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Chapter 3, Part 1



Angel


      Gabriel lunged to the edge of the cliff, staring down into the void. The black hole in the air, barely visible against the night sky, was already sealing. He flung himself around and pointed at Michael.
      "Is this how you intend to begin the war against the Great Betrayer? With an injustice?"
      Michael folded his arms, his halo spitting sparks that flared as they fell to his feet. "She committed a crime. She was punished."
      "And what crime was that? Acknowledging God's mercy? By His name, Michael! Have you gone insane?"
      They locked gazes for several minutes as the other members of the Eighth watched in silence.
      "I believe we were discussing our plans," Michael said, turning his back on the cliff.
      Gabriel stared at the broad planes of Michael's back, then crouched and picked up the dimly glowing disc that had drifted to the ground after the girl's fall. His fingertips throbbed in time with its dull pulsing, but it was already cool enough to handle comfortably. With thinned eyes, he said to Michael's back, "You are discussing your plans. I will have no part of something so important a simple transgression requires the cessation of Grace as punishment."
      Raphael and Uriel both glanced at him, startled, but Gabriel ignored them. Cradling the girl's halo, he ran to the edge of the cliff and swooped into the thick air of Shamayim.

***


      Mephistopheles found him in one of the smaller chambers adjacent to the seldom-used presentation hall. He entered on silent feet and stopped just within the room, folding his black feathered wings close together and his hands behind his back. Gently, he cleared his throat, waited two heart-beats, then spoke.
      "You sent for me, my liege?"
      A quiet chuckle sounded from the man at the window, whose great black wings, even folded, still dwarfed those of the largest archangel's. He turned his head, carved ivory profile against the dark walls. "You are good to me, Mephistopheles... and prompt. I had heard the latest patrol is in. Come in."
      Mephistopheles's boots clicked against the marble floor as he approached, stopping beside the water basin. He traced its copper brim with a hand. "You heard correctly. It appears that Heaven is preparing for war."
      Lucifer turned from the window, clasping his hands against its sill and leaning back between them. Long black hair fell behind the shoulders of a dove grey vest. He wore a white linen blouse, black pants and high boots and a black belt. He wore also a grave expression, and in his pale silver eyes there was both a shadow of sadness and a grim determination. "So Michael can no longer restrain himself."
      "The wound you dealt him in leaving has only festered over time, if I may be so bold to say."
      "Ah, be bold. We both know it's true." Lucifer closed his eyes, drew in a breath and continued. "What else did you learn?"
      "They couldn't get close enough to see, really. Our few people with the power can never get very far or stay very long before being discovered. The angels sharpen their swords; they drill and practice. But the archangel is impossible to spy on." Mephistopheles grimaced, wings flexing behind him restlessly. "I wish there were more, my lord...."
      "It is enough, Mephistopheles. More than enough, even." Lucifer joined him beside the basin. Their reflections in the water were cold and gray, washed of any color. "We will learn more as the time draws closer, I'm sure. In the mean-time, tell them to continue their flights."
      "I shall do so." He paused. "My lord... do you really think...."
      "That this is the end? That Michael will come with flaming sword to deal my death, and then to systematically destroy everything we've made? That he will pull the keystones out from under Hell's foundations and watch it crumble?" Lucifer snorted. "God wanted us here, Mephistopheles. For whatever ineffable reason. It will not be so easily undone... I hope." He stared at his reflection. "But that reminds me of something that has been weighing on my mind. Something you can help me with."
      Mephistopheles straightened. There were several other princes of Hell, archangels before the Fall, trusted now as Lucifer's lieutenants—but he was aware that he had somehow held their leader's favor, and he held that favor in very dear regard. "Anything, my liege."
      Lucifer dipped a long finger in the water and stirred it. "Michael will not come to Hell to fight. He hates the human souls... his love was ever to champion God against any comers, not to dispense His mercy to the disenfranchised. And he will not allow us into Heaven. That leaves us precious little choice over where our fight will be staged."
      "Earth," Mephistopheles murmured, gone cold at the thought.
      "Precisely. He must know it too, because I saw something a day ago. A shimmer, a hint of gold on Earth. I don't know what it is; perhaps he sent one of the angels to scout the ground. Whatever it is, I'd like you to find out. I don't like the idea of angels on Earth given the confluence of portents that speak of the final battle."
      "At once, sir."
      Lucifer touched his shoulder. "Be careful, please. I would not lose my right hand to Michael's cunning. Do not underestimate his cunning! He may seem as subtle as a battle axe, but the mind behind those eyes is something else entirely."
      "I will be careful," Mephistopheles replied, hiding his pleasure at his liege-lord's worry.
      "Good man. Report to me as frequently as you may."
      "I shall." Mephistopheles made a fist of one hand and pressed it to his breast, bowing at the waist. "Good day, my lord."
      "Go with Him."
      Mephistopheles backed out of the room until he stood in the hall.
      Half an hour later, the Fallen angel strode down the cobbled streets, cloak flaring between his wings and a small pouch of necessities secured at his belt. He waved in passing to the human souls that lounged in the doors of their stores or chatted beneath the awnings of their cafes. It was always dark in Hell; the walls of the cavern that housed their pocket dimension prevented any true day, and the starless nights were so dark that lamp and candle-makers were among the most prosperous of merchants. Electricity would have been popular, had it been possible... but many things were beyond Lucifer's powers.
      Hell, then, was not what any of them had expected upon arrival. But even bereft of halo and with tar-colored feathers, Lucifer and his were angels: not men, and still, somewhere at core, divine. It was over the question of mercy that Heaven had torn apart; though few knew that story.
      Mephistopheles walked out of the city and up the long road toward the Gate, pebbles skittering from the heels of his boots. One hand absently caressed the pommel of his sword. The cobblestones gave way to a cleared dirt path, bordered in rounded grey stones; soon, even the stones vanished, leaving a wild trail leading over the faintly grassed hill. As he followed it, Mephistopheles glanced at the orb hanging at the top of the cavern. The thought of standing beneath a real sun again sent a frisson of pleasure through his spine and up his wings.
      Over the hill, the trail turned cobblestone again and the twin spars of the iron Gate rose from above the mound of the next hill. Like all Gates, it was a formality, marking a place where space-time had torn enough to allow the whispers of other dimensions through. This one opened onto Earth; the line of souls waiting for entrance stretched back over the hill.



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