Stefan turned back toward me, a look of realization dawning over his features.
Overhead, the golden brilliance intensified, narrowing to a shaft, and then a single point blazing across the sky, falling toward us like a meteor.
It was an angel.
It was a motherfucking angel.
It didn't look like any painting of an angel I'd ever seen, at least from what I could see. Its face was almost too bright to look at and its hair streamed like fire. It was at least three times the size of a tall man, and it had six wings that shifted in constant motion, wings covered in a myriad of golden eyes that opened and closed ceaselessly. I don't know if this makes any sense, but the angel looked like the word glory made incarnate, and if I hadn't been filled with infernal power, I'm pretty sure I would have been gibbering on the ground.
The angel bent its radiant face toward me and spoke in a voice that rang like giant chimes. "You presume much."
It was a simple statement of fact, no judgment or anger in it. Somehow that chilled me more than anger would have. "I know."
A dozen golden eyes on its nearest wing regarded me. "What is it you seek?"
The mind does strange things under duress. I had a horrible urge to answer with a quote from a Monty Python movie, and fought the desire to burst into hysterical laughter.
Or hysterical tears. I was close to either.
"I want to save Little Niflheim," I said. "I want Hel's demesne to be protected in perpetuity. I want mortality and a chance for redemption granted to the Outcast, and whatever . . . whatever loophole or crack that they fell through in the first place closed forever."
Several golden eyes closed. "Once the Inviolate Wall is restored, heaven can grant no such protection on the mortal plane."
Holy crap, I was bargaining with God. "Okay." My voice was shaking. "But you can save Little Niflheim if I give back my birthright? And free the Outcast?"
Massive wings stirred the air and the chiming voice turned stern. "With God all things are possible. But know that if you renounce this power, it will be forever. Do not think to seek a second bargain."
A wave of exhilaration filled me. "I know," I said breathlessly. "And trust me, I won't. I promise. Does that, um, mean we have a bargain?"
There was a long moment of silence in which the angel became motionless. Radiance continued to blaze from its face and stream from its hair, but its ever-shifting wings had gone still, the multitude of golden eyes adorning them closing as it considered my offer and conferred with God.
All at once, every single golden eye opened. "Yes."
Although I didn't dare do it, I was torn between cheering aloud and bursting into tears of relief.
Turning to Persephone, the angel extended one hand
. A shaft of illumination brighter than sunlight burst forth from its palm, bathing her in brilliance. "The world is not yours to destroy, little goddess." There was a gentleness to the chimes. "Be healed of this madness. Renounce this demesne and return to your own."
Persephone gave a choked gasp of assent.
The angel spread all six of its wings, and bright shafts of golden light arrowed from all of its eyes. "All who were cast out of the fold shall be returned to it." It folded its wings and bent its face toward Stefan, who was now kneeling in the sand. "Spend your mortality wisely."
"I will," Stefan whispered in awe, tears in his eyes.
I thought we were done with heaven's end of the bargain, but the angel wasn't finished. It turned to Daniel Dufreyne, and the stern note returned to its chiming voice. "For your role in breaching the Inviolate Wall, the unholy birthright to which you laid claim is revoked."
Be careful what you wish for, right? Dufreyne cried aloud in denial and loss, and there was no reverb in it. "No!"
The angel turned back to me. "Now."
I approached the shimmering doorway of darkness where Belphegor and the legions of hell awaited.
Belphegor's horns gleamed like obsidian. I could imagine the same weight on my brow. I could have manifested horns if I'd wanted, or a proper devil's tail, or wings like a bat. They were all just visual manifestations of the infernal power that blazed inside me, the power to compel multitudes.
The power that I was about to relinquish forever.
It was surprisingly hard.
It was also very, very unnerving to stand before my father, only a thin veil of darkness between us.
"Hi, Dad," I said with a facetiousness I didn't feel. "Sorry, I guess I must be a disappointment to you. Then again, I guess that's what you get for raping an innocent young woman. But you know what? There's something Mom always wanted you to know. When you chose her, you messed with the wrong girl."
Belphegor smiled, and it was a smile filled with an impossible mixture of cruelty and amusement. His voice echoed in my thoughts. Daughter, you struck a bargain with heaven today. Whatever you are, it is not a disappointment.
I really, really didn't expect to find that my demon father's approval warmed my heart a little bit.
I would think about what the hell that meant later.
"Okay." I drew in one last breath with brightness singing in my veins, reveling in the sensation for a few more precious heartbeats. "Father! Belphegor! I renounce my birthright, now and forever!"
The power left as abruptly as it had filled me, snuffed out like a candle flame. A cry of anguish I couldn't stifle escaped me. The doorway onto hell vanished, taking my father and its legions with it.