The angel Azrael surveyed the remains of the town. The place was as dead as the horse he sat on. Broken Whiskey hadn’t been much before the end came, and it was even less now. The buildings were charred ruins and the air so much smoke and ash. Whatever hell had been visited upon the townsfolk, it had been devastating and complete.
And recent. So recent, in fact, the bodies of the men and women that decorated the buildings and streets, as if thrown there by a wayward child, were still largely untouched by animals and insects alike. Although the pair of buzzards that followed Azrael everywhere were circling lower in the sky, doing their own surveying.
The mayhem didn’t spook Azrael’s horse any more than it spooked him. Nothing had spooked it since he’d raised it from the dead. The horses of the men with him, on the other hand, were as skittish as if they smelled hellspawn on the wind. Maybe they did. But Azrael reckoned it was more likely the opposite of hellspawn that had done this.
One of the men spat on the ground and the moisture sizzled away. The earth was still smoking hot in patches from the damnation that had happened here. None of the men said anything. They all watched Azrael without really looking at him. They drummed their fingers on their saddles and the butts of their guns, but they waited for him to speak. They had enough sense to be wary around an angel.
Azrael nodded. “This is indeed the work of one of the seraphim,” he said.
“What in all the hells is a seraphim?” the man who’d spat asked.
“He means an angel, you fucking coal-eater,” one of the others said. The man who’d first stopped Azrael on the road with a cross in one hand and a pistol in the other. As though either would have meant anything to Azrael if he’d declined to ride with the man and his friends to investigate their tale of a winged woman raining destruction down from the skies. Azrael had gone along with them more out of curiosity than anything else. He’d smelled the towns burning long before the man with the cross had ridden out of the horizon toward him. And it had been a long time since he’d encountered another angel. There were few of his kind left now. This world ground everything down to dust eventually, even the Fallen.
The other man just spat again, showing his opinion on the difference between the words, or maybe just his opinion of angels in general.
Azrael knew the truth was there was a legion of abominations that could have turned this place into the hell it had become for its inhabitants. But he could see things the mortal men around him couldn’t. Or maybe he just saw the same things in different ways. He could tell from his first glance that it was an angel responsible for this massacre. He even knew which one.
“Can you kill it?” another of the men asked. The one with all the scars. The only one besides Azrael who looked at the bodies and didn’t wince or turn his head away. Not that there was anywhere to look where there weren’t bodies.
“Everything dies in the end,” Azrael said. Something he’d read once in a book.
“What’s your price to stop this abomination?” the last man asked. The one who wore the fine suit and held the cloth to his nose. The one whose purse clinked with the weight of coins.
“You can’t afford me,” Azrael said, which was true in its own way. He looked away from the ruin of the town and out into the wasteland beyond. How many more towns out there like this one?
“All the money you want,” the man with the coins said. “Women. Whiskey. Name your price. And don’t tell me you don’t have one, because everything does.”
“A thousand years from now, this town would have been dust anyway,” Azrael said. He’d seen it before. All the works of men and gods were dust in the end. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
“We’ll give you your own damned town to destroy if that’s what you want,” the man who’d first stopped him said. “As long as the others get left alone by you and your kind.”
Azrael saw the logic in that. What was the price of one town if it meant saving dozens more? Even if a dozen had already been lost. What was the price to stave off destruction for a few more decades or centuries? But it wasn’t a town of his own he wanted. If that had been the case, he would have taken what he wanted. And no one would have been able to stop him any more than the dead all around them had stopped the other angel.
Azrael didn’t say anything, and the day lengthened into stillness. They watched the buzzards feed on a man impaled on the church spire.
“Hell, you can have my soul if you’re so inclined,” the one with the scars finally said. “For all the good it’ll do you.”
Azrael nodded. “I’ll do what I can,” he said. “But I make no oaths.”
They all looked at him. The man with the scars chewed the inside of his lip for a moment, then nodded himself.
“Fair enough,” he said.
