And again the Lord said to Raphael: 'Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness and split open the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him in. And fill the hole by covering him with rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him live there forever, and cover his face that he may not see the light.'
--1 Enoch 10:4-5
Earth was not what I had thought it would be. After seeing the taint of the nephilim for myself, knowing what it had begun to do to even Gilgamesh, the last of my resolve drained away. Even if there had been another solution, I knew then that I would return to Heaven. I would apologize.
Had Michael known that I only resisted him because of Gilgamesh’s uncertain fate, perhaps he would have released me all on his own, knowing I would come crawling back. I was every bit as pathetic as he had told me--I just didn’t care, anymore.
Finding Heaven through the veil was easier than I had anticipated. Or else, it was easier because Heaven was searching for me, opening more portals than there would have been otherwise. In any case, I can hardly remember the journey there. After a time of confused drifting, some force or will had me standing in the vast fields of Heaven, before the rubble of the tower Michael had built.
“Lilith returns,” Michael announced, white wings harsh against my vision, closing only when he had touched ground. “You are either the stupidest creature born of Father’s making, or else you’ve realized your folly.”
I was still shapeless, capable of escaping if I so chose. However, I sensed other angels near who could have bound me to any object of their design. My choosing to remain within their reach was enough of a surrender.
“It is true,” I said, weighed down by my own confession. “What I’ve seen on Earth has changed my thoughts. I’m...prepared to take formal blame for my error, if you would be willing to provide a favor in compensation.”
As creatures of consciousness, our records were infinitely more important than the bodies we wore like clothes. Words were everything. That is why my bargain held weight, for even if he knew I understood my fault, if I refused to express it in full--for documentation--that knowledge had no power. This was one obsession that forever confused me about my brothers, one more thing that drove me from their company. I believed it should be actions, not words, that defined us. Then again, it seemed I was wrong about everything.
“That depends on the favor you seek,” he said.
“My son is made ill by a corrupt nephil spirit. If you might use the resources of Heaven to avail him of the situation, I will be wholly obedient to your wishes.”
“And how do we know you will keep your word?”
I regarded him strangely. Angels did not lie--I had said I would do so, and so I had every intention of doing so. Yet he waited, suspicious of me. Had other angels learned to lie, since the fall? Or was my husband still here, somewhere beyond me, wreaking havoc that made Michael question the rest?
“I will stay in whatever body you provide, of my own volition, until the solution is rendered,” I promised. “When you say the solution is found, I will make my statement before you detail it. That way, there is no risk I would escape you after you’ve upheld the bargain.”
After a long silence, Michael gave a stern nod.
“Then this shall be done.”
Michael was many things, but he was nothing if not fair.
None were more surprised than I was when Michael had archangel Raphael rebuild my original form, complete with wings, for me to inhabit. Yet it was not entirely the angelic body I had known--he shaped it with parts more like the female form I had known on Earth. He claimed it was to give me comfort, for I had spent so many years there I could not be wholly comfortable outside of that body, which had some truth. Even so, it made me wonder how much Michael was still driven by that foreign sexual impulse flesh had introduced to his mind. Did he want me comfortable, or did he miss the satisfaction of watching this shape?
I was still kept in a sort of tower overlooking the center of Heaven’s City, where I could see the glass roads and passing machines. My door was locked, but I could go outside when I wished by phoning a Cherubim guard, the tall four-winged angels would escort me if I wished to walk or fly. Michael checked in on me by monitor, day to day. He would report progress on the investigation into the nephilim problem, asking me details of Earth when it was necessary. Often goblets of condensed energy were sent to my chamber, flavors varied; we drank for entertainment rather than sustenance. By all measures, I was treated well. Royally, even. I cannot explain why this left me so unfulfilled.
Michael appeared on the monitor one morning, as I watched the sun glow violet against the skyline, reminding me of another’s eyes.
“Hanael,” he greeted.
“I thought you called me Lilith,” I said.
“That was before you came to apologize. We have no quarrel now, Sister.”
“If that’s all you wanted, then my generals should not be lost to the veil while I sit dressed in finery.”
“They will not apologize for their selfishness. It is my hope that they will follow your example, in time.”
I hoped they were never sorry. I was ashamed that I was.
“Have you news of my son?” I asked.
“Time moves slower on Earth than it does here. You need not worry about his condition worsening.”
“So you say.”
