The Garden feels different without the humans in it.
Colder, for one.
Although, to be fair, the storm of (literally) unheard of proportions might have something to do with that, as well.
The angel Azariel shivers and crouches into what meager shelter the wall provides.
Lightning flashes, blinding white, and thunder rocks the Garden in a tremulous wave only moments after.
He almost misses the thud of something small and coiled hitting the grass.
The angel sighs and unwraps his wings from around himself, lifting them against the rain. He diligently makes his way to where the unknown object has landed in a heap, stepping gingerly in the near darkness.
“Ow,” the heap hisses. “Ow ow ow ow ow....”
Azariel draws his sword and kneels, holding it in front of him like a torch. Slit-pupiled eyes, as brilliantly red as a pair of very startled rubies, peer up at him in the light. The serpentine body is twisted in a contorted heap, finely-feathered wings spread out awkwardly to the side. Smoke rises from them in fine plumes.
For a moment, there is an indecisive silence.
“Ssooo...” the serpent begins with what looks roughly like a nervous shrug. “Crazy weather, huh?” As the silence stretches, he tries again. “Um... Azariel, right?”
The angel hesitates, nods. “I don't think you ought to be here.”
“Just leaving, actually, in case you haven't noticed.”
“And it's no weather to be flying in either, frankly speaking. You really should have used the gate.”
“Oh yeah, because you were so psyched to see me the last time I was there,” the serpent snorts with a nervous glance at the flaming sword, which earns him a patient sort of glare from the angel.
Azariel is silent for a moment, then says, “You did this, didn't you?”
“Pretty sure I haven't got the stuff for thunder and lightning, feathers,” the serpent snickers.
“You know what I mean,” Azariel says calmly. He looks straight into the ruby eyes and the demon shifts in discomfort.
“Well, yeah,” he admits. “I guess. I never meant for all this mess to happen, though, I was just- I mean, they just said, get up there and-”
“I should have smote you the moment I first saw you,” the angel says serenely.
Then he plops himself down next to him.
The serpent stares.
The angel tucks his feet under him, shifting uncomfortably on the wet grass, and places the flaming sword back into its sheath. He contemplates the trees as they bow down under the weight of the storm, creaking loudly.
After a time, he turns to look back at the demon. “I'm sorry,” he says, “Is something the matter?”
“Weeeell...” the serpent shifts uneasily, “Not to look the gift chicken in the mouth, but, say, hypothetically speaking, if you think you should've smote me a long time ago, what's stopping you now?”
“Oh,” the angel blinks at him. “Well, it's too late now, obviously.”
“Right. Obviously. Ssstill....” The serpent cautiously slithers closer, curious despite himself. “I could still do... other stuff. That you might regret not smiting me in advance for. Ssso, ahem, again, what gives?”
The angel stares at him like he's grown an extra head. “Oh, but I can't go around smiting people for things they have yet to do,” he says emphatically. “Things they might only do, at that! It would hardly be fair. Even if it's practically inevitable, in your case. What with, um, your being a demon and all.” He looks at the serpent with an almost apologetic shrug and his gaze lingers on the charred scales and feathers still smelling of lightning. “I say, you weren't singed too badly, were you?”
The serpent finds his mouth hanging open and snaps it shut, shaking his head. “Okay, I'm starting to see why they put you on guard duty,” he says, glancing surreptitiously up to where the Azariel's wings are spread out against the rain and trying to shift closer to the angel without him noticing.
They sit in a silence for a while that is one part apathetic, one part confused, until the demon speaks again.
“Where d'you reckon they're at now?” he says, carefully slithering close until they're almost touching, and deciding that it will have to do. He coils himself tighter to keep warm.
“In shelter, one should hope,” the angel says hesitantly. He shifts his hand uneasily on the grip of his sword, then glances down at it with a vague expression of guilt. “...Do you think they'll be alright?” he ventures, the words stumbling out despite themselves.
“Let me see... Two humans-turned-immortals stumbling butt-naked into a brave new world, not a clue in their heads about who they are or what's right or wrong or how they're supposed to survive. Yep. Should go splendidly,” the serpent hisses bitterly.
Azariel looks at him in horror.
“Immortal?” he finally stammers. “But I thought... oh my, that would explain why He was so, well... put out... Good heavens, whatever were you thinking?”
“Hey, I wasn't the one to cast them out of the Garden where the food practically catapults itself into their mouths. They would've been fine here. I just thought, well, not dying, I guess that sounds like something?” he finishes lamely.
Azariel blinks. “But... we don't die. I am an immortal. And so are you,” he observes.
“Yep. But they're not. Or weren't,” the demon objects. Then he sighs. “Still. I do keep wondering if I shouldn't have picked the other one.”
“Why didn't you?”
“Honestly?” the serpent looks irritated. “It was my first choice, but then there was some huge white lumbering animal with a horn on it like that that friggin' sword, and it wouldn't go away, so I kind of gave up and thought, well, fine, let's try the other one, where would the harm be... But it might have been the wrong thing to do all along. A demon could get into real trouble, doing the wrong thing, you know. Like.... like promotion,” he shudders and trails off.
They stare into the distance in what is almost companionable silence. Azariel stretches and repositions his wings. When the demon glances up, there is a roof of luminous plumes extending over him.
