Whereupon did Ninsun ascend the stairs unto the parapet upon the roof of the Temple Sublime, and there did she set an offering of incense upon the altar of Shamash, the Sun God.
Then Ninsun raised her arms unto Shamash, and said, ” ... O Shamash, I entreat you to watch over my son from the day he sets forth unto the Forest of Cedars and slays Humbaba the Fierce and extirpates from the land the Evil that you hate. Each day, as you traverse the arc of the sky, may Aya your Bride not fail to remind you, when day is done, to entrust my son’s care unto the stars, those watchmen of the night.”
--The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet III
Michael thought he let me out of the pit. Surely, it was his great hand of mercy that had ended my punishment that day, and that I was only grateful that he then chained me up in a room without windows for all day and night. Little did he know that I had conquered the pit he had made. I had made my punishment end, by my own strength, while he sat congratulating himself on Mount Perfection.
Understand, first, that the pit is merely a controlled place in the universe where Michael had corralled many Agents of Chaos, whose natural environment is a disgusting self-replicating mass of themselves so dense it will suck in anything unfortunate enough to wander into its path. By some manner of creation, Michael managed to contain a portion of them somewhere they could not multiply unchecked, but remain hungry and disgusting enough that they could do harm to whatever primordial power Michael might toss into their midst. This time, that power was me.
I’ll never forget their bodies gnawing at mine, what felt like teeth tugging at chunks of my very soul. It is not a pain easily quantified. Perhaps imagine pressing needle after needle into a single spot in your favorite bodily organ, then pressing needles in to split those needles, until your favorite organ is nothing but a splintered, bleeding sponge of skin and needles. This is what I was made to endure, for days, in a place deaf to sound. I was going mad. No matter how I screamed, or laughed, there was nothing but emptiness around me. This continued, until one day, I understood the realm I was in.
The beast was made to understand all punishment. I learned, as was my design--and I became more than it could hold. I twisted my own shapeless form beyond recognition, becoming a monster with four faces and four thousand wings, my broken body riddled with tongues and eyes, capable of seeing every Agent that gnawed at my vibrations. I bellowed, a disgusting sound--the Chaos fell still, quivering, terrified in my wake.
Touch me, and I will consume you.
One dared to move. I snapped him in a pair of jaws, absorbing his blackness into my shape. He tasted like ash. Of course, it was like eating a cloud, leaving a small portion of him to flee away in anguish. The rest groveled, made to understand.
“Lord of Chaos,” they whispered, though their voices were like nails across granite. I ate another, just in spite.
I made them attack each other in my honor. Although I had never enjoyed the pain I inflicted on mankind, these vermin of the universe were so offensive to my senses that I could only be pleased as they tore through each other like giftwrap. They were only too happy to bow to a superior savage. And although nothing they did could sicken me less, I knew I had nothing more to fear from Michael’s realm.
When my heavenly master came and scooped me out of the pit, cramming me back into my angelic body, I let him think he had broken me. I said nothing to him as his Seraphim bound me up, while he made a grand display of him holding the only key to my cell. The truth was, without Hanael within my reach, I had no reason to oppose him. I hated him, yes, more after what the pit had made of me. But eternity was long, and dull. If I resisted doing my only job, the alternative was doing nothing. Even I would go mad, enduring that.
That’s why when Michael came again, unlocking my door, snapping my chains away, I did nothing.
“The soul of the traitor Asasel has been found outside the pit,” he said. “Your task is to retrieve it and return him to his punishment.”
“Then Asasel will be fetched.”
“Don’t get any ideas, Samael. I expect your prompt return.”
“Why ever would I dawdle?”
I held up my limp chain, mocking with a smile. After losing the one thing I had ever felt emotions toward, being chewed through by the cast-offs of creation, then getting confined like a mad dog, I had developed a sense of humor about the whole ordeal. Michael was not amused. Some people, it seems, are offended by levity.
“There will be a ceremony in Heaven while you are away,” he said. “Should you return during its progress, do not intervene.”
A strange request. I couldn’t have cared less what he or any angel did with their lives. If they wanted to have a party without me, by all means, let it be a grand affair. Nevertheless, I agreed.
I abandoned my body, the sigil that contained me broken with my chains. As I had done many time before, I entered the dark veil, my focus narrowing to the name I was given. Asasel.
To others, the veil is a many-layered maze that distorts the senses. To me, it is a linear pathway that leads only where I need it to go. Traversing the long hall, which always has stone walls, I came upon the flickering spirit of my charge. I offered my hand, finding my form was not unlike the body I had left--relieved I had not reverted to the shape I had discovered in the pit.
“You must come with me, now,” I said, my wings extending so that the spirit might know who they spoke to.
He lifted his head, the movement heavy. Yet when he looked upon me, the sorrow I saw about him lifted, as he was gripped instead by awe.
“Sariel?” he asked, standing.
I had not heard this name in some time. I shrugged.
“I might have been called that.”
