To Gabriel said the Lord: ’Proceed against the bastards and the reprobates, and against the children of fornication and destroy the children of fornication and the children of the Watchers. Cause them to go against one another that they may destroy each other in battle: Shorten their days.
No request that (the Watchers) their fathers make of you shall be granted them on their behalf; for they hope to live an eternal life, and that each one of them will live five hundred years.’...
When their sons have slain one another, and they have seen the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them fast for seventy generations under the hills of the earth, until the day of the consummation of their judgment and until the eternal judgment is accomplished.
--1 Enoch 10:9-10,12
Ramuel was a good man. I knew the moment we met him. He laughed, but not like Semes did, like only he knew what he was laughing at--rather, he seemed delighted by the triumphs of life, as much as he scowled at the worst. At times I thought him a more appropriate father for Gilgamesh than I was, far more patient and kind. I suppose those traits befit a healer; although remembering stoic Raphael, I couldn’t say they were necessary for the job. His build was sturdy, like an oak, his hair wild and thick. I trusted him at once, and there are few I trust.
We met him in a village of only twenty people, so far from Uruk they struggled to pronounce my wife’s name. They gave Ramuel a grand send-off, producing a feast from what must have a been a meager harvest at this altitude, and welcomed my son and I into the fold. In the morning, we exchanged gold for horses, who would carry us the rest of the journey. We would venture deep into the mountains, hoping we might find some fertile valley to make our home.
I’m ashamed to think that the journey might have been my only time truly alone with Gilgamesh since his childhood. That I had been avoiding my son since that incident in the baths didn’t help matters; I found it hard to look at him, at first. He represented my failures as a man, as much as a father. My greatest fear was that I was a monster pretending to be a king--my son’s carnal attraction to my wife, an irregularity more common in beast than man, seemed at first to confirm these anxieties. But it was too easy to forget his other traits, after that day. Traveling with him, I was reminded how brave he was, and brilliant, and kind. I remembered how much I loved him.
Still, we didn’t talk much. Gilgamesh was out of sorts, having lost the only home he had ever known. I was trying to adjust to waking hours without the woman who was my purpose. Ramuel tried to make small talk when he first joined our party, but adjusting to our temperament, he learned to keep conversation focused on details of the route. After a time he began to chart a map of where we had been, which half peaked my interest, if only because I wanted to know my way home. Home: with her.
Our first real talk since setting out was when I found Gilgamesh sitting by a pond, using his dagger and the water’s surface to shave, like I had taught him. I kept my cheeks bare for the same reason I kept my nails short: that is, an attempt to escape my first life. He had no such reason to upkeep the time-consuming habit, especially in the wilderness. Yet he did.
His shirt was discarded; no doubt the fabric still stung against the markings down his back, which had left an auric wound as well as a physical one. The skin had healed by this point, the black lines settled back into a smooth surface, but parts of it were still tinged pink. More than the sigils, I saw the scars that I had given him; I shuddered with guilt.
I cringed when he cursed, some blood drawn in his haste. I must have startled him when I put my hand on his head and took the dagger from his grasp.
I tore a strip of linen from my sleeve, wetting it in the cold water and passing it to him. With an embarrassed grimace, he took it, pressing it to the wound. It wasn’t deep, I noticed, relieved.
“Were you watching me?” he asked.
“For a minute,” I said.
Sitting beside him, observing how he avoided my gaze with embarrassment, I couldn’t help but be struck by how he moved like Ninsun. I didn’t appreciate enough what a gift he was, from her to me.
“You don’t need to shave anymore,” I said. “There’s no one to see you, out here.”
“I want to,” he said, taking the dagger back. I let him.
“I just do, ok?”
I smirked, coming to realize what he was avoiding.
“You want to look like your old man.”
He turned beet red, jaw tight like he wanted to punch me. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s fine,” I said. “Consider me flattered.”
Gilgamesh went quiet, keeping the cold strip pressed close, staring out over the water. The region was rocky, the shore made of jagged gray stones. A lone tree stretched out over the water, casting a crumpled shadow that waxed and waned with the quiet breeze, unaware of us. I leaned back, seeing a sky dusted with clouds.
“You’re never going to bring it up, are you?” Gilgamesh asked. “What happened.”
“You should,” he said.
I laid down fully, closing my eyes to it all. I didn’t want to think. I savored the sensation given by the earring I wore, a far-off feeling of warmth and longing that pulsed with her beating heart.
“I don’t understand you,” he muttered. “You never have anything to say.”
“That’s not true,” I sighed. I just wasn’t used to being able to speak, having spent centuries with a useless tongue. He couldn’t know that, though.
“If it’s not, then you should talk,” he said, frustrated. “I hate feeling like I’m the only one who doesn’t understand what’s happening. You’re always so fucking quiet, it makes me want to knock your teeth out.”
