Chapter 23

The hospital is already bustling with activity when Gabriel arrives, less than half an hour after he received the phone call. The school gave him a pass for leaving, and Blaise told him he'd catch a ride home with someone else. There's a tightness to Gabriel's chest, a quickening to his steps until he finally rounds the half-open doorway into his mother's room.

She looks exhausted, curly dark hair lying flat and lifeless around her head. Her olive skin is pale beneath the fluorescent lights. She's wearing no makeup, and there are dark bags of exhaustion beneath her eyes. Eyes which are open, and brighten at the sight of him hovering in the doorway.

"Gabe," she says, attempting to push herself up. "Come here, let me see you."

Gabriel steps closer. The tight feeling in his chest feels like it's going to burst. He used to know what this feeling was called. What does it mean now? "How are you feeling?"

She plucks uselessly at the tubes and wires she's hooked up to. "Like I've been...in a coma? For two weeks?"

He nods.

Debra shakes her head. "I can't believe it. Are you okay? Have you...been okay, while I was here?"

He thinks about everything that's happened since that night. His own hospitalization. His desperate attempt to make himself stronger. His manipulation of Blaise to get him to help. His conversation with Belial—so stupid now, when he's staring at the product of Belial's destruction. The missing girls. The dead Halflings. The complete disconnect he's felt since the ritual.

Something must show on his face, because his mom whispers, "Sweetheart," and pulls him down into her arms.

The tightness bleeds from his chest, and he breathes easy for the first time since his phone rang. It's only then, during that first free breath, that he realizes what he's feeling. Relief. His mom is crying into his shoulder, and even though he can't make himself cry with her, it's the most human he's felt since his eyes turned black.

"Okay, sit down, tell me everything I've missed."

Gabriel pulls up a chair and sits down beside her. "What do you want to know?"

"How did I survive that night? How did I get out of the house?"

"I, uh… I got home and found you."

She frowns down at the blankets over her legs. "I remember that. You were yelling. There was someone with you."

"Yes, Blaise."

"Blaise?"

"He's new at school. He's actually from LA, like us."

Her narrowed gaze tells him her coma hasn't made her any less attentive. "He's from LA?"

"Yeah." Pre-ritual Gabriel would have squirmed. Now, he just meets her eyes steadily.

"Was he involved in the same types of things you were?"

"Indirectly."

"Gabe—."

"Mom, he's a devout Christian who was raised by other devout Christians and I promise you he's a much better person than I am. I knew him from before, but he is not a member of a gang in LA. Okay?"

"I'll reserve judgment."

"That's fine. Once you meet him, you'll love him. He has annoyingly high morals."

"Anyway," she says pointedly, "so you and he got me out of the house that night."

"Yes. Well, he did. I distracted Belial while he got you out."

Something pained crosses her face at that. "Were you hurt?"

"A little. No lasting damage."

She doesn't seem soothed by this, but ultimately lets it go. There's nothing she can do about the past. "Have you been staying with someone, or staying at home alone?"

"At home. Actually, we should talk about that."

"About what?"

"Blaise's guardian sort of...abandoned him," —it's the best lie he could think of on the way over to the hospital— "and he needed a place to stay, so I've kind of been letting him stay in our guest room."

Silence.

"I can kick him out, if you want."

"Maybe we should contact child services."

Gabriel shakes his head quickly. "He's eighteen."

"There has to be someone who can—."

"Look, he can just go back to the apartment where—."

"No," she says sharply. "I'm not sending him off on his own. I think we both owe him our lives, for being with you that night. He can stay with us. But the minute, the minute, that I think you are falling back into old habits, he's gone. Understand?"

"Yes, absolutely." He's sure Blaise will be thrilled to have a curfew and a supervisor again. That'll be a fun conversation.

"So, how badly have you two trashed my house?"

He rolls his eyes. "We're teenaged boys, but we know how to clean up after ourselves."

She smiles sadly, and he wonders what he said wrong.

"Have you seen the doctor yet?" He asks, intent on a subject change.

She nods. "He came in just before you got here."

"And?"

"They want to keep me for a few more days, keep an eye on me until I can get some strength back, and then I'll have to come back a few times a week for physical therapy once I've healed."

He nods. It's probably a good thing that she'll be stuck in the hospital a while longer. They're expecting the Paladins any day now. He doesn't think Paladins are the type to use his mother against him, but they might if they get desperate enough. He'd rather not give them the chance. If the situations were reversed, he'd use someone else's mother against them, if it meant his survival.

