“But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead.”
All Michael wanted me to do was say I was wrong. But I wouldn’t. Because I couldn’t lie, I couldn’t tell him what he wanted to hear. And that made him furious.
“I rescued you from the veil, I returned you to Heaven, I returned you to your original body and I would let Raphael remake your wings, if you did not refuse to repent--” He raged, throwing tools of torture against the opaque walls. “Why, Hanael? Why do you not see the destruction your way has wrought? Do you not take responsibility for the angels you brought to ruin?!”
“That’s not my name,” I said, as I had every time.
He grabbed me chin, gripping so tight I could feel my bone begin to fracture.
“Then may you have a new name,” he declared. “May you be called a disease of a woman. From today forth, bear the name Lilith. Destroyer of children, plague upon men. None will know you were anything else.”
“Is that the story you’ll tell?” I asked, numb to the pain. “I thought my husband was the only liar Father made.”
He struck me; I’d worn out his creativity for the day, it seemed.
“You claim you took a sacred vow with that monster, pledging yourself before Father to the likes of a single-minded creature in a human suit. I cannot imagine the unholy perversions you committed in the name of that oath. You twist the very nature of our Father’s love--you, Father’s treasured daughter, whoring herself to a beast. Then, of all things, you had the audacity to birth children by him. I bear the shame that you should feel. I will make you feel it.”
“I will not feel shame for crimes you committed.”
“That wicked son you bore slaughters my followers. He builds statues to you and your monster and leads his brainwashed people to worship at your feet, ignoring the order of Heaven the reborn Metatron has brought to humankind--all the while breeding like a hungry dog, seeding bastards in every woman he looks upon. How can you not mourn the depravity you have unleashed?”
I hadn’t known what became of my child. To think he was foiling Michael’s plans so completely, I surely would have laughed, had my lungs been less bruised.
“It sounds like he’s doing well for himself,” I said.
He turned from me, bracing himself against his table of tools, silent. I wasn’t all that surprised when he grabbed a long pipe, whipping around--my jaw came loose. Pain seared. Unable to escape, consciousness shut down.
When Gilgamesh was a child, he once had the same dream for three nights. He crawled into our bed earlier than usual, before the sun had yet risen, to tuck himself beneath his father’s arm. I woke before Lugalbanda did, the last night, my poor husband worn out after spending the day frightening a lion away from Uruk’s cattle herd. Gilgamesh still nudged his head beneath Lugal’s elbow; his father grunted, allowing it, but didn’t open his eyes. I rubbed the child’s back, gently drawing his attention to me.
“What happened tonight?” I had murmured, expecting a different dream.
His eyes were so violet they all but glowed in the darkness, betraying the tears he tried to blink away. They faded as I soothed him. Nestled close to Lugalbanda, he finally recovered enough to whisper.
“I was holding a golden cup again, and I dropped it,” he said, in his small voice. “It broke into lots of pieces and spilled red everywhere. A man with a scar where his eye should be grabbed me, he said it was all my fault. He made me pull out my eye and give it to him. He let me go, but then my feet disappeared, and I couldn’t move. I kept on screaming, but no one could hear me. Then I woke up.”
A gruesome dream for a young child to endure once, let alone three times. I pulled him from his father’s arm and held him close, refusing to part from him until he had stopped shaking. Vivid dreams are often signs of things to come; as much as I prayed for this one to mean nothing, I knew better than to ignore it. Yet Semes had no answer for me, nor did my requests of distant general Kokabel, the stargazer, and Kasdeya, who read foul omens, yield anything helpful. No one could tell us what it meant.
I found myself recalling that unanswered dream while I was trapped with Michael. The sigil he burned into my skin prevented me from escaping my form, forcing me to endure all manner of punishments Michael had perfected in Eridu. Unable to die, my mind lurched to and from insanity, each moment of stress further detaching me from time. I somehow saw clearer, the rare moments I was lucid. His intangible form, animating the body unchanged from before the war, still bore the disfiguring scar across his eye. It glowed through the unmarred flesh he inhabited, the wound left upon his very soul.
I don’t know why I never imagined he was the man Gilgamesh saw. That seemed very likely, when I woke to find him twisting a blade in an empty space below my heart. I inhaled, only to find myself choking on my own blood.
“I was kind enough to allow Raphael to heal your jaw,” he said. “I felt our talks would be more productive if you could speak.”
