The angel Azrael rode into the town of Burnt Church on a dead horse, followed by a pair of buzzards. The buzzards trailed him everywhere. They knew a good thing when they saw it.
The day was hotter than the time he’d ridden into Hell, which was maybe why Azrael hadn’t seen a soul since passing the sign announcing the town’s limits: Burnt Church Pop. 32. There were other numbers on the sign, but they’d been crossed out. The houses at the edge of town looked empty, their doors hanging open, but Azrael knew that didn’t mean much.
Not all of the inhabitants were in hiding. A man in black sat on the step of a burned-out church that Azrael took to be the inspiration for the town’s name. The spire was just ash held in shape by memory. A metal cross was still at the top, though, if a little melted. Azrael noted the claw marks on it, but they didn’t mean much of anything either. Not in this land.
The preacher lifted a bottle to his lips as he stared at the field of wooden crosses surrounding the church. He caught sight of Azrael, but that didn’t stop him from taking a pull.
“You’re a little fucking late,” he said, but Azrael didn’t answer. His mouth was too dry to waste moisture on words.
He rode on and felt the preacher’s gaze on his ruined wings. He doubted an angel had ever wandered this way before. It was a long fall from Heaven to here. But he was out of whiskey and in danger of sobering up, so here he was.
Azrael stopped the horse outside the building that was obviously the saloon. It didn’t have a sign, but none of the buildings had signs. It was that kind of town.
He didn’t bother tying the horse to the hitching post. It wasn’t going anywhere. It hadn’t been going anywhere when he’d found it in the desert, shot through the head and half-eaten by the buzzards that followed him now. They’d squawked and taken a few runs at him when he’d raised the horse, but they’d gotten over it. He’d given them plenty of meals since then.
He left the dead horse standing in the street, the burning sun shining through the holes in its rotting flanks, and he went inside the saloon.
There were a few men lean as skeletons playing cards at a table. Another man sat hunched over a glass of whiskey at one end of the bar, asleep. Azrael settled himself onto a stool at the other end.
The bartender was a woman as pale as the dead. She wore a scarf tied around her neck. She looked at him but didn’t offer any greeting.
“Whiskey,” he said.
“I thought your kind could make that all by yourselves,” she said.
“That’s wine,” Azrael said. “I prefer the harder spirits.”
She nodded and poured him a drink.
“I think we may have some cans of beans left,” she said.
Azrael shook his head. He didn’t need to eat. Didn’t need to drink either. But need and want were different things.
He slammed the whiskey back and put the glass down for another. She hesitated, so he took out some coins he’d found in the remains of a coach a few days earlier. He’d cleaned the blood from them and now they were shiny as the sun. He tossed them on the bar, and she put them in a pocket of her dress. She slid the bottle across the counter to him.
“How long you been a zombie?” Azrael asked, studying her.
Her hand went to the cloth around her neck.
“I ain’t,” she said.
“I can smell it in you,” Azrael said.
“It’s just a bite,” she said. “We had an infestation last year. But it ain’t taken me yet.”
“It will,” Azrael said and poured himself another drink.
She looked at the men playing cards. He could have read her thoughts even if he wasn’t an angel.
“You let me know if you want anything else,” she said and moved down the bar to polish glasses.
He’d downed half the bottle when the demons came through the door. Three of them, because demons always move in packs. They were infernals, all horns and talons and skin like rock. Nothing he hadn’t faced down before. But he was tired of that kind of trouble.
He watched them in the mirror behind the bar as they went for the card players. One of them swept all the money from the table while another grabbed the cards and ripped them to shreds. The third pushed one of the men from his chair, then picked up the table and threw it across the room.
Azrael sipped his drink. Not his problem.