“I don’t need any payment,” Azrael said. “I just wanted to know there was still someone worth doing this for.”
With that, he turned his dead horse away from the town and rode out into the wasteland. Somewhere out there was the angel Erafel.
Azrael knew Erafel was the angel responsible for destroying the towns long before he’d ridden into Broken Whiskey with the men. He’d known from the first body they’d ridden past on the road toward the smoke and flames. A man lying on his back, staring at the sky with empty eye sockets. His eyes had been gouged out. Judging from the blood on his hands, he’d removed them himself. That wasn’t much of a clue on its own. Azrael had seen plenty of sights in his time that would make mortals pluck out their own eyes.
It was the other sign that told Azrael that Erafel was in these parts. The symbol inscribed on the man’s forehead, carved out of his flesh and bone. Erafel’s true name. She blasted it into enemies’ heads during battle.
Azrael still had memories of entering Sodom at her side, hurtling through the breach in the wall and throwing himself into the golems that rose from the earth to meet them. He’d laid about himself with a sword of flames long since lost, but there were too many of the golems. They bore him to the ground with the weight of their numbers. Until Erafel had thrown out her hands at them, and the symbols had exploded into each forehead, crumbling them one after the other into the dust from whence they’d come. She’d done the same to the mortals, so the symbol burned its way into their minds and showed them her true incarnation. They had torn out their eyes and thrown themselves off the walls or into the fires, screaming for mercy. But the seraphim had known nothing of mercy in those days.
Azrael also remembered lying with Erafel in the burning ruins of Sodom after the battle, surrounded by the dead and dying. They hadn’t made love in the mortal sense, but they had given of themselves to each other, with the wrath and fury of the avenging angels of the Lord. Bathed in the blood of enemies and friends alike, they were as one.
Sodom. Just one of countless battles where the angels had fought together, instead of against each other. Where they had given their lives for each other instead of for nothing.
A long time ago.
Azrael rode on toward the next destroyed town, leaving the past behind, in the wastelands.
In the next town, Azrael encountered a living man who tried to kill him. The sign at the limits said Sinners Crossing, but if there’d ever been a real crossing at the site, Azrael couldn’t tell. The buildings had been razed to the ground, and ash covered the earth like it had in the times of vengeance. The largest structure in sight was a heap of bodies that rose toward the heavens, like the offerings mortals tended to make from time to time. For all the good that it did them.
One of the bodies rose up off the pile and staggered toward Azrael. Unlike the others, he still bore his eyes but not the mark upon his forehead. He carried a book in his burned and bloody hands. Azrael recognized the book, even though it had been hundreds of years, if not thousands, since he’d last seen it.
The man muttered a few words as he stared down at the book, and Azrael threw himself off the horse as the earth opened up underneath it. The horse fell into the pit without a sound, but Azrael managed to catch onto the side and pull himself out.
The man stared at him like he didn’t see him. Azrael figured he likely didn’t. He ran at the man and ripped the book from his hand before he could say the words that would seal up the pit. He’d been through a lot with that horse and didn’t want to lose it. Especially this way.
Azrael looked down at the book to confirm its nature. It was as heavy as the body of a full-grown man. It was bound in bone and the pages were made of flesh, but they were not the bones and flesh of anything mortal. It was his bible. He’d lost it in the fall, along with his other sacred relics. He hadn’t seen any of them since. He’d thought them all long since destroyed. The words the man had spoken were from the bible. The forbidden tongue that no mortal should read, let alone speak.
This wasn’t the first time Azrael had encountered a mortal with an angel’s bible. When he’d sundered the gate of Babel, there’d been that naked weeping man waiting on the other side. The man had read the words from Remiel’s tome, and to this day Azrael didn’t know how the mortals had laid their hands upon that book. The seraphim on either side of Azrael had burst into holy flames, the only kind of fire that could consume their kind. Azrael would have burned himself if it had not been for the quick wrath of Erafel, who’d cast a spear over Azrael’s shoulder that caught the man in the mouth before he could say anything else.
