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Chapter 13, Part 2



      Gabriel fell.
      His wings a white cocoon to shield his halo against the pressure of the rift, he fell without seeing, Asrial's halo tucked beneath his tunic, against his chest. He did not need his eyes to know when the tunnel gave way to Hell's fabric; the weight of the air and the sudden change in speed of his tumble gave him enough time to unfold himself before he smashed to the ground outside the Gate.
      The air conspired to crush him. Gabriel gasped for breath. His halo slowed its spin, a few desperate sparks shooting from its edge as he sought God's presence, even the faint sound of His heart's pulse through creation. The archangel could find nothing. He fought the surge of panic, curling into a ball with his feathers shielding him from the insistent pressure.
      The sharp rim of Asrial's cool halo bit into his chest, reminding him of his errand. He could not let her die. He could not let the war start that way. Dragging himself to his feet, he limped toward the Gate, the light cast by his halo blotchy.
      Hell's morning was a sick, sullen one, its false sun a miserable lamp in the corner of the cavern's ceiling. Everything rang false. Gabriel stumbled as he tugged his feet over the crest of the hill to find the line of damned awaiting entrance. His wings pulled together as he shuddered at the sight of their faces, terrified, craven, angered, masks of human emotion, caricatures. Almost as one they turned to stare at him.
      It took only one breaking the rank to run to him. Like a cracked dam, the line exploded, and every miserable soul, every wronged soul, every terrified and angry soul, every human that had died through violence or in violence, stained by sin or wiped clean by atheism, every soul that had dared to worship God by a different name... they converged on him, and he could only stand, petrified, clutching Asrial's halo to his breast as the mob reached him and grabbed his limbs, his wings, his clothing, screaming for healing, for succor, for access to Heaven.
      He fell beneath their hands and fought to curl into a ball, shielding himself with interlaced feathers, his moans trapped beneath his teeth as they tore at him with hands curved like claws, freeing stripes of blood. The pain of each rip doubled as it opened his body to Hell's deficient air... and even with his halo, he could not hear God, could not heal himself.
      One body flew from him, then another. The Gate guards waded into the throng, plucking the souls from him as if they were leeches. When the last of the humans had been culled from him, the guard stopped.
      "Well, what have we here? Not one of the Eighth Choir!"
      "White wings. Big. Is he dead?" The other tentatively tapped the crest of one wing.
      Gabriel unlaced his primaries to look on the faces of his deliverers, to imprint them in his mind. Flicking rays of light cast by his halo threaded through the resulting gaps.
      The second guard stepped away. "He's still in Grace!"
      The first grimaced. "Come on, Dommiel. We've had messengers through here twice who were still in Grace. This one's just a little bigger than the others."

      Gabriel found his voice. "I must see Lucifer."       " 'Lucifer', is it?" the first guard said with a snarl. "Not 'The Great Betrayer'? Just because you're one of the Eighth doesn't make you his equal."
      "We are none of us the Morning Star," Gabriel said softly. "Please. I bear him no ill will."
      Both guards paused. Then the first shrugged. "Come on, then. Dommiel, man the Gate."
      "Done."
      Gabriel rose to his feet and followed the first guard. "What's your name?"
      The guard eyed him. "Do you care?"
      Gabriel cleared his throat. "You... seem familiar."
      The other snorted and led him down to the Gate, past the line of souls now guarded to prevent any further mischief. "At least you don't forget too quickly, Gabriel."
      The archangel started. "You know me?"
      "You think I don't? There are only seven of your kind left, Gabriel. I know all your names."
      Gabriel blinked, then held out his free hand. "Zophiel...? Is that you?"
      The black wings twitched against the guard's back. "And if it is?" He shrugged, the motion rippling through his flight feathers. "It doesn't matter anymore, Gabriel. By this time tomorrow, it will be over."
      "It doesn't have to be that way," Gabriel said, realizing he'd stopped and hurrying after the smaller Fallen angel. "Zophiel, we'd thought you lost. Why didn't you come back?"
      "You sent me to spy on Hell, thinking Heaven was something worth returning to. And... maybe it is. But not at the cost of my self-respect."
      Gabriel drew abreast of the other and touched his shoulder. "Zophiel...."