And that, he thinks, is exactly why the Paladins are coming to kill him.

"Now," Debra says, situating on the bed like she's getting good and comfy for whatever comes next. "Do you want to tell me why you smell like cigarettes?"


"Hey," Blaise greets when Gabriel gets home that evening. They're all there, sitting around the living room, snacks spread out on the coffee table. The majority of the food wrappers and empty bottles are near Jacob. If anyone's to blame for the house being trashed, it's him. Completely different teenaged boy. "How's your mom?"

"Good. Surprisingly good, considering. Any sign of our crucifix-crazed compadres?"

"Okay, one: that's offensive, and two: how long did it take you to come up with that one?"

"Just like a couple of minutes in the car," Gabriel says, throwing himself down in the armchair nearest the front door. "And?"

"No, no sign of them. I even tried to call them again, figured if they'd agree to meet us somewhere we could avoid your neighbors seeing a confrontation. No luck, though."

"Oh, by the way," Gabriel says, "Mom says you can stay with us."

Blaise frowns. "What? No, I wouldn't want to impose. Now that she's awake, you two need to—." He stops when Gabriel starts shaking his head. "What did you do?"

"I told her your guardian abandoned you. And then when she offered to contact child services, I told her you're eighteen. So she thinks you leaving would be equivalent to abandoning you all over again."

"Oh Lord." He pinches the bridge of his nose.

"But the good news is you'll get kicked out soon, because she said that if she thinks I'm falling back into bad behaviors, you're out of here. So, it's really just a matter of time until she catches me doing something shady again."

"You told her I was part of your imaginary gang, didn't you?"

"No, I said you were indirectly involved, but not a part of the gang."

"Oh, well that's much better."

"I thought so."

Blaise rolls his eyes.

"Listen," Abby says, putting down her tablet. "I wanted to talk to you guys about something."

She seems hesitant, so Gabriel's wary. "Okay…"

"I've been doing a lot of reading into the old Paladin archives, and I kind of did...something."

"Something awesome," Jacob mutters, and Camilla nods in agreement.

Gabriel glances between them. Something's going on with them, has been going on with them, and he hasn't noticed. When did they stop feeling like friends? When did they stop including him in these things?

Abby takes his silence as disapproval, because she hastily says, "It might be better if I just show you. Don't be mad."

He opens his mouth to say he won't be mad, but Camilla shakes her head minutely and gestures for him to just watch. He looks quickly at Blaise and is pleased to see the Paladin looks as lost as he feels. At least he's not the only one left out of the loop.

"There's a lot of old information in those archives. So I've been doing some reading, studying the old languages and symbols. And… I realized that that information can be...applied." She kneels down in front of the coffee table, and Blaise's eyes widen as he catches on to what's about to happen.

Gabriel, however, is completely in the dark until she holds her hands out over some potato chips, mutters some Latin, and coaxes the chips into the air.

Gabriel hits the floor on his knees, leaning forward in awe as the chips dance through the air around her gracefully moving fingers. He's never seen anything like it. He's only ever used magic for exorcisms and banishment rituals. He doesn't have the finesse that Abby clearly has, no matter how hard he's tried. His magic is a wrecking ball, made for one purpose. Hers is as versatile as a blade.

"How…?" He stops, not sure what he wants to ask.

Camilla answers. "We all tried it. Jacob was able to master it after a few tries. I couldn't do it at all. But Abby, she's a natural. It's like she was born for magic."

"She was," Blaise says, sounding dazed. "I mean, not exactly. There—there are certain people with a natural aptitude for magic, people who were made to channel that energy. Most people never know about it. And through the years, it's become so diluted by different bloodlines intermingling that now, witches are fairly rare. That's probably why both of you can do it. You have it in your blood, it's just the luck of the draw that Abby's blood is stronger than yours, Jake."

"I don't care about who's stronger," Jacob says. "I just think it's awesome we can do magic. Does this mean we can help with stuff?"

Gabriel snorts. He and Abby climb back into their seats, and he says, "You'll need training. Blaise and I can help with that. I have almost no ability with magic beyond what the Necromancer power has given me, but I know enough to teach you a little."

"I studied magic extensively while training to become a Paladin," Blaise says. "Together, I think we can make a decent witch and warlock of you yet."

