Chapter 27  - 'Azreal Returned'


        Fiona had welcomed the return of her parents from their anniversary vacation. While under normal circumstances, she could only stand so much of her parents, after Miriam's invasion of her house, she was somewhat loath to be left alone. Of course, she'd told them nothing about the incident. How could she explain something like that? She reminded herself as she walked, that it was Christmas, and she should be spending it with her family. However, her parents were beginning to become more of an effort to deal with than she could stand. The Christmas-eve shopping trip had eventually dissolved into a row over spending and a tense car ride home. Miriam or no Miriam, she had to get out. Anyway, she wanted to see Jason again and find out how it had worked out with that Matthew fellow. He had a strange way about him, you couldn't deny it, but he was attractive. Jason had always drawn the attention of the more attractive crowd, even back in high school. Whether he'd known it or not, he had half of his class lusting after him-- and not just the girls either. Lucky Bastard.

        She found the wrought iron gate standing wide open. Unusual, since their security guard Paul was fairly obsessive compulsive about making sure it was closed properly. She looked to his gate house booth, and remembered that of course, the Parker's always gave him Christmas and the following few days off-- whether he wanted it or not.

        Her next shock was the gleaming fountain in the circular driveway. She marvelled at the androgynous figures, and at how the Parker's always seemed to have the best of tastes. She rang the doorbell and then stepped to the side of the door, prepared to surprise Jason when he opened it. When the thrill of her intended surprise eventually wore off, she stepped back in front of the door and tried the bell again. No answer. She tried the brass knocker, in case the bell wasn't working and waited for the sound of steps in the hall. The house was silent. Eerily silent. Their car was still there...

        Later, if asked, Fiona would have said that she couldn't explain it, but something just felt wrong. That was why she found herself trudging through the snow at the side of the house to reach the back door into the kitchen. Her careful pace turned to a mad run as she heard a scream and rounded the corner to find Mrs. Parker kneeling over a boy, lying in the snow. There were shards of broken glass all around, and the French windows looked like someone had been thrown through it. Her heart lurched in her chest when she saw the boy. 'Please not Jason!' she prayed silently. At the sound of her boots crunching in the snow, Elizabeth turned and looked up at her. A look of fear washed over her face, and then sudden relief.

        "Fiona," she gasped. "Help me. You have to help me stop the bleeding." She pressed her hands frantically over the boy’s chest.

        One look at the boy's face told Fiona both good and bad news. The boy wasn't Jason; it was his friend from college, Drew. But nor was their any point in stopping what little bleeding there might have still been. His face was pale and sallow, his lips blue, and his eyes staring openly up at the sky, a looked of surprised bewilderment frozen on his face.

        Elizabeth looked up at her in panic and shouted, "Fiona, help me!"

        Fiona set her hand gently on her shoulder, pulling her away from the boy. "Mrs. Parker, I'm sorry... I don't think there's any point."

        She looked franticly at the girl standing over her and then back at Drew's body. "No-- he... He was just here! I--"

        "Mrs. Parker, you need to come inside before you freeze. I'll call an ambulance, but it's too late for him. What happened here?"

        Elizabeth stood shakily. "Yes... yes, go inside. We need to go inside," she said, almost to herself. She wiped her hand absently down the front of her pants, leaving a long streak of blood. "Sara will know what to do. Sara will help." She passed in through the shattered French windows and then stood still in the middle of the kitchen. "Sara's not here though..." Fiona heard her say quietly. "Sara's trying to save Jason... Jason..." And then quite suddenly she collapsed, falling to the floor in a quivering mass.

        Fiona ran inside, almost slipping on a shard of glass that skidded across the floor under her foot, and snatched up the phone off of the marble counter. She punched in 911 and said hurriedly that they needed two ambulances and gave the address. "There's a woman who's just collapsed and a boy who's lost a lot of blood... I... I don't know if he's still alive."


* * *

        As Jason passed through the rip in the sky, he felt something tingling all across the surface of his body. His arms were raised before him, so that they were in view of his eyes. They were slowly darkening, as if his skin were being scorched. Swirling silver patterns rose out of his skin, winding across his flesh. Something pressed from underneath his forehead. Two curling spires, like Kudu horns grew upwards from his brow. His body drifted forwards again, and the clamor behind him grew steadily. He was rushing suddenly towards a mass of clouds in the distance. The closer he got though, the less like a cloud it seemed, and more like a blossoming palace made of alabaster, white marble and what, he suspected, could well have been clouds forced into shapes to make up walls and towers as well as the stone. It glistened and shone in the warm light of a morning sun. Fields of meadow grass and flowers stretched out for as far as he could see in all directions around the palace.

