* * *

Chapter 12

* * *

"There you are," said Zirah, and in that moment, that infinitesimal beat between the sound of that beloved voice and the next thought, Caphriel knew himself for a fool.

He'd thought he could do this. He'd thought -- he'd been so sure of his purpose, but he hadn't realised what "this" would entail, not until he'd seen Zirah's face and felt the certainty he'd built so carefully shatter.

He'd thought it would be the child. That would have been bad enough. But of course it wasn't just that, in fact it wasn't that at all, because life was a bitch and God wasn't much better --

Oh God, he thought, spare me this. I'll do anything, anything else --

But there was nothing else to do, and he'd known it all along, even if he had never dared face the truth before.

You knew, Caphriel. This had to happen sooner or later.

This is going to happen now.

* * *

Newt knew the minute everything went wrong.

Of course, it wasn't as if everything hadn't been wrong before. Everything had been spectacularly wrong. That was the one of the side-effects of its being the end days: things were just basically wrong, without anyone even having to try to make them so. This state of affairs had been a source of considerable discomfort for Newt, who had always believed that things were more or less all right, give or take a few expiring whales and crumbling economies. Finding out that the world appeared to have been built to go wrong had shaken him somewhat.

But there had at least been a plan to remedy the general wrongness -- well, thought Newt, somebody had seemed to have a plan, even if it wasn't him, and even if the plan had implied more killing of children than he was personally comfortable with. Still, for all its faults, it had been a plan, and he was pretty sure somebody had been going to carry it out. He even had a vague idea that he might have promised to do something to help.

But that had been before they had stumbled in on a man holding a sword -- a sword -- to a kid's throat, and Anathema had shied, suddenly and violently, and Newt, alarmed, had looked over at Caphriel and realised that something had gone wrong.

"What is it?" whispered Newt, because he really didn't want either of the things standing in the middle of the quarry to look at him.

"His mind," said Anathema. "His mind's in pieces!"

"Yeah, well, we already knew he was crazy -- "

"Not Caphriel," said Anathema. She was speaking very calmly, though her lips were white. Newt wished he could be that calm, then he looked at her eyes and realised it wasn't calmness he was hearing. It was the flatness of terror. Anathema's voice was ironed smooth by the weight of the scream behind it.

"Anathema -- "

"We can't fight him, Newt," she said. "We can't do anything to a mind like that."

"Sure we can," said Newt, with the empty good cheer his mother had taught him was the correct response to complete and utter hopelessness. "Look, Caphriel's just set to do it, with his great big . . . walking stick . . ."

"No, you don't understand," said Anathema. She clutched his arm. Her fingers were freezing cold. "We can't do anything worse. Not to a mind like that. There isn't anything more that could happen to him . . ."

* * *

"Zirah," said Caphriel. His voice cracked in the middle of the name, humiliatingly, all his angelic composure gone, and Zirah smiled at him -- that beautiful, infinitely familiar smile, that made gentle mockery of the situation, and invited Caphriel to share the joke.

"I was wondering where you'd got to," he said pleasantly. "Just a moment, dear boy, I must have a word with Adam here first." He turned back to the child, all business.

"I'm disappointed in you, Adam," he said, and he really did sound disappointed. His voice was the voice of every harassed parent and teacher in history, every loving mentor frustrated by the wilful inadequacies of childhood. You could hear him saying, No, I'm not angry with you, just . . .

"Mr. Rah?" said a small voice from a corner of the quarry, but the Antichrist did not speak. He stared up at Zirah, unmoving, his blue eyes wide with -- not fear, but some other emotion, one Caphriel knew intimately. He had almost put a name to it when Zirah said,

"Now, what's all this about, then?"

"About?" said Adam. His voice was full of wonder; he didn't seem to consider that fear was an option. His eyes were fixed on Zirah's face, with a glassy fascination. Caphriel, watching the events in a haze of misery, seeing everything as through cracked glass, wondered if Adam even noticed the sword.