The other card players got up and walked through the wall without a backwards glance. Ghosts. The man who’d been pushed to the floor wasn’t a ghost though. Or a man, really. He growled at the demons and his fingernails lengthened into claws. His ears got pointy and hairy. A werewolf. But then he relaxed and looked down at the floor, and those ears and fingernails went back to being human. Azrael didn’t blame him. Maybe the werewolf would stand a chance if it were pack on pack. But odds like this would just add another cross to the graveyard.
The demons laughed, and the one who’d thrown the table mock-lunged at the werewolf. Then it caught sight of Azrael.
“Well, I’ll be goddamned—again,” it said. It sharpened its claws on its horns as it came up behind him. The other demons followed, and the werewolf used the opportunity to slip out the door. That left just the bartender and the sleeping man. Azrael could see why people weren’t moving here.
“I’m just passing through,” he told the demons.
“Why don’t you keep on then,” one of the demons said. It leaned against the bar, beside Azrael. The other one who had spoken set up shop on the other side. The last one stood behind Azrael, close enough it brushed against what was left of his wings.
“Once I’m done my drink,” Azrael said. He shifted his coat so they could see his guns. Forged from the metals of Hell itself, which accounted for his trip there.
They looked at the death-dealers and then back at his eyes. He could tell they saw his weariness there, because they all grinned.
“So you ain’t going to get in the way of us having a little fun then,” the one who’d thrown the table said. It was a statement, not a question. It reached across the bar and ran a claw down the bartender’s cheek. A line of blood stained her rouge.
She looked at Azrael. He looked at himself in the mirror.
“Not my problem,” he said.
“That’s too bad,” the demon said but turned away from Azrael anyway. It hopped over the bar and dragged the bartender down. She wore a look that said this happened too many times for her to fight back.
The demon on the other side of Azrael looked at the sleeping man.
“I could use a drink too,” it said.
Azrael shoved his bottle toward the demon. “Have some of mine,” he said.
“Keep your piss to yourself, Fallen,” it said. “I want a real drink.” It sprang down the length of the bar and grabbed the sleeping man’s head and wrenched it back in one motion. By the time the man opened his eyes, the demon had ripped out his throat and was guzzling down the blood that jetted out.
“Jesus,” the man said, looking around. “Not again.”
Another ghost, Azrael realized. This town was full of them. He wasn’t surprised the demon was able to grab hold of the ghost like that—their claws could hook into anything.
The third demon laughed at all this, until Azrael spun on the stool and shot it in the gut. The demon tried to keep on laughing, because normally bullets had no effect on its kind.
But Azrael didn’t load his guns with normal bullets. His shells were made of bone he’d taken from the remains of a creature older than the angels, a creature so ancient it didn’t even have a name. It may have been a god once, but no living thing really knew. Bones like that were ideal for killing demons, although truth be told, the bones of any mystical creature would do. Azrael had a knife made from the same bone in his boot. He used to have two knives, but the world never stopped taking things.
The demon fell to the floor, clutching itself, and Azrael spun and fired again, this time at the one at the end of the bar. It was almost on him by then, but his shot tore out its heart, so it was just dead meat that slammed into Azrael and knocked him to the floor.
From his new vantage, he saw the demon who’d taken the bartender behind the counter leap up onto the ceiling. It turned its head to find him, and he shot it between the eyes. It hung on to the ceiling afterwards, even though it was dead. Those claws again.
The demon he’d gut-shot swore some names Azrael hadn’t heard in a while.
“I thought you said this weren’t your problem,” it said.
Azrael stood, keeping his gun trained on the demon’s face.
“I keep telling myself that,” he said, “but I just can’t believe it.”
“Well, it’s your problem now,” the demon said. “Hell’s going to be coming for you, and we are legion.”
“Yeah, I know,” Azrael said, and put a bone bullet through the demon’s head.
The barkeeper rose from behind the counter. She fixed her scarf back into place, but not before Azrael saw the bite taken out of her neck. An old one, not from the demon. He didn’t bother asking her if she was all right. He knew she wasn’t.
