Ages past, at the beginning of a new earth, an angel and a demon strolled through a valley side by side.
The valley was currently underwater. The whole world had been, these forty days. Undergrowth swayed as they trod over it, sending up muck around their ankles. Their tunics billowed about them, layers of fabric puffing out with each current. The demon’s clothes were short, dark, and richly embroidered, held by a jeweled clasp at the shoulder. The angel’s looked like a discount vagabond costume had been artfully reinterpreted by a weed whacker. Down here, both garments caught stray leaves.
Everything still clinging to the earth had been reduced to a sickly brown; even the plants were drowning. Far above them, rain pitter-pattered onto the waves, and the sun shone through, tinting their surroundings a gauzy light blue. The blackened bodies of men and beasts bobbed by at the surface like the shadows of clouds.
They had fought for two days straight, while boiling water poured down from the heavens.  Truthfully, “fight” was a generous term. With their wings soaked, they could only manage to limply skid into whatever mountaintops happened to be around. They had held onto each other for stability as much as wrestling.
1 Thousands of years later, when humans invented showers, the demon showed up at the angel’s door and demanded he stop all this. Obviously it was his side who had a fondness for dumping stinging hot water all over everything when slothful soak in the tub managed just fine. The angel had no comment.
They had rolled around on what little amount of ground was left until both were soggy and stroppy. But they were not fighting anymore, feathers safely tucked away. The water they walked under was cool around their skin. Aziraphale, the angel, led them through the valley and up another hill. They passed empty huts and animal-pens and former fields of crops.
“You asked me,” he said, “about an Arrangement.”
“I dunno if it deserves a capital letter or anything,” said the demon. The demon’s name had been other things but was now Crowley.
“My answer is no thank you. That day, in Eden, I wasn’t thinking properly. I don’t imagine I started the whole business, but giving them the flaming sword certainly can’t have helped. It isn’t for us to decide, the progress of man. They will have to make what they can. What He will let them have.”
“Oh, you don’t believe that.”
“I couldn’t bear to see this again. Or, well, until the necessary. I suppose these results are still a victory, for your side?”
”For another thing, what good is it to bargain with me? They’ll soon be recalling all the Watchers, I expect.”
“Down There would like that,” Crowley said, in a way that made it all too unfortunately clear that Crowley would not. “But don’t be so sure. You didn’t fall, angel. You alone held the line. Maybe they’ll bump you up to Arch-something.”
“It’s hardly worthy of a medal, getting half mixed up in this whole fiasco. You told me, back then, that it wasn’t possible for me to commit evil. We know that’s wrong now.”
“I was joking,” Crowley said. He kicked a particularly scraggly patch of earth, and it floated away into the blue.
“But you have, also...”
Crowley cut in quickly. “I’ve won this round, no doubt. Made new friends. Tempted angels into well, whatever they are currently. Once you smite me and get it over with, I’m sure we’ll all have beers in Hell.”
“I’m not going to smite you.”
“Why not? Because the whole not smiting bit is what the bloody arrangement is, or were you even listening when I asked?”
“I’m not going to smite you.” Aziraphale repeated. “You can run right now if you like. When the waters have receded from the earth, I will find you. I want to wait, so you can see what this land has become. You have a duty to know.”
The angel was quiet for a long time. The rains stopped. The brilliant refracted colors of a massive rainbow streaked across the waters, like Above’s own biplane banner.
2 The message was not, but also was not not, “Was it as good for you as it was for me?”
In the distance, a raven flew across the waters and found no place to land.
“I’ll thwart you,” Aziraphale said. “Wherever you seek to beguile humanity, I will put an end to those schemes, and to your form if necessary. I will not rest until my adversary is defeated.”
Crowley arched an eyebrow. These days, the eyebrows going around were phenomenal, and perfect for arching. White people had not been created yet. “Adversary? That what we are now?”
Aziraphale turned. He had given away the fire in his hands a few lengthy generations ago, but he could still boil rivers with a glance. Crowley hadn’t seen him like this since he’d found out mankind was going to have to start all over on this books business and would be knocking carvings onto errant stone for at least another half-millennium before they even grasped at parchment. Rage, weariness, disappointment, and fear. Together, on that ever-rounded face, they were a great deal scarier than vengeance. Heavenly vengeance was nothing personal. The way Aziraphale looked, utterly burdened with the pain, he would never forget this moment, would twist it like a knife with every opportunity given.
“Let’s wait until the ground is dry again, and the dead are rotted away.” He said. He spoke softly. He did not need air, voice, or volume. “Let’s see the new earth. And then, demon, when you see what we have done, you can tell me what we are.”
The huts were more numerous as they drew farther from the valley. In the distance, the wall of a city stuck up from the mud like a row of teeth. Aziraphale set forward, and Crowley followed behind him.
A year later, Crowley was napping in the shade of an olive tree when a dove shit on his head.
“Horrible bird!” he shrieked, and threw a muddy stick at it. Instead of hurling out of the sky like he’d wanted, the pest caught hold of the leaves. The dove flew off toward the horizon, where a massive wooden vessel was broaching.
Crowley shivered. It had been a long while of silence. There were real live people aboard, and the barrage of worries and lusts and possible temptations felt like a parade through a monastery.
Nothing worse than the prayers of humans. Just had their whole world flooded and they’re already down on their knees thanking whatever they can think up.
Oh well. The work continued. The earth spun on, and any moment now, he knew Aziraphale would appear by his side.
Adversary. If the past years had proven anything, they had proven that the angel would never let him alone. Almost, nearly, a comfort. The world reborn anew, and they are not the same, but they Are. And they Will Be.
The dove landed on the bow of the ark, and a cry rose up from the humans on board, so deep and intense it could just as easily have been a wail as a hosanna.
DREAMS OF SHACKLED STARS
Being A History of the Antediluvian Kingdom of Angels and Race of Giants and Their Impact on Specific Celestial Plans
Gabriel (an Archangel)
Samyaza (a Seraph and Leader of the Watchers)
Yeqon (a Cherub of Creativity and Less Than Well Thought Out Ideas)
Aziraphale (a Principality and Book Collector)
Shamsiel (a Principality and Teacher of Sun-Signs)
Vual (a Fallen Angel and Duke of Hell)
Crowley (an Angel who did not, etc.)
Mahway, Ohyah, and Hahyah (assorted Nephilim)
Enoch (a Prophet)
Noah (an Architect)
Barzellai (a Fairly Reasonable Woman)
Namaah (a Leader of Humanity)
Leah (a Maiden)
Water (A Lot of It)
In 1781, in what was then Mexico, a bunch of pretentious Spanish missionaries founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, a title comprised solely of over-enthusiastic promises. The tiny Pueblo was barely a town, held no queens, and had never been home to many angels. Hundreds of years later, one and a half of the three had come true. It definitely counted as a proper town, there were some fetching actresses who inspired a modicum of worship, but angels only visited occasionally. They said there was too much sun and the salt air made wings gluey.
Dusty old scrolls named the true city of angels as Mount Hermon. But that was only a convenient geolocation, like calling Tokyo That Bay Near the Izu Islands, Right Inland, Can’t Miss It.
The real name was in a language now lost to man, a combination of Celestial Speech, Southern Cainan Dialect, Kabbalic Wizardly Invocation, and Hieroglyphic Sumerian. The letters were so powerful that they burnt up any implement that sought to shape them. You would have needed a box full of pens to write a haiku. Most of the consonants required shapes impossible for human mouths. To simplify things, the few survivors of that era called the city by the parts of its name they could pronounce and understand.
The shorthand sounded something like El-Aei.
In those days, the angels convened at El-Aei every dozen or so years. There were about two hundred of them, and their project folder up there was labeled “The Watchers”. They had been set on earth to guard humanity. But it was lonely and dank compared to the splendor of heaven, so mostly they traveled in little groups and hid out in caves telling stories about the Great War.
1 Every generation or gathering has a Great War. This one was against Satan. Yours is whichever one you won’t shut up about. A few good modern options include Iraq, capitalism, or phone addiction.
This journey, Aziraphale had met up with Shamsiel, an old colleague from the gates of the garden. After working underwing for Uriel, Shamsiel had a tendency to name-drop, but he was a lovely, agreeable fellow. His face even shone with the radiance of the sun when he forgot to turn it off. They had praised God in many temples together on their journey and scared very few humans in the process. Still, Aziraphale was glad they were close to their destination. He itched to get back to his cave. Nestled in a cool green forest at the edge of Galilee, it stored all his scrolls, and it didn’t have Shamsiel glowing like an unwanted nightlight in it.
They reached the summit of Mount Hermon and watched the Host gather in El-Aei. Two hundred angels joined hands and sang out, and the ground beneath them shook with heavenly love.
There was no answer.
It had been dreadfully exciting the first time they gathered and heard the voice of God boom down from the mountain. Mountains were a great conductor for that sort of thing. But lately, the Watchers had only reached Upstairs about one of every four joyous noises. A proper connection tended to make the slopes tremble, set off nearby human settlements, and kill a few hundred sheep. Oh, Aziraphale thought, but it was worth it. There could be nothing like hearing the voice of the Almighty, commanding them to protect and guide His most precious creations.
But it was not to be. Somewhat shamefaced, they broke hands and started down the mountain. A great table appeared, and a great amount of food, and some pillows, and a few twee lanterns. The Watchers sat down to enjoy one another's company, swap tips on blessing humanity, and drink into the night.
2 An average angel’s drink of choice was holy water fermented with honey, mixed with milk and frankincense. It recalled the taste of the rivers of heaven and was 25 proof. An average angel’s second drink of choice was schnapps.
An angel called Yeqon made the first toast. A cherub, barely more important than the rest, but he sat at the hand of Samyaza, a full blown member of the Seraphim who was the unofficial leader of their band. Samyaza has once led a hundred angels to the gates of hell during the War. He had enormously large and glossy wings, and his dark smooth hair reached the end of his back. He was a pin-up of an angel, and a generous friend besides. Yeqon was short, and gull-winged, and no one would dare accuse him of being generous, but he had a great many ideas. He had thought up El-Aei, or he claimed he did, and no one remembered any different.
“We ought to stay here,” Yeqon said.
“It’s a beautiful night, my brothers,” Samyaza said, flashing a glittering smile. He had been at the liquid refreshments.
Yeqon continued on. “How many of you can say you spend a tenth of your time protecting humans? They live so far away from each other, so we’re always wandering around looking for them. And just as often you find the dumb ones.”
Aziraphale privately agreed. He himself had a habit of following demons, since a man smart enough to need tempting was usually smart enough to sanctify. He’d saved a few good souls that way. It felt efficient, even if it took longer to root out demons than to barge in on whatever humans happened to be around.
An angel spoke up. “There aren’t any humans for miles here. Staying wouldn’t help that.”
“But suppose we build a city, like they’ve been,” Yeqon said. “We could all live here and rejoice together every day, and return from the mountain to teach them.”
“Now hold on,” said Samyaza, who was beginning to realize that this was far more idea than he’d bargained for. “We’re rubbish at teaching humans. They always start gibbering eventually.”
Yeqon had thought of a solution to that. “So we learn them. Know them.”
This sent an uproar through the Watchers. As far as they were concerned, there was only one way to know humans, and it didn’t involve staying up late at night chatting with them about their hopes and fears.
And that was the way Yeqon meant. “Wives, like men have. I reckon they would listen. We could get some pretty ones. They have enormous amounts of fun, wives.”
3 Yeqon had, in fact, thought it over thoroughly, and then thought it over again, and thought it over some more. It was lonely, out there in the world.
Aziraphale was as shocked as any when Samyaza smiled. “Living among us would make things easier. No more ‘be not afraid’. We could get that nonsense out of the way, and then we'd be able to help them for years on end.”
An angel raised his hand. “Would we have to…you know…make an effort?”
Yeqon nodded. “I expect so. Wives seem to require it fairly often. Humans think sex is quite important, and they can show us as well. Make it a bit of a trade.”
“Do I have to have a penis? I never wanted one.”
“There are wives that are perfectly fine with a vagina,” Samyaza said. “But I believe most expect a penis. Perhaps we can consult them?”
Shamsiel cleared his throat. Aziraphale turned to look at him. Despite his dark skin, his companion was flushed.
“What if it’s a sin?” he asked. “What if we fall?”
Yeqon laughed. “It’s not a sin if it’s part of marriage, He drilled that one in quite a lot.”
“Promise we’ll all live and know women together,” Samyaza said. He stood, glorious wings flaring. “Swear it shall be us all. Then we can hardly be punished. We act on our orders. Today has shown us there are no more orders to come. Every host, raise up your glasses.”
And all did, Shamsiel among them, except for Aziraphale.
Aziraphale liked being alone. Humans thought he was a crazed hermit, angels thought he was antisocial, and yet solitude suited him fine. He’d been looking forward to convening at El-Aei for a dozen years, but its rarity was part of its sweetness.
Imagine a family talk concluding that meeting each summer for a reunion at the beach house was lovely, so how about everyone move in for the rest of forever, and also we can each get our own pets. Aziraphale felt a chill run down his spine that had nothing to do with falling.
From across the table, Samyaza cocked his head. “Brother, is the vow not to your liking?”
Aziraphale smiled in fear. “It’s only…”
Samyaza’s wings flared, and he motioned for Aziraphale to join him. They flew quite a distance, since earshot is considerably farther away when those ears are the ears of angels.
“I liked how it was before,” Aziraphale said, tugging on the collar of his tunic. He felt clammy from the drink, and withered under the endless kindness of Samyaza’s black eyes. “Do we have to live among the humans? How can we be sure it’s part of the plan?”
