“The mind is its own place, and in itself, / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, ll 249-55
Uriel sat back in his chair as Doll bounced into the room with the tea tray. Perhaps someday he would discover how she managed that without rattling a single saucer; for the time being he only accepted the cup she poured him with absent thanks, mind still occupied with a different mystery.
“Mm?” Uriel turned his attention back to her.
“It’s time to wind me up again,” she told him, brightly, removing her key from its place on her necklace and offering it.
“Doll,” Uriel told her, a little amused, “you can do that for yourself, now.”
Doll nibbled her lip and glanced down, and then back up at him from under her lashes. Uriel stifled a sigh. She really had a remarkable instinct for how to get around him. Her determination on her own way of doing things reminded him strongly of his old second among the Dominions, though their tactics couldn’t be more different.
“All right, then.” He accepted the key and opened the panel in Doll’s stomach as she tucked her blouse up modestly. “There,” he said, gently, as he finished. He couldn’t help but return the brilliant smile she gave him.
“What are you working on?” she asked, picking up her own tea.
A slightly different blend than his, to be sure; she was still a creature of Yggdrasil, after all.
“Is that,” she tipped her head, frowning at the bright lines and curves hovering over the table, “…Heaven?”
Uriel had come more and more to believe that Doll must have been an angel of rank before her death. For her to recognize this schematic view only confirmed it.
“In a way,” he agreed. “And also not. You remember that the hells were cut loose and driven into the heavens in this last war?”
She nodded, still frowning at the image.
“This is what’s happened since. Some reaction occurred between the two, and the planes have been merging into each other.” Uriel paused a moment, contemplating the image himself. “Or, perhaps I should say, they are merging into something else.”
“Yes,” Doll murmured, one fingertip tracing lines here and there. “This isn’t how it used to be.”
“It’s causing a certain amount of consternation.” Uriel tried to keep his expression from being too pleased, but wasn’t sure he succeeded judging by the way Doll suddenly grinned at him. He cleared his throat. “The land is… refracting. Structures are appearing that aren’t quite like anything ever created in either Heaven or Hell, and they seem remarkably resistant to being changed. I don’t know who first started calling the new area Abe, but it’s very fitting. The land grows like a living thing.” He hesitated. “What I was looking at today,” he continued, slowly, “was the connection that seems to be developing between Abe and Yggdrasil.”
Doll blinked at him. “They’re… touching?” she asked in a startled tone. He couldn’t blame her; it was a rather unusual development. The heavens had always refused the touch of the World Tree, before.
“Yes. There seems to be a place where they’re growing together. I think it may be the new connection between realms, the way our worlds are stabilizing themselves after the old connections were cut.” He smiled at Doll. “It does mean you could come with me, when I go there.”
She looked up at him, solemnly. “Do you want to go back, Master?”
“Back to my old place? No.” Uriel stared, unseeing, at the table in front of him. “I’ll never give either angels or demons the power of my voice again. And the order of Dominions… I have no place with them anymore.” Though he did sometimes wonder whether Ara-san had survived or not. He hadn’t seen his old second during the recent conflict, but that didn’t really mean anything. Though she was the sort to rise to prominence wherever she went. But, perhaps… He shook off the dark reflections as well as he could.
A slight weight settled against him, and he looked down, surprised, to see Doll’s head resting on his shoulder.
“It will be nice to be able to stay with you,” she offered.
Uriel smiled a little, and stroked her hair. “Yes,” he agreed. “It will.”
The windows of Lucifer’s growing city occurred in strange places sometimes. Belial liked it. Especially the ones with deep ledges set just above head height, that allowed someone to perch in them unobtrusively and enjoy the view both inside and out. At the moment the view inside was more interesting. Outside offered the architecture characteristic of all Abe’s cities, glass and stone, odd trees, towers with doors halfway up, fountains in the middle of stairways.
Inside, Astaroth was waving a knife around his own throat. And, while Belial did make a small hobby of watching the city and attempting to catch new parts coming into being, Astaroth’s current performance was moving along at a much more riveting pace.
Belial had heard people say that they would go mad if they had to attend some boring meeting or other for another minute, but had never seen it actually happen before. Astaroth seemed to have been set off by Lucifer’s mention that Uriel had begun to receive the souls of demons. It was a bit difficult to tell for sure, of course, given the incoherence with which Astaroth was shouting about oblivion and the destruction of souls.
