of maggots from Phaedra. When he turns towards the door, he's surprised to see Gershom standing there. He hadn't heard Gershom come in, and Gershom is uncharacteristically still.
"Gershom," Plague says.
Gershom doesn't look at Plague. He keeps his eyes on Ely.
"I told you to stay away."
"I can only run around the world so many times before I get bored," Gershom says. "Is he okay?"
"Do you know what's wrong with him?"
"Not yet. Gershom --"
"I have to do something. I can't just stand here and wait."
"Go to his office and see if you can figure out what he was working on. He said he figured out some answers, but he couldn't tell me what."
Gershom leaves so quickly that, for a moment, his vessel is left standing there, disturbingly vacant.
"He's gonna do something stupid, isn't he?" Phaedra asks.
"Probably. I'll be back as soon as I can."
* * *
The doctor who prescribed the maggot therapy for Bruce was nowhere to be found. He wasn't in the hospital, and he wasn't responding to pages. Neil wasn't surprised, but he tried not to think about it. He couldn't be certain he would act civilly if he saw the man.
Dr. Vincent was a much more reasonable man. He was in his 60s and had more experience in dealing with patients' families than the young doctor did. Neil didn't exactly feel reassured, but at least he could convince himself that Dr. Vincent would listen to his concerns.
He was sitting in Dr. Vincent's office, staring deep into a painting of a forest hunting scene. He needed to sleep. Things wouldn't look so grim once he was rested.
Dr. Vincent came in with a chart in his hands. "Sorry to have left you, Dr. Coburn," he said. "Lab results. I thought you might be interested."
Neil sat up a little straighter. "Of course," he said.
Dr. Vincent settled behind his desk and opened the chart. "Myocarditis. I assume you know what that is."
"Inflammation of the heart."
Dr. Vincent nodded. "Caused by a bacterial infection in this case. Staph. Sadly, that's all too common in most hospitals. We've started your father on antibiotics, but I'm a bit concerned that this strain of staph is drug resistant. I'm also concerned about Bruce's overall health. He's not a young man any more, and he's been through a lot in the last few days with the ulcer. We can flood him with the strongest antibiotics we have, but those tend to kill off the good bacteria, too. I'd rather avoid that if at all possible."
"Okay. So what can you do?"
"Actually, I'm hoping it's something you can do. I think we need a virus to do the job."
* * *
Plague sits on the shore of the monochrome lake and stares out across its surface. There are colors in the distance -- a blush of reddish violet, forked threads of umber and livid splotches of white. The sight of colors invading the calm, grey space of Ely's sanctuary is disturbing. Plague hadn't realized the place was part of Ely until he saw that distant sickness creeping towards the shore. The revelation startles him. Is he somehow inside Ely? Is his presence here making Ely worse? No, it can't be inside Ely. Ely had been there himself, and Plague couldn't fathom how even an archangel could pull off a trick like that.
Pestilence had been there, too. Plague can still feel the taint left by that invasion, and the maggots in his arm begin to writhe. He grits his teeth and looks at the pearly scars. He thinks he can see his flesh move as the maggots press against it.
Why didn't I get sick like Ely did? he thinks. He should have. If all it takes is getting cut by Pestilence's double-bladed knife, Plague should have succumbed just as Ely did. He didn't. Why?
"Because I'm full of viruses," he says.
He looks down into the bowl. The maggots have stilled and are beginning to shrivel. He runs his finger through Ely's blood and smears it on his tongue. He feels the bacteria begin to infect him. He closes his eyes and watches it. He's amazed at the sheer variety of organisms -- staph and strep, e. coli and the bubonic plague, exotic things he can't identify, impossible hybrids and common bacteria mutated into killers.
Then the viruses come. It's like watching a battle, two opposing sides colliding on a common front and trickling through each other. The viruses, the bacteriophages, eat through their bigger foes. The bacteria try to adjust, mutating, merging, but the bacteriophages are faster and smarter. The bacteria that don't die instantly pass the virus on when they try to bond. The process doesn't take long. In seconds, all the bacteria are dead.
Plague opens his eyes. He hopes it works as quickly for Ely.
Plague has barely gotten to his feet when Gershom zips up to him and grabs his arm. Plague drops the bowl. It lands on Gershom's feet and spills the dead maggots. Gershom doesn't seem to notice. Plague tries to pull himself out of Gershom's grip, but Gershom won't let him go.
