A Rosary of Stones and Thorns, by M.C.A. Hogarth, is a serialized novel appearing once a week. This is a work of fiction and not intended as serious religious commentary. The first chapters can be read here.
Chapter 17, Part 2
Michael’s chin jerked up at the smooth, quiet baritone. Two of the Fallen swayed aside, their surprise chasing shadows across their eyes. Lucifer stepped into the corridor between the two armies, his cloak flaring around his ankles.
He stopped. “Michael. It is not too late to stay this thing.”
“You’re wrong. It’s been too late since the day you walked out of Shamayim.”
Lucifer’s wings pressed tightly against his back, the panels of the cloak fluttering between them as he took a deep breath. “Michael. Please. Can we talk somewhere? Before we spill blood like wine and honey?”
“The time for talk is done,” Michael said. “You have your choices. Fight me and mine and fall to the Wind for it, or submit your life to me and give your people a chance to repent.”
Lucifer said, “And Hell? What of the human souls there? And the ones to come?”
Michael did not pause, feathers arching. “This is not about human souls.”
Lucifer grimaced and looked down, one hand tightening into a fist. “You’re right.” He lifted his hand to his chest and his gaze to Michael’s. “They are no more than the casualties of a greater fight, aren’t they? One that has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with us.”
The slap that twisted Lucifer’s face to the side had an almost desperately casual air; likewise Michael’s voice, trembling on the edge of madness. “Make your choice!”
Chris squirmed out from between the ranks of the angels, abandoning the horse and Asrial at the sight of the tableau. “Don’t do it!”
“Be silent, human.”
“Lucifer, don’t let him do it!” Chris said, lunging forward only to be grabbed by two guards. “Don’t let him destroy himself this way!”
Lucifer met her gaze. She’d never seen such tremendous wings, such unreadable eyes. She saw nothing but herself in that silver. Lucifer looked over his shoulder at the rows of his Fallen, less than six hundred strong, then let his gaze drift over the thousands of angels standing behind Michael. The sunlight touched on the gleam of black cord at his neck.
He drew his sword and tossed it away. In utter silence, he went to one knee before the Champion of God and bowed his head, wings spread to expose his back.
“I see there is some scrap of nobility left in you,” Michael said. “You have earned those who followed you out of God’s Grace a chance to repudiate you and return to Heaven. For you, however, there is no return. No admission of guilt would be enough to expiate your sins.”
“Michael, no!” Chris cried.
“It will be enough to begin with an explanation of how low you have Fallen,” Michael said, voice rising, shaking. “Let it be seen by all that the Great Betrayer has given himself unto me for judgment!”
Asrial did not need to push her way through the ranks of the Ninth Choir to reach Chris’s side. All of them remembered her, and her single glance caused the guards to release the human and back away. Asrial walked forth from among them to stand between the armies.
“You,” Michael said, eyes widening.
Asrial lifted her head. “I bear witness to you again. One day you will have need of the memories of the things I have seen you do.”
Michael’s lip curled, hands clenching. “Will I? You will share his fate if you do not walk carefully.”
Chris’s voice barely carried. “Please, Michael. Don’t do this. Look at him. Look at him.”
The Archangel’s hand snapped through the air and Lucifer rocked to the side, a welt springing up on his cheek. He did not resist the boot that cracked one of his ribs, or the hand that jerked him back to his knees by his hair. For a few blows, there was tension in his shoulders… but when a particularly harsh kick met his chest, he relaxed with an exhalation like a prayer.
His lieutenants started forth, but Lucifer held out a hand, his voice hoarse. “Let him. I buy… safety… thus.”
“Yes,” Michael said, panting from the exertion, sweat running the length of his arms. “Listen to your wayward master. Do not interfere.”
And then the only sounds that marred the silence were the thick wet sounds of fist against flesh, the subtle cracks of breaking bones. The Fallen were rigid witnesses, and even the angels shifted uncomfortably as their leader grew more and more violent against his victim. Chris hid her face in Asrial’s shoulder.
A shadow skimmed over the earth of the field; Asrial glanced at the sky to see tail feathers of iridescent black. Startled, she glanced toward the south.
The beating of hooves against the earth heralded the arrival of three steeds, red, white and black. Mephistopheles launched himself from the back of the white one, sword screeching free of its scabbard.
“Stop it, you bastard!”
Michael rocked back and drew his own sword, planting it against the last vertebra of Lucifer’s neck. “One more step and the Wind will take him.”
Mephistopheles stumbled to a halt, wings spread and eyes wild. Behind him, Stephen, Brad and Marie stared from the backs of the horses of the Apocalypse.
“He gave himself to me,” Michael hissed. “He did not resist!”
“It’s true,” a pain-wet sound. Lucifer lifted his head, a thin line of black blood tracing one cheekbone.
Mephistopheles met his liege-lord’s eyes and a soft, agonized sound escaped his tight throat.