"You should know, though," Gabriel warns, and watches with some amusement as their grins fade, "if you start doing magic, you'll attract attention to yourselves. The kind of attention that you'd get if you wielded one of our swords. Magic can be used as a weapon against the supernatural."

Blaise nods. "That's true. If you start honing these skills, you'll need to be prepared to protect yourselves."

"We've already attracted attention," Abby says. "Just by being around you two. At least with the magic we won't have to rely on someone else to protect us. And we won't be targets, the way Danny and Debra were. We'll be able to take care of ourselves."

Gabriel glances at Blaise. The Paladin had mentioned something once, about allowing them to learn to defend themselves. Blaise nods, and Gabriel joins him.

"Okay. First thing you need to know is how to ward a building. Cami, you need to learn this, too, so listen closely."


Abby and Jacob leave that evening with some things to study—and Camilla, who says she wants to know the material for her friends even if she can't apply it with them. Gabriel and Blaise stand in the driveway and watch them pull away.

"That's pretty amazing," Blaise says. "They could become a great asset. Jacob will probably never be a full-blown warlock, but he and Abby could still combine their energies for spellwork, given enough practice."

Gabriel nods, cigarette in hand. Blaise watches him for a moment, and then says, "What are you going to do about your smoking habit when your mom gets out of the hospital?"

"She already knows about it. Smelled it on me."

"And?"

"She's not happy about it, but I'm eighteen. If she tries to confiscate it, I'll just go buy more."

"When is she supposed to be getting released, anyway?"

"Few more days, I think."

"What's that going to be like? Are you sure I should stay?"

"Of course. We'll make do. We'll be able to watch each other's backs better if you're nearby."

"True. I just feel like I'm imposing. You should spend time with your mom without me around."

"You're not imposing. We'd both probably be dead if it wasn't for you."

"That's probably true," Blaise quips, and Gabriel shoves him.

"Get in the house before I kick your ass."

Blaise laughs as he goes. Gabriel tosses his cigarette butt into the driveway and moves to follow—but something stops him.

A sound, like gravel crunching underfoot. He turns on the stoop to peer out into the darkness. Blaise is just inside the kitchen, not three feet away. Gabriel sees nothing, and after a beat he disregards it as paranoia.

Gabriel looks over at Blaise and shrugs. As he moves to step inside, Blaise's eyes widen. He opens his mouth and raises a hand, but there isn't enough time for a warning.

Metal wraps around his throat, hot and scalding. He knows the feeling well enough now to recognize holy water. He can't take a breath to cry out, and before he can react, he's ripped backwards off the stoop.

He hits the ground on his back, and whoever's on the other end of the chain doesn't waste time, dragging him backwards into the darkness. His fingers grapple with the chain around his neck, feet kicking in the gravel. All he can see is Blaise, throwing himself out of the house.

"Elijah! Elijah, stop!"

Well, that explains who's pulling the chain. It finally slackens enough for him to slip out of it when they're behind the house, safely hidden from view of the street. Gabriel twists free and gasps for breath, coughing against the grass.

Blaise falls to his knees beside him, taking Gabriel's shoulders. "Gabe, Gabe, are you okay?"

Gabriel shakes his head, unable to speak yet.

"He's a demon," a voice says.

"No," Blaise says. "Samuel, no, he's not."

"The chain wouldn't have burned him if he was still himself," Elijah says.

"Just give me a chance to explain."

"There's nothing you can say to excuse your actions," Elijah says. "You abandoned your oath the moment you partook in the ritual that damned the Necromancer."

Gabriel looks up, one hand on the burn marks on his throat, and snarls. There are four men standing in front of them. He recognizes Elijah and Samuel, but he's not sure about the other two.

"He has to be put down," Elijah says, drawing his sword.

Blaise stands and pulls Gabriel up after him. "Elijah, no. Please. It's not what you think. We didn't have a choice!"

"Oh? Did someone hold a gun to your head and force you to stab the Necromancer in the heart with a Halfling?"

"You don't understand. Things here have been awful. Belial attacked Gabriel's mother. She's still in the hospital. She just woke up from a coma! We didn't know how to stop him, and Gabriel thought—."

"He thought he could manipulate you," Samuel says with pity. "And he was right."

"No."

Elijah steps forward. "Stand aside, and we'll be lenient with your punishment. We are partly responsible for what happened here. We should never have sent you out here alone. You weren't ready for such an extensive assignment."

"No! I did what I thought was right."