“You want to follow her?” Lucifer asked, at last, from where he leaned in one of the archways.
Astaroth turned somewhat wild eyes on him.
“Then you might not want to do it that way,” their lord continued, nodding at the knife. “Self-destruction was always a touchy issue, you may recall.”
Astaroth inhaled, sharply. “You believe His strictures will still bind us?” he asked, voice thin.
Lucifer shrugged one shoulder. “Some parts still seem to hold. Others have crumbled. Who knows?”
“I don’t care!” Astaroth proclaimed, voice spiraling up again. “If it isn’t broken already, I’ll break it!” He raised the knife again.
Lucifer ran a hand through his hair, and Belial smiled, imagining his silent sigh.
Belial shivered. That was the voice that none of them could ignore and few of them could defy; Lucifer didn’t use it very often. It struck Astaroth silent and still, now.
“Come here,” Lucifer said, more quietly, pushing off from the wall and beckoning.
Hope flared in Astaroth’s eyes, strange to see there. He laid the knife in Lucifer’s hand and sank to the floor at his feet, hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. “Majesty… my Lord…” he whispered.
The ironic quirk of Lucifer’s lips told Belial that he was reflecting on the rarity of such heartfelt respect from one of the Satans. “Good luck finding your other self, Astaroth,” he murmured. “And better luck next time.”
The knife slid into Astaroth without drama or flourish, and he collapsed remarkably quietly for someone, in Belial’s opinion, so given to histrionics. Se slid down from the window ledge.
“And so passes the last of us who kept any significant following among the demons of middling power,” se noted, sweeping a mocking bow to Beelzebub and Leviathan and rising to face Lucifer. “Which leaves a significant number at loose ends, now. Do you wish them to be contained or killed?”
Lucifer’s cool look gave nothing away. “The ones with enough ambition or hatred to make trouble are engaged with the splinters of the Host still concerned with fighting us instead of each other. They’re a self-solving problem.”
“Problem?” Beelzebub repeated, softly. “Is it no longer your intention to defeat the Host? Majesty.”
Lucifer actually laughed out loud. “What Host?” he asked. “Two thirds of everyone is dead, the Orders are in chaos, even the ones that still have their leaders, and the Anima Mundi, the only credible threat, shows no particular interest in us one way or another.”
“And Michael?” Leviathan rumbled.
Belial edged discreetly back, so as to be out of the potential line of fire.
“Michael will come to me, if he comes,” Lucifer noted. “What are you worried for?”
“I worry for your future plans,” Leviathan answered, bluntly. “We have followed you because you hated Heaven more than any of us, enough to lead us back and destroy those who cast us out. Will you turn away from that now, Majesty?”
Lucifer looked deeply amused. “You followed me because you weren’t strong enough to replace me, even with my soul gone,” he corrected with brutal truth. “And the one who cast us out is destroyed. Further vendetta is a waste of time when we could be enjoying our return already. If you two are so taken with the idea of spitting on our exile, you could always look into taking over your old order. The seraphim are without a leader, after all.”
Belial had to bite hir lip at the long look Beelzebub and Leviathan shared, and the way they carefully didn’t say anything to each other as they left. Once they were out the door, se indulged in a good laugh.
Lucifer raised a brow at hir.
“One bows to your brilliance, my lord,” Belial declaimed, suiting action to word. “One can think of few things more appealing to their grudge than that. And ruling the Order of Seraphim would, of course, require them to deal once again with angels as their own people.”
“I suppose it will,” Lucifer agreed. “Hopefully they’ll also be too busy watching each other to attack me.” His look turned serious. “Or you, which is a more likely first step. Watch yourself, butterfly.”
“Life would be boring without these little challenges,” Belial said, airily.
Exasperation edged into Lucifer’s expression, and Belial laughed up at him.
“One is careful, my lord. With such destructive associates, it doesn’t do to ever be otherwise.”
Building material rained down around Raphael in very small pieces, and he smiled. It looked like Michael had finally resumed his hobby of destroying Raphael’s offices; he’d been a bit concerned for a while, there. It just wasn’t natural for Michael to be as considerate as he had been of late.
“Trying to give me more casualties to take care of, Mika-chan?” he inquired.
“You’re a doctor, you’re supposed to have casualties,” Michael told him, plunking down on top of his desk.
