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Chapter 15



      Gabriel ran off the momentum of his glide onto the ledge of the birthing place in Raquia, the one the newborn had died in. His brow had set in a furrow above blue eyes; he strode through the mists of Heaven's pastel morning into the umber-darkness of the cavern, the bag in his hand slapping against his leg.
      The amber incense hung in heavy veils as he ascended the steps to the topmost chamber, torch-light chasing away the intimate dark of the brown stone womb. With white wings scraping against the ceiling, Gabriel ducked beneath the low lintel and walked toward the nests.
      The figure crouching beside the one with the broken shell looked up as he approached. "Gabriel?"
      "Raphael!" Gabriel stopped; the other archangel's voice sounded wrong, somehow: too faint. "What are you doing here? Everyone's already gone..."
      "Just looking. It started here. You know." The silhouette of Raphael's chest rose and fell unevenly.
      "Started?" Gabriel asked. His frown grew more pronounced as he glanced at the other empty nests, then back at his fellow archangel. He waved a cloud of incense aside. "What are you talking about, Raphael?"
      "Haven't you heard? Weren't you there? Of course not. It's every globe. Every one since this one. Stillborn... miscarried." Raphael laughed breathlessly.
      "What!"
      "Not a one. Not a nursery in Shehaqim or Machanon or Ma'on... and they won't open in the Sixth and Seventh. Ha! Smart unborn! Would that the others had been so lucky! Forty gone. Forty. Forty drowned in their own fluid...."
      Visions of gossamer dust, born of faded bodies and unrealized souls, clouded Gabriel's eyes. He swayed, groped blindly for the column beside the nest to keep from staggering. "A portent. It can be nothing less than a portent."
      "Too late," Raphael said. His voice barely cleared a whisper, fading between a peculiar, uneven mirth and a gray weariness. "It is too late now. The golden blood is spilled. Spilled everywhere... my fingers, my hands...."
      Something about the other archangel's crouch struck Gabriel as terribly wrong. He frowned, stepping forward. "Raphael...? What's wrong?"
      Raphael rose, a piece of the broken shell in either hand. Behind him, his wings mantled, spread, and were revealed.
     Dripping dust from their denuded spans, plucked free of every secondary and primary and most of the coverts as well, white wing-arms dappled with golden blood arched over his head. The sweet stench that rose from them gagged Gabriel, and tears stung his eyes. He staggered back. "By His Name, Raphael!"
     "It's too late," Raphael said, weaving. "I've been here... been here hours, but it won't tell me why... why I'm still alive. It laughs at me. It tells me I'm no healer. Why does He leave me alive? It's too late, Gabriel. Nothing will make my heart light enough to fly again."
     Gabriel grabbed Raphael's arms. "Raphael! Are you mad? What have you done!"
     The oubliettes that had replaced the other archangel's eyes held no emotion, nothing but darkness. "It's too late."
     "No!"
     "Too..."
     "No!"
     But Raphael had gone limp in his hands. Gabriel swallowed, then pulled the other man into his arms and rested him gently on the ground. "I'm sorry, my brother... but I have too much to do. I will have to come back for you later—"
     He advanced on the nest and crouched beside it. Opening his bag with a swift prayer running over his tongue, he scooped the thin, fine silt out of the broken globe.
      Ten minutes later, the archangel hurtled from the ledge, broad white wings beating as he winged his way deeper into Heaven. The wind ruffled the mouth of the bag tied at his belt, a bag somewhat heavier than it had been before and that would be heavier yet ere his errand was spent.