This man turned in a circle now, staring at the blasted town as though he saw something else there. His hands smoked as though they’d been burned. Maybe they had been. His mind certainly had been. Each of the seraphim had their own bible written personally for them, in the language of Heaven. It was where their personal words of power, their words of incarnation, were recorded. Even other seraphim couldn’t read one another’s bibles without going a little mad. The mind of a mortal who looked upon the secret words would forever be ruined.
The book pulsed in Azrael’s hands, like it were still alive. Maybe it was. Even Azrael didn’t know.
The man whimpered to be relieved of his burden, then reached for the bible again, as if he couldn’t help himself.
Azrael pulled out one of his pistols and shot the man in the head, where Erafel liked to carve her mark. The man fell to the ground with a long sigh and lay there, his hands over his face, as if he were asleep.
It was a small mercy, but small mercies were all Azrael had.
Azrael looked down at his bible. He knew Erafel had found it somehow, and left it here for him, in the remains of Sinners Crossing, in the hands of a madman. A message meant to remind him of the past. The question was why.
There was only one way to find out. Azrael looked at the smoke on the horizon. The next town. Then he climbed down into the pit to lead the dead horse out.
The road to the next town was lined with the dead.
They hung from crucifixes—men, women, children. Hundreds of them. The crucifixes were made of bones melted together. The bodies were bound to the crucifixes with ropes made of muscle and sinew. The ground was muddy from all the blood. The buzzards stayed high in the sky. The horse didn’t care any more than it had before it had fallen into the pit.
Azrael rode on, reading his bible. It had been a long time since he’d cast his eyes on the words inscribed in its pages. He couldn’t remember them when he didn’t have the bible because the secrets they revealed were too much even for angels to bear in their mind without help. He could only comprehend them through the bible. It was the way it had always been, and the way it would always be. But he felt whole again now as he turned the pages. He would have wept, but he was long beyond weeping over anything.
After a time he came to the next town. He didn’t know the name of this one. There was no sign at the town limits, and he’d never been this way before. There were a few boulders strewn about the outskirts, as if they’d fallen from the heavens along with the angels. They were cracked open, so Azrael imagined the town had probably once been named Blasted Rock or something like that. It didn’t matter. The town wasn’t really a town anymore. Like the others, this one had been reduced to ash and smoke.
Azrael studied the smoke as he rode. He saw the shape it formed. A writhing tower that reminded him of another place. Another time. He looked back at the book and rode on.
He knew the bible was a gift of some sort from Erafel. But he didn’t know what kind. She had only ever given him one gift before, when they’d razed Babel to the ground. As they cast bodies onto the pyres, she’d shown him the fire that burned inside her. He’d laid his hands on her to heal a wound to the breast, a deep slash from a sword. Erafel had shaken him off and ripped the wound open with a talon. Holy fire spilled out of her. Wrath and fury. She’d taken some in the palm of her hand and blown it into Azrael’s face, and he’d breathed deep of her essence. It had been enough to fuel his anger for a century.
It had been many centuries since Azrael had felt that way. He wondered if the fire still burned within her.
On the other side of the town without a name, the road turned to bone. More people were bound to crucifixes on either side, but some of these were alive. They moaned and cried out as he rode past, even though they couldn’t see him on account of their missing eyes. He couldn’t shoot them. He didn’t have enough bullets.
The road turned here and there and rose up into the sky at points in bridges over nothing before dropping back down to the earth. It was the path of a madman and made no sense in this wasteland. But Azrael recognized the road. It wound around crystal spires and forest groves that weren’t there. It rose over streams that had never flowed in this ground.
The farther he rode, the more the crosses bore living souls. They wailed and screamed, and the sound reminded him of long-forgotten winds.
He knew what he would find in the last town before it even came into view on the horizon. A temple with spires that pointed at the heavens like blades raised to the sky. The temple itself was made of bodies, some dead but many living. They writhed and cried out in their confines, but they were bound fast to each other with more sinew and bone.
