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Chapter 8, Part 1



      "And that's where it stands," Mephistopheles finished, running his fingers over the plumage on the bird's back. "The war machine is moving."
      Lucifer stared at the fire, his back to them. "And you want me to talk to God to secure proof it's not what He wants."
      Ensconced in an over-stuffed chair, Stephen had already begun to numb his wounds with the promised brandy. "You're the only one who can talk to Him, supposedly."
      "Yes," Lucifer replied after a long moment. "You are assuming anyone would listen to me, though."
      "Surely if you returned from Araboth still wreathed with His fire, my liege..." Mephistopheles trailed off.
      "We're aware of the many weaknesses of our plan," Stephen said, not bothering with courtesies. "But it's the only one we have."
      Brad asked, "Will you do it?"
      A log hollowed by the fire broke with a shower of sparks. Lucifer's shoulders stiffened, wings rigid. Then he sighed. "I would. But I can't get to Heaven."
      Asrial lifted her head.
      Brad said, "I thought you could make openings to other dimensions!"
      "Oh, I could send you to Heaven... but there is a ban against my presence there. If I am to step foot in Heaven, someone must lift it first."
      "Michael," Stephen muttered.
      "Or one of the other archangels, perhaps," Lucifer agreed, turning.
      "One of them will listen to reason... there has to be one archangel who doesn't want humans to die! Right...?" Brad looked from Lucifer to Asrial.
      Asrial looked away. "Perhaps," she said softly.
      "We'll just have to convince them, that's all," Stephen said. "I'd like to see an archangel tell me to my face that he doesn't care if I live or die as long as he can take potshots at Satan."
      "So that's it. When do we go?" Brad asked.
      "Dawn would be the best time," Lucifer said. "Perhaps a handful of hours from now." He looked at Mephistopheles. "Will you accompany them? Keep them safe?"
      "My liege. Yes. Of course."
      Asrial struggled to sit upright. She'd been deposited tenderly on a chair upon their arrival and covered with a blanket, and there she had remained, unwilling to move much against the pressure of Hell's atmosphere. "Mephistopheles... it won't be safe for you. Shamayim is full of war camps...."
      "I do not fear for my life, though I have a healthy respect for the swords of your cohorts in the Ninth," Mephistopheles said, his voice quiet. "There are things worse than a death dealt in Heaven."
      "Well, I don't want to die either way," Brad muttered.
      Lucifer's wings shook once, as if whisking beads of water from their feathers. "I will prepare the medallion, then. Excuse me."
      "No wonder they make the doors so big around here," Brad said after he'd gone. "Geez. He barely clears them as it is."
      "Such a terrible waste," Mephistopheles said, eyes still fixed on the door. "None of us have been able to fly for centuries, and he... oh, he more than any of us, such a wonder in flight."
      Asrial sat up, bracing herself on a pillow. "For centuries?"
      Asrial pushed the blanket off, steadying herself with a bare foot against the stone floor and one wing wrenched upward.
      "Lady!" Mephistopheles said. "You shouldn't..." And seeing the look on her face, narrowed his eyes. "...where are you going?"
      "Not far."
      "She's going to talk with him," Stephen said. Asrial ignored him.
      The demon set the bird on the table, standing. "Oh, Lady, no! You mustn't!"
      Asrial ignored him as well, pushing herself to her feet.
      Mephistopheles strode to the door and barred it, wings arching on either side of his body and feathers separating. "Please, Lady... he needs to be alone. Don't you know how hard this is for him? Even to contemplate Heaven again? Much less to feel the evidence of it—"
      She lifted her chin.
      "Let her go, Mephistopheles," Stephen said, resting his glass on his stomach, slouched in his chair.
      "Please." He tried a different tack. "You're ill, you should stay in bed. You shouldn't be wandering around Hell where you could grow faint...."
      Beneath the thin cloth of her chiton, Asrial's skin pebbled from the cold. Her voice quivered, but she managed to raise it enough to be heard. "I am not the only one who is ill, and faint for lack of God."
      The grackle squawked. Mephistopheles searched her eyes, found no hold, and his feathers fell together. He backed away, watching as she cracked the giant door just enough to slide through, like a child into an adult's realm, and vanished.
      Staring after her, Mephistopheles said, "I should have stopped her."
      "She's her own person. Self. Angel. Whatever." Stephen said. "She has the right to make her own choices."
      "I don't care about her rights!" Mephistopheles exclaimed. "It's my liege that I care about. If you think I long for God, do you know what it must be like for him?"
      Stephen said, "Hell."

***


      The candle on his desk guttered in its own wax, its light feeble and lonely; the hearth was barren and offered no warmth. Lucifer's pen had stopped at the first bracket of the equation, stopped as if glued fast to the paper. The perfume of Heaven would not leave his nostrils, and the only thing powerful enough to drive away the smell was incense, the precious incense he'd taken with him from one of the birthplaces there. One did not fight fire with oil. Lucifer's fingers tightened on the quill.
      The rest of his study was drenched in shadows so stark he could not see the shelves or the table, or the door to his bedroom. One candle alone could not touch the entirety of the room during the darkest hours of Hell's night.
      Every feather, every bone, every muscle in his body ached. They remembered the first day he'd spent without Him. Their silent reproaches echoed over and over in his mind, so distracting he did not hear the footsteps on stone.
      When the hand touched his shoulder, Lucifer froze. And then the perfume surrounded him, and he was drowned.
      "My lord," the angel whispered. In the candlelight the silhouette of her body could be seen, a soft grayed-lavender against the translucence of her chiton.
      "Why are you here?"
      "I came to... to see you."
      He backed away until her hand slid off of his body, dizzied by the scent.
      "Please. Even I can see you're in pain. Let me ease you. Please."
      "You can do nothing for me," Lucifer said, turning away from her. He took a deep breath, forcing his body to relax. "I made my choices long ago, and I do not regret them."
      She drew nigh. Again, she touched his shoulder, let her hand slide down his back between his wings. He stilled himself, turned and caught her hand as it fell from him. "You should not."
      "Please, my lord," the angel said again, lifting her golden eyes to meet his. "I cannot bear to see you so. I do not even know why—"
     She raised her hand to his cheek, and he allowed it, and her touch was finer than sunlight, softer than feathers.
      "—but there is a nobility to you that no one said you would have, and I cannot bear to see it wounded!"



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