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Chapter 11, Part 1



      The grackle banked on a gentle breeze and fell into a circular pattern above a low, long building that hugged the ground beside an open lake. A dull smoldering in the east accompanied a faint temperature change in the winds, and it dropped toward the ground.
      The door was open so it glided inside, leaving contrails of mist in the wet, soft air. Inside, rows and rows of stalls stood empty; it flew past them, homing in on the scent and sounds at the end. There, in four stalls each thrice the size of the others, were four horses, red, black, white and yellow.
      Lighting on the largest stall door, the grackle eyed the black horse. Its smooth nose dipped down, and it stared back without any of the flightiness of a true horse. Satisfied, the grackle dropped to the stall's simple lock and pecked at the bar until it fell through the hole and onto the straw.
      When it had liberated all four, the grackle hopped onto the black one's shoulder. They had an understanding.
      The stable doors burst open beneath the steel-hard hooves of the dark stallion. From a cloud of splinters, the four horses surged forth.

***


      The sound of footsteps on the stone stairs pierced Gabriel's starved reverie. He glanced up from the veils of incense and the empty nests, waiting to see who would join him.       No spheres remained in this place to give birth to new angels. Not since the one that had died in his arms, her glitter mixed with the rising plumes of heavy smoke. It had seemed appropriate to remain here in the silence. His realm, Shamayim, had withered beneath the brunt of its camps. He had no desire to leave, no purpose to spur him.
      "Gabriel?" Raphael's shape gathered definition through the fog, his feet scraping against the dark brown rock. "Are you here?"
      "Here," Gabriel answered, his voice rusty, clogged with dust and glitter. He cleared it. "Here, Raphael."
      The archangel changed direction, ducking beneath an arch and down the steps into the nest area. He was stroking something in his hand. His voice had an oddly unfocused timbre. "Gabriel... there's no reason to stay here. It's over."
      "It will not be over until we understand why, Raphael," Gabriel answered. He remained seated, wings arched on either side of the stone column he used as a backrest. "I am surprised it does not haunt you, too."
      "It is no use. I am God's servant—it is His will." Raphael stopped in front of him. He was caressing a feather with nervous fingers. "But Michael plans to attack tonight, and it's already morning. You should come."
      "Why? To lend the illusion of my approval to something I cannot condone? You ask me to betray my heart, Raphael."
      "Are you betraying your heart? Or God's?" Raphael's voice lacked any tone. "We are about to end the war. You should be there."
      "End the war? Or resume it?"
      "End it forever. Forever and ever and ever again. No more death or dying. No more need for healers."
      "At what cost?" Gabriel sighed. "Michael doesn't need another henchman, Raphael. He needs a good clout on the head."
      Raphael shrugged. "Then come and do it, if you feel that way."
      "It's too late for it." Gabriel folded his hands together and looked down at the floor. "He doesn't care about any of our opinions. He won't until he sees what he's done wrong, and by that time nothing will set it right." He turned, noticed finally Raphael's strange distraction. "Raphael? What's wrong? What is that thing you're playing with, anyway?"
      "A feather off the girl. Michael had her crucified. It was God's will, of course. Most peculiar thing, this feather. It fell off her wings, just like that, as if it had rotted out of the socket. It wasn't one of the ones we pulled... we just did the secondaries, you see. No, this one came off by itself. And she had some missing already. Yes... as if it had rotted right off."
      Gabriel stood so abruptly the room spun. He grabbed Raphael's shoulder. "What did you say?"
      Raphael looked away and replied, "Michael had one of the Ninth crucified for attempting to betray us to the Fallen. They hung her on the cross at false dawn and took her down several hours afterwards."
      Gabriel stared at the feather. "Tell me it wasn't the same one he pushed off the cliff. Raphael... tell me it wasn't her!"
      "Who else?"
      Gabriel turned from Raphael, covering his face with his hands as the ground dropped from beneath his feet. He could see her face vividly, the long strands of red-gold hair in disarray over thin white arms spread obscenely in the rays of the dawning sun. His mind inserted every detail, from the delicate spray of her white fingers to her wings, arched and...
      "What do you mean, rotted?"
      Raphael held up the feather. "You can see it, just barely. It's powdered off, just as if the tissue had died and returned to Heaven's substance. Funny thing. How do you heal something like that, do you suppose? I wouldn't know."
      Gabriel stared wildly at the nest where the angel had died, drowning in her own fluid. "My God," he whispered. "Oh, my God, Raphael... what have we done!"
      "I don't suppose it can be healed... I could be wrong, though. Yes, that could be it—"
      Gabriel plucked the feather from Raphael's hands. "Where is she? Where did they take her? Answer me!"
      "I think they were going to deliver her back to the Betrayer."
      "To Hell... no! She'll die there!"
      Raphael frowned. "Die? But she is dead, or close enough. It is God's will. We are His servants. Aren't we? Does it matter to you, Gabriel? It shouldn't."
      "But it does... it does! If we can just get to her in time," Gabriel said, running back up the stairs and grabbing his cloak.
      "Where are you going?"
      "To start fixing what we've broken." He flung the cloak between his wings and ran down the steps. In his mind he could see it where he'd left it, glowing on the stand beside his bed: her halo.



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