“That isn’t quite the way we hope it will work,” Raphael murmured.
“Besides,” Michael added, ignoring the interruption, “it’s only fair for you to do your share. There’s a ton of casualties out there,” he waved toward the hole in the wall, “that you never see in your cushy little roost here.”
Raphael shrugged that off. “This isn’t a field hospital.”
Michael glared at him. “You know, you’re a real bastard when you’re trying to act like you don’t give a damn.”
“Considering how many casualties you’ve personally contributed, Mika-chan, don’t you think that’s a little of the pot and kettle?” Raphael prodded.
Michael snorted, indignantly. “I only add to the body count when the idiots get in my way trying to kill each other. And don’t call me Mika-chan,” he added with another glare.
“Michael-sama, how nice to see you,” Barbiel said from the doorway.
“Yo.” Michael waved.
Raphael had been a little surprised, when he came out of regeneration, to see how well his second and Michael were getting along. Michael seemed to have rubbed off on her a little; she was far more outspoken than she used to be. Always polite and respectful, but definitely more outspoken. He wondered whether Michael had anything to do with Barbiel’s new penchant for wearing her sleek, black combat gear under her lab coat, too. Not that it wasn’t becoming.
“These requests need your approval, Raphael-sama,” she said, holding up a handful of folders. She paused and looked pointedly at Michael’s seat on the desk.
“Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on,” Michael grumbled. Raphael noticed that he did, however, move off the desk promptly enough. Clearly, the influence didn’t go all one way.
“I certainly do, in the office at least,” Barbiel answered with a bland smile and a glint in her eye.
Definitely more outspoken.
“Too much information!” Michael yelled. “I don’t want to know what you do with that pervert!”
“Considering the things you’ve walked in on in the past,” Raphael observed, dryly, “I have to wonder what might be left that you don’t know about.”
“That’s because you’re a disgusting lech who thinks anyone who does walk in would be looking,” Michael said, righteously.
“The only one who would put up with a brat who has the manners of an untrained puppy,” Raphael returned, agreeably.
They grinned at each other.
“Well, I just dropped in to say hi,” Michael told him, hopping up onto the ruined outside wall. “So I’ll see you around. Later Bar-chan!”
“Have fun Michael-sama,” she called after him, smiling. She looked down at Raphael, eyes still laughing. “The requests, Raphael-sama?”
“Hm. What about a kiss, first?” he suggested, taking her hand to draw her closer.
“Work first, please, Raphael-sama,” she told him, serenely.
He sighed, but, having extensive experience with her dedication to doing her job properly, let her go and flipped through the folders, signing off on each one. She accepted them back and leaned down to give him a kiss sweet enough to make up for the delay.
“Are you going to be making rounds today?” she asked, as they parted.
“Yes. It’s been a while since I checked with our people working in Machonon.”
“I’ll get your body armor ready, then,” she said, one hand going absently to check the gun at her hip. “And,” she added, glancing at the hole in the wall, “get the repair crew up here again while we’re out.”
“Quite,” Raphael agreed, smiling at the wreckage.
“Those towers are new,” the queen remarked, pausing on their walk. “Has anyone been inside them, yet?”
“I asked Lil to take a look today,” Noise told her. “We don’t have enough people, yet, to need the space, but I told her to make sure there weren’t any gates to odd places at least.”
Kurai-sama snorted. “Like the one in my first bedroom, under the bed, that went through to that ice valley. Can I pick ’em or what? I think it’s a sign.”
“The new land doesn’t seem quite that… intentional, Majesty,” Noise answered, torn between amusement and worry. Kurai-sama seemed to notice, and smiled at her.
“Don’t worry, Noise, I’m just sulking.”
“You don’t sulk, Kurai-sama,” Noise protested.
“Not so much anymore, I suppose,” the queen agreed, easily.
“Have you been thinking a lot, lately, about finding a consort?” Noise asked, after a minute, firmly suppressing the desire to add about time.
Kurai-sama sighed, and leaned against the rail of the colonnade they were walking through. “Some. I’m less worried, these days, about needing a marriage alliance. Our upper border, which is really the one I’m most worried about, is secure. For now,” she added, wryly.
“So that really was the Mad Hatter who visited the other day?” Noise asked, as neutrally as she could.