"This ending the world business," said Zirah, and glanced up at Caphriel, his eyes bright with humour, as much as to say, These crazy kids, whatever will they be getting up to next. He shook Adam by the shoulder, affectionately. "Haven't you had a good life? Look around you. Can you think of a better environment for a child to grow up in? Lots of trees, country air, all the modern amenities you could need -- and a strong family unit, I made sure of that, you know. And that wasn't as easy as you might think. Lovely people, your mother and father, but they don't like being managed any more than most humans do.

"His mother," he added to Caphriel, in a confidential tone, "we had a bit of trouble with her. She got it into her head that she wanted a divorce a few years ago -- I think you were seven, Adam -- and I had no end of trouble persuading her she wanted to stay with her family. I can't think where she got the idea from. Those silly magazines she reads, I suppose. Of course, after Adam got a bit older, I could stop worrying about that sort of thing. I could trust him to look after his own upbringing, more or less."

"The books," said Adam.

"You didn't really like those, did you?" said Zirah. He seemed genuinely regretful. "Well, perhaps you hadn't quite grown into them yet. I did think it was safe to leave you lot alone by then, but after all, books never did anybody any harm. Maybe it would have helped if you had read them. I was wrong about its being safe to leave you be, wasn't I?"

Adam was gasping softly.

"No," he said. "No. I'm sorry, I dint -- "

"I'm very disappointed, Adam," said Zirah gently. "I trusted you to do the right thing. All my effort, and what do I come here to find? You about to bring Armageddon upon our heads. Is that any way for a big boy like you to behave?"

"I dint think -- "

"Oh, you have to think," said Zirah, and the knuckles of the hand on Adam's shoulder whitened. Adam whimpered.

"You have to think," Zirah said, "and think about thinking. You have to watch every thought, or everything could go wrong. You weren't careful enough, and look what it's all come to. Look how it's ended . . . "

"All your effort," said Caphriel, his voice cutting through Zirah's murmur like a knife. "What effort, Zirah?"

Zirah blinked, his focus dislodged for the moment.

"Oh -- nothing. Nothing to speak of," he said. "I was just doing my duty. But I did think Adam wouldn't let me down -- "

"That grave in the cemetery," said Caphriel, knowing even as he said it that Zirah wouldn't understand. Zirah had left thousands of graves behind him, in thousands of cemeteries, and he and Caphriel had never spoken the same language, after all. "How many more bodies lead from there? How many people have you killed since the day you borrowed this?" He shook the walking stick at Zirah.

Incredibly, Zirah looked annoyed.

"What on earth are you so cross about?" he said. "It was your idea in the first place. And it's all in a good cause.

"Anyway," he added conscientiously, "they didn't really count as people. Not all of them."

Caphriel felt himself start to shake. Adam's eyes widened with fear, and Caphriel forced himself to tamp down on his laughter.

"I just want to know," he said. "Why? Don't tell me you care about -- all this. Earth. And it's not a whim -- that might have explained the first death, but not eleven years' work. You've never bothered with anything for this long before. You didn't even spend this much time on Sodom and Gomorrah. So why all this? What's it been for?"

Zirah looked at him. For once his eyes were puzzled, and afraid, and Caphriel remembered, with a sudden shocking pain in his chest, how exactly it had felt to fall in love with him. How it had felt to be certain that Zirah could be fixed.

"I thought it would make a difference," said Zirah. "Nothing else has, but -- He'll see this. He can't help but see. And He'll understand, He'll know that I didn't mean it. He'll see that I'm making amends. It's all I've been doing, ever since -- you can vouch for it, can't you? You've seen it all. Everything I've done is for Him."

"I've seen it all," Caphriel echoed dully. He didn't recognise his own voice. It came out distorted, bizarrely toneless. "All this for that? Your own salvation? All these years . . . just for that?"

Zirah stared at him, bewildered.

