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Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

12:32 AM


Nick Cimitiere knew it was going to be one of those nights when the pillar of fire appeared right in the middle of Lantern Hill Cemetery. 


He was on his usual nightly patrol, keeping up tabs with the local shades and making sure no hideous abominations were clawing their way back from the dark corners of the universe. So far, all had seemed pretty quiet - there'd been a tide of new souls from recent passings, young enough that they hadn't quite come to terms with their deaths. Nick knew they would need help in time, but that right now, they just needed to be left alone to cope with everything. Last thing he wanted to do was pry.


That, of course, had been when the giant column of flame appeared right in the middle of the graveyard, after which anything would've been subtle. He raised his arm, partially for protection and partially to shade out the immense radiance of the conflagration - and as it passed, he could see a figure at the heart of it. Soon, the flame died, drawn back in towards the figure, leaving a man in an immaculate suit standing on ground that hadn't even been charred. 


"I apologize for the theatrics," said the figure, "but there are... obligations."


"There's always a nice peal of trumpets instead," said Nick. "I mean, I'm not smelling brimstone, so excuse me for making assumptions, but..."


The man cleared his throat. "Ah, yes. That part." He rose a foot off the ground, arms spread wide. "Fear not, child of Adam. I am Eremiel, of the Lord, and I come with good tidings."


Angels. They weren't usually in Nick's wheelhouse. Yes, he was good friends with Heyzel, and knew Azrael rather well - including one initially awkward dinner party - but the other operations of Heaven weren't exactly something he got involved with. "I'm... honored," he said. "Really, really surprised --" It was very hard not to use swear words in front of an angel, but Nick was making every effort possible. " -- but honored. What good tidings are we talking about?" 


"There is a duty to be performed," said Eremiel as he reached into his jacket. "You have been chosen to fulfill an office of Heaven. Three others still of the flesh will join you in your duties, to fulfill the functions of the station and ensure the operations of the divine plan. Come and take your token of office."


Nick stepped forward, tentatively, as if he was somewhat afraid whatever Eremiel would press into his hand might bite. "So," he asked, "what are we talking about here? Am I going to be helping Azrael fill out names in his book? Because --"


Then Eremiel placed the object in his hand - a key. A large one, the type of baroque model used to lock gigantic gates. The look of it - the feel of it - was strange, as if it was made of both worn ivory and polished obsidian at the same time, depending on where you kept your eyes and fingers. The teeth on the key were numerous, tiny, and looked sharp enough to cut bone. And the thing glowed under Nick's death sense - bright black, a contradiction that was the only way to describe it. Lifting it closer, he could see tiny writing running up and down the stem in a script he didn't read, but could instantly understand. A dozen names, one after the other - Sheol. Gehenna. Tartarus. Purgatory...


A bit of Scripture - from the back of the book - suddenly clicked into his mind. He knew what this was the key to, a place he didn't want to open. "Oh no," he said. "Oh no, no, no..."

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The hero known as Gabriel had been having a quiet night. Nothing much going on. He was thinking of heading to bed. That was, until he saw something in the yard behind the Church. Fearing some sort of vandal, or worse, he raced over...


And instead saw an image right from the pages of Scripture. A being that bore many faces and many wings, serenely floating in place, its very appearance bringing both joy and terror to the Irishman's heart, a flaming sword in one hand and shining book in the other, a single tear leaking down his face as he heard faint echoes of the songs of Heaven...


Suddenly, there was a man there, seemingly an African-American in a finely-tailored navy blue suit, making a note on a bright white notepad with a metallic red pen. Pen and pad quickly disappeared from sight, and the man smiled and spoke in a deep bass voice.


"Greetings, favored of Gavriel. Fear not, and rejoice!"


"I'm doing pretty good on the rejoicing, results are mixed on the not fearing."


The angel (certainly not a man!) laughed. 


"Indeed! My apologies, but when we descend to the base earth, the initial presence can be a bit much. My intent is to share a message and a duty. My name is Jophiel."


Gabriel actually seemed to recognize the name.


"The Metatron's right hand?"


Jophiel's smile practically sparkled as he gave a nod of assent.


"The very same. Your name travels in certain circles, Gabriel. And not just because of who you share it with."


"Pride goeth before the fall, my friend. I thank you for the compliment, but I get the sense there's more going on here."


