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An original story by
Jennifer Poulos

Characters, situations, and settings copyright © 2002-2003 Jennifer Poulos.

Book Two

Chapter 1: Dawn


Dawn. The sweetest time of the morning. Everything covered in dew, a sparkling, jewel-encrusted salute to morning. For a moment, everything seems still. But even from the ninth floor of a townhouse, in New York City, that doesn't last very long.

Alone, standing on the balcony of the ninth floor, a girl stood in a long, silky white nightdress, the gentle breeze blowing the hem back ever so slightly. Her long red hair tapered down her back past her shoulder blades, and her pale skin differentiated from the white gown only by a hint of pinkness matched by the color of her glasses. Her hands were perched lightly on the balcony's stone railing, her feet crossed at the toe, and she was leaning forward, peering to her right, her face aglow with joy.

It was sunrise, her favorite time of day.

High above the stillness of Manhattan, Harteriel Serafina was basking in the glow of a new day, having a peaceful moment to process the events of the past week. It had in some ways been the most terrible week of her very long life, and in others it had been full of sweetness and joy.

It was a Monday on Earth when she'd been exiled from Heaven by her boss, the Cupid. She'd been attacked, targeted by demons to be dragged to Hell, but she'd been almost immediately saved by the object of her love — and her exile — Seraph Darkfell. During the rest of the week, they'd gotten jobs, and this nice apartment in this pretty building. They'd made a new friend, too.

Heart turned her thoughts to Detective Bruce Lipton. The things he'd told her and Seraph about during their long conversation the night before had been terrible. It seemed there were many searching for them, and not all of them were very friendly. As they had suspected, Seraph's old boss had turned against her, probably owing to the fact his best agent had quit when she heard about Heart's exile. The Blessed Virgin, who had blessed them the previous night with her holy grace, hadn't always been their friend. Lipton himself had been taken off his case by two Archangels, Gabriel and Michael.

Heart was still shocked by this news. Gabriel and Michael hadn't been seen or heard from in Heaven for a very long time, a fact Heart had paid little heed to. Now she wondered why they were interested enough in Seraph to get her out of trouble with the mortal police. There was only one thing she knew for certain, and that was Gabriel and Michael did not work for Heaven.

She hadn't needed Lipton to tell her that. Two nights ago, they'd been attacked by a group of War Angels. One of them had specifically stated that he didn't work for Gabriel.

Most puzzling of all was the note that had appeared on the table. In a choir-accompanied breeze, a paper had appeared on the table that had been from her new boss. It had claimed Heart and Seraph's relationship as "approved". Heart wondered what that meant. Today was her first day on the job, and she was frightened that Heavenly Hearts might be one of Theliel's operations.

After all, the angelic Charioteers had found them, and Bhaalor and his troops had found them, and even the human priest had found them. Why not Theliel? And who else? Would their new home ever truly be a safe haven as she had hoped?

The gargoyle near her hand turned its head to blink at her, sensing her faint unease. She reached out to pat the cold granite ornament reassuringly. The stone guardians had proved their value to her yesterday, valiantly fending off Cherubiel's charioteers during Bhaalor's attack, and saving her and Seraph from the bloodbath that would have resulted had the angelic host succeeded in invading their home.

But it was puzzling how Bhaalor had chosen just that moment to launch his own offensive. Was it coincidence, or had the Warlord of Hell known the angels were planning to attack and realized the gargoyles would be too hard-pressed to defend against both threats at once? Between Bhaalor's near-fatal fight with Seraph, and her own wounding by the errant priest's bullet, their fairy-tale love story had nearly had an unhappy ending before it had truly begun.

A buzzing from inside jolted her out of her reverie, and she wandered in to see what the noise was. The nearest of the two balcony doors joined to the bedroom, a high-ceilinged spacious room which housed only their bed, a small table, and an ornate antique packing trunk. Inside the trunk, they'd stored Heart's purse, their weapons, and their money. Anything could be gotten out of it at a mere thought, but no one except Heart and Seraph could get in. Heart had seen to that.

Other than these two items, the room was bare of anything except doors. Heart frowned at this for a moment, resolving to buy some pictures for the walls. Then she turned her attention to the rising mass that was emerging from within the curtain of the round four-post antique Louis the XIVth bed, smiling happily as her beloved arose.

Seraph's place was not morning. She slammed one long elegant hand over the top of the alarm clock, causing the plastic casing to creak from the strain, then rubbed her eyes groggily. Her creamy skin contrasted to her long white pageboy, the small purple horns poking through her hair adding to the beauty of her features. When she finished tying her hair in a ponytail, she rose to her full seven feet, adjusted her ample cleavage in its negligee and flexed her tapering bat-wings before she stumbled off to the bathroom to splash some water on her face. Her hooves chimed musically as she crossed the polished marble floors, her normally active tail dragging listlessly behind her.

"Beloved?" Heart asked, trailing behind with worry. "Are you all right?"

"I don't do mornings," Seraph grumped as she dried off her face. Straightening up, she added, "But today I do." She assayed a happy smile as she blinked blearily at the angel.

"Why?" Heart wondered aloud.

"Silly! It's your first day of work. I wanted to surprise you with a special breakfast," Seraph said, sleepily leaning against the doorframe and reaching out to stroke the angel's hair.

"You got up early just to make me breakfast?" Heart squealed in delight. "You're so wonderful!"

Seraph beamed as Heart hugged her; her smile was almost as bright as Heart's halo.

After the hug, Seraph sent her off to the closet before she headed into the kitchen. As Heart dressed for her new job, she looked in the mirror at her nude form and smiled. Not that she was vain; her kind wasn't allowed to be vain. The downy wings that sprouted from her shoulder blades would have disappeared for good if she were. But right now, they were a part of her she'd feared lost, only to discover they'd been hidden. Heaven had tricked her.

Somehow they'd cast a glamour -- a concealment -- on her wings, causing them to seem like they weren't there. But a leap of faith from the balcony had dispelled this illusion when Heart realized that she wasn't falling, but gliding across the city at unimaginable speeds. Believing her wings were gone had been the most horrible part of her whole week, something she thought she'd never recover from. Knowing it was a lie brought back most of her jubilance. But it was another puzzle. Why go through so much trouble to make her think she'd Fallen? There were so many questions, and Heart was afraid of the answers. For now, she put these troubles out of her mind and selected an outfit fitting for her first day of work.

The white sleeveless top she chose had a strap that hung around her neck, leaving her back bare. With the pale blue skirt in combination and the matching low-heeled shoes, it made her look very professional, she decided. As she brushed her hair and straightened her halo, the succulent scent of something sweet came wafting in from the kitchen.

She hurried out the door to the combined kitchen-dining room-den that made up the huge central area of the apartment. High above their heads the ceilings arched over them, a tiered chandelier dominating its center. The furniture in the main room was mostly leather, with a matching coffee table, but the dining table was of dark oak, and the chairs were like cushioned thrones.

Very quickly, Seraph had managed to prepare several cinnamon waffles and a platter of bacon, which she now brought to this table and sat down. Heart grabbed a carafe of orange juice from the refrigerator, raising an eyebrow at the mess the succubus had somehow managed to make. She whispered something softly in her native tongue and waved her hand at the clutter before heading to the dining table from the newly-spotless kitchen. Looking over the wonderful-smelling breakfast, her soft gaze was more than enough thanks to Seraph for this thoughtfulness.

Seraph looked on nervously, her brow wrinkled as Heart cut a bit of one of the waffles she'd put on her plate. The succubus's look of concern grew as Heart put the food into her mouth and chewed, and she looked pleadingly at her angel.

Finally, she ventured to ask, "Do you like it?"

Heart's emphatic nod relieved her and she smiled as she began to eat too.

"I never knew mortal food was so good," Heart commented. "I wish I'd come down here more often."

