Chapter 14, Part 3
They rode. The fastest route to the next gate was across open plains, and they shunned the covert route in favor of speed. Mephistopheles glanced up more than once to see dark motes in the sky, angels with colored wings.
"We should be ready," he said to the rest, voice gravelly with the strain. Being in Heaven so long made the hunger to stay nearly unbearable. "They're warned... they'll meet us at the gate."
"I don't care as long as they let us through," Stephen growled.
"Maybe there'll be women there, too," said Marie.
"I'd love to have a sword about now," was Brad's only comment.
An hour later the gate to Zebul rose from the surrounding crags, and the horses charged up its slope and onto the plateau. There they stopped, leaving their riders to face the score of angels standing in iron-clad determination before the gate.
Stephen rolled the spear in his fingers, chafing the wood with his thumb; his other hand tightened on a fistful of Death's black mane. "The odds aren't looking very good, Mephistopheles."
"When have the odds been good throughout this entire venture, my friend?" Mephistopheles asked dryly. The grackle drifted down to perch on his shoulder.
"I am really wanting a sword about now," Brad said. "Or a machine gun."
The horses remained still, the fitful breeze tangling their tails. The angels facing them at the gate were likewise unmoving.
Marie sighed and slipped off of War's broad back. "You people!" She brushed off her jeans and strode toward the cluster of belligerent angels. Stopping some twenty feet away from them, she folded her arms over her breasts and said, "Let us through."
One of the guards stepped forth, spear held before him. "We cannot. You have penetrated too far into Heaven as it is. You do not belong here."
"How do you know? The horses carried us here."
The angel glanced at the three. War stamped a foot and rolled its eyes, tiny flames curveting tightly above its flared nostrils. Famine stood, as always, with hung head, ribs pressing against its sides with every labored breath. Death was a statue, unbreathing.
The guard looked back at Marie. "We guard God, girl. Even if you did belong here, you are an abomination and a pain to Him." His eyes drifted to Mephistopheles, mantling black wings on the white horse, sword biting pale sunlight from the sky.
"You are not God's father," Marie said.
Every angel stopped breathing and stared at her. She pointed at the one speaking for them and said, "God doesn't need to be protected, like a kid with a fussy, smothering parent. God isn't an innocent who doesn't know about what's out there. You're His children, not the other way around... so what's the deal with you trying to come off like God's dad?"
"Wow," Brad said sotto voce to the priest and demon. "That's my girlfriend."
"She's got quite a tongue on her," Mephistopheles replied.
The angel recovered himself and grabbed Marie by the front of her shirt. "Blasphemer!"
"Hey!" Brad jumped off War's back, Stephen only a few heart-beats behind him.
Marie wrapped her hand around the angel's forearm and dug her fingernails into it. "Let me go, you brute. Show me to your women, so I can talk to someone with sense!"
"You are in no position to argue," the angel said, thrusting his spear at the oncoming boy. Brad jerked to a halt.
Marie bit the hand on her shirt. The angel yelped and dropped her. "Move out of the way... or kill us," she said. "Go ahead! Spill the blood of innocent humans on the stones of Heaven."
The angel wavered, eyes flicking from Brad to Stephen and back to Marie.
Famine carried Mephistopheles noiselessly up behind the humans, each hoof falling after a pause. When the horse stopped, Mephistopheles spread his sooty wings, larger than those belonging to any of the guards, and framed his companions with their leading edges.
"If it were just the three of you," the angel said at last, "I would let you through. But I must kill him." His spear point stabbed in Mephistopheles's direction. "He abandoned God. For that there is no forgiveness, no absolution... no excuse."
Mephistopheles's voice from behind the humans startled them so much that only Stephen could resist the urge to look back, to connect the colorless, rocky baritone with the demon. "I am already dead, Guardian. Driving a spear through my heart would be a meaningless formality."
"Let us through," Stephen said into the ensuing quiet.
"Did someone ask for us?" A voice cut through the crowd, its owner pushing past the shoulders of the angels before the gate: a slender, tall woman, her saturnine face lined with years and hair bleached from the spin of her mellow gold halo. White wings banded with dusty blue scythed the guards apart for two other female angels, drifting in her wake.
The angel guard frowned, his spear still pointed at Mephistopheles's heart. "Beware, sister, lest his lack of Grace poison you."
"His lack of Grace will no more poison me than your posturing will you. Move, please."
Reluctant, the guard backed a few steps away.