The smile faded.


"Yes. A large part of me wishes this task was not given to me, or to any of us. Metatron or Gavriel wish they could have done so, but duty prevents, and needs must. There is an...imbalance, and you are one of the ones selected to aid. This is no small-"


"I'll do it. Whatever it is. You know I'm willing, ready, and able."


A sad smile.


"Yes. That is why we wish this were not so. But there is a vacancy. You and others have been found to possess the most necessary qualities, in all ways, to take up the responsibilities of an office for a time. You have been selected to fulfill the functions of the station and ensure the operations of the divine plan. Come and take your token of office."


Gabriel stepped forward, and first Jophiel reached out and placed what felt like a small token in Gabriel's left hand. The man in white and silver gave a nervous smile, looking the angel in the eye for a moment (but after he began to get lost in visions of galaxies infinite spinning in the void, he didn't quite look directly) and joking.


"So is it a pin? A badge, maybe? Am I being drafted...any more than...Okay, not sure why you're giving me a weapon, I've already got the spear."


A silvery-white bow of the finest quality sat in his hand, a semi-classic recurve design that seemed strangely timless.


"This is only half of the token.


"What do you mean it's only half-"


And then Jophiel laid his hands upon the head of Gabriel, his lips moving faintly in a silent prayer in the tongue of angels, and something began to dawn in Carson's mind. A single trembling hand reached up as his hood slid back, and felt it there upon his brow. 


A crown. A circlet of white steel, with a single peak in front holding a white pearl that shone as unto a diamond.


Tears began to form in Gabriel's eyes as he suddenly knew what he had been given, and what "office" he was being called to fill.


"What have I done? Why...why is this punishment levied upon me? I do not wish for it or want it, and I fear its meaning, both for my own soul and the soul of the world."


Jophiel's face was grim now, but empathy and sympathy shone from his eyes.


"No sin-stain weighs upon your soul and this is neither punishment, nor signal of the End. This is an office to be filled. You already agreed, and in your heart, now that you are assured of what it does not mean, you still accept. I am sorry, for whatever it is worth. We are all so very, very sorry."


Gabriel simply nodded and closed his eyes, trying to regain his composure...

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Meanwhile, across town, similar visitations were in order, tiny miracles hidden from the rest of the world. 


In an isolated chamber of Freedom Hall, Comrade Frost was checking up on the archives and latest news reports when the flap of wings from a bird the size of a stealth bomber filled the room. He turned to find a wheel of wings and eyes, endlessly rotating on a fourth-dimensional axis. "Fear not," cried the angel, as the great motion of features began to condense down into a solid form. When it was done, an angel who looked more suited for a biker bar than a church service stood before him - hulking, tattooed, and clutching a black set of scales in a fist the size of a pork roast. "Seriously, don't. I know I'm one of the last guys you expected to see, and probably not in a context like this. I am Kushiel, of the Lord. And I'm asking you, Dmitri Peshkov, to fulfill a duty on behalf of Heaven."


And in the library of the Midnight Manor, a beacon the color of bright midnight drew the eye of Wander. Out of it came a woman clad in a black dress and bracers to match, with a sword the color of rubies strapped to her waist. "Greetings, Erin White," she said. "I am Leliel, of the Lord. Know that you are blessed in the sight of Heaven, child. And know that the offices of the divine seek your aid."

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As a patrolling hero, Erin didn't have many free evenings to settle in with a book. When the opportunity did present itself, at least she could do it in the deep and cozy window seat in the library, blanket over her legs and mug of cocoa close to hand. The cozy atmosphere, however, could not change who she was. The instant the beacon began to take shape, paperback and blanket were tossed aside as she leapt to her feet and took a ready stance. Unarmed, barefoot and in her lilac flannel pajamas, Erin was still anything but helpless. 


When the intruder made no immediately hostile move, Wander relaxed fractionally and listened to her spiel. It was a mark of how far she'd come in the past five years that an assertion that she was "blessed by heaven" was met with a sardonic raised eyebrow instead of an angry rant or an actual beatdown. "I'd hate to see what you guys do to the folks you don't like," she said mildly. "I thought you had angels on the payroll in Freedom City already. What are you looking to me for?"

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Damn damn damn! I knew this day would come! 


