Chapter 12, Part 2
Mephistopheles started from a light doze, a tingle crackling up his spine all the way to the crests of his wings. He winced at the resulting pain in the left one and leaned forward, frowning. It was still dark outside. His clothes shifted as he slipped to his feet, making the softest of noises.
The priest rolled over on the couch, blinking away the crust in his eyes. "Mephis'ophles... that you?"
"It is," Mephistopheles whispered, straining to catch the nagging tingle at the edge of his senses.
"Wha' time issit?"
"Early. Just before dawn. Here, at least."
Stephen dragged himself upright. Brad slept on, his soft buzzing snores regular as a heart-beat. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know. Something..."
Pushing the blankets aside, Stephen sat on the edge of the couch and rolled his shoulders back. "Supernatural?"
"Perhaps. It bears investigation."
"How are you feeling?"
Mephistopheles's mouth twitched in the darkness. "I ache all over. But the stitches are holding true. She's a good doctor, even if her soul is as sharp as glass shards."
Stephen glanced askance at the demon, who shrugged, a motion involving both wings and arms.
"You coming with me?"
"Not far. We shouldn't leave Brad."
The demon was silent as he left the living room. Clad in socks, Stephen followed nearly as quietly in his wake, all the way to the front door which Mephistopheles opened on a cold, dew-veiled world. The sky was a smudged, dirty dark gray.
The muttered oath that drifted back to Stephen's ears piqued his curiosity enough to lure him onto the damp gravel. "Mephistopheles?"
The demon stood on the lawn, one wing arched, the healing one hanging to one side. Three horses stared at him, one so black it looked like a paper cut-out superimposed on the surrounding landscape, another a scarlet that smoldered as if lit from within, and a third white and hollow-cheeked, so pale shadows refused to cling to it.
"What are those things!" Stephen said, stopping.
"Besides not horses?" Mephistopheles said. He handled their otherworldly regard well, and seemed almost distracted. "Where is the fourth?"
"The fourth?" Stephen asked.
The front door banged all the way open for Marie, dragging a half-awake Brad behind her. "I can't find my mom! She's gone!"
Mephistopheles twisted, eyes widening, then turned back to the horses. "That's where he went, isn't it."
The white one chuffed, its breath a curlicue of white in the cold, wet air.
"Ohmigod. What are those things?" Marie exclaimed.
"Horses?" Brad croaked, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles.
"Four... horses," Stephen said, chilled. His socks were soaked. He joined the demon. "Not the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse... right?"
"The four horses
of the Apocalypse," Mephistopheles corrected. "The Horsemen themselves aren't important. Any angel could ride them and take on that mask. It's the horses that turn the trick."
"Christ!" Brad said. "Does that mean we get all the death, famine and plagues and all?"
"Not necessarily," Mephistopheles said. The white horse had stepped forward and was nuzzling him. "But they're here for a reason...."
The grackle swooped down and perched on the black one's withers.
"Well! Look who's rejoined us," Stephen said.
Mephistopheles frowned. "The bird... but he was with Asrial."
"That does not sound good," Brad muttered.
"The angel, right? Maybe she let him go? The bird, I mean," Marie said.
Stephen coaxed the grackle onto his hand. "Somehow I don't think so."
"Something's happened to her," the demon said. "It has to be."
Brad leaned on the door-frame. "Maybe the horses can take us to Heaven so we can find out?"
Mephistopheles looked at the white one. "Can you?"
The horse lipped his blouse and chuffed. The other two flicked their ears; the red one stamped a flame-wreathed hoof.
"Hey, waitaminute! Don't we have to be on Earth to stop the Apocalypse?" Marie ran to the white horse to look up at the demon. "And what about my mom! Where is she?"
"Wherever she went, Pestilence took her, young lady," Mephistopheles replied. "He's not going to allow her to be hurt. And we'll be back before evening."
"Is that when the rivers are going to start running with blood?" Stephen asked dryly.
"Hopefully we'll get back before then," Mephistopheles replied.
Brad reappeared in a jacket and carrying Stephen's shoes and Mephistopheles's boots. "I don't know how cold and wet Heaven is, but what we saw of it was rocky," he said, handing them over before approaching the red horse warily. It sidestepped and pranced in place, then leaned over and nudged his shoulder. Its breath came not in wisps of white moisture, but in tiny, pale flames. "Cool! Which one is this?"
"War," Mephistopheles said, watching the boy claw his way onto the stallion's back.
Marie strode after Brad and grabbed his leg. "Help me up. I'm going with you."
"Uh... it won't be safe," Brad said. "Maybe you should stay home...."
"What century are you living in?" Marie demanded. "Help me onto this horse or I'm going to latch onto his tail!"
War chuffed and flagged its tail. While it was difficult to read the horses' faces, it was evident that whatever emotion it felt was positive. Brad sighed and lent his girlfriend his hand, pulling her up behind him.
The grackle soared to Mephistopheles's good shoulder and sat there. The demon eyed it for a moment, then said, "Well... we're for Heaven, then."
The horses pivoted in unison and trotted off the lawn. As they gathered speed, Stephen called to the demon, "If Pestilence is gone and the red one is War, which one of us is riding Death?"
"You," Mephistopheles said, grinning.
And then they dove into a rift.
They broke out of upside-down nonsense space and onto a broad cloud-shadowed plain in Shamayim, the ground-devouring gait of the horses so smooth that none of them fell off. Stephen noticed that Death's barrel didn't rise and fall between his thighs; he'd only ridden a horse once, and evidence that this one wasn't breathing disturbed him. They rode steadily inward until the horses slowed of their own accord. When the earth beneath them ceased to move, Stephen leaned forward. Death hadn't even worked up a lather.
