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"We drew our arms around the bastard sons
We never would drink to the chosen ones
Well you know the way I left was not the way I planned
But I thought the world needed love and a steady hand
So I'm steady now."
-- Dar Williams

E dietro le venia si lunga tratta
di gente, ch'i non averei creduto
che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta.
-- Dante, "The Inferno"
[Behind that banner trailed so long a line of people, I had not thought that death could have unmade so many souls.]

Stone piled upon stone. Brick piled upon brick. A capstone that had once crowned the archway to a park; a child's rag-doll, burned and battered, lying where it had fallen. Nothing and no one stirred; the city was nothing but wreckage, and dust and gravel lined the streets.

The only creatures left alive in the city were the rats and the vultures. They had long since picked the bones clean, and now sought some other sustenance. Three years had not been kind to the wreckage of Nimrod; not even the scavengers had lingered long.

The moon bled its light over the landscape, lending it an otherworldly grace. It felt like a painting, almost; oil given flesh, lines given form.

A soft footfall sounded, weight on broken clay.

It was hastily silenced. The owner of that foot was barely visible, even in the silver of the moonlight; thin, haggard, the mark of long years of abuse painted on his face. He was wrapped in a long, heavy wool cloak, painted with shadows, as he moved through the dream-like city, and the faintest hint of a limp marred his stride. His eyes searched the wreckage, looking for some sign. Any sign.

~The trail three years cold, and I not yet healed -- yet I must begin somewhere. And where else to begin but where he began?~ Samael stooped to brush a small rill of dust away from a door that had fallen into what remained of the street, and squinted to read the name that had once been carved on the nameplate. ~He was here. He had been here. That much, I know.~ His thoughts were as weary as he was, tumbling over each other in barely-formed cadences. ~I have no other clues, save for the thought that he has been here; and so I must begin, and I shall not rest until I find him.~

He did not know, but there was another in the ruins; that other man's footfalls were quieter, his movements less abrupt. A shadow, slipping behind the traveler: utterly silent, stopping when he did, continuing when he did, barely scant feet behind. Hunting was not an exercise he had perfected, but the experience he drew on was not his own, should not have been available to him. Cold, hard eyes looked out onto the moonlit ruins, and waited.

Perhaps Samael felt those eyes; perhaps he simply gave in to the suspicion that had barely begun to dawn. He should not have been that weary, he thought; he should not have been that careless. ~Truly, my skills have grown rusty; truly, I should no longer think of myself as a guardian. Ten years imprisioned have worn away my skills as surely as ten years asleep would have.~ The suspicion had been growing since it had first been planted in his mind, deep in the hals of Solaris, while reading through the data banks that contained nothing but dry, distant figures; now, it began to flower, and as he straightened to move down that which had once been a street -- had once been a street with children playing, families passing, that which would never be a street again -- he lifted his hands to lower the hood of his clook. The moonlight spilled over his dark hair as he listened for any sounds in the false noon of moonlight.

In the shadows, nothing stirred. Nothing moved, simply waited, not even bothering to lift a hand to brush the errant lock of hair from his face.

No sound; no breath. Yet something was there, and Samael took a step forward. His lame leg scraped on the gravel and the broken cobblestones once more. The shadow-movement was no true motion, nothing but the hallucination of one who seeks to see something within, but that did not stop him. He took another step forward and cried out, his voice rough, grating: "Lacan!"

"I no longer go by that name," came the voice in return: soft, alarmingly so, for the cloaked man heard it quite clearly, almost directly in his ear. "Do not shout. This city paid dearly to earn its silence."

Samael whirled around, his heart leaping to sound in his ears; one hand went to his waist, where a sword rested beneath his cloak, but the speed of his turning imbalanced him, throwing far too much weight on that injury. For a crucial half-second, he was certain he would fall, sprawl out at the other's feet like some discarded child's toy; but the time he recovered, he knew he had lost any chance of possibly recovering some form of the upper hand. It took a long moment before he could even summon proper words to respond. "By what name shall I call you, then?" he asked, dark eyes studying the man who had somehow managed to hide in plain sight behind him, not liking what he saw. The young man -- terribly familiar -- stood before him straight and slender, wearing the crumpled fatigues of the Nisan army and a standard issue shoulderpack: functional travel clothing, though torn and dirtied. He could have been any one of a hundred sad but victorious soldiers of that war, were it not for the fact that he did not have the look of a fighter; the clothes were too big on him, worn like a partially discarded skin.