Faced with the accounting of his manifold sins, Dimitri Peshkov rose to his feet and snapped to attention like he was on the parade ground of the Graduate School of the NKVD. "I am prepared, oh rigid one." He knew the name Kushiel, and the works of Yahweh's Fist, well enough. "If I have earned an eternity of suffering, it has been in the service of my people, so that they could-" 

"No no no, nothing like that." The angel, who towered over the diminutive Soviet and didn't seem bothered by the icy chill that had kept across the room, waved a beefy hand. "Not today, anyway. Heaven needs a champion." 

Frost crossed his arms and looked at the angel suspiciously, recognizing the symbol of Famine well enough but not seeing his own role in the situation. "And what does Heaven of the Nazarene need with Soviet vampire appointed to Lady Hel's service? Have you spoken to her of this?" 

"Of course. You know our policy better than most mortals - anyone willing to stand against the Adversary is a friend of ours. She said to tell you that there is no greater enemy of the mad gods of Asgard than the King of Kings. And that if you screw this up, she will take her knife Famine and her plate Hunger, and she will feast upon your-" 

"Ugh, I get picture, yes. Then in the interests of amity between Abode of Mist and Abode of the Blessed, I take your challenge, Kushiel." Frost relaxed, fractionally, and said the words, "I will take up the burden that you offer me." 

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Leliel's face didn't exactly fall when Erin spoke, but it did twitch in that familiar pattern of those trying to put on a brave face while realizing they had just stepped in it. "I should have been more considerate," she said, compassion in her voice. "I know that you have suffered. I know that you have seen terrible things, and had terrible things done to you. What solace I could offer you in words alone would not be enough to make up for all that has happened to you."


She took a step forward. "I am here to ask you to fulfill an office of Heaven," she said. She drew the sword from her belt, holding it aloft towards the sky - then turned it down, placing it in both palms, offering it to Erin. "The office will be temporary - a few days in celestial time, a few hours in Earth time - yet necessary. It is a task best suited for one of the flesh, as it requires a certain freedom many angels lack. It shall not require anything that you would find objectionable. It will require bookkeeping, vigilance, and - if all else fails - some defense.


"Erin White, I ask you to take up the mantle of War."

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Erin bounced once on the balls of her bare feet when the angel drew her weapon, subsiding again when it became apparent that no fight was in the offing. The half-apology wasn't much consolation, but it did at least suggest that someone was paying attention up there, even if they hadn't intervened. Maybe heaven had really needed six and a half billion new residents for some reason. Or it was like Heyzel had told her, and that God wasn't even there to check His holy answering machine. Somewhere along the line she'd realized that there was no answer she could live with, so it was better not to ask the question. 


She stared at the proffered sword, seeing her own distorted reflection in the crimson blade. Without touching it, without looking up, she spoke in a quiet voice. "War, huh? I remember hearing something about that back home . Comes right after Pestilence, I think. Which I guess would be fitting." She jerked her gaze upwards, locked eyes with Leliel. "This had better not be some kind of apocalypse you're inviting me to help kick off," she told the angel. "Because I'm in the business of stopping those, by whatever means necessary." 

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Leliel looked to Erin. "There shall be no apocalypse," she said, "not at our hands. You shall not be asked to ride forth, merely to observe." She looked to the sky, as if scanning for some sort of sign. Whatever she saw, she sighed, and turned back to Erin. 


"I must be honest, Erin White. The position is more than ceremonial, and does come with a burden - but it is not one that you will face alone, and not the one that you think. You will not be asked to ride forth and herald the apocalypse. If anything, you will be asked to ensure that one does not come to pass. There's not much more I can say outside of the gates of Heaven. My eyes and ears can pierce many veils, but our enemies know different paths. Crooked paths. I will not insist that you take this office. It is yours to refuse; we have made other arrangements for the occasion. But, you - you who slew the incarnation of Oblivion - we ask you to aid us in standing fast against Armageddon."

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Erin pursed her lips, not liking the sound of another burden much, but if there was an apocalypse to be averted, it was probably best that they not have to go to a Plan B candidate. Why did everyone in the multiverse believe that she and her friends had killed Omega, except for the humans on Earth Prime? It was kind of irritating, really. And apparently it ended you up on the cosmic "in case of emergency" call list. 