As he withdrew the knife, I spat what I could onto the floor, freeing my windpipe. My wrists ached. He stared at me, waiting, but I had nothing to say.
“You haven’t once asked me about your generals.”
“They’re trapped in the veil,” I said. My tongue felt like a stone, weighing down my throat.
“Neglectful for you to assume that. One other was brought out of the veil with you, to make good on a promise I made after the war.”
My heart tensed.
“My husband?” I asked, foolish enough to hope.
“You never ask for anyone but him. Your selfishness knows no bounds.”
I hated the way he smiled when I stumbled with words, as though it meant he had won something, instead of proving the deepening sickness of his mind.
“Asasel has been cast into a pit of Chaos, for the crime of sheltering you. No doubt his screams are threefold what yours are, though I rarely go to hear them, tied up here with you. Many ask me why I afford you such pity. The host of Heaven asks that you be cast there with him, for you must answer for tempting their brothers from them. What I do now is a mercy.”
He truly believed that. Even after removing my fingernails, fracturing my ribs, opening a hole in my abdomen to paw around an empty gut, rearranging nerve endings, he genuinely believed himself the hero. No amount of suffering I underwent here mattered, he didn’t see it. He saw himself purging me of my wickedness, bringing me back to the side of order.
I could no longer pretend to be strong. Tears burned the cuts on my face, searing through a gash on my neck and chest, as I finally began to sob. I wanted to go home. I wanted to wake up and be home with Sariel, Gilgamesh, and our baby girl.
“Where’s my husband?” I whispered, knowing he would never answer me. “Please, give him back.”
His righteous high fell to disgust. Unable to endure my tears, he stared at me, like he could somehow punish me with his gaze.
“Your husband is no more,” he declared. “Ask for him again and you’ll lose your tongue.”
I had already lost everything. I failed my people, my love, my children, and now I knew just how thoroughly I had failed even Asasel. My most loyal friend. For the same reason I slept on the floor after Methuselah’s followers locked me up, I found myself calling Michael’s bluff.
“Where is Sariel?” I asked.
Like he was stretching a muscle in the morning, he took a small knife from the table and closed the distance between us. Hand in my mouth, he gripped my tongue, yanking it as far out as it would reach before hacking it away. Again blood pooled down my throat, but I think it was watching my own tongue slap the floor that made consciousness sink behind my eyelids, refusing to accept what it saw.
I had had this dream before, I thought. I was dancing with a man I didn’t recognize to the sound of instruments I had never heard, moving in a way I had never moved. His arm around my waist, one hand in his, while the floor burned beneath us.
“Are you well?” the man asked me.
I tried to laugh, but instead I cried. Although he continued our dance, he squeezed my hand; I saw then that my fingers were clawed, something red dried in the tips. When I looked back to him, I saw terrible horns curled from his forehead, his eyes no longer human. I should have been afraid. I wasn’t.
“This is what they see,” he said. “Close your eyes.”
I did. The floor was hot, flames licking my skirt, almost as hot as his skin.
“Now, open them.”
We were in a lush wilderness, flowers all around. Eden, yet not. I saw snow-capped mountains in the distance, wrapped in trees that stretched down into hills, around lakes, until they surrounded us in a canopy of wide leaves and sturdy boughs.
“This is what I see.”
The instruments gone with the fire, our dance concluded, he released me. I looked to find my hands were human, calloused. Looking up, I found his horns were changed. No longer curled, they stretched upwards, branching and velvet like a stag’s crown.
“They give me horns because they see me as threatening. They don’t know that in nature, horns are worn by creatures of prey, not their predators. They’re defensive. If I must be horned, let them be these: the horns of a stag, shed in times of peace, grown again to protect. So long as they do not frighten you.”
I reached up, tracing the velvet upon their heavy frame.
“They don’t,” I said. “They never did.”
He smiled, making me think that I must know him.
“Forget this world of men. If they will not defend you, after all you’ve given them, then entrust your fate to me.”
“I shouldn’t need your protection.”
“It is not the doe’s fault she is born without horns. If it is the fault of any, it is the fault of her Maker. That is why she depends on her mate. All my faults are bared teeth meant to ward off the cruelty of an ungrateful realm. I do so gladly in your service, for without you, I am nothing but a tool in its hands.”
Kneeling before me, he bowed his head in a show of servitude, yet the action tickled me with his furred crown. I found myself laughing, meaning it and able to do so. He appeared rather pleased with himself, meeting my gaze when I reached down to lift his face. There was no reason to bow, I thought in passing. I was no longer queen. We could just be together, in this forest, running until we were tired.
