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Chapter 14, Part 1



      The yellow horse bore her through the cold morning mist, each step unerring. So smooth was its gait that only the sound of its hooves rustling against the dew-sopped ground reminded Chris that they were not floating. She wished she'd thought to throw on her terry-cloth robe over the silk one that now clung damply to her goose-pimpled skin.
      "I hope you know where you're going," she muttered to the two sallow ears pricked in front of her.
      The horse chuffed softly, and Chris shook her head, tucking a limp blonde curl behind her ear. At least its hide was warm between her legs; its barrel expanded and contracted at irregular intervals like a broken metronome, but somehow the arrhythmia soothed her. It pricked her professional side to life and calmed her by virtue of memories of competence, of being somewhere she was useful and had power.
      "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were sick," she said, rubbing its withers. "But ghost-horses don't get sick, do they?"
      One ear rotated back to her. Chris peered at it, then ducked a low-hanging branch with its moist gray shroud of Spanish moss. The horse was bearing her roughly to the north along a spar of brushy woods; the mist clung to the ground, seeping along it and up the yellow legs of her mount as it carried her forward, a gait hanging eerily between equine canter and lupine lope.
      "Where are they?" Chris asked, shivering. Her skin had long since ceased to feel warm. She imagined her immune system retreating from her extremities to cluster in her throat and lungs, an image she'd once told young patients to hearten them. The broken bellows-heaving of the warm body beneath her centered her, and she pressed the flats of her palms against the sharp chain of the horse's spine. "This looks like..." Her eyes narrowed. "Like the back of Jesuit, actually."
      The horse stopped finally and craned its sallow head back to eye her. She dipped her head. "I take it you want me to be quiet now."
      It blew out a breath and resumed sliding forward, like a fragment of the mist. She ducked against its back, knotting her fingers in its crinkled mane. Soon, shapes appeared in the fog, distant tents against tall trees and figures moving between them. The horse carried her past endless versions of the scene, a plague of tents and angels in every clearing and glade in the brushy lot behind the high school.
      "My God," Chris whispered, the chill now no longer entirely a product of the air. There were more angels than she could readily count, and the endless panorama of tents showed no signs of ending.
      The horse threaded through the wet trees, finally halting before a particular clearing.
      "Is this where he is?" she said softly, squinting into the heavy fog.
      The horse chuffed.
      "So... what do I do now?"
      It flicked the skin along its shoulders, and she grimaced. "Yeah. I see. My call, huh?" Chris slid off the back of the horse, her thighs aching. Her robe clung to her body and she pulled it open, flapping it a few times to separate it from her skin. Retying the sash, she placed a hand on the horse's shoulder. "Thanks."
      It nibbled her sleeve, staring at her with bottomless, sunken eyes. She ruffled its forelock, then straightened and marched toward the largest tent in the camp.
      "Halt!"
      Standing just behind the last line of brush, Chris stopped. A winged figure with a spear formed out of the haze. Her eyes, unbidden, followed the line of the spear to its metal tip, the image of Mephistopheles's gruesome wound flashing once in her mind.
      "Who goes?"
      "A messenger," Chris said, improvising. She stepped out of the forest and squared her shoulders. Mouth curling into a half-faced grin, she finished, "Take me to your leader."
      The angel stepped closer, squinting. He wore mail, like a faded color plate from a medieval manuscript. "You're a human!"
      "Give the man a prize! Now if you're done gawking, can you take me to the psycho ward escapee in charge of you lot? Preferably before he destroys my corner of reality?"
      "The Archangel is not interested in human souls," said the guard, planting his spear in the ground and frowning at her.
      Chris scowled. "I'm not a 'human soul', you idiot. In case you haven't noticed, I'm still alive. Now show me to Michael or get out of my way." She started forward, fuming.
      The spear's point appeared in front of her, and she stopped abruptly. "Get that thing away from me, or I'll be very. Very. Upset."
      The guard's eyes narrowed. "You're very flippant for someone about to die."
      "Don't toy with me," Chris said. "Your precious Archangel and his precious God have given me very little left to lose."
      The spear pressed against her sternum.
      "Very well," Chris said. "Remember you asked for this." She closed her eyes then, tilted her head back... and screamed. Swollen tents split open to disgorge scores of angels from the surrounding clearing, scrambling for their swords and shields.
      Chris had eyes only for the massive figure that flung apart the flaps of his tent with wings whiter than snowfall, the one with the halo that spun so quickly it threw off sparkles and rays of gold.
      "Bareth! What is going on here?"
      The guard holding her back looked so mortified Chris almost forgave him his stubbornness. "Sir, this human broke through the perimeter."