Leliel was still holding out the sword expectantly, so with a long exhale, Erin reached out and picked it up by the hilt. "All right, you've got your War," she told the angel. "Just let me leave a note for Trevor when he gets home." She twirled the sword once, unsurprised at the perfect balance, then looked down at herself. "And I should probably put some clothes on, too." 

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Leliel nodded, with a look on her face that said she understood entirely. 




"Now that we've settled the whole 'obligation' bit," said Kushiel to Comrade Frost, "I suppose we should clarify terms." He held the scales out to Comrade Frost; they looked like polished ebony at a distance, but on closer inspection, they seemed more like ivory soaked in pitch. "I know you've delved into enough esoterica to have an idea of what these represent. To answer that question before it's asked - no, you're not being asked to do that. You are, however, being asked to take up the office of Famine in order to ensure that the divine machinery keeps ticking. There will be some administrative oversight, a chance to acquaint yourself with the symbols of office... and possibly, a need to ensure that some guys with some really weird ideas don't try to jump in the saddle. This sound good?"




"I understand how you must feel," said Jophriel to Gabriel. "I came to you resplendent in glory, knowing that you would gladly volunteer for the duties of Heaven. I should have couched the message, ensured that the wrong idea was not bestowed." He shook his head. "Sometimes, even the divine voice stumbles on its own words. I must reassure you - you are not being asked to become the Beast. Nor are you being asked to ride forth. This is primarily a matter of oversight and vigilance, a step to insure that all continues on Earth as it is in Heaven. The Seals shall not crack, the Trumpets shall not sound, and the Bowls shall not be spilled. This world has a ways to go - and we are merely trying to ensure it will not meet its end for some time."




"This is not what you think it is," said Eremiel. 


"Really?" said Nick. "Because it looks like you gave me the key to the realms of the dead. I don't exactly see 'Hell' written on here, so I guess we're going for the old, traditional meaning. 'And Hades rode with him.' And hey, if you're looking for someone to wipe out a fourth of the earth, you've got the wrong necromancer. Though I think I've still got Baron Samedi's number --"


"These are not the End Times. Nor, hopefully, shall they come for some time. This is merely a means of maintaining the regulation of Heaven, and ensuring that all continues as it should. You would take the seat of Death, yes, but you would not ride out. You would merely ensure that the office remains in order, and that there are no major disturbances."


Nick turned the thought over in his head. "So... it's ceremonial. Like being crowned King of Mardi Gras. Only a lot more grim." 


"That is not exactly how I would put it, but it is a fitting comparison."


"All right, but... why not Azrael? He knows his way around death a lot better than I do." 


"Azrael has his purpose. This post requires a flexibility that comes easily to mortals, but rarely to angels."


"As long as it's not moral flexibility..." He studied the key some more. It was strange, but it was starting to feel right in his hand, like it fit perfectly. "All right. I accept."

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"Famine, yes." Frost stared at the scales, his eyes going back seventy years, back to the days of Dr. Dimitri Peshkov. The snarky armor he wore around himself as naturally as clothing faded before that terrible symbol, replaced with something cold, dead, and predatory. "I remember it was the old ones who died first in those years, starving themselves so their families could live. And then the children, too, of things that we could cure in a day in a hospital in Moscow, if we had had the resources. And then the parents died too, from grief and shame at their loss. Moscow blamed the peasants for stealing food, you know? They told the urban workers the peasants were to blame for why men were starving to death on the street every day."


His gloved hands flattened against his desk. "When the NKVD came to the farm where I was posted, I expected them to have me shot as they had killed the other farm doctors around us. They said we had encouraged the peasants to hoard grain and that we were all wreckers of the revolution who had poisoned the animals. But I cowered and I simpered," he sneered in icy condemnation of the man who had died at the hands of the Nazis seventy years earlier, "and they complimented my efficient burning of the bodies, After they left, a woman in the village went mad with the hunger and took a knife, and she..." He met the angel's eye. "But then you saw that, didn't you? You people see everything."


He reached out, then, and took the scales in a firm grip. "I take this burden with the promise. Never again!