“What can I offer you?” I asked.
He shook his head. He rose up, lifting my hands to his cheeks.
“Just keep forgiving me,” he said. “Even when you’re the only one that will.”
That didn’t seem such a tall order. Of course, in a dream, nothing is too strange.
“I’ll always forgive,” I said.
Abruptly, I was awake. Again I was in the tower, trapped in a body crippled by pain, drowning in my blood. In my mouth was a void that made me want to sob, but to make any sound caused anguish I couldn’t endure.
I expected Michael to be here, ready with a new tool in hand--but he wasn’t. Instead, I had a portly visitor in a stiff coat, unlike any angel I had seen before. He had a notepad, and a pen. Wading through my agony, I managed a theory: this was Metatron, the former human that had replaced Penemue.
“The woman is awake!” he applauded nothing, as though this were some grand moment. “I thought I wasted the whole walk over here.”
I stared at him, too tired to be interested.
“I know you can’t talk proper, what with the tongue on the ground,” he said, tapping his notepad. “But I can hear your thoughts, that’ll be fine. Just wanted to ask you some questions.”
Was this some new form of torture? I no longer trusted anything. This man didn’t seem capable of Michael’s brutality, however. He avoided standing in any of the blood puddles, and was pointedly avoiding eye contact. Foolish as ever, I decided to humor him.
What kind of questions? I asked.
“Are you aware of what became of the lilitu?” he asked.
“The half-human, half-angel monstrosities that were born under the reign of Lilith. You, that is. I’m calling them lilitu, sounds better than Giants. Did you know their spirits have taken on attributes of the Chaos?”
Their spirits are lost, after their genocide. I know they cannot find peace. What’s your intention?
“More than lost, they’ve started feeding on living souls like agents of Chaos. Makes them hear voices, gives them a hankering for carnage. Clearly, these are an infection upon the Earth we cannot leave unanswered, yet you allowed them to propagate freely during your reign.”
I hadn’t been told of this. For the first time, my resolve began to falter. Was there truly something wrong with the nephilim souls, beyond what Semyaza had told me? Were they dangerous to mankind?
“See for yourself,” he said.
He flipped the notepad to a white page, then turned it to me. The white faded into a mirrorlike surface, before it revealed a scene of warfare between two human tribes. I had seen them fight like this, whenever there was no central authority, yet there was something about the brutality of this sight that felt unnatural. Not content with simply torching the village, the victors dragged the women outside their homes, away from their children, to violate them in the streets. Others danced upon the bodies of the fallen. There was cackling, amidst the screams.
“Many of the triumphant tribesman are sporting one or two lilitu spirits, gnawing on their psyche like parasites, whispering terrible things. You can see them if you look close, outlines of red around the humans doing the worst things. That is, unless you don’t want to see.”
I saw it. The agony of my shaking tongue was nothing compared to my broken mind, now in such tatters there was nothing left for the sigil to bind. Michael was right. I had been resisting my own just punishment, for there was the legacy I had wrought.
“Do you regret it?”
Usually it was Michael that asked. I knew the game, now. Metatron would get my apology, write it in a tome for all to see, and I would finally be free. All I had to do was apologize. I just had to say, I was wrong, and I deserve this.
Then, there was another voice. Like a little girl, although when I looked all around, there was no one but the scribe.
“It’s not your fault,” she said.
Like Lugalbanda had said, each time I would have given in to Heaven. Like he had when the rains had come, and he boiled water over the fire, unwilling to let me die alone. What had he died for, if I gave in now?
I regret not protecting them from Michael’s cruelty, I said to the scribe, watching the frustration twist up his face. What they endured was enough to corrupt any soul. They seek justice. Denied that, they do this. If Michael wants someone to answer for this blight upon mankind, then he can string himself up alongside me.
Metatron gave a great sigh. He folded up his notepad, sticking his pen behind his ear, and stepped around a dried puddle on his way to the door.
“Was worth a try, what can I say...”
I didn’t much care that he left the door open. I was still tired, so inundated with past pains that I couldn’t possibly focus on any one. Yet now, I could almost smile. I wasn’t broken. Even after all this, even now that I was hearing voices, I was still stronger than Michael.
Warm with my victory, my eyes began to close. How rare it was, I thought, to choose to sleep. Sleep, where my family still lived. A world where I could laugh, always near, separated from me by just a few, long breaths.