“Brother, we are the plan. If we wait, how many souls will we lose? There are Watchers who have requested transfers to another division already. Down here, far from grace, we only hurt ourselves by staying apart from our purpose. Besides, if it doesn’t work, Yeqon will have another idea. Great guy.”
Aziraphale rubbed his hands together. He wanted to rub them over his face, but that would give Samyaza an even worse impression.
“I promise, wives are easy, they’re meant to serve and adore. Sex is…”
“It isn’t that!” Aziraphale yelled. His cheeks were burning. “And how would you have any idea?” he muttered.
Samyaza cleared his throat. “Well, I’ve seen.” A shudder ran through him, toe to wing tip. “Walking among them, foiling wiles and all that.”
“Demons use it, so why can’t we? Saw a slick little demon the other day, got an entire inn pretzeled into an orgy with a priest. I arrived far too late to stop him. Isn’t that what he did the first time, lured in Eve?”
4 Readers will remember he did not. The snake was a literal snake, and the knowledge of good and evil is not Tab A and Slot B. But heaven had always managed to maintain both perfect wisdom and a healthy rumor mill.
“Ah, must be getting back. To my cave. I’ve left the stove on.”
“But they haven’t invented stoves yet,” said Samyaza. “Do you think we should teach them that? Or start with metalworking?”
Aziraphale was already in the sky, speeding toward the nearest inn on the road to El-Aei.
When he arrived he hid behind some bushes, taking care to fold in his wings and school his expression into something less crazed.
He needn’t have bothered. The woman at the front gate waved him through.
“Room four gave instructions to expect you,” she said, and pointed him up the rickety stairs.
Aziraphale tried in vain not to think about her twisted like a pretzel while Samyaza watched, pretending to be disappointed.
He barged into room four, dreading a similar reception, but Crowley was alone.
Crowley lay propped up with his sandals on the tiny inn bed. He was playing dice with himself using a wooden bowl and marked-up knuckle bones. Every so often, he wrote down something on parchment stretched across his lap.
He usually wore layers over his face these days, but in private, he had thrown his veil back over his shoulders. It made an arresting picture, the layers of gauze draped around brown skin, framing yellow eyes in the lantern light.
“Serpent,” Aziraphale said, softly and with great accusation. His hand went to his hip, and found a dagger that had decided to be there. “What are you plotting?”
“It’s a role-playing game,” Crowley said, and threw bones. “Where you battle monsters and such, only none of it happens and whether you win is mostly left to chance. I like it well, so far. Some say it can be used to bring souls to Satan, but for evil’s sake I can’t figure how.”
5 He would never understand. Despite reputation, the game had always been one of heaven’s, created for the dual purposes of preserving chastity and helping the downtrodden find comfort in each other. The latter aim was successful.
“I don’t care about your game.”
“But I’m winning.” Crowley made the sound of a hero grunting with exertion, steel striking steel and the roar of a beast come out of his mouth all at once. “Hah, take that!”
“Clever as always, and now you have successfully tempted an angel. I ought to smite you where you stand.”
Crowley leapt to his feet. The dice clattered everywhere. “Hang on.”
Aziraphale drew the dagger at his hip. “Don’t bother denying your transgressions.”
“But I didn’t! I mean, it wasn’t successful. And I don’t tempt angels, as a rule. Even the best screw in the world couldn’t make a Seraph fall. I was working on some humans, he wandered in, everything got out of hand.”
Aziraphale backed Crowley up against the flimsy wooden wall of the inn, dagger at his throat. No holy fire yet, but he could feel a few righteous sparks twitch at his fingertips.
Beneath him, Crowley pulled his neck back farther than it should have been able to go.
“I can’t help it, angel. After you stormed up here the woman of the house gave the next traveler a free meal. It spills out, a bit, willing them. He didn’t exactly make things better. I thought he was beautiful, and he looked at me. I couldn’t hear what he thought back but suddenly everyone was taking off their clothes.”
Holding the demon fast to the wall, Aziraphale shook like a tree in a storm. It could have been a lie, but Crowley was always over-fond of a destructive truth. Either way, the image sunk deep into him, right where humans had a stomach.
Angels and demons were sexless, and had no libidos to speak of. They conjured desire in themselves as they conjured clothes and breathing. Yet even if one wasn’t hungry, hearing a million people at a party try the cake, go into rapturous fits over how good it was, and then kill each other a bit over it might make one peckish with sheer curiosity.
The Watchers may not fulfill the pact without him in this eon, but they couldn’t go on wondering forever. Perhaps that was what Above wanted. Why send them down at all, with no more paradise to guard?
Oh yes, Lord, he imagined himself fibbing. I have taken myself a wife and enjoyed her and we live together in a house with walls and goats. I join my brothers in singing praises every morning. I’ve nearly forgotten about the whole hunt for the scrolls.
“Really, we can both agree I was the one beset upon. Can you let me go now?” Crowley asked.
They had been pressed together, knife to neck, for quite some time. Aziraphale realized he’d become lost in thought.
“Leave this place and your designs,” he recited, unable to keep a sigh from creeping into his voice. “Go forth and keep from sin—”
Crowley rolled his eyes, or at least blinked quite weirdly. “Still a rubbish speech, every time—”
Aziraphale pinned him down, fumbling to remember. All he could think about was a writhing mass of bodies, the table laid out for two hundred, Crowley’s distant smile answered on Samyaza’s perfectly bowed lips.
“And know that the Lord has no mercy on His own that have transgressed, but there can—should, there should be mercy for the men created in His image, and that is—shit!”
In twisting his words, he accidentally gestured with his wrist, and Crowley’s throat opened beneath his dagger.
Crowley tried to speak and choked on blood, long tongue lolling out. He sprayed the angel’s tunic with viscera, then collapsed to the floor. A second later, a wisp of smoke and the smell of sulfur was all that remained of the corpse.
“Oops,” said Aziraphale. The demon would never let him live that one down. He’d be furious once he incorporated again.
Aziraphale wiped off the blade, muttering to himself. Now he had to find a new tunic. After that, he needed to curl up in his cave and read Cain’s autobiography five times through before he felt ready to deal with any of the day’s events. He could already tell it was going to be a horrible century.
Crowley collapsed in front of the gates of hell with an undignified thud. Instinctively, he grabbed for his neck, and his fingers went straight into the gash in his throat, which didn’t help the situation at all. Carefully, he extracted them and propped himself up on the cool surface of the road outside. Better assess the damage.
His vocal chords were definitely toast, and his tongue wouldn’t go back in, flopping uselessly out his mouth. However, the head remained mostly attached and the limbs were intact. All in all, it made for a fairly operable corpse.
The worst part would be explaining what had happened. Not exactly model stewardship of the form allowed to him, getting carved up by an angel with no humans around to make the risk worthwhile.
What was the reason, Crowley, he imagined his boss asking.
Well you see, I gave instructions to the lady of the house to expect a specific visitor and then laid there like a sitting duck because I was waiting for another angel to come ravish me.
VERY FOOLISH, CROWLEY.
Oh, so that hadn’t been imagining.
Crowley pulled himself to his feet, holding the side of his neck, and wiped off the strand of blood he’d been drooling onto the pavement.
Beyond the gates, two huge red eyes blazed out. A dark, rasping voice resounded in his mind.
THE SIN YOU ARE COMMANDED TO INSPIRE IS NOT FOR YOUR OWN AMUSEMENT. IT IS IN SERVICE OF THE FORCES OF HELL. ANGELS ARE ABOVE YOUR PAY GRADE.
1 Of course, down below, no matter how far one rose in the ranks, there never appeared an actual salary. After all, the screams of the damned were their own reward.
I know, boss, he thought. He could manage many tricks with a body, but it all went lopsided once the organs gave out, and speaking absent a trachea was beyond him at the moment.
The gates slowly creaked open, revealing Vual, a Duke of Hell and his immediate superior for the past dozen years. She was wearing her customary form today, a multitude of camel heads sticking out of her black robes and two red eyes blazing in the center of the nest of faces.
He hated her smile. One camel smiling would have been upsetting enough.
BUT THIS IS MOST INTERESTING INDEED. THE ANGELIC HOST ARE CREATING THEIR OWN LITTLE SOCIETY.
I only glimpsed the plan for a moment, Crowley thought at her.
The sealing of their vow had rung in his ears like a bell. He’d barely had time to be disappointed his hoped-for rendezvous would likely never appear before Aziraphale had banged down his door.
YOU MUST MONITOR THIS DEVELOPMENT. WE CANNOT AFFORD TO LET THE ENEMY UNDO THE LAWLESS IMPROPRIETY OF THIS AGE. CROWLEY, YOU OF ALL AGENTS SHOULD KNOW HOW CLOSE MEN ARE TO BECOMING UTTERLY IRREDEEMABLE.
Now Crowley was proud of himself, sure. After coming up with the masterpiece of doing the exact opposite from what God told you to do, he’d pioneered other noteworthy sins. Getting so angry you murder someone you actually don’t mind much. Messing up sacrifices and then lying about it. Telling other people about your sex life. He’d been working his now-metaphorical tail off at making the humans act worse and worse toward each other. Of course he didn’t want them to tromp into a settlement of angels and learn how to count blessings instead.
But Crowley remembered taking human form for the first time. He'd tried to fix his eyes for a year before realizing nothing in hell could rid him of heaven’s spiteful little reminder. It was clear which side held the superior firepower, and it wasn’t the flames currently licking his ankles.
I can’t go back, Crowley thought, and even put a whine into it. I’d just be on your doorstep again with my face all charred off. There are two hundred of them, boss.
WE HAVE THOUGHT OF THAT. BEFORE YOU DEPART, WE SEND WITH YOU TWO GIFTS.
Is one of them a working throat?
FIRST, YOU SHALL RECEIVE A STRONG NEW BODY.
Vual waved her hands, and a bearded man in his mid-fifties appeared before her, between the gate and Crowley. There was a hole in his stomach, and you could see one of Vual’s camel snouts through it. He hovered in the air and began to scream.
That one’s ugly, Crowley thought.
A strikingly beautiful woman, with huge curly hair, replaced him. She was naked, except for the various torture implements coiled around her body, and she too shrieked with admirable lung capacity.
He drummed his fingers against the gash on his neck. She would be useful for inspiring great lust. But she wasn’t really him. He shook his head, which made it creak all the way over to the side.
Another man appeared. Younger, with a handsome strong nose and square jaw, and a lighter-skinned birthmark on his hips. It was his scream Crowley recognized, from a memorable night when he’d happened across a temple pilgrimage sixty years ago.
Oh, I’ve slept with that one, he thought. That would be weird.
WE GROW IMPATIENT, CROWLEY.
Fine, I’ll take it. After all, I’ve already been inside...
The young man, whose name Crowley could almost recall, hollered and sobbed until Vual flicked her hand. Crowley watched his hair smoke a bit while his soul crumbled to dust. That left the hovering encasement, blank-faced and toasty.
Crowley swept out of his broken current body. His former host sprawled to the ground, gushing in ways he hadn’t even realized he was holding in. He looked back, at the endless road to hell and the motionless lump near its gates, and then set off into the new home.
His heels touched down to brimstone as the body arranged itself around his energy. He cracked his neck, then coughed, and indulgently, breathed a sigh of relief.
“You can talk to me now,” Crowley said. Matter of fact, Vual could have talked to him at any time. His ears had been fine.
No use arguing with hell, although that never stopped him. “Well let’s see them then.”
They walked together into the Second Circle, which had parts that were a bit like a tornado and parts that were a bit like the most awkward sex party in existence and parts that were a bit like creative things being shoved onto and up various tender places.
Vual reached into a flaming pit. Touching the fire would summon whatever you wanted if you were a demon. If you were a human, it would give you orgasms so terrible you’d beg for pain.
She drew forth a blazing orb.
YOUR FIRST GIFT IS MOST UNUSUAL. I BESTOW UPON YOU WORDS OF HEALING POWER, SO THAT YOU MAY PROTECT YOUR NEW FORM WHILE TRACKING THIS GATHERING OF ANGELS.
Crowley reached out to take the circling flames in his hands, but the orb kept travelling, sinking beneath his chest. The birthmark around his hips skittered out and away, plus it cleared up some acne.
THIS IS A RARE ABILITY IN DEMONIC MAGIC, GRANTED BY PRINCE BEELZEBUB HIMSELF. USE IT HORRIDLY.
“Thank you, boss.”
THE SECOND GIFT IS A FORESIGHT OF MINE. I HAVE BEHELD A FUTURE FOR YOU. SETTLE IN THE VILLAGE OF ENOCH. HE IS A PROPHET AND SEES THE WORKS OF HEAVEN.
That was more marching orders than any sort of present, but it also sounded like a way to steer clear of angelic throngs. Crowley nodded.
YOU ARE BEING ENTRUSTED WITH MONITORING ALL ANGELS ON EARTH. THIS MISSION IS CRUCIAL. DESPITE YOUR COWARDICE AND IDIOCY, I VOUCHED FOR YOU. DO NOT WASTE THIS CHANCE. CAN YOU FEEL THE DAWNING OF A NEW DAY, CROWLEY? A WORLD ROTTEN TO THE CORE? OUR TRIUMPH IS CLOSE AT HAND.
And despite himself, he almost smiled. He could imagine it, all right. Humanity, thinking up new barbarous tortures for itself every moment. Crowley laying around watching the carnage with a stiff drink. An existence that sounded almost like retirement.
2 In fact, it sounded much better. Retirement, for demons, is far too upsetting to detail.
“I won’t let you down,” Crowley said.
But Vual could see into the future. Half a dozen huge camel eyes and two blazing red spheres fixed a stare on him.
Crowley cringed. “Alright, maybe I will let you down. But not where it matters, perhaps?”
