“Good nothing. Did you happen to notice what we just drove through? Why are you people here playing games with me when you should have your troops and firepower out there burning down those Drifters?”
“Los Angeles isn’t our concern anymore. These lost souls will be dealt with by God. Or not.”
She gives me a conspiratorial wink.
“My guess is not.”
“It’s every man for himself now? I must have missed that Commandment. Why did you send those Lacunas after me? They almost sliced a friend of mine.”
“Whoever the friend was, I’m sure they deserved it. And I didn’t send any golems after you. Marshal Wells was good enough to put a tracking device on you, but that’s all. Trust me, if I had sent something, it wouldn’t have been to frighten you.”
She’s telling the truth. I can’t read angels like civilians, but the angel inside me can and it isn’t picking up any lies. So, who would want me to stop what I’m doing? Cabal? Aki? His mother or someone working for her? Maybe. Maybe it’s Brigitte’s people wanting me to stay out of their business. Hell, Fiona and Tracy might have talked to some of the other zombie minders. They all have reasons for wanting me not to get too close to a Savant. Not that worrying about it really matters. Cabal is already dead. Aki, Koralin, or whoever else it might have been won’t get another chance to ambush me. Everything ends tonight. All debts paid. All accounts closed. Tonight is the end of someone’s world. If it’s mine, it’s going to be messy.
Wells turns to someone in his crew.
“Marshal Sola, arrest this man.”
Marshal Julie looks even more uncomfortable. But she reaches under her jacket and pulls out a set of handcuffs.
Aelita shakes her head.
“No. We’ve discussed this. We’re not doing that. Not with his type. He’s a walking heresy. An Abomination, and anywhere he stays or stands becomes corrupt, even prison. Kill him.”
Wells looks at her for a minute, then at me. He turns to his people and gives a small nod. Suddenly I’m looking down the barrels of an awful lot of guns.
“Did you forget what we talked about a few months ago over donuts? The dead man’s switch and the Mithras?”
“Yes, if you die, the Mithras will be loosed and it will set fire to all creation. I remember. And I know you’re lying. You’re too attached to this world to let that happen.”
“You silly bitch, you’re going to kill everyone in L.A. because you’re too good to help them? How many Deadly Sins is that? Pride. Anger. Greed. Envy, too, maybe?”
Aelita turns away from me. I take a couple of steps toward her and a bullet rips into my right arm. It’s Ray, the Shut-Eye, getting back a little of his own. I look at him and he seems as surprised as anyone else that he fired. Without a verbal order, the other marshals are unsure if they should follow up.
Ray’s bullet is just a grazing shot. It ripped off a lot of skin near the deltoid. Surface shots can tear up a lot of nerves and nine times out of ten they hurt more than a killing shot. This one burns like a hot wire pressed against my arm from the shoulder to the wrist. I hate to admit it, but the pain catches me off guard. It comes quickly enough that I close my eyes reflexively when it hits. I don’t see Aelita turn to her people, but I hear her voice.
“You are the Golden Vigil. Holy Crusaders on a mission from Heaven. You have no reason or right to hesitate. Kill the Abomination.”
It’s her voice that hits me, not the threat. Something about the deep and beyond-time certainty of her tone. It’s like she’s shouting my death from the bottom of a well halfway across the galaxy and a billion miles deep. When she tells the marshals to kill me, she’s really giving the order to kill the world. She’s an angel. She’s seen stars and worlds come and go. We’re just mayflies living on this one. Maybe humans really are made in God’s image. That makes us harder to kill, but sweeter, too. Angels want revenge. Everything alive wants revenge, even if it’s simply for the affliction of existence. The sound of my death sentence and the death of everything I’ve ever known, cared about, or hated rattles and clangs in my skull, getting heavier every second as the weight of all the aeons it took to get from the Big Bang to my ears drops down on me. God went to all the trouble of creating the universe, the angels, the stars, and this world just to murder us. Alice and me and everyone else.
Even angels want revenge. Everything alive wants revenge.