"And you were wrong!" Elijah says. "Now step aside, so we can fix your mistakes."

Blaise steps fully in front of Gabriel, hands out to protect him. "No. Gabriel is not evil. I won't let you hurt him."

"He was burned by the holy chain, Blaise. Only demons are burned by objects soaked in holy water."

"I don't care. He's not evil."

"Step aside, or you'll join his fate."

"No!"

Gabriel steps around Blaise before Elijah can decide whether to cut him down. "I'll fight you for it."

Elijah stops. "What?"

"Give me my sword, and I'll fight you. One on one. If you best me, you can kill me. But if I win, I kill you."

"Gabriel, no," Blaise says, squeezing his arm.

Gabriel shakes him off. "Like it or not, I'm still the Necromancer. I've killed enough demons to have earned the right to defend myself, even in your eyes. Grant me a warrior's death, if you want to kill me."

Elijah's shoulders straighten. "Fine. Where is your weapon?"

"In the house."

"Blaise can go and get it," Elijah says.

But Blaise shakes his head. "No, I'm not leaving Gabriel alone."

"Then I'll send Zachary." He gestures to one of the men, silent until now, and the good little soldier makes a wide berth around Blaise and Gabriel as he goes.

In the awkward silence that follows, Blaise turns a pleading gaze on Gabriel. Gabriel understands his dilemma. He doesn't want to see either side get hurt. But Gabriel feels that a one-on-one fight will reduce casualties in the long run. Blaise will be safe, and only one person has to die. Hopefully Elijah.

"Elijah, you're an honorable man, yes?" Gabriel says.

Elijah bristles. "I try to be, yes."

"Then can you agree that no harm will come to Blaise, if you manage to kill me?"

"If I manage to kill you?"

"Well, I'm going to do my best not to let it happen. Will you agree?"

"Do you care?"

"I wouldn't be asking if I didn't."

Elijah inclines his head. "Yes, I can agree to that."

Zachary returns then, tossing Gabriel's sheathed sword at him.

"We should take this into the woods," Gabriel says. "Wouldn't want to draw attention to ourselves while we're trying to kill each other. I have neighbors, after all."

Elijah glances between Gabriel and the trees, like he thinks Gabriel might be trying to lure them into the forest for some kind of hidden advantage. Gabriel just rolls his eyes and leads the way, hoping they read confidence into his willingness to put his back to them.

The sky overhead flashes with lightning, the air thick with the coming storm, like nature itself is on a precipice. Gabriel stops when they're far enough into the woods that none of the neighbors can see them. The clearing where they did the ritual is somewhere nearby.

He draws his sword and tosses the sheath away.

"Gabriel Stone," Elijah says, and Gabriel rolls his eyes at the formality, "you have been judged and found guilty of crimes against humanity. You damned your soul for power, and—."

Gabriel doesn't wait. He doesn't need to hear a declaration of guilt from someone he doesn't consider to have any authority over him. He lunges forward without waiting. Elijah parries and spins out of the way of his next attack, eyes wide with genuine shock.

"I'm not interested in hearing anything else you have to say," Gabriel says. "Just try to kill me, already."

Nearby, Blaise is being held back by Zachary and the other, as yet unnamed, Paladin. Samuel stands beside them, looking grim.

Elijah comes at him hard and fast, sword flashing through the air. Gabriel plays it safe for a while, focusing on defensive maneuvers while he tries to figure out his opponent's tells. Trouble is, Elijah doesn't really have any. He fakes it sometimes—that's how Gabriel gets a gash across his right hip, another across his left collar, and learns to stop watching for tells. Like it or not, Elijah has been fighting for probably as long as Gabriel's been alive. Every movement is practiced, controlled, and deadly. Gabriel might have brute strength, but Elijah has a finesse that Gabriel can only hope to one day possess.

Still, Gabriel himself is no pushover. He cuts open a diagonal line on Elijah's back from hip to shoulder. Elijah stumbles but doesn't go down. Gabriel presses the advantage, driving Elijah back, punching him in the face when their blades cross and making him stumble again.

"I did this to myself," Gabriel says, punching Elijah again, "because he was going after my family. Because my mother was in a coma," he punches him again, blocks Elijah's blade, and slams the hilt into his face, "and because I didn't want to wake up in the fucking hospital anymore." He kicks out, catches Elijah's knee. "Because I was fucking alone, and at my wit's end, and I did what I thought I had to do to stop him."

