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Chapter 6, Part 2



Angel Egg


      The sheer normalcy of it made Stephen laugh, and he grasped for it to steady himself. "You never did show me a picture of her."
      "I got one right here." The boy dug in his pocket and handed it to Stephen. "She's really cool... smart too. Her mom was some kind of really fancy doctor and was so good at it she retired early or something like that, so it must run in the family."
      "Well, the phone is in the kitchen."
      "Gotcha."
      Stephen studied the photo of the smiling girl, a blonde with green eyes. Her intelligence shone brightly through them. He suddenly wondered if she were a candidate for Michael's Heaven...or if the Archangel would have left her soul to the Wind. He lifted his head. "When can we leave?"
      "As soon as night falls. I have a token to get back, but it only works at a specific time."
      Asrial sat again on the sofa, body folded in on itself and wings hunkering over her shoulders. "Mephistopheles?"
      "Lady."
      "You said something about... preparations? Is there something I can do?"
      The demon shook his head once. "I wish. But it's how you put aside your halo that makes the difference. That can only be done once. Done carefully, you can survive without God. Done badly, and He can no longer reach you."
      "I'm frightened," she whispered.
      Mephistopheles and Stephen shared a brief glance before the priest spoke. "Don't worry, Asrial. We'll take care of this mess with Michael and Lucifer and get you back to Heaven."
      "I would be in Choir right now," she said softly.
      Mephistopheles sat, still holding the censer. "Singing what?"
      "Hymns. Rounds. Canticles to glorify His name..."
      "I have not heard such things in many, many years," the demon said.
      The longing in his voice startled Asrial into staring at him for longer than she planned. She did turn her face away; his expression somehow seemed too private for the intrusion of her gaze. But very softly, she hummed until she reached the descant where the Choir Director would have directed her section to enter, and then she sang, wordless, the hosanna.
      The music of Heaven was a weaving of hours, and yet time did not seem to exist in the space between the notes. Even without the backing of the choir, Asrial stopped time, and the demon and priest and boy came to her feet as her glorias rose to the firmament where surely Someone heard.

***


      In the musty darkness, thick with glimmering veils of incense, Gabriel leaned against a column and stared at the barely visible nests of cloth-of-gold and chalcedony. The vaulted ceiling's stained glass windows had been shuttered; in the intimate darkness before him he could glimpse no movement. Only one sphere, glowing bronze, was in residence.
      "Gabriel?"
      The archangel slowly splayed one shelf of primaries, but could not bring himself to lift the heavy wing. Perhaps if he ignored the voice, it would go away.
      "Gabriel? Are you here?"
      He closed his eyes.
      "Gabriel! Please, I need to talk to you."
      With a sigh, the archangel turned. "Here, Raphael."
      The darkness drew back from the shape of the other archangel, walking up the steps to the nursery. The faint light of the lamps glittered in Raphael's fawn brown eyes. "I had worried about you."
      "Why? There's little for me to do. Michael has practically taken over Shamayim. I have plenty of time for repose and comfort." Gabriel turned back to the nests. "Speaking of the Archangel, how goes his spat?"
      Raphael's baritone lowered in the presence of the one sphere. "He's sent a messenger to Hell. It's starting. Gabriel...I worry about you. And about Michael."
      "I'm fine," Gabriel said. "I just refuse to have any part in this farce. There's been no sign that now is the time for the final conflict between Heaven and Hell. Michael has not bothered to explain any of it to us. Why should we trust him?"
      "Gabriel!"
      "Were we not created equals? What put Michael above us all? Michael's zeal for conquering the enemies of God! Perhaps the time has come for us to give up war and hatred."
      Raphael ran a hand through his golden hair. The lamplight was unkind to him, painting dark circles beneath his eyes. "How can we not support him, Gabriel? I will be full of joy on the day I can put aside my healing arts forever. But we must present a facade of solidarity. We are brothers."
      "He will not listen to us, Raphael. Don't brothers listen?"
      "But what if it is the right time?"
      Gabriel frowned. "Have you ever seen any evidence that God was interested in suffering? Raphael... when has our God killed, save in anger over injustice? What has Lucifer done to deserve the wrath of God?"
      "Don't say that name!"
      A crack interrupted Gabriel's vehement reply, and the heads of both archangels whipped toward the sphere in the only occupied nest. A thin line darkened across its haloed shell.
      "Can it be?" Gabriel darted through the hanging cloak of incense and dropped to his knees beside the sphere. He laid a hand on it, the vibration sending sympathetic aches through the bones of his wrist. "It's opening!"
      A broad crack developed perpendicular to the first, and the sphere yawed open, revealing an arm slick with golden fluid.
      "Raphael," Gabriel said, pulling away fragments of the shell.
      "Here," the other archangel said, joining him. They dipped their hands into the fluid and caught both arms of the new angel inside. "I've never seen a sphere still wet. Usually it's turned to dust by now...."
      Gabriel slid a sticky hand around a chin and drew the face up to the lamp's low light. A female, hair a warm, light brown and lashes glued to her cheeks. He frowned. "Something seems...."
      Raphael was unfolding one of the wings when four of the primaries came off in his hands. He stared at them. "Gabriel!"
      "She's not breathing!"
      "Quick, pull her out, I don't have my bag with me, God, oh God!"
      "Shut up and clean out her nose!"
      Gabriel opened the angel's mouth and choked as the fluid slopped over her teeth onto his hands. "Raphael, she's full up with it!"
      Raphael thrust him out of the way and turned her on her stomach, beating her back as the thick gold fluid puddled around her lips. Gabriel tried to re-arrange her wings and came away with more feathers.
      "Live, curse it all!" Raphael said, pulling her upright.
      "Raphael...!"
      The angel opened her eyes, a blue so pale that her pupils' lack of reaction to the light stood out in stark relief.
      "Stay with us," Raphael said.
      She closed her eyes against the entreaty. The ends of her wet locks dripped gold dust and then her entire body was gone, a cloud of glitter falling over the ground, into the puddle of fluid, across Raphael's thighs and Gabriel's feet. They stared stunned at the sticky outline her body had created on the warm stone.
      "Gabriel... what did we just witness?" Raphael asked shakily.
      "A stillborn angel."
      "No, she was living."
      "A miscarriage."
      "Angels don't miscarry, Gabriel! Heaven is not some mortal woman's womb!"
      Gabriel scooped up some of the glitter. The sphere was already crumbling. "I don't know what to tell you, Raphael."
      Raphael grasped his hair, the lines of taut muscles standing in sharp relief against his forearms. Then he stood, his motions jerky. "Someone must tell Michael."
      "Good luck," Gabriel murmured, but the other archangel was already on his way out. The gold dust shone softly in the lamplight. Gabriel smoothed it into the fluid.