"What the fuck, Gershom?" Plague says. "Let go of me."
"You had the blood of an angel in you the whole fucking time," Gershom says.
"Abbadon. Angel of the abyss. Your great-grandfather."
Plague opens his mouth to protest, but the words never make it out of his throat. He has a sudden, strong memory of Phaedra's apocalypse show and Great Grandpappy Padrig shuffling around the gallery and mumbling about God's work. He hadn't been praising Phaedra's photographs, just the scenes of apparent prophetic destruction.
"That's what makes you special. That's why the Boss has gone through so much trouble to try to get you back," Gershom says.
"But I didn't know. How could I have known?"
"You couldn't. Not unless he told you."
"He used to call me and Phae his little angels, but that was just ... just a term of endearment. It didn't mean ... I guess it did mean something. But --"
"I'm guessing there were other signs. You noticed things about you that were different, but you dismissed it all."
Plague looks out towards the silver sun. The colors are getting stronger. "I could control viruses. When I had mono, I recovered a lot quicker than normal because I told the virus to stop, and it did." He looks at Gershom. "But what does that mean, really?"
"I don't know. I don't care at this point. I want Ely well again, and I want Pestilence and the Boss and Abbadon dead."
"Don't you want to know why Abbadon is doing this?"
Plague is surprised. Gershom collects knowledge the way some people collect stamps. Plague doesn't want to think about what it means for Gershom to actively ignore his compulsion to have the answers.
"You can save Ely, can't you?"
"Good. You do that. I'll find where the bastards are hiding."
"No, you won't. Come with me. When Ely's better, we'll come up with a plan. I already have an idea."
"I don't wanna wait."
"Tough shit. I'm not letting you go off by yourself. This is my fault anyway. I'm going to be the one to fix it. You know I'm right, so don't bother arguing."
Gershom looks down at his feet, sneers at the maggots and squishes them under his sandals. "Fine." He looks at Plague and frowns.
Plague is staring off over Gershom's shoulder. He feels Pestilence somewhere nearby, but Plague can't see him.
"Pestilence?" Gershom asks.
Plague nods. "Get us out of here. Now. We don't have time for this," he says.
Gershom's fingers tighten around Plague's arms. He narrows his eyes, which seem somehow darker now. "No," he says. "We're gonna finish this one right here."
Gershom lets go of Plague and starts to turn around. His movement seems way too slow to Plague for some reason, way too deliberate. Then all at once, Pestilence is behind Gershom. Plague tries to pull Gershom out of the way, but it's too late. Pestilence's knife punches through Gershom's back. Plague stumbles backwards and falls. Pestilence laughs, and behind him, the distant colors skulk closer to the shore.
* * *
Neil tried to work in the hospital's lab, but it proved impossible. He needed privacy. He couldn't shake the feeling that everyone else in the lab was scrutinizing his every move. They weren't. That was just in his mind because what he wanted to do made no sense. It wasn't science. He wasn't sure what it was.
Bruce's condition was stable, although not improving. The staphylococcus bacteria weren't quite immune to antibiotics, but the infection was certainly doing its best to hang around. Hospitals were such horrible places for infections like that, and Neil wondered why he hadn't tried to treat Bruce himself. He wasn't a medical doctor, but he could have figured out what to do easily enough. Although, truth be told, he would have been useless to Bruce. He would have been too worried about his father to have dealt effectively with the ulcer.
In the solitude of his own lab, Neil studied a drop of Bruce's blood. There were more bacteria than he expected, almost as if the staph was trying to turn Bruce's blood cells into bacteria factories. That was far from normal, but he attributed it to the bacteria's origin, his own imagination and his exhaustion.
He squeezed a drop of plasma from another sample onto the slide and watched, fascinated and proud, as the bacteriophages from his own blood swarmed to the staph and ate.
* * *
Gershom makes no sound when Pestilence's knife punches through his back. His eyes widen, more in surprise than pain or fear. He looks down at Plague. Blood dribbles over his lips.
"Gershom?" Plague asks.
Gershom opens his mouth, but all that comes out is blood. His eyes begin to dim as they meet Plague's.
"Gershom!" Plague reaches up and grabs a handful of Gershom's blood-drenched tee-shirt. Blood fills the lines of his palms as he squeezes.