The moment the thought crystallizes, Aelita wins. The solar winds and deadly vacuum freezing the empty space between the stars blows the last of Stark away. He falls into the dark. He doesn’t make a sound. He’s not surprised. He saw this moment coming. He fixes his eyes on me as he falls. That’s the last I see of him, the light reflected in his eyes as they go from white orbs to pinpoints to nothing. Then he’s gone and I’m alone.
Only the angel left in here. No humans allowed.
My eyes are still closed. The world has gone electric. I hear the rustle of fabric and the stretching of muscles and tendons as the marshals adjust their stances. Their heartbeats and breath go from fear to resignation. Ripples spread out like waves in a pond from their fingers as they increase the pressure on gun triggers. Metal shifts against lubricated metal. The muscles in their arms tighten. They’re already anticipating the explosions when the guns go off. The sound. Muzzle flash. Recoil. The pleasant reek of cordite.
I’m not angry or concerned. Time is slow and cold and it never stops. What’s going to happen will happen and nothing will stop it.
My arm burns and the heat throbs all the way down to the bone.
I hear a rattle of explosions as the marshals fire.
I’m not afraid. I see all this happening from the bottom of a well halfway across the galaxy and a billion miles deep.
The pain in my arm makes me double up. I’m burning alive.
When I open my eyes, the marshals’ bullets glide toward me in slow motion. I sweep my arm across them and my arm is made of fire. The bullets glow red, then blue, then white, and disappear like they’re made of steam. I swing my arm back and a dozen human faces gape at me. I look at my arm. It’s not burning, but it’s glowing red from the heat of the flaming Gladius in my hand. An angel’s weapon. Something Stark would never be capable of summoning, much less holding, but it’s my birthright.
The marshals don’t know what to do. They’re here for Stark, but Stark shouldn’t be able to manifest the sword. They don’t know that I’m not Stark anymore. I’d try to explain it to them, but they’re busy pulling triggers, filling the air with more slow-motion metal snowflakes. I brush them away like moths and keep moving.
I kill Ray first. He started the bullet party, so he deserves the first dance. His eyes open wide. He expects a high blow, that I’ll slice him from above, so I swing the fire blade under and up, taking off his legs. Before his torso hits the ground, I swing again and give him the downward stroke he was looking for. I take two more Vigil agents in the time it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wings. I cut each of them in half at the waist and let them collapse onto each other, the top half of each man trying to hold the other up so he won’t follow the other down. I catch the next marshal with a thrust into his gut. He’d already moved into fighting position while I was killing the first three, and when I stab him, his gun goes off by my ear. The ejected shell bounces off my temple. Before it hits the floor, I’ve pulled the blade up and out through his head. As I kill the others, each gets off one or two shots. In their confusion, most of their bullets hit each other. Ejected shells arc through the air and bounce off my cheeks and chest. The last few marshals all fire at once. The shots I can’t sidestep, I vaporize with the blade. When eleven are dead I move in to kill the last one, but when I raise the Gladius my arms stay up. She’s not like the others.
I stare at Marshal Julie for a moment and lower the burning sword to my side.
“You’re Sub Rosa,” I say.
“We try to be like them. To have a few eyes everywhere, like them,” she says, inclining her head toward Wells and Aelita.
I look down at the gun in her hand. The steel barrel is black and cold. No trace of warmth there. She didn’t fire. When she sees that I’ve seen, she shakes her head.
“I wouldn’t hurt you. You’re one of us.”
“No. I’m not.”
That scares her, but it’s not what I intended.
“You should go now,” I tell her.
“No she shouldn’t.”
I turn and there’s Wells with a big .50 Desert Eagle pointed at my head. He gives me his Clint Eastwood stare. He’s scared to death, but disciplined enough that it doesn’t matter. He’d kill me without hesitation or regret if I let him.
He says, “If she’s a pixie spy, she can rot in prison alive and in Hell right next to you when she’s dead. You killed my people and she just stood there. Fuck both of you.”