Seraph grinned. "We'll have the rest of our immortal lives to taste all the food you want."

"I never thought about it that way." Heart smiled brightly. "I wasn't sure if I was immortal or not without my wings, but now that I know I'm still an angel, I guess you're right!"

"Even if you weren't," Seraph said through her munching, "I probably could have talked Thor into granting you immortality. Deities do that kind of stuff, you know."

Heart didn't know, and it didn't matter. The glazy syrup that drowned her waffles was slowing dripping from one side of her mouth, and she was struggling to reach it with her tongue. Once she accomplished her task, she steeled herself for a moment, and, unable to contain her concerns any longer, she turned to Seraph.

"Beloved, are we going to be fighting Heaven and Hell forever?" she asked.

Seraph put her fork down, her mouth moued into a pout of pity and some misery.

"I hope not, beloved," she replied. "I was thinking about that all night, wondering who's a spy, how they found us, whether or not we have to move—"

"I don't want to move, Seraph!" Heart cried. "I like this place! And besides, it protected us from the intruders as much as everyone else who was there to help."

"I like this place, too, Heart." Seraph sighed. "But what if the landlady is really a demon? Or that clueless clerk?"

Heart laughed at this reference to Honey Stevens, the cashier of the occult shop on the bottom floor of the building. The fact that it was entirely accurate and not an embellishment on Seraph's part made the idea of Honey being a demon even more ludicrous.

"I'm not kidding," Seraph, said, looking at her.

"No, I think it's funny, what you just said about Honey." Heart's face lit up. "Hey, that rhymed!"

"It was very cute of you." The succubus gazed at her for a moment. Heart wrinkled her nose as she smiled. But then Seraph's face grew serious.

"I agree it's probably not Honey, but what about Mama? Or that Lipton guy?"

"It definitely wasn't Bruce," Heart said emphatically. "Didn't you see who his friends were? A priest, and the Blessed Virgin."

"Oh, so now you're on a first-name basis with him, hm?" Seraph rose an eyebrow.

"Oh, no, Beloved! He's just a nice man. He told me his name while you were fixing dinner last night. We talked about his job a bit, too. I like him."

"He's a demon-hunter, Beloved. He's probably out killing some of my old friends right now."

"I don't think he's that kind of demon-hunter." Heart waved the comment off. "If he was, he would have killed you when the angels told him to. And you saw his reaction when the priest tried to hurt you."

"Well, these are all very good points, but I still don't trust him entirely," Seraph grudgingly conceded. "I don't like him knowing where we live."

"I don't think he'll hurt us," Heart replied. "Especially since I told him I would consult with him on some of his cases if he needed it."

"What? Are you going to become a cop, now?" Seraph wasn't angry, just surprised, and her voice took on a high squealing tone.

"No, I just want to help him understand what's going on around him, as much as I can," Heart replied, her brow furrowed in thought. "It's the one love he has in his life, trying to make sense and order of everything. I think that's why he's a policeman."

"Wow, how shallow." Seraph rolled her eyes.

"No, he is just awkward with other kinds of love," Heart said with a Mona Lisa smile. "It's like he clings to this so he doesn't have to expose any more than just that about him. He's friendly, but he didn't tell even me much about himself, and he was very dismissive about how he knows the priest."

"Yeah, that's another thing, let's talk about the priest," Seraph said in a derisive tone. "Let's talk about how he almost killed you."

"It was an accident, beloved. He didn't mean to shoot me. He was trying to shoot a demon."

"That still doesn't change the fact he shot you! I-if you had died…"

Heart's hand found the distraught succubus's. "But I didn't, beloved. Your love saved me."

Seraph nodded. "I know, it's just—"

"It was your love that showed the Blessed Virgin that we were meant to be together, Seraph. If the accident hadn't happened, she wouldn't have been able to see how much you really love me. It all happened for the best. The Creator works in mysterious ways."

Seraph nodded reluctantly. "All right. I just can't believe that guy. Slinging holy water at me like that."

"The holy water would've just burned you," Heart replied evenly, her eyes beginning to tear. "And I would have had no trouble healing you."

"He exorcised Bhaalor! What if he tries to do that to me? Do you know what happens when a demon gets exorcized, how painful it is?" Seraph's voice was near hysteria now.

"Don't talk like that, Beloved." A frown gashed across Heart's pretty face, and Seraph looked down, engrossed with a tiny crumb drowning in the midst of the syrup on her plate. "I wouldn't let him hurt you."

"I'm sorry. I just wish we had someplace we didn't have to share with demons or angels, or cops or priests. Someplace for just us. Neither of us can hide from Heaven or Hell. Until the Red Dragon meets the Woman of the Sun, I'm scared it's going to be just us, against all of them."

"Even if we are fighting them forever, I know it's not 'just us'," Heart replied excitedly. "Bruce will help us, and so will Thor. Maybe The Virgin will help us again sometime, too. We're not alone, Seraph."

Seraph gazed at her for a moment before saying, "I love you, Beloved. That does make me feel better."

Heart beamed. "Good! I'm glad." She rose hurriedly, adding, "I have to go to work now, though. I'll see you when I get home?"

"Of course! Call me when you get a chance, too, and tell me how your day's going."

Heart kissed her deeply, not wanting to part from her beloved, but duty called and she grudgingly pulled herself away.

***

Heavenly Hearts was located uptown in the Fisher Building, a towering silver monolith that reached up toward the sky as though trying to touch it. It was located on the third floor, which required a trip through the lobby's fragrant garden to get to the elevators. The garden was an explosion of color, flowers of blue and red, purple and yellow adorning the hedges and trees and bordering the small stream that traced the interior perimeter of the garden. At its foot, two huge silver angels blew trumpets in the air, announcing this springtime haven that always had sunshine, even in the rain.

Heart gazed up at the angels, smiling a joyous greeting to her brothers as she entered the garden. She leaned over next to the first flower she saw, and pulled it to her nose, mindful of its thorns. Then she turned and wandered further into it, knowing she had plenty of time to spare. Every blossom, every fragrance permeated her and filled her with energy, a smooth, earthy energy that invigorated her senses.

"Good morning," a man called out from across the garden, where he was planting some bulbs. Startled, Heart turned and approached him, trying to make out his face in the bright light.

He rose to his full height and pulled off his gloves to shake hands with her, and she noticed his nametag said "Adam". She was struck with the memory of meeting him before, and recalled he was a very pleasant man, the landscaper of this beautiful garden.

"Good morning," she said cheerfully.

"I see you found what you were looking for," Adam replied to her.

"Yes," she replied. "I work here now!"

"That's nice," the kindly man replied sincerely. "I look forward to seeing you occasionally. I was hoping you would be back."

Heart smiled at the scenery around her. "I would have been back just to come here," she told him, and his face grew red at the compliment.

"The lobby is open anytime to employees," he told her. "When you get your key-card."

Heart smiled happily, figuring this mystery would be solved when she reached the Heavenly Hearts office.

"I'm so glad," she said. "I like this place."

"Thank you," Adam replied, then glanced back at the work he'd been doing. "I'd better get back to it," he told her. "I don't want those bulbs to wither. It was good to see you again."

Heart returned the compliment and then headed for the elevators, twin glass towers on the wall of the building that allowed an overhead view of the splendorous garden. She watched it shrink as the elevator took her up to the third floor, allowing one more moment when the doors opened before disembarking and heading for her first day of work.

As before, the office was empty of people. Heart meekly walked past the foamy white cushioned chairs that seemed positioned in conjunction with the robin's egg blue walls to create the illusion of a springtime sky. She poked her head into the office she'd been interviewed in, but there was no one.

Walking back up the long corridor, she poked her nose into several other offices, all equally empty. She was almost at the door to the lobby again when she heard her name called from behind her.

"Ah, Miss Heart. You early. Is good."

