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Chapter 4, Part 3



      Father Stephen stood just inside the door of the room beneath his living quarters, fighting his sense of foreboding at the awkward and unusual fold of the throw rug. He found more signs on his way up: fluff from his blanket caught on the banister, water stains on the floor. He opened the door onto the common room, took in the basin, the wet rug and the glowing blisters in the fireplace, and ran into the bedroom. Nothing. His blanket missing, the angel gone. He checked the bathroom and the other unlocked rooms.
      "Asrial? Asrial!"
      The door downstairs creaked open, and Stephen raced to the stairwell. "Asrial?"
      "Father Stephen? That you?"
      Brad stopped on the sixth step. "You're looking distracted, Father."
      "Well, I'm afraid something's come up. I'm going to have to give you a rain-check..."
      "You're the one who told me I needed the tutoring."
      Stephen snorted. "And you do. Just not today. And I really can't stay." He jogged down the stairs, brushing past the teen. When Brad didn't follow, Stephen turned and said, "I mean it, Brad. Out."
      Brad hopped down the stairs, hooking his thumb in the strap of his backpack. "Sure, Father."
      Stephen escorted him out, turned and locked the door, then strode out to the tree. His first thought was to try the parking lot, but one look at the people milling in and out and the rumble of cars assured him that there was nothing unusual there.
      "If I were an angel, where would I go?" he murmured, his eyes traveling across the vista and falling on the silent forest, leaves filtering the noon-sun. He started that way.
      Leaning against the brick wall of the building, Brad watched, perplexed, as Stephen strode across the field. Seeing the usually focused priest so distracted was decidedly strange... strange enough, he reasoned, that some investigation was in order. Brad waited until Stephen was halfway across the field, then stole after him.

***


      Mephistopheles tracked the angel all the way across the forest as the sun traveled inch by inch across the sky. He stopped when she stopped; walked when she walked, practically breathed in time with her. So deep was his attunement that when the grackle landed on his shoulder and pecked his clavicle, the Fallen angel almost tripped.
      "What is it?" he hissed at the bird, glancing around. A swatch of gray caught his eye: a set of distant buildings seen through the gaps in the underbrush. Dilapidated, worn paint dulled to the dusty gray-brown of clinging pollution adorned ill-used apartment buildings with a bleak aura. The angel was heading for them.
      "Curse it," Mephistopheles muttered. "We'll cut around her." The grackle cocked its head, then was off in a flutter of wings.
      Sliding through the underbrush proved more difficult near the human settlement. The brambles and shrubs were denser, as if the wood had grown more tangled in defense against those that pushed against its border... and perhaps it had. He was forced to detour around some particularly difficult areas, losing sight of the angel altogether. It felt like far too long before he pushed past the thorns of a particularly defiant bush and stopped for breath.
     The grackle swooped back into sight. It didn't land on his shoulder, but zipped to and fro before him.
      "What—all right, I'm coming!" He jogged to the west and stopped at the edge of the clearing, creeping forward to stand, still as a shadow, at a pine.
      She had folded down on the grass, onto her knees. She held the blanket clutched in her hand, covering her legs and breast, but her entire back was exposed from the nape of her neck to the slope of her buttocks.
      Mephistopheles had never seen wings so beautifully streamlined, lifting from her back with a grace that complimented the sublime arch of her spine and the fragility of her neck. His hand tightened on the trunk. Her pain was nearly unbearable; the only thing that held him back was the certain knowledge that the last thing on Earth an angel wanted to see was one of the Fallen. He dragged his gaze away with difficulty.
      There was a man on the edge of the clearing. A human. He wore jeans and a shabby gray shirt and a look of greed in his eyes that Mephistopheles had seen far too often in the worst of the damned. Greed... and a hint of madness.
      "Yes," he whispered.
      The angel gasped and lifted her head, twisting her tear-bathed face toward the human. "Who—"
      The human approached her, grinning, his eyes unfocused. "Yes."
      "Who are you?" she asked again, her clear voice quivering, like the broken surface of a pond. And then, as the man drew a knife, she shrieked.