      "Don't touch me!" the guard said, sweeping Gabriel's hand aside. "And don't ask. You've lost that right. You and every other complacent member of the Eighth and Ninth. You think that all the fabric's a big Song sung by seraphim and cherubim in happy harmony around God's Seat! Well, you just go on thinking that, Gabriel. Because while you sit in the light of God's dawn and drink ambrosia and wonder what melodies you're going to sing today, the rest of us are down here in the Dark, doing His work. The work that you refused!"
      Stunned into quiet, Gabriel fell back. He concentrated on fighting Hell's oppressive atmosphere and ignoring the constant sting of the scratches left on his skin by the unexpected assault.
      It required the better part of an hour for Gabriel at last to enter the domicile of Hell's master. The low, long palace with its lines of mathematical purity sent an unexpected pang of regret into the archangel's soul. He remembered briefly a vision of Lucifer in the morning in Heaven, arms outstretched, and wondered what the Fall had done to God's most beloved of sons.
      He found it irritating that he couldn't remember the color of Lucifer's wings. Had it been so long? All the waste of it!
      Zophiel handed him over to the palace guard and left without a word. Chastened, Gabriel followed the new guard down the marble corridors, grateful to be out of the sight of the disturbing ceiling of Hell's cavern, out of the light of its false sun. The torch- and fire-light in the halls was far more comforting.
      The guard stopped before a door and turned to him, frowning. "Remain here while I inform my liege of your presence."
      "Of course," Gabriel murmured.
      The guard knocked, then slipped inside. Gabriel tasked himself to patience, and he swallowed. Asrial's halo had quickened against his heart. Perhaps she was near, awake enough to sense it. His own halo sent off a lone spark, falling rapidly through the weighted air.
      The guard opened the door finally, releasing a heady perfume that knocked Gabriel back to the birthplace and the incense that always burned there. He blinked away tears as the guard said, "You may enter."
      Gabriel stepped inside and saw him.
      He was standing at the door to a private chamber, his massive, soot-black wings partially unfolded to bar the entrance. The sword waited, unsheathed, its point pressed to the floor and a soft hungry hum rising from its bare metal. In a loose blouse and charcoal gray breeches streaked with golden blood, Lucifer awaited him, his silver eyes unblinking as any angel's. Gray smudges betrayed his trouble sleeping, though his long black hair had been combed neatly behind his back.
      His expression was impenetrable.
      Gabriel judged words worthless. Instead, he undid the laces of his own shirt and slid the golden halo free.
      Lucifer's eyes widened. Before he could speak, Gabriel walked to him and kneeled, bowing his head and proffering it openly.
      The sword scraped against the scabbard as it slid in, and the halo's warmth left his hands. Cold fingers lit on his shoulder and gripped him.
      "Gabriel."
      His memory of Lucifer's voice had faded in the centuries since he'd last heard it, and that pale memory prepared him not at all for the reality. To hear it in Hell was to feel the touch of God in a forsaken realm: such music, such tender power, so much abandoned. Gabriel let it wash over him and renew his resolve. "It was wrong," he said, clearing his own throat and chancing a look up at the other. "It was unjust. I had to help."
      The halo did not dim in Lucifer's hands, but glowed a weak yellow. In its kinder light, it was easier to remember the Morning Star who had been, not the Fallen angel who was. "If only they were all as you are, Gabriel," he said huskily. "If only they had not grown calluses over their hearts."
      They remained thus for several heart-beats, unable to move; Gabriel kneeling, Lucifer touching him, black wings and white. Then Lucifer said. "Come. You have earned it." He turned and ducked into the room.
      Gabriel stopped at the threshold as Lucifer entered the room. When the black wings furled like cloaks behind Lucifer's back with the hiss of soft feathers, at last the wan figure swathed in satin and fur was revealed.
      "Dear God," Gabriel said softly.
      "Asrial?" Lucifer whispered. He slid onto the bed, one foot steadying his body as he leaned over her pale, motionless face, the laces of his blouse hanging from his long throat. One white flight feather, banded in copper and burnished in candlelight, rested beside his thigh over the blankets. Lifting the halo, Lucifer reached out and brushed the matted copper hair from her forehead. Then he lifted the halo to the crest of her head as he would have a chalice, opening his hands.
      A soft glimmer of light played over the halo's edge, as a light seen through a warm, running stream. Another, and a half-hearted spark rose from its rim. The halo slid from Lucifer's hands as if drawn, gliding the few inches to hover over the angel's bare head.