Time was a difficult thing to fathom, between galaxies. Earth’s time did sometimes move slower than Heaven’s, which is how our centuries’ war could have ended before a year had passed on Earth; however, it was also distorted by passage through the realm between. Sometimes, there was no difference at all when one passed from one end to the other. There was also the matter of angels being unable to feel time the same as mankind did, for they changed, while we lived years as one long afternoon. Any measurements we had for existence were arbitrary at best.
“Regardless, I do bring news,” Michael said. “We have a solution prepared. Report to the lowest floor when you are able. Raphael, Gabriel and I will be witness while you state your ills to Metatron, the scribe.”
At last, I relaxed.
“You have my deepest gratitude,” I said.
“You have been more than cooperative these past few weeks. I am heartened to see that your essential nature has resurfaced, untainted by the liar’s influence. You bring new hope to Heaven.”
He was luckier that I hadn’t been “tainted” by unrelenting torture, but that was neither here nor there. Ironic, I thought, that I did seem to be more docile after seeing all my insides repeatedly on the wrong side of my skin. Michael had won. That’s all there was to say of it.
“Heaven has been forgiving,” I said, and he was satisfied.
I went downstairs with a Cherubim, finding the archangels gathered beside a translucent table, where Metatron sat with his notepad. No matter who was beside him, Michael always looked the part of the leader: always the brightest, never smiling, towering over any who stood in his company. Raphael wore only his medical coat, while the angel that stole my name, Gabriel, stayed in Michael’s shadow. I thought he watched me jealously, although there was hardly anything left in me to deserve such a sentiment.
“The solution is simple,” Michael said. “I’ll inform you of it promptly, once your statement is made.”
I nodded. Devoid of pride, I spoke honestly, remembering the misery on my child’s face.
“I, the disease best known as Lilith, tempted my brothers to turn from Heaven and made them bodies of flesh to walk upon the Earth. I am responsible for the nephilim scourge upon Father’s favorite, mankind. These evil spirits are my children in that my actions led to each of their births; therefore, blame for their ills fall squarely on my shoulders. I was wrong to question Michael, Champion of Light. I would take it back if I could.”
I said these words because I was able to believe them, now. Without Sariel’s love, I had only guilt, amplified by an audience who needed to believe I was guilty. There was no point in dissent, anymore. It wouldn’t fix my son, or rebuild the home I had lost. Exhaustion weighed my spirit. The only desire left in me was for everyone to leave me alone.
Metatron transcribed my confession with a smile; Michael dismissed him to the Hall of Records to catalogue it. Gabriel and Raphael, too, were dismissed. Gabriel passed me without a word, but Raphael touched my shoulder as he passed, offering a look sympathy.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I touched his hand, grateful. When he was gone, the room felt colder.
Michael and I were alone together, in person, for the first time since my return. My old discomfort returned--I found myself looking for an escape, though I knew he only remained to give me what I had come for. I forced myself to remain, calm as I could be.
He came closer, as he spoke.
“Your son need only go into battle, wielding his sword in his left hand. This done, Heaven will see that the affliction is cured.”
“That’s all?” I asked. “Will he also be triumphant over his enemy?”
“The enemy army is as blasphemous of worship as your son’s. Yahweh does not intercede in heathen conflicts. If you wish his victory, you will have to aid him yourself.”
I hated the way he said “heathen,” like the very word tasted foul, but I wasn’t about to remark upon it.
“What’s more,” he continued. “I have spoken to the rest of the archangels, over the weeks you have been here. Gilgamesh’s soul being what it is, he is as likely as his cousins to become a part of the scourge upon mankind, after his passing. However, as it has all the components of an angelic soul, it is also possible that were he granted passage to Heaven, he could be integrated among our kind.”
This was the first thing he said that truly stirred my emotions. There was hope, fear, excitement, suspicion--
“The catch?” I asked.
He leaned over me, as he had all those years ago.
“We both know that beast isn’t coming for you,” he said. “Forswear your make-believe union. Agree to be wedded to me properly, here in Father’s perfect world, and we will rule together for all time. As we were meant to.”
Again, my veins turned to lead, my thoughts fleeing me as fast they could form. How could he ask this of me? After all that had transpired between us, he was still fixated on me, on some life he thought we could have?
It wasn’t like it had been before, when I didn’t know what a happy union might be. My years with Sariel had been a joy. Waking beside him each morning, enduring the sloppy mess of pillows around him because he was adorably particular about the way he slept--dressing his wounds while I got him to grunt out some story about how he was hurt, realizing he was embarrassed to not be invincible--these were moments that had happened because we accepted one another. All the bad, and all the good.
