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Chapter 14, Part 2



      Lucifer kneeled before the cross, spine bowed and wings cupped around his body. His hands pressed against the hard rocks in the soil, the tingles rising up his arms whispering of paper-thin slices their edges cut in his palms. The sun guttered in the sky, its light variable, at times bright as a normal noon in Hell, at others, completely extinguished.
      His spine had cramped by the time he heard footsteps disturbing the gravel.
      "You know you will not abandon your own."
      Lucifer unbent instantly and twisted, one wing sliding smoothly out of the way. "Lady, you should not be up."
      Asrial did not leave. "You have said that to me before."
      "It has never been more true," he said. Her halo barely spun above her head, and while the bruises had faded and the holes in her hands and feet had healed, the power of the halo had not managed to seal the skin of her wrists and ankles... nor to replace the twin shelves of secondaries plucked from her wings to fit her to the crucifix. Their lack stylized her pinions into symbols.
      She had donned one of his night-robes, a heavy silk thing of midnight blue that dwarfed her slender frame.
      "Why did you stay?" Lucifer asked. "Why didn't you go back with Gabriel?"
      "Do you want me to leave so badly?" Asrial kneeled carefully beside him.
      Lucifer shook his head. "Once you said that there was a nobility in me that made you unable to see me suffer. So I say to you that there is a divinity in you that makes me unable to see you broken."
      "You need me more than I need wings I cannot fly with," Asrial said softly. "This cross will not give you the answers you seek. Nor will the silence of a Hell emptied of your kind. There is not even a guard left in your manor, my lord. They have all gone to Earth, for better or for worse."
      Lucifer looked away. His hand strayed to the hilt of the sword at his side. "I cannot make war on Heaven, Lady."
      Her eyes thinned. She reached out, touched his shoulder... the line of his neck exposed by the collar of his blouse. Startled, he glanced back at her.
      "Tell me," she said.
      Lucifer paused, then closed his eyes. The sword hissed free of its scabbard, a cold glint running its edge as he planted it in the soil in front of him and rested both hands on its hilt. "It was over the one who died on this cross—I had been planning to make Hell for several years, you understand. When this one was born... I knew it was against all our unspoken laws, but I went to him. We talked. There was so much of God in him that I could see it buried even as it was in solid flesh!" His brows furrowed. "So I announced it, that I was ready to make a home for human souls, announced so that those who agreed could come to me. And Michael was incensed. He would not allow me to leave. I could not bear to stay. He threw the gauntlet, and I took it... in His Name, I took it! And my host followed in my footsteps. We slew so many. Comrades we'd known, dear friends. Familiar faces, bleeding gold. I thought war would change Michael's mind. I thought that if I proved to him that I was as willing to kill for my ideals as he was, he would respect my beliefs more. That he would give them more weight.
      "But all we ended with was a mound of corpses. And nothing brought back their souls... and when I turned around with my sword, he was dying on this cross, and I ran... but I was too late." Lucifer's forehead slowly sank to the cross-guard of the sword, hair falling in a black sheet on either side of his face. His wings followed, easing to the ground and draping across it and over Asrial's back.
      "This war will solve nothing," Lucifer rasped, his voice gone hoarse.
"It will offer us nothing save the chance for more regrets, more grief. More souls to reap and lose."       Asrial stood and pried his fingers from the hilt of the sword. Lifting it away from his grasp, she let it drop onto the barren earth as he watched. Then she took his open hands and slid them onto her waist, around to her back.
      "There is no comfort in steel if you have no love of death," Asrial said softly. "No comfort in crosses if you have no love of suffering. No comfort in anything, my lord... save His love."
      "He has forgotten us," Lucifer whispered, his hands tense on her back.
      Asrial smiled, a serenity in her golden eyes that matched the slow spin of her halo. "Has he? Am I not here?"
      Lucifer stared up at her, and then gripped her so tightly she bit back a gasp. He pressed his head against her belly, holding to her as if to keep from drowning.
     Asrial wrapped her arms around his dark head as he wept. Her white and battered wings encircled him and his black ones, and the shadow of the cross faded from her back as Hell's sun turned away its face.

