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Chapter 7, Part 1



Grackle Flying


      "This is the place," Mephistopheles said, halting in the clearing. He held the token before him and concentrated until he could distinguish its thin voice from among the hundreds pressing for his attention. It sent a tingle up his wrists. "Yes. This is the place. We have only to wait some ten minutes."
      Brad peered at the clay medallion. "What is that thing?"
      Mephistopheles chuckled, his dark wings blotting out the royal blue of the sky as he tensed and relaxed each shelf of his feathers. "This, my friend, is Lucifer's handiwork."
      Stephen glanced up at that. He was standing beside Asrial; the angel had seated herself on a tree stump as soon as the demon had stopped. She'd donned her dry chiton again, and wore the afghan like a bulky cloak against the cold.
      "How does it work?" Brad asked. "Can I touch it?"
      "Surely." Mephistopheles dropped it into the boy's hand. "It is... difficult to explain. Think of it as a complicated mathematical equation made concrete."
      "A what?" Stephen said, startled.
      "Math can be used to describe the universe," the demon said, one wing turning parallel to the ground, feathers scissoring apart to better catch the cool breeze. "God manipulates the universe in what way, we know not... though His touch on it can be heard as music, in Heaven. The rest of us muddle along with the writing inspired by such melodies. Lucifer is the greatest of us at that, but his solutions are still hammers compared to God's scalpels."
      "Lucifer a... mathematician?" Stephen said. He grinned. "Maybe he won't be so bad a guy after all."
      "You're crazy, Father," Brad said. He handed the token back to Mephistopheles. "So this is an equation stuck in a lump of clay. How does it work?"
      "I'm getting to that part. The equation describes a particular instance in time and space where a portal is possible between... facing realities, I suppose is the best way to put it. It suggests that possibility, and the suggestion makes it so. That's the closest I can get to a real explanation."
      "Huh. Maybe math is useful after all," Brad said, winking at Mephistopheles.
      Stephen rolled his eyes. "You're not going to learn theoretical physics until you pass trig, kiddo."
      "Hey, I can dream, can't I?"
      The token sent another warning up Mephistopheles's fingers. "Five minutes now." He walked to Asrial and went to a knee before her, arching his wings into cups on either side of his body. "Lady. We go to a place that is evil by the teachings of Heaven; more importantly, it is cruel to your body. If this place pains you, Hell will be a thousand times worse. You do not need to accompany us."
      Asrial turned her face from his, her cheeks darkening. One lock of hair fell alongside her eye. "I will go," she said. "I am in this thing. I must see its end."
      Brad straightened beside the demon, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans. Stephen did not join them until Asrial had carefully rose and drifted to the boy's side.
      "Three... two... one," Mephistopheles murmured, then held out the token and broke it with a dull click.
      The grass beneath them tore and the air gaped as if sliced by a knife somewhere behind reality. The dark blue sky and the silhouettes of the trees fell together around the black incision like the folds of a stage curtain.
      "My God," Stephen said, eyes widening.
      "Last train to Hell," Mephistopheles said, gesturing toward the undulating rip.
      Boy, priest and angel stared at the results of Lucifer's token. Brad had frozen, entranced by the waving fringes of reality; Stephen was busy trying to convince himself that it was real.
      Asrial gathered the afghan around her thin body, breathing in the heavy scent of its human musk with the sharp bite of the cold wind. Lifting her chin and folding her wings tightly to her back, she walked forward, pausing only once to look at Mephistopheles before passing into the darkness.
      Brad shrugged and followed her, Stephen reluctantly on his heels.
      Mephistopheles waited until the priest's back disappeared, then entered the rift. He turned inside the small pocket tunnel; the rip's folds sucked in on one another as if to equalize a deadly pressure. A pang of regret preoccupied him as the blue-violet of Earth's sky and all Terra's singing to God drained away.
      A black missile streaked through the remaining hand's width hole with a tremendous croak, bringing with it a whorl of cold air and the scent of loam. Missing only a few tail feathers, the grackle swooped to Mephistopheles's shoulder and eyed him.
      It clacked its beak, and the rip closed.
      The four smashed to the hill outside the Gate of Hell, and the air smothered them.
      "Oh God, I feel like all the weight of the entire atmosphere is focused right... on... my... back," Stephen said, lying flat. The stones beneath his chest and navel dug sharply through his sweater like swords. He wondered if he was bleeding.
      "Man," Brad muttered, staring up at the hole sealing in the black cavern ceiling. "Is this for real?"



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