Azrael followed the road toward it. He wondered what the men who had hired him would think if they could see this. He figured they’d probably tear their eyes out and beg him to kill them.
He went past a sign fallen on the ground. Repentance, it said. He didn’t know if it was the name of the town or something else.
He rode on, reading more of the bible as he went, remembering who and what he had once been.
Azrael left the horse beside one of the crucifixes outside the temple and loosened his guns in their holsters before he went in. They wouldn’t be much good against an angel, but he wasn’t sure what else there might be inside. He kept the bible in his hands. That he would need for Erafel.
He found an empty throne of skulls all branded with her mark, and nothing else. The ceiling and walls of the temple writhed with the souls trapped in them. Hands grabbed at his legs from the floor.
“Azrael,” Erafel’s voice said from a hundred mouths throughout the chamber. “I knew this world wouldn’t kill you.”
“It’s done its best,” Azrael said, looking around. He didn’t see Erafel, but she was here.
“I dreamed of this moment during the fall,” a hundred different damned said. Blood dripped down on him from the ceiling. “It took me thousands of years to find the place from my dream. But it wasn’t a dream. It was a vision. And now here you are.”
Azrael didn’t know if Erafel was telling the truth or not. But if she was, it explained how she’d known to leave his bible with the madman.
“I found it in an altar of a most blasphemous church,” the skulls of the throne said, as if Erafel knew his thoughts. Maybe she’d seen them too in her dream. “Oh, the rituals they attempted with it.” The dead all laughed, as if amused or disgusted, and smoke poured from their mouths. The smoke drifted to the center of the room and then coalesced into a writhing mess of incomprehensible shapes that eventually resolved themselves into Erafel.
She wore the skins of humans over her worn body, but she cast them off and spread her tattered wings around him in a form of embrace. She was as beautiful as he remembered.
“You have to stop your reckoning,” he said, even though he knew she wouldn’t.
She folded her wings back in and walked a circle around him, stepping through pools of blood.
“With your bible, you can be what you once were,” she went on, like he hadn’t spoken. She ran a talon along the back of his neck, just hard enough to break the skin. “You can be more powerful than even me.”
Azrael took that to mean Erafel had lost her own bible somewhere. Or perhaps it had been destroyed. Which he figured was probably just as well, given the path she appeared to be walking now.
“I know the streets you’re building here,” he said. “I recognize the temple. The streams and the winds. But this is not one of the lost cities of heaven. This is an abomination.”
She leaned close to him, until their lips almost touched. “This entire world is an abomination, but it is all we have left of heaven,” she said. “So I will build a new heaven from it.”
More blood rained down on Azrael, but he paid it no attention.
“I won’t stand by your side,” he said, for he knew that had been the intent of leaving the bible with the madman. To remind Azrael of the days when he and Erafel had passed judgment on the mortals side-by-side.
The bible snapped open in his hands. The pages turned on their own.
“You could help transform this world into a new heaven with me,” Erafel said. “With the power that is in those pages.”
“This world is the mortals’ now,” Azrael said. “Let them destroy it if they will. But I’ll play no role in that.”
She stepped back from him, to stand in a pool of blood.
“Have you grown to love them more than your own kind?” she asked.
“I’ve walked with them enough that I’ve grown to understand them,” Azrael said. “They’re just as fallen as us.”
“Nothing can ever be as fallen as us,” she said and smoke poured out from her lips. So the fire still burned within her. He caught scent again of the righteousness and wrath, but he didn’t breathe deep as he once had.
“Do you remember how we once used to destroy the cities of the unbelievers and heretics?” he asked. “How we razed their false temples to ash, and then scattered the ashes to the far corners of the world?”
“With every beat of my heart,” Erafel said.
“You have become one of those heretics,” he said.
She sprang into the air and hovered there for a second, but her wings were too tattered to support her. She grabbed onto the ceiling and hung from it, and the mortals trapped there screamed again. Ash drifted down from her onto Azrael.