The ghost stumbled out of the saloon, holding his hands to his throat. “Christ, I wish someone would do something about those fuckers,” he said, eying Azrael.
Azrael took another pull from the bottle. “Interesting town you got here,” he said to the barkeeper.
“You ain’t seen the half of it yet,” she said.
When he was done killing another glass, he dragged the bodies into the street for the buzzards circling overhead. They’d eat anything.
There were a few more people standing in the doorways of other buildings now. He couldn’t tell if they were ghosts or not. He didn’t have an eye for that sort of thing.
The preacher wandered down from the church and blinked at the demons like his eyes might be ruined from the heat.
Azrael stood by his dead horse and considered what to do next. He knew he could just ride on. It wouldn’t be hard to lose any demons that might follow. But the town would still be here for them, like so much kindling.
The bartender came out of the saloon and shook her head at the bodies. “First the zombies and now them,” she said.
“How many more are there?” Azrael asked, looking down the street, at the emptiness beyond the town’s limits.
“A hell of a lot more than you,” she said.
“They’ll move on when they’re bored,” he said. He didn’t add the ‘maybe’.
“But you just gave them cause for excitement,” the preacher said. He went to take another drink from his bottle but found it empty. He threw it at the bodies, but the buzzards feasting there didn’t pay it any mind. He went into the saloon for another.
“What’s his ailment?” Azrael asked.
“He can’t die,” the barkeeper said. “No matter how hard he tries. Says God cursed him. Like the rest of us ain’t cursed.”
Azrael knew the preacher was right about the demons. He sighed. He never learned.
He caught hold of the outside wall of the saloon and, because he couldn’t fly anymore, climbed up to the roof. He looked at the layout of the town, studying the buildings. He had an idea that might work. Or maybe it wouldn’t. But he didn’t have any other ideas.
The barkeeper shielded her eyes as she looked up at him.
“You’re going to do something,” she said.
“This whole town a ghost town?” he asked.
“Mostly,” she said. “It died out a while back. There’s a few of us who persist, and every now and then someone else finds their way here, looking to lay low.”
“Like the werewolf,” he said.
“Jake’s just a big puppy,” she said. “But his condition don’t exactly endear him to people.”
Azrael had seen this sort of town before. Places where the cursed and fallen could live in peace. For a time, anyway.
“There anyone here who can put up a fight?” he asked.
“Not anymore,” she said.
The preacher came out of the saloon with Azrael’s whiskey bottle. He muttered to himself in a way that regular folk might take to be madness from the heat or drink. But Azrael could hear words in ways that regular folk couldn’t. The preacher was praying.
“What’s your name?” he asked the barkeeper.
“Beth,” she said.
“Gather up the townsfolk, Beth,” he said. “We’re going to have a meeting.”
“What kind of meeting?” she asked.
“I’m going to teach you how to kill demons,” Azrael said.
♦ ♦ ♦
It was nearing dusk by the time Beth coaxed everyone from their hiding places. Most of the town’s inhabitants had heard the trouble and weren’t in any hurry to come out.
A good number were ghosts, but there were a few others. The werewolf Jake. A man and woman who lingered in the shadows and who Beth introduced as the Clamps. Azrael could tell they were vampires without anyone needing to say it. A medicine man that everyone called the Indian. He had leathery skin that was tight as a drum on his bones, and his eyes shone with a green light. It was plain to see he was dead, but he wasn’t a zombie.
Azrael waited, leaning against the wall of the saloon, until everyone was there. He didn’t want to send people off on tasks piecemeal, because they’d feel alone and they’d probably slink away. He wanted the town to feel like a town.
When Beth finished knocking on doors and nodded at him, he stepped into the street so everyone in the crowd could see him.
