* * *

Chapter 9

* * *

This was the worst torture Zirah inflicted on his victims. He called it Being Sensible About Things.

"Let's be sensible," he would say earnestly, or else, "Do be sensible," or even, "If you'd just think about it sensibly. . . ."

All the fight had gone out of Hastur. He was weeping brokenly, wretchedly and without shame, like a child. Unlike most children, however, he wept for no reason but that it relieved his, for the lack of a better word, heart. He expected no other relief to come from his tears.

With any other demon, he would have been killed long ago -- demons were simply embarrassed by tears in a fellow demon. Signs of weakness were all right: signs of weakness in another demon were, in fact, signs of impending promotion, but tears like those Hastur shed were just bloody irritating. They were the tears you cried when nothing was left, not even the certainty that it couldn't get any worse. They reminded demons uncomfortably of Hell, in which most demons manage to survive quite contentedly by forgetting how unpleasant it is.

Hastur hadn't cried since he had been cast down from Heaven, and the holy tears had scalded his face even as they left his eyes. He was making a horrible creaking sound, like a rusty pulley, and tears kept coming out of the wrong orifices when he wasn't concentrating -- his ears kept leaking -- but he was making a damned good try, all the same. It was distressing Zirah, although not in the right way. He made no sign of finishing Hastur off quickly.

"My dear fellow, bear up," he said heartily. "For shame, a big demon like you crying! There's nothing I can do about it. You must consider the circumstances, you know. You must -- oh, blow your nose, man!"

He thrust a cambric handkerchief in Hastur's face. Hastur ignored it. A tear trickled out of what was left of his mouth.

Zirah knelt in front of Hastur. Hastur twitched.

"Look," Zirah said, "I can't very well have you around, can I? You know I'm always glad to see a colleague, but I'm a busy -- man. I've got work to do. Yes, you would be glad to help, and I'm sure you're excellent in your own line, I've always admired your efficiency, but Earth isn't your area. You would only get in the way. And . . ."

Zirah paused. He didn't like to touch upon the delicate subject of Hastur's purpose in bumping into him at a time when Hastur didn't seem to be up to it, but he felt it would only hinder communication to pretend that Hastur was just visiting him to have a nice cup of tea and a chat about the weather.

"And then there's this business of murdering," he said vaguely.

"Murdering?" squeaked Hastur. Tears started dripping out of his ears again.

"Me," explained Zirah.

"I wouldn't mind it in the ordinary way," he added hastily. "We've all got to follow our orders, don't I know it, and it's always nice to have a holiday from work, see how things are down in -- down in the old club. Smell the old brimstone and sulphur, that sort of thing. But you see, one has one's obligations, and this is a bad time. There's that latest shipment I just received, and I'm supervising a group of nice young men, they're thinking of going into the terro -- freedom fighting line; all they need is a little encouragement. And what with the mess in the Middle East, and this and that, I really can't spare the time for a visit below.

"Oh, and there's the Antichrist, too," Zirah said absently. "I have great hopes for him. So you see, I couldn't possibly get away right now."

"Hopes?" croaked Hastur.

Zirah looked at the wrecked, twitching form, his eyes grave and kind.

"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to tell you," he said, and he bent and whispered a single word in Hastur's ear.

Hastur's eyes widened.

"You're nuts," he said, telling the plain unvarnished truth for the first time in centuries.

Zirah stabbed his eyes out, and went away. He spent a full half hour dutifully trying to recall any good memories he had of Hastur, and finally settled on a memory that was only mildly unpleasant. Then he forgot all about it.

There was still such a lot to be done.

Behind him, in the darkness, a whispered word hung quiet in the air. And Hastur, in pieces, laughed a hideous bubbling laugh.

He was still laughing when he died.

* * *

It was hours later, in a cemetery.

Caphriel would wish later that he'd never gone, never asked Anathema to tell him what had happened in the cemetery. He'd just -- he'd wanted to find Zirah. Ostensibly his reason was that Zirah had answers to questions Caphriel hardly dared to voice to himself, but the truth was, what with one thing and another, Caphriel could barely remember the shape of his rage. He remembered why he was angry, and he knew why he was there, but all outrage had been supplanted by a simple need to see Zirah, even more than to know what was going on.

The imminence of the end of the world hung over his head like a lowering storm cloud. He wanted to stop it. He had no idea how to go about doing that.

