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Chapter 11, Part 2



      Lucifer stared at the fireplace in his chambers, warming the brandy with the base of his palm. The first stark rays of the false sun of Hell were shedding light on a cold, ashen day. The ceiling of the cavern outside had no clouds, but the sun itself shifted in tune to unpredictable moods. Today it had chosen to be dull.
      He wore the sword.
      It had been centuries since he'd strapped it on, so long in fact since he'd touched it that he'd never bothered to unbuckle the scabbard from the belt. He'd dreamed of it and bloodied crosses and the Wind ripping souls asunder, and had awakened, shuddering, to the smell of her feathers, still hidden in the satin folds of his sheets. And he'd gone to the chest at the foot of the bed, unlocked it, gathered the sword from the pillows there and belted it on.
      One of the Princes had reported that his Fallen were slipping away in ones and twos through the rift, down to Earth where Michael was gathering his legion. They meant it as a sign of their loyalty to him, and Lucifer's heart clenched at their devotion... and the senselessness of it all. He did not want to fight Michael. He did not want any more human souls to die, or any angelic souls to be snuffed like candles drowned in their own wax.
      He stared at the fireplace, breathed in the bouquet of the brandy and sipped, still playing with the idea of calling them all back.
      A brisk knock at his door interrupted the silence. Lucifer turned, ruffling his wings. "Yes?"
      The guard stepped inside. "My lord, there are messengers here from Heaven to see you."
      "I would be surprised indeed if they were here to see the sights instead," Lucifer said dryly, placing the brandy on the table. "Let them in."
      The guard stepped back for two angels, one with his hand haughtily braced on his belt, the other more retiring behind, holding a large rug. The larger one stepped forward.
      "In his mercy and wisdom, the Archangel Michael, Champion of God and Protector of the Innocent has decided to extend one last chance to you, to offer yourself to him in surrender absolute. He promises that only you will suffer if your people repent and return to God's ways."
      "And in his arrogance, Michael has told you that his way is God's way, is that it?" Lucifer said. "What would happen if I said yes to his generous offer?"
      "You would surrender your person to him tonight at the place of his choosing, where you will be punished before your people are allowed back into God's grace."
      "Enchanting," Lucifer murmured, then lifted his voice. "And if I said no?"
      "Then the Champion of God would storm your very walls and crush your little dimension around you, with everyone still inside. He will bring the battle to you if you do not come out and fight, and he will extinguish this blight on the face of God's creation forever!"
      Lucifer said nothing.
      The messenger's chest swelled. "I see you doubt the power of the Archangel! Well, he has sent us with a very special message for you."
      Lucifer lifted his head slowly.
      "Your attempt to infiltrate Heaven and sabotage our operations has failed miserably. You should have known better than to try the Archangel's patience—"
      Lucifer straightened, beginning to shake.
      "—but he has thoughtfully returned your operative to you!" The messenger snapped his fingers, and the angel behind him unrolled the rug. A body slid down it in streaks of golden blood and shed feathers to lie crumpled at his feet. Tangled red-gold locks spread in a burst of color against the drained-gray stone; white limbs, frayed and marked, white wings at unnatural angles, white chiton reduced to a few strips that hid none of the golden and bronze bruises and slashes.
      Lucifer dropped to his knees beside her, hands lighting on her shoulder, on her hip. "Asrial," he whispered. He couldn't tell if she was breathing, pressed his fingers to her chest and felt the labored, agonized crawl of her heart. "Asrial...!"
      His hand flew to the hilt of his sword, and it sang as it leaped from the scabbard, blade still stained dull bronze with the blood of a war long past. "Get. Out."
      The angels stared at him, shocked at the menace in his voice, at the smooth ease of the blade's air-tracing.
      "GET OUT, DAMN YOU!" Lucifer lunged, sword slicing toward the nearest one, and both angels bolted. He did not give chase; her ragged heartbeat chained him to her. He flung himself around to face the guard.
      "Sir, I'll find them!"
      "Go. Make sure they don't come back."
      "Yes, sir!"
      The guard ran out the door. Lucifer realized belatedly his ambiguous command could result in the death of the messengers, but he didn't care. Sheathing the sword, he kneeled again beside Asrial, slid his hands beneath her body and cradled her to his chest.
      "Why did they bring you here?" he whispered. "I don't think even my presence can keep you from dying, here...."
      Her labored breathing tore at his ears. He shut it out and strode to his bedroom, depositing her on his mounded blankets. He forced himself to examine her body before covering her. They'd beaten her; that much was obvious from the bronze and gold of the contusions laced across her body. Both wings had broken twice, once at their primary joint and once at the shoulder. The tapestry of feathers had been stripped almost entirely of her secondaries, a shocking, gaping lack.
      But none of it prepared him for discovery of the neat hole, crusted with citrine-gold, drilled through her delicate palm, separating the thin bones of her small hand. The skin of her wrist had frayed to the flesh in an almost decorative pattern. He checked the other hand, then her feet.
      Like the human who had parted them from one another forever. Michael remembered that much... if not the details. Naturally he had gotten the details wrong. When had he ever bothered to look closely enough to a human to see his wounds?
      When the world stopped spinning, Lucifer gently tucked his blankets up to her frail collar bones and slumped into a chair beside the bed. He sat vigil with his fingers laced together. They bruised from the force necessary to keep them from the hilt of the sword.



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