“You need to carve out a ditch around the town,” he said, looking each of the men in the eye, checking they had the resolve for what was coming and hoping to fix it in them. “Line it with whatever you can that’ll hold water. Feed troughs, washing tubs, pails, anything you can find.” He knew the ghosts could turn corporeal and lift things if they were willing to expend the energy, like when they played cards and drank whiskey. They’d drift off for a while after, but they always came back. That was their nature. “Make sure the circle is unbroken. If you fuck that up, I’ll leave you to the demons.”
The men looked at each other and then went to find shovels. All except for Jake, who grew his claws out and then bounded down the street. Azrael figured Jake would dig the ground up like a dog. The Indian followed him, dust devils springing up at his heels.
“Pour every drop of water and spirits and anything else you’ve got hidden away into the ditch,” Azrael told the women. “But leave a bottle of whiskey in the bar.”
Then it was just him and the preacher and Beth. Azrael never had seen the Clamps depart for their duties.
“Let’s me and you walk a spell,” Azrael said to the preacher and took him back to the church.
“How come you’re still here?” Azrael asked as they walked.
“Where else would I go?” the preacher said.
“I don’t know, but there’s got to be better places than a ruined church no one visits,” Azrael said.
The preacher looked at the crosses. “I can’t just leave my flock now, can I,” he said.
Azrael studied him. “I heard you had a falling out with God,” he said.
“Who hasn’t?” the preacher said.
Azrael just nodded and looked at the graves himself.
“Any zombies buried here?” he asked.
The preacher dry-spat on the ground. “We burned them outside town,” he said. “May their souls finally have peace.”
“They don’t have souls anymore,” Azrael said. “That’s why they’re zombies.” He watched the men digging the ditch. They worked like they thought they had a chance to save themselves. A good sign.
“It was probably burning the bodies that drew the demons here,” Azrael said. “It’s one of the rituals, although I reckon you didn’t know.”
The preacher just stared at him again.
“Don’t do it anymore,” Azrael said. “Just bury them and leave them buried. They’ll stay dead if they’re under the ground and think they’re dead.”
The preacher shook his head. “The next time you see God, you tell him what he’s let happen ain’t right,” he said.
“God and me aren’t on speaking terms,” Azrael said.
He went into the church and looked around. The space was just large enough, he figured, and the walls were still in place, even if they’d burned to their cores.
“When they come, you get everyone inside here,” he said. “And you say the Lord’s Prayer and don’t stop.”
“I ain’t got a lot of faith in prayer these days,” the preacher said.
“There’s what you think about prayer, and then there’s what the demons think about prayer,” Azrael said.
The preacher looked up at the sky, then down at the dirt. “For how long?” he asked.
“Until all the demons are dead, or I am,” Azrael said.
He left the church and looked at the crosses some more. “You know all of them?” he asked.
“As well as I know the living,” the preacher said.
Azrael nodded and stepped into the graveyard. He took out his knife and drew the blade across his hand. His blood spilled out and he walked along the graves, letting it drip onto each one. It would make him weaker, because his blood was his power, but if Beth was right about the number of demons, he was well and truly fucked anyway. Might as well play the long shot.
“Talk to them,” Azrael said. “Don’t let up until it’s time to pray.”
The preacher frowned at the crosses. “Talk to them about what?” he asked.
“Remind them they’re still part of the town,” Azrael said.
He went back to the saloon. It was empty inside now, just Beth and a lone bottle of whiskey and a glass at one of the tables. Azrael settled in to the chair opposite her and filled the glass. He offered her a drink, but she shook her head.
“I don’t have much of a taste for it,” she said. “Not since....” Her hand strayed to the scarf around her neck again. “My appetite though....”
Azrael reached out and pulled the scarf away. She looked down at the floor but didn’t stop him.
He studied the bite. It was a small one, which was probably why she was still alive. But it would eat her nonetheless.
“Looks like a child did that,” he said.
“It didn’t know better,” she said.
“Yours?” Azrael asked.
She looked up now, and out the window.
“My husband got sick,” she said. “He built the saloon. Hell, he built half this town. But that didn’t matter.”