“Yep. It’s actually his personal domain that came up against our border. At least we can be sure no one but Lucifer himself will come through there.” Kurai-sama frowned, suddenly, and looked at Noise with concerned eyes. “Did you meet him? I asked him to stay away from you.”
“He did,” Noise assured her, looking down at the courtyard below them. “I just caught sight of him in passing.” She shook herself and looked back up at her queen. “Besides, you cleansed his mark from me. I’m fine, now.”
Kurai-sama didn’t look very convinced, but she let Noise have her way. “It was the dragons who cleansed it,” she said, waving a dismissive hand. “I just asked nicely. Anyway, if I don’t need an alliance marriage, I do need to find a consort, still. I’m the last of my line. I know it makes you all kind of nervous.”
“We want you to be happy, too, Kurai-sama,” Noise said, softly.
Kurai-sama threw an arm around her shoulders in a quick hug. “I know,” she answered. Then she grinned. “Maybe I’ll ask Jade where to find someone.”
Noise quailed at the thought of what the acerbic dragons might say to a request like that. The queen was definitely the bravest woman she knew.
Raziel listened to his people argue and thought longingly of the bottle of painkillers in the next room.
“Bodiel, we can’t possibly include demons in our ranks!” Oriphiel snapped. “It’s irresponsible of you to feed Raziel-sama’s fancy on this subject.”
Strangling Oriphiel might help, too, now he thought about it.
“And now we see exactly why Zaphkiel-sama passed command to Raziel-sama and not to you,” Bodiel shot back, her eyes narrow with leashed anger. “He understands Zaphkiel-sama’s goals.”
“You presume too much on the fact that you were his second,” Oriphiel growled.
“You think too much about the fact that he was appointed Great One of our order instead of you,” Bodiel returned, coldly.
“Excluding them simply because they were once cast out would be a bit hypocritical for us, wouldn’t it?” Jael interjected, soft-voiced.
“And surely not all of them want to kill and eat us on sight,” Rampel added, with a smile at Jael for remembering the Forbidden Children who were Rampel’s own constituency.
“So you want to go out unarmed to take the risk?” Oriphiel asked.
Raziel slammed his hand down on the table, finally losing patience. “I’m not asking you to serve yourself up with a sprig of parsley! Although,” he added, “you’re tempting me to reconsider in a few cases.”
Even Oriphiel was silent as Raziel’s glare swept the table.
“We can’t do nothing,” he continued, more evenly. “The demons are beginning to spread out more and more. Life will be infinitely easier if they recognize us as, at the least, a neutral force who won’t threaten them without cause.”
“Raziel-sama, you know I support your decision,” Bodiel said into the quiet, “but I am concerned about what we should do if they reject our offer and turn on us.”
Raziel saw the echo of Mad Hatter’s words, during the Third War, in her eyes. “Well,” he sighed, “they haven’t attacked us in force or with coordination so far, so I think we don’t need to worry too much about the higher ranked demons. Lucifer must not wish to move against us, or things would have been different. For the others, who are settling around the new land… we’ll just have to go case by case and keep our weapons handy.”
Three of his four subcommanders nodded, and Oriphiel followed after a grudging hesitation.
“Then I think that’s all for today,” Raziel said, trying to keep the relief out of his voice. He managed to remain in control and at ease until he got past the door. Then he dove for his medicine cabinet.
If Zaphkiel-sama had had to deal with anything like this, he owed his mentor’s memory vast apologies for yelling at him so often.
Arariel leaned her chair back and examined the ceiling. “How many does this make?” she asked.
“Three,” Nisroc answered, despite their both knowing the question had been rhetorical. Arariel knew perfectly well how many demons she had accepted among her people.
“An invasion without troop movements or a single supply truck to be seen anywhere,” she stated. “He knows what he’s doing.”
“Are you sure this is all by Lucifer’s intention?” Nisroc asked, cautiously.
“I’m sure,” Arariel said, firmly. “Mad Hatter wouldn’t follow anyone without a brain, and if he hasn’t stopped them all scattering he must approve of the results it will bring.” She swung her chair upright again. “Now we just have to decide what to do about that.”
“We trust your judgment.” Nisroc’s voice was quiet.
Arariel stood and clasped his shoulder briefly. “Thank you. You know I’ll do my best for all of us.” She looked out the window. “No matter what it takes.”