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Chapter 7, Part 2



      Mephistopheles lifted his head. Both of the humans sounded breathy, winded—they would learn shortly how to speak at a proper volume against such a weight of air. He dragged himself to his feet and stumbled to the shimmer of white and gold.
      "Asrial?"
      Four feathers littered the ground around her body, and Mephistopheles flinched. "Asrial!"
      Her head shook visibly as she raised it. Tears streaked her face in straggled lines that echoed the red-gold curls framing her face. "Mephistopheles," she whispered. "Everything hurts."
      "I know," he said, forcing himself to remain still. "It will get better, I promise. Just... just rest for now. We won't move for a while."
      She let her head sink back to the hard ground. Mephistopheles stared at her hair for several minutes, then shook himself and hurried to the others.
      "What's the deal with the sky?" Brad asked when the demon kneeled beside him. "If Lucifer's got a hundred doctorates in physics, why can't he put up real stars?"
      "My liege-lord cannot make things like stars, Brad. That is power beyond even the grasp of God's most beloved of angels," Mephistopheles said. "Father Bann?"
      "I'm here. Mostly living. Trying not to feel like Dante."
      "An interesting man, Dante. His supposed observations were a little sensationalist, though."
      "Let me guess. He works for your newspaper as a daily columnist," Stephen said, pushing himself to his knees with a muffled groan.
      "Not quite. But close enough," Mephistopheles said.
      "Say, what was the flash just before we dropped?" Brad asked, turning onto his stomach and getting onto his hands and knees.
      "Dear God! The bird!"
      "The bird?" Brad repeated.
      Mephistopheles was already hunting. "Where did it go? Crazy creature! I told it to go feather its nest or peck at grubs...."
      "Over here," Stephen said, looking toward a bundle of black feathers.
      Mephistopheles crouched over it, gently lifted it from the ground and caressed the feathers. "Ho there, old man. You still with us?"
      One beady eye opened. The grackle looked worn, but unbroken.
     Mephistopheles sighed. "I pick up more waywards than an angora in a field of thistles." He cradled the ball of feathers and said, "It's about half an hour's walk to the manor... and about midnight or so here. Do you want to wait for a while or start immediately?"
     Stephen glanced over at the angel, then back at the demon. "Maybe we should wait a little."
     "No!"
     They all looked at her as she slowly lifted herself, her arms shaking. Her wings drooped over her body untidily as if tied with weights. "No... the sooner we go, the sooner we can leave."
     "As you wish, Lady," Mephistopheles replied.
     Asrial's fingers picked at the pin at her shoulder until it unlatched, dumping the afghan to the ground. A tiny sigh escaped her, and she managed to climb to her knees. The sight of the newly loosened feathers scattered on the black soil almost stole the strength from her body.
     Stephen pulled himself to his feet and walked to the angel, mindful of his complaining limbs. Standing beside her, he said, "Come, Lady," and offered her his hand.
     Asrial stared at it, then shivered and slid her cold fingers over his palm. He helped her up.
     "Shall we?" Mephistopheles asked in a low voice, turning his back on them. All of them, of Earth and Heaven, places God still held in His hands... that he could still be bitter surprised him as he began climbing the trail to the Gate. He walked slowly, hearing their muffled panting as they dragged unwilling limbs and bodies after him to the Gate and the line of souls waiting listlessly for entrance, illuminated by a row of oil lamps set on wrought-iron posts.
     Stephen tried to count the people in line as he walked past, and couldn't; there were too many. Some of them were sullen and angry, but most wore stunned gazes, or tired ones, or eyes round with terror. Overwhelmingly he saw no violence, no cruelty, no darkness... no, not even remorse, for the people awaiting admission into Hell didn't even know what they'd done wrong. Their bewilderment was more cutting than any resentment could have been.
Were they all like this? Always?
     "Mephistopheles," he called.
     The demon looked over his shoulder, arching one wing out of the way. His narrowed eyes and compressed lips surprised Stephen into silence and he didn't ask.
     They reached the Gate into Hell proper, where a winged male stood writing names as quickly as possible, his shadow crisp and tightly pooled at his feet. Flustered, he glanced at their party. "Lord Mephistopheles!"