      Michael's cool green eyes fixed on her, then swept away as if bored. "One human does not constitute a breach in security, Guard."
      "I'm sorry, my Lord."
      "Indeed. See her away." Michael waved the other angels back into their tents.
      Chris bared her teeth. "Not so fast!" She lunged past the guard, knocking his spear aside, and placed herself square in the Archangel's way. "Not until I've talked with you. It's what I came to do."
      Michael's golden brow lifted. "Here's a novelty. Do you have a hearing problem, human? You are not welcome here. Be gone."
      Chris balled up her fist and punched him in the stomach. The guard watched gape-jawed as Michael staggered back, wings spreading to keep from falling. "A novelty? A novelty? Hell with that, you bastard! I am a person, same as you!"
      The guard recovered himself and jumped on her, grabbing her arm. She jabbed her elbow just below his sternum and heard his xiphoid process crack—so angels had anatomy! Excellent! As he wheezed, she slammed on his instep; but she was bare-footed, and he had boots. The guard jerked her head back by her short hair. She looked for a hand to bite. Maybe if she got lucky she could separate a joint.
      "That's enough out of you, human!"
      "Wait!" Michael straightened, one hand on his gut. He stared at her, and Chris stopped struggling to devote all her attention to a defiant glare. "You are not," he said slowly, "a person, 'same as me'. I am an angel. You are a human."
      "We're both souls made by your damnable God!"
      He slapped her, wrenching her face to one side. She growled and said, "Go ahead. Beat me up just like you did that poor angel girl. Is it your habit to knock people around when they don't agree with you? Or is it just women who frighten you so goddamn much?"
      The Archangel actually blanched.
      Stunned by her outburst, the guard loosened his grip. Chris wrenched free and pulled her robe back up her shoulder. She pointed at the Archangel. "I came to talk to you. I'm not leaving until I'm done. You can either beat me until my body's one big contusion or you can suffer me whole. Because either way I'm not going to stop talking until I'm done."
      Michael stared at her, then snarled at the guard. "Don't you have duties?"
      "Y-y-yes, sir!" The guard stepped away, then turned and fled.
      Chris glanced at him as he left, then steeled herself against another blow. When it didn't come, she lifted her head. The Archangel was staring at her, his expression unreadable.
      "Why are you here?" he asked at last.
      "I'm your conscience, Michael. I'm going to tell you how you're going to damn your own soul, and I'm going to keep telling you all the way down the road to that damnation, and hope at some point you stop and listen to me."
      "You're certain of yourself," he observed.
      Chris smiled grimly. "Yeah. I have my reasons."
      Michael paused, then furled his wings against his back. "You intrigue me."
      "Well, that's better than me inspiring you to violence."
      "Why are you here again?" He lifted his hand, studying her face. "Really here."
      Chris paused, then shook her head. "Oh, no. We'll just say I'm interested in healing you. To see if you can be healed."
      The Archangel chuckled and walked past her toward his tent. "If you think I am wounded, you are sorely mistaken."
      Chris frowned as he ducked into the tent. "Gee. I didn't think angels could lie to themselves," she said. With a sigh, she followed him.
      The tent was spare despite its size: there was a desk, a chest, a pallet thrown on the cold ground. The smell of incense rose from a tiny brass lamp. Michael had seated himself at the desk with an unrolled map. He looked up when she entered.
      "I do have things to do today, you know."
      "Yeah, I kind of figured. Talk up the troops. Walk the rounds. Plan the destruction of Earth and the annihilation of Hell. Busy day."
      Michael's wing twitched. His stare struck her as extremely uncanny; she realized suddenly that he didn't blink. She wondered how he kept his eyes moist and free of foreign objects. Or maybe, she thought, motes in the eyes didn't normally plague angels. "I am not planning the destruction of Earth."
      "That's just a nice side effect. Right."
      The Archangel frowned. "Do not press me, human. You want to spend the day with me? Very well. But do not prevent me from my intended tasks or I will throw you back to the forest, and not gently."
      "Is that your worst threat?" Chris said, folding her arms and canting one hip.
      A cold shadow filmed Michael's eyes. Said he in a voice lacking any tone at all, "No. I could kill you and let the Wind destroy your eternal soul."
      Despite her cynicism and the scar tissue grown over the wounds in her heart, Chris's hair lifted on her arms. She managed not to shiver, but the words sobered her. "I see."
      "Sit in the corner. We will have time to... talk... later."
      Obedient for now, Chris sat beside the chest. At least the tent was warm. Leaning against the fragrant wood, she began her vigil.



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