"Now what?" he asked.
"We can't just walk into the camp and ask for her," Brad said.
Mephistopheles frowned, scanning the horizon. "If anyone's even in the camp. It must be mid-morning here."
"We could check," Stephen mused.
"And get caught by angels?" Brad snorted. Marie clutched his waist, staring at the edges of stones and rocks, so crisply defined even in the few thin rays.
"We have to find her," Mephistopheles said.
Stephen shook his head. "We're no good to her if they catch us. They'd kill you in a split second, Mephistopheles. God knows what they'd do with the rest of us."
"Maybe," Marie said in a tiny voice, "We could just... scout around a little first."
"As if a demon and three humans on the Horses wouldn't be noticed," Mephistopheles muttered, but the horses were already in motion, silent as stale air through the crystalline beauty of Shamayim's morning.
No smoke trailed above the war camps of Heaven as they approached. No angels could be seen weaving between the tents; the sounds of sword against sword in practice no longer rang through the clear air, nor did the smell of the tanner and the blacksmith rise on the wind.
"Empty? Already?" Mephistopheles murmured. Beneath him, Famine's ears flicked backward.
"Looks that way," Stephen said, craning his head and scanning the horizon. "I think we can risk going closer. I have the feeling we could outrun a couple of angels, as long as our mounts are willing." He glanced at his stallion, who snorted once, a sound somehow uncanny, as if it had issued from a larger throat and chest than contained by the horse's frame.
They rode forward then, toward the camp that had held them briefly.
"This is so wrong," Marie whispered as the horses' hooves chipped off fragments of scorched earth.
"Tell me about it," Brad said.
The camp had been emptied completely. The flags hung limp above the larger tents. Only the grackle flew overhead.
"All's quiet," Stephen said. And then rolled his shoulders. "Supernaturally quiet."
"Like everything's holding its breath," Brad said.
Mephistopheles frowned. "I feel it too." He nudged Famine and guided the horse outside of the camp, tracing its edge. The others trailed after. Something felt out-of-place.
The shadow of a cross stretched, a delicate blue, across the earth.
"No," Mephistopheles whispered. "Oh, no." The horse carried him around the final tent and into sight of the crucifix, still streaked with golden blood and dust. Feathers littered the ground around it, white feathers barred in gold and copper. The demon jumped from the horse's back and ran to it, pressing his fingers up the wood until they hit a rivulet of gold and skidded. He could smell her, the citrus-sweetness of her wings.
"Oh, God...!" Stephen's voice came from behind him.
"We're too late," Mephistopheles said, the words ragged.
Marie's gasp heralded the last of the arrivals. Stephen slid off Death and joined the demon. "Maybe she's still alive," he said.
"No," Mephistopheles said. The image of Asrial fresh from a cross and still living was even more appalling than that of her corpse shredded to dust and returned to the winds of Heaven.
"But if she is... she's somewhere, hurt," Stephen said. "She would need us."
The blood trickled over Mephistopheles's fingers, golden as his had been once.
Stephen's face was pale and drawn with grief as he looked up at the cross. "If only we knew!"
"There is a chance," Mephistopheles said. "There's a Song in Heaven and every soul is a part. The Song is everywhere. I can't hear it anymore..."
"But?" Stephen said, turning to him.
Mephistopheles pressed his head to the wood. He took a breath, his left wing draping across the ground and the other folding around the post. Then he slid his fingers through the fresh blood and embraced the cross.
And asked it: Is your greater substance alive.
Is your body alive.
Is that which wept you living...
"She lives!" Mephistopheles whispered, and slid to the ground. He held himself in the shadow of the cross, the tears dripping from his cheeks vanishing the moment they touched the parched ground. The image of her burned in his mind, fresh from the memory of the wood itself, her wings pinned above her head and behind it to the back of the post, spread in cruel display.
It stunned him to speechlessness, the depth of the wrong they had perpetrated, in Heaven. He couldn't move.
Stephen threw an arm around him beneath the wound. "Mephistopheles. If she's alive, we'll find her. We'll heal her. God will heal her! Mephistopheles!"
"What have they done? Oh, God, what have they done. Stephen...."
"Hush," Stephen said, softer. "Come on. We'll find her."
"She's not here," Mephistopheles said. "She's not in Heaven anymore."
"Where did they take her?"
"I don't know!"
A silence then, broken not even by the horses.
"Then we can't worry about her," Stephen said, at last. "Get up. We have to do something."
"What?" Brad asked, hushed, from the back of War. Behind him Marie stared, shoulders hunched, at the cross.
Stephen frowned, sweeping the vicinity with a critical gaze as his mind raced. The empty camp, the sprawling plains of Heaven, the three horses patient and alien and the mountains...
"Didn't Asrial say the halos were on a mountain?"
"I think so," Brad said.
Mephistopheles looked up, eyes still leaking.
"That's where we're going, then."
"Why?" the demon asked, hoarse.
Stephen shrugged. "We'll figure it out when we get there. Come on."
Reluctantly, Mephistopheles rose and limped to Famine's side. The white horse nudged him gently, then actually kneeled. The demon paused, then stroked its mane and slid onto its back. The grackle glided off an air current to light on his shoulder; he ran his finger down its beak once.
© 2011 M.C.A. Hogarth, Stardancer.Org