     "Yes, yes, they're with me. Transients, if you would."
     "Yes, she's with me too. And she's not staying either."
     The line of souls waiting for entrance halted completely as the guard bowed to Asrial. "My Lady," said he.
     Asrial stared at the crown of the Fallen's halo-less head, her eyes lambent and golden lashes glittering with a light not of Hell's casting. She said nothing and passed on, over the hill and through the Gate.
     "Straighten up," Mephistopheles said wearily. "I'll escort them out when I'm done. You don't need their names... they are not slated for this world. Not yet, anyway." His gaze flicked briefly to the two humans before he turned away and followed in Asrial's footsteps, the grackle's bright yellow eye just visible from the crook of his elbow.
     "Sorry," Stephen said, backing away from the guard. He grabbed Brad's arm and hurried after Mephistopheles.
     "Father, this is crazy," Brad whispered.
     "I know, I know," Stephen replied. "But it's what we get for meddling with affairs above us."
     "Or below us?" Brad said with a grin.
     Stephen opened his mo
uth to chide him and ended up laughing instead. It was a twisted sort of laugh, but honest for all that.      Brad said, "Seriously, Father. You think we're going to be able to do it?"
     "That depends," Stephen said. "I'm beginning to think the angels aren't much different from us for all their origins. So that either means we'll be able to convince Michael to keep from killing people... human people, that is... with a little common sense... or it means that he'll be just as stubbornly intransigent as any human madman, and then we'll have our work cut out for us."
     "But you think we have a chance?"
     Stephen snorted. "That's part of being human, Brad. It's not a question of whether we have a chance or not. We think we do. Sometimes it makes a difference."
     "You're nuts."
     "If I'm nuts, then you're there with me." Stephen's shoulders hunched; even without the torch-light to show them the surrounding cavern walls, he could somehow feel that this place was finite in a way their reality was not.
     "Guess so." They walked a way in silence.
      "I wonder what time it is?" Stephen said, glancing at the uncanny darkness around them. "Your parents must be worried sick."
      Brad shrugged. "Nah. That's not their style."
      Stephen glanced at him. "That's not the first time you've said something like that."
      The boy didn't answer immediately; he walked with shoulders curled inward, hands jammed in the pockets of his jeans. "Did your parents love you, Father?"
      "My mother did," Stephen said, voice hushed.
      "What's it like?"
      Stephen glanced at him, then back at the stony path. "I don't know how I'd describe it. I guess it's having a place to stay where you know you're safe, and a person, or people, you know will love you no matter what you do. A little like God's love, but made manifest and prone to fleshy error."
      "Oh." Brad rolled a shoulder, almost a shrug. "My parents don't do anything like that. They don't do anything, actually. They just... are. I think I'm some sort of microbe they don't really register, sometimes. I wonder why they had me, if they didn't really plan to care about me, or if it's just me that made them not care. You know?"
      Stephen closed his eyes, dragging in the weighted air and thinking of the dramatic irony of having such a conversation in Hell, where he fervently hoped Brad's parents would end up. Though if Mephistopheles's story had any truth at all, it would be more than they deserved. "It's not you, Brad. Some people just aren't equipped to love kids. Some people, for that matter, aren't even equipped to love people. They just go through the motions."
      "Yeah. I guess so. Well, they won't worry anyway. As long as the car comes back before Monday morning. Heck, this is far cooler than spending the weekend drinking beer and rattling around wondering about the meaning of life."
      Stephen grinned. "And you don't call this rattling around wondering about the meaning of life?"
      Brad snickered. "But no beer."
     "You're not old enough for it anyway, kiddo."
     Brad said, "No comment, Father. Hey, what's that?"
     Stephen lifted his head, squinting. "You've got better eyes than me."
     "Father! Wait!"
     Mephistopheles stopped at Brad's call, looking back. "Lady, wait," he said quietly to the angel. "I suspect the good priest is about to be delayed."