        He sank slowly downwards and his feet brushed the lush grass, before they settled firmly into the turf. Pain wracked his head and his eyes closed involuntarily. They opened slowly, as slits, but the scene before him was changed. The green fields were replaced with scorched earth. Pools of blood collected in the hollows of the land as it flowed from the thousands of bodies that littered the battlefield. Spears jammed into the earth bore the shattered bodies of angels, their arms, legs, and wings hanging limply in the dry air, fires smoldered in various places as ash fell heavily.

        A whisper like dry autumn leaves danced around his head. "Witness my glory-- the First War. Witness the prophecy of Azreal," it said.

        A scrap of fabric drifted past in a swirl of smoke and his hand snatched out to grab it. It was part of a red banner bearing a woven five-pointed gold star. It was stained with ash and blood. Great winged angels circled above, swooping down low over the field now and then to stab with a spear, or hack with a sword. Sounds of steel crashing and battle cries drew his attention back to the palace. The gleaming stone surface was marred by scorch-marks and holes where chunks of the walls had been blasted loose. Spiked iron cages covered the balconies and tall windows, barring entry through them. Far at the base, angels fought furiously in a pitched battle.

        His wings lifted him up, and he swooped out over the corpses. As he flew, his arms snapped out and yanked two standards free from the earth. One gleamed red with the gold pentagram, the other white with silver trim and eleven silver hoops twisted together in a crown. They flapped in the wind as he raced towards the fighting, snapping and whipping about like a pair of snakes. The ground underneath him lurched and shattered, splitting apart and racing before him, throwing chunks of earth into the air. It smashed into the side of the fighters, driving them apart. Like waves crashing against a pier, the mass split, and he rushed up between them until he was in the heat of the fighting. Mephistopheles stood nearby on his right, the stubs of four wings bandaged but still seeping blood protruding from his back as he twisted the fabric of the universe to deliver spells like physical blows against his enemies. The hulking mass of Beelzebub barrelled into a crowd of angels to the left. He was mindless to their weapons, which crashed futilely against his heavy armor. His four arms lashed out with blades and chains, cutting down his enemies. Directly in the center of the battle, a private war was being carried out. One hundred and forty-four wings whirled and flapped, creating a storm of wind around them. Lucifer stood in the middle of the circle, his crimson armor the only thing setting him apart from the other Ancients who's forms were clad in gleaming silver. His great red cape swirled around him, entangling weapons and flinging them aside like an extra appendage. From the gleaming spotless state of their armor, he could tell none of them had engaged anyone else in the battle. They'd been focused solely on their own fight. Lucifer wielded two blades of steel that blazed with white fire as he whirled them around his body, deftly catching blades and turning them aside while managing to avoid his own flapping wings. But he was clearly tiring. His moves were becoming more and more desperate as the effort of battling eleven opponents began to finally take its toll on his angelic body.

        Azreal rose above the twelve warring forms until he was visible from the entire battlefield. He began spinning rapidly, his dozen wings working to create a vortex of air. Blood from the battlefield was lifted into the air and whirled around him, staining his glistening wings a deep crimson. He pulled the air into his body and released it so that his voice bellowed out as a scream of rage that shattered the remaining windows of the palace and brought many of the lesser angels to their knees, clutching their ears in pain. The twelve below him paused in their conflict to look up at Azreal and he flung down the two standards he bore. They ploughed deep into the ground and stuck, one on either side of Lucifer.

        "Cease this!" He cried out, his voice echoing across the fields. "Are we no better than the savage beasts that wander the earth we have been entrusted with?" His wings beat loudly in the silence that followed his words. "The fighting shall cease this day-- but that you are saved is immaterial. What is important is that you know the source of your benefaction. I am Azreal. Let this day be marked down in our history forever as the end of the war. Lucifer, you shall take your followers and leave this place never to return. You remaining eleven shall let all who chose to follow him pass without incidence. The gates of Heaven will be opened to ALL but Lucifer and his consorts. Thus is my word of law. And thus is the prophecy I set upon you: 'If ever again the Council of Heaven is lead astray, I will return unto you in the guise of a mortal and be reborn into my form. And all those eyes that were blinded shall see once more.' Never forget this, for it is my death curse, and I will hold it true."

