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Chapter 9, Part 1



      The transfer was, if anything, rougher than the one from Earth to Hell, and the rip opened above a mountain cliff on the brim of Heaven in the middle of a bright evening.
      Asrial gasped and threw open her wings, clawing at the air with her flight feathers; the light breeze swirled into her mouth, wiping her clean. Even without her halo she could feel Him all around her, an incandescent electricity.
      The others struck the edge and bounced, tumbling toward the long drop. She dove after them, grabbing Mephistopheles's arm in one hand and Brad's foot in the other. The priest slid further and then stopped, hanging onto a scrubby plant with both hands.
      "I'll die if I fall, right?" he called up to her, wrists trembling with effort. "I won't believe otherwise unless you say so."
      "I don't know," Asrial replied, landing. With wings stretched taut to cup the air, she extended her foot to the priest, felt his hand catch around her ankle. She was a little giddy to be home again, home where He was.
      "Man, what I'd do for a pair of wings!" Brad said, pale and shaking but holding onto the angel.
      "Ssh!" Asrial hissed. "There might be others around. We don't want to be found."
      Stephen clawed his way up to Asrial's side and clung to the edge of the mountain. The drop below them dizzied him. "Where are we, Lady?"
      "Shamayim," Asrial replied, tasting the radiation of His love. "Near the halos."
      For the first time, Mephistopheles raised his head. His cheeks glistened where the wet of his eyes had overflowed.
      "Mephistopheles! You okay?" Brad asked.
      "Fine," the demon said hoarsely. "Better than fine."
      "I didn't think demons cried," Stephen said, trying to find somewhere, anywhere to look that wasn't down.
      "After centuries of silence...," Mephistopheles trailed off. He cleared his throat, checked his vest pockets. The token to leave Heaven was still mercifully unbroken in the one. And from the other, the grackle peered at him with insouciant eyes, black wings tucked flush to its body; like the demon's, even. Mephistopheles could not bear to bring himself to open them. Not yet.
      Asrial spread a wing for balance, ignoring the empty sockets in her covert shelves. "We have to find Gabriel," she said. "He'll listen to us. He can take our case to Michael."
      "And how do we find him?" Stephen asked.
      The angel frowned, curling the feathers together. She lifted her head. "I don't know. If I still... if... I wasn't known by everyone, I'd just ask someone...."
      "Like them?" Brad said, pointing with his free hand at the black silhouettes flying past in the murky blue twilight.
      Asrial's eyes widened. "Oh, no! Come now, we have to leave!"
      "Leave how?" Stephen asked, clinging to the rock fervently. "You have some talisman to write equations for wings of my very own? Christ, Asrial!"
      Closing his eyes, Mephistopheles threw open a wing and covered them all, black feathers against dark rock. "Hold still," he whispered. "Maybe they won't see us."
      "They'll see us," Asrial whispered back. "We have to run!"
      "There's nowhere to go, Lady. Our friends can't leave unless we lift them, and if we do we will surely be seen and overtaken."
      They ceased to talk then, the only sound that of their mingled breathing. The musky scent of Mephistopheles's feathers, heavier than any odor Shamayim's wind could possibly lift, sank over them like veils. Like incense, Stephen thought, and bergamot.
      Then they heard the sound of wings.
      "They've seen us," Asrial whispered.
      "They could just be flying by."
      "No, they've seen us!"
      "Lady..."
      "Mephistopheles, pull back!"
      The black wing retracted abruptly as the demon lost his grip. The sound of wings beating the light air of Heaven drowned out his small curse as he sagged down the cliff-side, the head of a spear planted beneath one shoulder-blade.
      "No!" Asrial leaped upward, jerking the two humans with her. Her own wings flared outward like a sunburst. "STOP!"
      The two guards stared at her, one of them with a foot on Mephistopheles's back.
      "Who are you?" one of them asked.
      "I'm Asrial of the Ninth! Let him go! He is on a mission to speak with the Eighth Choir, and I am his escort!"
