Plague stood at the corner of the roof and looked out over the city. The sky was turning white and gold as the sun came up. He hadn't seen a sunrise in a long time. Not one that felt like a beginning anyway. He had been convinced that he was okay with one day being no different than the next and with the job he'd been given and the lives he'd taken. But he wasn't.
The flesh along his spine prickled uncomfortably. He flinched. He still hadn't gotten used to the absence of Snicker and Snacker on his shoulders. He rubbed the scars on his neck as he looked over his shoulder. The angel wasn't behind him, and he almost lost his balance when Ely grabbed his right arm. "Shit," he said.
"We need to go," Ely said.
Plague looked down at the street. "Why?"
"Um, to be safe."
"Are you sure I'm not a waste of your time?"
"I don't know yet. That really depends on you. But neither of us are going to find out if we're still here when your boss comes to find out why you turned on him."
Plague still wasn't sure he trusted Ely any more than he had trusted the Boss. He searched Ely's calm grey eyes for any hints of deceit and saw none. Then again, he hadn't seen the truth in the Boss's eyes either. "Okay," he said.
* * *
Plague wakes up to the gentle tickle of feathers on his arms and hands. He opens his eyes. The room is too dark for him to see anything, but he catches the shadowy flicker of movement. He reaches out. His fingers close on warm, soft feathers. "Ely," he says.
Ely turns back to Plague and crouches at the bedside. He runs his hand across Plague's forehead.
"Are you okay? The bacteriophages worked?"
"They worked. Thank you. But you're still healing. Just rest."
"Ely, I'm sorry."
Ely is silent. He takes Plague's hands in both of his and rests his forehead on them.
"I did everything I could. I couldn't stop him. I --"
"But I --"
"Please. It isn't your fault. Don't you dare blame yourself. If anyone's to blame, it's me. If I'd listened to my gut instead of keeping Phae's secret, none of this would have happened. None of it. Not you, not the other horsemen and not Gershom's death."
"You told me it was no one's fault."
"I think I was wrong."
* * *
Plague stared at the strange horizon in front of him. He wondered where exactly Ely had brought him, but he didn't ask. He was scared. He thought his questions would sound more accusatory than he meant because of that.
Ely stood beside Plague, his gaze aimed at the horizon but serenely unfocused. He said nothing, offered no prompts or advice. He simply waited.
"What happens now?" Plague asked when the calmness and silence got too heavy to bear.
"It's your choice," Ely said.
"Of what options?"
"That's your choice, too."
Ely shrugged. "I don't lead you by the hand once I open the way. I'm not passing judgment. I'm not meting out punishment. You need to take responsibility for yourself."
"Why? Because you've been told you can't? Did you ever bother to question that?"
"No. I didn't have the energy for it. I was too busy blaming myself for my sister's death."
"Then why did you take the path I offered?"
Plague took a deep breath and closed his eyes. For a while, he couldn't answer. He knew why, but it contradicted everything he'd been trying to make himself believe. He did it because he did question the Boss's orders, because he knew what he was doing wasn't right, because the only reason he kept doing what the Boss asked was fear, and that just wasn't a good enough reason. He opened his eyes and looked at Ely. "I'm not a murderer, and my viruses aren't weapons."
Ely nodded and waited for more.
"I don't want to be a demon."
"I'm glad to hear that, but I want you to know that it's not an easy transition. It will hurt. It will hurt so badly you might not want to live through it."
Plague wanted to say that he didn't care, but that wasn't true. He did care. He cared more than he had ever realized. "I'm willing to take that chance," he said.
* * *
"I've never seen Ely this upset," Phaedra says.
Plague says nothing. He and Phaedra are sitting in Ely's office, waiting for Ely to return from a council meeting. They don't know what will be said at the meeting, but they have their own plan for dealing with Abbadon. Plague hopes Ely won't try to stop them.
"You know he doesn't blame you," Phaedra says.
"He blames himself," Plague says. "I wish he would blame me."
"Do you think we'll get a chance to find out why Abbadon did all this?"
Plague shrugs. He doesn't care at this point. He just wants the whole thing over.
"Hey, you haven't seen Owen yet, have you?" Phaedra asks.
"Did you even know he was here?"
"Gershom brought him here while we were getting the maggots out of Ely."
"Shit. I never even asked."
"You should go see him."
