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Chapter 13, Part 1



      Raphael woke with the cloying stench of blood in his nostrils, immobilized by a nerve-fire that ran liquid-swift down his wings and back. He'd never felt pain before. Closing his eyes against the wind that tugged insistently at his dark hair, the archangel remained splayed on the ledge in front of the the birthplace. The sun burned his naked feather sockets; the wind chafed the seeping gaps. All Heaven worried at his wounds.
      "Archangel!"
      The cry sailed through the wind before the angel who supplied it, a slip of a youth with auburn-banded wings. Raphael opened his eyes and watched her come, unable to move.
      "Archan—oh!"
      She stopped, hovering, not daring to touch the ledge. Gold fluid formed a star-burst beneath Raphael, as if a pail of blood had splashed there, and in the sunlight his maimed body was appallingly displayed.
      "Oh, Archangel! You need aid, you need healing, what happened!"
      "Enough," Raphael said, his voice ground between the twin stones of pain, body and heart. "Why do you come seeking me, sister? I have nothing—nothing to offer you."
      "I... we needed your help, Archangel. You heal, and the spheres in the birthplaces... they are dying!"
      "What!" Raphael thrust himself onto an arm and cursed his weakness. "What! Say it again!"
      "Two spheres in Shehaqim have failed, great brother. There are signs that others will as well. We need help...," she stopped speaking. They gazed at one another, the broken archangel and the hovering female, her own wings beating steady and rapid, like a hummingbird.
      "But I cannot go," Raphael said softly.
      The angel wrung her hands before her stomach. "Please, great brother... what are we to do?"
      "There is nothing we can do. The death of the newborns is not in our hands," Raphael said, his voice growing tighter. "But, please, sister. Come and tell me of each that does not live. I... I wish to know."
      Her eyes flicked once, nervous and swift, over the blood, the feathers remaining, the empty wing arms. Then she nodded once, a jerk of her head, and skidded off on the next updraft.
      No kind of healer. He could not save them all. He couldn't even save one... and yet he lived on. Raphael cursed himself, letting his head drop back to his elbow as the tears leaked, hotter than the golden fluid splattered on the cliff-side, down his cheeks.

***


     Stephen's shadow was a short, compact darkness at his feet as he slid off Death and walked toward the bell tower and the cylindrical hall. In the stillness of Shamayim's deserted morn, the other three followed suit and trailed after him. The muted gray metal of the cupola refused the sun's sooty light, and Stephen's mouth pressed into a line at the sight of it.
      Glancing behind him, he gathered his friends with his eyes, and then turned the knob on the banded wooden door, spilling the light of hundreds of halos onto the earth. Into the place where only angels had walked, the priest stepped, the pressure of a divine melancholy contracting his skin.
      Cold. He was cold. He stood in the center of the hall and craned his head to pull in the sight of them all, to hold close to his soul this evidence, at last, of a God both subtle and forgiving, of a God at the whim of the free will He Himself had granted His creatures, and a God who adored them all.
      Stephen did not realize he was crying until the first tear struck the patterned marble floor, driving away the silence.
      Mephistopheles moved behind him, slid a hand onto his shoulder.
      "The redemption of the Fallen," Stephen said, hushed.
      The demon said nothing for several breaths. Then answered, "There is no unrequited love, with Him."
      Stephen covered the demon's hand with his own.
      Silent for all his lanky lack of grace, Brad walked along the edge of the room, reading the labels beneath the halos. Marie drifted along behind him, eyes wide.
      "So now what?" Mephistopheles asked, his baritone coarse with the emotions he did not allow to reach his face.
      "Can we... touch them?" Stephen asked.
      "Mephistopheles! It's yours!" Brad called.
      The demon's spine stiffened.
      "Go ahead," Stephen murmured. "It was yours once. It will be again. God's Hand is in it, my friend."
      Mephistopheles turned then, and, one step at a time, made his way to Brad's side. Near the place of honor where Lucifer's grand disc hung in muted repose was his own name in neat script. And above it... a familiar circle, joined circuit, dulled to the color of cold iron, a disc the size of an archangel's. A frisson of white traveled its lip, matching the shiver that ran his spine at the sight of it. He held his hands to it as it trailed a weak, white spark in his direction. Another quiver of white glinted on its edge. He could feel it, feel the core in him that longed to rejoin it.
      Brad's hand lit on his wrist. "Are you sure you should touch it?"
      "I can't," Mephistopheles whispered softly, even as he trembled. The healing wound in his back sent a finger of fire up his left wing. "My touch will kill it. I'm Fallen. My lord might have managed, but not the rest of us...."
      "What about us?" Stephen asked. He joined them. "Can we hold them?"
      "No. Not you either. Only an angel."
      "Only an angel," Stephen murmured.
      "Kill it?" Marie asked with a tiny shudder. She threaded her fingers together and lifted her shoulders. "How... how do you kill a halo? What is it?"
      Mephistopheles let his hands drop slowly back to his sides. "It is a part of us. It helps us to hear Him through the symphony of His creation, a symphony so vast we would drown in it otherwise."
      "Only an angel," Stephen said again. "That's it."
      "What?" Brad asked.
      Stephen wheeled around. "How many halos are in here?"
      "There should be... five hundred and seventy-five, if each of the Fallen's was preserved." Mephistopheles swallowed, then forced himself to turn from the sparks of yearning cast by his halo. His wings flattened tightly against his back. "What are you thinking, Stephen?"
      "We need to bring them to the battle. We need to find five hundred and seventy-five angels willing to carry them with us back to Earth. We're going to give them back."
      "Are you mad?" Mephistopheles asked, amazed.
      Stephen's lips curled back from his teeth. "Yes, now that you ask. I'm extremely mad. Mad that they were taken away from you, mad that you couldn't leave Heaven with them. What law made you do that? Why did you have to give them up? You need them, Mephistopheles. It's like taking the lungs from a person. You can't live without them. It's a miracle you survived this long!"
      "But... but what will it accomplish?" Marie asked in a small voice.
      "I'm not sure," Stephen said, feeling out his mental image. "But it's what we should do." He looked up at the demon, whose compacted wings and rigid shoulders bespoke his anguish. "What about it, Mephistopheles? Where do I find five hundred and seventy-five angels more interested in God's mercy and in extending God's love to the Fallen than in doling out Michael's vengeance?"
      "I... I don't know?"
      Marie sniffed. "Whoever they are, they have to be level-headed. Better make them women!"
      Mephistopheles swayed, then turned and grabbed Stephen by the shoulders. "She's right! They'll understand. There's not a female angel in Hell because the lack of Him would kill them... and there's not a female angel in Michael's legion! I'd swear to that!"
      "Right! So where do we find them?"
      The black wings mantled impatiently as Mephistopheles looked toward the door. "Not here. Not in Shamayim. It's too far from God for them. We have to go closer. Closer to the middle of Heaven. Toward Araboth."
      His voice dropped low on the last word, low with longing, with reverence.
      "Araboth?" Brad asked.
      "The Seventh Heaven. Seat of God."
      Stephen shivered despite himself. "Let's hope we can find some amenable female angels before then. I don't think mortal flesh is meant to enter God's presence."
      Mephistopheles glanced at him.
      "Come on," the priest said, tugging himself away from the muted light of the hall. "We don't have much time."
      Brad and Marie scurried after him. Mephistopheles paused at the door, glancing toward his halo... and then at the largest disc, hanging beneath the pedestal. "Oh, my liege," he said softly. "God grant us the day...."
      Then they were out, the grackle speeding before them. The horses leaped forth, on to the Gate to Raquia.



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