Suddenly, the howls of doomed men slid away, and the fire at his feet melted. He collapsed to his hands and knees on a small cliff, snake eyes seared by the sunlight. Below him, a village spread out.
Crowley picked himself up. He touched his neck to make sure everything was in the right place, then created himself a veil and some more fashionable clothing.
He was right to make presentable as soon as he could, because it was then that he heard children shouting. Crowley turned back, to the slope of the cliff, and saw a gaggle of youngsters run away, leaving one figure sprawled out.
The boy they’d been picking on was about ten. Though his tunic looked to be good-quality material, it had been ripped at the shoulder and smeared with dried dirt. He might have been a cute kid, but it was hard to tell with his face screwed up and filthy. As he sobbed and whimpered, tears streaked the mud on his cheeks. He twisted himself around his bleeding left ankle, rocking from side to side.
“I’ll eat you,” he yelled, through gritted teeth, to the retreating forms of his attackers. “I’ll kill and eat you!”
This, it seemed, was Crowley’s sort of small child.
He went and offered an arm.
“Who’re you?” the kid asked. He wiped his nose, which was full of snot and blood, then took Crowley’s elbow with the same hand. He rose shakily, his weight collapsing under the messed-up ankle.
“Passing through,” Crowley said. “Why did they hurt you?” Gently as he could, he reached out and pressed on the wrath in the child’s mind, pushing it past the pain.
The boy closed his eyes tight and tried to rise again, but he still collapsed to the ground.
“They hurt me cause they’re awful and they thought ’m a monster.”
“Well are you?”
“No.” The boy sounded disappointed. “God said,” he added.
Crowley knelt down and took a look at his ankle. It was bruised and raw, but not in the worst way.
The kid hissed and dragged his shin up, away from the stranger’s gaze. “But they said I was evil, and we’re not supposed to play with the monsters, and then Jared hit me.”
“That’s not very nice to say about monsters,” Crowley said. It was never too early to instill love of the darkness in the young ones. “What if the monsters get lonely?”
“My daddy isn’t an angel but stupid Jared lied. He hit me with a rock and they all laughed and told me to fly away.”
Quickly, before the kid could drag his mangled leg further from him, Crowley lay hands on his ankle and whispered a Word. Best learn how to use this new ability before he really needed it.
The boy groaned and flung himself forward, then gasped as he felt the bones knead back together and the skin heal.
“It’s better,” he said, staring up at Crowley, eyes narrowed in suspicion. The veil did tend to set people off, but not nearly as much as what was underneath it.
“So go fly,” Crowley said, and patted his fixed ankle. “You ought to kill and eat them anyway. How many children of angels have you all seen, at the village?”
“Just two, and they were boring. They only looked like babies and their teeth weren’t that sharp or nothing. Are you one?” the boy bounded up and tugged on his robe, as if it was a costume and something vile lurked underneath. In a way, he wasn’t wrong.
Crowley smiled. His teeth were sharper than they ought to be, mostly due to aesthetic preference. “Do I look like a child of anyone?”
The boy pulled harder on his tunic. “But you helped my foot. So you must be holy, like granddaddy. He speaks to God.”
“Sure,” said Crowley. “Who’s your granddaddy?”
“My granddaddy is Enoch the prophet, and his son is my grandad Methusulah, and his son is my daddy Lamech, and none of them are angels, and I’m named Noah.”
3 Noah had already learned to recite the entirety of his family tree, all the way up to Adam. Those days, people tended to live a few hundred years. They devoted at least a half-century of it to reminding everyone who exactly their ancestors were.
He stuck out his little hand. This was the one with all the blood and snot on it.
Crowley inwardly retched, but he put on his biggest smile and shook hands. “Noah, I would very much like to meet your granddaddy.”
“You gotta see my bridge. I made it two days ago over the stream near the well and it’s real sturdy and it can have two donkeys and me on it at one time.”
“The bridge sounds lovely,” said Crowley, who rather hoped the introductions to the prophet would happen beforehand.
Instead, Noah started dragging him down the hill, away from the village.
“And there’s a seesaw but Jared said he’d break it. I made that too.”
Crowley was now, unfortunately, the unwitting patron of a wonders of the ten year old world tour, taking him farther away from his mission with each step.
“And I made a boat out of a tree trunk but it don’t float good. It falls over on the side a lot but I wanna fix that.”
“Boats are great,” said Crowley, with every bit of enthusiasm he could rustle up. “Useful to have around, boats.”
But it would be quite a while before either boy or demon realized how true that statement was. For now, Crowley let himself be led this way and that, somewhat toward the village of the prophet Enoch, and mostly toward the various pet projects of his new young friend.
Crowley did not suspect it, but he had been brought back onto the world’s stage a full fifteen years after the unfortunate night at the inn. He might have known. Even celestial infants do not appear overnight after a pact that allows for their creation. Vual, in her foresight, was ever-punctual. He would learn definitively that some years had passed when he visited the villagers and they mentioned the age of the angelic city. Crowley never bothered determining the precise number.
Aziraphale had felt each day of the fifteen years since El-Aei. It was the worry written on the other Watchers’ faces when they glanced his way. It was the thousands of miles he crossed travelling around a not particularly spread out human populace. His physical form had sprouted five gray hairs at the temple nine years in, and there they remained, frizzy and embarrassing.
The two hundred angels had sworn to found a city and take wives. They had not counted on the difficulty of heading households and families, or of being known for what they were throughout the land. They had thought any possible children would be human. But sunk cost fallacy sets in particularly deep for immortals.
And he was one to judge! Some days, it felt like half his torment was to putter around, barely seeing his colleagues, working himself to the bone to prove he was the righteous one. Aziraphale had never been the most hands-on with the blessings and the moral education. He'd preferred to preserve and distribute human knowledge from the shadows of his cave.
1 Later, Plato would write a screed against Aziraphale’s agoraphobia in a letter to one of his pupils that would be highly misinterpreted.
Besides, he was beginning to believe each side, well group, since they were all on the same side, weren’t they, made the work of the other more difficult. Aziraphale tired of fending off giants-eating-human-flesh rumors when he was recognized as angel-adjacent. Not being a ringing endorsement of heavenly kindness and patience himself, he probably dissuaded many humans from ever seeking out his brothers’ dwelling.
Currently, he was accompanying a bevy of travelers on a pilgrimage. They were either heading to a sacrificial temple, a fellow who was an old hand at proper sanctification, or a nice mountain range. Stories varied.
Traveling was dangerous, and he was sure they subconsciously appreciated all he did to smooth the way. Rations never depleted, rain only arrived when it was really hot, and the towns they stopped in had all the latest news-scrolls. The lot might not trust him, but most of their complaining nowadays qualified as entertainment rather than necessity.
2 In understanding the pre-flood psyche, it is important to remember that most people grew up and aged to around forty, then marinated in a middle-aged crisis for a few hundred years before settling on a comfortable bitter infirmity. After all, they were the ancestors of the Jewish people, who transformed the distantly recalled lives-long sulk in their bones into the high art of kvetching.
An expectant mother, Barzellai, had taken a liking to him and quietly defended him from the most ridiculous of the rumors going around. She’d shown him how to gather herbs that helped her with her swollen feet and other issues in pregnancy that she politely didn’t mention. Over the weeks, they had spent many pleasant hours away from the group, scrounging in the weeds and not talking to each other.
Barzellai had hoped to reach the meetup point with her husband before she delivered, but Aziraphale had no power over that one, and instead they were stuck in an arid tent.
He had been talking with the resident philosopher of the group when someone yelled out for him. Barzellai’s labor had begun, and she was adamant it would not end without Aziraphale at her side.
Aziraphale rushed to her. Barzellai was sweating on a stool, propped up by another woman, who had given birth fourteen times and considered herself a bit of an old hat at the process. When he arrived, Barzellai grabbed his hand as if she was trying to crush his fingers.
“Need you,” she said.
Aziraphale went white. He kept glancing at her lap, as if at any moment it might explode.
“You have to help—if the baby’s not well, if I’m hurt, please take him to my husband, please protect him.”
“I’m not sure I would know what to with—”
“You have to,” she said. A contraction hit and her face screwed up with pain.
“Fine, yes, I will,” Aziraphale said. Then, definitely, “I want to.”
He still looked away for the actual birth part, though the abuse of his hand and the moans and the smell told him enough.
But when the older woman cleaned the baby, Aziraphale realized there had been a subtext to the promise he hadn’t grasped at all.
Although he had never been present for childbirth before, he knew newborns weren’t supposed to be quite so large. And they definitely weren’t supposed to have shoulders like that.
“Your husband…” he started. He could barely get his voice to work.
She nodded, iron in her deep brown eyes. “You’re the only one who can protect my child.”
The older woman placed the baby in her arms. “Not sure what kind of child it is,” she said.
“That is the son of an angel,” Aziraphale said. “I’m supposed to protect one of the nephilim.”
“Is it a girl kind then?” she asked. She hadn’t, the first time, been asking after species at all.
“He’ll decide as he grows,” Barzellai said, swaddling him. “The children...can choose, like their fathers, what to be. Or, that’s what he told me. But I had that, hmm, that boy feeling.”
The older woman nodded, as if this was the fiftieth conversation she’d had about angelic genitalia and gender preference this week. “Oh yes, you always do know.”
The boy cried. Barzellai tried to calm him, bouncing him on her knees. But the nephil wailed and thrashed, showing off the over-curved bones of his back, the little wing-stubs, bone cap pushing out white from his dark skin.
The baby took hold of her hand with chubby arms and almost bit her finger off before she redirected him to her breast. His puckered mouth was red with blood when he finally figured out how to nurse. Aziraphale waved a hand, banishing punctures from small but sharp teeth, and Barzellai sighed gratefully.
Although none of the day’s occurrences had phased her in any way, Aziraphale still made sure the older woman left remembering a totally human infant, just in case.
When night fell over the camp, the remaining two in the tent could feel the gusts of wind under wing before they heard the flapping. Down from the sky like a thunderbolt came Shamsiel. His wings and hair were ungroomed and he had the slightly desperate look in his eye common to expectant fathers, but he was burning with light. As soon as he got the baby in his arms they didn’t need to worry about keeping the lanterns in the tent. He outshone the new mother’s glow by megawatts.
“I came as soon as possible, oh, I could feel the moment you went into labor, my dear one, I thank God in all places that you are both safe.”
He babbled on, stroking the fine hairs of his son’s forehead.
“A-hem,” said Aziraphale.
Shamsiel kissed Barzellai, then turned to smile at him. “Brother, I can never repay you.”
“I haven’t done much at all, really,” Aziraphale said. Certainly less than you’ve done, he thought.
Shamsiel clapped him round the back of the neck, which brought him rather closer to the infant than he’d prefer.
“Your blessing has already protected my son.”
“We’ll still raise him in El-Aei, but for the youngest years, we wanted to find a space out near Barzellai’s people. It still isn’t safe, for little ones like him. But knowing we can rely on you, that he can…”
“But I actually shouldn’t have promised that sort of thing at all,” Aziraphale said. He backed away, so flustered he almost collapsed on the birthing stool. “Not even to normal humans. I just found myself caught up. We are bound to the will of heaven.”
“Of course. I would never ask else. But there's an awful lot of space between the few orders we receive and our lives and works here. I mean, after all, look at me now.”
“My husband,” said Barzellai, beaming up at his glowing face, which beamed right back down at her.
Aziraphale shuddered. “As long as helping doesn’t interfere with Above, call on me.”
Shamsiel stroked his son’s cheek, and the child fell asleep instantly. “We can make sure not to interfere with your travels. Only ask if there is an extraordinary situation, you know.”
“It’s an extraordinary age,” Aziraphale said, with great regret.
Later, Barzellai, ever socially apt, demanded alone time with the boy. The two angels walked through the camp. The night was blanketed by clouds, suffocatingly dark without Shamsiel’s glow.
“I fought against it for the longest time,” said Shamsiel. His long brown hair danced around his face in the wind. He looked different, after fifteen years, though of course he hadn’t aged a day. Something more settled about his manner. Tied. Not necessarily the most reassuring transformation, for an angel.
“The whole thing, really. I took the vow, but that was mostly because everyone else did. I spent years avoiding. Then, the moment it was done, I truly began to love Barzellai not as a member of humanity but as a part of me...I’d been so stubborn, and scared, and it was maddening to know I had been wrong in every way.”
“I hope this isn’t directed anyone's choices in particular,” Aziraphale said.
“I wanted you to know, so you can understand I do not call down your help lightly. I never thought of you changing at all, brother.”
3 This was true. There was a betting pool in El-Aei on when Aziraphale would give up and join them, and Shamsiel had a talent of gold on “frankly, never”.
“In Eden, when you gave—”
Aziraphale looked up, scared of who might be listening. “Lost—”
“With the sword, you saved them. That’s what your strength is for. I think if this goes south, it will be you at the end. Who else could I trust, with my loves?”
“God,” said Aziraphale. “The great plan.”
“Yet one wants a plan B, when the outcome is so important. People in general, they go on without angels and demons, making mistakes, inventing new fermented foods and insulting terms. But my family, they need in a different way. How humans go on after each other, it’s addicting. It’s worse than sex. If it isn’t holy I’m not sure I could ever understand what holy means.”
Aziraphale listened with the polite, disapproving curiosity of a particularly egocentric psychiatrist and thought, thank heaven I do not have to deal with this.
And for a long while after, he could continue to believe in that sunny fiction. He left the camp that night. Shamsiel and Barzellai cuddled up in the tent, holding their new abomination. Aziraphale collected books and stories and miracles, and ever so slowly, his status as guardian angel began to fade from his concerns. Like a student at the beginning of the semester, the final test seemed so far away as to never arrive.