        Azreal flipped in the air and dived towards the ground below him. The twelve other ancients scattered to the sides as he plunged towards them. Energy crackled around his body and suddenly, he vanished leaving behind a circle of energy that blasted outwards, knocking the angels to the ground.


* * *

        Lucifer passed through the rift in the sky and alighted on the lush grasslands. He inhaled the fresh air deeply and sighed happily. Stepping forwards, he laid his hand on the black shoulder of Azreal. "I have awaited this day for a long time, old friend. It's good to be back."

        Azreal turned his head to look at the fallen angel, seeing the army of fallen angels and demons slipping through the break. He grasped Lucifer's hand with his own and firmly removed it. "You would do well to remember that I was not on your side, old friend."

        "I know," Lucifer answered passively. "But this time, we're both here for the same thing."

        Azreal rounded on him. He stood almost a foot and a half over the fallen angel. The silver markings on his body gleamed in the sunlight. Lucifer was clad in his same crimson armor he'd worn during the first war, his swords as yet remained sheathed. "If even a single blow falls before I am finished here, I swear to you, nothing will stand before my fury." He turned again to face the gleaming citadel in the distance. "Despite what you think, Lucifer," he said quietly. "Neither of us shall be staying long."

        Before the fallen angel could answer, he'd spread his twelve wings and leapt into the air, rushing towards the citadel.

        Mephistopheles and Beelzebub approached Lucifer from the sides. Beelzebub was the first to speak, "Can we count on him this time?"

        Mephistopheles shook his head. "If it is Azreal, and it certainly seems to be, then we can count on him only to do what he set out to do. Nothing more."

        They both looked to Lucifer. He calmly unfolded his wings from behind, letting the warm sun fall on his black feathers. "Assemble the army before the gates," and then, as if as an after thought, "No-one attacks until I say."



        Matt and his father blossomed out of the sky before the glistening gates to the citadel of Heaven. Matt dashed forwards and grasped the bars in his hands. He pulled hard on them, straining to pry them apart and gain access.

        "They've locked us out! Miriam must have gotten here before us!" He shouted.

        His father's gentle hand on his shoulder startled him. "No Matthew, they've locked THEM out."

        Matt turned to look over his shoulder. The rest of his body slowly followed suit. Lined out across the grasslands were thousands upon thousands of creatures. Incubi and succubi stood in silence, beside demons; imps that jittered in the grass; mechanical beings with wings and motors; and standing at the center of the army, the fallen angels.

        "Why couldn't we transport within the city?" Matt asked in growing panic. "We have to get a message to Ashley and Tobias to warn them that--"

        "That what?" His father looked up at the gleaming towers high above. "They already know the army is here. That's why we couldn't transport inside the gates. They've already lowered a shield enchantment on the citadel."

        Matt sent out a mental message for his sister, calling through the invisible barrier of the shield. A shower of silver sparks on the other side of the gate announced her arrival.

        She dashed forwards to the gate, stopping a few feet short so as not to hit the shield. "Matt, I'm sorry! We couldn't wait any longer-- we had to put the shield in place..." Her eyes wandered past his shoulder and she gasped quietly. "D-dad?" She ran at the barrier suddenly, her fist smashing into it as she cried out, "DAD!"

        Their father stepped forwards to meet her, smiling weakly. He slipped his hand between the bars and spread his palm out on the shield so that it faced her fist. Her clenched hand spread out to meet his, separated by barely an inch of magical energy. "They're shut inside just as much as we're shut out..."

        Matt grasped the bars in his hands as he faced his sister. "Ash, where's mom? Did Miriam get inside before the shield went up?"

        She dragged her eyes off of her father finally to meet his. "N-n-no. No-one... no-one's come or gone since we spotted the army."

        A gust of rushing wind and the sound of wings flapping warned them of the approach of angels. Matt and his father turned to see a flurry of black wings racing towards them at the gate. Matt heard the clink of metal above them and he looked up. Thousands of angels suddenly rose up from where they'd been concealed behind the walls as even more took to the air. Many carried bows and crossbows, which they aimed though the shield at the growing form of Lucifer. The fallen angel rushed at them, blades drawn as his multitude of wings whipped the air into a storm before him. Matt could already make out the tiny lines of his nearing face when something massive and red and black fell out of the sky before them.