Michael shoved his sword into its sheath. Turning his back on the newcomers, he waved a hand. “You may speak to him, if you wish. It will be over soon enough.”
Mephistopheles wasted no time. He sprinted to the broken body and skidded to his knees. “My lord!” Trying to find a place on Lucifer’s body that didn’t bleed or cave beneath the skin proved difficult, and Mephistopheles settled for a hand to the slick shoulder. “Oh, my lord, we tried. We tried.”
“Sssh,” Lucifer whispered. “Do not despair. Michael himself has had a hand in our salvation.”
Mephistopheles brought the cold hand to his lips and kissed the bloody fingers, wings so tightly folded they trembled.
Stephen sidled past the seething Archangel, avoiding him. “Asrial!”
“Stephen,” Asrial murmured. She touched his arm, the other still folded around Chris. “You came home.”
“We went to Heaven, looking for a way… but it’s not in our hands anymore.”
“Was it ever?”
Marie hugged her mother as Michael talked with the captain of the angelic legions. The air had thickened enough to distort the sun’s clear rays, and Stephen frowned at the haze that obscured the nearby trees.
Brad whispered, “Asrial, you look… pretty good. You feel okay?”
Asrial glanced at the demon hunched over the body of his liege-lord, then at the rigid back of the Archangel and the equally wooden bodies of the angels of the Eighth and Ninth Choirs. Turning her eyes back to Brad, she said quietly, “No, Brad. I do not.”
Michael finished his conversation and strode past Lucifer and Mephistopheles to face the host of Hell.
“Now. It is time for you to return to God’s breast. All you need do is give up your ill-born righteousness. Seek in your hearts the humility that God adores and turn your backs on Hell and the one who betrayed you into sin and damnation. Who will be the first?”
The silence that immediately followed Michael’s last ringing word was the expected pause separating speakers. The pause that followed it might have been interpreted as uncertainty, or fear.
But it lasted far longer than that. The last ray of the falling sun painted the shadow of the archangel across the princes, guards and Fallen of Hell, but none stepped forth.
Mephistopheles glanced up from his vigil at Lucifer’s side, brows lifting.
The archangel raked the serried rows of dark-winged angels with a glower. “Do not be afraid. God will welcome any of you back who chooses to repent.”
Still they held fast.
Marie slipped one hand into Brad’s and the other into her mother’s.
One of the princes stepped forward, sword gripped tightly in one hand. His wings arched on either side of him as, very calmly, he spit at Michael’s feet.
A ruddy flush suffused Michael’s face from cheeks to throat. “So be it.” He turned away from them and stalked back to the host as the other archangels took his place, grim of face and swords drawn. The haze surrounding the edges of the field thickened.
Stephen grabbed Asrial’s arm, glancing from the haze to the armies. “Come on. Quickly!”
Chris darted away just as the lines broke and rushed for one another, dragging Marie after her.
“Mephistopheles!” Asrial called, holding out a hand even as the priest looped an arm around her waist and pulled her bodily away.
“He can take care of himself!”
“Stephen, let me go—“
“Dammit, Asrial! It’s too late! We can’t stop it now!”
Asrial struggled against the priest’s grasp, the long sleeves fouling her arms as the armies met like tides across a bar of sand. Spears and swords tore away shards of the failing light, but the waking stars refused to nestle in the scythes of the hosts as they fought. The fog obscuring the field’s edges smeared away the trees, and Asrial tried in vain to separate the Fallen from those in Grace. She strained against the flesh that checked her, unaware of the tears that streamed over her chin and down her throat.
The exact time when Stephen’s grasp became an embrace was as indistinct as the time when the dusk gave way to the night. Asrial pressed her cheek to the priest’s stubble-lined jaw, blocking out the sounds of the battle and quivering.
Marie asked, “Where are they?”
“It’s been at least an hour,” Brad said, holding her tightly. “They would have come out by now.”
“Why….” Chris swallowed. “Why aren’t they all dead yet?” She forced herself to watch the writhing forsaken by the vespertine starlight.
“My guess is that they have some small advantage,” Stephen said, voice rough. “Hell is harder on angels than Earth or Heaven. It’s like… like they’re fighting in lighter gravity, while the angels have to fight in heavier. It makes them faster.”
“Not fast enough,” Chris said, shuddering.
“My question is why we’re not dead yet,” Brad said. “Isn’t this supposed to be the end of Earth?”
Stephen’s eyes swept the edges of the field, marking the preternaturally thick mist concealing the trees and the campus. “I don’t know.”
The grackle landed on the branch above the tree that sheltered them. It turned a bright yellow bead of an eye on the proceedings.
Someone paid for today! So I have reset the counter for a Saturday episode. We are now most of the way through Chapter 17, but there’s more to come…
By the way, did I mention that the Apocalypse happens in this book? -_-
Here is the Top Webfiction voting booth, for those so minded. Also, the counter.