Toba the Tura was the outlier. He was not a builder, but an upholder—an angel of designated purpose. When the ink-slinger angels had toiled to erect the lamps, he had not yet been born. He lay quietly as the earth. Then, as the angels began to migrate out over the land in the glow of the golden beacons, O had scooped him up into life from the clay and borne him forth into the world, a roaming sentinel of justice.
The angels, congregating on their perches, a mass of whispers and wings, had exchanged many stories of the deeds Toba enacted on behalf of O, but they were only stories. Ahrima, like most of the other angels, had only seen Toba the Tura the way one feels dread: a prickling at the surface, a tugging at the core, a shape that hovers for a moment in the corner of one's eye that vanishes when faced in full. One did not truly realize Toba's presence until after he was gone. He was not seen but felt.
However, when Ahrima, alone, abandoned in the piles of hours upon hours, turned to see the shape of him lumbering up from the horizon from across the steam-shivering expanse of ashy ground, he did not disappear.
Ahrima knew him at once. He recognized the stiffness of dread that sank in to lap over his bones. He drew all six of his wings to cover himself and, through the feathery gap between the forewings, watched Toba approach over the charred land.
Some of the stories were true. Toba was enormous. Certainly more than twice Ahrima's height and several times his width without wings, though he moved low to the ground, as though ready to go to all fours at any moment, an ancient boulder shifting and aching over the land. A white wrap of bandages bound his eyes, but this did not seem to hinder his maneuvering at all. He, like O, had no wings but traveled always upon the ground. Ahrima pondered over the strange sense of lacking, of how his form seemed naked and incomplete without wings to balance and shield him.
But some of the stories were wrong. When faced head-on, Toba was not white-blind light and terror. The earth did not tremble below him, for his feet fell softly. His presence was intimidating but not overwhelming. Ahrima felt no immediate urge to flee, so he stood in the mass of his wings and peered through at Toba's face. Broad-nosed, thin-lipped, thick-cheeked, coated in a layer of ash and sweat.
When he reached Ahrima, he settled heavily against his scythe like a walking stick. He seemed tired, but Ahrima knew he could roam over the earth for centuries without rest.
"So." His voice eased in as small and mild as a breeze. "You're Ahrima."
Ahrima said nothing.
"May I take a seat?"
Ahrima hesitated before drawing his wings open and back in the gesture of welcome. He only remembered that Toba could not see when Toba had already thanked him and settled himself gingerly on the ground, laying his scythe over his crossed legs.
Ahrima folded his wings and sat down.
Toba was silent for a long while. He sat with his back straight and his head craned high, as though focused.
"Oh," he murmured. "Do you see that smoke column over there?"
Ahrima turned to look. Toba's head was fixed in the direction of a thin, pitch-black spire of smoke, spindling up into the graying sky. A lamp, still smoldering in the distance.
"Yes," he answered. "Do you?"
"I suppose not. But I perceive it still." He settled back. "Your handiwork, yes?"
"You know very well that it is."
"Yes," he said, "I am only curious about how you felt. Did it accomplish what you wanted? Burning down the lamps?"
"I—I don't know. What do you care?"
"I take the motive behind actions into account."
Into account for what? Ahrima dared to think, though he did not allow his terror to mount quite yet.
"Why did you do it?" Toba asked.
"O didn't tell you?"
"He said he did not know."
Ahrima's cold dread burned off in passion like paper over a flame. "Didn't know? He told you that he didn't know? Well, this may come as news to you, but O the Scientist is a coward and a liar. I told him. I told him, again and again, how I felt. And if he couldn't see this coming, then he's more of a fool than even I took him for."
"I misunderstand nothing!" His halo flared bright. He cast his wings out and leapt to his feet. Their six tips pointed, quivering, at Toba. "The only thing I misunderstand is how I was able so long to withstand living under the wing of one who never loved me!"
"Never loved you? I watched him raise you. He created a world with you. He nurtured you. He let you stand at his side and mold the earth with your own hands, though he could have done it alone. He gave light to your world. In my layman's perspective, that seems to be love."
"But when I came to him, he refused to speak to me!"
"He had already given you so much, Ahrima. But you were never satisfied. You always wanted more. He did not know why you did it because he could not understand why the love of your family was not enough for you. At what point, Ahrima, should he have drawn the line? If not then, when would have sufficed?"