        Azreal crouched where he'd landed, his head bowed, hands held out together before him and wings unfurled like sails behind him. Lucifer was caught by the sudden release of energy from his palms and was flung up into the air only to come crashing down some distance away. Mephistopheles and Beelzebub were at his side in a flash, helping their leader to his feet.

        Azreal remained crouched, the air before his hands rippling slightly as if in a heat haze. He raised his head, red pupils blazing with tiny fire. On the palm of each hand glinted a silver sigil—a jagged circle like a sun with a dot in the center, and a blazed line piercing the circle. "I gave you fair warning Lucifer." He hissed, his voice travelling across the prairie like an arrow. "These two bear my protection."

        Matt felt something tingling on his neck, just under his Adam’s apple in the groove between his collarbones. He glanced at his father and saw a shimmering rune in the same spot on his neck.

        The being before them had until now been obscured by his numerous wings, but it now stood with slow grace. It kept rising higher and higher until it stood over him, his head just coming to its shoulder. It turned to face the gates and Matt cried out, drawing Azreal's gaze to him.


        And yet, Matt knew already that it wasn't. It was Jason's body and face, but now a tar black save for where the silver runes gleamed on his body. Even his hair was the color of pitch. He recognized him as the thirteenth Ancient from the memory the pattern had provided him with.

        Azreal looked at him curiously and then raised his hand, as if waving off a gnat. An invisible force caught Matt and gently, but forcibly moved him to the side of the gates and out of the way. This left only his father standing between Azreal and his goal.

        They stared at each other across the few feet of grass that separated them, a flash of recognition of power and aims visible for just a moment in their eyes. Azreal's lips parted slightly to say something, but Matthew's father bowed silently and stepped sideways, granting him access.

        The Ancient strode forwards and then raised his hands on either side. Red lightning shot out from his palms blasting into the shield around the citadel. The enchantment took on a solid form for all to see, like a great glass dome protecting those inside. It rippled visibly under the force of the energy and then burst apart. Flecks of snow-like dust rained down on those gathered. With a roar, Lucifer's forces launched themselves into a headlong rush at the alabaster walls that still encircled the city.


* * *

        As the shield collapsed above them, the forces Heaven that had been gathering rushed out over the alabaster walls that encircled the city. The entire population of Heaven save for a few swooped across the grasslands towards onrushing army. Tobias lead a contingent of angels straight for Lucifer and his fallen angels, intent on engaging them before they could wreak too much havoc. Lucifer's swords blazed with black fire as he readied himself to face their attack. Beelzebub tightened his muscles until he was a powerhouse of brutal force waiting to be unleashed, and behind him, Mephistopheles' hands burned with black fire and his mouth moved rapidly, muttering incantations as quickly as he could. Tobias headed for him, his own hands reaching out before him as they glowed with searing white light. Lucifer had barely raised his sword to strike the first angel from the air when he felt a sudden pull of energy.

        Like the ebb of a tide, the matter of the world itself was dragged inwards. Time slowed to a crawl and then lines of energy shot like snakes towards Azreal. They wove between warriors on both sides, frozen in place, ready to strike one another down. The bands of energy wove faster and faster towards him until they shot into the ground below him.

        There was no explosion. No sudden flash of light. Just a massive and unstoppable force that rocked outwards from him in an expanding ring. Every being, inside the citadel or out was blown off of their feet and sent crashing to the ground again.

        Azreal visibly quaked with rage. The sole figure standing in a circle of bowled over bodies. It seemed as if the air itself has been blown away, as his voice could be heard by even the most distant angel or demon, and yet he barely raised his voice. It trembled with fierce emotion, but he held it at a low volume.

        "How DARE you!" His rage was an almost palpable force against the armies. "I left you with my death oath that no more blood would be spilled in heaven. I *warned* you that if ever again the Council of Heaven was lead astray, I would return to you. I *warned* you Lucifer, that you and your followers were never to set foot in Heaven again." He swept his burning gaze across them all as they struggled to their feet. Those that raised their weapons again found the blades dulled and buckled until they were useless. "But I gave specific instruction to Heaven that was not carried out. By my order, these gates were to be opened to ALL save Lucifer's followers. And yet even after all these years, the gates have stood closed to all but the angelic. Not only this, but I return to find corruption rife in the pristine halls. And as if to add insult to injury, the truth of our history has been replaced with a shamble of lies you teach to your children. At least Lucifer has always set out the truth of our past before his followers. The same cannot be said for the ruling members of Heaven. Your blind lies have caused blind meddling in the matters of the earth. It was our duty to protect them from outside influence and watch over them-- and here you yourselves have interfered."

