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Chapter 4, Part 2



      Asrial leaped to her feet. She had barely the presence of mind to grab the blanket before tearing from the room and down the cramped stairway. The Earth air was killing her, was stripping her wings from her. She had to get back somehow, there had to be a way....
      She burst from the building into the cold, dragging the blanket around her body. Her damp hair waved around her waist as she staggered, gathered her feet beneath her. Spreading her wings, Asrial leaped—and fell, tripping on the blanket's hem and landing hard on her side. A dull pain shot through her hip and elbow, so faint she almost missed it while catching her breath.
      Pain. Again. She had never known pain before Earth.
      "I'm dying," Asrial whispered, clenching her teeth after the last word to cage the threatening sob. She stumbled upright and lurched through the ditch, coming to stand beneath the large oak; the parking lot where Stephen had found her was crowded with... strange things. Metal hulks, streamlined by some unfathomable purpose. She surveyed the surrounding area, her breath coming in soft, white pants. A forest bordered a field to the north, a forest where she could seek His presence, beg His aid.
      Asrial set off, wobbling.

***


      The sunset had drawn tears from his eyes, and he'd stared at the west until he could no longer pluck the smudge of color from the surrounding darkness.
      ...but it had been nothing compared to the night. Hell existed in a kind of permanent, starless night, and darkness was no stranger to Mephistopheles: it rode his shoulders as a tar on his wings, darkened the strands of his hair and festered in his heart in the guises of weariness, doubt and cynicism. But the stars and the moon as he had not seen them for hundreds of years... God was everywhere. He couldn't sleep or rest, hungry to hold it fast, to gather it in against the lean years that would follow if Lucifer succeeded in beating back the forces of Heaven. It was an electricity in his body; he hadn't even realized how much he'd craved it, like a fire in need of fuel.
      So he'd kept the vigil all night; the bird flew away and back again on whatever errands such animals kept, oblivious to the wonder of its surroundings. Mephistopheles had remained, not one muscle moving.
      At dawn he rose and edged around the trunks, sliding in between the trees on his quest. God's presence so permeated the world around him that he could not follow any Heaven-sent spoor. He had developed his preternatural senses to a fine edge in Hell, honing them to catch the faint hints of Him that Hell allowed; on Earth he was blinded, too sensitive to distinguish anything anymore. It was intoxicating.
      A thin shadow among others in the thickly clustered trees, the Fallen angel had crouched to watch the parking lot fill with cars. The souls gathered beneath Lucifer's ink-black wings spoke of their way of life and all the things they'd left behind, cars, computers, coffee shops, but he had never had the chance to see them first-hand.
      Only after the parking lot had cleared entirely did Mephistopheles edge closer to the buildings. His feathers flared as he studied them, eyes thinned. The grackle perched on a branch above him, fluttering its iridescent plumage.
      The grackle clacked its beak.
      "Hey, now... what's that?"
     Something had just stumbled out of one of the smaller brick buildings. After a pause beneath an oak, it set off across the field, and the sun glittered on feathers of gold and bronze. "It can't be."
      But it was. An angel, wrapped in a cloud-blue blanket, her wings untidily folded as she stumbled across the brown grass—an angel, and female. There had been no female angels in Heaven when Lucifer and his had left it, and though Mephistopheles's spies had brought back reports of their birth in the Choirs of God, he had yet to see one. Her hair showed only strands of gold over ruddy waves; young, then, to not yet have hair bleached pale by her halo, which was notable in its absence.
      No halo. Mephistopheles stared harder. "No halo," he said aloud. The grackle canted its head. "I'm right, aren't I? You don't see it either." He frowned. Only the Fallen lacked halos, but Lucifer would have known instantly if she'd left Michael's Heaven to join them. She would have appeared in Hell, not on Earth. What was she doing here?
      Mephistopheles slipped after her and shadowed her through the forest. As the cover provided, he could draw closer, close enough to see the creamy gold of her skin, kissed by a sun that rose high enough to pierce Heaven's manifold layers; the delicate features of her face, as if sculpted; the eyes that could have been his, had he remained in Heaven to keep the reflections of God's favor in them. The signs of her distress were even more visible: the furrow of her white brow, the tears staining her cheeks and chin, and most startlingly, the lack of clothing beneath the blanket she clutched to her body... in this cold? So deep was her turmoil that the angel passed within a few footsteps of Mephistopheles without ever even glancing his way.
      He pushed an evergreen bough out of his way, frowning. "What has gotten into her?" he murmured to the grackle, observing him from its perch on a nearby tree.
      It cocked its head, then glided to the ground. As Mephistopheles watched, puzzled, it rooted in the fallen leaves until it dragged something from them. The grackle soared to his shoulder, dropping its prize into his hands.
      Mephistopheles ran his fingers along the edge of the white feather, his throat dry. The band of gold perpendicular to the rachis glistened as he tilted it. He chafed his thumb against its quill, feeling the familiar weight in his wrist, for nothing on Earth had feathers as heavy as an angel's. "Dear God." He glanced up after the trail the angel had left, then tucked the covert reverently into his belt and followed her. Here was part of the mystery. Now he would have the rest.



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