Azrael didn’t say anything. The works of all men were dust in the end. That didn’t make them any less worth doing, though.
“He tried to save the town when the plague came,” Beth went on. “It weren’t his idea to burn the bodies, but he was the one who volunteered. I guess that’s what killed him in the end.” She swallowed. “We didn’t know how it worked back then. He just wanted to kiss his son goodbye.”
Azrael had heard a lot harder tales. But that didn’t make it any easier.
“Everything that ever mattered in this world is burned and buried now,” Beth said.
Azrael drained the glass. “Where’s your room?” he asked.
Her face hardened, back to the same mask as when he’d first walked into the saloon. She stood and led him to the back, into a bedroom with a sagging bed against one wall. That same wall held portraits of a man and a baby. The other walls were bare. Beth looked at the portraits for a moment and then turned away.
Azrael took off his coat. Beth stared at the floor as she started to unbutton her dress, until Azrael stopped her.
“You must be hungry,” he said. He lifted his shirt and exposed his flesh.
She stared at his ribs, at the taut drum of his stomach.
“You can’t kill me,” he said. “The plague doesn’t work on my kind.”
He could see the struggle in her eyes. Then she gave in to everything she’d been denying for God alone knew how long, and she fell upon him.
When she was done, he laid her on the bed. Her face and dress were stained with blood. She stared at the ceiling but he knew she didn’t see it. She began to babble in tongues.
The flesh and blood of angels was too much for mortals. That’s why the priests who practiced communion used crackers and wine instead. It had been a long time since Azrael had given communion of himself. He didn’t know if Beth deserved it. But he didn’t know that she didn’t.
He bandaged his wounds with some sheets he pulled from a closet. Then he leaned against one of the bare walls and waited to see if his strength would return. He looked at the portraits.
After a time he went out and looked down the street. He saw the preacher silhouetted against the setting sun, kneeling beside a cross and talking to the grave.
He waited for the demons.
♦ ♦ ♦
They came at the witching hour. The townspeople grew nervous before they arrived, shifting back and forth and staring out into the night. That’s how he knew they were close.
He ordered everyone into the church—everyone but Beth, who was still babbling on her bed. He wondered if the holy fever would break in time.
He went over to the ditch the townsfolk had dug and filled with water and spirits. He tore open the cut on his hand, which had already half-healed, and let his blood drip into the ditch. He said the words in the forgotten tongue that turned the liquid into oil, and then he dropped a match in.
He walked back to wait in the street outside the saloon as the flames burned up the night. They weren’t high enough to ward anything off, but that wasn’t what Azrael had in mind. He loosened his guns in their holsters. The buzzards launched themselves off the bones of the dead demons and disappeared into the nothingness overhead.
The flames flared up where the demons slid through them and into the town. They crept out of the darkness on all sides to surround Azrael. A dozen of them. It could have been worse, he supposed, but it was still enough. They were the same kind as before, all claw and horn and hard skin. But they were of a different mindset than the ones in the saloon. That group had been looking for trouble. These ones came expecting it.
“Your little wall of fire can’t keep us out,” one of them said in a voice like a thousand buzzing flies. “It’s not even enough to warm our blood.”
“It’s not supposed to keep you out,” Azrael said. “It’s supposed to keep you in.”
They stared at him, then looked back at the fires. One of them leapt to the roof of the saloon, perching on the same spot Azrael had earlier.
“A pentagram,” it spat.
Azrael had seen it before. The buildings and streets were close enough to forming the pattern if you looked at them the right way. All that was needed was the ditch around town to form the circle. The demons were trapped, for a time anyway. Eventually the wind would fill in some part of the ditch or another and the pentagram would fail. But this night would be long forgotten by then.
The demons closed in around him as the sounds of the preacher leading the others in prayer drifted down the street.
“All the prayers of eternity won’t save them,” one of the demons said. “For we are legion.”