He hums in gratitude and begins cleaning and preening his own wings, running sharp fangs through delicate feathers.
“I ask myself if I shouldn't have done something different as well, you know,” the angel confesses eventually. “They are rather helpless out there, after all. And they don't even know how helpless they are!”
“Then I guess it's something they'll have to pick up as they go along,” the serpent grins. “Trust me, there's nothing you learn as quickly as recognising what kind of crap you're in.”
The angel looks sympathetic. “Yes, I imagine you'd know... Tell me, what is it like.... being Damned?”
The demon is about to hiss something really nasty when he realises Azariel's tone is full of apologetic curiosity and nothing else. “Uh,” he says, and shakes himself. “Look, feathers, that's a can of worms we'll have to open some other time, okay?”
The angel looks confused but nods reluctantly.
It's difficult to say how much time has passed, but the storm begins to clear. First it's a gradual thinning of the sheets of rain, then the air grows lighter somehow and the sun keeps breaking through the clouds.
Azariel turns to where the serpent is curled snugly against him, eyes closed and head tucked under a brightly speckled wing. He carefully pokes a finger at him, watching the serpent uncoil in surprise.
“I'm sorry,” he says, “I don't mean to be rude, but the weather seems better now and you really should go before you end up in any more trouble.”
The serpent looks up at the sky in surprise and nods, serpentine head bobbing. “Oh yeah, sure.” He unwinds and flexes his singed wings, elongated body swaying to and fro as he beats them experimentally. He turns to look at the angel and winces. “Back to Hell for me, then. See you around, maybe. Thanks for. Um. Well, you know.”
Azariel nods, “It was no trouble at all,” he says, looking surprised even as the words come out. “Good luck then,.... er.” He blushes suddenly, mortified. “I'm sorry, what was your name again?”
“Gliss,” the serpent smiles at him. “Rhymes with 'bliss'.”
The serpent rises into the air in a sinuous motion, wings beating in perfect counterpoint to the swaying body.
Azariel watches him until he is a speck in the sky.
The sun spills over the horizon, lighting the scarlet trees and gleaming off the shiny, polished surface of rich Aztec gold.
Perched on the top of a temple, Gliss grins and points down to where beating gongs greet the dawn as a thirty-foot gold statue is finally pulled upright.
The angel turns to him and raises one perfectly oiled eyebrow. “Really now, my pet.”
Gliss twitches a bit – ever since humans came up with the bright idea of keeping winged snakes as pets, the angel has been insufferably patronising about it.
“It's classy,” he insists, leaning forward defensively.
“'Ostentatious' is the word I would have used, to be frank.”
“Yes, exactly! These people are all about ostentatious, or did you miss all the solid gold?” Gliss gestures wildly around them, his bracelets jingling melodiously. “And anyway, I hardly did anything. They're so so worship-starved, they probably think it's a holy sign every day the sky doesn't drop down on them.”
“Gliss, you cannot proclaim yourself a god,” Azariel says patiently. “It is sacrilegious. Especially for a demon.”
“Sacrilegious works just fine with me, and I'm not proclaiming anything. All I do is conveniently appear at the right place at the right time in... the right shape, yeah, and let people draw their conclusions. Nobody's holding a knife to their throats.”
“Actually, I think with the amount of human sacrifice around here one could safely say-”
“Nevertheless, it is also against my current orders. I have been instructed to...” he gestures vaguely, “put a stop to it.”
The demon looks at him in curiosity. “Well, that's a lot of flexibility to work with. What, precisely, is the 'it' you are to put a stop to?”
Azariel says nothing and looks a bit sheepish.
“Tell you what, feathers, I'll make them tone down on the human sacrifice, how does that sound?”
The angel looks vaguely uncomfortable. “Frankly, I believe it's more the worship of another god my superiors take issue with, not the human sacrifice,” he says distractedly.
The angel and demon share a look.
“Huh,” Gliss says at last.
They turn back to watch the proceedings.
“It's a shame,” the angel says indulgently. “It is a rather nice statue.” He is silent for a moment, then adds, “If a bit too monstrous-looking. Fitting, of course, but, well..,”
Gliss winces and shrugs. “Job requirement,” he explains. “Oh well. Let me go and proclaim some thousand-year-long hibernation or something, with a vague threat of violence at the end. That ought to do it well enough for the both of us. They can't technically worship a demon if he's not around, but it'll keep the flame alive, so to speak.”
Azariel watches him weave off the roof before appearing curled around the newly-erected statue, a terrifying and nearly colossus-sized winged serpent in the eyes of the humans. He gives a low, keening hiss, his bright plumes spread in a menacing arc, and the followers drop to their knees as one.
“Quetzalcoatl!” they chant in awe.
The angel smiles fondly and shakes his head.
Hours and centuries pass, thousands of feet of forest and ocean and desert beneath their wings, and they are standing in front of a dusty tavern and rubbing down the horses.
“You'll get used to it, pet,” Azariel says with that infuriating quiet confidence of his, and Gliss grumbles. He takes a nervous look at the tall steed and it eyes him with equal distrust. The last four hours, which the angel had insisted they spend on appreciating the sensations of the flesh (which, in his mind, apparently meant riding with the wind and getting sore in places Gliss was pretty sure the Lord had never created), had been an exercise in torment, and that was saying something.