        He paused in his tirade to sweep his eyes over them all once more. "I realize where I was at fault those many years ago. I should have left nothing up to you. You have failed your wards in every way and not held to a single task I set to you. Heaven should need no ruling council. For there should be no need for power in our white halls of paradise--"

        "No!" Someone screamed. "You can't do that!"

        Miriam had found her way blocked into the city when the shield came down, but she'd remained hidden outside the walls and watched Matthew and his father find their way blocked as well. She'd seen the whole scene play out from the safety of a camouflaging enchantment. But the blast from Azreal had shredded it from her form. She'd struggled to her feet to hear what he'd had to say, but she could take it no longer.

        Screaming her refusal, she ran at him. She was the Chancellor of Heaven, not him. Only she could make such decisions. The council was just a formality. But no-one could unseat her from the throne she'd worked so hard to gain. She threw herself towards him, intent of strangling the life out of him. As she neared, she recognized the altered face of the boy that had caused her so much trouble. She knew he was a fraud now. He was no Ancient angel or powerful being. Just a child run astray. Finally she could set him in his place. Finally she could expose him to all of Heaven that he was a fake and they would have no choice but to hand her absolute power out of their admiration and respect. After all, no-one else had seen through the illusion. She was rewarded with a deep sense of satisfied when his black eyes reverted to their shining blue, tinged with fear.

        And indeed they were.

        As Miriam darted towards him, Azreal felt a twinge of hate from the boy whose body he inhabited. He quickly sifted through his memories to see what she'd done to him, before diving deep within his being.

        Jason had been waiting for him at their shared core. The boy had looked on him with fear and awe. He'd taken his hand and whispered in his ear that now was his time for revenge. And without another thought, Azreal had dragged Jason back to the conscious part of his mind and set the reigns of their shared body in his hands. He felt Jason's fear of the woman as she rushed towards him and he used his presence to soothe him. His whispers were like thoughts to the boy, instructing him that she couldn't harm him, but now was his chance to eke out a revenge for all the suffering she'd caused him.

        So the fear that Miriam saw in his eyes, was for the being that he now shared his body with. But as Azreal coerced him and soothed him, he ceased to fear him and turned his attention on her. His hands snapped out as she dived for him and caught her on either side of the head. He pushed downwards, forcing her to crash to the ground on her knees.

        Something he'd heard Matt say long ago came floating back to him. He couldn't be sure if Azreal had caused it to surface, or if it came back on it's on, but he remembered standing in the safe-house, eves-dropping as Matt talked to professor Wolf:

        '"I can touch upon his thoughts, but they don't stay still. They move too fast to focus upon them and then they change. His mind is like... imagine a trumpet vine, every year it grows and expands, and every summer it blossoms, with more flowers with each passing year. Now imagine that it's continually in bloom as it grows. If you took a hundred years of growth and sped it up into a few seconds, you might have a small portion of his mind for a few moments."'

        Jason leaned in close, peering into her eyes. "Welcome to my world, you bitch."

        A spark of energy lanced out into the space between them. It hung in the air momentarily, before zigzagging and slamming into Miriam's forehead. The force of it knocked her backwards out of his grip and she hung in the air, half-thrown back, the bolt of energy still flowing between them. A high-pitched wailing filled the air and it took him a moment to realize it was coming from her throat. Her eyes rolled back into her head and her body began to convulse.

        Jason felt Azreal push him back down into the core of his being as his body was once more usurped. The Ancient severed the connection between his mind and Miriam's. She fell backwards into the grass and lay there, staring up at the clouds above her, her eyes seeing nothing as her mind struggled to deal with the brief exposure to the combined mind of Jason and Azreal.


* * *

        Once more in possession of the boy's body, Azreal stepped towards the polished gates. He raised his palms before his face and muttered quickly. The glyphs on his hands darkened until they were the same color as his skin. They bubbled and then the flesh burst, oozing blood. It trickled down his wrists as he reached to his neck and carefully lifted the key and chain off of his head. His blood spilled down onto the crystal, coating it and turning the white luminescence to a dark red glow. The gates seemed to bend away from the key, as if trying to escape it. Azreal forced his hand forwards as a spider web of energy lines crackled before him, centering on the key. The blood still dripping from his hands took on a life of it's own as it wound outwards in rivulets to meet the web. It hissed loudly and then suddenly his hand shot forwards, delivering the key into the lock. He turned it once and then reached out and grasped one half of the gate in each hand. Red flames licked out from the wounds on his hands until both halves of the metal portal were wreathed in fire. He tore them loose, ripping them from their sockets in the walls and flinging them out across the grasslands.