Zirah. If he found Zirah, everything would make more sense.

This had never proved true in the past -- things generally made less sense when Zirah was involved -- but Caphriel clung to the thought as the only certainty in the confused darkness of the world. Find Zirah: everything else could wait till later.

So here he was, and his life was about to change in a way he'd never looked for but always dreaded.

For now, though, it was green and quiet, and the dead made no reproaches. Anathema Device was pacing around the cemetery, trying to retrace the steps of the men-shaped beings she'd seen, and Newt was wrestling with the door of the Wasabi, muttering things like, "Not much hurt," and "Good as new," with a sort of hopeless, determined cheerfulness. Nothing seemed about to pounce out of the shadows and do horrible things to Caphriel.

He let himself relax, just a little.

And then he saw it.

* * *

If anyone had told Anathema she would be spending the few precious hours before the last day of the world began telling an angel about a confrontation she'd witnessed between gun-toting disappearing men who weren't actually men at all, she would have lau -- well. She probably wouldn't have laughed. She'd probably have first ascertained that the person wasn't clairvoyant and consulted Agnes to make sure, but then she would have laughed. Heartily, too.

This seemed to be exactly what she was doing, however. It was funny how life worked that way. You just never knew what was going to happen. Even having an ancestor who'd written the only accurate book of prophecies in history didn't help, especially as that ancestor not only was unable to spell, but also seemed to have spent most of her life drunk, off her head, or, more usually, both.

"He was here," said Anathema. She was standing in front of a small grey tombstone. She turned a circle, slowly. "There were two other me -- two others. One of them was hiding behind a bush, over there." She indicated a clump of shrubbery some distance away from where she was standing.

"I remember thinking that was odd," she added. She looked up. Caphriel was standing some way away, head tipped back. His sunglasses glinted in the dying sunlight.

"I said, I thought that was odd," she said, raising her voice.

"No," said Caphriel. He didn't move. "Just instinct. He probably knew Zirah."

Then he dropped his head, rolling his shoulders, and turned to face Anathema.

"What happened then?"

"I couldn't hear much," said Anathema. "But the one not in the bush was threatening your friend. He had a gu -- "

She stopped, looking at Caphriel anxiously, but his face was smooth and untroubled. The corner of his mouth quirked up.

"Armed, was he? That was clever," he said, with an amusement that had nothing of mirth in it.

"Your friend, is he going to be okay?" said Anathema uncertainly. Caphriel shrugged.

"He isn't," he said.

There was a pause. Newt's voice drifted over from the car, muttering, "Take more than that to put you out for good, eh?" He didn't sound terribly certain about it.

"Ah," said Anathema. She coughed. "Well, as I was saying . . ."

Caphriel let his attention wander.

He liked graveyards. Zirah mocked him gently about this -- it's all a part of the black clothes and the sunglasses, he said. You're such a poseur. The affection and humour were comforting and deeply unsettling at the same time; Caphriel was never quite sure if he liked it or if Zirah in a light mood made him nervous.

But his fondness for cemeteries wasn't put on. There was something inexpressibly soothing about them, about the end of earthly life. Caphriel liked thinking that whatever the people under the soil had suffered, the worst was over now. There was something selfish in it as well -- now that they were dead, they were out of his jurisdiction. They weren't his responsibility anymore. He didn't have to worry about them; somebody else -- somebody probably far better-equipped for the job -- was taking care of it.

It was small and cowardly, and it'd given him more than one sleepless night agonising about his sins, but that didn't negate the feeling of peace death gave him.

And really, thought Caphriel later, he should've known better, because when was anything ever that simple? As if you could simply cut off at one point and say, it isn't my business anymore. I can't do anything about it. As if you could stop.

It was always his business. There was no such thing as not being able to do anything about it. That wasn't even the issue. You just went ahead and tried anyway, fuck what you could or couldn't do.

He could no longer remember whether this was part of his being an angel or whether it was something he'd learnt over the years on Earth, but he knew it was as much a part of him as the wings and the sunglasses.

Trying to kid himself about it was as much use as telling himself that everything would work out all right. And because Fate was a bitch and God for all His loving-kindness was ineffable (and wasn't that just a splendid excuse), the world decided to remind him in the most painful way it possibly could.

There was a tombstone. There was a verse on it, and one date.

They'd only needed one.

