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Electra

Beyond the Door (IC)

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Lent came sooner than usual this year, what with Easter set as early as it could possibly be. St. Stephen's was decorated for the season with a purple altar cloth and sextet of taper candles, a far cry from the opulent preparations of the Christmas season. The smell of burnt candles and old incense hit Erin first as she pushed open the heavy front door of the church, late one evening at the end of February. She'd half-hoped that the church would be locked and dark, but with one of the heavenly host in residence, it appeared that visiting hours were extending later than usual.

Despite wishing for the confidence boost she got from her uniform, Erin had come in street clothes tonight, and she stuck her hands in the pockets of her puffy blue jacket as she walked into the sanctuary. The conversation had ended... poorly last time, but after a lot of arguing with herself, Erin had to come back to the church eventually. She still had questions that needed answers. This time, though, she hadn't brought James. He was a good friend to have at her back, but she suspected that there would be no productive conversation with him around. Her footsteps echoed off the vaulted ceiling, each creak sounding loud in the silence.

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Heyzel was working in the small office he'd screened off for himself when he heard the doors creak open, his sensitive ears pulling him away from the map of the world he'd spread out on the big table before him. Where more paranoid beings might have drawn their sword at this point, Heyzel instead took a few steps and flew up the corridor with swift strokes, coming up the vaulted stairs and out into the nave behind the pulpit. A few more steps took out of the sanctuary, where he saw Erin inside the door. He recognized her immediately, but greeted her without fear. The truth was, she wasn't the only person whose conversation with him had ended badly. "Hello," he said politely. "Is your friend with you today, or can we talk inside?"

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"He's not here," Erin replied, keeping a healthy distance back. She wasn't really afraid of the angel, not in a fight, anyway. She was confident she could handle anything he might dish out, especially here in a place where he wasn't likely to want to break anything. Truthfully, she was more afraid of herself, and of what she wanted to talk about. "I had some questions I wanted to ask you," she told him, hands still stuffed into her pockets. "If you're a real angel."

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Heyzel studied her for a moment, his open face lined with concern. "Come into the kitchen," he suggested. "The food should still be warm." He led Erin into the church's good-sized kitchen, folding his wings down against his back as he opened the oven to pull out blueberry muffins that were still just warm beneath their soft crust. "I've been baking a lot," he admitted, sitting down opposite Erin. "I'm not a very good cook, because I don't eat. But some people at the church say they like it."

In the quiet privacy of the church kitchen, the two of them alone in the building, he folded his wings back and said mildly, "I'll answer any question you want to ask."

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Erin wasn't exactly comfortable about sitting down over muffins with someone she wasn't sure she liked at all, but peeling off the muffin wrapper gave her something to do with her hands, anyway. The muffin itself was suspiciously hard, and a rather dark brown, but she wasn't hungry anyway. "I want to know about heaven," she told him bluntly. "Is there only one?"

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"There are legions of Heavens," Heyzel admitted. "All presided over by the agents of the Creator, just as all the Hells are ruled by agents of the Adversary. Some are for different planes of belief, as for those who worshipped entities like the Asgardians or the Heliopolitans. Others are for planes beyond this one; the many worlds of the Cosmic Coil."

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Erin's fingers stilled on the muffin as she listened to his answer. It was couched in weird terminology, but she thought she had the gist of it. "So you're saying there's a different heaven for every alternate world. One here for Prime, and the people here go there, and one for, say, Erde, and one for Ani-Earth, and all the others? What about people who travel between dimensions?" she asked carefully. "If they died in a world that wasn't their home, where would they go? Assuming they were headed for heaven, anyway."