Plague makes no move to leave Ely's office and find Death. He's far from ready to continue the conversation they'd started in the cemetery, and, quite frankly, he's got other things on his mind.
Trying to come up with an adequate description of the pain was the only way Plague could distract himself from it. It was blisteringly hot, achingly cold, crushing, rending, and endless. He didn't know if he was crying or screaming or merely balled up on the floor like a sick animal, quivering and soiling himself. He had no concept of time. It could've been seconds. It could've been years. He had no sense of place. There was a solid surface beneath him, but he was at a loss for further details.
The only thing he was certain of was that Ely never left his side.
The onslaught let up enough for Plague to get a sense of his surroundings, but he still couldn't pin down where he was or how much time had passed. It was very much like the eye of a hurricane. The ordeal was far from over.
"Hanging in there?" Ely asked.
Plague nodded. "Why does it have to hurt so much?" he asked.
"You're forcibly changing your nature. That has to come with a certain amount of pain."
"Did you have to go through this?"
"Yeah." Ely paused, maybe thinking about his own pain, maybe not. "It was sort of like swallowing a star."
"So you can puke up light now? Is that how you got rid of the rats?"
Ely laughed. "No. That comes from what I'm made of."
Plague tried to figure out what that meant, but the pain was creeping back in. He didn't think long. "What are you made of?"
"I was a vessel for powerful demonic forces. Storage space."
"How did you ..."
Plague wanted to hear the story, but the pain dug long, sharp claws into him, shrinking his world down to his skin. He didn't see the worried look on Ely's face and never knew that Ely wasn't sure Plague would survive.
* * *
Ely paces the floor of his office, his fists and teeth clenched. Plague and Phaedra watch, trying not to notice that Ely seems to have taken up Gershom's pacing habit. It's both sweet and sad. They wonder if Ely's even aware he's doing it.
Eventually, Ely stops pacing and faces them. "You're both crazy," he says. He tone is affectionate and disbelieving.
"Got any other ideas?" Phaedra asks.
"Don't bother," Plague says. "You're not sacrificing yourself for this."
"Is it any better for you two to sacrifice yourselves?"
"Well ... yeah, it is."
"We don't have time to argue about it, Ely," Phaedra says. "He could have new horsemen already. The quicker we move, the better our chances of stopping whatever it is he's trying to do."
Ely starts pacing again as if he can escape the situation by moving fast enough.
"You know we're right," Plague says.
"I already gave the council my plan," Ely says.
"Which is what? Trying to fight Abbadon by yourself? And if you win the fight, taking up position as angel of the Abyss? You might have a better chance than we do, but it makes more sense for two of us to go down there. That way, we know the Abyss will be guarded."
"If we have to chain you up to keep you from doing this alone, we will," Phaedra says.
Ely stops pacing. All the tension leaks out of him. He comes over to Plague and Phaedra, puts his arms around them and kisses their cheeks. "I love you both," he says. "Very much, and there's no way in hell I'm letting either of you go up against Abbadon without me."
* * *
"I thought I was human," Ely said. Plague's pain had begun to dull just enough for him to be slightly more aware of where he was. He could hear Ely's voice clearly, but beyond that, there wasn't much he could sense. That was fine. He wasn't ready to move beyond the comfort of Ely's presence and calm voice.
"I guess I always had some doubts, but at least for the first thirteen years of my life, I didn't think too much about it. Then the demons came. They killed my parents. They killed my sister. I spent four years running from them. I met Gershom in Seattle. He tried to help me, but he couldn't save me from what I was, and we could never figure out what I was anyway.
"The demons eventually found where we were hiding and came for me. For ten years, they kept me chained up in a dark cell. They'd come in and pull keys out of my body. I had no idea how or why. Then they let me escape. The key they wanted wasn't in me, but I could find it. Except that after ten years bound up like that, I wasn't sane.
"I don't remember most of what happened during that time. Gershom told me the details, but I've never remembered any of it. I found the key the demons wanted me to find. I killed the human they'd hidden it in. It was the key to a sealed pit where a demon called Deleth had been imprisoned. Once I let him out, I was supposed to be his right hand man. Somehow I got it in my head that killing Deleth would get me both a purpose and my lover. I killed Deleth as soon as he came out of his pit, and I killed every angel and demon that tried to stop me. I tried to convince Gershom to stay with me, but he wouldn't. He killed me instead. He didn't have much choice. I had too much power and no sanity, no sense of limits, no control. I could have opened up the Earth itself if I'd wanted to.
