He turned to see his angel standing in the alleyway some distance from him. She had either turned in anticipation, orhad been listening to the Nullianac’s speech, because she stood full face to the blow coming at her. Still, time ran slow, and Gentle had several aching moments in which to see how her eyes were fixed upon him, her tears all dried, her gaze unblinking. Time too for that warning shout, in acknowledgment of which she closed her eyes, her face becoming a blank upon which he could inscribe any accusation his guilt wished to contrive.
Then the Nullianac’s blow was upon her. The force struck her body at speed, but it didn’t break her flesh, and for an instant he dared hope she had found some defense against it. But its hurt was more insidious than a bullet or a blow, its light spreading from the point of impact up to her face, where it entered by every means it could, and down to where its dispatcher’s fingers had already pried.
He let out another shout, this time of revulsion, and turned back on the Nullianac, raising the gun its words had made him so forgetful of and firing at its heart. It fell back against the wall, its arms slack at its side, the space between its skulls still issuing its lethal light. Then he looked back at Huzzah, to see that it had eaten her away from the inside, and that she was flowing back along the line of her destroyer’s gaze, into the chamber from which the stroke had been delivered. Even as he watched, her face collapsed, and her limbs, never substantial, decayed and went the same way. Before she was entirely consumed, however, the harm Gentle’s bullet had done the Nullianac took its toll. The stream of power fractured and failed. When it did, darkness descended, and for a time Gentle couldn’t even see the creature’s body. Then the bombardment on the hill began afresh, its blaze brief but bright enough to show him the Nullianac’s corpse, lying in the dirt where it had squatted.
He watched it, expecting some final act of retaliation, but none came. The light died, and left Gentle to retreat along the alleyway, weighed down not only by his failure to save Huzzah’s life, but by his lack of comprehension of what had just happened. In plain terms, a child in his care had been slaughtered by her molester, and he’d failed to prevent that slaughter. But he’d been wandering in the Dominions too long to be content with simple assessments. There was more here than stymied lust and sudden death, Words had been uttered more appropriate to pulpit than gutter. Hadn’t he himself called Huzzah his angel? Hadn’t he seen her grow seraphic at the end, knowing she was about to die and accepting that fate? And hadn’t he in his turn been dubbed a deficient savior—and proved that ac- cusation true by failing to deliver her? These were high- flown words, but he badly needed to believe them apt, not so that he could indulge messianic fantasies, but so that the grief welling in him might be softened by the hope that there was a higher purpose here, which in the fullness of time he’d come to know and understand.
A burst of fire threw light down the alleyway, and Gentle’s shadow fell across something twitching in the filth. It took him a moment to comprehend what he was seeing, but when he did he loosed a shout. Huzzah had not quite gone. Small scraps of her skin and sinew, dropped when the Nullianac’s claim upon her was cut short, moved here in the rot. None were recognizable; indeed, had they not been moving in the folds of her bloodied clothes he’d not even have known them as her flesh. He reached down to touch them, tears stinging his eyes, but before his fingers could make contact, what little life the scraps had owned went out.
He rose raging; rose in horror at the filth beneath his feet, and the dead, empty houses that channeled it, and in disgust at himself, for surviving when his angel had not. Turning his gaze on the nearest wall, he drew breath and put not one hand but two against his lips, intending to do what little he could to bury these remains.