      It sparked again and rotated once, its soft glow bleeding away.
      Gabriel bit his lip, hand clenching the door frame.
      The flight feather on top of the blankets twitched. With a gasp of light, the halo spun into motion so suddenly Lucifer leaned away, squinting. Gabriel took a step into the room as the bruises faded and sparkles ran down the length of the exposed feathers in her wings.
      Lucifer leaned over and cupped her chin in one hand. "Asrial."
      Red-gold lashes rose slowly over her darkened eyes, the iris a thin rim of gold around shadow-swollen pupils.
      "Thank God," Gabriel said, standing at the foot of the bed and resting his hands on the foot-board. "We weren't too late."
      Lucifer looked back at him. His voice, though still solemn, had softened. "No. You weren't too late, Gabriel."
      The archangel studied his own fingers, mantling his wings uncomfortably. "For her, maybe. But it's not just about her." He looked up. "Lucifer. Michael's gone mad."
      Lucifer tucked the furs back up to Asrial's collarbones and traced her cheekbone with his thumb. "Rest," he murmured to her, then pulled away and faced the archangel. "Is this any surprise?"
      "We have to stop him," Gabriel said. "For his sake as well as ours. He risks going against God's will. Not even God's Champion could survive that kind of guilt."
      "Is he going against God's will?" Lucifer asked wearily. "How do we know?"
      "Do we really need to talk to God to uncover it, Lucifer?" Gabriel asked, voice low. "The death of hundreds of angels, Fallen and in Grace, and very likely most of humankind?"
      "The messengers say he's chosen a specific spot for the battle. It would just be a small handful of humans. So they say."
      Gabriel rolled his eyes. "As if the battle will remain confined to one place in a war between winged creatures, with a fanatic leading one side determined to extirpate Hell itself! Lucifer!"
      "Hush!" Lucifer's voice tightened. He waved a hand toward the sleeping angel. In a low tone he continued, "We can't stop him. If we go, he will kill us. If we stay, he will come here and kill us. There's no way to win the Apocalypse."
      "Talk to him," Gabriel said quietly. "Please. Lucifer... just go and talk to him. He... misses you."
      "Misses me!" Lucifer turned his face from the archangel. After a few moments of silence, he said, "I will consider—"
      "Lucifer..."
      "—and that is all!" Lucifer locked gazes with him, silver eyes glittering in the candlelight.
      Gabriel sighed, then nodded.
      Turning to the bed, Lucifer said, "You should go. And... take her."
      "What?"
      Lucifer slid his hands beneath Asrial's body, fever-hot from the mound of furs and blankets. "Take her. She cannot heal fully here, even with her halo. You're weak even with yours, and it's larger. This is no place for a woman." He pulled her from her nest and started when a weak hand clasped his arm.
      "No," Asrial whispered. Her halo's light flickered.
      "Lady, you must go. Gabriel will take you back to Heaven, where you can heal."
      "No," Asrial said again. Her eyes caught on him. "Must stay."
      Lucifer frowned. "This is not open to debate." He lifted her into his arms, the fur draping over her body, and turned to Gabriel.
      Gabriel looked at Asrial, at the small white hand on Lucifer's arm, then up at Lucifer. He hesitated.
      "Take her!" Lucifer hissed.
      The archangel shook his head slowly. "No."
      "She'll die here!"
      "Will she? Her halo will maintain her state. Heaven crucified her, Lucifer. Earth will soon become Armageddon. There is no safer place for her. Besides," he reached out and tentatively touched the angel's cool white cheek, "she must make her own choices. As must we all."
      Asrial's lips silently formed a 'thank you'.
      The black feathers of Lucifer's wings arched away from his back, then flattened again. Without another word, he laid her on the bed and tucked her back into the blankets.
      "I should return. I don't know what I can do, but I have to try," Gabriel said quietly. "When will you decide?"
      "When I decide, and no sooner."
      Gabriel paused, then nodded. He walked to the door and stopped there. "Lucifer."
      The Fallen angel looked up.
      "God with you."
      Lucifer watched the door shut behind the white feathers of the archangel. He sat on the chair beside the bed and rested his head in his hands. After a few moments, he stood and left the room.



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