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Chapter 8, Part 2



      Lucifer closed his eyes. "Lady. Such thoughts are treasonous. I would not see you harmed for the pity that moves you here." He kissed her knuckles, inhaling the citrus-sweetness of the gloss secreted in the troughs between them, and then dropped her hand.
      But her eyes had already wandered and with them, her other hand. "Such wings," Asrial whispered in awe, touching one of the silky coverts of the second shelf. "You must have been magnificent in flight."
      Lucifer forced himself to watch her, to hold still, to let her touch, leave that luscious scent clinging to his wings like clouds of incense. "It was one of my joys," he said after a moment, his voice more brusque than intended.
      "You really forsook it, all for humans...." Asrial looked at him with wide eyes. "Why? Why did you do it?"
      "Because God endowed them with souls... and the free will to damn them," Lucifer said. He had not seen such eyes in hundreds of years; it was hard to look into them and remember. "He does nothing so important without cause, Asrial. Nothing."
      She had gone back to gently tracing the edges of his covert shelves with delicate fingernails. "They are so heavy, the humans."
      "They were not born as fortunately as you, in the arms of God."
      "They think bad thoughts, sometimes."
      "You are thinking one now, by Michael's way." Lucifer lifted a hand and brushed the bottom of her jaw with a finger.
      She looked at him again. "Is it really so simple? Would we have been like humans if we had been born that way? Uncertain? Without halos and wings, without knowing?"
      "Asrial," Lucifer answered, very gently. "We were born that way. It is only that they are wise enough to admit it."
      "But we know God!"
      "But not His mind," Lucifer said. "No more than any human."
      She sagged then, and his hands shot out to catch her. "You shouldn't be up. You're ill."
      The angel shivered. "How did you know? You knew before they told you, if they even did...."
      "I smell it on you." Lucifer slipped his hands beneath her knees and back and lifted her. "It's in your feathers, your hair, in your eyes. You were not prepared to leave Heaven." He walked through the darkness toward the bedroom door.
      "But I feel safer with you than I have since I stepped onto the mount on Shamayim. I... I don't understand."
      "No one will harm you here. And your illness will not advance around me." Lucifer entered the bedroom and rested her on the blankets where he'd slept so uneasily the night before. He lit the candle on the nightstand. "There is more of Heaven in Hell's Fallen than even Michael suspects."
      Her hand on his upper arm tightened as he drew back. "No... wait."
      Lucifer stopped.
      "I want to hear it. From you. Your voice."
      "Hear what?" he asked, though he already knew.
      "That you love Him. Tell me, so I can carry it forever."
      Lucifer closed his eyes. Opened them and met hers and did not look away. "God is my master and my Lord, Asrial. I love Him, and will always love Him, until the day I am extinguished."
      Her hand slipped from his arm. He heard her shivery breath and withdrew to allow her to rest as she should have instead of coming to him.
      Yet at his desk where the candle had at last drowned itself in its own wax, he did not sit. With his palms pressed flat against the wood, Lucifer stared into the cold fireplace. It was several minutes before he could light a new candle, find and doctor his quill, and resume his work.

***


      Brad stated the obvious for them. "She's not coming back."
      The grackle turned a bright eye on him, sitting on the table.
      Stephen stared at his reflection in the brandy: too much darkness under his eyes. Too much darkness in them. "So, maybe someone found happiness tonight."
      "Don't say things like that!" Mephistopheles stood. "We're not human. We're not like you."
      "You're not capable of happiness? That's a new one on me," Stephen said, exhaustion dragging his voice down several notes. "I didn't mean to imply anything else. God knows I have little interest and littler understanding of angelic relationships."
      "I'm sorry." Mephistopheles sat again, pressing a hand to his head. "I'm... I've just never seen him quite so unsettled. He's usually so composed."
      "He seemed pretty composed to me," Brad said quietly from the corner.
      "He is a reserved man," Mephistopheles said. He traced the edge of the table beside his chair with a fingertip, then drew in a breath and squared his shoulders. "You're right, though. She's better off there than here, if she is with him. He'll arrest her illness."
      Brad looked up. "He will? How come?"
      "There are many things that were given to my liege-lord that he did not lose when he came here," Mephistopheles said. "Consider this, if you will. There are roughly six billion people on the Earth, aren't there?"
      "That sounds right," Stephen said.
      "Michael accepts only about twelve million a year into Heaven. There are less than six hundred of us. But we save them all."
      They stared at the demon. The grackle ran its beak through its chest feathers.
      "Not unless you fly a lot faster than you seem to," Brad said finally.
      "Or unless you don't fly at all," said Stephen.
      "Space-time bends," Mephistopheles said. "But we couldn't do it without him. There's not one of us who knows enough."
      Stephen didn't notice the tears until the difference between his fire-warmed cheeks and the cool touch of the air registered. They slid down his jaw to his throat, and he stared at the brandy. "So goddamned good and yet...."
      "He tried, Stephen," Mephistopheles said, voice growing brittle. "He loved your Christ. More than I've seen him love any human before or since."
      Stephen didn't answer. He rested his forehead against his spread fingers and closed his eyes.
      The fire in the hearth crackled in the ensuing silence, the shadows shivering in the corners of the study.
      "What happened to Judas?" Brad asked.
      Stephen looked up.
      "Judas?" Mephistopheles scooped up the grackle and returned to petting its feathers. His countenance was set, but could not quite hide the pallor that pulled the color from his cheeks. "Ah, yes. An interesting man."
      Brad leaned forward, hands gripping the edge of the chair for balance. "Is he here?"
      "No."
      The boy canted his head. "Is he in Heaven, then? He doesn't seem like Michael's type."
      "No."
      Brad's eyebrows rose. "Well, then... what?"
      "He chose the Wind." A tremor ran down Mephistopheles's wings, though it did not touch his shoulders. "We came for him, but he cursed us and God, and wished himself unMade. And we could not stop him."
      "Mother Mary," Stephen whispered through his tears.
      "Is in Heaven," Mephistopheles said. He smiled wryly. "Someone thought she was a good Jew."
      "Man, this is a story that would rock the world," Brad said. "Who would believe us, though?"
      "It's too much," Stephen murmured, eyes closing. "It's too much. We could never tell anyone."
      Mephistopheles stood and walked to the divan. He brought the blanket to Stephen, still perfumed with the scent of Asrial's feathers, and tucked it around the priest. "Rest."
      "I can't stop," Stephen said, touching his wet cheeks. He felt dizzied; every time his thoughts wandered from the study, from the sight of the fire, the demon, his own student, pain came to him soft-footed and coaxed the tears from him, relentless.
      "Don't try," Mephistopheles said, his baritone gentling, lowering. "Weep for the rest of the world, who will not know what you've learned before they lose the power."
      Stephen accepted the blanket, curled up in the overstuffed chair and stared at the fire. The grackle had hopped to the table between him and the hearth; the scarlet light glossed over its dark feathers broke into pieces refracted through the beads on his lashes, until he could no longer see distinctly. The cross loomed huge in the lens of his eye.