She turned to see the elderly Japanese woman who had interviewed her coming down the hall from her office. "Good morning, Miss Yoshi."

"Yoshi! Only Yoshi. No formality at Heavenly Hearts. Yoshi just talk about to boss. He very impressed with resume. You do good, make Yoshi look good for hiring."

"I'll certainly try to do my best, Miss Yoshi."

The elderly lady gave her a warm smile. "Just be self. That do everything."

Heart smiled back. She couldn't have defined what it was about the old Japanese woman that made her feel like she could trust her, but she certainly wanted to prove to her that she could be a wonderful matchmaker.

"Now, you come. Show office. You not use much. Heavenly Hearts very hands-on." She whirled and Heart once again found herself surprised at how quickly the energetic old woman moved. She was taken down to an office next to Yoshi's and waved inside. A name plaque on the desk read "Harteriel Serafina, Matchmaker Specialist." Heart looked around the spare office, noting that decor was minimalist, and that the majority of filing cabinets and such she had half expected from her visits to other offices during her job search were absent. The desk was rose-colored glass, with a plush chair that had an oddly narrow back. A flat panel display occupied a spot to the side of the desk, along with the keyboard and mouse. Heart looked at in apprehension. Seraph had explained the strange machines to her, but she hadn't had the nerve yet to actually use the one Seraph had bought for their home.

Behind the desk was a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass panel that led out to a small balcony with a small coffee table and a couple of chairs. Small flower pots held a riot of roses and other flowering plants. The perfume wafting in through the open door was heavenly, only the slightest trace of the normal city smells penetrating the floral defense. She took in a deep breath and sighed happily.

Yoshi had been waiting for her to take in the office and noted the sigh with a smile. "We like beautiful surroundings. Happy matchmakers make good matchmakers."

Heart nodded. "It is beautiful."

"Good. Now, job is easy. You get assignment, two people who should be together. You help find love. Like say, not in office much. All fellow employee on assignment. You look around. When ready, first assignment on computer."

Heart gave it another nervous look. "All right." She looked back at the Japanese woman. "Umm. Miss Yoshi. I-I wanted to ask you about something that happened this weekend."

"Yes, yes. You get approval letter. Heavenly Hearts cannot have matchmaker who no have good match for self. Your Seraph is good match. Almost as good as Yoshi make."

Heart blushed. "Thank you. I certainly think so." She gave Yoshi a shy smile. "She even got up to make me breakfast."

"See. Best matchmakers have good match. She make you happy, you spread happiness to client. Now, Yoshi have other work do. You settle in, look over assignment." With a last nod, the woman stepped back into the hall and into her office. Heart looked after her, her mouth open with the question she had wanted to ask that Yoshi had just ducked out on, namely how the letter had just appeared in their apartment.

She gave a small frown and turned back to her office. She noted the soft pastels and gentle lighting gave the office a comforting feel, and the soft carpet almost begged for her to toss off her shoes and let herself sink into it. She put aside her questions for the moment and did a little twirl of joy. She had a new job!

She sat down at her new desk, feeling herself sink into the plush velvet, and instinctively stretched her wings, reveling in the fact that her office had room for her entire wingspan. This was better than her office in heaven had been!

She leaned back in the chair, and suddenly realized that the narrow back was perfect for her wings. That made her look at the door with a raised eyebrow. Exactly how much did her curious new employer know?

Once again putting the question aside, Heart turned to what she was sure was going to be her new nemesis. Dubiously, she reached out to touch the mouse, like Seraph had showed her. At her first touch, the screen lit, showing her a picture of a young woman. She leaned forward to examine the screen more closely.

The girl on the screen was in her late twenties and very pretty. She had a mane of wavy dark brown hair that perfectly complimented her Mediterranean features. Her face was carefully-sculpted monument of thick, dark eyebrows; cheeks so rounded as to almost look pudgy; a small, wide nose; and full, pouty lips. This all ended into a gracefully tapered neck, perfectly rounded shoulders, and an ample bosom that curved down into a tiny waist and hips. She was dressed in a suit with a severe jacket contrasted by a girlish pleated skirt.

At the bottom corner of the screen were two buttons. One said "next." The other said "profile." Heart smiled, a bittersweet joy — in Heaven, her assignments had been shown to her picture first, then profile as well. She decided she'd better check out the profile for this young lady before trying to hit the "next" button. She tried touching the "profile" button.

Nothing happened. She gasped, horrified, but tried the "next" button. Still, nothing. She drew her hand back, her elbow striking the mouse, which caused a reaction: a miniature of the twin heart logo of her new employer moved across the screen. Delighted, she smiled and tried putting the hearts over the "profile" button and clicking. Almost instantly, a full-page profile appeared, complete with vital statistics.

According to this page, the young woman's name was Jill Barton. She'd grown up on Long Island, went to NYU for a little bit before dropping out to get a job. Her bio attributed this to moving in with her boyfriend. Currently, she worked for Manard's, one of Manhattan's most exclusive jewelry stores, with rivals such as Tiffany's and Trump Towers. She was their accountant.

Heart scanned the brief biography and then tried the "next" button. The dark man with the beady blue eyes that now appeared on the screen reminded her of many demons she'd encountered, but she quickly pushed this thought out of her mind. It wasn't, after all, her place to judge. Just because his lanky frame seemed ready to slither, despite the frayed blue jeans and the black biker jacket, this was no reason to think ill of him. But Heart couldn't help noticing the pure wrongness of the match.

Phillip Kelsey, according to his biography, was a career student at NYU, taking courses one or two at a time, still undeclared as to major. Among his courses were psychology, archaeology, and folklore studies, but he had quite a few chemistry and physical education courses under his belt as well. This was his only occupation, and Jill was apparently supporting it as well as their home.

Heart shook her head. "I wonder what would make a person do that," she said.

The "next" button was still present, and when she pressed it, three men were shown, side-by-side, on the screen. Under their pictures were the profile buttons, but Heart took a moment to study each one first. The first was a tall, handsome man, his body muscular and huge, his face a sullen combination of ice-blue eyes, light brown hair, and rounded features. The second was a very short man, nearly the same height as Jill herself, with close-cut light brown hair and goatee decorating a face with a jovial, cunning smile. The last was of average height, slightly portly, with a wild disarray of blond hair, boyish red cheeks, and soft brown eyes.

She spent the rest of the morning reading the profiles and memorizing the three faces so she'd know them when she met them. New York was a big city, but she was an angel. She could do it… Right?

***

Detective Bruce Lipton stood outside his precinct's headquarters, looking at a drab grey dwarf surrounded by the titanic monoliths of the surrounding buildings. It hadn't quite been a week since he'd been here last, since the Archangels Gabriel and Michael had usurped his case. Six dead demons in an alley, and the borough of Manhattan hadn't wanted an explanation badly enough to stand up to the Justice Cooperative Force, a private organization that on whose board the two Archangels seemed to be. Not that the Manhattan authorities had known that these were demons that had been killed; Lipton was still charged with solving the case, even though it had only opened up to bigger mysteries.

Like Heart and Seraph. Seraph had been his perp, but there was no way Lipton was going to be responsible for separating her from Heart, not when the two were so in love that Seraph had killed her own kind to save the angel from the six demons.

After the past four days, he began to wonder if he could even handle work.

Finally, he walked in to the building, up to his office on the third floor. His desk was as bare as he had left it, the room surprisingly clean for once. His special cabinet, where he kept all of his more arcane mugshots, was locked and secure. Until recently, it had housed the Directory of Angels, which contained a profile of every single angel to ever grace the Heavenly hosts. Lipton hadn't brought that back with him. He'd left it home. He'd had a feeling it was safer there.

A lone message on his desk told him to go directly to see Lieutenant Jake Goldberg, a man he'd not known till recently. Goldberg had been the one to break him the news that the JCF had closed his case, had also been the one to send him on his four-day vacation. Lipton steeled himself, hoping this meeting was to present him with another case, but fearful this may not be.