Azariel hums to himself dreamily as he brushes down his own golden-brown mare and gently taps each of the eight legs to pick the stones out of her hooves. He catches Gliss staring at him and smiles.
“What is it, pet?”
“You and horses,” the demon grumbles, turning away.
“You and books,” the angel counters. “Could you at least have the courtesy not to read at the table this time?” He gestures at the tavern as they go inside.
“Books don't try to kick me in the teeth.”
“Well, you can't exactly blame them for being wary, can you, pet? It does rather come with the territory, so to speak.”
“...Yeah.... Sure,” the demon says. They push past the loud patrons and up the stairs to where a small but comfortable room is waiting for them.
Minutes and hours pass and entire bottles of fine liquor drain away until they are shaking and trembling in their seats and slapping the rickety table.
“No, no, I tell ya....” Gliss slurs. “They got... Immora... imtora... they can't die, right? They got that. And thissis wha they do with it.”
“Whadda they do with'it?” the angel giggles.
“They do this with'it! Thisss!” Gliss gestures with his arms explosively. “So they can't die, yeah, but turnsss out they ca' still kill each otha, like, immorty and immorty-thingy cancel each other out, or sumthin', so they got all this... special-dying-thing, just to die... wha with the death rites an' sacrifices and bring your firstborn to appease your king and all that, an' the Rites o' the Seventh Evenin', all that... “
“Don't forget opervolu... oper... over...”
“You know,” the angel squints. “Too bloody many people, ever'where.”
The demon's eyes widen and he nods emphatically. “Too bloody many people!” he agrees. “And I mean, at the end, they've got all those bloody illnesses an' injuries an' missin' legs an' arms and bear bites an' if it's not a killin' blow by 'nother im.... im-mortal, then it does jack squat, they just keep on limpin' around for centuries 'til someone does 'em in! I mean, have you sseeen the people in Sodomah?”
“Thatiss actually rather depressin'” Azariel protests, then breaks into laughter.
“I know!” Gliss roars, and joins in.
When he's calmed down somewhat, he rubs away a tear and says, “Gee, really startin' to wish I'd picked the other tree, great horned beasts be damned.”
“It's only natural,” Azariel says amiably, slumping onto the table with a yawn. “You're a...whatisit. You're a demon. Damned creature of Hell. You can't do Good. Just, y'know, your gen'ral nature.”
Half a minute later, he lifts his head to see Gliss staring at him, entirely sober. He blinks and shakes the alcohol out of his own system, as well. “What?”
Gliss's mouth works to respond, but then he just shakes his head with a strangled growl and pounces up, knocking over his chair. He crosses to the door, fumbles with his coat, but his hands are shaking and he drops it to the soggy floor.
Azariel slowly rises out of his seat as well. “I'm sorry,” he says carefully, “I didn't mean-”
“Yes you did. For Go-.. for Zi-... for Somebody's sake at least have the guts to be honest with me, Azariel,” he snaps as the angel toes closer to him. “I mean, in the Garden, sure... but after all this time, I actually thought we'd kind of moved past that, you know? Thought we had a... thing going there. After everything we'd been through. Guess I really should have known better.”
“Come now, Gliss, there is such a thing as the cosmic order of things, the grand plan. Don't take it so persona-”
“Hear me out now, pet-”
“I'm no-one's pet. Don't call me that again, you hear me?” the demon paces around the room and tries to put on his coat again but gets the wrong sleeve.
“My pe-... Gliss, please, do calm down!” Azariel says, following him around the room. “You know I've never held it against you. It would be wrong to hate you for your God-given nature. You can't help what you are any more than a scorpion can help but sting, or a tiger change its stripes-”
Gliss laughs harshly. “Why don't you compare me to a poisonous viper while you're at it, Azariel? Is that what you expect from me? That you'll warm me and coddle me and someday I'll snap and bite you in the heart, because it's my nature, like I'm a friggin' puppet to something that happened a long time ago? Come on, admit it, I don't think you've dug yourself in quite deep enough yet.”
“I said don't.” He whirls on Azariel as the angel tries to come close, hisses into his face. “You mean it. You've always meant it. Every time. Even after – what? five thousand years, give or take – you still think I'm some kind of filth the Big Daddy forgot to wash out into the gutter during spring cleaning. Don't you, Azariel?”
“Well...” Azariel looks away in discomfort. “You are a demon, and I-”
“I am a demon!” Gliss roars and suddenly Azariel is shoved against the wall so hard the plaster cracks. He gasps and finds himself pinned, claws seizing his arms just shy of drawing blood, and when he looks up, there is nothing about the face inches from his that could be mistaken for human.
“I am a demon,” Gliss hisses, red eyes boring into his. “Because that'ssss jussst all that mattersss, isn't it? Well guessssss what – there issss nothing wrong with me. What happened to me – could have happened to anyone. Including you, feathers. Essssspecially you,” he leans close with a vicious, sudden grin. “How many timessss have you killed an innocssssent for sssssome 'higher purpose', Azariel? How many timessss did you ssssmite an infidel for dissssagreeing with you, or for practicssssing different beliefssss, or for not living up to your persssssonal vision of what people should be like? I should've known back in the Garden how full you were of rationalising crap for your own endssss. And I did know, but you know how it issss,” he hisses, and his claws dig in, “beggarssss can't be chooserssss, and what can I do if the only angel who'll bother to talk to me is a ssssself-righteousss hypocrite like the rest of them? But I guesssss that'sss sssomething we have in common, at leasssst.”