Twenty-eight years after Crowley reincorporated, he was feeling somewhat the same. He, too, had built himself a tidy existence and series of self-justifications. We’ll check in with him shortly.
But that's the thing about prophecies. If they hit when everyone was gearing up for a huge change, or when the world had already been cleared for the righteous, or the moment at the end of the storm, they wouldn’t be that useful, and everyone would be too busy to bother anyway.
Twenty-eight years later, the patriarch Enoch selected a fistful of herbs and crunched them into a golden pipe. He took five magnificent drags. Then he wandered around his bedroom groping at different textured surfaces, vomited a little, settled down on his straw bed, and dreamed.
The morning after, Crowley and Noah were sitting on a hill, sharing a pomegranate. They were not aware at the time that it was the morning after any particular occurrence. Crowley cracked off sections with fastidious care, tossed one part to Noah, and both began eating. Crowley plucked each jeweled fruit from its chamber. Noah clawed down, scattering sticky juice as he attempted to dislodge as many seeds as possible, but Crowley was fond of him anyway.
Noah was a proper man now. He had a close-cropped beard, a great stately nose, a house he had built with his own hands, and a flock of animals he doted on a little over-much. A bachelor still, and there were definitely rumors with how he hung around Crowley. In truth, he had a sweetheart the next tribe over and was mostly stalling to have more time for his construction projects.
They were on watch. There was a village watch, now, consisting of the smartest men they could reliably count on not to sneak off or nap during shifts, and Crowley. Crowley was almost always on watch with someone or another, although admittedly he slept during a lot of it.
They were watching for Nephilim.
Almost every paranoid civilization has a story that goes somewhat like this: beyond our borders, where there are no good folks we know to trust, there are instead big scary monsters who want to attack us and/or steal our food and/or corrupt our superior way of going about our little lives. The story usually ends with a suggestion that a group of us righteous ones ought to gather and take up sharp implements to protect our home. The story is rarely much correct, and often correct owing to another civilization telling themselves the exact same story and marching somewhere with the sharp implements.
Enoch’s village, regrettably, was close enough to roving bands of half-human blood-drinking giant warlords that they didn’t need a story at all.
The majority of Nephilim these days weren’t studying at El-Aei. Their rebellious adolescent phase had set in, and with it, the understanding that they were a great deal bigger than anyone else they happened across.
1 To a certain extent. The Nephilim were giants, true, but this was not an age of tall people, and it didn't take much to be a giant. The average height of a full-grown Nephil was 6’5”. They’d have been on the short end for basketball players in the modern day.
The Nephilim rarely happened across Crowley. He stayed near the edge of the village and kept on watch, acting as a sort of location scrambler beaming out “No people or money to be found here! Certainly there’s nothing among these hills!” It usually worked, though it had cratered the tourism industry.
“But suppose one breaks through,” Noah said.
“Oh, one would be fine,” Crowley said. “We’d take out one, easy. I can summon weapons and you can...build something to drop a rock on it. Bless, if one came along I might invite them in for mezze. They’re not all that scary, on their own, and I bet they know loads of weird angel magic.”
“If a group finds us, and you’re asleep, or off somewhere, I won’t be able to protect them. We know I won’t. So I think we better have a backup plan.”
Crowley shrugged. Once Noah got an idea, there was very little to be done. “Shoot.”
“Teach me to heal.”
Crowley grimaced. “I’m not sure I could.”
“But I’m righteous, and descended from a man of God. If any could wield your abilities—”
“That’s not my concern, Noah,” said Crowley, lying, for that was his exact concern. Crowley had been gifted the ability to knit flesh together, to breathe life back into gangrenous limbs and revive small animals, through Beezlebub himself by way of Vual. Noah wasn’t enough of a corrupting force to warrant the transfer.
2 Corrupting the populace into slothful dozing by carrying on about physics didn’t count.
Noah politely avoided the topic of what exactly Crowley was. Many in the village had met angels, or at least they’d met Aziraphale, who always stopped by on his good works tours and consulted Enoch. If they’d noticed that angels did not, as a rule, hide their faces, or that Crowley conveniently left for “my old aunt’s house out by the desert” each time they had a heavenly visitor, they were welcome to draw their own conclusions. The healing truly worked a miracle, in engendering trust. It was a dangerous world, and no one was going to look a gift demon in the eyes.
Also helpful was their complete faith in the moral judgement of Enoch, a prophet who spent the majority of his time thoroughly baked. Enoch beheld most of heaven and little of earth, and he liked Crowley fine when he was able to. That was all the endorsement the village required.
Noah took out his dagger and pricked his arm. “So what do you think about?” he asked. Blood dripped red over his dark brown skin. “Wave a hand, and…?”
Crowley shrugged. “Goodness that looks bad, better fix it. There’s a Word, too, but you couldn't pronounce the letters. Like El-Aei’s true name.”
Noah screwed his face up. “Please God, heal this arm.”
The cut mended, or tried to, then faltered and unzipped back open again.
“Granddaddy would be able to help,” Noah said. “But he’s not always, you know, around.”
“Well I’m around, so there’s no need to worry.” Crowley passed his hand, murmuring his power, fixing the little wound. “Maybe you could have him teach you?”
“We’d better go see him anyway,” Noah said. “I wanted to ask his blessing. About time I got married.”
“Aren’t you supposed to ask her father?”
Noah laughed. “Her father can’t tell me whether heaven wills it. I’ve waited, I’ve been so nervous, and I was working on the water-wheel prototype. But I want to tell him. I know he’ll be excited. I just have to hope the voices in his head will like it too.”
As soon as they passed off the watch and entered Enoch’s dwelling, they were welcomed by an enthusiastic young priest. “You must come in,” he told them, as Noah took his shoes off and Crowley pantomimed being able to. “He asked after you, Noah. He wanted to see you.”
That was the annoying part about prophets; always made your notion of free will shrink back and sit grimacing in the corner of your mind, muttering about how it meant to do that, really, destiny only suggested the course of action and it had thought that was a great idea.
Enoch sat up in his bed, made of straw but laid with rich woolen fabrics, when they came in. He was a topographic map of a man. Like many prophets and heavy drug users, he looked older than his years. Thin and wiry in body, he had sunken-in cheeks, sunken eyes, and a sunken grinning mouth. He was not smiling now.
3 Three-hundred and fifty of them, but who was counting?
In his youth, Enoch had partaken in a dram of a wonderful herb that was a barrel of fun for ninety percent of the people that tried it. He’d been camping in the mountains with nine friends. The others had laid back and stared at the sky with bleary eyes, and remembered a wonderful night of philosophy and out-of-body shenanigans.
Enoch’s radio signal to Above had not so much been turned on as torn open. The truth beyond had poured into his fuzzed-over mind. He’d woken up sobbing, praying over one of his friends, who laughed at what he assumed to be an overactive imagination on a bad trip.
The next night, a lion got him.
And the next night, Enoch talked to a variety of angels. The next night, he beheld all the people of the earth and their sins. The next night, he learned what an Internet was, and came to moaning about a “series of tubes”. His mind had transformed into a wide-open door through which the mysteries of the universe waltzed.
“Granddaddy, you look tired,” Noah said. He saw an empty platter near the head of the bed. “Have the priests brought you bread and milk?”
“Never mind that,” said Enoch, who could currently neither sleep, nor eat, nor drink a thing.
“Lazy priests,” said Crowley. He never tired of the opportunity to abuse them; they were always at their prayers and crossing Enoch’s threshold gave him a low-level headache.
“Granddaddy, I have come to tell you I mean to marry the woman Naamah, of the Cainan people. I should hope very much for your approval, and your holy guidance and blessing.”
“That is good, my grandson,” Enoch said. He clasped Noah’s hand in his bony, shaking fingers. Noah gasped, for his touch was cold. “That is delightful news. Marry her immediately.”
Noah began to weep. “I am so glad, granddaddy, I just wanted to make you happy.”
“Noah, of course I’m happy, but you’d better get a move on. Your family will be the only one that survives.”
Villagers assumed Enoch wandered around beneath a hazy cloud of psychotropics to better commune with the Lord. But Enoch himself would tell you that drugs only eased his condition. You’d want to be chilled out, too, if you received portents of calamity. His blood pressure required a healthy dose each day.
This dream made him want to find and smoke every vaguely herbal substance in his house. He’d have settled for the hyssop and the parsley. But after he awoke, he couldn't interact with physical objects, and that included toking up using them.
For the first time in the three hundred and thirty years since he’d become a prophet, Enoch was sober as a blow to the head, and the world was doomed.
It began when walls of his room had melted. Rich fabrics slithered into the darkness, lamplight exploding out in trails of fire. This part was normal and expected.
The hills dissolved and dripped away, like a honeycomb licked by flames. They flowed over the grass and earth beneath, until the surface of the world was smooth as glass. When the last of the mountains ran down into the valleys like an overflow, the colors followed. Gray spread out from the rocks, blooming smeared dots of flora.
Then the pools bubbling over the land curdled and darkened. Blood poured out like a lake. The moon and stars glinted like rubies across the waves. Enoch could smell the metallic tang rising as it spread, burning the back of his tongue, choking his throat.
From the swirling mass, a hand reached out, brown skin against a sea of thick crimson. The whole arm pushed through, inked etchings in the holy language spiraling from the muscled wrist. The hand grasped for the sky in one desperate lurch, then sunk beneath, dragged away by a swell of blood.
Where red seeped, sound followed, an echo of murmurs babbling with the tide. The clamor built and built, and before long the earth below him was howling.
Human voices. They screamed, rippling across the dark surface, countless stories and cries and recriminations. Enoch could hear far beyond his senses in this state, but he could not distinguish a word.
A voice rang out behind him.
“All souls murdered by the unholy race of giants cry out to the Lord.”
An angel flew up to hover at his side, feathers fluttering in the wind. He wore a flowing robe, jewel green and shimmering with embroidery. The angel had a multitude of colored wings, flapping about his form, always covering his face. All around his copper skin, hundreds of dark eyes, with thick lashes, stared unblinking at Enoch. When he brought forth his hand to gesture, the eyes scaling over his palms wept golden flames.
Enoch startled like a cat and almost fell out of the sky.
“Please fix your...all this,” he said. The angel leaned forward and a hundred thousand pupils peered at him. “I can’t bloody focus if you look like...I am too high, holy one.”
Slowly, the wings rearranged themselves, the burning gazes closed, and the angel became a handsome man, or what passed for such. Strong, smooth jaw, glossy short dark hair, rosy cheeks. The eyes on the face were always hardest. You could look too long at those eyes and start seeing the dark parted from the light on the first day at the edges.
1 Or Enoch could. He lived in a world where every other man was functionally colorblind. Point out what seemed obvious, and everyone around you started crying and falling to their knees. It was a lot of bad news, usually, but there was beauty only he understood. None of it seemed fair, but no being, divine or human, had ever asked him.
“Enoch, scribe of righteousness, the dead pray with all that is left of themselves, and their belief is answered in heaven,” the angel said. His name was Gabriel. He was kind of a big deal. “Behold, as the Lord commands, the traitorous Watchers shall be bound and cast into the desert. Their beloved sons will fall by the swords they have taken up against God’s most precious creations. All can be amended and it is the will.”
Enoch nodded. “Alright then.”
Gabriel drew him up, touch skittering across Enoch’s skin, making the hair on his arms stand straight. Together they rose past the clouds and the stars. Lightning and wind spiraled behind them, cold worse than anything one felt on earth.
At the end of the skies, a faceted crystal wall rose up, two thick slabs of wrought light in the center.
The gates of heaven had been barred.
Enoch felt the closeness of paradise clawing in his chest. No matter how many times he saw the entrance, the same fear whispered in the back of his mind. They must allowed him to enter; they could not shut him out; they could not leave him here in the dark with the bright patterns of the gates searing his eyes!
This reaction was innate, similar to touching a hot stove, or stubbing a toe, or indeed arriving at the gates of hell. Some things didn’t need to be thought over. The human mind knew best at a deeper level, and would scream proper instructions if necessary.
Gabriel raised his hand, and one blazing eye opened where knuckles should have been. The rainbow crystal in the walls glittered, and the doors to God’s kingdom slowly parted. A chorus of angels began to sing, but it sounded terribly off-key in counterpoint to the moaning souls below.
Enoch had seen heaven before. He’d visited heaven on an impressively unkind mushroom powder from a neighboring village. Uriel had tried to deliver a message, and Enoch had cried, clinging to her. She'd left him convulsing on the floor of the Hall of Halls. He didn't feel quite so much right now. Still, there was something about the throne of the Lord that never lost its luster and terror.
In the center of the sprawling clouds and columns the throne stood. Well, it could be called the throne, although it looked as similar to a chair as Enoch did an orchid. The huge surface, a bubbling organic form colored golden-pearl, seemed to shift and grow ever larger. Like a fungus or a fissure, the seat of heaven spread lustrous yellow over the hall below. No being sat on the massive pulsating stump at the center, but above hovered an orb. The disc was pure radiance on a level that shamed the sun, orange rays flicking off the edges. It crackled and contracted like breath.
Underneath the throne, the clear smooth floor showed the earth below. Rivers of fire ran from the golden edges. They flowed into pools of sparkling clear blue: the water of life, tributaries of seas and deep places. The mouths of the world. Crossing the celestial water feature, brilliant rays of light spider-webbed the sky. These were something akin to footpaths for angels. They fluttered about in the gusts of those curved patterns, leaving brightness behind.
Above everything, the throne of heaven pulsed with endless power and knowledge. Reminding all, through its splendor, where these gifts—light and water and fire and life and death and those that administer them to the earth—flowed from. Palaces are always meant to send a message. This one had a capital M.