“I’m not stupid. You’d kill me.”
“Good. Avoid the fights you can’t win, until you can win them. I’m glad to have taught you that much.”
“I’m stuck in your shadow,” he said, quieter. “It’s like I’m always trying to be what you already are. And I’ll never really get there.”
This concerned me. I sat up, seeing he had struck his dagger into the rocks beside him, and peeled the strip away to reveal the thin gash along his right cheek. He stared at the bloodstained linen, the way I had once stared at my paws.
“No, you can’t be me,” I told him, “you’re not meant to be. Your name is the one mankind will remember, because there are none in this world like you. Remember that.”
“If it weren’t for me, you would still be with Mother,” he said. “Heaven is punishing me for what I did.”
“Our quarrel with Heaven goes far beyond that. It was only a matter of time before things fell apart.”
“But there’s something wrong with me--”
“There is not.”
Perhaps I had spent too long trying not to coddle him. It felt foreign to put my arm around him, at first, and he tensed as well. But then he eased into me, his head against my shoulder, making me recall the mornings when I had let my little boy crawl into my lap to recount his dreams. I rest my forehead in his hair, seeing my black strands against his gold. My miracle child, all grown up.
“I’m afraid,” he choked. “It’s killing me, not knowing. My sister...I’m never going to see her, am I?”
“...I don’t know.”
I wished I could tell him anything else. Yet this time, I couldn’t bring myself to lie. Not to him.
I gave him time to collect himself. The breeze had faded when gently, I released him. Shaking out his hair, as if purging himself of the affection, he laid back as I had been, staring up at the sky.
“You need to take a new name, until it’s safe to go back to the palace,” I said.
“Why?” he muttered. “No one knows me out here.”
“The veil between worlds listens. You must be careful what’s said, even when you don’t think anyone is there.”
“But you always say names don’t mean anything.”
“Except when someone is looking for you. Especially in the veil.”
He was quiet then, but I knew he was attentive. I rarely spoke of the world beyond; when I did, he was apt to listen.
“It works both ways,” I said, as the thought came to me. “If ever the day comes that your mother and I aren’t here, our spirits will be in the veil. If you call our names long enough, we’ll find our way to you. It will never be like it was in the flesh again, but we will be there--some trembling in the leaves, a whisper in your thoughts. No matter what happens, you’ll never have to be alone.”
Gilgamesh nodded, accepting this. Even so, there was a sadness about it.
“You should pick a name for me,” he said, after a silence.
He huffed. “I’ve never heard it.”
“Perfect. Now your mother and I both made up a perfectly acceptable name for you.”
Gilgamesh laughed despite himself; I couldn’t help but smile.
“What about you?” he asked, sitting up. “Do I get to make one up for you?”
Sitting up, rinsing the dagger beneath the water, Gilgamesh was quiet while he thought of it.
“Ea,” he said. A play on our word for ‘wise.’
I was surprised, having expected something more underhanded. Perhaps there was more of Ninsun in him than I thought.
“Do you think that’s fitting?” I pressed.
“Yes,” he said, averting his gaze. “You’ve taught me everything, Father. I can never repay you for that.”
“You don’t need to,” I said. “That’s what I was supposed to do.”
We had said little, in the end. Yet still, there seemed something mended between us. He finished shaving, more mindful of his blade, no further accidents to be had. I borrowed the dagger afterwards and did the same. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him twisting his ring around his finger, the ruby glinting as it caught the sun. I knew he was remembering home. Unable to speak of it, I maintained the silence.
We returned together to the campsite, where Ramuel was rigging a sort of shelter out of stitched bearskin and deer hide, cast over a low tree branch.
“Looks like rain,” he said. “Don’t want the little prince to get wet.”
A gentle tease, but Gilgamesh bristled. I managed to suppress my grin, though it wasn’t at my son’s expense--in fact, I was reminded how proud I was that he had adjusted so well to the wilderness, after living so long with servants and finery. While he did struggle, more than once I had caught him muttering to himself as he clumsily speared fish or dug for roots, “for the empire.” That’s how I knew he would be better, at the end of all this. A better king.
I brushed the horses as the sun went down. They were restless, as I was in the early hours of dark. Gilgamesh, like clockwork, fell asleep at dusk. He was asleep atop the roll of sheep’s wool beneath the shelter, the beginning glow of the fire lighting his bare feet orange, sandals tossed lazily outside it. Ramuel sat near me while he prodded a log into the flames, contemplative.
“You’re not like the rumors say,” he remarked.
“How’s that?” I offered the mare a handful of grass, which she reluctantly gummed off my palm.
“They call you the warrior king, grinding human bones to flavor your tea,” he chuckled. “I don’t see it at all.”