The face was familiar. The eyes were not. They were the eyes of a dead man, given flesh to walk the earth once more, and call down the harrowing of hell upon those who had done him wrong. "I thought it would be wise to think of something more ... fitting," the young man said, his lips curving in a serpentine smile. "You may call me Grahf. Perhaps you recall the meaning. Perhaps not. You don't seem to recall much, these days."

"Grahf," Samael whispered; the weight of the other man's words began to curl around his heart, as the word brought his mind backwards through the years. It conjured up images; a silvered city, a proud and suicidal race. "'Knowing too much'. I ... I had not thought there were any to walk the earth who still knew the language of the Zeboiim." He moved a little, a half-step forward, as if in entreaty; reconsidered the motion, and leaned his weight, heavily, on his good leg. "Lacan, what has befallen you?"

"'To know too much', actually. 'Knowing too much' would be igrahft, and while that may fit better, you must allow me my artistic license." The words were cold, cutting, any intended humor lost to his tone. "But I imagine you knew that. You were always so good with words, Nahor."

Perhaps the name was the last piece in the puzzle, the name he had gone by in that city so long ago, the name he had not heard spoken for thousands of years. "You know," Samael whispered, softly, his eyes wide and disbelieving; he could feel the shock beginning to spread through his body. "How is it that you know?"

Lacan, as an answer, only held out his hands, which he had kept by his sides. "Zohar has spoken to me, Raphael." Those hands were burned, horribly, as if they had been thrust into a flame and held there, grasping for the fire and heat. "Zohar has spoken to me, and I will not paint again."

Samael slowly shook his head, as if to negate the very sight that his eyes narrated to him. "You have ... you have touched Zohar," he repeated, unnecessarily. His voice was but a whisper, a shadowed ghost of what it once was. "Sweet suffering God of our fathers, Lacan, what has been done to you?" Off-balance, grasping for answers, he knew with a bone-deep knowledge that he had failed, and desperately feared that failure to be unredeemable.

Lacan drew his hands back, even as his eyes narrowed. "That is a very good question. But you are in no position to be asking questions." He took a step closer, his eyes going to the sword beneath Samael's cloak with something very akin to contempt. "I have a few myself. More pressing ones, I would think."

Without taking his eyes from Lacan's face, Samael bowed his head. "Ask," he said, his voice dropping back to the hushed tone that this city seemed to demand. "Ask, and I shall answer what I may." He looked back up, eyes meeting Lacan's with a boldness he did not feel. "That much, at least, I may give, little and late though it might be."

The cruelly neutral expression on Lacan's face shifted, suddenly, to one of anger and loathing; brought about by time and pain, a hundred centuries of remembered transgressions taking voice and form. "I was told of you. Abel created you, so that you would look after us. You lighted the way for Alistair, and for Kim, and for Jason. You saved Dennis from a life of poverty on the streets. You guided Alexander onto another path before he could self-destruct. So many times, so many people. So tell me, Dafid. Where were you when I was preparing to destroy myself? What was more important than your precious Contact?"

Each word was a lance, guided straight to Samael's heart. "Had I been free," he whispered, softly, "I would have been by your side; but I have been prisoned in Shevat, these last ten years, and only freed this past sevenday." He lifted a hand, the folds of his cloak shifting and falling from his arms; not quite daring to reach out, but wishing that he might. "You must believe me, Lacan. It was not by my will that I was kept from you..."

Lacan snorted, his face retaining the cruel animation. "Ten years? And where were you before that? Where were you when my parents never wrote me, where were you when I was shaken with self-doubt, where were you when I was made to feel weak and helpless because I was not my father? I was weak before, my entire life, but I am weak no longer. How convenient that you start looking for me /now/."

Samael closed his eyes as the words struck him. The accusations stung harder because there was, indeed, mroe than a grain of truth to them; he knew that he could never begin to justfy, never begin to explain that he had duties beyond that which were immediately obvious. "I did not know," he whispered, into the velvet darkness behind his eyes. "I know it is cold consolation, but I did not /know/..."