"Then why haven't you yet?" Elijah demands breathlessly, sweeping Gabriel's feet out from under him and bringing the sword down. Gabriel rolls, and the sword pierces the earth.

"Because I've barely seen him!" He rolls to his feet, and their blades clash again. Elijah twists out of the way, and Gabriel staggers.

He catches a glimpse of Blaise, hands pressed together in prayer, before Elijah's sword comes down across his throat. Sharp pain sends a flare of panic through his body. He throws himself backwards as he raises one hand to protect his vulnerable throat. The blade slices across his neck, but it's shallower than intended, as Elijah loses his balance and they both tumble to the ground.

Hot blood spills down his front, and Gabriel fears he's done for. He can't tell how bad his throat has been cut. Still, when Elijah reaches for the sword he'd dropped in the fall, Gabriel seizes his opportunity, plunging the sword toward the Paladin Commander's vulnerable chest.

"Gabriel, no!"

He pulls up short at the last moment, on one knee with the tip of his sword resting against Elijah's chest. Blaise is on his knees, one hand extended toward them. Tears fall from his eyes.

"Please, Gabriel, please don't kill him. He's like family to me, please."

Gabriel glances at him, then at Elijah, who's frozen under his blade, one hand still hovering in the air just shy of his sword.

"Yield," Gabriel says.

"What?"

"Say that you yield. With God as your witness, yield to me now."

Elijah looks fit to breathe fire, but he says through clenched teeth, "With God as my witness, I yield to you, Necromancer."

"Keep your life. I don't want it." Gabriel stands, pressing a hand to his throat and wincing when it stings. His shirt is becoming wet with his own blood.

Elijah can't hide his shock, staring up at him with wide eyes. "I wouldn't have shown you the same mercy."

"It's not mercy for you," Gabriel scoffs. "It's for him," he nods at Blaise, who wipes his face and stands. "He's my brother."

Elijah picks up his sword and stands. "You may have earned your freedom for now, but we'll be keeping a close eye on you. If you slip up so much as one time, and an innocent gets hurt, you won't be granted this leniency again."

"Sure," Gabriel says, because he remembers who just won this fight.

"And as for you," he says, turning to Blaise, who straightens. His expression and voice harden as he says, "Blaise Morgan, you have broken your oath to protect the innocent by helping the Necromancer damn his soul. You have allowed the darkness to tarnish your heart, and are no longer worthy of bearing the insignia of the Paladins."

"Elijah, please no," Blaise says, a mournful plea more than a wish for leniency.

"You are hereby stripped of your title and your rank. Remove your ring."

Hands shaking, Blaise pulls off the silver ring and slowly drops it into Elijah's waiting palm.

"I will allow you to keep your weapon, if only because I believe you'll need it if you continue to live with the Necromancer. You are no longer welcome at the Guild. This banishment is witnessed by three of the elders, and effective immediately. May God have mercy on your soul."

Blaise makes a choked sound, something between a sob and a gasp. Elijah gives a nod, and the Paladins turn as one and walk away.

Blaise watches them go, trembling. Gabriel wants to reach for him, reassure him, but the world spins dizzyingly.

"Blaise, I'm—gonna fall down now," Gabriel says, and falls to his hands and knees.

"Gabe," Blaise says, alarmed. He drops to his knees beside Gabriel and pulls his head up. "You're losing a lot of blood."

"Yes, I am aware," Gabriel slurs. He feels drunk. Everything's a little numb. Almost warm.

Blaise wraps one of Gabriel's arms around his shoulders and hauls him to his feet. "Don't pass out on me."

"Okay. No promises."

It starts to mist before they get back, making things even more difficult. Gabriel already can't walk a straight line, weaving back and forth and stabilized only by Blaise's firm grip. They trudge through the dead leaves and mud mostly without speaking, unpleasantly damp by the time they make it back to the house. There's no sign of the Paladins, save for a few scuff marks in the gravel driveway where Gabriel was dragged.

Blaise dumps him right there inside the door, on the kitchen floor. Gabriel slumps against the wall, glad that they're done with the walking. Blaise darts out of the room and comes back with towels from the bathroom and a first-aid kit.

He manhandles Gabriel onto his back and leans over him.

"This might hurt. I don't have any local anesthesia."

"Can't feel much anyway," Gabriel mumbles, closing his eyes and tilting his head back to allow Blaise room to work.

The world starts to go fuzzy around the edges, and Gabriel just lets the darkness take him down.