"I asked for more because I needed more! I have so much potential to grow, even still! I could accomplish anything! And even now, he's still trying to hold me back! He knows that I'm gifted. He's seen what I can do. I want my chance, and I want it right now! Let my unique, deft hands be known!"
"And they have." Toba's voice pattered out like heavy droplets from a leak. "We know, now, what you do when O lets go of your hand."
They turned to look out upon the landscape. The lampposts hung and leaned over the horizon like the walking sticks of giants, planted slipshod across the sky. Pieces of glass from broken bulbs Ahrima himself had blown from the forges quivered with the reflection of the little light Ahrima's aureole gave, shivering like spectres on the mountainsides and in the plains. Ahrima's hands and feet stung with cuts he had earned stumbling around in the dark with only the golden halo about his head to guide him.
"This is the world you've made, Ahrima. And you will have it, just as you wanted. But first, I must finish what I came for."
He took up his scythe and stood to his full height.
"It's time, Ahrima," he said. "Judgment will be swift."
"What—what are you going to do to me?"
Toba's authority and purpose began to wash through his bearing. For the first time, Ahrima felt a cold spike of fear.
When Ahrima sprang into flight, Toba's enormous hand swatted him out of the air like a lion crushes a bird beneath its paw. An instant later, Ahrima lay underneath Toba's fist on his belly in the dirt, still hot and charred black and grey from the fires, underneath his cheek and in his nose and eyes. His breathing was ragged, and his wings stood rigid and twitched and shuddered. He trembled like an animal, and his voice turned basal, an instinctive, meaningless, animal call:
"Please, Toba—please, Toba—please, Toba—"
Toba picked him up between two hands and carried him, squirming, wings beating senselessly, to one of the lamps that was still standing, though the bulb was, of course, broken. It leaned slightly to one side, a useless relic. As he bound Ahrima to the lamppost, the reserves of instinctive fight-or-flight energy were beginning to run out, and a swallowing despair welled up in their place. The stories he had heard upon the perches swelled up to life, nightmares of Toba's justice roaming through his mind's eye. A sob choked up from his throat, and he could see only shapes and shadows through his tears.
"I didn't know it would be this bad," he managed to say. "I didn't know all this would happen. I didn't mean it like this. I just wanted him to give me my due. I didn't want him to give up on me. Toba, please—"
As Toba moved to stand before him, he hoped the ground would swallow him up, that Toba would keel over dead, that this was just a test, that O would come for him, that something would stay his hand, anything, anything.
He nearly wept himself sick as Toba knelt in front of him and drew out a small blade and began, lock by lock, to shear away Ahrima's thick black hair. He only stopped once, briefly, to let Ahrima retch partway through, and even then he beheld this pitiful creature, half-bald, unable even to get properly sick. He had not eaten in days, and a bit of water came up, nothing else, that slugged down to the earth in a long trail of viscous drool. Toba dabbed it away with the hem of his apron.
"Tell him I'm sorry," Ahrima pled. "Tell him I can be different. Tell him I want to come home. I just want to go home."
Toba took another lock of hair between his fingers and sheared it. A breath of wind from the valley tumbled it away across the ground.
When he had finished, he stood back. Ahrima felt chilled and prickly and naked, but the dread of what was coming fell upon him too heavily for him to care.
"Please don't take them away. Please. How will I ever get home again? Please, Toba—"
Toba would not proceed with Ahrima unprepared. He waited for Ahrima to quiet down.
Ahrima drew his wings in so tightly that he could see nothing but the pallid, feathery darkness. They were crusted with hard chunks of ash and dirt, but they had never felt softer against his face. He noticed now just how precious the mottled spots of black buried in the cream and tawny feathers appeared. How had he never noticed before? He never wanted to open his wings again. He could just hide here forever.
Toba's voice eased in, solid and hidden.
"Spread your wings."
"I can't." He buried his face. He was going to be sick again.
"It will be easier for both of us if you do."
"What can I do?" Ahrima asked. "I'll do it. I'll do anything he says."
"I'm waiting for you to spread your wings, Ahrima. I can wait a long time."
There was no end. There was no escaping. This was it.