Gliss leans closer and hisses into his ear. “You're no better than me, Azariel. You jussst have your head up in the cloudsss.”
Azariel keeps perfectly still and feels drops of blood trickle down his shoulders. Breathing carefully, he looks the demon in the eyes.
“Let me go,” he says calmly.
Gliss stares at him, then down to where his claws are digging in.
He snarls and springs back in one smooth motion and is out the door in another. The door slams.
Azariel lets out a breath and shakily straightens out the wrinkles in his clothes.
“I'm sure he'll come around,” he says to the empty room and slumps back into the chair.
Azariel doesn't see Gliss for decades. When they meet, it is on a battlefield, and each spots the other at the same time.
Azariel is the one who smiles and waves.
There's a short moment where Gliss's face almost lights up but the angel sees him squash it, mastering it into composure so burning cold the previous spark might never have been there at all. Then there is a feral grin and the demon weaves through the bloody masses in a heartbeat and springs forth, arm uncoiling powerfully to strike with a spear, and for the first time in centuries Azariel finds himself fighting his enemy again.
“Really now... Gliss,” he says carefully as he raises a shield and backs away a step. “Frankly speaking, isn't this something of a step backward for us?”
“Shut up.” The demon's response is unexpectedly quick and humourless, devoid of his usual sarcastic vitriol. “If I can't have respect, if the one person who knows me best thinks I'm scum writhing in the dirt... Then I'll just have to claw out some damn dignity for myself,” he stabs viciously with the spear, and Azariel barely dodges in time, “and not take that kind of pitying crap from anyone!”
“Gliss, please, you're over-reacting-”
“Sssave it, feathers. Save it unless you can say to my face that you don't think any less of me for having Fallen.”
Azariel opens his mouth, but no words come out. Falling is, after all, the original crime, in a way that the humans and their naïve bumbling have never come close to. “That would go against everything the Lord stands for,” Azariel finally says.
“Screw the Lord, then,” Gliss hisses and it makes the angel cringe. He levels a strike with his own sword but Gliss deftly catches it with the shaft of his spear, twirls and sends it spinning away. He is wearing a terrible, bitter smile as he slithers close and tackles Azariel to the ground. The angel tries to free himself, but the boot planted into his throat is making it difficult. He scrambles blindly at it, vision starting to go dark already. Quite annoyingly limited, these human bodies.
Suddenly the pressure lifts and he rolls over, sputtering and coughing. When he looks up, Gliss is looking at him in calm contemplation.
As they lock gazes, Gliss says quietly, barely audible in the din of the battle, “You are no better than me, feathers. And I'll prove it to you.”
The butt of the spear meets Azariel's head with a burst of black.
The battle is over when he awakens, and his side has lost. He shakes off his manacles with a thought, his sword leaping to his hand just as his captors are roused and advance on him, shouting, weapons drawn.
Moments later, he strides out of the circle of bodies and looks around, but Gliss is long gone.
Continents away and years later, Gliss is seated alone in a dark room, his eyes fiery in the light of the single candle. He dabs a quill into the bleeding gash in his wrist and scribes carefully into the dry parchment. It is disgustingly archaic, but Downstairs has never been particularly quick in catching up with the present – and admittedly it is slightly better than their embarrassing previous habit of possessing random humans to drop him a memo.
He scratches a complex sigil into the paper. It lights up in a glow that is darker than fire should be, but entirely appropriate for blood. As he waits, words appear on the surface in an ancient script, as if leaking in from inside the parchment.
Hello, Lord, he writes below, and watches as a response forms.
YOU HAVE BEEN BUSY, GLISS. WE HAVE HEARD ABOUT THAT BLOODBATH OF A BATTLE A FEW YEARS BACK. VERY PROMISING, GLISS.
Glad to serve.
NO SURVIVORS ON EITHER SIDE, WE'RE TOLD.
Gliss raises an eyebrow, then smiles grimly.
Yes, about that, he writes, and watches the words sink irrevocably into paper. Any advice on helping an angel Fall?
Azariel watches the burning city pass beneath him. A plume of smoke unexpectedly catches him in the face and he coughs involuntarily, circling higher.
There is evil as far as the eye can see, but that is nothing out of the ordinary these days. Filth and corruption abound everywhere. Sometimes he finds Gliss's trail somewhere along the way, sometimes he doesn't. He's not sure if that means that he's just reluctant to see it.
The great Holy City is burning, and he is there to fan the flames.
He bears down like a comet to where a soldier is dragging a struggling woman through a doorway. As they look to him in fear, he hesitates. The soldier's uniform marks him as one of their own, the favoured side. Everything he does that day will be sanctioned and forgiven.
His eyes lock with those of the terrified woman.
He compromises by tossing the soldier into a wall. If the man is lucky, he will rouse before an enemy finds him.
Azariel does not believe in luck, only the Lord's will. He watches the woman flee.
“Wasn't expecting that one,” a snide voice says, and Azariel feels his heart freeze for a moment.
Very slowly, he lifts his gaze to the rooftop, where a figure steps out through the curtain of smoke.
“Gliss,” he breathes.