***


     Asrial jerked away from the hand that grabbed for her, twisting as the knife came down toward her shoulder. The human's miasmic breath overwhelmed her as he lunged close, covering her back. Oh, her wings! He wanted to cut her wings! She looked wildly over her shoulder at him—
     —it twinkled, then erupted outwards into the length of a sword blade. The human sagged onto her as blood spattered her blanket. Petrified, Asrial slowly lifted her gaze to her benefactor.
     A hard and beautiful face with honeyed skin and long dark hair, strands of it falling over his open throat; intent amber eyes matched the embroidery on a dove-gray vest. A white linen blouse exposed part of his hairless chest, its lacing half-undone, and blood decorated the black leggings and boots. In one hand, the sword dripped crimson, in the other he held the body of her attacker, plucked from off her with every contempt... and behind him, wings a black so velvety the sun refused to enter them, even in the open clearing. As she stared, a slender black bird flew to his shoulder, mantling its glossy wings.
     "Beloved Name," Asrial whispered, backing away hastily. The stink of mortal blood rose in her nostrils. "Dear God!"
     The demon ignored her, tossing the body aside and then using the back of its shirt to clean his sword. He turned to her only when he was finished, and his voice was a baritone so mellifluous she stopped moving. "Did he hurt you?"
     "I...."
     The demon sheathed his sword and crouched. "Did he hurt you, Lady?" The bird on his shoulder turned a bright yellow eye on her. "I swear I'll kill him again if he did."
     "No... I... no. I am...no."
     His gaze was unwavering; she found herself comforted by its angelic steadiness, and disturbed that she could find anything about one of the Fallen comforting. His hands rose to his shoulders and unclipped a medallion there; moments later he offered her his black cloak. Asrial stared at it, unable to move.
     "For you," he said. When she didn't move, he went on, "Your blanket is blood-stained, Lady."
     Asrial tried, but she couldn't lift a hand. His presence was overpowering. She had never seen one of the Fallen before. She had expected... something else. Something obviously evil, or at least bitter. Not this knight with black wings and the lines of fatigue and sadness around his amber eyes. She blurted out the first words she could find in her mouth.
     "Who are you?"
     He paused, assessing her. Then said, "I am Mephistopheles."
     Asrial gasped.
     The demon's smile was lopsided. "I see you've heard of me."
     "You are the Great Betrayer's right hand, and a Prince of Hell!"
     "Not as pleasant as being an archangel, I'll admit, but I hear the competition in the Eighth Choir is rather rough nowadays."
Asrial's mouth dropped open. "How can you speak that way of the archangels!"
     Mephistopheles sighed. "I've known them much longer than you have, dear lady, if the color of your hair is any indication of your age. Now please, would you put on the cloak before the mortal blood dries on you?"
     She glanced down at the blanket, stained purple now, and shuddered. Lifting her eyes to the proffered cloak, she said, "I... I cannot take it."      "Because I have worn it?"
     Asrial looked away, somehow ashamed to admit it.
     His voice gentled. "Lady, my disgrace is not some disease that can be passed to you through my clothing."
     The mention of disease brought a choked sob to her throat. The absence of her two coverts throbbed in her right wing, a constant reminder. She turned from him.
     Asrial jerked away from his outstretched hand, wiping her eyes hastily and clenching the blanket against her breast. "Don't touch me!"
     The pain in his eyes startled her. She let her gaze drop and caught a twinkle of gold: one of her feathers was tucked into his belt, the one she'd dropped in her flight into the forest. "What are you doing with that? Give it back!"
     "I wouldn't dream of keeping it," Mephistopheles replied, his body growing stiff. He reached down to pluck the banded covert free.
     Father Stephen chose this moment to arrive, panting small puffs of white air.



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