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Chapter 5, Part 2



      Somehow they made it across the field. Stephen locked the classroom door and followed the shadowed silhouette of the demon, Asrial's wings brushing against the walls of the stairwell.
      Brad had already poked the fire back to life when Stephen closed the door to the dormitory at the top of the stairs. The boy backed away as Mephistopheles approached the sofa and rested the angel there, drawing the blanket up around her shoulders.
      "Maybe the afghan would be better," Stephen said, noticing again the dark purple stain.
      All three of them looked at her. No one moved.
Mephistopheles laughed. "None of us are quite ready to strip an angel, are we?"
      "I thought demons hated angels and God and all that," Brad said, raking his hair back with a hand.
      Mephistopheles smiled. "Is that what they taught you in school, then? Satan and his minions, bifurcated tails and pitchforks?"
      Stephen listened as he pulled the afghan off the sofa's back and gently draped it over Asrial.
      "Well, it's not like we had any other evidence," Brad said, a hint of testiness creeping into his voice.
      Mephistopheles was silent, his face set as he watched the priest, fire dancing across his back. His dark flight feathers twitched. "No," he said, absently, "No, you didn't, did you."
      Stephen glanced up from the angel's side, his fingers tightening against the hem of the blanket beneath the afghan. "Mephistopheles... what's wrong with her?"
      The pale covert gleamed as the demon held it up before the fire, its gold bands picking up slivers of orange and crimson. "I don't know. But whatever it is, it's serious. Something to do with her being on Earth."
      "What's the big deal about the feathers?" Brad asked, sitting next to the coffee table.
      Mephistopheles's eyes narrowed as his face turned to the boy's. "What would you do if you woke up one day and one of your fingers fell off?"
      Brad froze, pinned beneath the intensity of the unblinking stare. Only the soft, triumphant hiss of the blanket falling free tore both demon and boy's attention away from one another. Stephen held it up, leaving the afghan over Asrial's slack body. Hints of cream-gold skin glinted through the woven holes of the garishly colored granny squares.
      "God Almighty, Mephistopheles... what did you do to the man?" Stephen asked as he fingered the blood-stiffened fabric.
      "I ran him through."
      "Woah," Brad muttered.
      "And that produced all this?" Stephen asked. As terribly unbalanced as he felt, the matter of cleaning the blanket seemed to gain a preternatural importance. Anything to make a demon prince in his common room normal, and to erase from his fingertips the river silt-softness of an angel's skin.
      Mephistopheles shrugged. "I broke his breastbone. Ask a surgeon, it's not a clean process."
      "Can swords do that?" Brad asked.
      "Mine can."
      Stephen tossed the blanket onto the battered easy chair and folded his arms over his charcoal gray sweater. "How do we wake her? We need to talk. All this happening at once... I don't like it."
      "I don't either," the demon said. His amber eyes slid to the angel's shape. "Maybe something to drink. Or...," he stopped. "Or the smell of incense."
      "I'll find some. Brad, can you make hot cocoa? We'll probably need it."
      "Sure, Father."
      As the other men left the common room, Mephistopheles knelt beside Asrial, touched her cheek softly with the backs of two fingers. Her red-gold hair spilled over her forehead and around her throat. Her feathers were so close to the pristine white of an archangel's, so soft, so bleached. Even the crown of her hair was a paler gold, where her halo's spinning had blown clean the color from it, sign of a Divine Breath.
      Her brows were drawn finely upward as if in pain: her lashes a delicate web of shimmering crimson.
      A hunger uncurled from the pit of his belly. Not for her, for all her beauty... but for the Heaven she'd left so recently she still smelled of it, incense and clean soil and sunlight. Not for her, for all her grace... but for the God whose face had been so long obscured by Hell's artificial walls.
      The perfume of myrrh and frankincense punched through Mephistopheles' reverie. He glanced up to find Stephen with the censer, swinging it lightly from its chain. Cupping a hand around one of the arabesques of smoke, Mephistopheles tickled it toward Asrial's face.
      "Wake, lovely one, favored one," he murmured.
      Her chest lifted in a long breath. Her lashes parted ever-so-slowly, revealing a mazed golden eye. "Father, I am ill," she whispered.
      "Not for long," Stephen said from over the demon's shoulder.
      Asrial's eye flew open. "No!" She jerked upright, clutching the afghan. "No, this was a dream...!"