The demon watches him. They stand and stare at each other, as if chaos were not blossoming all around them like a particularly violent, flesh-eating flower.
“What happened to serving God?” Gliss says.
“What do you mean?” the angel's brow furrows.
“That sucker you just slapped into the wall,” Gliss jerks his chin at him, “and the woman you let go who deserves her just desserts after living in sin great enough to merit the destruction of her city. How about that, feathers?”
“I am simply trying to save whom I can,” Azariel says slowly. “There is no need for more suffering than necessary...”
“Is that what Upstairs tells you, or is that actually you talking for a change? 'Cause last I heard from you, flawed things do not deserve and cannot be saved.”
“You're useless, you know that? That man'll be up in no time and go and have another go at someone else. That, or he'll die from brain damage, or someone does him in while he's out. Either way, it'll be on your conscience, but you still haven't got the guts for anything but half-measures. You think not having your hand on the hilt when you kill them makes you innocent of it?”
Azariel swallows and says carefully, keeping calm, “You are right, I have killed enough. I am letting God have his say in this...”
“I'm sure He appreciates your generosity,” the demon grins at him, all teeth.
“I am not... I am simply leaving it up to Him, in His hands to decide...”
“Yeah? And tell me, feathers...” Gliss slips down onto the rubble to stand in front of him, “What about this forsaken world makes you think His will is anything approaching a good idea?”
A scream rings out, sharp and hollow, and Azariel jerks away, hurries down the street with his sword out. “Leave me be, serpent,” he throws over his shoulder at the demon.
Days later, he perches on a rooftop and watches the executions of the prisoners. Some of them are just boys.
On the other end of the rooftop, he sees a dark-winged shape, the other spectator. The space of chipped tiles between them feels large and empty.
He could close the distance in an instant, but somehow, it would feel like surrender.
Another year, another city, with fire and blood in-between.
Six of his brothers stand with him, called down from Heaven for the special occasion.
He hears the incantation of the others echo in his ears, and if his own mouth stumbles over the words, it goes unnoticed.
That night, holy fire bears down from above, engulfs the city in brimstone and ash. For hours, the once-lush grazelands around it are bright as day.
Sodomah burns, as do three other cities.
Several miles away, he feels the heat on his face, and thinks of how nice the sun felt when he perched on the city's roofs.
He wonders if Gliss is around.
He must be. He always is.
Gliss has been smelling impending judgement in the air all month.
It is a holy plan. His duty is to oppose it.
He is a demon and he causes trouble. It's who he is.
When he sees a family – father, mother, a boy and a girl – making their way home in a worn cart pulled by a limping horse, it is therefore entirely natural that he eases into his serpent form and bursts flying into their way.
The terrified horse screams and tries to bolt. When all is said and done, the cart is turned over, one of the wheels splintered to pieces, and the children whining about how they'll never get home.
They're right, but not in a way they could ever imagine.
He follows them, gliding through the air on unobtrusive, serpentine wings. They've loaded what they can onto the tired horse and are carrying the rest, walking beside it.
When their horizon turns black with smoke, he expects them to wail and moan and turn away, but they stay, staring their goodbyes at the city that raised them, vice and virtue and all.
They're resting their legs on the soft ashes when the angels find them.
He can only watch.
Azariel feels a lump form in his throat as his brothers encircle the family. Only two other angels are left, having volunteered to 'help him mop up the survivors'. Upstairs believes in a clean job, after all.
The boy and girl are staring at the winged strangers in awe, while the parents are wary, their faces still streaked with tears.
“You lived in this city, human?” his brother intones, and watches the man nod stiffly. “Then you must share in its fate.”
“Please...” the woman whimpers while the man remains mute, “we haven't done anything.”
“You are of the city, you have drank and eaten and tasted of its sin. You must be cleansed.”
Ash blows into his hair. Azariel stares at the family and wonders when the world stopped making sense.
Perhaps it had been mad all along.
“Let them go,” he hears himself say. The others stare at him uncomprehendingly.
“But brother, they have-”
“They are alive,” he says simply. “When thousands of others are dead. Clearly, there must be a reason. The Lord did not wish to see them die with the others, or they would not have been away when it happened.”
The two angels look at each other, at Azariel. Silence reigns for a while. Then, without a word, they turn and are carried away on the winds.
He understands. Whatever he chooses or neglects to do with the humans now, it will be his burden.
He and the humans watch until the others have vanished from sight, lost in the sky. Then, he looks them in the eyes.
“The city to the north still stands,” he says simply, and turns away.
They grab their satchels and leave as fast as their tired legs will carry them.
Azariel sits down in the ash and stares at the remains of the city, feeling oddly exhausted and very much alone.
For a moment, he feels a speck of a demonic presence somewhere nearby, but it can only be wishful thinking.
Several minutes later, the wind carries to him soft words spoken by the humans who believe him to be out of ear shot.
“It really was a miracle, love, when that snake burst out of the grass and scared poor Nel - I thought we were done for, but it must have been a blessing in disguise...”
Azariel finds his breath catching. It could be nothing, it could be an ordinary animal...
What it hadn't been is an act of God.
He stands, brushes the ash from his knees and leaps into the air, wings unfurling.
He knows he needs to find Gliss.
The reassuring thing is that he always does, in the end.
