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Chapter 6, Part 1



      "No one knew when God changed His mien. Or even if He did; perhaps we were just so badly off in our understanding... who can know? But He is the God mentioned in your Old Testament... of course I've read it.
      "Michael was in charge of Heaven, and fifteen lieutenants had he; I was one of them. But the first born was Lucifer and it was He who had God's ear. They say, though I've never asked, that he alone could stand God's presence for longer than a handful of heartbeats, he alone who could stand to hear the music of God's speech. He spent most of his time in the Seventh Heaven, soaking in the light of God.
      "He and Michael were close. Closer than brothers, or lovers. We lived in grace and harmony in Heaven, and at first it was we archangels only who lived there. God had just created the place, and us with it... and then He made it clear that humans were to be allowed into it where His emanations would keep souls alive indefinitely, maintained just as we were. But He could not handle the souls of humans; they were too fragile, and dissolved in His hands.
      "So Michael was given the task of ensuring human souls arrived safely; for that purpose the first angels of the Ninth Choir were created, legions of beings who could touch human souls, help shepherd them home. He interpreted the rules by which souls were admitted very strictly—he loves God in his own way, I suppose, and wanted nothing less than perfection for the place where God resided.
      "Lucifer had different thoughts. He was certain that God wanted all human souls to have a home, not just a handful. That the way humans had perceived God through their limited vision was not the way God had wanted them to; that He did not want to solely save one people, but to
begin, in His own way, to smooth away the pain and oppression, the injustice and suffering of all humanity.       "Michael did not agree. Keep in mind that most of the archangels could barely stand the presence of God for a breath, much less long enough to converse with Him. Most of them couldn't even understand the language of God. There was no real way for us to understand, beyond the emanations of His benevolence and His love for justice, exactly what He wanted.
      "In the beginning, there was no violence. Lucifer spoke of mercy, of our responsibility to every human soul. Angelic souls are not wasted when we die; our essence returns to the breast of God. Did we owe something less to the human souls? And Michael would listen with amusement, perhaps, but not anger. My liege-lord gathered other angels who would listen, who agreed. Who would sneak in souls when Michael was not there. There was no violence, no... until later.
      "After the death of... well. At one point, Lucifer finally gathered us together and spoke of his intentions. He would found a new place where the souls not chosen by Michael for Heaven would have a home after death—those of us who wished to join him in this effort could come with him, and those who didn't would stay.
      "But hearing this, Michael grew incensed. And then there was war.
     "By the end of it, we had made our choices, those of us left living. We knew what we were getting into: Lucifer was the Morning Star, beloved of God and closest to Him... but he was not God. He could create a realm, but he couldn't weave it near enough and light enough that we would be able to sense God. We were walking into darkness in the name of a principle. But many of us chose to follow him anyway. We set aside our halos, followed him through the passage, and our wings tarred without Him to make them pale.
      "And there we lived. Lucifer sent the angels who had followed him to watch over humans wherever they lived, to wait for Michael's angels to make their decisions and catch their souls when they were cast off by Heaven before the Wind could come and tear them apart. In the beginning we were so few that Lucifer and all the Princes were among the busiest on Earth. But a thin stream of angels came to us after our initial defection, and while we were never as populous as the angelic legion we'd left, we had enough to do our job.
      "But that's where we've been and what we've been doing for centuries. And for all I long for God's light and His music, I would not leave Hell to bow my head to Michael. Not even," and here Mephistopheles sighed and turned from the fire, "Not even for my halo back again. Not for white wings or for pale hair, not for the ability to fly again. Not while the Wind claims a single sentient soul."

      The fire crackled in the silence. Brad sat, clutching his mug and staring at the demon; Stephen, on the easy chair, was so stiff and still his back ached.
      Slender fingers slid over the censer's insulated base, then picked it up and cradled it in the palm of a small hand. Asrial, the afghan half-heartedly clasped around her body, walked to Mephistopheles and faced him, thin spirals of scented smoke rising from the ball in her free hand.
      "I cannot think badly of the Archangel," she said, her voice so soft the fire's popping threatened to press it out.
      "I know," Mephistopheles said gently. He wound his fingers around the chain and lifted the censer from her hand without touching her. "What is your story, my Lady?"
      "My... my choir instructor told me there was something to see in Shamayim. So I flew on the Restday there and found camps of war. I thought they were those of the humans...," she glanced over her shoulder at the priest and boy, "And flew on. I saw a strange mount and discovered there a building with all the halos of the Fallen, still living. When I was discovered, I was taken to the war camps to find angels there, girding themselves for violence. And then I was sent to Michael... and the Archangel accused me of evil, and cast me out of Heaven for speaking against his plans for the Final Battle."
      "And she landed in my parking lot," Stephen said. He cleared his throat and said, "I tried to make her comfortable."
      "And Lucifer sent me to follow the angel spoor, thinking Michael had sent a scout to find a place to do battle," the demon murmured.
      "And I am dying!" Asrial said, trembling again. Her other hand stole to her midriff and she stared at the floor. "My feathers...."
      Mephistopheles looked up from his musing. "Ah, Lady. No angel has ever been cast out of Heaven! Asked to go, chosen to go, yes. And most of them walked through the Gate to Hell on their own. But forced... never! You were not meant to leave your home. You did not prepare yourself so that the lack of God's light would not affect you. That you are on Earth, where some ray of God's presence still shines, and not in Hell where the lack of Him would have extinguished you must be His intervention."
      "So now that you're all here... what?" Brad asked. "How do two humans, an angel and a devil stop the Apocalypse?"
      "God knows," Stephen muttered.
      Asrial turned. "Yes! Yes, He does! If only..."
      Brad cocked his head. "You said yourself that there's one person who can talk to him."
      "My liege!"
      "The Great Betrayer," Asrial whispered.
      "But I can't get to Heaven... only to Hell," Mephistopheles said. "Even if we speak to my lord, we still need to reach Heaven...."
      "One thing at a time," Stephen said quietly. "One step at a time."
      They stared at one another, frozen by the audacity of their thoughts. Finally, Brad sighed. "I think I'd better call Marie and cancel our date."


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