“Might have?” he asked. “What are you doing in Heaven’s service? You more than anyone knows the devastation they’ve wrought, not to speak of how they crippled your son.”
My hand fell, confusion far outweighing the plainness of my task. Asasel, seeing me falter, began to understand.
I had. I had long given up trying to remember, my only hope of it I let escape her confinement. I forced it out of mind, focusing on my task.
“I need to bring you back.”
“To the pit? No--please, no.”
Asasel’s limited energy was colored by fear. He knelt before me, begging with all he could muster.
“I admit that I did monstrous things with my freedom, it took time for me to regain my senses. Knowing what became of my wife, after two lifetimes of failing her, tainted any worth I might have had after awakening from Chaos. I am ashamed. But it was your wife who reminded me that I could feel shame. Please, spare me the pit, and I can help you remember her.”
He touched my robes, and I did not withdraw from him.
“I don’t want to see you have to live apart from her, when she’s still in one piece. That opportunity is forever lost to me. That should be punishment enough.”
I imagine this was exactly what Michael feared, me making deals with former comrades. Unfortunately, the only thing now keeping me loyal to Michael was a fear of boredom--this was an easy choice to make.
“You can return my memories?” I asked.
“Not I,” he said. “I know of an angel who can.”
Gently, I helped him to his feet. His essence was thin enough that even this was a strain on his mind.
“Tell me his name, and I will bring us there,” I said.
He was forthcoming.
“Heaven calls him Semyaza.”
This alone stirred something in my awareness, though it was as unformed as the feelings I had had when I laid eyes on Hanael. Even so, it was enough incentive to solidify my decision. As the hallway changed, we were brought towards our new path.
Normally I had control over what I saw, when I entered another soul’s space. How they appeared to me was how they remembered themselves--beyond that, I saw nothing but stone walls. Semyaza, however, appeared to me on a porch in mid-afternoon, lounging on a comfortable chair while he ate from a never-ending bowl of cherries. Seeing us, he grinned, and spat a pit off into the green field around us.
“Cherries are so inconvenient, on Earth,” he said, welcoming. “You always have to worry about what you’re going to do with the seeds. If you toss them on the ground, you’re considered uncivilized. Best put them aside, collect the waste, be a good example to mankind. But they always end up in the ground sooner or later.”
“How are you doing this?” I asked. I wasn’t accustomed to having others impressing their thoughts on my world. I can’t say I liked it.
“My mind is stronger than yours or Asasel’s. Therefore, you see what I see. The veil functions in a sort of pecking order of will. Even while I was flesh, I spent most of my time here; it stands to reason that I’ve adapted better than most.”
He set aside his cherries on a short table that materialized within reach. Once it appeared, it felt as though it had always been there.
Asasel stepped apart from me, giving Semyaza a short nod of respect. I was out of my element, uncertain what to say or do, for I had rarely been in the company of any who were not trying to control me.
“No need to say anything,” Semyaza said. “Asasel has said it all for you, thought-wise. It’s funny, I always thought you were always best suited for a physical world. You’ll grow into this job, I suppose, though I do find it strange.”
“You obviously know I have no idea what you’re referring to, so stop trying to piss me off. If you can fix me, then fix me.”
“That’s more the angel I remember.” Laughing to himself, he looked me up and down, considering.
“I can fix you,” he said at last. “I suppose I have nothing better to do, with Aya gone. So long as you leave Asasel with me, when we’re done.”
“What do you want with him?”
“He’s an old friend, recovering from great trauma. He’s safer with me than with Heaven, wouldn’t you say?”
Michael had told me the Fallen were selfish, corrupt beings. While he might have been withholding his true intentions, this request did not sound like that of a selfish entity. By now I had little motivation to carry out Michael’s command, in any case. I decided to give my memory priority over one more broken soul.
“If you can solve my memory, he’s yours.”
He stood, revealing himself to be as tall as I. Yet I felt it had not always been this way.
“They call you Samael, do they?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You cannot remember your other names.”
“I won’t be enough to just tell you your other names,” Semyaza tsked. “Names are a paradoxical mess. If they mean nothing to you, it’s just a collection of sounds, but a name with meaning can hold onto energy collected across all planes of existence. Past, present, future. It can be a form unto itself. Take, for instance, my new name, Shamash: it is a mis-remembering of my former self, Semes, with all the attributes of my first self, Anu. When people first began to worship it, it was a name without source. Now that I have claimed it, it has always been mine.”
“Do you ever say anything that makes sense?”
“You sound like my wife,” he chuckled. “You and Hanael always had difficulty grasping the workings of the spiritual world. You’re physical creatures, the both of you, despite your nonphysical origins--that’s why you were such a fitting pair. A pair that shouldn’t be tampered with, frankly. Michael will see that soon enough.”
“So Hanael and I, we were a pair,” I said, trying to force things into alignment.
“Partners, lovers. From the two of you came a fine son, born from the very fiber of your souls. You would have had a daughter, too, but her creation was disrupted. A true shame, what became of her.”
The little girl. I missed her, desperately.