      The two guards stared at Asrial, and Stephen held his breath. He'd never seen a male angel still in Grace, and they were... they were overwhelming, as if the sun could shine partially through them, suffusing their shapes with a radiance he could barely look at without his eyes watering. And these were merely angels? Those poor shepherds. And Mary at the annunciation! To bear the presence of an archangel! Stephen shuddered and turned his face into his arm.
      The first guard grabbed Asrial by the arm. "An escort, eh? Born of the Ninth? Where's your halo, angel?"
      "I could not take it to Hell!" Asrial exclaimed, trembling in his grip. "Do you think me mad?"
      The guard pulled back, eyes narrowing. He looked at Stephen and Brad. "And these wingless things?"
      "Human souls. Sent by the Great Betrayer to help the demon plead his case."
      Mephistopheles looked up at her dizzily, hanging on. He had just enough presence of mind to keep his body arched from the rock to avoid crushing the token and the bird.
      "I'm not sure about this," the one above Mephistopheles said. "The Archangel said nothing about sending another messenger to the Great Betrayer."
      "Do you think yourself privy to all the Archangel's plans?" Asrial demanded, earning the stares of all three of her companions. Sickened from her lack of halo and giddy on Heaven's light air, she found within herself an unexpected courage. "I demand to see him at once!"
      They studied her and the two humans, the demon. "You'll see him soon enough. When he's done with his council. Then we'll see if you really are who you say." The second guard braced himself against Mephistopheles's back and pried the spear out of his body, releasing a gout of black blood.
      Asrial thrust the two humans' hands at the guards. "Take these two. Since you have so summarily injured the Great Betrayer's liaison, I will help him to fly. Obviously I cannot trust you to restrain yourselves."
      The two guards frowned at one another, then shrugged and plucked the two humans off the mountainside. One of the angels grunted.
      "These souls are heavy."
      "They're human," Asrial said tartly, lighting beside Mephistopheles. "You did not honestly expect them to be without weight as we are, did you?"
      The angels said nothing and levered themselves aloft, taking priest and boy with them. Asrial examined the wound. "Mephistopheles," she whispered.
      "I can't help you," he said, voice taut. "That wing is useless."
      "It's still bleeding...."
      "We can bind it when we stop. You dare not talk to me long, Lady, or they will suspect... but oh, Lady! You fooled even me."
      Asrial folded her arms around his waist and pulled. "Come with me, Mephistopheles! There is so much to do yet...."
      He beat his one wing, the other hanging uselessly at his side, and together they labored into the air beneath the curious stares of the other angels. Asrial nodded to them and flew alongside as they led... over the mount where the bell tower stood in grim vigil, down into the valleys of Shamayim, down to the war camps that had spread like a black canker over the flank of Heaven.
      "It's gotten worse," Asrial said, staring at the glowing lights studded across the black net of the ground. The stench of boiled leather and acrid metal rose on the wind as they flew closer.
      Mephistopheles said nothing, but he counted the number of camps as they circled above the first two guards.
      The ground rushed to meet them and they smashed through a layer of miasmic odor so strong Asrial tripped on her landing. She and Mephistopheles stumbled several feet forward before she stopped herself.
      The guards stood silently, watching as she rose to her feet. The tent beside which they stood was familiar, and she wondered briefly, wildly if she'd been discovered.
      "Wait here," the first guard said. "We'll bring you to the Archangel when he's done."
      "Thank you," Asrial said haughtily and waited until they left. "Inside," she said, pulling open the flap. She glanced at her surroundings; several more tents had been added since she'd last stayed in this one beneath the shadow of the halo mount. It no longer sat on the camp's perimeter, but it was close enough.
      Once the others were inside, she took a small breath of the tainted air and ducked after them, wings tightly bundled to her back.
      Stephen was helping Mephistopheles untie the back panel of the vest. The demon sat on a bench in the dark, cradling the grackle.
      "Somehow I expected Heaven to be different," the priest said through clenched teeth.
      "Friendlier," Brad said.
      "Heaven prepares for war," Asrial said, pacing forward on light feet to crouch in front of Mephistopheles. "Did you expect otherwise?"