Michael didn’t accept me. Atrocities had happened because Michael couldn’t allow me to disagree with him. We couldn’t forge a bond from that, because Michael was not about to change. I would have to change. I would have to become a woman who could be Michael’s wife.
That’s when I realized, I could do that. Despite vivid memories of agony at his hand, I could still be everything he wanted me to be, if that meant Gilgamesh would be spared Ohya’s fate. Father loved Michael, so surely I could find something to love about him, in time. Together we could solve all the problems I had caused, convince our brothers to return to paradise, perhaps we could even heal the lost spirits of their children. If my former husband were in Heaven, he would have come for me already. The only thing standing in the way of true absolution, offered generously by my brother, was pride.
“I...agree to the terms,” I said, even though I was not brave enough to touch him. “Allow me to go aid my son, and when I return, we will be bound.”
To my relief, he stepped back. He smiled, which I thought might give me relief, but instead only deepened my dread. This was the right decision, I knew. I told myself that, and told myself that, as my Cherubim guard escorted me back to my chamber.
Leaving my body on the mattress, I would return to the veil. Once more I would follow the echoes of my former name, remembering my way through the darkness, when that child’s voice shifted my course.
Someone is looking for you, she whispered. Silly bird.
Suddenly, I was by a lake, confronted by the presence of a tall, white, blue-crowned crane. At first I was only confused, watching him preen his features with his long beak, unaware of me. Then he saw me, and his wings flailed wide with alarm.
“Ninsun! Hanael! Oh Enme, Ensi, how good of you to visit!”
I was startled enough to hear the bird talk, let alone rattle off all my lost selves; however, I was surprised less when I placed the voice.
I felt it, then: the warmth of a friend.
He settled down, stretching out his neck as his wings eased back against his white body.
“Not a lot of visitors for me, no sir,” he muttered. “Couldn’t even keep Ligeia here for long. Sad day, sad crane, that’s why I’m a crane now see. No point in being a man if there’s no one to love you. Can’t be an angel without Heaven either, so I decided to be a crane. Hope you don’t mind--that would be silly, minding a projection of the mind.”
“Ligeia could come here?” I asked, actually relieved.
“Just for a bit. She decided to be reborn. Good for her, too, but I’m not ready yet. I hope I might find her again, I miss her words.”
All I could do was smile, so grateful to be in his company.
“Wanted to thank you, Ninsun, Enme, Hani,” he said, again beginning to preen. “Rather I should thank your son for being so prolific. Every baby, reborn nephilim. Souls finding homes in bodies that can house them. Second chances abound. My twins are his twins now--Mageshgetil and Bauninsheg, now they’re Nabu and Ninna. Nice names. Easy names.”
“I thought Bau was taken to the ark,” I said, letting this sink in.
“Gave her to a man she hated. Made it to her fourteenth year, jumped into the river. Doesn’t matter, she’s Ninna now. Ninna likes to paint. Adores her new papa. Nabu likes to write, like I liked to write, so some things go between lives it seems. The rest is past and I’m happy for it.”
A small silver lining. There was comfort in this revelation. If Gilgamesh’s appetite had allowed homes for some nephilim souls, then all was not lost. More than anything, I was relieved to know that little Mages and Bau had had another chance to be children, running barefoot about a palace.
“I’m glad,” I sighed.
“I want to be helpful,” he said then, lifting his beak from his feathers. “King Gilgamesh goes to fight Assur, yes? That’s the word on the winds, and I know all the words.”
“The Tribe of Assur, he called them,” I confirmed. “Do you know this god?”
“So I do, as do you. Asasel-Uriel is not the same, since the pit. Chaos has made him unlike himself. Here, see.”
Penemue touched his beak to the pool, sending ripples across the surface that illuminated scenes of horror. Men and women plagued by festering boils, drinking water turned putrid black, insects blanketing villages in a humming swarm. This was a destructive, depraved force that could not be justified.
“This can’t be Asasel.”
“Michael made him bear the brunt of his anger. Good rebel Raphael let him out too late. Torture changes, twists the senses, puts you inside out even after someone comes and puts you right-side in. Lucky woman, Hanael--you’ve defied it all, coming out in one piece.”
“I’m not what I was, either.” I would never be a queen, again. That strength, a willingness to bear the burdens of all, had been ripped from my core. All that remained was her shell.