“Do you know the legend of Nergal and Ereshkigal?” he asked.
“The veil is partially comprised of humanity’s dreams, a sort of humming unconscious that lingers both in and outside of time. There, a legend exists that tells of a man, or possibly a lion, who lays siege to the netherworld and comes upon the Queen of the Afterlife, Ereshkigal. This beast-man becomes enamored of her. Despite the wrath of the other gods, he decides to steal her away for himself. One would think that the Queen of the Netherworld would have the power to resist some mongrel, yet she forgets her other husband and allows herself to be taken. Why would that be?”
Perhaps because the beast made her feel safer than the rest of the gods ever had. It could be that she and the beast loved to lay under the moon together, while she spoke softly of her worries and her fears, until the beast wiped away her tears and reminded her of the world’s pleasures.
“They call her Lilith now,” Semyaza said, untouched by my silence. “A name they have made a curse. Someday they will recall the empire of jewels and beauty she made, and also make it a curse. That’s when they will call her the Whore of Babylon. Who will she be to you, then?”
I answered despite myself, my shape aching with grief.
“Always, I imagine.”
It was returning, slowly. Seeing her elegant hand against my paw, watching her touch the petals of a rose I had given her, crumbling with love when her lips brushed my fur. I had been a soldier for her, a storyteller, a king. We had raised a golden-haired boy from his first hiccuped breath; when he laughed, I heard Ninsun in the air. Our lives had been beautiful, until the end.
“You want to live with her again, don’t you?”
I was shaking, reeling with all I could see, half afraid that he and Asasel could see it too.
“I can’t,” I said, no longer myself. “I made a bargain. One life with her, then a debt to Heaven.”
“Part of your soul will always have to be in Heaven, that’s true,” he shrugged. “But a soul can be split. That is the natural way for human souls to exist: part of them stays on one side of the veil, keeping track of things, while the other part carries out a merry oblivious existence down on Earth again, and again, until they tire of it. They can even split themselves into multiple pieces, if traumatized enough, as poor Asasel has discovered with Anatu. After being stoned to death, the miserable part of her became Inanna--all innocence without sense--leaving the un-innocent sense to become Astarte, aimlessly furious with the world at large.”
“They all feel the same to me,” Asasel said, quiet.
This thought was tempting, as things became clear. I couldn’t forsake my duty to Heaven--it was a promise I had made to Father, and I wasn’t about to break it. But if I could give her a life in the world again, even a piece of me, then I could be content. Heaven’s changeless monotony was no place for someone like her.
“What do I have to do?” I asked.
“For one, you’ll have to choose which part of yourself to keep on the other side. You’ll be less brave, or less virile, or musically gifted. One way or another, something has to stay behind. Might I suggest your charisma? Wasn’t any good to the beast, so I doubt she’ll miss it.”
“But how, exactly?”
“It’s something you’ll know how to do when you have to do it,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”
He clapped his hands. All at once, Asasel vanished from my side.
“Not that I don’t trust you,” he mused. “But I’ve done my part, and I like to keep the rabbits away from the lions. Now, I believe you have a wedding to break up.”
Anger filled me, recalling then the ‘ceremony’ Michael had been so keen on keeping me away from.
“She would marry him?” I asked, feeling claws sprout from my fingertips, fangs in my teeth. “After all he did to her, she would consent to this?”
“He’s broken her spirit,” Semyaza sighed. “When faced with an opponent they cannot best, some animals play dead to preserve themselves. This is her equivalent.”
My wings unfurled. I could not stay there, not with my queen about to pledge herself to a snake.
“One thing to keep in mind, Samael,” Semyaza said. “Michael only makes a servant of you because he still believes you a pet. Do you know why he wouldn’t make a servant of Raphael? Or new-Gabriel? As much as the idiot makes a servant of himself.”
I hesitated, shaking my head.
“That would be because they’re as capable as he is. He is lucky for their cooperation. He tried to make a servant of Hanael, and even she slipped through his fingers. So, show a little force. Use your new friends--there is more Chaos in the veil than in the pit.”
As for how Semyaza might have known what happened in Michael’s realm, I couldn’t say. It’s possible someone as accustomed to the veil as he was could see past the vision I had of myself, seeing the particles of their filth still clinging to my essence. Even so, that didn’t explain how he knew I had mastered them.
I had no time to understand this man. Tense, I sneered.
“I despise them,” I said.
“Normally that would be a deal breaker, but these things feed on negative sensation. No doubt your hate endears you to them further.”
I growled, but he seemed only amused. Semyaza settled back into his chair, lifting the bowl of ripe cherries back into his lap.
“The demons will follow where you lead,” he said, sorting through the bowl to find a stem that pleased him most. “Show Michael you make your own rules, in this life.”
I can’t say I approved of this plan, at first. But as my wings carried me to the edge of his perception, my rage brewing with thoughts of Michael by her side, I began to appreciate its simplicity.
Break the competitor. Protect what’s mine. Sariel or Samael, that was something I knew how to do.