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"Souls pass to the reward they deserve," explained Heyzel, warming to his topic. "It's difficult to explain, but that's the best way I can put it. Even those who die in a deepest depression at the edge of Creation will pass to the plane they deserve, even if they think they've done nothing but earn hellfire. You may not believe that there is justice in Creation in the living, but there is justice there. No one suffers in the afterlife who doesn't deserve it, and no one suffers beyond what they've earned. Just as joy comes to those who deserve it, in proportion to their worth." He paused a moment, and went on, "When my mother died, she thought she'd been abandoned by her god and damned forever. But she passed to the Heaven she deserved, just as she should have if she'd died a million worlds away."

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"How can you be an angel and have a mother?" Erin asked suspiciously. It was easier to seize on that bit of nonsense than to try and make sense of everything else he was saying. It certainly didn't sound like anything she'd learned in church, for all he was hanging out with the Catholics and claiming to be a messenger from that particular god. The idea of angels having parents was just weird in a far more mundane sort of way.

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"Well," said Heyzel, looking a little awkward, "there are many kinds of angels, just as there are many kinds of heaven. My father was among those Spoken into being by the Divine Logos at the beginning of Creation, while my mother was elevated into the ranks of the Angeloi after death. My own creation was..." He looked almost apologetic for a moment before adding, "I have no first-hand memories of it, of course."

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"Oh." Despite a certain morbid curiosity, Erin decided she really didn't want to know any more about angel sex, and besides, it was drifting from what she'd come here to learn. She turned the conversation back on point. "I'm not from Prime," she said, "but I'll probably spend the rest of my life here, however long that is. For purposes of argument, assume I go to heaven. How do I know what heaven I'm going to end up in? Is it just that you go to the heaven that's nearest, and since everyone in heaven is happy, you don't care if you went to the wrong one?"

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"You go where you deserve to go," Heyzel repeated, looking apologetic. "I'm sorry, Wander, I can't be more specific than that. My people, we...cannot know the full wisdom of the Creator. Only He can. There are some who reincarnate a thousand times; there are those who gladly pass to the other world, and never even think about leaving the Hereafter." He studied her for a moment and said, "All I can tell you is to give your love, freely, and ask nothing in return. There is no better way to receive the eternal reward you deserve."

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"That doesn't help," Erin said, impatience beginning to creep in. "That doesn't even mean anything. And whatever happened to by grace you are saved through faith, not of yourself, it is the gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast?" She rattled the Bible verse off from rote memory, something picked up from plenty of years of Sunday schooling. "I thought the whole idea is that nobody deserves heaven, but you should be good because you love God. That's what I learned in church anyway, not that I really believe any of that anymore. But is that whole idea some kind of misunderstanding?"

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"Doing good is loving God," said Heyzel honestly. "Good works and deeds are what shows the love of God. There's no other way to put it." He thought carefully, trying to put ineffable concepts into words. "The Creator is not a petty tyrant to rage at his children when they call him by the wrong name, or speak to him of things not of his Word. Nor does he turn them away if they lived their lives without hearing the Words he spoke to Creation, or prefer the Words spoken in their language to their people, or those who died too young or too sick to follow His teachings. God is love, and peace, and justice. When you strive to better those things, you do His work, and pave your way for eternity."

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Despite her resolve to be at least socially neutral for this visit, Erin couldn't help showing her disdain for that idea. "I used to think God was all those things, but that's not true," she told the angel. "If God was loving, he wouldn't let the things happen that I've seen. If He was loving, or if gave a damn about people, He might have listened when the whole world was calling out for Him to help them. If He was just, you'd think that He'd at least have saved the people who spent their whole lives working for Him, and showing looove," she elided the word sarcastically, "to everyone they met. If He was paying attention, maybe He could at least have looked after His own. And if He's so interested in Peace, why doesn't He stop Omega?" she demanded. "Even a child is known by his doings, that's another one from the Bible, isn't it?"