***


      "This is taking too long," Stephen said. His fists clenched Death's mane so tightly the skin over his knuckles stretched white.
      "Where are all the sentries?" Mephistopheles muttered. He pulled the horse's head back and surveyed Shehaqim from the Gate ledge. They'd passed through the First and Second Heavens unchallenged; no guards remained at the Gates leading deeper into Heaven, just as no angels plied the skies, male or female. "Can they really all be gone to Earth?"
      "Maybe it's just the outer edges that are empty," Brad said.
      The grackle sailed past and Stephen followed his flight down into the shadowed wells of Shehaqim. "Come on. We're wasting time."
      "Do you realize how many angels are on Earth, if Michael has emptied all three of the outer Heavens?" Mephistopheles called after Stephen before urging Famine after him.
      "No doubt you'll tell me."
      "More than Hell has, twice over."
      "It'll be noon soon," Stephen said, ignoring the fear the demon's statement incited. He leaned over Death's arched neck as the horse plowed across the deserted fields, passing under the vast shadows cast by the clumped fists of gray clouds. "When will we find them? Where are they, Mephistopheles?"
      "Closer. We need to be closer to Him."
      Stephen gritted his teeth and silently urged the horse on.
      They were not challenged until the gate to Ma'on, the Fifth Heaven; Machanon, the Fourth Heaven and Michael's realm, had been as bleakly empty as the Third.
      Seeing the figure at the gate, Mephistopheles freed his sword from its scabbard, holding it away from the horse's side as they galloped nigh. His wings he kept tightly furled behind him. "Hail the gate!"
      "Hail the riders!" The guard sounded perplexed, staring at them as they drew closer. "What is your busin—who are you!"
      "Let us pass," Stephen said. Death slowed to a halt; War drew up alongside, dancing irritably on flame-feathered hooves. Even Brad looked grim, one hand on the arm Marie had looped around his waist.
      "Who are you?" the guard said, dropping his spear to face them. "What are you doing here? Human souls aren't allowed so far."
      Mephistopheles allowed Famine to carry him in front of them both and said in a low voice, "Let us pass, guard." The sword glinted in his left hand.
      The guard hesitated, the tip of the spear dipping. When Mephistopheles advanced, he lifted it again and frowned. "Stay back!"
      Mephistopheles flattened one hand on Famine's withers to steady himself, then spread both dark wings, cupped Heaven's light air in their sensitive feathers. The left one threaded fire down his bones, reminder of the wound only lately closed on his back.
      The angel stared, then scrambled back toward the gate. "Fallen!"
      "Yah!" Mephistopheles said, and the horse leaped forward. War and Death followed on his heels as the angel fled, but it was the demon who grabbed the back of the angel's tunic before he could leap from the ledge into Ma'on. "Oh, no. No, you don't."
      The guard twisted around and slammed the edge of his spear into the demon's side. "Fallen scum!"
      Mephistopheles grunted, then bowled the man over with his good wing and jumped off Famine's back. He leaned down and pinned the angel on the ground, hands trapped behind his back and over his wing-arms to keep them from flailing. Black wings stretched and mantled in the light of the Fifth Heaven. "We don't want you going anywhere and talking, in case Michael left any of the Ninth Choir in Heaven, my friend... or else I wouldn't be treating you so unkindly. Granted, if you hadn't waved a spear at my gut, I might have been gentler."
      Famine huffed.
      "I don't suppose any of you have any rope?"
      "None," Stephen said wryly, "I seem to have forgotten to pack my camping kit."
      Mephistopheles shrugged and bent over the struggling angel. "I'm sorry then, my friend." He chose a spot behind the man's head and struck it neatly with the pommel of his sword; the body slumped and he dropped it to the ground. He tossed the spear to the priest. "Onward, then. We should expect more people."
      Stephen caught the spear and looked up at the sun, so much closer... and so much farther along the arc of the sky. The grackle was circling overhead.



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