He calmly walked over to Goldberg's office, noticing and not caring that nobody asked any questions or even said hello. Most of the other cops in his precinct referred to him as The Ghoul, because from his very first demonic encounter, all the unexplained, unusual, and grisliest cases came to him. His complete sphere of friends outside the supernatural were the two computer geeks downstairs, Randy Barnes and Barry Davis, and an old buddy from his school days, a priest named Alphonse Lorenzo. He wasn't too sure about Lorenzo, either; he hadn't spoken to him since yesterday, and they hadn't parted on the best of terms.

Outside the Lieutenant's closed office door, he checked his reflection in the door's glass. A very casual man, he was dressed in a black NYPD tee-shirt and jeans. His short hair was almost jet-black, contrasting against skin paled from too many nights and not enough days. His face was long, ending in a pronounced chin. One eyebrow always naturally arched, giving him an inquisitive appearance. His almost-permanent expression, however, was the look of someone who'd just hacked up his girlfriend with a chainsaw and was fine.

Taking a deep breath, he knocked on the door to Goldberg's office. He was beckoned in, and opened the door to a clutter that made even his worst days look clean, with a portly, balding, middle-aged man sitting in the midst of it. The man looked up and gestured Lipton to sit down, but he was busy on the phone and didn't speak to the detective at first.

"Yeah… that's right… uh-huh… okay, will do," he told the receiver before hanging up. For a moment, he collapsed on the desk, leaning on his elbows and rubbing his temples. Then, Lieutenant Jake Goldberg looked at Lipton with observant blue eyes.

"So, did you enjoy your vacation?" he asked cordially. "I hope it was productive for you."

"Let's just say it laid some demons to rest," Lipton replied, deadpan. Goldberg pondered this for a moment before going on.

"Good," he finally relented, giving up. "I hope that means you're ready for a new case."

Lipton shrugged. "It's my job," he said.

Goldberg proffered a file.

"Jewelry stores," he said. "No sign of entry, whole loads of crazy shit. Sound interesting?"

"Burglars?" Lipton replied with a wry grin and a feigned yawn.

"Last night they hit D'Onrico's. Left what we think is two corpses."

"What you think?" Lipton echoed. "You mean you don't know if you've got human corpses or sides of beef in there."

"Unfortunately, that's exactly what I mean," Goldberg sighed, leaning back. "Shaw's down there trying to figure it out. You've worked with her before, right?"

Lipton sighed inwardly, wondering why Terry Shaw always took the weird ones herself. Didn't she know that her mere presence made him frustratingly nervous, a roiling volcano ready to explode with anxiety? Around her he felt ineffective, as though everything he knew meant nothing. All the shields he'd carefully constructed around himself were pierced by her jubilant personality, leaving him feeling naked, inadequate.

To Goldberg, he said, "Yeah, I've worked with her before."

"Good, she's waiting for you." Goldberg pushed the file in Lipton's direction, and Lipton frowned as he glanced at it.

"Anything else?" he said as he rose, file in hand.

Goldberg shook his head, waved him out.

Lipton was in no hurry to get back to his office, and was definitely in no hurry to get to the crime scene. He loped down the hall, wondering about the crime scene investigator that always seemed to follow his cases. Then again, she usually got them first. If it weren't for the fact he'd worked with several other CSIs who'd called him in on the weird ones, well before Terry ever came to New York, he'd think she was the reason for his reputation. She was a gifted, observant investigator, and that was one of the reasons she made him uncomfortable. She'd observed plenty of the strangeness in Lipton's previous cases, and had made far too many correct interpretations of the evidence from the last case for Lipton's comfort.

He reached his office, went in, and looked at the case file. Work was always such a wonderful distraction.

It was exactly as Goldberg had said. The security company through which the alarm was purchased had dispatched an officer to D'Onrico's at eight yesterday evening, and he'd found nothing but locked doors in both the front and back of the building. Thinking it to be nothing more harmful than employees forgetting to set the alarm, he'd filed an incident report. The company then contacted the owner, Joe D'Onrico, who was skiing up in the Catskills. Not wanting to make the trip all the way back just to open a door, he'd contacted his assistant management, only to find the man, his son, missing. That's when the police had been called in. And still, it was only a robbery. Then Joe D'Onrico returned to Manhattan to find a bloody nightmare all over his shop's floor.

The only things in the file were the incident report and the police report, so Lipton realized he'd have to put in an appearance at the scene investigation.

***

No matter where he went, it was always the same: the noise of the crowd trying to see what was going on, the clicking of the lights as they turned atop the cruisers, the solemn bustle of the beat cops and CSI checking for witnesses. Lipton hated it. The worst part was always the crowds. The morbid fascination most people seemed to have for death and mayhem annoyed him. He glared at a couple of overeager reporters that had to be physically restrained by beat cops to keep them from trespassing in the crime scene and likely destroying evidence. They were like vultures, circling a carcass.

He slammed the door on his unmarked and entered the storefront, following the path CSI had laid out. Inside, his nose was assaulted by a hideous smell of blood and offal. He grimaced as he dug into his pocket and pulled out his nose plugs.

"It still gets to you that bad?" a voice asked from behind him, the cheerfulness of it a contrast to the heavy atmosphere. Lipton turned to see Terry. He gave the blonde coroner a raised eyebrow.

"Only in close quarters, Terry, you should know that. What the hell happened in here, a sewer explode?"

Terry shook her head. "We don't know what 'the hell' happened, Bruce." She pointed to a large patch of bare concrete showing by one of the jewelry cases. "What we found was a huge mess of blood mixed with other substances, all of it organic, but no identifiable corpses, only clothes and personal effects. The beat cops were alerted last night when the security company registered the fact that the alarm system hadn't been set an hour after closing. When they did a check, they saw the cases smashed, but no evidence of a break-in. The owner says that three people were working last night; two are unaccounted for and the other is being questioned. You're here kind of late, actually. The site investigation is almost over."

Bruce shrugged. "I just got back from a 'vacation'."

Terry nodded. "I see. So they shut you down, too. They came in and cleaned out everything I had on the alleyway case, then told me it was 'officially closed'. I'm still rather annoyed about that. What did you get into?"

Bruce shook his head. "You really don't want to know."

Terry sniffed. "You always say that, Bruce. That's even more annoying. You know something more than you're saying, and you won't tell me!" She crossed her arms. "How am I supposed to work with you when you don't trust me?"

"It's not a question of trust, Terry. You just don't need my nightmares."

Terry gave him the evil eye. "Humph. Like I don't have my own." She gave him the glare for several more minutes until it became obvious that he wasn't melting into submissive goo, then sighed. "Okay. Anyway, the suspects seem to have made off with a large portion of the store's supply of rare stones, but, strangely, left the metals."

"Metals are heavier and not worth as much per weight," Lipton postulated.

"Okay. There's no sign of forced entry or exit. All the doors were dead-bolted from the inside. We're supposing the mess we found is evidence for murder, but without bodies, we aren't sure what we have."

"But no one's seen two of the workers since last night?"

"Judy Scanlon and Dave D'Onrico. Irene Desmond left a few minutes before closing and said they were both fine when she left. Dave D'Onrico was the son of the owner, Joe D'Onrico. Judy Scanlon was a single mother of two. Her mother was watching her kids last night, and says she was expecting Judy home, but she has occasionally gone out without warning. We've identified the clothes, as well as a ring, that we found in the puddle as the ones she was last seen in. D'Onrico's effects match what he was wearing as well. The approximate mass of the organic material was consistent with the weight of the missing workers."

"Anything special about last night?"

"According to Joe D'Onrico, he had asked his son to offer Judy Scanlon a full-time position. Beyond that, he has no knowledge of anything. They aren't even expecting a shipment this week."