Gabriel tapped him on the shoulder, and Enoch knelt on the floor and bowed. The scene beneath was dizzying, a million layers of sky and heaven. At the bottom, he could see the cliffs of the village and the roof of his dwelling. They were impossibly small, and yet seemed close enough to reach right through the clear barrier and touch.
2 The vertigo was an intentional design preference. When humanity created glass elevators the Lord would be pleased indeed.
Enoch started to pray for some unspecified amount of mercy he’d probably be needing soon. Then he realized Gabriel was pointing toward the edge of the scene beneath. There, in the barren winter lands beyond the pools and rivers and angel-trails, was a valley. He knew the valley quite well from his visions, plus one ill-fated vacation eleven years ago.
But the city of El-Aei was gone. In its place, six burning mountains stood in a circle. Each shone lustrously, from alabaster to antimony, with sapphire in the center. All were wreathed in holy flame.
“Their punishment is prepared,” said Gabriel. “They have fathered fornicators and bloodthirsty monsters. They have taught the humans our secrets before the appointed time. They have shown them what they were not meant to know.”
“But...aren’t you showing me holy secrets? Right now?”
Gabriel’s wings stiffened. “That is different. You are chosen. And they have told their wives about make-up and mirrors and odd things you can do with roots. Like bonsai. It is just not right. All out of order.”
“Let Me Do The Talking,” said Enoch. Or, well, said Enoch’s mouth. They were not his words.
Gabriel bowed. “Oh my Lord.”
“The Watchers Forsake Their Purpose,” said Enoch. His expression showed abject terror but the voice emanating from his lips was calm. “To See Creatures of Heaven, Eternal and Enduring, Defile the World With Their Progeny by Acting as Men of Flesh Agonizes Me. I Gave Humans Families and Children for They Die. Angels Dwell in Heaven and Never Perish. You Shall Agree the Difference is Simple to Understand. They Have Screwed It Up.”
Gabriel nodded, toward the throne. “We shall rectify all sin, my Lord.”
“But my Lord,” said Enoch, grateful he could even still talk for himself. “You haven’t told the Watchers not to. Or at least that’s what they seem to think.”
“The Deformity of The Resulting Offspring is Truth Enough They Have Ignored. They Would Let Giants Overrun the Earth and Destroy My People, to Slake Their Own Selfishness.”
Gabriel nodded. “So we bring down a great flood, to wipe the slate clean.” He waved his arms over the scene below, as if to demonstrate. “But your descendants shall endure, of course. There are plans for your great-grandson, the architect. Niall or such.”
“And for the rest of humanity?” asked Enoch, and then he answered himself, “They Have Become Wicked Beyond Redemption.”
“Nathan is going to build an ark,” said Gabriel. “Impressive boy. It shall be passed down through history, in culture after culture, the story of the flood and the savior of man. To serve as a reminder to the humans not to stray from righteousness. And behold, you and your family are the blessed chosen.”
“What must I do?” asked Enoch. “What is the plan, for me?”
Gabriel laughed, his voice like the clanging of bells. He was almost preening.
“The flood starts in thirty days. After tonight tell humanity and prepare. I shall return on the day of reckoning and bring you back to heaven. The Lord is never truly finished with his creations, scribe of righteousness. You least of all. Let me show you the rest.”
He grabbed Enoch by the arm again, drawing them up through heaven. They journeyed through a series of interlocking circular gates, above the sky. As the throne became a speck in the distance, Enoch felt the power still radiating in him. He could name every star they passed.
In the Hall of Halls, far above the seat of the Lord, angels lounged around celestial trees. Their forest grew over locked chests the size of mountain ranges, the receptacles of phenomena. They were labeled in the holy letters with their charges, such as hail and clouds. Only one was open now, and partly so, the moon shining on earth with half its brightness.
Still they continued on, farther than Enoch had ever ventured during any other vision. Gabriel hovered behind him. At this distance from what was known, he could not continue his glamour. An eye-covered hand tipped Enoch’s chin up, to see the edge of the night, past the heavens and the stars.
When poets sighed over the end of all things, they were mostly swooning about their own mortality, or perhaps a pretty person not wanting to kiss them. They had, after all, no chance of actually experiencing such. Even most angels did not venture past the Hall of Halls.
Suffice to say, the smallest glimpse of what lies beyond God and Satan and the rest of that nonsense would be to the human mind as a microwave is to tin-foil.
Enoch died. Of course, he was already in heaven and suffused with holy influence, so it wasn’t as dire as it could have been. The spark of life gracefully conceded, gathered its things, and exited stage left, dimming the lights of his brain as it went. He stared into the end and felt his heart collapse. Cold spread through his limbs, and a cocktail of intoxicants vacated his bloodstream.
“Take me back,” moaned Enoch, who had had quite enough of that. He suspected that if he kept looking his flesh would start to melt. Then he'd drip on multiple heavens, which seemed impolite.
He hadn’t wanted to die. Gabriel had promised to return to him during the flood. But he was only three hundred and fifty, for goddsake, he could have helped rebuild humanity and guide Noah after this was over.
Now Gabriel covered his eyes. What remained of Enoch's stomach lurched as they descended. They lowered down together, away from the end, back to the choruses of angels.
Back to the tree.
The trees spread their roots over the receptacles of phenomena. They thronged above storm-clouds kept under heavy iron lock. They bloomed, sapping up sleet rain underneath the lid of a celestial chest. Their branches, thick and studded with sweet-ripe treasures, reached over the stars. Here were groves of cinnamon and frankincense, there green boughs heavy with tamarind and kindness and mysteries.
In the center, from where the root systems knit together, arose the tree of knowledge, knotted and bent over. Ripe apples in every color of the sunset winked among the gnarled branches.
As if it had noticed Enoch’s watchful eye, the tree of knowledge began to sway under heavenly breezes. The angels joined hands, humming a song older than music, awaiting her wisdom. Cursed and forbidden on earth, here she was lovingly cultivated, the pride of the garden. They watered and pruned her, made a nest of her arms. They harvested her dangerous blossoms and their seeds, and listened to the secrets she had been given by the Almighty. Every day until the end of days she would sustain and reveal.
The story was always the same, although it often grew new chapters as her fingers reached ever higher. She was in another home, surrounded by sisters. As the angels hummed, apparitions grew around her. Adam and Eve rested under her branches, never daring to touch.
A huge iridescent snake wound about her trunk. He unfurled his bulk to temptingly frame the reddest of the fruit. A familiar face, somehow, that serpent, but Enoch couldn’t quite wrap his mind around why.
Then Adam and Eve, in jerky and exaggerated motion, tasted her wisdom. In the same moment, the garden dissolved around them, the leaves of the tree shriveled and died, and the snake found a way in its strange form to smile.
The years played out, Cain and Abel tussling. Humans danced across the summoned stage. Through their squabbles and indignities, the wisps of memory shone golden with grace. Enoch watched mercy scattered over the earth like dew by the Host. Then El-Aei rose, and the six burning mountains. Waters swept the surface. The waves swallowed everything, until the Hall of Halls was smooth and empty. No more figments of humans waltzed in its grand story. Only shining blue, forever.
Then the tree bloomed again, and returned to its true self. The angels applauded.
“I must warn them,” Enoch said. His heart could no longer beat out his chest, but his voice shook.
Gabriel, again assuming the form of the beautiful young man, nodded. “That is your purpose.”
“Is there is no other way to protect the world? I could teach them goodness—”
However he looked, Gabriel always glowed with a condescending smile. “Tell them we have found nothing left to save that is not yours. Tell them thirty days. Wake up, Enoch. We shall see each other soon.”
Every dozen years, Aziraphale returned to El-Aei for one day. He’d put on whichever tunic had the least holes in it, pack some choice books and scrolls for the library, and gather a mental list of good deeds he’d been able to perform, to hold in front of any errant conversation like a ward.
His visits were a habit born of equal terror and fascination. Each time, it seemed an entirely different city. This year, they had built out multi-story houses. The dwellings had been painted and carved to match the stone archways of the temple, library, and school. Flowering trees climbed the sides of streets, shaking out their petals and covering the ground. Angels sung to each other in the windows. There was an informational sign at the top of a post office in etched gold, written in the Celestial language plus every other human one currently existing, so stuffed with translations it spilled into the street. All in all, the majesty of El-Aei made most human cities look like children’s tree-houses.
Beyond the white stone walls, he'd passed farms bursting with animals and crops. They were tended by students in lieu of payment. He watched them gather on their break to pray, smoke cannabis, and debate dualism while wiping down dirty arms and rough clothes.
In the new city market, humans in fine dyed fabrics hawked wing wax, laundry detergent, wood-powered toasters, and coffee with goat milk and myrrh. Aziraphale couldn’t resist a fountain pen and a cup of hot cacao, which bubbled in an iron pot over a fire, exuding delightful aromas.
“From across the sea,” the merchant told him. “Original recipe, was. Got a good source for cinnamon and chilies.”
Aziraphale smiled at his accent. “You’re from…”
“Hauled ass all the way from Sumer, yeah! I was an apprentice armor-maker, and heard they had better here than any. Of course, Azazel only takes on a few students a year, and once I saw the spices and plants they were growing, I forgot all about it. There’s twenty of us Sumerians around. Only one is married to an angel, so we don’t have a lot of political clout, but I’m real glad to be part of it.”
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow as he drank his cacao. He didn’t know the rumors had reached that far.
“If you haven't been back to the nest in awhile, I know a great guy for grooming.”
Aziraphale's wings ruffled up. “Excuse me.”
“Brother,” said Samyaza, coming up behind him to clap him on the back. “Always wonderful to have you home.”
Aziraphale attempted a smile and paid the merchant double. “The city grows more prosperous by the decade, I see. Which angel flew all the way across the ocean for this little treat?”
“We have a seed project just as you collect manuscripts,” Samyaza said. He started to steer him toward the library. “Soon, we’ll be expanding to animals from all over the world as well. Blessed be the fruit of our labors.”
“Two of each, like the seeds, to start off El-Aei’s own breeding program. Now I know what you’re going to say, but a few easy miracles on their DNA strands fixes the population bottleneck problem right up. It's the same power God gave the first humans, so we have good authority it shall serve.” Samyaza opened his hand, showing a cacao pod he’d taken from below. “Creatures of infinite possibility.”
“But, er, isn’t there a reason the animals live in different places? Suited to their environment and all that?”
“We gave the animals to the humans for their use,” Samyaza said. He was frowning now. Their relationship had grown frostier in the past twenty years. He could only keep up his magnanimous manner for so long around the lone holdout to his grand vision. “We’re helping humanity more than we’ve ever been able to, and all you can think about is the way things are, rather than the way they ought to be.”
“They ought to be how heaven wills, Samyaza,” Aziraphale said. He stared at the road beneath his feet, paved in gold, covered in rare flower-petals. “We are of heaven, but you are not the deciding voice.”
“Unlike you, I suppose, trading on our good name and work outside these walls while you call our families sinful?”
“That isn’t what I think.”
At the gates of the library Samyaza flared his wings, knocking the drink from Aziraphale’s hands. The clay pot it was in fell on the ground and shattered. He rose into the sky.
“We will see who the Lord rewards,” Samyaza said. His beautiful face was twisted with bitterness. “And you will know all your years of denial meant nothing in His eyes.”
Aziraphale willed the clay pot and spilled cacao not to exist and hurried inside the library.
He ran right into Shamsiel, and almost dropped his books in alarm. Shamsiel had a tendency to lie in wait for him at the library, since that was the one place Aziraphale was sure to visit. The Watchers were disappointed in him because he wouldn't participate in El-Aei, but in one secret way, he actually had tied himself to the city. To Shamsiel. To his son, if they ever did truly need him.
“Oh dear,” said Aziraphale, and took a step back.
Shamsiel dusted himself off. He lit up the section on gemstones, and tried to affect nonchalance. “Brother, are you visiting?”
“For as long as they let me in the gates,” Aziraphale said under his breath.
Ever oblivious, Shamsiel took some of the books from his arms. “Let me help. Did you see the market yet?”
Aziraphale glared at him. He’d file them all wrong, and then Aziraphale would have to correct it during the next drop-in. Right now he really didn’t want to think about what he’d come back to in ten years’ time. “A wonder.”
“Barzellai’s been able to cook so many new dishes, with the odd vegetables and spice mixes they sell. It used to be the only interesting food around here was Cainan, but there are new stalls every week!”
“What’s wrong with Cainan?” asked Aziraphale.
1 He had never only liked a cuisine. Aziraphale either adored and subsisted on a specific foodstuff or could hardly stand it. He had been on a Cainan kick for about four hundred years.
“Come dine with us tonight,” said Shamsiel. “Barzellai said, let’s get the old guard from the gates together, but I wanted it to be just the three of us.”
Of course, their opinion of you receiving me at your house is of no consequence, Aziraphale thought.
Certainly, the others wouldn't have said anything, or at least not as much as Samyaza dared to say, but he had not been widely beloved before El-Aei. And even if he had been, fifty-odd years of building grand structures and little hovels, of farming and teaching and loving humans with their hands and not only their hearts, united the Watchers more than joining together to praise the Lord ever did. He merely wandered through the market; some Power whose name he’d never bother to learn probably poured years of work into it. And it was the same with the breeding project, and the school of art.
“I’d be glad to dine with you,” Aziraphale said, and almost meant it.
Shamsiel’s glow went up at least two notches. “Wonderful.”
Then he paused.
“Only...if you could steer clear of mentioning the kid?”
“Why?” Aziraphale asked. He’d not seen the child since his birth, and preferred it that way, but Shamsiel was always bursting with treacly stories about his not-so-little son.