“This is our time now,” another one said somewhere behind Azrael.
“You have fallen even farther than us,” a different one said somewhere else.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Azrael said.
The one who’d spoken first stepped forward. It ran its claws along its horns, even though they looked plenty sharp to Azrael.
“Then you tell us,” it said. “Why sacrifice yourself for this bunch of damned?”
“I’m not sacrificing myself,” Azrael said. “I’m sacrificing you.”
And then he threw himself up the wall of the saloon before the one sneaking up behind him could tear out his throat like its kin had done to the ghost earlier. He drew his guns as soon as he hit the roof, blazing bone into the demon up there. His bullets blew holes through its gut and head, and its lunge turned into a fall that took it back to its brethren.
Azrael ran along the roof and leapt across the alley to the next building. The demons chased him, howling. A couple took to the roofs after him, while others bounded down the street or ran along the sides of buildings, gouging chunks out of the wood with their claws.
Azrael fired blindly as he ran. He didn’t have time to stop and aim, because that would be all it would take for them to close the distance. Maybe if he were stronger he could have outrun them, but he was too weak from feeding Beth and giving his blood to the dead.
It was to those dead that he ran, dropping down into the street and sprinting for the church. He felt something snag one of his broken wings, slowing him enough that another demon sprang off a building and scored his face with a claw.
He fired into the face of that demon even as it laughed, and tasted the blood that sprayed everywhere. He flipped his arms up over his shoulders and fired behind him until his guns were empty. He heard the sounds of another demon thumping into the earth.
Two more down.
But that still left nine, and he didn’t have time to stop and reload any more than he had time to aim.
A couple of the demons slid into the shadows and then stepped back out farther down the street, just in front of the church. Cutting off his path. He’d always hated that trick.
“That damned preacher can’t save you!” one of them shouted.
Azrael already knew that. But it wasn’t the preacher he was trying to reach.
He dropped the gun in his right hand and drew the knife from his boot as he threw himself against the demons in his way, carrying them over the fence and into the graveyard. They screamed unholy curses at him, but it wasn’t anything he hadn’t heard before. He caught a glimpse of the people huddled inside the church. The preacher and the Indian holding hands like blood brothers as they chanted. Jake in full wolf form now, snarling at the demons. Then the demons and Azrael smashed through the wooden crosses.
And the skeletons erupted from their graves. Azrael’s blood had been enough to raise them, if they were so inclined. And it appeared that whatever the preacher had told them had indeed given them the inclination.
Now that they were back, they wanted more blood.
They grabbed the legs of the hellspawn and dragged them down, clawing at them with skeletal fingers. Normally, the walking dead wouldn’t be able to harm demons any more than the walking living. But these dead had been raised with the blood of a fallen angel and the words of a damned priest. And not all of them had been human in the first place. Azrael caught sight of a skeleton with four arms, and another that had little skeletons of snakes waving on its skull.
Even so, they wouldn’t be able to do any serious damage or even hold the demons long, because the damned were more powerful than the dead. But Azrael didn’t need long.
He lashed out with the knife at the demons struggling to tear themselves free of the skeletons. Both disappeared into the mess of bones, clutching throats that were bleeding out their lives now.
And then there were seven.
But seven demons was still too many for a lone angel.
Now there was nothing between Azrael and the night at the edge of town. He could keep running. He could leave the town to the demons.
Instead, he stopped and turned. He threw the knife into the ground and reloaded the gun he still held as fast as he could.
The remaining demons didn’t stop. Three of them charged through the graveyard, smashing skeletons out of their way. The others circled around.
Azrael had time to load just four bullets before they reached him. He pulled the trigger three times, and the three demons in the graveyard fell into the hands of the dead. And then the other demons leaped over the fence and took him to the ground.
One of them bit most of the way through his right arm. Another raked its talons across his face. Blood sprayed into his eyes, blinding him. He felt the other two demons rip through his shirt and bandages to tear off chunks of flesh from the same spot where Beth had fed.