"What was taken?"

"We're still working on an inventory. We have a few fiber fragments and a small scrap of leather, but no fingerprints as of yet that don't seem to belong to the clerks. We have about eighty of them, so it's going to take a while to process."

"Shoe prints?"

"A few. The most obvious seem to belong to the clerks. The main floor has too many to process. We have approximately ten clear ones and a dozen partials, possibly eight to ten different shoes. Quite a few hair samples too, but they'll take awhile to process."

Lipton knelt to examine the shattered lock on one case. "This is wired to the alarm. You said the security company called because the alarm wasn't set?"

"We got partials off the keypad, but they match the missing son's. If the suspects turned the system off, they were wearing gloves. Unpowdered. I checked."

"I would never question your thoroughness, Terry."

"No? So are you ever going to tell me why those casts I had made at the last case seemed to be platform soles buried eight inches in asphalt and concrete?"

Lipton blinked, and wondered if he should mention to Seraph that is wasn't a good idea to leave evidence like that at any future fights she had with her ex-fellow demons, but dismissed it. Darkfell wasn't the type to listen. He shrugged. "You got me, Terry. Like I said last time, maybe a movie crew left them."

Terry gave him another sour look as a tech came up to her and handed her a cell phone. She acknowledged herself and listened. Her look got more and more sour before she finally said "thank you" and snapped the phone shut. She gave Lipton a dirty look.

"Okay, hotshot, explain this one away. That was the lab. It appears the organic mess we vacuumed up is composed of individual cells, all human. Every cell type seems to be present including bone cells, but no two cells are stuck together, and every last one is dead. Two sets of DNA are present, one belonging to Judy Scanlon, the other as yet unidentified, but it seems we have our corpses. Want to tell me what can do that?"

Lipton shook his head. "Magic?"

Terry rolled her eyes.

"You have an answer for everything, don't you," she snapped. "If you don't know, don't be a smartass about it."

"The only thing I can think of is the shockwave from a very high-impact explosion," Lipton shrugged. "I mean, low-impact explosions turn a vic's innards into a gelatinous mess, right?"

Terry softened up, nodding. "That makes some sense, I suppose. But this would have had to be something close to nuclear to do this kind of damage. Or something we don't know about yet." She raised an eyebrow at him.

"Now, come on." Lipton held up his hands to her inquisitive look. "Conspiracies are Barry's department." Barry Davis was an eccentric co-worker, though not as eccentric as Lipton was assumed to be.

"And the unexplained is yours," Terry quipped back, her smile the Mona Lisa.

"Since when have I ever explained the unexplained?" Lipton parried.

"Good point," Terry's smile grew broader, and Lipton realized he'd foolishly stepped into a trap. "You haven't. I'd really like to hear you do it sometime."

"I'm telling you, you don't want to know."

Terry shrugged. "Whatever. And I suppose I'll be waiting forever for an explanation for this one, too."

"Why are you pestering me about this?" Lipton growled irritably.

"Inquiring minds want to know," she proffered a dazzling smile, the kind that made Lipton feel like his body was ten sizes too big. "And to be trusted."

She turned and walked away, a satisfied smirk on her face. Lipton rubbed his temples for a moment, wishing she didn't have such control over his… control.

He looked around, noting the security cameras and alarm wiring. He spotted a uniformed officer who was questioning a man and a woman, both of them visibly upset. The blonde was meticulously dressed, her hair perfect; the typical New York prima dona. The man was dressed in wrinkled clothes that were visibly tailor-made. His long Roman nose and his olive skin were greyed with grief as he occasionally eyed the two piles of sludge on the floor. Lipton realized this was the store's owner and father of one of the victims, and went over to talk to him.

Joe D'Onrico's eyes flew over him inquisitively, and he looked to the uniformed cop. The cop turned and nodded at Lipton.

"It's all right, Mr. D'Onrico," the cop assured the grieving father. "This is Detective Lipton. He's only here to ask you a few questions."

"Only one, Mr. D'Onrico," Lipton said. "Do you have last night's surveillance video?"

The owner's haggard face turned to him with new hope that justice would be done.

"It should be in the back, in one of the recorders. There are five, but only four of them tape in six-hour loops. The last one is a back-up. Take the footage from all five, if you need it."

"Thank you, sir," Lipton nodded. "I'm sorry for your loss."

Mr. D'Onrico grabbed his wrist as he began to walk past him into the back of the store.

"Show me how sorry you are by finding out who did this to my son," he snarled through gritted teeth. "What I lost in precious gems is nothing compared to losing him. Find out who did this, and kill them."

Lipton nodded and walked to the back to get the surveillance videos. He was pretty sure he would eventually wind up fulfilling the old man's request. This robbery-homicide had demon written all over it. He was pretty sure he could find a demon that had the power to liquefy the human body. He wasn't sure, but could probably explain what demons might want with precious gems. But there was one thing about this case that he found perplexing, something missing from the typical demonic case.

Demons.

No sign of brimstone, and the locks all seemed to be broken by blunt instruments rather than clawed open, which Lipton thought would be more likely. That meant there was another explanation. But what could or would do this to two people that wasn't a demon?

***

Beneath the Surface world and far out of Heaven's sight lay the domain of Lucifer, a series of fiery lakes surrounded by vast colonies of mankind's assorted miscreants. Every transgression from the code set forth by Heaven brought to Hell a fresh soul, souls who now had found the delicious punishment of eternally enjoying their disobedience. It was the paradise of hedonists. It was also their eternal home.

On the edges of this dark bliss were the war fields and the great keep that overlooked them. Here, the armies of Hell had once gathered for battle against the sickeningly sweet Heavenly hosts. Today, however, they were doing battle with someone a lot closer to home. Millions upon millions of demons of assorted size had gathered on the war field and tossed their armor and weapons into heaps at their feet. The majority of them were shaking their fists up at the highest rampart of the castle, crying out profanities delicate even to the ears of the Lord of Hell himself.

A female stood on that rampart, out of sight of the mob, her ebony skin glistening with nervous perspiration under her silver breastplate. Her crystalline white hair hung in braids behind her back, and her body was sleek, muscular, like a panther's. She looked over at the War Steward of Hell in alarm, the subject of her silent plea raising an eyebrow.

The War Steward was a tower over her, with thick cords of muscle wrapping all over his body. His bearded face was knotted with scars from his bulbous nose to his bushy eyebrows. His beard hung to the middle of his chest, adorned with golden clips. His torso was broad, covered by nothing but the sash of his great kilt, beneath which his hooves jutted out. Atop his head were the powerful horns of a bull, and occasionally steam would pour from his nostrils, causing him to kick impatiently.

"Ye'll have to face 'em sometime, lass," he said, issuing a wry grin. "You are the Warmistress of Hell."

Frost glared at him. "I know that, Cormac. I also know this isn't going to be easy."

"I'd say not," Cormac looked over the ramparts. "I think a few of them are biting their own sword arms off."

"The fools," Frost swore. "Back when I was an active goddess, I had entire nations trembling in fear of me! The Ethiopian empire fell to my will, and even the Egyptians feared my wrath! These men are petty, small, insignificant!"

"Then go out there and show them you think so, lass," Cormac smirked.

She stepped out to stand on the wall of the parapet. The wave of boos from the crowd thickened, and soon all kinds of things came flying at her, from weapons to refuse. She did an acrobatic dance from rampart to rampart to avoid a flurry of bullets, arrows, and tomatoes before addressing the troops.

"Worms! I am your master now!"

The ones who didn't laugh at that statement continued to boo. Many of them shook their fists or gave her the finger, and the number of obscenities increased a thousandfold.

"You can defy me, you can protest me, you can even try to assassinate me, but you will all fail. Bite your sword-arms off, you'll only miss out on the havoc!"