It is hours later and Gliss sits with his back against a dried out tree, the only source of shadow in the barren landscape. He casts a thousand-yard-stare on the horizon.
Words are forming in the scorched earth in front of him, as if an invisible hand were carving them with a sharp knife.
WE HAVE BEEN WATCHING, GLISS.
YOUR PLAN WAS A WORK OF ART AND SUBTLETY, GLISS.
YOUR PERFORMANCE HAS BEEN UNCHARACTERISTICALLY DISAPPOINTING, GLISS.
The demon throws an absent look down at the writing, reading it without letting it fully register. He doesn't respond, hadn't even been the one to contact them, but it makes little difference.
WHAT WENT WRONG, GLISS?
THE ANGEL WAS IN A VULNERABLE POSITION, GLISS.
THE SLIGHTEST NUDGE MIGHT HAVE PUSHED HIM OVER THE EDGE, GLISS.
YET YOU NEGLECTED TO SEIZE THE OPPORTUNITY.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN TO US WHY, GLISS?
Gliss closes his eyes and leans his head against the tree. There is half a minute of blissful nothing. Then, letters blaze across the darkness behind his eyelids, as if he were suddenly seeing stars, albeit very organised and carefully-arranged ones at that.
DO NOT IGNORE US, GLISS.
WE ARE STARTING TO THINK YOUR HEART IS NOT IN THIS, GLISS.
WE ARE STARTING TO SUSPECT YOU HAVE GONE SOFT.
PERHAPS THIS ANGEL IS TO BLAME. PERHAPS YOUR INFLUENCE ON HIM HAS BEEN GOING BOTH WAYS.
Gliss's eyes flutter open. He doesn't let his body tense and he most certainly doesn't blink as the letters keep forming against his vision.
THIS COULD BE VERY BAD FOR YOU, GLISS. WE EXPECT A FULL EXPLANATION. PREFERABLY NOW.
He swallows. What he wants is to scream at them and tell them how he's sick of this great big cosmic game of chess, how none of it matters anyway if both sides don't care for anything but making jabs at each other. That it's all just sides and posturing and fancy names, all of it, and how tired he is of being the only one in the universe to see it that way. That Heaven may not be a walk in the park but Hell is still worse in so many ways, because the first thing it does is change who you are, completely and irrevocably, until the old you is nothing but another pile of ash, and when it comes down to it, honestly and brutally, that the angel deserves to be smacked upside the head and have some sense shaken into him for his silly ideas about virtue, but he doesn't deserve that, not when he's possibly the only one of those halo'ed bastards who could qualify as a decent person.
It's what he wants to say. It is fortunate he's not suicidal.
What he writes in the sand, fingers tracing through the coarse grains, is He wouldn't be of any use to us. Let's just leave it. I'll make it up to you. I promise.
DO NOT CONCERN YOURSELF, GLISS.
He sits up sharply, because that never bodes well.
WE WILL TAKE MEASURES TO RID YOU OF THIS MOST TROUBLESOME INFLUENCE. HEAR FROM US IN A FEW DECADES, AFTER YOU'RE ACTING MORE LIKE YOUR OLD SELF.
It takes him a moment, during which he sits in shock and slowly dawning horror. And then he leaps to his feet.
“Oh hell no,” he hisses, and takes to the air.
Azariel gazes down to where his figure casts a small patch of shadow onto the earth, like a huge bird of prey.
The human family had noticed the shadow some hours ago, but the sky is too bright for them to make him out.
They think there is an angel watching over them. For once, they are right.
You can be an angel even if you're the only one to remember what that means.
There is no sign of his demon. There wouldn't be, of course. Not on holy ground.
He watches the family as they trek through the plains, as their horse breaks a leg, as the leg is 'miraculously' healed, as they dump some more of the cargo and the little ones take turns riding to ease their aching feet.
He watches them laugh and cry with joy as the city appears on the horizon, still standing.
He watches them until they trade some of their possessions and find a place to sleep. Then he takes to the roof and lets his legs hang down as he sits and watches the city.
He is looking up at the stars when he feels the demonic presence.
“Gliss?” he mutters, even as he knows it isn't, because it feels wrong, and there's too much of it...
And it's tearing through him with white-hot pain, and as he skids and falls he knows he shouldn't have let his guard down.
He lies on his back on dusty cobblestones and can't help but gasp in pain at the gash in his side. A demon looks down at him from the edge of the rooftop, feral teeth bared. A moment later, it launches down at him.
Azariel narrowly resists swearing and rolls sideways, hearing claws tear up the ground where he just was. He struggles to his feet and pulls out his blade, wishing more than ever his old one, the one that could really hurt demons, hadn't been confiscated with his assignment to Earth – can't have that sort of weaponry where humans can get their hands on it, apparently.
The upside is that Hell abides by similar rules, and its servants cannot carry anything that could truly hurt an angel.
As his eyes meet that of the leering monster in front of him, it occurs to him that it might not always be a good thing.
“Hello there. Little late to be walking here all by yourself, isn't it now?” the demon sneers and leaps at him.
He dodges and manages to scrape his sword against the demon's side when a second demon whirls out of the shadows. It takes the wind being knocked out of him and sword spinning out of his hand to notice that one.
He finds himself pinned to the ground, clawed hands digging against his wrists, and it occurs to him that Gliss never enjoyed such cruelty, not even at his angriest.