“Bones aren’t much to my taste,” I shrugged.
“What’s it like, being so close to Hanael?” he asked. “I didn’t think she was the type to get close to anyone. Always struck me as a sort of living machine, inputting opinions and outputting diagrams. A good one, naturally, not like those soulless contraptions in Heaven.”
“But what is it like?”
I thought, for a moment. No one had really asked me, before. I struggled with how to describe it, even to myself. It was like living in a cloud of warmth that dissipated each time she left my presence, like being addicted to each sensation left by the brush of her flesh. Like somehow, without her, the sun wasn’t as bright.
“Better than I deserve,” I said at last. I felt raindrops begin, trickling down my arm as I reached to secure the mare’s ropes.
“Then you really are a lucky man.”
Perhaps thoughts of her tuned me closer to her, then, as I became more conscious of the amethyst earring in the silence. At first I felt only the usual pulsing of her heart--then fear. Terror so absolute I doubled over, as though it were a physical assault. I had to untangle her emotions from mine, because I couldn’t be afraid if she was, because now I had to destroy whatever it was that had broken my wife.
I saddled the horse and loosed her from the tree. I had already mounted when Ramuel stood, realizing what I was doing.
“Where are you going?”
“Something’s happened. I have to go back.”
“What about Gilgamesh?”
I hesitated, but not as long as I should have. I know now I could have woken him, we might have said a proper goodbye. But I didn’t. I was afraid he would come with me, and we would both be lost.
“Never say that name again,” I said, my last order as a king. “He is Marduk to you, as long as he is in your company. If one day he decides to reclaim his other name, he’ll do so knowing what he risks.”
With that, I left them. I rode in darkness for as long as the mare would take me, following the moon and stars, the pulse of my wife in the distance. When the horse would go no further, I would run. The rain fell until I was numb to it, trudging through mud or sand or stone as it came, I noticed none of it.
Day and night, I retraced our steps, until I came upon the battlefield.
There is a story written across the souls of man, repeated time and again throughout the ages: a story of children slaughtering one another while the elite watch and applaud, and the masses do nothing. Time and time they write this story, unable to look away, because they did when it happened. Mankind cannot forget what became of the nephilim. The day they sat back and did nothing.
I had not felt so many disembodied angels since I had touched Earth as Sariel, my beloved in my arms. The angels hovered, some I knew, unable to make their presence known in more than wordless sorrow. I didn’t understand, until I saw the first of the bodies: a six-year-old boy, impaled with a spear pushed through him into another boy, who couldn’t have been more than ten. They had died clutching each other, mouths open in a scream. The stench of death brought me to another, a twelve-year-old torn in two, half of him tossed in a tree, the other in a ditch. All of them with a symbol scorched into their necks: “naphadim.” Monster.
War, carnage, is not foreign to me. Yet this sight made me heave. There were ever more, body after body I stumbled into, all pale and blue-eyed--my brothers’ sons, massacred. Discarded, like hunts of sport. This was not just. Rage rose and boiled from my core, even as my throat clenched with despair. Michael had done this. Michael, champion of Light.
I wandered ghostlike through this forest of death, not expecting to come upon anyone living. But what should have been relief upon seeing my son’s friend, Semes’ son, Ohya, standing tall in a clearing, was instead a dark dread. The young man was stained in blood. Even his dark hair was matted with it, clumped with decay. In his hand was a farming sickle, dripping from its last harvest.
He turned. He looked at me. Seeing me, his weapon twitched. I drew my sword--he was still.
“They know who’s still alive, your majesty,” he said, his voice somehow detached from himself. “The marks tell them. See.”
He pointed to his neck, where the brand bubbled with infection.
“If I kill everyone, they’ll let me go home. They might even stop the flood.”
“The flood?” I asked.
I knew he was too far gone to tell me much. It hurt to recall the days I had seen him and Gilgamesh scaling the palace walls, carefree. I was no longer talking to a boy I had known, the twisted rules of Michael’s game bending him into the monster Heaven wanted him to be.
“The flood’s coming,” he said. “It’ll kill everyone, unless we sate Heaven. We have to purge the children of corruption.”
“When is the flood coming?”
“Soon. It’s already raining.”
He smiled, Semes’ smile, pointing his weapon east.
“If you run along the river, you might make it home before everyone dies.”
I wanted to help him. I wanted to do anything--but staring into those vacant eyes, reflecting back all the bodies across the forest floor, I knew this battle was already lost. All I could do was let Michael revel in his justice, and find my way back home.
“I’m sorry, Ohya.”
As I ran past, towards the gurgle of the rushing river, I heard him begin to laugh. I couldn’t escape from that wretched sound, louder than anything should have been. The final echo of the boy not unlike my son, already collapsed under the weight of all his deeds, whose only crime was choosing to live.