This began to make an impression, but only on a few in the crowd. She could see as the mob was dotted with the occasional new ally, the occasional demon whose armor found its way back on, who worked its way out of the crowd. However, this small scattering of demons, even combined with the forces in the castle that were already loyal to her, could not possibly defeat the rest of the mob.

It would take a show of power.

She controlled all the domain of War. The castle, the fields, they were all her domain. She could do anything here, from having the castle hurl its walls at them to having the ground swallow them whole. She didn't want to sacrifice too many of them, but a few well-placed explosions would knock the wind out of their sails. She raised her arms for silence, but they didn't feel the need to obey.

With a focus of will and dominance, she targeted random demons from the crowd, firing fuming balls of steaming earth and exploding some of the landmines that clustered in the field. The mob dispersed long enough to dodge twitching demonic limbs and chunks of dirt, but came together again.

"Foul wench!" cried out a Crusades knight who had been very zealous in his punishment of the inhabitants of the Holy Land. "We will never follow you!"

Some bloody chunks and a million droplets of blood emanated from where the ex-knight had stood. The demons nearest him stepped back as though he'd turned into a cute teddy bear, the disgust on their faces discernable even from Frost's great height. Still, the majority of the demons stayed on the mob's side of the field, and even put the ones who crossed over through a terrible gauntlet of hoof-kicks and claw-tears. The cries of the mob were not so emphatic now, and she noted with satisfaction that even the ones who were still shouting were a bit more dubious of their own bravado than they had been. Frost jumped down from the parapet and gave Cormac a satisfied smile.

"I've got a few more down there that need to be let into the castle. Hurry up and let them in."

Cormac issued the order, which was carried out a few minutes later by a combination of Frost manipulating the castle's structure, and her loyal troops from within the castle providing what little defense was needed. The mob was stabilized by the quicksand that the ground beneath their feet had suddenly become, and soon, all the protesting war-demons were buried up to their necks in the earth. Their cries of protest turned to anger and they tried to struggle, but even the strongest of them was rendered completely helpless by the reformed earth.

Cormac nodded, an expression of appreciation on his hideous-looking face.

"Not bad… for a girl," he said to her, grinning.

Frost rose an eyebrow.

"You don't understand women very well, do you," she replied.

"I understand wenching, and I understand cooking, and thas aboot it," Cormac grinned wider, showing off his missing teeth.

"Well, understand this," Frost stepped up close to him. "Always watch your back around a woman. We smile pretty, and you men just melt — and then we kill you."

"Never said that wasn't the case, ma'am," Cormac nodded, not losing his amusement.

Frost dismissed him and stood alone on the parapet, her thoughts whirling and frustrated. She looked down at the sea of demon heads below her, wishing she didn't have a need for troops. The Realm of War was operating on less than a skeleton crew, not enough to repel an attack from Heaven. She didn't have enough confidence in those trapped below to allow them free even if the Heavenly hosts attacked, and she didn't have enough active troops right now. She hoped nothing happened that required the Legions of Hell…

If I had known it would be this hard, I never would have pushed Bhaalor into that pit, she thought to herself. With this act, Lucifer had made her Warmistress of Hell as a sort of punishment for Mephistopheles, the Demon Lord of Temptation. The little sleaze had wanted to possess Seraph Darkfell's new girlfriend, and her old boss, Bhaalor, had offered Frost up in trade if the angel was killed in the crossfire of his own vendetta against the succubus. Now, she operated independently of the arrogant Mephistopheles, and Bhaalor was no more. As much as she'd hated him, she wondered if she didn't hate this even more.

"A penny for your thoughts, my dear?"

Frost turned to see a weathered old woman in a cowled robe approaching her with a mug of grog. She gratefully took the mug and looked back down at the troops. She didn't miss the old woman's scowl as she, too, glanced over the now-screeching heads.

"Humph. Men," the old woman said.

Frost sighed. "Really, Bave, I don't know why I took this job."

"Well, look on the bright side. We're rid of Old One-Eye." Bave cackled in her elderly manner.

"I'm beginning to think life under Bhaalor was better than this."

Bave's eyes flashed with anger. "Never," she scolded vehemently. "Cormac and I have known Bhaalor a lot longer than you, dear, and I can tell you that what those guys are going through is better than Bhaalor's lead."

Frost backed off; Bave was not in the War Division for nothing. The elder demoness punctuated her remark by leaning over the parapet and joining the howls of the demons below. Her voice chilled the air by several degrees, and below, demons began to cry in agony at the mere sound of it. A few of the heads even exploded from the sheer sonic wave that accompanied Bave's cry.

"Humph." The old woman nodded in satisfaction and scurried back into the castle.

Frost was alone again, but still tense. She leaned against the rampart and closed her eyes for a moment, picturing the savannahs and plateaus of her native stomping ground, the vast fields where she would run with the cheetahs and spark the passion of battle, the electrifying thrill of war, through the massed melees of the tribes that worshipped her. But her mind wouldn't conjure those images, exactly. Instead she saw golden hair, thick cords of muscles, a neatly-kept beard… and a baseball cap…

Thor… Her eyes remained closed as she finished the image of the Surface's only active Old God. Once, he had been surrounded by brothers and sisters from all over the world, but like the others, like Frost's, the older religions fell, and their gods scattered between Heaven and Hell. Thor was the only one who had the balls to walk the planet, maintain contact with humans, and even befriend them, just like he'd befriended her. She still wasn't sure why she'd gone to him. Curiosity? Jealousy? Ambition? She'd convinced herself that it was to lure him to Hell's army, but now she wasn't so sure. She wished he were here now, though. He'd know what to do. With a mighty swing of his hammer, he'd have had all the minions lining up, begging for his mercy. He was a son of kings, a prince in his own right.

She needed an education, fast. Thor would make the perfect mentor. After all, even Bhaalor had fallen to him in battle once.

***

On the other side of Hell, in the back room of a fetish club, several demons had gathered around a table. The table was headed by a demon in a World War Two era German uniform, with a thick mane of blond hair atop his head and gleaming fangs protruding from his mouth. His horns were two sharp little points protruding from within his hair, but he was a younger demon, so he had a mostly humanoid features. He'd won quite the following in Hell, however, when he'd been mortal, having been single-handedly responsible for the gassing of thousands of prisoners from the Allied armies, as well as hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The demons around him were from a scattering of different cultures all over the world and beyond. Some of them were vicious warriors, like the German, and some of them were former deities, like Frost. Some of them were demons who had fallen with the Master of Chaos and had never claimed any status but that. They all had the same bloodlust, though, and they all hated the same demoness.

"Frost is not fit to lead the Armies of Hell," the German told the crowd, gaining their agreement.

"Better we were under the guidance of a skilled general," a former Mongol responded, slamming his fist to the thick wooden table. "It is an embarrassment to the Minions of War!"

"Eichmann was talking!" A huge, burly demon nudged at the Mongol, nearly tumbling him from his seat. The Mongol turned, preparing to fight, before noticing that this was a female demon, a former Valkyrie.

Eichmann straightened the collar of his SS-style uniform and cleared his throat.

"What we are facing, gentlemen—" He nodded at the Valkyrie. "—and ladies, is a war within the War Department. It is to be fought like any other."

"Then where are the spies, and the guns, and the cannon?" demanded a demon in the back of the room.

"The spies will be shortly provided. As for the rest, when the time has come, I will sound the call, and there will be bloodshed in Hell!"

The demons gathered cheered at this prospect, and banter was shared among them as they departed. They passed jokes about what they would do once the "bitch" was cast from her seat as the door slammed on six demons left sitting in the room. Eichmann scanned the room and his five comrades as his mouth grew to an evil leer.

He was surrounded by some of his most trusted men, a pair of hulking Visigoth warriors whose armor left ample room for their taloned feet and spiked tails. Their twin leers were covered in a mixture of blood and black slime, and their huge mandibles dripped with drool that only made the mixture more repugnant.