"What do you mean?" he said. "I thought you'd understand. I can make him see, Caphriel. I can -- He'll know we're sorry. He'll realise He loves us. He'll -- " He choked on the next word.

Forgive, thought Caphriel. He didn't have to be told. He'd loved Zirah these six thousand years.

"I've always had faith," Zirah whispered. "You know that."

Zirah had him then. Caphriel would have given it all up just to touch him. It wasn't his fault, it was -- he was in so much pain. He'd hurt so much and for so long, without relief, without even understanding why he'd been hurt. Caphriel would have done anything to ease that pain.

But Zirah was excited. The sword slipped, and a bright line of red slicked Adam's throat. Adam squeaked, jolting Caphriel out of his dream.

Look at him, with his sword and his shining belief. When was the last time you believed like that in anything . . . angel? You and your walking stick, clenched in your sticky palm. You and your love. As if it proved anything new.

There's only ever one thing to do, only one truth to follow, and you've always known what it is.

You have a blunt instrument. You have blood on your hands, splashes from all those times you stood by and watched Zirah kill, and let it go.

You're an angel. Do your job and smite already.

Do your fucking job --

* * *

The walking stick described a lazy arc as it swung through the air, cutting through history.

It's amazing what you can turn into an instrument of God, if you put your mind to it.

* * *

"Well," said Newt unsteadily. "That's one thing you could do to him."

Zirah lay unconscious in the dust, sprawled awkwardly, like a doll flung to the floor. Everybody was very carefully not looking at him. The Them had edged around the quarry, keeping a wary distance from Zirah, and were now huddling anxiously around Adam.

Caphriel knelt down beside Adam. He'd gone all quiet and angelic again. It was difficult to know whether this was reassuring, or terrifying.

"Are you all right?" said Caphriel.

"No," said Adam. Tears ran skin-coloured tracks down his grubby face. "You hit him."

"I -- what?"

"It wasn't his fault, an' you hit him," said Adam. "Dint you see him? They'd hurt him, an' it never stopped hurting, an' you went an' hit him. What'd you go an' do that for?"

"A couple of reasons," said Caphriel evenly. "For one thing, he had a sword to your throat."

"Yeah," Pepper piped up. "Plus he was creepy."

"Yeah," chorused Brian and Wensleydale in unison. This was clearly something the Them felt strongly about.

Adam waved these considerations away impatiently.

"He couldn't hurt me," he said.

"Yes, he could," said Caphriel. "Trust me. He could."

"No, he couldn't," said Adam. "I'm not sayin' he wouldn't've. But he couldn't hurt me." He looked at Caphriel, his blue eyes boring into the back of Caphriel's skull and seeing everything. "You know."

"Maybe," said Caphriel. "What would you have done if I hadn't hit him?"

"I'd've stopped him," said Adam. "An' -- an' made it better. I could've -- "

"No," said Caphriel. "That you couldn't have done. Not even you."

He got up, moving like an old, old man, as if every year he'd lived was settling into his bones.

"Leave him to me," he said. "I've seen him for nearly as long as we've both lived. I know him. It's mine to do. It's my right."

"But, but," Adam stammered. "I could -- "

"I know you could," said Caphriel. "Let me."

He didn't wait for Adam's hesitant nod before turning and crouching by Zirah, regarding the slack face with an odd blankness. Something about the slump of his shoulders mirrored Zirah's limp sprawl, as if he had been hit too, and Zirah's defeat was his.

Anathema joined him. Newt was staring at the sky.

"What are you going to do?" said Anathema.

"I'll take care of it," said Caphriel, almost indifferently. "Don't worry."

"Um," said Newt. "Actually, maybe you should worry . . ."

Anathema followed his line of sight upward. "Newt?"

"I don't think -- "

Lightning blazed out of the sky, and the humans in the Pit flung up their hands to shield their eyes. When they dropped their hands, the Pit was a little fuller than it had been before. Adam and Caphriel, wrapped in their respective griefs, didn't seem to notice.

