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Chapter 3, Part 2



Mephistopheles and the Grackle


            Lahatiel was on duty today, his ashen wings folded tightly behind his back as he scribbled names on his tablet. Mephistopheles passed the few bewildered humans on the Hell side of the Gate.
      "Lahatiel!"
      The Fallen angel glanced over his shoulder, flame-colored hair in disarray. "Ah! Prince Mephistopheles. We weren't expecting you today...?"
      "I'm on an errand to Earth. Things are proceeding well?"
      "Well enough, my lord."
      Mephistopheles walked under the Gate. "Carry on then."
      "Aye, my lord."
      The rip leading to Earth was only a few hundred feet from the Gate. Mephistopheles was halfway there when the cry of an infant distracted him. He halted, turning to scan the line of souls waiting for admission.
      A young woman stood stiffly behind a man, cradling a baby to her breast. Her locks were the soft brown of a thrush's wing, hanging untidily over her thin shoulders. What was left of her sweater and pleated skirt was bloody and ragged.
      Mephistopheles walked to within a few paces and said quietly, "My lady, do you need anything?"
      She started, looked up at him with wild green eyes. "I—I... he's unhappy."
      "I'm sure," Mephistopheles replied. "May I?"
      The woman looked away, shoulders tightening; in her arms, the baby wailed. "Could I stop you?"
      "Of course." Patience. The newly arrived always required great stores of patience.
      The surprise on her face lived badly with her weariness. She rolled her lower lip between her teeth, then hesitantly handed the baby to him. Mephistopheles tucked the little one's cloth around his body, his heart catching once as he recognized the weave. "Sssh, sssh, my dear," he said, hushed. The baby human hiccupped and stared up at him, entranced.
      "You... you're good with children," the woman said.
      He could hear the words that completed the statement in her mind: for a demon. Mephistopheles said, "You've been to Heaven, I see."
      "I... yes!" A sob choked her throat. "How—"
      "Your child's swaddling clothes are familiar." Mephistopheles smiled to reassure her, then continued. "What happened? If I may."
      "They said... my child... I was pregnant. In a car accident." She shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself. "He said I could come in, but not my baby."
      "Brave lady," Mephistopheles said. He handed the baby back. "You'll find Hell isn't quite so bad as you've been led to believe. We have room here for every human soul... the not-quite-good-enough, the bad... even the uncircumcised."
      She stared at him. In her arms, the child turned and fell asleep.
      "Good luck, lady."
      He could feel her stare between his wings as he walked up the path to the tear. Centuries of practice helped smooth his face and hide the anger—it was typical of Michael's Heaven, the adherence to rules even against all common sense and compassion.
      The mortal idea of Heaven as administered by God was as mythological as dragons or unicorns. Angels had always directed the fate of human souls after death... and angels, lacking Godhead, were as fallible as any other of His creations.
      By the time Mephistopheles reached the true gate to Earth, his resolve had firmed. The days in Hell did not seem altogether real, and time passed without much meaning. In the rush of endless work, he often forgot why he had followed Lucifer out of Heaven. But an Archangel that directed his minions to exile unborn babies from eternal Grace—that angel Mephistopheles could hate, though he would not dare to admit it to his lord, whose powers of forgiveness were, after all, more closely modeled on the divine.
      The air around the tear rippled. Mephistopheles secured his bag and checked his clothing over. He folded his wings around himself and stepped in—
      —Out
      Down. The air thickened as he plummeted to Earth, holding his destination in mind as clearly as possible as the winds buffeted his feathers.
      The ground rushed up to meet him, and Mephistopheles slammed into the middle of a grassy field, stomach down. He lay there for several minutes, chasing his breath back into his lungs. Turning his cheek to the ground, eyes closed, he became aware of the sunlight throbbing in the recesses of his dark wings. He spread them sinuously, fanning them shelf by shelf: primaries, secondaries, all three sets of coverts, into real sunlight from a true star made by God. A faint, cool breeze wafted through his hair, and the scent of bruised loam rose to his nostrils.
      Earth. The closest to Heaven he'd been in centuries.
      Mephistopheles opened amber eyes. The clearing was a tired but dogged green, edged with pines and oaks tangled with underbrush. He stared at the nearest tree and nursed the peace inside his core, the scent of the autumn.
      One wing tilted beneath a weight, and Mephistopheles frowned. He glanced over his shoulder, lowering the wing and drawing it forward, only to come face to face with a slender black bird with an inquisitive yellow eye.
      "Well, hello," he said, grinning wearily. The motion had activated the inordinate amount of bruises along the flesh of his ribs. "Curious little fellow, eh? Never seen a demon before?"
      The bird's head turned sideways, eye trained on his face.
      "Now you have. Not everything they promised. Fly off, now." Mephistopheles twitched his wing, and it fluttered off to perch on a nearby hummock of grass, again observing with that one yellow eye.
      Mephistopheles ignored him. He sat up and performed his checks: the bag and sword remained attached to his belt and his clothing was no worse for the wear, if a little dirty. Aside from the expected bruises, he was in excellent condition. He stood, brushed himself off, and raided his pouch for the tiny folded map.
      "That way," he murmured, and walked into the forest. The sun's rays were like caresses where they fell through the needles of the pine boughs, and Mephistopheles frequently stopped to stand in a pool of cool light. After the weight of Hell, he felt lighter than air, than the vines and branches that tapped him as he slipped past.
      Breaking out of the brush, Mephistopheles found himself on the edge of a mown field. In the distance he could spy a large building, most likely an auditorium. As he studied his surroundings, a flash of black speared from the sky, landing beside his foot.
      "I'm really not that interesting," Mephistopheles told the bird.
      It stared at him and clicked its beak.
      The fallen angel chuckled. "Who am I to argue." He squinted at the sun. "It looks to be about an hour until dusk. I can't do anything until then. It'll really be quite boring; surely you have other things to do. Catch food. Feather your nest."
      He walked back to the edge of the wood and found a comfortable tree. Spreading his wings on either side of the trunk, he set his back to it and slid down, one leg stretched before him and the other propped up.
      The bird lit on his knee.
      Mephistopheles stared at it. "Persistent, aren't you?"
      The bird clicked its beak and canted its head.
      "Fine, fine!" Mephistopheles rested his head against the tree, laughing despite himself. "Here I am, a demon on Earth, a Fallen archangel tracking angel spoor. And do I get something ominous for a companion? A raven? A rook? Even a crow? No! I get a grackle."
      The slender black bird flipped its iridescent wings insouciantly.
      Mephistopheles shook his head, then returned his attention to the field and the sky. There were no sunsets in Hell. He looked forward to rekindling the memory.



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