"I was still hanging on when the angels came to get Gershom. My mind was starting to clear. I was offered redemption, and I took it. I hadn't wanted to do all the horrible things I'd done, but I was still responsible. And I didn't want to lose Gershom. He'd done so much for me, and I betrayed him. If nothing else, I wanted to live long enough to tell him I was sorry and beg his forgiveness.
"It wasn't easy, and I still struggle with it sometimes, memory or not. I know what I did. I don't regret any of it, not the path I took to get here, not the lives I took. Remorse, yes, I feel that, but not regret. I can't change what happened. I wouldn't be here now if not for all that.
"I'm not telling you this as a blueprint for how this will work out for you. Your trials won't be mine. I'm telling you this to offer you a little faith. Our stories are similar. I got through it. So can you."
* * *
"I've been waiting for you," Death says when Plague steps into the small room where Death has been kept since Gershom dropped him there. Death isn't quite a prisoner, but he isn't quite free either.
"I'm sorry," Plague says. "I didn't know you were here. I didn't think to ask."
"You were a bit busy."
Neither of them knows what to say at that point. Plague sits on the floor at Death's feet. Death lifts his hand to run his fingers through Plague's hair. He hesitates, but then Plague leans against his legs.
"I'm so tired, Owen," Plague says. He closes his eyes when Death's fingers rake gently across his scalp.
"But it's almost over, I think. I don't know."
"How over is it?"
"I'm not coming back. Even if we survive, Phae and I aren't coming back. We can't leave the Abyss unguarded."
Silence stretches out between them until Death starts to think that Plague has fallen asleep, but then Plague sits up and rubs his eyes.
"There's really nothing more to say, is there?" Death asks.
"About us? No, just one more thing."
Plague stands up, pulling Death up with him. He embraces Death tightly, and Death reciprocates. They hold each other like that for several minutes until Plague takes a step back and kisses Death on the mouth. "Goodbye, Owen," Plague says.
* * *
It was like breaking out of a bad fever. Coolness kissed Plague's sweat-slicked skin. The pain was a dull ache, almost a memory. A sense of calm enveloped him, and for the first time in a very long time, Plague wasn't afraid.
He was a little dismayed to find himself alone in the cabin, but then he heard voices outside. He got up and went to the back door. Ely and another angel were standing at the edge of the still silver lake with their arms around each other. Plague leaned against the door frame, watching them and wondering how long the tranquility would last.
Plague, Phaedra and Ely step through the door Ely has opened in the wall of his office. The door closes behind them with a crunch of loose rock. The sound echoes in Plague's ears and rattles his teeth. It may not have been all that loud, but the finality of it was as loud as an earthquake.
Silently, Ely leads them through the winding corridors of the cavern system. Plague and Phaedra, fingers linked, follow like frightened children, dutifully following their father wherever he takes them. They think of their mother's funeral, of how they followed Bruce through the motions of politely accepting condolences and pushing aside their grief to give others a chance to demonstrate their own pain.
But this isn't quite the same, Plague thinks. We're not just trying to make it through the day. We're fighting for the next day.
Phaedra's fingers press Plague's tighter, as if she's heard his thoughts. Maybe she has, but Plague doesn't hear her thoughts in return.
They have no sense of moving downward, but when they pause at the mouth of a corridor that opens onto a massive, yawning darkness, they're very aware of how far down they've come.
"This is it," Ely says.
Plague starts to move forward. "Then let's get this over with," he says.
Ely holds out his arms to block Plague's progress. "Wait. Listen."
From the darkness in front of them, they can hear something, maybe several somethings, pacing the stone floor and snarling.
"Do you have a plan?" Phaedra asks.
Ely turns to face them. "I do," he says. "I don't like it, but I do."
"Out with it, then," Plague says.
"The Abyss is in the center of the room. There are maybe a dozen demons guarding it. I'll go in first and start clearing the room. Phae, run towards the center. Let yourself fall. Let the Abyss accept you as its guardian. I don't know if it will but --"
"It will," Phaedra says.
"Plague, Abbadon and the Boss are around here somewhere, and they probably know we're here. Keep them out of this room. I don't know if any of the horsemen have been replaced, but you're not in for a fair fight anyway. Once Phae's in her place, I'll back you up."