Ahrima found it difficult to believe that he was even able to move his wings at this point, so paralyzed he was with dread, but somehow they creaked away from his frame and stood, stiff and shivering as Toba moved behind him.
"I will be as quick as I am able."
He knew what was coming, but he screeched still as Toba grabbed taut and bellowed the scythe down upon his hindwings, one by one. He set them aside with a feathery thump. Fresh panic bounded up inside him and beat against the inside of his chest. He still had two pairs left.
"I can't do this! Stop! Toba, I can't! I need them to get to O, to Nidria—please, Toba—"
But Toba was moving along quickly. One after the other, he did the same to his forewings, two quick, decisive slices.
As Toba approached once more with the scythe, Ahrima was so dizzy with nausea and pain and terror that he slid in and out of blackness. He had his midwings. The biggest, the most centered. One pair of midwings was enough to carry him home, maybe, if he practiced and took a lot of rests. He could do it, if he could just try.
"Not these," he moaned. He could not swallow back the drool pooling up in his mouth from the nausea. He spat in the dirt. "T-Toba…"
He was already in so much pain that when the scythe came down with two fresh additions, he could hardly register it, but the sudden lack of weight killed him. He felt so terribly light, he could hardly bear it.
His head felt strange; for one delirious moment, he thought his head would pop off and spin away, but no. The light on the landscape flickered. His entire body went woozy. Something was happening to his head.
He felt something leave him, leaving tracks in the dirt like a sand snake. His halo had vanished, blown out like an extinguished candle. The only light now came from Toba's halo, the smoldering fires that dotted the mountainsides and the plains, and the far glow of the Light in the East.
"There," said Toba. "It is all finished now. You may rest."
Ahrima felt so light, he half-thought he would float away when Toba untied him. But he did not. Toba drew back the ropes the way a mother draws back her child's bedcovers, and Ahrima fell face-first into the dirt. He felt Toba's hands draw around his forearms and lift him up.
"Come, now, Ahrima," he whispered. He eased him back on his feet. "I've got you. There you go. Can you stay up?"
He stood there, trembling, with his knees together, unable to remember how to stand. How does one balance without wings to center oneself? He didn't know how Toba managed. He would fall over at a touch.
The wind that moved over the ground did not catch and tug him like it used to, but it stung at his bleeding wing-stems. He wanted to draw his wings around himself to hide his shame, but of course—of course—
He hugged his chest and hung his head and squeezed his eyes shut tight.
I'll never see them again. They were just here. They were just here.
The wings were in a bag Toba drew closed and hefted onto his back. He sloughed the mess off his scythe on the bottom of his shoe and put the scythe over his shoulder.
Toba did not apologize. He couldn't. If he expressed remorse for every deed of justice he was made to enact, he would be sorry for everything, for his entire existence. But he regarded Ahrima with a ripe sorrow before the earth began to shudder underneath them.
Ahrima lost his delicate footing. He fell back on his rear with a thump. His back was on fire. Even the slightest movement brought fresh aches through his shoulders and spine and hips and legs. A moan spilled out of his mouth.
"What is that?" he asked, as Toba scooped him up and placed him on his feet.
"The angels are in the forges, building new lamps for the East, and O is drawing up a mountain range between you and the angels. He has promised that they will bring the light back. And that cannot happen if you return. So now, he has allotted this place to you, to do as you wish. You may never return to the East, but you may live here, in your creation."
"I cannot create now." Ahrima did not have the vitriol left to spit the words in his face. "I need love. I need my family. You know this to be true."
Toba did not look at him, of course, but he felt Toba's attention hold him right from the core.
"Yes," said Toba. "And now, so do you."
Toba leaned down and placed a kiss upon Ahrima's forehead, who was so weak that he sank and nearly toppled with the weight of it. The old warmth of the aureole bathed his head and shoulders for a moment.
"I hope you find what you were looking for," he whispered. "I hope this was all for something. Goodbye, Ahrima."
When he moved his lips away, the place where they had been glowed with holy lamplight. He departed, a circle of gold light shrinking away into the blackness.
Ahrima never saw him again but once in the hours that stumbled by, when a hulking shadow shifted and ached upon the mountain range as it broke up fresh from the earth, traversing the steep, impossible cliff to the light. It rose to stand upon the summit of the rocky edifice, faced the West for a long moment, then dropped out of sight.