      "Somehow, yes," Stephen said, scraping the last of the torn fibers from the matted blood around the spear wound. It detached from the demon's back with a soft sucking sound.
      Asrial laid a soft hand on Mephistopheles's broad wrist as the demon flinched. His left wing draped like a boneless piece of cloth across the ground. He did not look at her, but the bird in his hand regarded her with an eye touched by a single white highlight.
      The angel lifted her head. "You must all run. As soon as the wound is bound, run for the nearest place you can use the token and go. Michael will know instantly who I am and that I lied. None of you will survive his wrath."
      "Man's Enemy offered us brandy and warm beds, and the Champion of God will kill us on sight, is that it?" Stephen asked, unlacing the back of the demon's blouse.
      "I am sorry!" Asrial cried. "I wish it were otherwise, Stephen. I wish we had not been found. Leave me here and I will find Gabriel for you. I will make him listen."
      "We can't leave you here," Brad said. "They don't exactly like you much, remember?"
      "They will like you even less," Asrial answered. Her wings fluttered against her back. "This is not how I'd hoped it would be. But I did not expect Shamayim to be so well guarded!"
      "More fool you," Mephistopheles rasped.
      She looked up at him, wide-eyed, and found his expression weary but not ungentle. He touched her jaw, as Lucifer had, with the arm that he could still feel.
      "I am sorry," Asrial said again. "Please, leave me here. There is more hope that way."
      "How will you get back?" Stephen asked. He'd exposed the hole in the demon's back and was ripping the vest panel into strips thin enough to loop around Mephistopheles's chest.
      "If Michael could throw me down to Earth, I am certain Gabriel could send me down as well," Asrial said, unable to look away from the demon's face. "Barring that, it should be simple to anger Michael enough to earn myself another blow."
      "I will kill him if he lays a hand on you again," Mephistopheles said. He opened his eyes to look down at the angel crouching before him.
      Stephen snorted. "You'll have to wait in line."
      Asrial glanced at the priest, then touched the demon lightly on the knee. "There are more important things now than whether or not God's Champion swats a member of the Ninth. We must stop them. We must stop all of this."
      "They don't seem to be guarding us," Brad reported. He was sitting next to the tent flap, peeking out. "But there are a lot of them everywhere. All armed."
      "I can distract them," Asrial said.
      Brad glanced at her dubiously as Stephen grunted, pulling the makeshift bandage tight. "Can you move for me, Mephistopheles?"
      The demon straightened by inches, blouse hanging loose over his hairless chest. "That'll do," he said in a rough voice. He pulled the token out of the other vest panel before shoving the rest of them at Stephen. "Use these to make a splint for the arm and wing. They'll get in my way otherwise."
      "Arm?" Stephen asked, alarmed.
      "I'm losing feeling in it." The demon grinned without humor. "They're my kind, Father. They know exactly where to plant their spears... and I obliged them by holding still."
      The priest grimaced and fashioned a make-shift splint. The arm was easier than the wing, but he labored in silence until he rigged the torn fabric harness, imprisoning the arm to the front of the demon's body and the wing to the back. The blouse fell in soft folds everywhere until it bunched beneath the taut straps; its black stain clung, sticky, to the demon's skin. "How's that?"
      "Better," Mephistopheles said. "We should leave soon." He handed the token to Stephen, then looked down at Asrial. He reached out to touch her hair and stopped. Shaking himself, he slid his palm beneath the grackle and offered it to her. "Keep him with you."
      "The bird?" Asrial's eyes widened, but she obediently held open her hands.
      "You shouldn't have to stay here alone," Mephistopheles said.
      Asrial looked down at the bird, then nodded once. "Get ready to go," she said. "When you hear my voice, sneak out the back of the tent, make for the open ground."
      Brad stood, joining Stephen. Both humans helped the demon to his feet. Asrial looked once at them, then offered the grackle her shoulder. It hopped onto the muscle strand that led to the top of her wing arm.
     She ducked out of the tent, cleared her voice, and called out, "Where is Michael? I want my halo back immediately!"


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