Shamsiel’s gaze turned stony. “She doesn’t want to talk about him.”
“Yes, alright, mum’s the word...er, or not, in this case. That scroll goes in the weaponry section, Azazel asked for it.”
Shamsiel set the scroll aside. “Oh, why didn’t you say so? We live right near her, I can give it to her directly. Barzellai is in a poetry circle with her wife. When we went about founding the school no one mentioned how many poetry circles there would be. And the drinking, dear Lord. I didn’t even know you could make alcohol out of barley!” he laughed. “These humans. Don’t know who’s teaching who. Drop by around sunset, brother. I can’t wait to catch up properly.”
“Mm,” said Aziraphale, and went further into the library.
It ached in here, passing room after huge room filled with books, more variety per shelf than he could ever procure in his travels. In some secret moments, Aziraphale had contemplated what would happen if he took over as bookkeeper. What life would be like, rising each morning to dust the stacks and order the catalog paperwork. Living right down the lane, taking manuscripts home to repair, grabbing a bite at the market between reading sessions.
But acting as a librarian meant humans would fondle his precious books. They'd whisk them away to read, ask for help recommending what to abscond with. Other angels would make notes in the margins with their heaven-bestowed wisdoms, or give him advice on the cataloging. Intellectually he knew what happened to the parts of his collection he gave over to the library, but personally he’d hardly be able to stomach it. These books were such treasures, representing the pouring of knowledge or dreams or even foolish mistakes into ink and paper. Then the text was preserved forever, written by careful, dedicated artisans, and bound together with gossamer-thin sinews painstakingly stitched to tightness. They deserved to be worshipped and protected, not passed around for students to smear their oily fingers on and dog-ear into tearing.
But here, for a moment, he closed his eyes, imagined he was the only denizen of the great room. He breathed in the warm air, the taste of old parchment suffusing everything. Maybe in a century he’d ask for his own wing, for the rarest of specimens, or duplicates of works here on the floor. Despite Samyaza’s misgivings, he had never spoken a bad word about El-Aei to any human. When Above had sorted it all out, it was possible he would be able to make a different choice.
Unable to bear silently standing in the library, Aziraphale slunk away, wings lowered. He wandered about the city before he was expected for dinner.
On the edges, near the walls, he found the graveyard.
The first humans came to El-Aei in love. They were women following strange husbands out into the desert and far from their people to this lush land, honored but wary. The second wave of humans came to El-Aei in curiosity, to study the secret knowledge of heaven, to learn and build the future. The third came in greed. They heard of gold, and spices, and glory, and life.
That was the untold part of the grand narrative. Many of the current residents were afraid of the angels, and the weird food, and the public prayer and divining that suffused the city. They stayed anyway, because El-Aei offered protection. Her denizens never sickened, for they were surrounded by healers. Never cowered, for they were sheltered from the monsters created there. As much as they liked to talk, no Nephilim ever considered actually storming the walls of the city. Smited by your father was absolutely the worst way to go.
Death did not dwell in El-Aei the same as other cities. But they were visited, from time to time. The graveyard could hardly be called a scrap of land.
Still there was a mourner.
Kneeling in the dirt before a small rounded mound of earth, Yeqon clutched at a pebble, hands stained with red ochre. Beside him a little candle burned. In the sunset light, deep flickering shadows passed across his face. Aziraphale felt his quiet silence like a veil dropped over the entire street.
He startled, then, as if he’d seen a ghost. “Aziraphale,” Yeqon croaked. “You’re here.”
He nodded, not sure whether leaving or staying would be less rude. His dinner plans beckoned, but the city was temptingly still here, smothered in Yeqon’s grief.
“How is the world?” the cherub asked.
“As always,” Aziraphale said. “Full of sin and holiness. I brought some new books. There are more cities, lately, more men banding together. Probably because of the Nephilim.”
Yeqon grinned, and clutched the stone tighter in his dyed fingers. “Did you know I was also responsible for that one? Told our daughter she should take a year and travel before beginning her schooling. Called it a ‘gap year’, I thought she’d have tremendous fun. She and her friends went out into the desert. Never came back. Samyaza will claim it’s his fault, if he’ll talk about them at all, since his kids are leading those tossers. But I always start it. I always muck it up.”
Aziraphale opened his mouth, but found nothing to say.
“Endless ideas and plans and speeches, call good old Yeqon, but look what it amounts to. My wife asked me, you know, whether my holy domain included never shutting up. I had all the answers and she had all the best questions.”
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said, finally trying. The leaden words dropped from his lips and landed with as much grace as they could manage.
“How do you love a being of heaven, a golden thing? That’s what she said. And I answered, you wanted to visit your family, and by the time I flew out to save you the sickness was too far along. What good is an answer that explains nothing?”
“But death is a part of being human. And...a part of the plan, as you know. Everything that happens to us and to the mortals furthers the Lord’s purpose. Besides, you can see her in heaven, when you return someday.”
Yeqon placed the stone before the mound and rose, shaking his head. “I asked to be reassigned the moment she left. I prayed for it. We both know He isn’t answering us right now.”
“I am so sorry,” said Aziraphale, and this time he meant every word.
“I keep coming back, and trying to...to think of something to say to her, to explain why this had to be. I know they’re busy Upstairs, and I’m only a cherubim, it’s my damn job to trust in the plan. They don’t owe me an explanation. But I owe her, because of what she gave me. I thought maybe you would know.”
“No,” Aziraphale said. “I travel, but you all know much more about humanity.”
“I figured,” said Yeqon. “I’m leaving El-Aei soon. I think this time you’re the one with the right idea.”
That made one of them, but Aziraphale didn’t answer. He took a stone from the path and placed it beside the other, at the base of the mound. Then he walked away, into the sunset and his dinner plans.
As he left he made a mental note to look for a scroll or book that gave the best human explanation, the kind Yeqon wanted. If he tried, he could reach into the future knowledge suffusing El-Aei and see generation after generation of philosophy. Yet what did it matter, here and now? In a hundred years, would the men of the city of angels even recognize their counterparts groping around in the dark outside the gates? It was theirs to discover. He still believed that. He always would.
2 But he would break his rule of foresight, just once, just before the flood, and never after.
Ritual note: The scene with Yequon is an amalgamation of multiple Jewish mourning traditions. The red ochre is based on archaeology of the area and is not current or specifically Jewish the way using pebbles to mark grave sites and burning a candle for Shiva is.
“Then he said he’d see me soon. When I woke up, I was still dead,” said Enoch. “And sober,” he added. It was the part he cared about.
Enoch finished his explanation of the dream, or at least the parts that concerned Noah and Crowley. He'd left out Gabriel forgetting Noah’s name, because that had been rude, and what the ends of the earth entailed. He needed all the help he could find and there was no knowing how much detail he could convey without causing them to spontaneously die.
“So you must marry, my grandson. And build some sort of flotilla. I expect you’ll want to start on the plans soon, although knowing Gabriel they might just drop into your head. Crowley, help me up. We ought to talk privately.”
Noah blinked back tears, reaching out to stroke the cold flesh of his wrist. “Granddaddy, your funeral rites—”
“Whole damn world needs funeral rites, Noah, don’t get hung up on what happened to me now. I’m fine. Worse than fine, I’m clear-headed. Go send word for your future wife.”
“Heaven help us all,” said Noah. He kissed his paled hand, then hurried from the house.
“Don’t think that one’s likely,” said Crowley, and helped Enoch to his feet.
For a dead man, he was still spry. He began to pace. “Weird way to go, you know, murdered by an angel.”
“Quite,” said Crowley.
“I saw you, at the Tree of Knowledge, during the little play. I could tell. You’re the serpent of Eden. A demon, and the cause of the fallen world.”
Crowley lifted up a finger. “Now hold on—”
“But I don’t really care. You’ve been good to my grandson and protected my village. What gets me is that I know most truths in the universe, but I still don’t know why you’ve been hanging around. So you had better talk quickly. Only so much time left, my man.”
Crowley considered his options.
He could leave now. Enoch had never been cagey with his prophecy, and it made for enormously helpful reports. The people in his village were amusingly small-minded as all humans were, and he’d been idly nudging them toward wickedness for some years. But he had also settled into their way of life, gotten to know each of them. He wasn’t in a hurry to stick around and watch them drown.
He didn’t know if he was supposed to cheer for the destruction of El-Aei and the end of angels on earth or mourn the corrupt societies that would be swept away.
It should be a safer world for him, this clean slate. It would also be a lot of bad work wasted. Build up a decent group of impure, licentious buggers, only to be handed a fresh start. A world peopled with men and women like Noah. Whole countries would consist of folks starry-eyed over wood grain quality and wind energy. Noah was a great bet for Above to rebuild the human stock. He spent so much time up his own head he almost couldn’t be tempted.
Honestly, the whole shebang sounded like a lot of dead people and destruction for the promise of millennia more hard and lonely work. It figured. Heaven’s idea of a good time, right there.
“I’ve been spying,” said Crowley. “On the city of angels, when you saw it in your visions. I’ve been reporting to Hell.”
Enoch nodded. “That sounds about right. And, fallen angel, were you responsible for the birth of the Nephilim?”
He hadn’t gotten laid in a long while, and his preferences tended toward men.
1 He wasn’t sure how much of that owed to practicality, or whether it was more sinful in the eyes of most societies. Hell, his inclinations might be explained by simple variance. Frankly, the question didn’t interest him.
“Well, I need your help. You may not be the main reason for this mess, but I trust you more than any angel down here, and I require someone’s intervention. I want to go to El-Aei, see if anything can be done. We only have thirty days, and I can’t make the trip in this condition.”
“You know I can heal, but even if I wanted to help you, I can’t bring dead humans back to life.”
“I don’t need you resurrect me, I’d probably remember it all and fry my brain again. You have to use your magic, work some kind of miracle, and fuck me up properly! I need to be high. I can’t stand this.”
He pointed fiercely at his pipe, which sat there mocking him, half full of expensive leaves and tinctures.
“How do I know that would be helpful compared to your zombie detox? You even look younger,” Crowley said. It was true. Pale and cold as he was, his face seemed to glow a little with the aftereffects of heaven.
Enoch’s hands trembled. “You wouldn’t deny a lame man his crutch.”
“Actually, I would.”
“Just give it a try.”
Crowley flicked a finger right back at him.
“Oh thank God,” Enoch sobbed, as Crowley’s best approximation of cannabis, opium, and a grab bag of acids soaked into his consciousness.
“Don’t bring Him into this. We’re going to stop their plan, remember? From now on Up There’s on a need-to-know basis.”
Enoch nodded fervently. “We’ll leave straight after the wedding.”
Crowley laughed. “A dead prophet and his demon dealer, off to save humanity. Reckon it’d make a great movie one day.”
There had to be a chance. If anyone could preserve this rotten world, Enoch would be the guy. Heaven wasn’t listening to anyone else right now, even their own doomed field agents.
“Bless you,” said Enoch.
Crowley winced. “You have to stop that.”
Just then, a priest knocked on the door. When Enoch waved him in, he started bowing like a tree in a hurricane.
“Oh wise one,” he said. “Is it true you have ascended bodily to heaven and shall leave us soon?”
Crowley and Enoch gave each other a look that said “sooner than you think”.
“I wanted to write down your knowledge,” said the priest. “Tell me all, and I can dictate so we live by your truth after you have departed.”
“Enjoy that,” said Crowley, and waltzed out of the room.
He went to his house. Over the years, goods from El-Aei had filtered through the village, and in the name of research Crowley had filled a small shack with them. Artisan bowls, fabrics in rich foreign dyes, a regrettably little-used plush bed. He wandered through the rooms, touching the painted walls, sighing over the cultivated color scheme.
Then he went out the back into his garden, mostly flowers and herbs, plus one stately apple tree for beginning of times’ sake. In a blink the house and all its fineries disappeared, leaving Crowley standing around near a blank patch of earth and some bushes. If this didn’t work out, he didn’t want his things swept away by the storm.
In the dust where his house had been lay a huge folded section of parchment. He shook it out and placed the paper down carefully, away from the garden.
The seal on the parchment was fantastically complicated, interlocking symbols in multiple languages. It had been written in blood, albeit sheep’s blood Crowley had pressed into an inkwell and pen. He’d gone through ten pens, one summer when Enoch’s visions had been more fire and damnation than usual, but he hadn’t needed to call.
2 Gradually all had come to understand the occurrence: Enoch had been sold a bad batch. The fury of his dreams had nothing to do with the Celestial plan.
Crowley stood in the center of the circle and spoke the Words. Instantly the lines of blood burst into flames, the parchment under his feet dissolved, and he stood smoking in a proverbial open door.
“Hello, Crowley,” said a gentle rasping voice.
Vual rose across from him. Her huge wings covered them both, filling his vision with bright feathers and flames. On earth, given that a multitude of camels in a huge black cloak was rather conspicuous, she took the form of a tall, thin woman with one shoulder pushed up higher than the other. She even manifested a human face for the occasion, soft and ugly. Yet there was something behind the weak chin and drooping eyes, lurking in her crooked smile and mouth stuffed with far too many teeth.
“It’s time, boss,” he said, and bowed. “Hail Satan and such. Upstairs has judged the city of angels, and they’re no longer on speaking terms. Not long until they get rid of the whole incident with extreme prejudice.”
“Yes, your reports have been commendable. Almost on your own, you inspired enough sin and unnatural developments in humanity to render them ours forever.”
“Not if they’re all washed off the face of the earth and replaced with engineers. So I’ve joined up, not with heaven and not to rescue the angels—” and here he leaned carefully on the truth, only bending it the tiniest bit, “—but so the prophet can convince the voices in his head that the rest don’t have to follow. I wanted you to know I wasn’t double-crossing.”