“How does he do this?” I demanded. “Gilgamesh wishes to stand against an intangible force, he won’t win unless I can stop it.”
“You already know that, too,” Penemue said--lifting his beak from the water, shaking it out with his feathers. “Prayers are energy for the shapeless ones. All the hopes that come here for Ningishzida, happy to use those to make pretty ponds, keep my feathers clean. Sometimes I visit people in dreams, need to thank the patrons of course, but I’m not much of a ‘doer’. More of a watcher. Ooh, Watcher, that I am. Assur though, he takes all those words and turns it right back out on a defenseless planet. Pity, pity.”
He tilted his long head, feathers ruffling.
“What will Ninsun do with her prayers, hm? I see enough around you to put our tortured brother in his place. Probably. Better get to it though.”
I had felt the energy of those voices, though I had only used them to find my way to Gilgamesh. Using just an inkling of it, I had made the snake bend to my will. He was right. I could do everything Asasel had done, and more. I could defend my child, if I could find it in myself to try, again. If only the thought of touching that power didn’t shake me to my core, making me sicker than I had been the first months of carrying my lost daughter.
His message conveyed, the crane turned his tail to me, returning to his fishing.
“You’ll be fine, I think,” he said. “Usually are. Say hello to Ninurta, when you see him. Always liked him.”
As the veil tended to do, everything vanished at once. I was left drifting, anxious in the darkness. Even when I heard the calling, I couldn’t move at once.
Knowing what you have to do, knowing you can do it, can be crippling. It makes you question the validity of your own mind. Fear can loom larger than even your own understanding. Because if you fail, you’ll never escape it. This is most true when you know you can sink no lower.
I told Gilgamesh what he had to do.
“Use my left hand?” he asked. “I’ve always held my weapon in my right. Switching now will cripple me in combat--are you certain that’s the cure?”
That’s Heaven’s solution. I trust it, as should you. I will be with you in the battle; you have nothing to fear.
Slowly, he nodded. He bowed to me. I felt his energy fill me, suppressing the part of me that wanted to refuse it.
“I trust you, Mother.”
King Gilgamesh would prepare for the battle. I watched him train with his men, developing the unpracticed side of his body. He was clumsy, at first. But as with most things he did, he adapted quickly. Soon he was deft with the blade once more, nearly as swift disarming his opponents as he had been before the handicap. Inspired, I too allowed myself hope.
At last, he bid goodbye to his wives and his children. His youngest daughter, Kiri, clung to his waist for longer than the rest.
“I don’t like it when you go,” she mumbled.
He knelt down to her level, playfully pressing her nose with his thumb. She giggled, though she tried very hard to look serious.
“I go to keep you safe,” he said. “But I always come home, don’t I?”
“Yes,” she murmured.
“And I always will. So look after your little brothers, and remind your mothers to be kind to one another. We’ll all be together again soon.”
The king left Uruk with hundreds of soldiers, ready to face the hostile desert. I was with him, part of the way, before the veil slipped and pulled me towards my true intention: Assur.
I expected a war field. Instead, I was in Eden.
A breeze tousled the blossoms on the ground, in the trees. The branches arched over us, providing shadows to hide from the sun, which burned too brightly against my skin. The grass was wet beneath my feet, as I approached the pale figure, now as white as he had been in Heaven.
“I knew this garden was your making,” he said. “I would visit it, when you were gone. I thought it an example of our Father’s goodness, channeled well through his apprentice. She seemed to me brilliant, and kind. Far kinder than our brother Michael, so shut off from himself that he could not feel the pain he inflicted on others--I thought that made a monster of him. So when I had to choose between kind Gabriel and bloodied Michael, the fate of my beloved in their hands, I chose you.”
“Asasel, I had no idea what had become of you.”
I saw his aura around him, thick and red. Blood trickled from his clothing, pooling around his feet, the grasses dying under each drop.
“Except Michael was right.” He opened his palms, revealing painful blisters decorating his skin, from his fingers to his wrists. “This world is undeserving of kindness, its people as vile as the things he did to them. And the woman I followed--what I saw as kindness was cowardice in a beautiful mask. At least Michael never hid his nature. You claimed to do us good, yet you could never bear to have any one of us in your company. You thought so little of us that we were invisible to you, except when you had need for our talent--you used us, every one of us, as your shields. Tamaiel never had to try to deceive you. You never even looked in his direction.”