Plague nods, not that Ely can see the gesture in the dark, but he can't make himself speak. He doesn't want Ely to hear any hint of the fear he's feeling.
* * *
As soon as Ely steps into the room, the snarling dog demons attack him. He runs left, drawing them out of Phaedra's path, then he beats his wings just enough to get him a foot or two off the ground. The demons can still reach him. He feels their teeth and claws ripping at his legs, but that's fine. As long as it keeps them away from Phaedra, he doesn't care if the demons tear his legs off.
He starts to pick the demons off one by one. He'd like to blast them to dust all at once, but he doesn't want to take the chance that such a burst would hurt Phaedra or Plague.
He sees Phaedra hurtling towards the Abyss. A demon clamps its jaw down on his ankle, crushing bones, snapping tendons and dragging him down. Another breaks off from the pack and runs towards Phaedra. He screams her name. She doesn't pause or glance in his direction. She puts her head down and runs harder.
The demon on his ankle gets him on the ground, and another immediately pounces on his back and opens its mouth to take a chunk out of the back of his head. These two and the one running Phaedra down are the last of the guards.
Ely unleashes the biggest burst of energy he can muster. It hurts. He's blasting away with bits of himself after all. He doesn't know how far he can push this ability, if he can use himself up completely or what might happen if he did use up everything he is.
This seems like the perfect time to find out.
* * *
Phaedra jumps when she sees the brightening flare of Ely's energy in her peripheral vision. The demon bearing down on her never makes it. It disintegrates from its hind parts forward. She thinks of childhood tumbling classes as she reaches the apex of her leap and tucks into a dive, of watching older kids practicing floor routines, bouncing up off their toes as if gravity were only a suggestion, jumping in arcs like dolphins, curling into tight balls, then touching down, unrolling and bouncing up again so lightly, and she falls into the Abyss as Ely's blast clears the room.
She expects to plunge down into the darkness, but she sinks slowly instead, as if she's in water. For a second the simile persists -- the pressure of deep, deep water, the sensation of water flooding her lungs when she opens her mouth to scream against the crush. It lasts no more than that one second, and then she's buoyant in the emptiness.
* * *
Plague flinches at the bright flash that fills the chamber. When the light fades, his instinct is to go in and make sure Phaedra and Ely are okay, but at the same moment, he's aware of something in the tunnel behind him. He turns.
The Boss is lurching towards Plague. His face is pale, sweaty and sunken at the eyes and cheeks. Every breath looks like it takes a monumental effort.
"You don't look so good, Boss," Plague says.
The Boss stops and puts one hand against the wall. "You think you've won?" he asks.
"That'd be getting ahead of myself, I think."
The Boss starts to laugh, but it turns into a cough almost as soon as he opens his mouth. He leans against the wall, wrapping his arms around his mid-section while he coughs. He spits a glob of greenish mucus and blood to the floor.
Plague makes a face. "Yeah, that's bad, all right," he says.
"What the hell did you do to me?"
"Everything. Every virus I've got and every consequence of infection. It's overkill, but you deserve it. Only the best for you, Boss. After all, you're the one who clued me in to what I could do."
The Boss slides down the wall until he's sitting, legs splayed, on the floor. He coughs up more blood and infected mucus. His body convulses, knocking his head against the wall. Plague moves closer and crouches down to get a better look at what his viruses have done to the Boss. He's fascinated and pleased with the results. He supposes he's not a very good angel for enjoying the Boss's death throes, but he's okay with that.
When the Boss is finally still and silent, Plague stands up and goes back to the mouth of the corridor. He peers in cautiously, but all he sees is darkness. "Ely?" he asks.
The only answer is the echo of his voice off the chamber walls.
Again, there's no answer.
Plague starts to step into the chamber, but there's a sudden, suffocating presence behind him. He stops dead in his tracks but doesn't turn around.
"Hello, little angel," Abbadon says. His voice is deep and thick. The walls of the corridor vibrate with the sound.
Plague cringes. He looks around for something he can use as a weapon or somewhere to hide.
"You don't have to run from me. Besides, where will you go?"
Plague turns around to face Abbadon. He's never seen an angel as large or as terrifying. He feels tiny and helpless.
Abbadon begins to walk towards Plague. Plague isn't sure how Abbadon can even fit in the corridor, much less walk through it. "I don't have to kill you," Abbadon says.