***


      "They're camping precisely where we thought they would," the sternly-countenanced angel said to Michael over the spread map of the area. He pointed, a long shadow flaring from his fingertip in the candle-light. "There. On the edges of this open area."
      "Good, good. Any sign yet of him?" The menace in Michael's voice left little doubt who he referred to.
      "Not yet, sir. But by our count all of Hell is empty."
      "Very good. Keep patrolling. We will proceed with the current plan."
      The angel straightened, dark brown and orange wings twitching behind him as his head jerked in a perfunctory nod. A few minutes later the captain had exited, leaving Michael to muse over the map.
      "By your counts," Chris finally said from her corner.
      The Archangel frowned, a spark trailing off his rapidly spinning halo. He had almost forgotten the woman. "Pardon?"
      "It's empty by your counts. But it's still full of humans, I bet."
      "The humans are not going to fight us, woman."
      "I have a name, you know."
      Michael's brow arched. "I didn't suppose otherwise."
      "And how do you know they won't fight you? If they knew you were going to destroy their little pocket reality, I'm sure they wouldn't go gently into that good night, you know." Chris leaned forward, smoothing her cold hands over the fabric on her knees.
      "I suppose not," Michael said.
      Chris stood and joined him at the map table. She placed her hands on either edge, palms down, and peered at him. "You can't honestly tell me you won't think twice about snuffing out millions of souls... can you?"
      "In war, innocents die. That is the way of things."
      "This isn't war, Michael. This is revenge."
      His nostrils flared, and emerald eyes narrowed in his hard, golden face. "Don't push me, woman."
      "My name is Chris," she said, trying not to flinch away. If only he would blink once in a while! "And isn't it revenge?"
      "No. It's vengeance. Justice for a sin committed against God."
      Chris sat on the bench and folded her hands in her damp lap. "And tell me what Lucifer deserves for this great sin."
      Michael lifted his head and stared at the side of the tent. His wings bristled, and Chris wondered in uneasy awe how there was room for all those feathers in a tent even as large as this one.
      "When I find him, I will press the point of my sword against his throat until a bead of his benighted blood rises above that perfect skin... and force him to beg for his life and the lives of all those he led into darkness. Led out of Heaven. Led in defiance of God's laws!"
      "God's laws as interpreted by humans," Chris said, eyes thinned. The flutter in the Archangel's voice on the word 'benighted' had not been lost on her, but she wasn't ready to chase it down yet. "Are they really God's laws, Michael? Did you have a chat with Him? Maybe get a set of divine tablets from Him?"
      Michael hissed, flight feathers stiffening. The spray of light that leaped from his halo fell in glistening trails over the map, casting uncertain shadows. "I cannot talk to Him. He is too great for me. Do not mock me!"
      "I'm not here to mock you," Chris said. Petrifying fear for her life was a good way to keep her from running. She didn't like the way his hands were clenching and unclenching from the edge of the table. "I'm just saying... well, you're staking a hell of a lot on your beliefs. What if you're wrong?"
      "I am not wrong!"
      "Dumb question," Chris muttered, then ducked as the hand snapped out toward her head. She growled and grabbed it on the back-swing, scrabbling for a pressure point and digging her fingers in.
      The Archangel froze, green eyes glittering with a fire not entirely of the candle-light's making. The shadow of their joined hands jumped and skittered over the map. His tendons flexed beneath her grasp, and Chris swallowed and forced herself to meet the uncanny gaze.
      "I am your conscience, Michael. Listen to me before it's too late!"
      "You are a human soul, unworthy of Heaven and of no use to me," Michael replied, his voice gentling to a silky rasp. "When the end comes, you will be the first to hear the Wind howl."
      "Listen to yourself!" Chris exclaimed. "Michael! Your God is not interested in a callous heart!"
      "My God is not interested in a blasphemer's soul either."
      "How do you know?"
      "Let go of me."
      "No!"
      Chris gasped as the table slammed into her back, her arm twisted to her chest, pushing back the fabric near her throat. Above her, Michael bared his teeth, his fingers on her wrist so hard she could feel the bruises spreading. Her mind idly imagined the capillaries bursting, contaminating the surrounding tissue with plasma and leukocytes.
      The skin exposed by the fall developed goose-flesh faster than she could find her next breath. She clenched her jaw and stared up at him. When he didn't loose her, she said, "Go ahead. Break it."
      His eyes leaped from hers to sweep down along her arm to the skin stretched taut and yellow over the wrist bones beneath the pressure of his grasp... to the throat and collar-bone laid bare in the candle's glow.
      Chris rolled her lower lip beneath her teeth and looked away, a hot blush suffusing her cheeks.
      When his voice came it surprised her, laced as it was with a grudging respect. "So vulnerable. Breakable. Why do you come here, courting your own destruction, human? Why do you care?"
      Beneath that unblinking stare, feeling more exposed than she ever had, Chris blinked back tears not entirely inspired by the pressure on her wrist and arm and said, "Because I want to save my soul."
      The renewed force on her hand squeezed a cry from her as Michael sneered. "Of course. Self-serving humanity, always seeking with an ulterior motive. Not a pure heart among your pathetic species!"
      "No! You don't understand! I see myself in you. I hate because I couldn't stand it anymore, and I see my hurt in the way you act, in how you treat things and people. I... I thought I was lost. But if I can heal you, maybe... maybe there's hope for me, too, dammit!"
      He drew back, though his hold didn't loosen. Shaking, Chris said, "Please, Michael. Show me your heart. Then maybe I can remember where I left mine."
      Michael let go of her as quickly as he'd manhandled her to the table's surface. The tears she'd refused to shed beneath the brunt of his stare leaked from her eyes at the pain's abrupt cessation. Sitting up on the table, she hastily tucked her robe back into place and then turned her attention to the archangel.
      He stood, back and wings to her, one hand on the edge of the desk. The silence dragged on so long that she found a mesmerizing rhythm in the cadence of his breathing, measured in the faintest rise and fall of his wings.
      "I loved him."
      Chris looked up, one arm crossed over her chest.
      "More than anyone. I trusted him with everything. We were inseparable. We would sing to the morning...."
      Michael's face turned in profile, visible framed by the arches of white wings. His set expression was so cold, so determined that it made an obscenity of the tormented twist of his brows and crimp of his eyes. "I never thought he could leave me. Leave Heaven. Leave God! Over humans! They aren't even of us! He... he abandoned us!"
      "Abandoned you," Chris said, her voice husky.
      Michael turned, feathers flaring. "Yes." His anger and bitterness lent a metallic tang to the words. "Abandoned me."
      "And you didn't know how to live without him," she said.
      Michael's throat moved as he swallowed. Then, low and without pretense, "No."
      "Why are you doing this, Michael?" Chris said, holding out her hands to him. Her chest felt hot and heavy, her eyes burning too much to see properly. "Why are you trying to kill the one you love?"
      "He left me," Michael answered. "Don't you see? How could I do anything else? How could I make any sense of it? He was more than I was. He was the first, God's beloved, the Star of Morning. He was supposed to have more in his heart, more mercy, more love, more understanding... more in his mind, in his soul than any of us. And somehow we weren't worthy of any of it. How could I not hate him? How can I not want him destroyed, and all his works?"
      "Oh, God," Chris said, hiding her face in her hands. She crammed the balls of her palms against her eyes, willing the tears back under their lids. Her body shook. "Oh, God, Michael. It's a poison. Cast it out, cast it out—"
      "I don't know how. And it's been too long."
      A tiny sob wrenched free of her, but she clamped down so hard that the next never followed. Her entire body ached and burned.
      His hand on her shoulder seared like a brand. "I am sorry, Chris," he whispered. "But I am too far gone, even for you."
      She heard his wings scraping the edge of the tent flaps, heard their muffled fall. Her body dropped in inches until she rested, curled tightly as a shell on the map, and the tears tore like hooks on their way out.



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