"Caphriel?" said Anathema. Caphriel heard it through the roaring that filled his ears, but her voice was pale beside his suddenly vivid-hued thoughts. He ignored the panic in the witch's voice and stepped forward, kneeling in one controlled movement.

He was distantly aware that he was moving too carefully, like someone who'd had to learn how to work a human body. He found, with some surprise, that it wasn't because he was afraid of falling to pieces if he let go of the control. There was a saying for the situation, he thought, something to do with horses and barn doors. A part of his mind searched for the precise wording, chased after a remembered fragment of a Sumerian proverb that meant the same thing, compared the imagery of both phrases, wondered at the real absence of any impulse to scream. The rest of him moved his hand, tracing his fingers over the lettering on the stone.

It was small and neat in an apologetic sort of way. Some space had been cleared around it, and someone had left flowers. It had been looked after, unlike most of the other graves. That was probably what had caught Caphriel's eye.

There was no name on it. The chi -- it hadn't lived long enough for it to be given a name, Caphriel thought with that strange detachment, as if his mind was a million years away from the rest of him, the part of him that could hurt. Anyway, there had been no-one to name it.

Zirah could have done it, but he wouldn't have felt it was right.

Caphriel could see him, standing over the grave in some absurd mockery of mourning -- no, worse than a mockery, because the mourning would have been genuine. Zirah did sorrow so well. He would have been wearing something black, watching with tear-filled eyes as the pathetic little body was lowered into the ground. And his grief would have been as real as anything else about him. Caphriel had felt it before, digging into him with poison-tipped claws.

Zirah had stood here, and he'd dared to cry for what lay under the tombstone. He'd dared to buy the stone, with its lonely date (one date, for birth and death), and the words strung across it like a curse.

He'd dared.

Caphriel curled his fingers, the stone scraping resentful lines along his skin, and felt faith howl into him like a blizzard.

* * *

Of course, just when Newt'd got the door shut and the Wasabi properly locked against any marauding car thieves that might be lurking in Tadfield, Caphriel got up and said in a voice like ice,

"Let's go."

Anathema'd still been talking, and she blinked, off-balance. Newt had a suspicion that being off-balance wasn't something she was used to. It took an angel bringing news of the end of the world to shake Anathema Device. He welled with absurdly proprietary pride.

"But -- you wanted to know -- "

"I know enough," said Caphriel. Something had changed. His face was the same, but his voice . . . there was something in it, pain half-scabbed over and badly-hidden. "We should go. There isn't much time."

"To do what?" said Anathema, exasperation trumping bewilderment.

Caphriel's head turned towards her, and it was weird, but he looked calmer than he had yet in the short time Newt had known him. He wasn't searching anymore. Somehow it made him genuinely inhuman, in a way he hadn't been when he'd just been a bloke in flashy sunglasses.

"Save the world," he said, in the way people have when they're saying something obvious but don't care if you know it or not.

He swept out of the cemetery like vengeance in a black coat. Newt let Anathema follow him, demanding explanations. He made his way among the tombstones, kneeling beside the one that Caphriel had been looking at.

There were crushed flowers on the grave. Caphriel probably had dead flower smeared on his knees. Newt studied them as if they offered some kind of answer. For some reason, he didn't want to look at the stone.

Then he did.

He was half-disappointed to find that it was nothing special. There was no name on it, and only one date -- that was odd; Newt was no specialist on tombstones, but he'd thought they generally came with two dates on. There was more: a quote, the sort of Biblical stuff they always put on tombstones. "Suffer the little children to come unto me," said Newt aloud to himself. "That's not even from Revelations."

"No," said Caphriel. "Are you coming?"

He was standing behind Newt with his hands in his pockets, looking enigmatic and black-clad. Newt got up slowly, dusting himself off for something to do with hands. He was surprised to realise that he was afraid -- real, knee-weakening, thunder-and-lightning fear. He was vibrating slightly. He gritted his teeth so they wouldn't chatter.

Caphriel looked at the tombstone, his face a mask.

"The filth," he said, sick loathing in his voice. He turned on his foot and walked away.

"Suffer the little children to come unto me," Newt whispered. He'd been right the first time. There was an answer in that.

Suffer the little children.


It wasn't a good answer.

Newt raised his head, staring after Caphriel's retreating back, and wondered what he'd got himself into.

<< >>

the sacred and the profane | good omens | fanfiction | mail