He was right. I was anchored by his words, too heavy with guilt.
Assur approached, more dying with each step.
“It wasn’t enough for you to tempt Heaven once. You had to do it again, so insulated in your shielding that you were made blind. Yet still I took the fall for you, like I always have. I suffered teeth on me, millions gnawing, gorging themselves on my essence for hundreds of years. Where were you then? Naturally, now you’ve reappeared not for me, but in defense of your cursed offspring, as though the price for his existence were not steep enough. Even so, I should pity you. You’re failing him as we speak.”
We were standing in the battlefield, my son fighting beside me. Three men were around him, Gilgamesh swinging to meet them all. He kicked one down, spinning to gut another--an axe cut through his arm. I shrieked, seeing his right arm fall into the mud, his ring still curled in his fist.
This was Heaven’s solution. Gilgamesh had trusted me, and I had brought him this.
“Goddess, they call you,” Assur laughed. “Demon, I say. A pathetic, wretched devil who sows destruction in her wake.”
I was supposed to slay Assur, to prevent him from influencing the outcome of this battle. That was my only job. That was all I had promised Gilgamesh, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. Water seeped from my skin, salty tears that I couldn’t shed, pooling around me like his blood.
He had me. Michael had already taken my strength; Asasel had taken my hope. I knelt into the puddle, holding my head up as my elbows sank into mud--waiting to drown again.
What are you doing?
The little girl’s voice came, again. I felt someone shaking me, angry.
Get up. Win, so he’s wrong.
She reminded me of someone. He was only serious when he was upset. When he was, his jaw went taut, his eyes burned like embers. He towered over whatever it was that had upset him, and showed them what it meant to stand against a member of our house.
I rose to my feet. I felt energy crackling in my veins, untapped. I could finally see Assur for what he was: a noble mind devastated by Michael’s hand.
“I apologize for what wrongs you believe I’ve committed,” I said, no longer afraid of his approach. “I could have been better towards you, and all my generals. But I did not throw you in the pit. You served me well, Asasel--if you leave now, I will allow you to remain unharmed.”
“I have a vested interest in this battle. I will not turn my gaze, no matter what you threaten.”
“Then lose yourself, here.”
A battle between archangels can only be understood in approximates. Keep that in mind when I say we assaulted one another with great weapons, with fire from the sky and claws in each other’s eyes, each of us using what power we could summon until at last, Assur was on his knees. I could not wholly destroy him--that was a power only Father could wield--but I could break him, reducing him to wisps on the breeze.
He was resigned, all but docile, as my sword hovered by his neck.
“A fair fight,” he said.
The ground beneath him was tarlike, sickened by his weight. Yet all around, the greenery we remembered had begun to breathe again. White blossoms sighed as the breeze returned, the sun less brazen against our flesh.
“You’re surprised I fight fair?” I asked.
He laughed, quietly. The tar seemed less thick.
“No. I suppose not.”
I lifted my sword, meaning to end him. But I couldn’t bring it down. I let the blade vanish, offering him my hand.
“Stop torturing the human world,” I said. “We can go back to Heaven, together.”
He regarded my hand. For a long while, he appeared to consider my words, even as a knife appeared in his grasp.
“I would rather have the dignity of my loss.”
With a smooth motion, he slit his own throat. His essence poured forth in a brilliant light, dissipating even as I grasped for it. I could only watch his form fade, the remnants of him carried off beyond my perception. Him gone, the world he had made soon disappeared around me.
I found myself on Gilgamesh’s battlefield, my son’s troops whooping around me, triumphant. Their king stood over the Priestess Astarte, his sword pressing down her neck, as mine had her patron’s. I knew her, if only because she looked just like Inanna. And my son, even one-armed, was as mighty as his father.
“You’ll be imprisoned for the rest of your days, sorceress. Consider yourself lucky I won’t kill a woman.”
He would endure. I had no doubts.
I lingered in his company, just a short time longer. I watched as a man helped him bind up what was left of his arm; my heart ached when he found his fallen limb, fumbling to pull off the ring. But the taint to his aura was gone--he was cured, as Heaven had promised. There was nothing more I could do for him, now, or ever.
I hoped he might feel my embrace, as he stood still amidst the bodies. He closed his eyes, as though he could. I wanted to stay with him. I wanted to bring back my perfect baby boy.
“I love you,” I whispered.
He said nothing, because he heard only silence. He slipped through my hold, answering the call of his men. Michael was all that awaited me, now.