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Heyzel looked Erin in the eye, guilt burning hot on his face for a long moment. The secret of his mission, having pressed so hot in his mind for so long, suddenly came bursting out. When he spoke, that supernatural calm had cracked, but he was still in control. "I don't know," he admitted, pain in his voice. "The laws of the universe forbid the Choir of Angels from acting alone. When Omega invaded, we tried so very hard to...do something." He looked down at his hands. "All we could do was guide the souls of those who died to their destiny. That was the day I vowed that I would pass all the trials, and come to Earth, to do more than simply watch as my people had for a thousand years."

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"But why?" Erin demanded. "If you were all there just watching, all of you on Prime, or all of you in my world, or wherever, why didn't God send you down to help us? If your God is merciful and loving and all that, why did he let everyone in my world die? He's supposed to be all-powerful, he could've stopped it. He could've at least, I dunno, put a hand to write on the wall that the vaccine was no good, and more people might have survived. We really needed help, and all anyone up there did was make sure people who needed to go from hell on earth to real hell got there?"

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"The Creator has not spoken to my people since the first day of February, five hundred years and thirty years after the Advent of the Creator," said Heyzel, giving Erin the honesty she deserved. "Perhaps it was the same on your world. I don't know. The other heavens that my people have encountered have been much the same as ours, with a few yet closed to us." He shook his head, despair briefly crossing his angelic face before he said "Those who spoke to Him while He walked among us, those who lead the Choir, have told the rest of us to trust in His wisdom and in his imminent return. And I do trust in His wisdom, but...I no longer believe we should leave the world alone." He stared at Erin, trying to make her understand. "But I'm alone in this."

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Erin was silent for a minute, absorbing the enormity of that idea. "You mean nobody, not even the angels, has seen or heard from God since, what, 530 AD? He's just been gone, and you all knew it, and just went on with business as usual anyway? What do angels do, anyway, if they can't do anything without God and God is dead? Do you just all sit around in heaven and play cards and make little angels and knock bad souls into hell?"

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"We defend our charges against the machinations of the Adversary, warring against the efforts of his princes to overtopple Heaven. We work to build a community of love and justice, where everyone can live in peace and harmony. We whisper to the world below, steering the path of righteousness as much as we can. And we welcome the souls of the righteous to our ranks." He fell silent, then said, "It wasn't enough for me. That's why I'm here."

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"So I guess... I guess you don't really know that much more than I do," Erin said finally, "when it comes down to it. About where people go when they die, or what God is thinking, or whether God even exists." She looked down at her hands, only then realizing that she'd fiddled the muffin down into a pile of crumbs during the conversation. "It does explain a lot, though. And now I don't need to bother with praying, if I ever felt like it again." She swept the mess of crumbs back into the wrapper, then pushed back from the table. "Anyway, thanks for talking to me again. It was interesting."

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"You don't need to use words to pray," said Heyzel quietly. "You can do it with your deeds, and with your heart." He stood up as well, a look of apology on his face. "I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help to you," he added. "All I can tell you is there is justice in the world beyond. Just not in this one, not unless you fight for it." He walked with her to the door and said, "You've never told me your name, Wander."

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Erin hesitated, pausing at the door before leaving the kitchen. The school encouraged them to keep their secret identities whenever possible, but she honestly didn't see the point to getting too worked up about it. What could it hurt? "It's Erin," she told him. "You never told me your name, either."

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"Hey-zel," explained Heyzel, "but most people who use my name just make it one word." He smiled faintly. "Freedom Angel is what the newspapers called me, so people outside the church usually call me that." He walked with her down the dark corridor, out towards the sanctuary. "If you would like to come back, the church could always use more people in the soup kitchen. You wouldn't even need to worship in the sanctuary."

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"I don't have a lot of free time," Erin demurred, "they keep us busy at school. Maybe sometime, if I can manage it. Guess I might see you around, if you 're doing the hero thing too while you're here." She zipped her coat, more from habit than from need, then jammed her hands back into the pockets. "Anyway, it's good that one angel is doing something, even if God and the rest of them are asleep at the wheel. See you later." Pushing open the front door, she headed out into the always-surprising frigidity of a Freedom City February night.

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