Vual's broken grin cracked wider. “Crowley, we delivered you to the prophet Enoch years before his most important vision for a reason. Now that you have gained the fool’s trust, you can manipulate him to...save...our people.”
That was a relief. Crowley had decided to go on with it anyway, no matter the reaction, but at least he wouldn’t be fighting both sides. Just Aziraphale and whatever awaited at El-Aei. For an angel, Aziraphale wasn’t a bad, er, a good sort. He listened, honestly gave what Crowley had to say a solid thought before starting up with the glory-bes and the leave-this-places. He had been the first thing of heaven to so much as look at Crowley after his fall. No matter how many confrontations and accidental murders between them, that memory never wavered.
“Thank you for this chance, boss,” Crowley said. Through the fire in the circle, he reached out and shook her human form’s hand, stubby fingers with bitten fingernails and chalky cuticles.
“I give you what I know shall not be wasted. Use all your cunning in this business, Crowley, and do not hesitate to call for my intervention.”
She looked up, and her dull doe-brown eyes gleamed red. The fire around them curled like a curtain to cover her, rising to the height of those magnificent wings. As she sunk beneath the earth the symbol faded, leaving only stray trails of flame. Crowley stamped them out under his heel. He sighed in relief that the blaze was in no danger of reaching his garden.
He raised his arm and warded the four corners against intervention while he was gone. The villagers knew his attachment to the patch of land bordered between doting and maniacal. As long as he was putting himself on the line to save their unknowing, ungrateful arses, individual humans were fair game if they so much as touched a begonia.
Crowley made a promise to himself to come back here, and bask in the sun, and bully at the weeds. Maybe he should have focused on securing infernal victory over the souls of humankind. But right now all he could think was: I’ll be blessed if I let heaven take this garden from me, too.
That evening, after sunset, the king of the giants returned to his camp. After the battle was over, he’d spoken to his gathered troops. Brothers and sisters, there had been that, and the justice they were denied, and the brutish ways of their enemies. He had stood before them, shoulders sticky with sweat and sand and gore, piled with golden chains, and screamed his speech. But his mouth was empty now; it all tasted like decay. At night in the quiet of the ice cold desert, his huge hand shook as he drew back the flap of the tent.
His tent was the largest in the camp. Incense and tapers lit up rich silks, and conquest, from his kind and the humans, lined the walls. Carved chairs, cushions, and long pipes studded with jewels littered the carpeted floor. In the firelight he looked down at his chest. Dried blotches of dark brown and black-red itched and flaked off his skin.
He had killed men today, or at least people, for few called their kind men. The sun on the sands had been warm, his iron cool as a balm. With one enemy, the dagger had gone far enough in that his knuckles brushed entrails. He had been alive, then, and he ached for that moment, the man’s breath hot on his neck and body burning in his arms, as if he himself had taken the wound.
“Welcome back, Mahway,” said a low voice. The covers on the bed stirred.
Facing down an army, Mahway’s heart would barely quicken. But even thinking about what awaited him, sweat ran down his neck and blood pounded in his eardrums. He trembled like a boy, watching her rise from the fine sheets.
Her hair, fierce and huge, curled around her heart-shaped face, glimmering like burnished copper. He’d met many races and peoples throughout his adolescence in El-Aei, and never seen anything close to the color. He drew nearer to her, smeared the grime from the battlefield onto her clay-dark shoulder. She looked up at him. Beneath her large round eyes and lovely features, her smile sung with knowledge.
She told the men in camp to call her Delilah. She told him to call her Milchama. His first and last battle. He awoke to her mocking orange eyes in the morning and he faced down her endless curves and biting kisses each night, before collapsing bone-weary into her arms, a conqueror once more.
He’d met her after leaving El-Aei and joining his cousins. Their camp didn’t seem like a permanent home, then. But anything was better than the city, teaching avaricious humans about heavens his sort weren’t allowed to reach. Grow up learning about the paths of the angels, and by the time you understand you will never walk them, where else was there to go?
Mahway had seen her, then, on the arm of Ohyah, one of Samayaza’s brats. He knew what kind of woman she was, or he had guessed at the surface. But the men in the camp spoke reverently of a power beyond her strange beauty. She had a knack for shacking up with the victor before a battle had ever begun. To hear them tell it, their good-luck charm had only to bat an eye and the tide of history turned.
One night she’d slipped into his tent. He hadn’t been more than twenty, and a mind-reading angel for a father afforded little privacy, so he’d made a right embarrassment of himself. But in the face of his clumsy stammering, she’d laughed quietly, taken his hand, and guided.
The next day, Ohyah found out about her visit, and challenged him to a duel. The camp gathered to watch. The king of the giants wore armor and a sword forged by Azazel herself. Mahway, still in his bed-tunic, was wielding a not particularly hefty walking stick.
1 Ohyah had always been more pedigreed than wise.
Yet in five minutes, Ohyah knelt at his feet, bruised and cowed. Milchama fussed with her hair in the background and winked at the rest of the Nephilim.
Mahway hadn’t been certain about staying. But most men, given the choice to be king of the giants and return to her bed each night, would have a hard time figuring what else they wanted in life.
Tonight, she slid her sharp fingers into his long, dark hair, dislodging no small amount of dirt and sand, and pulled him down to kiss her.
“This is disgusting,” said Mahway, between sessions of enthusiastic tongue-mingling. “I don’t even want to know how I smell. I should have bathed—”
“I like you like this,” said Milchama.
He’d known, which was why he’d come straight to her, and why he nudged a knee up on the bed even as he complained. In the intervening years, Ohyah had left and his twin Hahyah with him. They'd forming the Elioud and the Gibborim, rival factions to their plain old Nephilim. When the three groups weren’t terrorizing humans they fought over the spoils. Milchama was cruel and demanding, and others found triumph enough to raise suspicion about where she wandered, but she always appeared at his side come nightfall.
As a child, Mahway had been a dreamer. If he had had anything to revolutionize, he might have been a revolutionary. But the will of God couldn’t be menaced with swords or marched on with armies, or even politely argued against with pamphlets. So instead he adored every inch of her, nourished by her ever-burning brightness.
Tracing the swell of her breasts in the fire-light, he drove so far inside he could only cry out for breath. He looked into her eyes and saw fields ablaze. Piles of corpses. A tower crumbling to rubble. As she locked her ankles and clenched around him, passing by the tent, some nameless Nephilim seized his best friend about the neck and drove him to the ground. She threw her wild hair back, gasping in delight. He held her close as his hips lost the rhythm of the war-drums, bowed his head to her chest, dripping red onto her freckled skin.
“I had that dream again,” he said, as he mouthed down her neck in the after.
She rolled her eyes, reached out to an ivory table for a golden goblet. “Do we need to talk over it now?”
They passed the cup between them, tasting the human blood inside, clear and coppery. Honestly, Mahway preferred the drinks of El-Aei. But there was something about a deep goblet that demanded dark red sloshing around inside, and wine hadn’t been invented yet.
Besides, it was a statement. They were more than the humans, taller and faster and stronger, a race suffused with divinity. Men, after all, knew they needn't give a thought to eating lambs.
“My father is an angel,” said Mahway. “I know which dreams are more.”
In the dream, a huge stone tablet, inscribed in every language on earth, lowered beneath the endless, dark surface of the ocean. Then, when the waters retreated, only a few names—for he knew they were names, and he knew to be terrified at the sight—remained carved in the rock. He could not read them, and he always awoke with his chest seizing.
“Perhaps an entire community will be destroyed, my king,” she said. She stretched out, her sweat and smile gleaming. “You should see to it personally. I hear tell the men in Cainan lands are gathering another guard force.”
“I must talk to someone,” Mahway said. He couldn’t go back to El-Aei. There was a chance his family might accept his return, but he couldn’t risk violence from an angel whose child he’d slain. Or a human. After awhile, the faces blurred and dimmed, but just because he couldn’t remember killing them didn’t mean the wounds healed.
“Are you even pretending to listen to me?”
“There are rumors about a human prophet nearby, a real one with a strong connection. Maybe could help me, help us all.”
“Mahway,” she hissed, and her hands were on him, nails twisting into his skin.
He pushed her away and tripped out of bed. There were lines where she dug in, over the markings up his right arm. They stung with more than pain.
She swung for him again. It had never mattered before tonight, but this time he caught her hand.
“You...you have to let me focus on the vision! I can barely sleep. There are so many names that the water takes, so many at risk—”
“As long as I’m yours, darling boy, why would you care how many die? They are merely a furtherance of your power.”
He clutched her hands to his chest, pretending at embrace instead of restraint. “No power over the humans is real power. It would be power not to want it at all.”
She reached up, expression suddenly gentle, and pressed her hands above his heart. Even after what had just transpired, he couldn’t help leaning into her touch. It was the closest thing to an apology she could give. When he dipped down to bump their foreheads together, he breathed her in, sunlight and gold and fresh earth. She dragged the back of her fingers up the curls of hair on his chest, the muscles of his neck. Her arms snaked around his shoulders, careful not to touch the sensitive surface of his wing-stubs.
She traced the black pattern on his right arm, written in Celestial, the words and symbols clustering and ending at his wrist.
“Why do you keep on doubting? This means you are protected by more than me.”
Mahway shook his head. “I don’t know much about the real meaning. Calling it a protection spell is a guess. My father made me promise to only use it as a last resort.”
She trailed a finger up the writings as she kissed him. “So noble,” she said, a breath from his lips.
“I won’t ask you to come with me when I leave.” Mahway’s voice shook, for he did not know what his actual chances of success were without her. It was likely he’d step one foot outside camp, trip, and impale himself on a rock. And even now, he missed her beauty and glory every moment they were apart. The space between here and the village of the prophet could rend his heart completely.
“But I will wait for you, my king, for I love you alone,” she said. A smile lurked in her orange eyes. He knew he would return to chaos.
Still he bent down and pressed his lips to hers. Because if she didn’t love him, all he’d done for her, all he’d endured to remain in her eyes…
She tasted sweet, but she always kissed like she wanted to win. Best wait till tomorrow, let his officers know about the quest before he set off. As he pulled her legs around his waist, he dreaded the thought of the morning. It would be the hardest battle he’d ever fought, to leave her arms.
This last visit to El-Aei had left Aziraphale thoroughly rattled. In his mind’s eye, Yeqon sat before the mound of soil, keeping the world silent around him. Was this what he had to look forward to, as dozens of years turned to hundreds and the humans of El-Aei died as humans always would? He needed to know, and for that he needed to cheat a bit. Phone a friend, as it were, or phone a friend who could phone the boss.
Besides, the priests at Enoch’s dwelling made a mean mezze for breakfast each morning. He could satisfy his curiosity and his appetite in one go. Then he'd fly away sated, ready to bless humans and thwart evil.
He touched down outside the village. No matter their wariness and fear of the Nephilim, they always welcomed angels. He kept his wings out as he strolled up the path to Enoch’s. There did seem to be quite a bit of commotion. Perhaps some new festival to prepare for? Humans were always celebrating something or other. Often the Lord had to give up and schedule divine blessings around the partying they were already indulging in.
A moment after he set foot in Enoch’s doorway, he bumped right into a young man, who was rushing away with haste, wearing a dark veil.
“Now wait a tic,” said Aziraphale, and caught him by the back of his tunic.
“Satan fucking bless it,” Crowley growled. He tried to wriggle from his grip, but Aziraphale shoved him back against the door. He was taller, now, and had to be glared up at.
“Tell me what you’re after or I’ll make this even faster than last time,” Aziraphale said, trying not to blush. Last time had been mortifying, but Crowley didn’t need to know.
“Of all days.” Crowley batted his hands away and then straightened his tunic. “It’s...complicated, and I don’t want to talk about it here.” He looked to one of the priests, who was enthusiastically polishing a copper vase and just as enthusiastically pretending not to listen. “No use worrying them before the wedding.”
“Let’s chat somewhere else,” Crowley said. The moment after, they stood in a small garden, in front of a blank patch of land with a house-shaped indent on it. Pressed close to his adversary in the middle of a bunch of shrubs and flowers, he felt a trifle silly. Aziraphale stepped back, and Crowley parted his veil to rub his forehead.
He was only recognizable due to those golden eyes. The new form was definitely taller, with a squarish face and a kind half-smile. Tanned skin matched wickedly curved dark eyebrows. Many piercings studded with rubies and gold glittered from his over-large, notched ears. The tunic Aziraphale had abused was a gauzy, one-shouldered affair, short and sweet to show off a pair of legs that went on for millennia.
“I’ve been living here,” Crowley said. “For awhile now, I just made sure I wasn’t around when you visited. Enoch’s great-grandson is getting married, since he’s supposed to repopulate the earth when, you know, your lot hits the reset button.”
Maybe he had settled down, like the other angels. Crowley was always vain with his forms, but in his eternal quest after the current style, he rarely let them be so unabashedly beautiful.
Or anyway, that was Aziraphale’s excuse for not understanding his meaning for a good ten seconds.
“When we what?” he asked.
“They didn’t even tell you, huh? I thought you were the one in the clear.”
“I certainly won’t believe a word about their plans from the likes of you,” Aziraphale said, and added in his head, even though you are nicely tall and weirdly fetching currently. He wasn’t weak enough to put stock in all that.
“Enoch can tell you himself, then, about the global flood in the works. I’m the only one he wants helping him stop the destruction of the angelic city and most of the humans besides.”
“Can’t you ever go after normal people with your schemes?” Aziraphale asked. “It isn’t as if I’m always hunting down kings and dukes of Hell for mine.”