        A gentle hum filled the air that grew and grew like the sound of a swarm of locusts. The very earth vibrated underneath his feet and then the first of them breached the rift he'd torn in the sky from one world into another.

        It was a spirit. The soul of a dead human. Moving too fast to retain its form, it raced towards the opened gate like a streak of gossamer light. More followed it, a slow trickle of souls at first which soon became a raging river as the billions upon billions of souls that had been in Hell-- the Land of the Dead-- were drawn upwards through the tear he'd ripped in the red sky there, across the globe along the same path he'd taken, to the rift in the blue sky. As they rushed into Heaven, they slowed, taking on the bodies they remembered in life. With every soul that set foot within the gates, it expanded to accommodate them, growing larger and larger so that there was no press for space within.

        Azreal swept his arm across the prairie he'd averted from becoming a battlefield again. The mechanical beings crumbled and broke down, the spirits that had locked themselves inside the metal set loose to mingle with the rush of souls through the gates. The ground underneath the demons and imps bulged alarmingly and then bubbled up around them, swallowing them and then falling flat again, depositing them neatly back in Hell. The plane there, now released from the stress of holding up under so many trillions of souls shrunk rapidly, healing over its fiery scars.

        He turned to the angels who watched in awe, the stream of souls flow into Heaven. "From this point on, ALL souls will be welcomed into paradise regardless of their nature or their transgressions while they were alive. It is not our place to judge them. No mortal being has the right to judge another."

        Lucifer dashed into the rushing torrent of souls. He was soon caught up and buffeted about until he was flung through the gates. He sunk heavily to the ground on the other side, hands digging into the earth. He tore up handfuls of it and brought it to his nose, inhaling the scent. A happy sigh escaped his lips. His hands fell to his sides and he let the earth slip from his fingers. He sat back on his haunches and looked up at the brilliant blue sky.

        A ray of light tore down through the clouds, swirling the mists around it as it descended upon the fallen angel. He let his wings stretch out in the warm light and laughed joyfully as he felt them changing. The blackened feathers paled until they gleamed like pearls. His body took on a glistening sheen, as if his skin were turning to gold. He said something as his image blurred and then disappeared. It carried on the winds to where Azreal stood. "I'm coming home my sweet siblings. I'm coming home to you."

        Mephistopheles edged closer to the gates, wary of being caught by the tumult of souls still spilling through. He peered around the edge of the alabaster wall and a wistful expression washed over his face.

        Beelzebub made his way over to stare through it as well. He laid a heavy hand on the smaller fallen angel's shoulder. "You don't want to go, do you?"

        "I won't stop you if you wish to..." Mephistopheles said quietly to him.

        "My place is beside you. I shan't be leaving until you do."

        Mephistopheles looked up at him and smiled. He turned to Azreal and bowed low. "With your permission, I would like to stay and see how this all plays out... Hell will need sorting out, and I think Heaven will be changing too. I want to see what happens before I move on."

        Azreal bowed his head in acknowledgment. "Your fate is, as ever, your own. He looked to the hulking fallen angel behind Mephistopheles.

        Beelzebub shook his head. "As long as he stays, so shall I." He smiled shyly, belaying his fierce exterior.

        "Ah," Azreal noticed the position of the fallen angel's hand and smiled. "I understand. Let the other fallen angels know that the pardon is universal-- if they wish to move on, they need but enter Heaven." He pivoted and strode towards the gate himself. As he passed Matthew, his features flickered for a moment and he came to a halt. "Take the rest of the angels to the second pattern within the mountain. They'll see the same truth you saw."

        Matt looked at him, but his eyes kept darting to the river of souls that still flowed into Heaven. Miriam's groan drew both their attention to where she lay on the ground. Matthew's father was already by her side, gently lifting her to her feet. Matt looked at his parents in confusion. "But dad..." he started, "she locked you up... she... she tried to kill me and Ash... I..."

        "Her mind was already slipping into madness. I'm afraid the contact with my mind shattered what little of her sanity she had left." Azreal apologized.