"That's good to know," Plague says. He looks over his shoulder, briefly. Still dark. When he looks at Abbadon again, Abbadon is much too close. Plague stumbles back into the chamber.
"You can stay at my side, watch Armageddon with me, watch all of God's good and beautiful work. Now that your sister has freed me from the Abyss, there needn't be any more bloodshed. So please, sit with your old Great-Grandpappy like you used to when you were little. I promise you this will be a better story than any I could ever have told you back then."
"That's why you did this? Just to tell me a story?"
Abbadon laughs, a low grinding howl that makes Plague's eardrums ache. At the same time, Plague feels something tap the back of his foot. He drops his eyes, catches a faint glint of light off a blade and looks back up at Abbadon. Abbadon doesn't notice the knife at Plague's feet, but Plague is sure that if he reaches down for it, Abbadon will notice. He wonders if that's such a bad thing.
"Are you done?" Plague asks. He takes half a step back so that the knife is between his feet. He hears the soft rustle of wings behind him.
Abbadon scowls down at Plague. "So you're going to fight," he says. "You never did understand."
"Explain it to me, then."
"It would be a waste of my time and of the scant time you've left. I'd rather not."
"Fine by me."
Plague crouches down and grabs the knife. Ely uses Plague's back to push himself up and launches a blast of energy at Abbadon's eyes. Abbadon roars. The chamber shakes. Ely yanks Plague further back into the darkness.
"Ely, are you okay?" Plague asks.
"Not really," Ely says. "But it doesn't matter. Phae's got the Abyss. We need to kill Abbadon, and it isn't gonna be easy."
"Son of a bitch!" Abbadon says. "I knew you and your sister wouldn't come down here alone! Where are you hiding?" He knuckles his eyes clear and blinks at the darkness. "There's nowhere for you to go in here." He moves towards where Plague and Ely are crouched.
Ely aims another shot of energy at Abbadon's eyes. The impact rocks Abbadon slightly, but otherwise, it has no effect. The blast isn't even as bright as Plague remembered it being.
"Shit," Ely says.
"I can't ... I knew I wouldn't be able to kill him like that, but I'm too weak to even scratch him now."
Plague looks at Abbadon, half turned away from them and furiously rubbing his eyes, and then he looks at Ely. "I have an idea."
Ely starts to protest before Plague explains his plan, but Plague presses his fingers against Ely's lips.
"I have your knife. I have my viruses. I have a better chance of ending this than you do. Get out of here, and seal the chamber."
"You know I'm right. You have faith in me, don't you?"
Ely says nothing. For a second, Plague thinks that Ely will tell him that faith doesn't matter, but he remains silent. He puts his hands against Plague's cheeks and kisses his forehead.
Plague watches Ely stagger out of the shadowy recess. He grimaces when he realizes how badly Ely is hurt, but he feels even better about telling Ely to get out.
Abbadon grins when he sees Ely. "Ah, yes. Archangel of Passages. You've been a thorn in my side since I first decided I wanted to be free," he says.
Ely stares up at Abbadon impassively and says nothing.
"You of all creatures should know the horror of such imprisonment."
"I didn't volunteer to be chained up and molested like that. It's my understanding that you accepted this position freely."
"Yes. One does not turn down assignments from our Father. That doesn't mean I haven't grown tired of this, of waiting for the end."
"I hope you've enjoyed what little freedom you've had."
Ely spreads his wings and lifts himself out of Abbadon's reach. He pelts Abbadon with his impotent bursts of energy. They may not do any damage, but they definitely keep Abbadon distracted.
When Abbadon has his back fully turned towards Plague, Plague lunges out of the darkness at Abbadon. He thrusts the knife deep into the back of Abbadon's thigh, using his weight to shove the blade down through the muscle. The tip of the blade strikes bone and scores it deeply as it descends.
Abbadon bellows and reaches around to pluck Plague off of him, but Plague is able to move away before Abbadon can get a hold on him. Plague sees Ely reach the opening of the chamber. A second later, the opening is gone.
Abbadon stops for a moment at the sound of the chamber sealing. He doesn't dwell on it. He growls and comes at Plague.
Plague has already opened as many cuts on his body as he can, all of them deep and bleeding freely and teeming with viruses. He has no idea how long it will take to kill Abbadon this way, and he doesn't expect to be alive himself when it's over. But it will be over.
He has faith in that.
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