He flailed with his left hand until he caught hold of the knife. He picked it up and rammed it into one of the demons. It fell away with a squeal.
But then another was tearing his throat open, and his blood watered the graveyard.
Azrael supposed this was as good an ending as any he deserved.
Then there was another unholy shriek as the weight of one of the demons lifted off him. And light shone through the bloody mess of his vision.
The other two demons leapt off Azrael, and he wiped at his eyes. He cleared enough of the blood that he could see the world from his right eye again, albeit through a red haze. The left saw nothing at all.
Beth stood in the graveyard, shining with a light he hadn’t seen in... well, he couldn’t actually remember the last time. Her wings burned with fire. She held the demon she’d pulled off Azrael and stabbed it over and over in its stomach with the knife. The scarf was gone from her neck now. As was the bite.
The sight of her made him remember his lost wings, which brought more pain. But he was glad to see that the communion had worked. He hadn’t been sure.
The demon finally stopped crying out and she dropped it to the ground. But there were still two left, and Azrael knew Beth was too young to handle even one on her own, now that surprise had been lost.
“Another angel,” one of the demons roared as they circled her.
“We’ll tear off her wings and make her watch as we eat them,” the other one said.
The townsfolk in the church chanted their prayers even louder, and the skeletons crawled across the ground to help Beth, but Azrael knew there was only one thing that could save them. The bone of a dead and forgotten god.
He couldn’t move his right arm anymore, so he clawed the ground with his left hand until he felt the cool metal of his gun with its lone bullet in the chamber. The demons took no notice of him, so enraptured were they with the new angel. Or maybe they thought him already dead. If so, they were more right than wrong.
But Azrael had enough life in him to sight in on the demon moving behind Beth and pull the trigger.
And he missed as it sprang at her.
The sound of the shot was enough to startle it, though, and it twisted around to face him mid-leap. It collided with Beth back to back instead of digging its claws into her. But the impact sent her stumbling into the other demon’s waiting arms, and it carried her to the ground.
The demon Azrael had shot at came at him, even as he struggled to open the gun one-handed so he could slip another bullet in the cylinder.
“You’re out of time,” the demon spat, as its partner raked Beth with its claws. And then it lunged at him—and was knocked to the side by something that fell out of the night sky. One of the buzzards. It raked the demon’s face with its talons, driving the hellion to a knee, and then it flapped back up into the night.
The demon went after it, then remembered Azrael.
The buzzard had given Azrael the time to force a new bullet into the gun. The demon faced him just as Azrael pulled the trigger. The demon’s brains blew out the back of its skull, and it fell to its knees again, this time for good.
Azrael struggled to reload the gun once more. His fingers were slick with blood, and he dropped a couple of bullets to the ground before he managed to slip one into the cylinder. His hand shook as he raised the gun. He hadn’t been in this bad a way since he’d first fallen, all those ages ago.
He didn’t have a clear shot. The remaining demon and Beth rolled around the graveyard, struggling over the knife. He was just as like to hit her as it.
“A virgin angel,” the demon said and laughed as it raked her with its claws. But it stopped laughing when the skeleton with the snakes reached it and grabbed on to its leg. Then the demon looked around, realizing what was happening.
Again, too late.
The other dead converged on it from all directions, grabbing onto it, sinking their fingers and teeth into its flesh, pinning it. The demon struggled and bit skeletons in two, but it couldn’t break free.
Then the preacher and the Indian led the townspeople into the graveyard. The preacher and the Indian still held hands, and Azrael saw blood mingling on their fingers. They really were blood brothers now.
The preacher chanted the Lord’s Prayer, and the Indian chanted words Azrael had never heard before. Most of the townspeople followed the preacher’s example, but the Clamps said their own prayers in a language Azrael had thought long dead, and Jake howled out something only other werewolves were likely to understand.
