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Chapter 16



      Stephen's hands were full of pebbles when the female angel returned, wings tucked neatly together behind her back. He stood.
      "Ma'am."
      She inclined her head. "I will go with you."
      Stephen's hands opened, the rocks dropping from between his nerveless fingers. "You? Only you, ma'am?"
      "I told the others, but I will not make decisions for them. They know where to go if they decide to join us."
      Stephen's hands curled into fists. "Is there nothing—"
      "No." Her smile was not unkind, but its main component was weariness. "Come, Man. Let us collect your companions. The day is growing old."
      Brad and Marie were not far away, sheltering beneath an overhang and talking in quiet voices. They looked up as Stephen ducked beneath a twisted branch. "Come on, kids. We're heading home."
      Brad glanced at the silhouette of the woman behind Stephen, then back at the priest. "Are they coming?"
      Stephen could only muster a half-hearted shrug, trusting to the shadow beneath the overhang to hide the grim twist of his mouth.
      The boy stood, helped Marie to her feet, and pulled her into the rusty sunlight. "Where's Mephistopheles?"
      "Brooding," Stephen said. "I'll go get him if you get the horses."
      "Sure. At least the horses won't damn me if I annoy them," Brad said, grinning wryly.
      Stephen managed a chuckle, then left them with the female angel to go hunting the wild demon. He climbed down the mountain toward the caverns, peering into every nook and cranny... so he almost missed the Fallen angel, perched in a compact bundle on top of a ledge, staring out over Ma'on.
      Clambering up to the rim of the ledge, Stephen said, "Mephistopheles?"
      The demon's hands drooped loosely from wrists resting atop his lifted knees. The grackle's iridescent plumage sparkled near his left shoulder, almost obscured by the fall of the demon's hair. "Stephen," he said, his baritone a torn gravel ruin.
      Stephen found himself clearing his throat, as if doing so could somehow affect Mephistopheles's voice. "Brad's bringing the horses around."
      "Are they coming?"
      "The woman who took our message back will be returning with us."
      "That's it?"
      Stephen nodded, realized belatedly that the demon wasn't looking at him, and said, "Yes."
      Mephistopheles's head sagged, though the rest of his body remained still; even his wings moved not at all. "So. This is the last time I'll taste Heaven's air. Or quite possibly, any air at all."
      "You won't be the only one dead by the end of the day if everything comes apart," Stephen said, staring out over the vista, one he'd never see himself, if the angels were right.
      The grackle squawked and flitted from Mephistopheles's shoulder as the demon pushed himself back onto his feet. "I'm sorry, Stephen. I didn't mean to be thoughtless."
      "I know. I'm unnerved too." The priest glanced at the sun. "But it's getting too late as it is."
      Mephistopheles climbed up to join him. "Well, then," he said. "Let's ride, shall we? If I have to meet my end, I can think of far worse company."
      Stephen gripped the demon's shoulder, squeezed, and then turned and clambered back to the plateau where Brad and Marie waited, already seated on War.
      Death greeted him with a puff of air on the back of his hand as the priest stroked his neck; the lack of moisture or heat no longer disturbed Stephen quite as much. To the female angel standing silently beside the black horse, he said, "Ma'am, I don't know your name."
      "Ruth. Choir Director for Zebul, the Sixth Heaven."
      "Lady Ruth, then. Will you ride with me? The horses don't tire."
      She nodded once, the deep gold of her halo rippling in the sunlight.
      Stephen pulled himself onto the broad back of the horse and held out a hand for her. She seated herself behind him, her hands on his waist almost too light to feel through the thick sweatshirt. Stephen waited for Mephistopheles to mount white Famine, then glanced at the sky in time to see the grackle swoop past, already soaring back across the broad fields of Ma'on.
      "Take us to Shamayim," he said, and curled his fists into Death's mane as the horse charged.
      Their shadows spooled out across the ground as the three horses bore them back through the network of gates, from tight compact black puddles at their mounts' hooves to long, lavender banners streaming in their wake. Stephen rode farther forward, knees pressed to the smoothly working black withers, the light touch of the Choir Director an endless reminder of the slim hope he carried back with him.
      They raced the sun to the brim of Heaven and barely won, the horses silhouetted in black against the failing copper light with tails long flags as they ascended the colorless mount to the plateau of the tower and dome. The grackle's slender shape cut across the sky above them.
      "Thank you for the ride," Ruth said, breaking the many hours of silence. The female slipped off the back of Death. "Your duty here is done."
      Stephen frowned.
      "Don't you want us to show you around?" Brad asked.
      "Why?" the female asked. "I know this place."
      "You've been here before?" Stephen asked, brows arching.
      Her wings rustled once and a faint smile creased her thin lips. "Oh, no. But there is much the heart may tell you that the eyes need not see."
      "I wish someone'd told Asrial that and saved her the pain of having to look for herself," Stephen said, unable to curb the anger that twisted his mouth.
      "Asrial?" Ruth paused, her wings stilling. "Copper-haired, copper-banded and gold? Young?"
      "Yes...," Stephen said, drawing the word out.
      Ruth's smile gained a more natural tilt. She placed a hand on Death's cheek and said, "Do not be afraid, Man. Have faith in Him. His will is already working among you."
      The horses stood silent vigil as the female angel walked to the dome, opening the heavy door and disappearing inside. After a moment, the grackle landed between Famine's ears.
      "What was that all about?" Brad asked.
      "I don't know... but it's time we went home. I bet our hooved friends know where Armageddon is." Death rolled an eye back to stare at Stephen. The priest rested a hand on his neck, then looked at his companions. "Shall we? If we're going to die, we might as well be at ground zero."
      "I wonder where Mom is," Marie said in a small voice.
      Mephistopheles stared at the closed door, then shrugged, the motion rolling up his wing arms. "Let's go. The sun is setting."
      The demon urged Famine down the mountain, dislodging the bird. Stephen paused, said to Marie, "Wherever your mother is, she's got Pestilence nearby. There aren't going to be many safe places to be during the Apocalypse, but near an Apocalyptic horse has to be one of the closest things."
      Marie nodded, a jerky motion that flopped her braid against her back. She tightened her hold around Brad's waist.
      Stephen shared a glance with the boy, then slid his hands on either side of Death's withers, pushing himself into a more comfortable position. The horse clambered down the mountainside, muscles bunching and smoothing beneath its void-dark hide. The grackle's shadow passed over him, heading east.