“You would side with the mortals!” she cried.
“You shouldn’t have returned my bible to me,” he said. “You should have destroyed it.” And he looked down at the book and began to read aloud.
The words sundered the air, and both the living and the dead trapped in the temple walls screamed. Erafel screamed herself, a sound that drowned out the other cries. Azrael had heard her war cry countless times before, but he’d never been on the receiving end of it until now. The sound pierced him as sure as any blade, and he staggered. Only the words of his bible protected him.
He turned the page and read a new verse in the tongue he hadn’t uttered for ages. The very air caught fire, and now they were in an inferno. Azrael didn’t burn, nor did the book. But everything else did.
Erafel fell out of the flames toward him. She shifted into her true form as she came at him, and he cast his gaze elsewhere. That way lay madness, even for an angel.
She tried to knock the bible from his hand, but he was ready for it. He used its words to throw himself up, ripping free of the grasping hands of the floor and shattering the ceiling of bone and flesh above. He rose into the sky that was darkness without stars as she fell to the earth beneath him.
He felt all his power coming back now that he had the bible again. He felt whole once more. He felt like an avenging angel once more. He knew that was what Erafel had wanted. Only she’d desired him on her side rather than standing against her. But he knew that whatever he felt, he would never be the seraph he had once been again, no matter how his bible made him feel.
Beneath him, the temple collapsed inward around the point he’d ruptured. The wails of the dead and dying were the same cries he’d heard countless times before. He paid them no heed. He hung in the night and looked for Erafel.
She rose out of the ruins like the phoenix they had once hunted together, on a column of fire. She held in one hand a sword that burned with black fire, and the other she drew back in a gesture Azrael knew far too well.
He turned to the last page of his bible and read the words there. It was a part of the book he’d never dared to read before, for fear of its consequences. He realized as he uttered the words for the first time that he had been right to be cautious.
The dead all exploded as the words released their souls. Bones and flesh erupted in all directions and then were consumed by the rising pillar of... Azrael didn’t know how to conceive of it. It was as if the air itself was rent open all the way to the heavens, exposing the very substance of the ether. There was a sound that may have been thousands of simultaneous screams, or may have just been the howling of the wind.
The pillar of souls consumed everything in its path—the debris thrown up from the temple’s ruins, the symbol that Erafel cast at Azrael through the air, and then even Erafel herself.
Azrael caught sight of her, for a moment, writhing in the consuming power of the pillar of souls. He saw her smile, and in that instant he knew he had been wrong about everything. Erafel hadn’t delivered him his bible because she wanted him to rule by her side. She knew better than that. She’d delivered the book to him because she wanted to be destroyed by it. She wanted to be consumed by the heavenly wrath only it could unleash. A last taste of everything they’d lost when they’d fallen.
And then her body disintegrated into dust, and the pillar burned a hole into the heavens and was gone.
Azrael drifted back down into the ruins. Bones crunched under his feet. It was just him and the dead now.
And his dead horse. It stood where he’d left it, somehow untouched by the apocalypse the bible’s words had unleashed.
He looked down at the book again and saw the last page was blank now. He flipped back to the other passages he’d read aloud. They were blank as well. The words had never faded when he’d used them in the past. He looked at the other sections, the parts he hadn’t read, and found the words still there.
He looked up at the hole the pillar had burned in the clouds overhead. It was already closing up again.
Azrael didn’t know what to make of the vanishing words in his bible. Maybe they’d come back later. Or maybe they’d never come back now that he was fallen. It didn’t matter. It didn’t change things much.
Azrael closed the bible and put it in one of the horse’s saddlebags. A shadow passed overhead. He looked up, but it was just the buzzards again.
Azrael gazed around one more time at the ruin that Erafel had wreaked. The same ruin he had once wreaked himself. Then he began to go through the bodies, one by one, looking to see if there were anyone still alive, anyone who needed the only mercy he could deliver.