They joined the dead, piling onto the demon. It screamed as it disappeared under the mass of flesh and bones.
And then Beth’s wings burned the air one more time as she raised the knife over her head and stabbed it down. And the pile of bodies went still.
Blood flowed back into Azrael’s eyes, but he didn’t try to wipe it away this time. It was over. He was dying, but the town was safe. He couldn’t help but smile. It had been a long time since he had done something that might someday help redeem his sins.
Then he felt something press against his lips.
“Eat,” Beth said.
Azrael flinched away. He knew what she was trying to feed him, but he couldn’t, not from a new angel like her. Not from one so pure and untainted by the world. He couldn’t bear that taste of Heaven again, that reminder of everything that he had lost and could never get back.
But he couldn’t help himself. He bit into the flesh of her wrist, and blood flowed into his mouth.
“Drink,” she said, and he drank her blood. Her life.
He felt himself heal. He felt the flesh in his stomach and face mend itself, the wound in his throat close back up. Dim smudges of light formed in his dead eye.
And he tasted Heaven itself in her blood. It flowed into him, into all the empty spaces in his soul, filling him with light and song and memories. He wanted it to never stop. He wanted to drown himself in it like he drowned himself in whiskey. He wept because it reminded him of everything he had once been. He wept because he knew this grace would fade too.
He managed to push Beth’s arm away before he took too much from her. Before he took everything from her. It hurt like Hell to stop the flow, but he was used to hurting.
He sat up and wiped the blood from his eyes. He could see enough from the damaged one to get by. He knew the vision would return to it, someday. He’d wear an eyepatch for a few years. It wouldn’t be the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.
Beth kneeled at his side and looked at him with an expression that could only be called motherly. The others gathered around as well. Even the dead crawled over to look at him with their empty eyes.
“Well, I’m certainly glad that trick worked,” Azrael told her.
“You ain’t the only one,” Beth said.
Azrael pushed himself to his feet and looked around. The bodies of the demons were everywhere. Broken skeletons moved throughout the graveyard, as if looking for more hellspawn. The preacher and the others had stopped praying and now looked at Beth with a mixture of wonder and confusion.
Azrael whistled for his horse, and it came out of the night. It didn’t look concerned about the blood and gore. There were some ways in which a dead horse was just plain better than a live one.
Beth stared at him. “Where do you reckon you’re going?” she asked.
“I told you I was just passing through,” Azrael said. He dusted himself off as best he could, but it was the usual exercise in futility.
“But what if there are more demons?” she asked.
Azrael picked up one of his fallen guns from the ground. He loaded it with more bullets and then handed it to her.
“You know what to do,” he said. He nodded at the skeletons, which were making their way back to their graves. “You can fashion more bullets out of their bones, now that they’ve got the holy blood in them. That’ll make a demon notice it’s been shot.” He walked over to pick up the other gun, then pulled himself up on the horse. “You don’t need me to protect your town,” he said. “You’ve got yourselves.”
Beth looked at the preacher and the Indian and Jake and the others. Azrael didn’t see the Clamps, but he imagined they were somewhere in the shadows.
Beth stepped close to Azrael and offered him his knife back, but he shook his head.
“You’ve earned it,” he said. “And trust me, you’ll make use of it.”
“Who will teach me what I need to know?” she asked.
“Some things are better learned on your own,” Azrael said.
He spurred the horse past her, toward the edge of town. He said a prayer for the first time he could remember—a silent prayer for her, not for him. Because it was no blessing to be an angel.
“You tell God when you see him....” the preacher said as he passed, but seemed at a loss how to finish.
“You tell him yourself,” Azrael said.
“Where will you go?” Beth called after him, but Azrael didn’t say anything else. He didn’t have any answers.
And so the angel Azrael rode out of the town of Burnt Church the way he had come, on a dead horse, with a pair of buzzards following him.