***


      "I think you should see this," Raphael said, flexing his sticky fingers. His shadow in the tent's lamplight flickered in caprice.
      "Yes, now!" Raphael said, wings luffing from his body, primaries digging the air as he spread them. The archangel thrust his hands out at Michael. "Look!"
      Michael turned from the map, perplexed. "What is it, then? Dunked your fingers in a vat of honey?"
      "Curse it, Michael, this isn't a trivial matter," Raphael said. "It's blood. Egg blood. From one of the birthplaces! We had a... a miscarriage!"
      Michael stared at the liquid, a frown slowly knotting his brow. "I... see. What does this have to do with me?"
      Raphael stopped. "I... nothing. I don't know. I just thought you should know. It's important."
      "You're the healer," Michael said with a shrug. "Find out what happened."
      Raphael stared at the other archangel's back as Michael turned from him.
Tucking his wing arms tightly around his body and his wet hands against his chest, Raphael ducked out of the tent and strode into the soft weight of Shamayim's warm night. Moments later he was airborne, over-flying the camps on his way back to Raquia.
      He'd intended to go back to the birthplace to study the globe further, look for any clues; halfway there, his strength failed him and he spiraled down to a cliff to rest.
      Raphael stared at his hands. The stickiness had faded to a faint film; the heat of the fluid to a coolness that sucked the warmth from the perfumed spring breeze. As he turned his palms, his fingertips sparkled in the early evening starlight.
      Healer. But his services had not been needed since the first war in Heaven. He'd been reduced to offering the services of an apothecary to a people who felt no pain and required no spices for the food they did not eat... and he had counted his blessings and hoped to one day forget the knowledge he'd learned, tending to those who were too tenacious to give way to extinguishment on the battlefield.
      The truth was that he had no idea why the angel had been miscarried, or what could cause such a grievous fault in Heaven's birth-giving.
      Raphael lifted his face to the breeze and closed his eyes, letting it tangle his brown hair. Then he stood, weariness etched into his frame, and spread his wings until the wind helped him up and he could make his way further into Heaven.
      The warm darkness of the birthplace did not feel welcoming as he entered, wing-weary and heart-sore. He called through the heavy incense mists, "Gabriel?"
      The other archangel was sprawled against the column nearest the shattered globe, chest rising and falling in a regular rhythm that suggested sleep. Raphael managed a faint smile and slipped around him to sit beside the broken globe.
      He picked up one of the pieces, running his fingertips along its inside edge: smooth as any shell before its dissolution. Why had this one remained intact? Why had this one failed to form the halo that would have kept the newborn alive?
      Why?
      There had to be some clue. Raphael set to examining the remains, the dried blood, the dust, the shards, even the inside of the nest. He'd chafed the feeling from his fingers before he sat back, mind whirling.
      He didn't know. It was that simple.
      How could he treat what he didn't know? Raphael scattered the shards across the warm stone, hands trembling as he beseeched the silent pieces for their knowledge. He was the healer of Heaven. If not him, then who?
      And what would prevent it from happening again?
      Raphael hid his face against his arm, curled up with his back against the wall. He forced himself to his feet some time later and abandoned the birthplace for the sky, heading back to Shamayim.



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