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"I understand how you must feel," said Jophriel to Gabriel. "I came to you resplendent in glory, knowing that you would gladly volunteer for the duties of Heaven. I should have couched the message, ensured that the wrong idea was not bestowed." He shook his head. "Sometimes, even the divine voice stumbles on its own words. I must reassure you - you are not being asked to become the Beast. Nor are you being asked to ride forth. This is primarily a matter of oversight and vigilance, a step to insure that all continues on Earth as it is in Heaven. The Seals shall not crack, the Trumpets shall not sound, and the Bowls shall not be spilled. This world has a ways to go - and we are merely trying to ensure it will not meet its end for some time."

Gabriel audibly sighed in relief when he was told he was not, in fact, slated to be the Antichrist. He hadn't been looking forward to that telephone conversation with his parents. He gave Jophriel a lopsided smile.


"As much as the thought of me having to actively help prevent the end of the world by taking up the mantle of one of the Four Horsemen is, I cannot lie and say that I am not immensely relieved to not bear that particular...office. 


As this is a matter of oversight, prevention, and protection, I renew my agreement to take up this office. Um. So long as it's not lifelong? It doesn't sound like it is."


He shifted his grip on the bow, the crown having somehow all but adhered to his already-placed helm. If nothing else, it wasn't going to chafe. 


"Well, my apartment's locked up tight, and I've got a clear schedule tomorrow. Let's do this."

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The angels gave a simple nod, and around the four, the world seemed to stretch and bleed away, as if distorted in a funhouse mirror. Everything eventually merged into a solid, white light, bright enough to burn away anything. Right before it felt like it was going to burn its way into their brains, the light faded, giving way to a cityscape. 


Nick blinked, clearing away the last of the spots in his eyes, and looked down one street. Judging by the houses, the pavement, and the hanging willow trees, he was in the middle of Savannah. The place looked like a snapshot of his memories from SCAD. Only... it didn't feel like Savannah. There wasn't that damp humidity that often came with mid-day - but there was some. In fact, it felt a hell of a lot like Freedom. He turned down another street - this one looked more like Riverside than Savannah. 


As the others looked around, they saw similar, familiar sights. In the distance, Wander could see the familiar Claremont campus, surrounded by parts of Bayview. Comrade Frost could hear men singing an old farming song in Russian, the kind of thing one might hear on a collective farm. And Gabriel saw the city center of Limerick, with its mixture of classical and new - and, sitting as easily as it could in the middle of the city, an echo of the monastery on Sanctuary. 


"It's one hell of a mix," Nick said. "Are we seeing our personal Heavens, or...?" 


"That's how it works for the souls who come here," said Eremiel, "but we needed something more stable. The raw glory of Heaven is... a bit much for those still attached to corporeal forms. We decided it would be best to craft it to something that would better fit your states. Is it to your liking?"


"It's... interesting. But I kinda like it. And it's a lot better than having my head melt."


It was at this point that Nick realized there were people behind him. He turned to greet them. "Wander, good to see you again. Comrade Frost, shame we didn't get a chance to talk much after the Set thing. And Gabriel - always great to see you. Honestly, if I had to pick partners for this whole thing, you're some of the best ones I could get."  

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"Well. I never thought I would find myself in this place," said Frost, raising his hood defensively even against a warm breeze that felt like a Ukrainian summer on its hottest day, the sort that back home he could have enjoyed in great comfort. The words were a jest, but the emotion of the moment made them raw in his throat. Be professional, Dimitri, he sternly chastised himself. Do not weep in front of the angels. "Not without being in flames, anyway. I have not yet had the pleasure, little lady," said Frost as he shook Wander's hand in a gloved grip, his hand cold beneath. "Comrade Frost." He looked around at the scene around him, which did indeed look like a busy kolkhoz through an angel's eyes - fat, happy children in their Pioneer uniforms, prosperous-looking men and women off to the fields together, a perfect picture of the new Soviet state. He stood beneath the shadow of the doctor's office, and could nearly smell the animals within. 


I wonder if they are sons and daughters of the Rodina taken in those days. If I travel to a gulag, will I see others?...Enough of this. 


"So!" he boomed, before pointing from one of them to the other. "Death, War, Conquest...and Famine." He hesitated, just a moment, before indicating himself with the last word. "Gabriel, are you the Anti-Christ?" he inquired. "I had no idea it would be you!" He winked, then turned to their hosts. "The old holders of these offices. What has befallen them? 