The other three were very important allies, lieutenant generals in the armies of Hell. One of them was a former Roman legionnaire during the persecution of Christians. Another hulking figure, he wore a long crimson cape and a nightmare-black combination of Roman and demonic armor above his tunic. Below it, his body was held up by a long tail that slithered along the floor busily.

The second was a small, very lean demon who lounged against a chair, seeming to fall into it entirely. It was indiscernible whether he had ever been human, and he wore a dreadful combination of armor that combined all the best elements of mankind's brutality. His skin was darkened by its hollowness, stretched as it was over a skeletal form that, while humanoid, did not look entirely human.

The final member of the party was a huge goat-headed demon, his red eyes blazing over the rest of the group from beneath a wide-brimmed ranger's hat. His tan canvas shirt and wide-legged parachute pants covered a wide muscular body that didn't belie its great age, but the pants terminated into a pair of cloven hooves that matched the demon's face. A thick black cigar was clutched in the demon's teeth, burning merrily without ever seeming to diminish.

Eichmann sneered with glee.

"We have the lesser minions under our thumb, comrades," he said with a snicker. "We will have this false Warlord in no time."

"I wouldn't be too sure," the goat-headed demon responded, taking the center of the room. "I trained Frost, remember. She's no slouch."

"She's no leader." The Roman's body slithered back and forth, keeping him erect as he spoke. "My Mariliths believe her to be weak."

"She is weak, Porteus," Eichmann responded boredly. "She was worshipped as the crocodile goddess of her small African tribe. These people believed crocodiles meant power! Her habits are too primordial to know what to do with an army as vast as Hell's. She's never been followed by more than a hundred at once, and primitive tribesmen at that."

"She is shrewd, and waits for her prey to come to her, like a crocodile," the goat-headed demon said, narrowing his eyes in thought.

"My Lord Azazel, you give her far too much credit."

The two brutes flanking Eichmann both took an involuntary step backward, but Eichmann himself did not flinch as Azazel's eyes blazed.

"I've been at this longer than you have, swine!" The Trainer of Hell's Armies leaned in close to Eichmann's face, the steam of his goat's-breath scalding and the smoke from his cigar making the German's insides burn. "You were one of my trainees once, too! I know what you both are capable of."

"Well, if you're so sure of Frost's abilities, why are you here?" Eichmann responded, and his brutes looked at one another in resignation, sure Azazel would take his head for it.

To the surprise of the other five demons in the room, Azazel backed off, pacing the room as though he were pacing his lines of soldiers. Without his ever touching it, the cigar switched from one side of his mouth to the other.

"I do believe you're stronger than Frost," he conceded. "But I think you're too impulsive. I'm hoping you've constructed a good plan of attack."

"Of course I have," Eichmann said, risking a glance around the room to the faces of the others. For a split second he had to glare at his lieutenants to hurry them back into place.

"Well, then what is it?" the skinny demon spoke for the first time, rising. His bones creaked and snapped together like brittle twigs as he joined Azazel in the center of the room.

"It's not quite in place yet, Azistich. All in due time."

"I don't like this waiting," Azistich replied, crossing his bony arms. Porteus slithered up behind him.

"I agree, Eichmann," he hissed with narrow eyes. "You'd better have something very special planned, or we're out!" He and Azistich nodded to emphasize their point, then stalked out of the room, door slamming behind them.

Azazel looked at the door, then turned to Eichmann.

"Tsk, tsk. And you're complaining she's a lousy leader." He jerked his thumb in the general direction of the Circle of War.

"This is a very delicate operation, Azazel, and it requires the strictest of secrecy," Eichmann defended.

"I know that. I just hope you can convince them before they withdraw their troops from your plan."

"It won't take long. I have a meeting tonight with a silent partner in all of this. Before too much longer, we will be in charge of Hell's armies, and not just some insignificant yes-men to a puny trollop."

***

Moonbunny Stevens stood outside the school, shifting from her pink Converse All-Star to her purple one, but not in the rush the students around her seemed to be in. Despite her red-and-white striped leggings under cut-off jeans, her huge green army jacket, and her wild short bob-cut, mussed courtesy of Vidal Sassoon, she was more or less one of the crowd as far as students went. However it seemed that the majority of those passing her gave her a wide berth and more than a few gave her the frightened look of someone not wishing to be tormented by the school bully. She tried her best not to notice, but each of those glances always nagged at her.

She finally entered, sat down in homeroom, and began the drone of school life that was her day, continuing to give no indication of noticing the terrified glances of the other students. When lunchtime came, she decided she couldn't handle this treatment from an entire room, so she headed for the library. She tried to cheer herself up, but neither Tolkien nor Heinlein nor Platt could do the trick. Finally giving up, she slumped in a chair in the deepest darkest corner of the room she could find.

She was not alone for long.

The thin sixteen-year-old that sat across from her could moderately be described as "Goth," but her long, obviously-dyed jet-black hair, her spiked collar, her false fangs, and the burgundy lipstick — especially the burgundy lipstick — spoke of a specialization in vampires. Her eyes were darkened with eyeliner painted to resemble the Eye of Horus, and her flowing Elvira-styled dress would have completed the scene, if she hadn't put on the black fishnet veil. Aside from her alabaster skin, the only thing not black on this girl was a silver pentagram dangling from one ear. Even her notebooks were black.

In a voice as dark as her clothing, she said, "Please. You can't mope with all those colors."

"I can mope in any colors I want," Moonbunny responded, tucking her knees beneath her chin.

"Well, you shouldn't. You own those Brittney Spears clones out there."

The girl in black unceremoniously dumped her books on the table before Moonbunny and helped herself to a chair. She leaned forward, a hand on each pale cheek, and added, "They all think you're a witch. I'd kill for your rep right now."

"Yeah, and they're all scared of me."

"Exactly!" A dazzling smile, fangs included, issued from the face of the Goth. "You've accomplished what I couldn't even do deliberately. Everyone thinks I'm just Sweetheart Haley, and nobody wants to mess with you."

"Well, you're welcome to the stares and derision." Moonbunny gestured her grant of approval.

"That's not important right now. What is important is, how the hell did you do it?" Haley leaned closer, adding, "I saw you. You were in Math class when Jimmy Lang's locker got trashed. You didn't get up, and the locker was just fine before class, and trashed after. What kind of underground conspiracies does Moonie have running around this joint?"

Moonbunny scowled. "Don't call me Moonie," she said.

"Well, tell me. You used magick, didn't you? Real, live magick!"

"No, I didn't," Moonbunny sighed. "You've been pestering me about this for five months now. Don't you ever get tired of it?"

"I will tire of it when you've told me all your secrets," Haley grinned widely, a rather fetching sight.

"Just because I live above an occult shop doesn't mean I'm a witch," Moonbunny countered, her frustration mounting.

"No, but strange stuff happens around you," Haley responded. "Besides, it gives us something to talk about."

"I'm not in the mood to talk right now," Moonbunny frowned, almost a pout.

"Okay, then listen to some more of my stories." Haley settled into her chair.

"I know you're a ghost magnet," Moonbunny said quickly, trying to head Haley off at the pass.

"Well, it just doesn't seem like you believe me." The dark girl frowned back.

Moonbunny looked at the apparition over her shoulder, another figure dressed in black, but the black of an English countryman. His pale face loomed over Haley's head with a polite smile on, somewhat embarrassed by this meeting of eyes with a mortal. He offered her a courteous little bow, the tails of his waistcoat flapping over the sides of his hips like a little pair of wings.

"Oh, I believe you," she told Haley. I'm just not sure you'll believe me. "You've been the only person in this prison who's been nice to me. But I'm not what you think I am. I'm not like you."