For a moment there was no sound but the crackle of the flames and Adam's sobs.

"Huh," said Pepper. "More weird people." The Them moved into a protective cluster, with Adam at their centre. They were growing somewhat jaundiced about creepy grown-ups appearing abruptly in their midst.

"I am the Metatron," said the man made of golden fire.

"You lot've all got weird names," said Brian, in a tone that indicated he was in no mood to give them the benefit of the doubt by putting their names down to the eccentricities of their parents.

"Silenzzz," said Beelzebub. "We have buzinezzz to attend to."

"Do, you hab'dt," said Adam quietly. A sudden gust of wind set the two columns of fire flickering.

"I beg your pardon?" said the Metatron.

Adam blew his nose noisily into his T-shirt, then wiped it clean -- or at least marginally less grubby -- on his sleeve.

"I said, no, you haven't," said Adam. "You haven't any business here. Leave us alone."

"Really, young man," said the Metatron, "we understand that you're upset, but we cannot allow a few hitches to hold up the ultimate war of good and evil. There is a Plan -- "

"There's lots of plans," said Adam. "An' you're followin' the wrong one. Stop messin' around and go home. It's over."

"Your dezztiny," buzzed Beelzebub, but they would never know what he thought of Adam's destiny, because Adam whirled on him and screamed,

"Go away!"

Lightning split the sky in half, and thunder rumbled through the clouds. Rank upon rank of angels and demons staggered; weapons clattered onto the firmament, and the sound of celestial swearing mingled with the fury of the skies.

Beelzebub and the Metatron stepped back as one supernatural representative, their flames roiling.

It began to rain.

"Go away!" shouted Adam. "Always messin' about! I tol' you I wasn't int'rested in your stupid plan, an' I mean it, so take your rotten soldiers an' go play somewhere else! Go on!"

"But -- "

"Go away," said Adam. The figures of flame were melting away, and the skies heaved in a way that confused the eye and hurt the brain. "Go away, go away, go away, go away . . . "

And then there was nothing in the air but rain, and the clouds were only clouds. The Earth was its own again.

"Adam," said Anathema, after a while.

"Go away," sniffed Adam. Anathema put an arm around him.

"Your father's here," she said.

"Tol' him to go away, too," said Adam.

"What's been going on here?" said Mr. Young, frowning. "Adam! What have you been -- "

"Mr. Young, your son has had a long day, and he's very tired," said Anathema firmly. "I think you should take him home."

Mr. Young stared at the company in bewilderment, his gaze screeching to a halt at Caphriel, still hunkered over Zirah's prone body.

"But this is outrageous," he sputtered. "I demand to know -- "

"We'll talk about it in the morning," said Anathema, in a voice like steel. "Right now, you need to see to Adam."

Mr. Young flung a last glance at Caphriel, but then his eyes tripped over Adam's tear-smudged face, and locked onto the blood drying on his throat.

"What's this?" He inspected the cut, humphing in an embarrassed sort of way when it was clear that there was no serious damage. "Well -- well. We'd best get this looked to. Your mother will have a fit."

He ruffled Adam's hair awkwardly, and looked over the rest of the Them.

"You lot had better come along as well, I suppose," he said. "I'm sure I don't know what your mothers and fathers will say when they see the state of you. Don't drag your feet, I haven't got all day."

As the sounds of a long-suffering parent chivvying tired, cranky children into a car drifted into the quarry, Newt stopped beside Caphriel. He considered waiting in respectful silence until Caphriel looked up, but that would probably involve waiting a very long time.

"Need a lift?" said Newt.

Caphriel spread a pale, long-fingered hand over Zirah's chest.

"Yeah," he said. Then he looked up, and the smile beneath the sunglasses was wry, though a little tired. "I'll buy you a drink."

"It's a deal," said Newt.

The smile widened, and Newt felt a wash of gratitude for the invention of sunglasses. He suspected Caphriel's eyes were nothing any human wanted to see.

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