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"It's... interesting. But I kinda like it. And it's a lot better than having my head melt."


It was at this point that Nick realized there were people behind him. He turned to greet them. "Wander, good to see you again. Comrade Frost, shame we didn't get a chance to talk much after the Set thing. And Gabriel - always great to see you. Honestly, if I had to pick partners for this whole thing, you're some of the best ones I could get."

Gabriel smiled at Nick's choice of words.


"I think they try to reserve the head-melting for the Nazis these days. And yeah, it's a pleasure to be working alongside all of-


"So!" he boomed, before pointing from one of them to the other. "Death, War, Conquest...and Famine." He hesitated, just a moment, before indicating himself with the last word. "Gabriel, are you the Anti-Christ?" he inquired. "I had no idea it would be you!" He winked, then turned to their hosts. "The old holders of these offices. What has befallen them?

And then Comrade Frost went right from "quirky small talk" to "subject Carson just finished having an existential crisis over", and the air suddenly hummed with tension for just a moment. Gabriel's eyes narrowed just slightly, and his mouth set itself into a firm line.


"No. I am not The Beast From The Sea. Thank you for asking, though."


He turned away for a moment, facing the echo of his hometown and, more distant, what had become his truer home-away-from-home. He took a couple of calming breaths, his eyes closed, and the tension left his shoulders. He turned back to the others, serious, but no longer "borderline wrathful". Which, considering what they'd been given, was probably a good thing. His gaze wandered to the 4 angels who had brought them here.


"I am curious about our predecessors, though. As well as a few more details on what sorts of tasks and...challenges...we might expect to face while fulfilling these duties. It seemed as if there's an expectation of something happening that will require us to do more than administer others and fill out paperwork."

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Wander stared around for a few minutes as the group made introductions, trying to wrap her mind around the idea of being in heaven while still alive, or being in heaven at all. She knew people who'd been to hell and back, literally, but it was still very weird. Not knowing what one wore to become an avatar of apocalypse, she'd changed into her purple and black uniform and left her face bare. The crimson sword was sheathed at her back, out of her way and far more comfortable than carrying a sword as long as her leg at her hip. She much preferred the comfortable weight of her silver bat, which gleamed like a light bulb in the glow of Heaven. 


She gave the heroes she knew a friendly upnod, glad to see some familiar faces in this strange place. "Hey Nick, Gabriel." She studied Comrade Frost as he shook her hand, the corners of her lips twitching when he called her "little lady." It might have been patronizing, had she not had the edge on him in height and muscle. "Wander," she supplied. "And yeah, it'd be nice to know exactly what we're supposed to do, now that we're here." 

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"Your duties are to direct the course of matters down on Earth," said Jophiel. "You will oversee what is happening on Earth - in the fields of conquest, war, famine, and death - and guiding them as you see fit."


"Wait, wait, wait," Nick said. "You're putting us in charge of some of the most potent forms of destruction possible. What happens if we decide... we don't want to? I mean, is it an option of office to just hold the reins and keep our horses back at the gate?" 


"Are you suggesting an end to death?"


"What? No!" Nick had read enough theoretical studies - okay, read enough short stories and seen enough movies - to know what happened when death itself stopped to happen. That would definitely count as the greater of two evils. "I mean... is it possible to just turn down the dial?"


"That is entirely an option," said Leliel. "You may turn it down as far as you can. But know that you are not being asked to ride; while you can affect the forces of your office, they will not follow in your trail. They've gained their own momentum, over months and years - and while they can be driven back or redirected, they can not be entirely quelled."


"That's at least a difference. Now, onto the question on everyone's lips --"


"Yes," said Eremiel, "the other riders. As we have said, this is a duty for mortals, not for angels. There were once riders, clad in the glory of Heaven --"


"They fell."


The other angels turned to Kushiel, who had his arms crossed. "What? You want me to dress it up with prose and flourishes? They got way, way too into their work, and they fell. After that, we decided it'd be a good idea to let the office gather cobwebs until the posts needed to be filled. Put the rest of the work in the hands of other angels, altered just enough so that there wasn't the whole 'burn it all down' impulse. Only, since the seats are still open, there's a chance they could plant their asses right back on their horses. With you guys here and in office, that keeps them from wandering back in and trying to force the affair. Which is the last thing we want right now."