      Mephistopheles leaned away, still on his knees. "No dream, I fear."
      First one white wing, then the other curled over her shoulder and up to her chin, surrounding her in feathers. She rested her cheek against the flat of one wing-arm. "I want to go home."
      "So do I," Mephistopheles said.
      Stephen glanced at him sharply.
      "To your lightless, graceless place!" Asrial said, voice growing taut. "To the place you chose!"
      "Yes," Mephistopheles said. The clatter of mugs on a tray announced Brad's arrival, but he didn't turn. "Yes, I chose it, Asrial. Do you know why?"
      "You turned from Him!" Asrial leaned toward him in her zeal, one wing unfurling enough to allow her to move freely.
      "I turned from Michael!" Mephistopheles said, refusing to back away. His hands on his knees had clenched into trembling fists. "I turned from his callousness! I chose to follow Lucifer and make a home for human souls!"
      "What?" Stephen said softly.
      "What?" Asrial repeated, frowning. "What do human souls have to do with it?"
      "Michael would only allow into Heaven the souls of those whom had followed the rituals and commands perceived by the first humans to know Him to the very letter. Every soul that didn't was left to dissipate on the Wind! Lucifer chose the path of mercy. He made a place where every soul could dwell, on the chance that one day Michael would understand."
      The censer lowered as Stephen stared at Mephistopheles. "What... what are you saying?"
      "I'm saying that if it weren't for Lucifer, almost all of your planet's population would have become dust after death," Mephistopheles answered calmly, though he shook. "We are creatures of a God who was first known by the Hebrews, and it is they that the angels guide into Shamayim. The souls saved by your Christ, Father, go not to Heaven... but to Hell. Michael will not allow them in Heaven."
     The censer hit the ground with a dull clang, rolling across the wooden floor.
      "You think I lie? I could take you to Hell myself. You could talk to Lucifer, if you wanted. No one knows the whys or hows of God's interest in your world, or why He first showed Himself to the Hebrews, and to no one else. But despite that, Lucifer believes His interest includes all humanity... and so do those of us who follow him."
      "Jehovah," Stephen whispered.
      "Elohim," Asrial said, her voice trembling.
      "You observe," Mephistopheles said, voice low, "that even the angels know Him by the names He gave those humans."
      "How can this be?" Stephen asked, lifting his head. "Mephistopheles... how can God want one thing, and His angels direct another?"
      The demon shrugged, the motion rolling up his wings. "We are fallible. He trusted us to handle souls too fragile for His fingers... and in His design, our dichotomy was somehow planned. But for all this final battle is in the design, I cannot believe it is meant... at least, not yet. Not this way."
      "Not on Earth," Asrial said.
      Mephistopheles turned to her, startled. "You know."
      "Yes."
      "Michael Pushed her," Stephen said, a twinge of his dry humor returning. He reached over to the tray on the coffee table and liberated a mug of hot cocoa. The expression on Brad's face gave him pause; the boy was sitting very quietly near the fire, dark eyes smoldering.
      A spear of anger pierced Mephistopheles. "Pushed?" He looked at Asrial. "He cast you down, Lady?"
      A porcelain-smooth blush rose beneath the skin of her cheeks. She lowered her glittering eyes. "I heard him planning the final battle, and told him he...he should not."
      "What? You spoke for us? Why?"
      Asrial lifted her gaze to the demon's. "Because God keeps all your halos. They're living. They're waiting for you. He can only have forgiven you."
      Mephistopheles stared at her, his thoughts shattered. He stood and walked to the fire, turning his back on them all.
      "I need the whole story," Stephen said. "From beginning to end. If we're going to stop this thing...."
      "Stop the Apocalypse?" Brad asked, his voice cutting sharply through the pause. "That's what you're talking about, isn't it? I thought the Apocalypse was a good thing. That's what you kept telling us."
      "I didn't think it would happen!" Stephen said. At Brad's expression, he said, "Not like this. Not... some battle between angels completely unrelated to us or our need for salvation. God works through us, Stadler. We are His instruments. It's not supposed to be a fiery deus ex machina."
      "You're rather practically-minded for a priest," Mephistopheles said, still staring at the fire.
      Stephen folded his arms. "I'm a Jesuit."
      "Ah!" Mephistopheles said with a laugh. "Yes. You would be."
      "Well, yes. The whole story now?"
      The demon sighed. "Very well."



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