        Matt's father looked at him sadly. "We won't be staying here. It was my time to leave long ago-- and she can't stay here in her state."

        Tobias came forwards and helped him support the ex-chancellor. "I too have reached the end of my time here. I'd like to move on as well--"

        "But dad!" Ashley ran forwards. "Dad we've just got you back... you can't leave now... not... not now." Tears brimmed in her eyes.

        Her father smiled weakly at her, "I wish I had been here to see you grow up... but I can't stay now. Azreal has achieved what I attempted to do before your mother trapped me. I know that as soon as I step through those gates, I will pass from this plane. Your mother and Tobias shall go with me. Watch over your brother. He won't be staying either I think, but for different reasons."

        Ashley looked confusedly at her brother.

        The two elder angels moved forwards, carrying Miriam between them. They took several steps inside the gateway, before lances of light spilled down upon them. After a few seconds of translucence, they faded entirely from view.

        Ashley gave a quiet sob, but stayed by Matt's side as he wrapped one arm around her.

        Azreal moved towards the gates too, and Matt reached out his free hand. He stopped short as the Ancient halted. Without turning, he spoke softly. "Find Jason wherever he comes to rest. The fall from grace is a terrible journey." He paused, and then continued, "His friend, Drew, died at the hands of Damien. You'll know what to do when the time comes."

        And before Matthew could say another word, Azreal propelled himself through the gates with his wings. He landed on his feet several paces within. Light cascaded down around him, setting his form gleaming. The ground beneath him fell away suddenly, and Jason's face looked at Matt in surprise for a moment. The angel lunged to reach him, but he was already falling. Matt's grasping hands were met by hard turf as the earth sealed up.


* * *

        Jason saw the earth seal together again above his head, and then rise sharply upwards, away from him. A cloud rose up around him, blocking it from further view. Another puffy mass of condensation rose past him. He held out his arms and saw the black tones of his skin seeping away from his hands, retreating up his arms. There was a rustling from behind him and he felt the twelve wings drawing into his body and melting away.

        A gust of whistling wind caught him and he tumbled in the air. Wind rushed past his face as he passed through cloud after cloud. He'd just started to wonder where he was, if he was where the other angels had gone when he fell through a break in the clouds and the world was suddenly spread out beneath him like a blanket in minute detail. Detail that was slowly growing larger and larger. Wind whistled past his ears and his heart felt like it was trying to climb out of his throat. He was caught by another gust of wind and his body flipped twice.

        When he'd turned over again, he could already see his house far below and off to one side. Two ambulances were parked in the driveway and two stretchers rushed out of the house, people desperately trying to resuscitate one of the forms.

        He briefly considered screaming as the ground rushed up to meet him-- but what was the point? It wouldn't stop his fall. And he doubted anyone could save him at this point. The ground suddenly looked much more solid and unforgiving. Maybe he'd scream anyway. He opened his mouth-- too late.

        His body his the ground with a sickening crunch.


* * *

        Sara waited pensively in her headquarters for any information to come through. Her entire base had been mobilized-- and so far for nothing. She'd expected fire and brimstone to hail down on them, or rifts between worlds to open up to allow fighting to spill through. But it had been hours now since she'd last heard from either Antioch or her mysterious companion. She paced back and forth, Scott standing near the window overlooking the base, tapping his foot impatiently. A bright light from the far side of the room simultaneously drew their attention.

        "What's going on?" Sara immediately demanded. "Why haven't we been sent anywhere?"

        "Be thankful child," the robed figure said patiently. His hood was down, and his face kept flickering through various faces. As if realizing how distracting it's appearance was, it pulled up its hood tightly. "Things went far better than even I could ever have hoped."

        "What's that supposed to mean?" Scott asked.

        "It means my boy, that your world need not worry any longer. Azreal has performed his duty and opened the gates of Heaven to the dead. Hell has been restored to the demons and war has been averted."

        Sarah stepped forwards. "And what about Jason? What did Damien do to Jason?!"

        The hood rounded on her. "Damien has finally met his end. Jason killed him with the help of Azreal. You may want to contact Antioch and pass along the good news. Although they'll have some trouble explaining what happened on every satellite image and radar from here to China. Perhaps a meteor shower interfering with the satellites?"

        "What about my brother!" She demanded.

        Sarah could feel the pair of eyes deep within the hood fix upon her. "Azreal finished with him. I'm sure he's off lying in some field somewhere."