The demon bares his teeth, each a sharp fang, and breathes sulphur over his face while the second one tries to edge in. “Let's get to know each other better, angel,” the demon holding him sneers. “Let's see how long we'll have to make you scream before you Fall. Maybe we'll make you choose between killing one of those brats or having your skin pulled off inch by inch. That could be fun.”
“No, thank you,” Azariel says politely.
He knees and elbows the demon in sharp succession, rolling together with its momentum as the creature writhes in pain, and even before he comes to his feet he is uttering the holiest of words, the likes of which he hasn't had cause to use in millennia, but never truly forgotten.
The demons shriek and back away and their flesh sizzles, but it won't hold them off for long, he knows that.
Flying would make him a target, but no demon in the world save one knows the lay of human cities as well as he does.
Azariel turns and sprints down an alley.
He weaves in and out of passages, some of them only opening to welcome him and then disappearing behind him. He does not need to breathe, but basic bodily functions are a hard habit to break, and his veins pound with the terrified exhilaration of the pursued.
In what could be minutes but feels like hours, he comes to a stand, and realises that there is no one behind him.
It is a more unsettling feeling than he expected.
He struggles to compose himself enough to concentrate and locate the demonic presence of his enemies, strains his ears in the near-silence of the night...
Two screams ring out, complementing each other, a young boy and a girl.
His heart seizes and he tastes something bitter.
“Oh,” Azariel breathes, and wonders how he could have been so foolish.
These demons are nothing like Gliss, after all.
He lifts into the air a moment later, soft down showering the ground.
When he finds them, they are in an alley, standing over two small bodies, blood on their lips. They leer up at him and watch his approach.
He touches down softly a distance away and looks at them, face impassive.
Finally, he says, “What do you want?”
“You,” they growl in unison, and he can't help but flinch. “You, angel. Very specific. The more you run away, the more innocents get hurt, and their suffering shall be eclipsed only by the turning of the moons.” The demon gives the girl's dead body a wrench for emphasis and Azariel feels his fingers curl into fists. “So why don't you come to a decision already?”
Azariel unsheathes a sword he'd picked up along the way. It's not an angelic weapon, but it will have to do. “Do your worst,” he says, holding it up. It bursts into flames. The flimsy human metal won't withstand it for long, but he doubts that'll matter too much.
“Thought you'd never ask,” the demons growl, and streak toward him.
It's difficult to keep track of. They have weapons of their own, wicked-looking scimitars and knives, and while they're not full-out demonic-made they still hurt like something. Azariel feels one of it graze his stomach as he is pummeled into a wall and wonders if it would be a terribly inappropriate moment to start swearing.
He rolls to the ground and spins, swiping at the ankles of one demon, who growls but laughs at it, and kicking at another. It's not much of a tactic, he knows, and there's blood bursting into his lungs and everything goes hazy for a moment until the feels the wall pressing against his back and a hand tearing at the skin of his throat. He awaits the killing – discorporating – blow, but it doesn't come. Instead, he feels claws drag across his shoulder like rakes of fire.
It's only a body, he thinks to himself. Breathing, blinking, feeling pain – it only does all that if I allow it to.
It's a difficult rationale to enforce at the moment.
Unquantifiable seconds later, he opens his mouth to scream.
Instead, he hears one of the demons howl with agony and a hissing sound like water dripping into a frying pan scalding hot with oil, and a horribly, delightfully familiar voice yelps, “Oh shit!”
He's released and slides down the wall, gasping.
“Gliss?” he utters the name the way humans utter prayers – not with the calm certainty of being listened to, but with hope and wary disbelief.
Gliss stands over a demon curled smoking and sizzling on the floor, and holds the angelic sword Azariel had dropped earlier, his hand charred and blistering, but not letting go. As the angel struggles to his feet, Gliss sinks the blade into the demon's neck, all but severing his head, and his adversary shudders and goes still.
Gliss dodges a swipe from the other demon, beating him back with a stroke of a dark-feathered wing, and scowls with pain as he tries to heft the sword again. Turning, he tosses it to Azariel and the angel's fingers close around the hilt almost of their own volition.
Before the demon advancing on Gliss can react, Azariel springs forward and skewers the monster, twisting his blade until he feels the enemy go limp and still.
Silence reigns for a moment as they look at each other. Gliss is favouring his left side and hiding the burned hand against his chest. Azariel imagines how he must look, but can't bring himself to care.
“You've got blood on your... your hair,” Gliss says suddenly, and giggles hysterically. Azariel finds himself laughing as well, but it hurts, so he stops and takes a step toward him, over the bodies of the demons.
“Gliss, my pet, what did you do?”
Gliss swallows and laughs. “I think I screwed everything up.”
Azariel stumbles toward him until they're standing face to face. The demon doesn't resist as he pries away his hand and gently lifts it to his eyes, blinking the blood out of his vision. “That was foolhardy.”
“Which part?” Gliss says, sounding tired. “The one where I threw a hissy fit for years and tried to get you to Fall?”
“That's what they were here for,” Azariel says sadly, swaying on his feet. “You should have let them finish.”
“Good to see you're still talking rubbish,” Gliss coughs. They lean into each other for support and shakily make it to the wall.
“Oh crap,” Gliss says, very quietly, as he perks up like a bloodhound that's caught a scent.