I’m running at him with the Gladius at throat level, but Aelita is already moving to him and she’s closer. She’s as fast as I am, so while she’s a blur to others, to me she looks like a normal woman walking to a man and plucking a gun from his hand. She holds the pistol with the barrel up to indicate she isn’t going to shoot. I stop, but keep the Gladius high.
In real time, human time, Marshal Wells looks at his empty hand and starts. He turns, looking for his weapon.
Aelita shows him that she has it. He doesn’t say a word. His gaze is as puzzled as it is wounded.
“We’re done here,” she tells him.
“What?” shouts Wells.
She tosses the gun aside and points at me.
“He can manifest the Gladius. How is that possible? The answer is: it’s not. But there he is and there it is. This is a divine sign.”
“We can’t let him walk away. You said that with the others gone, stopping him was the most important thing.”
Aelita smiles. She goes to Wells, puts a hand on his cheek.
“Things have changed. Look at him. He has no purpose. He won’t survive what’s to come. Soon enough, he’ll be back in Hell, where he belongs. The other rogue angels were the dangerous ones and they’re being dealt with.”
I move with angelic speed and grab Wells. Hold the Gladius in front of his face.
“What about the other angels? What have you done?”
“This day has been a long time coming. I know that the marshal explained it all to you. I heard him tell you the story. The one set in Persia about the troubled man who went away and left his family behind. But his shadow remained and became head of the house and took care of them. I look at you, an Abomination with the Gladius, and I know for certain that our Father has truly abandoned us. But I am the shadow on the wall. I will become the Father and I will never leave my family behind. The troubled Father has lost his way and must be dealt with: mercifully, lovingly, but he must be dealt with.”
“Where are Kinski and Lucifer?”
“Alive as far as I know, but they’ll both be dead soon enough. One might already be. Who knows? Only one will die by my hand.”
I press the Gladius closer to Wells’s throat. The flame singes the hair on the side of his head. Instinctively he tries to move away, but I don’t let him.
“Which one are you going to kill?”
“Go to your master’s room and see for yourself.”
I toss Wells across the parking lot and charge Aelita. She manifests her sword, swings it easily, and meets my blade. The jolt throws me back onto the Beamer’s trunk, where I leave a Stark-size dent. I roll off onto the ground, seeing stars.
“Just because you have a Gladius doesn’t make you a true angel. It merely confirms that you’re a freak.”
Aelita helps Wells to his feet. He looks like he still wants to put a bullet in my head, but he’d have to be able to stand up on his own to do that and he won’t be doing much of anything for the rest of the night.
Aelita says, “Stark, I know you won’t believe me when I say thank you, but I mean it sincerely. The scales have fallen from my eyes. You’ve opened the Glory Road and shown me that it was finally time to act. I’ll always be grateful to you for that. Bless you.”
She guides Wells back to the lead van and helps him into the passenger seat. He’s limping and holding one arm across his chest. I hold on to the Beamer’s bumper and haul myself to my feet. My Gladius has gone out, so I pull the Smith & Wesson. It’s empty, but still looks intimidating.
“I’m not going to let you leave and kill an angel.”
Aelita smiles at me. Exactly the kind of beneficent smile you’d want from one of God’s chosen ones.
“I’m done with this world, you, and the fallen angels who wallow with you in humanity’s filth. Sin, destroy, and corrupt this world to your heart’s content. I’m called to something more beautiful than you can imagine. I will become the Father and I will take care of my family. But before I do, I’m going home to kill God.”
Aelita closes Wells’s door, goes around to the driver’s side, starts the engine, and drives away.
I DRAG AKI from the BMW and push him ahead of me into the lobby. He limps and whines and I’m seriously thinking of hurting him some more, but the Chateau’s lobby shuts him up.
The place is a meat market. The streets looked bad, but seeing the remains of what must be twenty to thirty people in an enclosed space is shocking even by the standards of what I saw Downtown. The scene is made merry because groups of zeds are still working on the human leftovers. They notice Aki and me coming in, drop the femurs and livers and brains they’d been snacking on, and come for us. I send out a “Sit, Stay” order with the Druj and they go back to eating the hotel’s guests.