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Frost clapped his hands together in a puff of chilly white mist, speaking with a noticeably thickened accent a few moments later. "So, then, let us begin our work! I can manage something small as all of famine and hunger for a while. Yes." He hmmed and added, "Say, I am old Soviet monster and about a hundred years old, but young lady here may want to have children someday," he said with a nod towards Wander, "and Gabriel has young ladyfriend." He didn't look troubled by the revelation of Gabriel's discontent with his office, but did file it away for future reference about the man. It must be difficult for a man of his beliefs to be here among his gods. Should I tell him it is no different than carrying Ares' sword a while? No, I am not supposed to talk about these things at the office. "How long we have these posts for, eh? Till other horsemen attack and we can thrash them?"  

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Gabriel gave a polite cough at the mention of a "ladyfriend". Comrade Frost might not have a secret identity, but he did, ragged as it might be some days.


"Actually, I, uh, don't. We talked at the beginning of the month..."


He shook his head and pressed forward.


"Anyways, that's kind of what I was wondering myself. I mean, I figure time moves differently here, at least to some degree, but we're not looking at a 1 to 1000 ratio of days or anything, are we? Unless it's 1 day on Earth and 1000 here?


I mean, it sounds like this is temporary...are you looking for more permanent fulfillers of the roles? Perhaps setting up a system to pass the mantle from user to user to ensure it's cared for properly?


And, uh..."


He glanced at the others, and then the angels, seeming a bit embarrassed still.


"Will we have an assistant or two? To help sort things out? I mean, Nick at least is sort of familiar with how to interact with the forces of Death. The rest of us might in some ways "fit the profile", but we don't really direct these things. Not normally. I think I'm going to need a metaphorical crash course at the office."

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The other angels cast an eye at Kushiel when Comrade Frost mentioned fighting the others; he gave a shrug that implied he really could not give a damn that the topic had been broached. "Whether or not you will fight them remains to be seen," said Eremiel. "As we speak, our scouts at the gates have not yet spotted the fallen ones amongst the besieging armies. As far as our intelligence tells, they are bound to... elsewhere... and are only able to return to Heaven during a brief window that opens a path directly between their dread abode and our plane. Once that window closes, they must retreat, lest the sheer essence of Heaven rip through their polluted forms."


"So, we're basically playing defense until the Horsemen get dragged back to Hell... or wherever," Nick said. "Now, about these brief windows - will we be able to get back to Earth before we can all claim retirement benefits?"


"Time can flow at variable rates between Heaven and Earth," said Leliel. "However, the position will only keep you here for a day or two, both in celestial time and firmament time. Once the window expires and the fallen ones return to their realm, you will be free to return to Earth - and the posts of the Horsemen shall remain vacant once more."


"Ah. So this is a ceremonial position..." So many questions ran through Nick's head - if they were seatwarmers, then what would happen when the capital-A Apocalypse came about? Would they find new mortals to sit the posts, or try making new angels? "But we are going to have a little field support, right?" 


"There will be angels whose fields align with yours," said Jophiel. "They are not perfectly aligned with your direct purpose, but they will know enough to be of service. They can help guide you in ensuring that the flow of events is directed as you wish."

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Those answers were both fairly reassuring to Erin, for all she couldn't help but feel a little inadequate to the task of directing War in the world. She wished for a moment that Trevor had been home, then she could've told Leliel that he was much better suited to the job, that even in a small, very unwarlike super-battle she typically deferred to his tactical planning. But she was here now, and hopefully she couldn't screw things up too badly over the course of a few days. And if it did come down to a hand-to-hand fight with the fallen angels over the seat of power, at least she was definitely better at swordfighting than Trevor.


"I guess we better get started, if we want to start figuring things out before something tries to attack," she told the others, taking a good look around the neighborhood. "How do we get around up here? Is it like walking, or wishing, or-" She twisted her neck around on the offchance she might have grown a pair of wings in the few minutes she'd been among the heavenly host, but no such luck. "Or whatever?" 

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"So our primary purpose is to guard the offices against a sneak attack through a hidden entrance to Heaven. And on the side, manage our...portfolio."