“What is i-”
There are five figures in the entrance to the alleyway, and none of them are human.
Gliss slowly pulls himself upright and pushes Azariel behind him.
“If it isn't Glissy-Hissy,” the tallest demon drawls. “I sure would like to see how you'll try to talk your way out of assisting an angel and killing three others of your kind on the way here, but you might want to save that for the lower-downs. Tear him to pieces. Save the angel for later.”
Gliss is breathing rapidly, struggling to look taller than he is. He looks like he's trying to come up with something to say, but keeps swallowing. He pushes Azariel further back, steering them into a corner, and his undamaged hand is grasping frantically at the angel's arm. Azariel is not particularly surprised to see his own hand closed tight around the demon's wrist.
The demons slowly advance on them in a deadly half-circle, poisonous grins gleaming in the night.
“Oh hell no. No no no no no no no....” the demon keeps muttering to himself like a mantra. He doesn't take his eyes off the others for a second, but flashes a glance desperately at Azariel. “Look, you need to... Hell, I don't even know. I'm sorry for this, Azariel. I really am.”
Azariel feels an odd calm sweep over him. “I am sorry too, Gliss. For not seeing things as they are. But if there is anything you have taught me, it is that one can be a demon and still be a decent person. If I am to Fall tonight, I am not afraid.”
Gliss hisses at that as if in physical pain and shrinks against him, shielding him with his body.
The demons close in and ready themselves to pounce, eyes hungry.
Fast as shadow, they move, claws reaching to grasp and tear away...
And suddenly they do.
Azariel feels as if the breath has been knocked from him, even though they have not yet been touched. Gliss's grip becomes painfully tight.
There is a presence near them and he has never felt anything like it, but it is unmistakable. It makes him shudder and his skin crawl and his teeth chatter, and the aura of bitterness might well be curdling every jug of milk in the city even as they draw breath. It is the first time in his life that Azariel has well and truly wanted to disappear, shrink into nothing, let the ground swallow him.
Instead, he keeps his eyes up and open, and finds he cannot look away from the little boy – his mangled body standing between them and the demons, eyes open and full of something he is afraid to put a name to, something old.
“Lord Zirah,” the other demons utter in awe, shrinking back and down to their knees, but the creature in the little boy pays them no heed. It seems to stare at him and Gliss all at once, taking them in, motionless. Azariel wishes nothing more than to look away from those terrible eyes, but doesn't even dare to breathe.
For the longest time, there is silence.
Then, the creature in the boy speaks. |Do you still wish him to Fall, young one?|
Gliss starts to stammer but says once, forcefully, “No.”
The creature looks at Azariel then, and it's almost too much to bear, because there is a burning contempt in its gaze that wasn't there when it looked at the demon.
|Tell me, angel,| it seethes, and the sound of it makes his bones ache, |What is he to you?|
Azariel does break gazes then, to look at Gliss, who shoots him a sidelong glance of terror and bewilderment. Azariel thinks back to mere hours ago, when he thought himself trapped in a chaotic world, the only one like him lost to him through his own blindness, and how it had felt like the sides of a sandy hill giving way under him.
He looks back to the boy, to the ancient thing watching him from his body, and says, “Everything.”
The creature stares at him for a long time, as if expecting to see a lie.
Then its presence changes, as if the fire has leaked out, bitterness turning to resignation.
|Do not forget that,| it says quietly to them. After one last look, it turns to the demons. |Leave them be. Forever.|
And then it's gone, the boy's body crumpling to the ground, and the alley is empty save for Azariel, Gliss, and the bodies of the two children.
Azariel stares and finally gives in to the overwhelming urge to breathe. He sags against Gliss, not caring that they're leaving bruises on each other that will stay black for days, and the demon shudders against him. “Holy shit. Holy shit,” he says.
Azariel flinches at the slight scuffing sound. When he looks back up, the two children are awkwardly picking themselves off the ground, confused but very much unharmed. He stares at them.
“Er... You two know where your parents are?” Gliss says awkwardly. They take a look down the alley to the main street beyond and nod in unison, scampering off.
“We should go along,” Azariel says weakly. “Make sure, as it were.”
Gliss nods. “Let's get out of here.”
It is dawn and the sun spills over the city, running gold across the sandstone walls and rooftops.
In the small garden where they have fled to hide from the world, the sun stains the leaves above their heads orange and yellow and crimson.
“It is rather strange, though,” Azariel mumbles into the crook of Gliss's neck as he traces the burnt skin on the demon's hand with his fingers. “My people don't seem too interested in what is going on down here, to be frank, so I assume I'm to carry on as ordered. And you still have your duties, probably oughtn't push your luck too much, so...”
“We could come to some sort of arrangement, you know,” Gliss says softly into his hair. “You do your thing, I do mine, try to stay out of sight. Maybe by the time they decide to stop ignoring us, they'll have forgotten all about it.”
“My pet,” Azariel smiles and it is weak but genuine. “That's a great bloody mess we've gotten ourselves into, isn't it?”
“Hush, feathers. We'll be alright, sure enough. Figure it out as we go along,” the demon mouths, and wraps his arms tighter around Azariel. “We always do.”
They watch the sun rise, and for the first time in millennia their hearts are utterly free from worry.
In the shade of the trees, Gliss holds his angel and thinks of nothing at all.