***


      "My liege, there's a messenger here for you."
      Lucifer lifted his head, pen pausing over the parchment. The medallion he'd been shaping to hold these delicate equations rested on the table, half-formed gray-clay with a black satin cord. It was very important to get the medallion right, for those it would protect would have no other shield.... "From Mephistopheles?"
      "No, sir. From Michael."
      Lucifer stared at the guard, then turned and capped his ink pot. He wiped the quill's nib and slid it into the holder before standing and facing the door. "Let him in, please."
      An angel strode inside, an angel still in Grace. His white wings were banded in copper and slate blue, and over his head a halo spun, pristine motion reminiscent of the dances of the smallest quarks. He wore white and gold, and his mouth had frozen into a distasteful sneer. His bow when he essayed it was openly contemptuous.
      "I bring a message from the Archangel Michael, Prince of Light and God's Champion."

      Lucifer folded his arms. "I'm listening."       "The Prince of Light demands the surrender of the Great Betrayer to the might of God, for he means to bring war against God's scourge. He wishes you to know that he is merciful however, and if you submit to him he will spare those whom you forced to follow you out of Heaven and into vile exile. He encourages you to accept these generous terms and spare the souls of the innocent the Champion's terrible retribution."
      "The souls of the innocent, is that it?" Lucifer plucked a bottle from his desk and poured himself a glass of wine. "The souls of angels, I presume. Michael would never think of human souls."
      "The Archangel did not specify," the angel said stiffly.
      "Of course he didn't," Lucifer said. He swirled the wine in his glass. "Tell me the part about the misguided angels again, just so that I am sure I understood you correctly."
      Torn between indignation and a desire to seem unflappable, the angel said, "Your submission will spare the misguided angels who followed you into exile a terrible fate."
      "And what will Michael do with me? Or did he not share such details with you?"
      "I would never presume to ask the Prince of Light such things."
      "Of course," Lucifer said again and placed his glass on the desk. "What did you say your name was?"
      "I d-d-did not," the angel said, eyes widening. "I would never give my name to the Great Betrayer!"
      "Well, then, Angel with No Name... take this message back to your master. If he wishes to talk conditions with me, he must tell me what he means to do with the human souls of my demesne... not just the angelic. If he will open his arms and Heaven's Gate to all the souls of Hell and all the souls to come, then we can speak again of my submission."
      "You are no one to give conditions to the Archangel," the angel said, baring his teeth.
      Lucifer waved a hand. "Leave. You have my answer."
      "You will kneel before Michael in rags before he parleys with you," the angel said stiffly, and swept out.
      "My liege?" the guard asked, hesitant.
      "See him out. Make sure he gets to the Gate safely."
      "Yes, sir."
      The door closed with a hollow thump. Lucifer picked the glass up by its thin stem and brought it to his lips, inhaling the bouquet as he stared out the slivered window at the unnatural darkness of the countryside.
      "Come home soon, Mephistopheles," he murmured.



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