A little soft sound, that could almost be a growl. "I was dragged into that war, not as a soldier, not as anyone important, but as a mere scribe. I sat in on all the important meetings, ignored for the most part. They all claimed me as a friend, but I was no comrade to them. And to think, that I am actually intended to play a role in God's final plan! Who would have guessed?" He lowered his head slightly, eyes ablaze. "This is what you were created to protect me from," he hissed. "This is what you spent over nine thousand years preparing for, Aaron." Another step forward. "I was thrown to wolves."

Samael lifted his head, a bit of strength coming back into his features. "And for that fact, I am more repentant than you could possibly know," he hissed, his words thrown between them almost like a gauntlet. "Yet had I not been left to rot in that jail, that war might not have even come to pass, for it was that I sought to avoid in the first place. I am not God, Lacan, nor was I meant to be; I am but a flawed creation in my own right..." His anger drained from him, and he bowed his head again. "And I have failed you, and for that fact I shall not forgive myself." His shoulders slumped; he looked up again, eyes filled with a terrible shame and regret. "How came you by this knowledge? How came you to Zohar?"

Lacan crossed his arms; something almost resembling a smile crossed his face, though it was tainted by the bitterness that informed his every action. "I was sent by a woman who called herself Judith. I have been told her true name since, however; it is Miang."

A pause, while the words were digested; and then Samael's head dropped, his chin whipping suddenly and sharply down and to the side, as if driven by the force of the syllable he spits; a syllable that Lacan would not have recognized, but it is no longer Lacan that stands before his angel. The low-voiced litany that falls from his lips, barely audible, is in a language spoken by no other living mortal. "...God's whore, the abomination who breeds sin like maggots, crawling into her diseased entrails and eating their weay through to her eyeballs, may her every orifice beclogged with the filth and disease of a thousand open sewers, may her limbs blacken and rot with the plague, may the flies nest in her tongue and in her skin..."

Lacan interrupted him with a ruined finger. "Language, Samael. I don't think angels are supposed to speak in such a way."

He took a deep breath, yanking himself forcibly to the here and now; no matter how much he had suspected, the truth was worse. With a heavy, dark sigh, he looked back up, reaching -- somehow -- for the reserves of patience and control that were wearing dangerously thin. "What do you want from me, Lacan?" he asked, his voice taut, tightly-reined, through the unshed tears, through the unvoiced frustrations. "What may I do for you? How might these hands help you?"

Lacan took the final step to close the distance between himself and Samael, laying an almost gentle hand on his shoulder. "One thing," he said, his tone almost friendly.

Samael tensed at the touch, his head coming up once more to allow his eyes meet Lacan's, looking almost like a frightened deer. No good could come of this, he knew, but he could not help but try. "Speak it, and it is yours," he whispered.

An odd little smile briefly lit Lacan's face, and then was gone. "For failing me. For failing Abel." His other hand rose to Samael's other shoulder. "Take my pain."

With that, a surge of power erupted from those wrecked hands; nothing a mortal could handle, much less summon. Samael tried to pull away, a half-realized instinct of preservation driving him, but his already-taxed body could not obey him fast enough -- and there was a part of him, a small but vocal part, that whispered, ~You deserve this. This is your just and fitting reward.~

He tasted blood, thick and viscous in his throat, the sharp metallic tang of death and pain; he could hear the screams of the fallen, smell the rotten, gangrenous taint of decomposing flesh. The power arched between them, a conduit for the thousand injuries Lacan had been nurturing until he could drop them at the feet of him whose failure caused them.

A woman screamed. A ship pushed forward. A cry -- a name. "Elly!"

A city burned. A mountain shifted. An Emperor stretched forth his hand. A woman screamed. "Elly!"

A gun fired. "Elly!" A body fell.

God, where are you, where are you, why do you do this to me?

A cloud covered the sun. An explosion. A woman screamed. A woman screamed.

A woman screamed.

Or was that a woman? Was that a woman, or was that his own voice? Was that the voice of a single, lone angel, fallen where he had stood, skin ablaze, the pain and the power and the terrible awful aching emptiness eating him away from within?

Grahf let him fall. He watched for a moment, then carelessly turned away. Tightening the straps of the soulderpack, making sure he had not dropped anything, he stepped back into the street.

A moment of brief consideration, and he chose east, leaving behind this dead place to the memories of Lacan, who was even then fading. One more man, in a history of hundreds.

The screams of a dying angel echoed behind him, but even that was fitting.

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