***

      Asrial walked in on him pulling a black boot on over a clean set of charcoal-gray tights, one foot propped against the edge of the bed, the magnificent wings half-spread for balance. His dirty clothing lay discarded on the nearby chest, and a small gray medallion swung over his ribs, threaded with a black satin cord.
      She tilted her head, holding his robe closed over her breast. "You will go down, then."
      The boot slid up to his knee; he stopped to look at her. "Lady, I must."
      Asrial drifted past him to perch on the edge of his bed, the midnight blue silk draping over her thin knees and catching the faint light of her halo. She let her thinned, plucked wings brush the blankets with their remaining flight feathers. "To talk with him."
      "If he allows me, yes." Lucifer stood and pulled the white blouse off the back of his chair, loosening the ties down the front with his fingers.
      "And if he doesn't?" Asrial asked.
      Lucifer stopped moving, then forced himself to finish the laces. He pulled the blouse over his head, straightening the panel down the middle of his back and lacing it to the side panel beneath the junction of wing and back. The medallion disappeared beneath the white linen. "Then Michael will have his Judas." He smiled wryly. "Either way I will take it as it comes to me."
      Asrial's gaze fluttered over the sword resting on the night table, still sheathed and on the belt. "My lord, I fear for you."
      He paused in dressing, the blouse hanging loose over his waist. He stepped to the edge of the bed, cupped her face in his hands with his thumbs lightly touching her chin. "Ah, Asrial. Do not fear for me. I cannot feel Him anymore and I do not sing the glories of His mornings, but I am not afraid. I have followed the dictates of the conscience He gave me."
      Her lashes dipped, casting blue shadows over her thin cheeks. "It is not God's wrath that you should fear, my lord, but Michael's." She lifted her eyes to his. "He would make you a crown of thorns and hang you for the Wind to take if he could."
      Lucifer let her fear have the silence it merited. Then said, voice low, "Ah, dear one. I can no more fear Michael than you can fear me. You don't, do you?"
      She arched her brows, a breath caught in her throat. Then she smiled, a fragile, small thing. "No, my lord. Not anymore."
      "Good," he said, running a finger across one of her curls before releasing her. He tucked his blouse into his tights, leaving the cuffs and collar undone. The belt he strapped around his waist. Swirling a black cloak edged in heavy silver and burgundy knotwork over a wing and pinning it to his shoulder with a brooch, he said. "It is about time."
      "Yes," Asrial said, and slid off the bed. "I am ready."
      Lucifer paused. "Lady..."
      "There is nowhere for me to go," Asrial said. She lifted her chin. "I saw this thing begun. I would like to be there, when it ends." She paused, a shiver running down the chain of her spine. "Whatever that end may be."
      He paused, then nodded. "It is cold tonight, and will be colder yet ere dawn." He walked to the chest, opened it, and rummaged before pulling free a long robe. "My night robe becomes you, but may be a little thin for Earth." He set it out on the bed, silver eyes meeting hers, and then quietly stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.
      Asrial bent down, plucked wings curled above her back, and lifted the folded cloth; it fell open, revealing a robe of weighted gold and cream silk. Across its front edge a sun rose in stylized bronze against a land of umber brown; its rays radiated in alternating gold and bronze across a sky that faded in a delicately dyed gradient from pale cream up across the front and over the shoulders to a deep blue embroidered with silver-gilt stars that dropped to cluster at the hem on the back panel.
      It had two long slits, edged in gold silk to match the weighted, rolled silk hems; they were scaled for the wings of the Fallen Star of Morning, and the laces to close the slits began somewhere near Asrial's waist.
      She held the robe to her breast and closed her eyes, dizzied. Her soul throbbed, parched and empty of Him despite her halo. But she struggled into the robe, pulling it closed around her body and lacing the slits as far up beneath the sadly deficient plumage near her back as she could. She clipped the front closed, and then hugged herself, feeling the lining drag softly against her body.
      Clad in fallen stars, Asrial left Lucifer's bedroom and joined him in the study. His patient and complex gaze met hers for several heart-beats; then he offered her his hand and she took it, and together they left.



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