The angel-themed hero seemed to be warming to the idea. The fact that it was only for a couple of days was even more incentive. He seemed to think over the presented facts a bit more, and without really thinking about it, he tapped the bow in his hand, which flowed down and over the hand holding it to solidify into a silvery vambrace over his coat sleeve, featuring a central design reminiscent of a crossbow. He raised an eyebrow, but shrugged and continued.


"Having on-site assistants and trainers is just a plus."


He nodded at Wander's statement of how they ought to get down to business, though he shared her curiosity of how they'd get to their "office". Or where exactly in the shining expanse around them their offices were!

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"Traveling about Heaven can usually be by thought," said Jophiel, "though we have found some prefer the idea of motion, or the sheer experience of conveyance. Still, as this is a matter where time is of some essence..."


He raised one hand in the air and gave it a little rotation, as if trying to relieve a cramped wrist. Around the heroes, the air blurred, rippling and distorting. The group came to rest outside of a great hall, rendered up in white marble and black ebony. It was immaculate, like so much about Heaven, but it was a different kind of immaculate from the other buildings. This was not a place where people regularly tread its floors, or passed in and out of its doors. It had all the cleanliness and austerity of a well-maintained crypt. 


The doors opened with a dull roar, giving way to a hallway the size of the Ark. There was little to the interior of the building but four gigantic rooms, each one easily putting a skyscraper to shame. There were simple doors leading into the rooms, each of human size - but they were set into gigantic gates. Familiar looking gates, from which snorting and whinnying could be heard...


"Stables," said Nick. "So the whole 'Horse' thing isn't just metaphor." 


"It's all metaphor," said Kushiel. "It's just that, up here, metaphor and reality can be the same thing. I'd still like to meet the guy who thought it'd be hilarious to put them in actual stables --"


Behind him, Eremiel delicately cleared his throat. 




"It's of no importance," said Eremiel. "We can sort it out later. In the meantime..."


Each hero was split up with the angel who had brought them to Heaven. Nick and the others stepped through the doors to their stables to find... a horse, one that easily outsized the Trojan one. For Gabriel, a gigantic white Mustang; for Wander, a chestnut Palomino; for Comrade Frost, a great black Friesian; and for Nick Cimitiere, a grand gray Arabian. The horse locked eyes with Nick, acknowledging a connection between them.


"Huh," said Nick. "And me without any sugar cubes..." 

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Frost frowned as he looked up at the horse, his eyes narrowing for a moment at the English pun. Surely not... He sensed a hunger in the beast, a predatory desire for warmth and light, that made those doll-black horse eyes very familiar. "Yes. I know your face." He stalked up the horse, his mind tumbling back across the decades. "You know what killed me, angel?" he asked of Kushiel, pointing at the horse as it slowly began to dwindle down to a more manageable size. "It was so damnably cold in Leningrad that first winter, and those damned Krauts and Finns, they pinned us into the city like so many cattle. There was no food, no resupply, and as the winter went on, we grew hungry. Because I had been a veterinarian, they sent me to kill the horses in the city for our meat. The town party secretary had these Arabians he had been saving to ride after the war; showhorses...Those eyes, looking at me with the trust of beasts really bonded to a  man, you know?" 

Frost made a gun with finger and thumb, and fired it. "And then when the horses were all gone, and we began to look at each other with new eyes, I volunteered for the escape outside the city." He smiled humorlessly. "Right into the arms of the Thule Society. And then I was the cold, and the winter's hunger too." As the horse shrunk down to a manageable size, Frost carefully climbed aboard with the air of a man long since gone rusty with animals. "Come, beast. Let us do our work." 

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Erin swallowed hard as she walked into the stable, looking up and up at the massive reddish animal that was supposedly hers to ride. "Pretty big for a metaphor," she mused aloud, her voice a little bit strained. Large animals were not her forte, even ones who were supposed to like people. And she suspected that a horse for War might not be the friendliest creature in the world. Still, no matter what size it was, it was still an herbivore, so she had at least the theoretical advantage here. 


Leaping to a narrow ledge formed where the stablebox met the wall of the building, Erin crouched and studied the giant horse eye-to-eye. Slowly, she stretched out a hand, fingers loosely curled, as though the horse were a strange dog and she was letting it smell her. "I'm Wander. I've seen some fighting, and I bet you have too," she told the creature in a low voice. "I guess we'll get by. I don't suppose you can metaphor into a motorcycle or anything like that, can you?" 

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