Haley rose an eyebrow. "I know what it is to be strange, Moon—" she caught herself before she uttered another syllable. "Surrounded by the supernatural. That's me. But it's you, too, I know it."

"Why do you keep saying that?"

"Because I have a sense for these things. You just feel more like me than everyone else."

Moonbunny thought about this for a moment. It was true, Haley did have a moderate amount of what her grandmother could have called "angel's child" in her. But it just wasn't the same as being able to actually see the things that really dwelt on the earth, all the splendors of a real faerie, all the nightmares of a ghoulish demon. Ever since school started, Haley, a sophomore, had latched on to the newcomer, and all she'd wanted to talk about was magick and ghosts and the supernatural. At first, Moonbunny had assumed she was just another wicclet, a hobbyist looking for a new way to shock her parents, but nearly clueless in all else, like her own mother. But Haley kept surprising her more and more with actual knowledge, and she really was the only person who acted even remotely like a friend.

"I just don't want to talk here at school, okay?" Moonbunny finally said.

Haley's face lit up. "Can we go to your house?"

"No," Moonbunny protested vehemently. "My Mama says that I shouldn't tell anybody this, because most people wouldn't understand. I don't want her to know."

"Why, do you do human sacrifices or something?"

"No." For the first time all day, Moonbunny's spirits were lifted as she giggled at the though of Mama killing someone. Mama, who loved everybody, even the man who'd tried to rob the store when Moonbunny was seven.

"Tell me now! I can't wait till after school."

Moonbunny leaned closer. "You're going to think I'm crazy."

"Crazier than, say, someone who's always being watched by ghosts? Whose boyfriend is a vampire?"

No, he's not, Moonbunny thought, close enough to see the bite marks hidden beneath Haley's choker. But the fact that she believed it gave her a little more courage.

"Fine. You know the ghost you're always being followed by?"

"Yeah?" Haley leaned in eagerly.

"He's really cute."

The ghost was suddenly surrounded by a shimmering of pale blue around his cheeks, and he bowed again, this time very slowly and deliberately, as though afraid to fall. Haley's eyes widened.

"Is he, now? What does he look like?" Her smile broadened as the description commenced. When Moonbunny finished, Haley said, "Wow. I thought I was the only one who's ever seen Antoine."

"You've seen him, too?" Moonbunny queried, surprised.

"Of course! Ghosts do manifest occasionally." Haley leaned even closer, their faces now inches apart. "You can see ghosts and stuff? That's so cool."

"Not always. Some of the 'and stuff' is really scary. And I've never been trick-or-treating."

"That sucks. Why not?"

"Halloween, demons walk the earth with men?"

"Oh yeah," Haley said, blushing sheepishly.

Before either of them had a chance to say anything else, the bell rang, making them both jump. This caused them to bump heads, and they both laughed as they gathered their belongings.

"Are we still on for after school?" Haley asked as they walked out of the library.

Moonbunny shrugged. "I guess," she said, pleased at the invitation.

"Good. I know this place, lots of weird people. You'll love it."

As Moonbunny walked to her class, she was suddenly struck by the fact that she hadn't minded Haley calling her weird.

***

High above New York there was a cloud, lingering unobtrusively in the sky, drifting this way and that in the crisp winter breeze. Upon it, two angels looked down at the city, the midday sunlight shining off their wings and brightening their halos. They both carried swords strapped to their sides, the glow of their flame blades softly rising from their scabbards. They were both tall, muscular Adonises, their features as finely chiseled and beautiful as a Michelangelo. Both of them wore the same disturbed scowl.

"Cherubiel, I don't see the renegade Harteriel anywhere!" exclaimed the blond-haired one, his platinum wings flapping in annoyance.

Cherubiel frowned, tying his deep auburn hair back in a ponytail that trickled down between his blood-red wings. "I'd noticed," he said. "Annoying."

"Who's protecting them?" his companion wondered.

"Dunno," Cherubiel eloquently guessed. "Theliel?"

"Nah, he hated them. He wouldn't protect them."

"Well, Barakiel, who do you think is protecting them?"

"I'll bet the warlock is protecting them," Barakiel said with finality.

"That's a good guess," Cherubiel agreed. "He was protecting them when Bhaalor attacked."

"I'll bet if we get him, Harteriel won't be protected anymore."

"Well, he's right down there." Cherubiel pointed far below at a small grey building. Barakiel squinted at it, trying to get a better view, and could see the detective obliviously sitting in a chair, watching television.

"Okay, let's get him!" Barakiel started to fly down, but never fully made the jump. Both he and Cherubiel felt a sudden tug at their long hair, and both angels' heads jerked back to catch a glimpse of a white shroud over a feminine form.

"Hey!" Cherubiel cried, turning to the female angel and rubbing the nape of his neck. "What'd you do that for, Temporiel?"

In a crisp voice that would have sounded melodic if it hadn't been snarling, Temporiel answered, "You fools, that's his office! There are humans all over it!"

Both angels looked down, bracing for an angry retribution. Temporiel took a deep breath.

"However," she said. "You are right about one thing — if we track the warlock detective, we'll find Harteriel and Seraph."

"Oh, Seraph's easy to find," Cherubiel supplied. "She's at their apartment. But that's where the gargoyles are."

"So what?" Barakiel countered. "You could've taken the gargoyles, you wuss!"

"There was evil magick, too," Cherubiel snarled.

Shaking her head and rolling her eyes, Temporiel commanded, "Shut up, you two!" Satisfied that she had their attention again, she continued, "I agree we cannot go back there. They've also probably got it heavily warded. However, we should watch where Seraph goes. Perhaps the angel will turn up, and we won't have to look for her."

"And the human warlock?" Barakiel wondered.

"I'm sure he'll get caught in the crossfire, too, Barakiel," Temporiel assured him.

Cherubiel turned back to look at the city with a heavy sigh, but his attitude immediately brightened when he saw the succubus leave her haven and hail a cab. "There she goes!" he cried out, pointing.

"Who?" Barakiel wondered, looking down. "Oh, Seraph! I see her!"

"Why is she stopping there?" Cherubiel wondered, watching the succubus disembark the cab and enter a three-story brownstone building.

"That's her club," Barakiel supplied, his voice dripping with venom. "That's where my men fell."

"Well, what's stopping us?"

"Didn't you just hear him, Cherubiel?" Temporiel snapped. "He said his men fell there. His men, not a bunch of fledglings from the academy! Thor works there. He's too strong for you."

"Damn him," Cherubiel swore. "He has been a thorn in Heaven's side for far too long. Why should we be afraid of him, when it would be easier just to kill him?"

This prompted a glare from Barakiel. "Don't you think I've tried?" he demanded.

"All right, all right." Cherubiel threw his hands up in resignation. "But how are we supposed to get at Harteriel if we can't use Seraph?"

Temporiel took a step back, her sneer not visible from beneath her birka. There were other ways. Let the two morons figure them out.

Finally, Cherubiel said, "Well, let's try sending a bigger squad to the club. We might lose a lot of warriors, but we can take out Thor. His love for the humans makes him weak."

Barakiel shook his head. "You can try it," he retorted. "I have already. It doesn't work."

"Fine," Cherubiel spat. "Then I guess we'll go after the stupid human detective and kill him, for what good that will do."

"That was my idea to begin with," Barakiel argued. "And if he is protecting them, it will do a lot of good."

Not exactly my plan, Temporiel thought, nodding silently behind them. But it'll do, for now.

"Then the warlock it is," Cherubiel said, turning back to the female angel. "When should we do this?"

"The human has to go all sorts of places, and deal with all sorts of people," Temporiel told him. "But he lives alone. Wait until dark, when he gets home."

Cherubiel and Barakiel looked back down at Earth, their plan starting to form along with the leers that were playing along their faces.

"I'm going to enjoy this," Barakiel whispered to the wind.

 

To be continued.

Chapter 2
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