     Stephen reached the cross and wobbled to a halt. He could barely see it, but a board marred its lines at its pinnacle, one that no doubt bore its lonely Latin word. The heavy scent of human blood rose from the splintered wood, from the knotted tangle that stabbed the night with its silhouette, a parody of a halo hung against the cross-bar. Stephen's knees gave way beneath him, pitching him to the ground. The lack of light did not hinder him; he knew, somehow. He recognized it by the timbre of its voice, thrumming in him so deep he felt it in the hollows of his bones.
     "It's the real one, isn't it?" he whispered, hearing boots behind him.
     The steps stopped and feathers rubbed against one another with a soft hiss. And then: "Yes." A baritone far richer than Mephistopheles's, so unearthly beautiful that it made melancholy song out of words even in the lifeless air of Hell.
     Stephen's head dropped.
     "Of all the people the Wind took... he is the one who consumes me. The one I regret most. The one that wakes me at night."
     A rough sob jerked out of Stephen, surprising him. His hand fisted against the cold, weighted earth.
     "Father?" Brad skidded down the slope. "Father Bann, are you all ri—woah!"
     At the top of the hill, Mephistopheles gathered the tableau in the space of a heart-beat, then ran back to Asrial. "Lady... come. He found us."
     Asrial unfolded her wings one at a time, as if they'd grown too heavy to work together. She drifted after the demon off the trail and into the darkness.
     Beneath the scent and weight of the cross, Lucifer knelt alongside Stephen and placed a hand on his shoulder, immense pinions arching up over them both and fanning at oblique angles. "It is no shame. Yours are not the only tears shed for him."
     "It was supposed to be the way the Bible taught us. The right hand of the Father... judgment in Heaven... anything would have been better than this...."
     "Yes."
     "Why didn't you save him? Why didn't you save him!"
     Lucifer said softly, "I came too late."
     "DAMN YOU!" Stephen shouted, and then actually saw the face beside his. He started laughing through his tears.
     "My liege!" Mephistopheles said, scrabbling down the hill.
     Lucifer lifted his head. "Mephistopheles?"
     "What is that... smell? Perfume...like Heaven."
     Asrial stopped where she stood a few feet behind Mephistopheles, paralyzed. The Fallen angel beside the priest, the one with wings even larger than Michael's, the one with the eyes that encompassed her with an intelligence she would never have anticipated... could only be the Great Betrayer. And he was rising to his feet with a fluidity that had been robbed from her the moment she Fell from Heaven, the grinding of the pebbles beneath his boots almost inaudible to her as she waited, unable to move.
     She steeled herself against his touch when his hands lifted to her face, but when he cupped her cheeks she felt no revulsion. Lifting her face to his, she could only tremble: at last, to look into the storied face of evil...! and find gentleness instead. She could not bear it.
     "Dear Lady," Lucifer said, "You do not belong here."
     Mephistopheles's voice filtered to her from very far away. "She is part of it, my liege."
     Lucifer let his hand trail from Asrial's cheek to her shoulder and out over her wing, silver eyes following in the wake of his fingers. He returned his gaze to her face and said, "It is a good walk to a place where we might sit. Permit me to carry you, Lady. You will not reach it on your feet."
     The hand on her cheek throbbed against her skin and the blush beneath it was shame and hunger, neither of which she understood. Asrial's eyes closed, and she nodded.
     Lucifer's hands slid beneath her knees and shoulders and lifted. She tucked her body against his chest and strained to keep her wings tightly mantled to her back, over the Great Betrayer's arms. Her own audacity amazed her. Surely God would strike her down for coming so close to the one who spurned Him... yet, if the story was as Mephistopheles had said....
     With the angels preoccupied, Brad crouched next to Stephen. "You okay, Father?" he whispered.
     Mephistopheles joined them, the bird in his arm peering at them. "There'll be a hearth at the manor. And alcohol."
     "That's really him."
     "He's not as ugly as in his pictures," Brad said.
     "Michael has better press agents."
     Stephen said, rough, "Let's go. Before my body decides to stop moving."
     "This would be an unkind place to be forever frozen," Mephistopheles said, quiet. "Come, Father. Don't linger."
     Stephen glanced one more time at the cross, reached out to it, then reluctantly turned and trudged after.



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