Pestilence laughs and pulls the blades out. "Too slow this time," he says.
A green fiery aura spreads around Gershom as his spinning, burning rings leave the destroyed vessel.
Plague lets go of Gershom's tee-shirt and struggles to sit up. The vessel collapses into his lap. He cradles it as if Gershom still inhabits it. He thinks of watching his mother die, of the separation between body and spirit, of how empty a body gets when someone dies.
The speed of Gershom's spinning is slowing down, and the brightness of his fire fades. He hadn't left his vessel quickly enough to avoid damage to his true form. Plague can't tell how bad the damage is. From the way Gershom's rotation stutters and his fire sparks and gouts like blood from a severed artery, Plague can guess. Gershom is dying.
Plague stands up, gently laying Gershom's vessel on the ground. If he can get Gershom to leave or at least stay out of the fight, maybe Gershom will survive. Gershom won't listen, though, and Plague decides it would be rude to keep Gershom from trying to avenge his fallen beloved.
Gershom surges towards Pestilence. Pestilence has nowhere to go and makes no move to avoid Gershom's advance. Gershom's outer rings fade to olive drab as he concentrates his energy on constricting his inner rings. Pestilence grunts in pain as the whirring rings slice into his flesh and the fire burns him.
With a sound like a million shattering windows, Gershom's light goes out. Pestilence has thrust his knife between Gershom's rings and twisted it, severing the inner most ring. Dull, cold and still, Gershom falls at Pestilence's feet.
Plague feels the pressure and sting of tears in his eyes.
Pestilence twirls his knife in his fingers. He steps on Gershom's corpse as he comes towards Plague. Plague has no idea what he'll do if he can get his hands on Pestilence. It doesn't matter anyway. Whatever he does, however the fight ends, Pestilence won't be walking away from it.
Plague throws himself at Pestilence as hard as he can, knocking them both to the ground. He cocks his arm back to drive his fist into Pestilence's face, but Pestilence reacts a fraction of a second faster than Plague anticipates and slams the butt of his knife into the side of Plague's head.
Plague falls to the side, and Pestilence rolls over on top of him. Plague grabs hold of Pestilence's arms as Pestilence tries to bring his knife down at Plague's throat. Pestilence is stronger. Plague can't hold him back for long. He twists his body as the knife comes down. The outer blade misses. The inner blade plows across the back of his neck. He feels maggots begin to squirm in the wound and feed on his flesh.
Pestilence stands up, still straddling Plague. He leans down, fists on his thighs. He pokes his maggots with the tips of the twin blades. "It's over," he says. "You can't fight me, and no one is going to come to your rescue. You might as well give up and come quietly."
Plague closes his eyes. The maggots in the wound on his neck burrow deeper. The ones under the scars on his arm begin to stir. He calls on his viruses. Bacteriophages flood the wound on his neck. He can almost hear the maggots screaming.
Pestilence takes a step away from Plague. "What the hell are you doing?" he asks.
Plague laughs to himself as he struggles to his feet. The monochrome world dims slightly, and he sways. It would be so much easier to give up, to collapse into unconsciousness and avoid the pain and the grief. A few days ago, he might have done just that but not now.
"You don't know, do you?" Plague asks. "You don't know what I am."
"I don't give a fuck what you are. I'm just doing my job."
Plague tries to laugh, but he's too exhausted. He wants this confrontation over with. He holds out his right arm, squirming scars towards Pestilence. Pestilence quirks an eyebrow. He can't figure out what the gesture means. Plague plunges his fingers into the scars, starting at his wrist, and rips them open. Maggots and dark blood spill out in clots. He's not aware of any pain, just a distant burning sensation and vague dizziness. He holds his arm down at his side and cups his hand to catch the clean blood that runs from the wounds.
Pestilence lunges. Plague steels himself for the impact, and they slam into the ground. Pestilence raises his knife, and Plague, almost casually, shoves his right hand against Pestilence's mouth. The bacteriophages in the blood pooled in his palm swarm into Pestilence. Pestilence drops his knife and falls back, shrieking as the viruses begin to eat him alive.
Plague doesn't wait to make sure Pestilence is dead. Someone else can take care of that. He rushes back to Ely. He knows now how this whole thing is going to end.