The female angel studied the three humans first, her gaze falling and lingering on each for several minutes before moving to the next. From Marie in her beat-up jeans, hastily dragged on beneath the t-shirt she slept in, her hair messily braided and her face screwed into a determined mask, to Brad, similarly attired but smudged with the dirt of Hell. Stephen stood a pace behind them both, arms folded, the sweatshirt neck framing the clerical collar; the circles under his eyes gave evidence of his fitful sleep, and the wrinkles framing them the years that gave those worries the substance of experience.
She looked up then at the dark figure, wings spread as if to shelter, at the one with the gaze that shielded with a hunger no angel in Grace could understand.
"Why are you here?" she asked at last, folding her hands into the sleeves of her robe.
"Please, lady, we must talk to you," Stephen said. He paused, glancing at the angels blockading the gate. "Alone, if we may."
"No!" the guard said. "They will hurt you!"
The female ignored him pointedly. She studied Stephen's face, then nodded and said, "Walk down the hill with me." Turning to look at the humans and the demon, "All of you."
"I will be watching," the guard said, wings bristling as he planted the spear against the ground.
"I would be surprised if you weren't," the woman said, then turned her back on him and began walking calmly down the slope. The other two female angels followed her at a discreet distance. Stephen glanced once at the guard, then set off after her, the others in his wake.
"So," the woman said. The wan sunlight barely lit the dusty blue traced across her coverts and primaries. "Why have you come?"
Stephen clasped his hands behind his back to keep from making nervous gestures. "Ma'am... Michael seeks to bring about the final battle."
She nodded slowly. "It has been very quiet."
"We would like to stop him. We believe that God doesn't want this war."
"The halos," Brad interjected. "They're all saved. In Shamayim."
"The halos of the Fallen," Stephen repeated. "They're still alive. What good are halos without their angels? He must love them still, else why would He keep them?"
She lifted her chin, brows rising above the deep hollows of her eyes. "I see. So you have decided that it is your duty to stop Michael from following the wrong path."
"Yes. Yes, that's it exactly."
"And why were you seeking me?"
Stephen looked down, concentrating on the placement of his feet as they navigated the rocky soil. "We're very close to too late as it is, ma'am. We thought if we brought Lucifer to Heaven, he could speak to God and ask Him if it was time for the Apocalypse... but there's no time, and now I wonder if anyone would have listened to Lucifer anyway. We're on our last idea... and we need help. Your help."
"And what would you have me do?"
Stephen stopped and waited for her to turn to face him, her wings arched ever-so-slightly to cup the hesitant wind. "I'd like to take the halos back to the Fallen."
Her regard remained steady, unblinking. She twisted around and said to Mephistopheles, "And what do you think of this?"
The demon stood a few feet away, his wings brushing his sides, the ground, feathers surreptitiously lifting and spreading to let in the soft air of Heaven. He looked up slowly. "I think the priest is mad. I dare not think anything else. It would hurt too much."
She nodded slowly. "So you came asking for female angels... why? You know we are ill-equipped for long stays away from the heart of Heaven."
"Hey," Brad said, elbowing her.
"Earth seems to be the site of Armageddon," Stephen said quietly. "They're already there, ma'am. Please... I don't think even Michael could make war after a display of that much power. That much... that much symbolism."
"I can make decisions for only myself," the woman said, wings spreading and folding like a butterfly's drying. "But I will go and ask, and see if there are not people for the task at hand."
"Lady... quickly, please. It will take us hours to travel back out of Heaven...."
"I will go as swiftly as I can, but I will not rush answers on an issue of such import. You ask us to defy Michael. That is no small thing... even if he is wrong," she said.
Stephen opened his mouth to protest, but Mephistopheles laid a hand on his shoulder. "That is all we ask, lady."
The female nodded once, then took wing, her two attendants following.
Stephen watched them go, hands twitching at his sides. "Oh, God, Mephistopheles. We can't wait long!"
"We'll leave when we must and trust in God to supply the rest. If it really is His will that Earth dies and humanity with her, that my liege-lord be slain and all his people with him... do you think we could honestly stop it?"
"No," Stephen said hoarsely. "But the business about free will living happily with an already defined course of events never sat well with me. I have to believe we can live or die by our own hands, Mephistopheles."
"Then say a prayer, Father. Make yourself a rosary of the bones of Heaven's soil and the slivers of wood that crucified an angel. Either way nothing will ever be the same again."
The demon walked away. Stephen stared after him, then sat on a nearby rock; when the grackle flew down to perch on the ground before him, he said, "I could use a sign about now."
It trained its beady yellow eye on him. He sighed and watched Marie and Brad talking together, then shook his head. To keep his fingers from trembling, he bent down and began gathering stones, and whispered his prayers with each he collected.
© 2011 M.C.A. Hogarth, Stardancer.Org