“The whole plan was Enoch’s idea, I wouldn’t mess about with someone that close to heaven. Despite being here with you, I do have some self-preservation instinct.” Crowley thrust a hand out, the look on his face strangely fragile. “Since all my current schemes involve protecting a prophet, I wondered if we could call our fight off. Just for thirty days. An arrangement.”
“Done. And no smiting in return.”
But a smile still curled over those handsome, plush lips. Aziraphale wondered when he’d started negotiating better with a demon than with his own brothers. Was he meant to follow along with Enoch and company, in whatever they intended to do to prevent the promised vengeance? Wasn’t it Aziraphale’s place to help such things come to pass, as long as they were from his side? Just because he hadn’t heard from his superiors in a long while didn’t mean his actions wouldn’t be judged.
He batted Crowley’s hand away. “I can’t believe, I...I need time to think. It wouldn’t be fair to smite even you for helping a prophet, but we both know that isn’t all you’re after.”
“Come to the wedding,” Crowley said. “Give it a ponder on neutral ground, and we can talk to Enoch together.”
“An arrangement,” Aziraphale muttered to himself. The nerve of him to even ask. “They’re sending a flood?”
“The flood, I rather think. No land uncleansed and almost no humans left after.”
They both turned to see Noah, in his embroidered nuptial finery, running up to the path out from the garden.
He could barely talk for gasping. “Nephilim, heading straight for us.”
Crowley’s hand went to his waist, and he manifested a sword. Aziraphale made his own an inch longer.
“Did you tamper with the wards?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale blanched. “What? Gosh, no! They were your wards? I thought some angel had—”
“Right, conversation to be continued later,” Crowley said. He set out with Noah, calling behind him. “If you fancy helping, take to the sky and cut them off at the pass before we get there.”
Aziraphale nodded. Today was only getting worse. He’d been through human dwellings after the Nephilim armies. They couldn't risk anything like that happening to these chosen people.
“You can fly, too, can’t you?” he heard Noah ask as he lifted off and architect and demon hurried away.
“Not without risking unwanted attention from his like,” Crowley said.
Aziraphale scaled the currents, until he was high enough to look down on all the little roads of the village. He saw the humans hurrying this way and that to the huge tent staked out in the square. Noah and Crowley were high-tailing it down the main road, so he followed ahead, to the mountain-pass and the cliff overlooking the village.
There was one figure approaching from that winding road, dressed in tatters. A scout for a larger force? Aziraphale touched down at the edge of the cliff, folding his wings in.
The man was nephil alright. Hugely tall, he had biceps like he was smuggling sacks of fruit beneath his brown skin and shoulders bowed out under his worn smock. He looked quasi-angelic, something about the fierce eyes and hollowed cheekbones. He’d have been even more so if he’d shave the beard and put something in his long black hair so it didn’t tumble about.
“One moment, my good man,” said Aziraphale. He placed himself between intruder, cliff, and village.
Looking down on him, the stranger’s expression was not so much affronted as haunted. “Whatever I have done unto you, holy one, must wait until I can speak to the prophet,” he said, his voice gravel-low.
That might be a spy’s ruse, so Aziraphale pushed on his mind a bit. He felt around and found a cocktail of urgency, sorrow, and fear. No bloodlust or ambition at present.
“Is this the village of Enoch?” the nephil asked. “My map was a bit wrong getting here, but it said the place after the cliff was it.”
“I can take a message?” Aziraphale ventured.
The thick brow, already fairly furrowed at rest, furrowed further. “That’s not—”
“Goodness, what fancy skin you’ve got there.” He pointed out the ancient craft written on his right arm. “Are they still putting those things on with ink and needle?”
The man drew his arm away from examination, confusion passing over his expression.
Then Noah and Crowley burst in, swords readied.
“Leave this place!” Noah yelled.
The giant put his hands up, for indeed he was unarmed, although with bulk like that he was likely never undefended.
“He has a message for your great-grandfather, Noah, not an army,” Aziraphale said. “He got through the wards with a map.”
“What sort of business would you lot have with a holy man?” Noah asked.
“My name is Mahway, King of Giants and lord of the Nephilim. I dreamed a prophecy I can’t understand, that may spell danger for multitudes.”
“Probably,” said Crowley. “But you being here is danger enough for the humans, so you’d better bugger off.”
Aziraphale sighed. “You’re sure it wasn’t just some old, er, human meat the night before?”
“I’m sure,” said Mahway. Usually, in the stories he’d grown up hearing, the mortals visited by heaven didn’t have half the push-back in trying to get answers.
“Come to my wedding,” said Noah.
Angel, demon, and nephil alike turned to gawk at him. That was the majesty of humanity: unshakable stupid confidence, in buckets and barrels, enough to foil any side’s plans.
“These two can keep an eye out on you, and you can talk to granddaddy after. If you were really all that bad he’d have been warned. Maybe you'll start to think of us mere men as actual thinking creatures.”
Mahway bowed. “It would be an honor, grandson of Enoch.”
Crowley groaned. “Thirty bloody years we keep watch, and the moment there’s a real threat he’s a guest at the reception?”
“There’s a bigger threat now,” Noah said. “See you three at the tent in a half-hour.” He looked down at the dust and greenery that had accumulated on his wedding garments in the chase. “Oh, Namaah will kill me.”
Crowley gave it a look, and his clothes were spotless once more. “Best of luck,” he said.
Noah nodded tearfully. “Best of men.” He threw his arms about Crowley and pulled him close. Crowley’s mouth twitched, but he batted Noah away with fondness, clapping him on the back as he left.
“What does he think you even are?” Aziraphale whispered.
“He’s smarter than his brains would suggest, that one,” Crowley said, and looked up at Mahway. “You’re not as giant as I was expecting. From the way some talk, angel-sons are0tall as towers.”
“Uh, sorry,” said Mahway.
“Did they teach you any magic?” Crowley asked.
“I can divine a bit but that’s the most of it. They told us Celestial powers weren’t our domain, growing up. Many humans in El-Aei know quite a bit more.”
1 A selection of courses offered at the time included Kabbalic Wizardry 101, Postmodern Moon-Signs, and Remedial Astrology.
Aziraphale folded his arms over his chest. “One can hardly blame them, with how you’ve treated your other gifts.”
“The neglect probably came first, angel,” Crowley said softly. “Always has done, since the beginning.”
Mahway shook his head. “I would wrong myself trying to wash the blood from our hands to theirs. Whatever we must answer for, the Nephilim do it as mortals. I’m long past wanting to be like my father.”
“Aren’t you Samayaza's son?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley cut in. “We really ought to be heading toward the festivities. Noah wouldn't want us late. You can chat over the reception. Though I don't believe anyone in current company actually knows what small talk is.”
“Looks like rain,” said Aziraphale.
Crowley’s nose scrunched up trying not to laugh, but Mahway shivered.
Aziraphale patted him on the arm, unable to reach higher than that without rising to his tip-toes. “Try not to look so glum, Mr. King of the Giants. I happen to be intruding on the happy day as well. I'm sure they’ll be expecting us, strange and impolite as we are.”
“Enoch especially, can't get a thing past him,” Crowley said. “Move on now.”
“Have you really been here thirty years?” Aziraphale asked the demon as they walked.
Crowley nodded. “It’s easier relying on a fairly accurate prophet, compared to piecing together gossip from all over. Enoch’s the best line to Above we’ve got. Did you know every year some emissary from your city tries to lure him away?”
“Hardly my city, you know. Maybe next time they’ll offer him the strongest recreationals from their new botanist project.”
“That wouldn't work at present. They offed him in heaven, a few nights ago. No more pesky sleep or bodily functions, now, all the better to spread the word with. He probably won’t be long at the reception after, since he can’t even toast their health.”
“Oh dear,” Aziraphale said.
They slunk into the tent. The villagers were all gathered in around Noah, who gave them a surreptitious smile when they filtered to the edge of the crowd. In response, Crowley raised the bottle of spirits he’d conjured on the walk as a wedding present. Enoch stood beside Noah, eyes glazed over.
2 When a demon offers a glass of spirits, best not to ask how literal the description of the contents.
“Right, I think that’s everyone,” Noah said. “Before we begin the ceremony, we have a rather important announcement. Granddaddy, if you please?”
“World’s ending,” said Enoch, more dreamy than concerned. “They shall bind the disobedient Watchers and cast them into the valley under the six burning mountains and then all men shall perish by water.”
The crowd, who had been looking forward to celebrating their local boy made star architect, began to shriek and mill about. The few that tried to flee immediately noticed Crowley, Aziraphale, and Mahway standing at the back. The humans shrank away, turning back in panic to their prophet.
Crowley tried a smile and raised the bottle in offering. Aziraphale folded his wings in. Mahway could only hunch.
Noah put his hands up. “What my granddaddy means to say is that we have a plan! God is going to flood the world, and yes, that is bad news, but we’ve been chosen as righteous. The angels said my family would continue the human race. And Namaah, my sweet and smart soon-to-be-wife, she had an idea. I need you all to listen.”
“Save us!” someone cried.
Noah nodded. “Yeah, that’s the plan, guys. It’s our descendants that are supposed to make this huge ark, and be protected. So we may not be able to save most men, but for all, uh, human guests present, we’d like to adopt you. I do mean everyone. So thank you for coming and...welcome to the family.”
The bride entered, carried on a litter by her relatives, come all the way from Cainan lands. Aziraphale had heard of her but not yet met her. Naamah was dark-eyed, her long hair braided and laid with golden rope. She smiled big enough to crack when Noah took her hand in his.
Noah nudged Enoch. Beside him, Crowley flicked his wrist, and a bit of the daze in his eyes faded. Aziraphale raised an eyebrow. So that was how he was helping. If he hadn’t seen for himself how much better the prophet functioned when utterly potted, he’d have thought it quite sinister.
“Do you take each other as husband and wife?” Enoch asked. “Until the end of this world and after the birth of the new one?”
Tears ran down Noah’s face as he turned to her. “Oh my love, the ruler of my heart. There is no one I would rather have beside me to face the coming storm.”
She reached up, and laid a hand on his cheek, traced his close-cropped beard. “My lord and rebuilder of the earth, I would stand with you through all that could ever be.”
Enoch nodded sagely. Aziraphale could feel the divine energy radiating off him, in this state, mingled with a patriarch’s pride.
“And do you take the forty-two gathered here as your lawful children?”
“If they shall have us,” Namaah said. “For some of my aunts that might prove too much a demotion.” Her people laughed around her, and an older woman reached out from the throng to pat her shoulder.
“Then as a motherfucking prophet and emissary of the Host on earth I pronounce you, Noah and Namaah, leaders of humanity.”
Noah and Namaah sprang forward and kissed each other thoroughly. A cheer rose up from the party, and even after the congratulations had ended they were still indulging. His hands threaded through her hair and she started to dip him.
“To the yichud with you!” someone cried out.
3 For those unfamiliar, yichud is a term for a series of semi-ridiculous social laws keeping men and women apart from one another just in case they should spend any unchaperoned moment passionately exploring each other’s genitals. It is also the term for resolutely ignoring such rules right after the wedding, so that no more time is wasted on social laws and much more time is wasted on genital-exploring in their new life together.
Crowley smiled conspiratorially and whispered to Aziraphale. “She’s certainly been waiting long enough.”
The couple ran through the crowd of their new children, from grandmothers to babies, including a few friendly visitors not even of the same tribe. They headed straight to Noah’s dwelling, just off from the main square and the wedding tent.
Noah had built his house himself. The frame was newly decorated with lights and paint, but if there were similar fineries inside no one got to see, since the two hurried through and slammed the door shut immediately.
The guests cheered harder. Again Crowley raised high his bottle, but this time he was joined by several in the crowd with their own libations. In the back men hauled out a table, and piled the surface high with food and drink. Musicians warmed up their instruments. Dancers warmed up their ability to ignore their sense of shame, using copious amounts of liquid lubrication.
With no further time to waste, they commenced the wedding party for the end of an era.
Judaism notes: yichud and the yichud chamber are Jewish communal ritual.
Next chapter: a very special wedding party!
Crowley delivered his boozy gift to the refreshment table. Aziraphale watched him like a hawk, but the demon showed no sign of fleeing.
In fact, with a nephil here, he likely wouldn’t risk such all night. Whatever he wanted, he seemed set on Enoch, who trusted his great-grandson most, and Noah had charged him with protection. That was why he'd been so quick to accept giving up temptation, during his strange offer. Because his usual wiles already didn't fit with the plan.
“When will the flood be upon us, oh wise one?” an older man asked Enoch.
“I'm going home,” Enoch said. “Take your questions to the leaders of humanity if they ever come up for air.”
Crowley returned from the goodie table and grinned at Aziraphale and Mahway, who were standing primly at the back. He took a hand from each and pulled. “Lively now, let’s be proper guests.”
Mahway looked around. “I’ll scare them—”
“Not when they’re drunk and trying to avoid thinking about upcoming doom, you won’t,” Crowley said. “You’re just a tall bloke with pretentions and odd shoulders. We can do far more fearsome, can't we, angel?”
“Don’t get him started,” Aziraphale said. He rolled his eyes, but he let himself be led to the spread and grabbed a glass of cider. “At least my kind use our powers of transformation to calm humans rather than menace them.”
Aziraphale was a party-vanisher of old. After the whole Great War business, heaven had thrown a victory bash that lasted millennia, and he’d managed to sidle away at the two hour mark. Before his earthly domain became the business with the scrolls, he’d considered patronizing sneaking out of social functions.
Now he liked a feast and he definitely enjoyed alcohol. Even conversation, as long as the conversationalist didn’t linger. But the insistence of partaking in the whole of them together, all properties in excess, turned what ought to have been his stomach.
However, this gathering was different. Celebrating a holy union, for one, and not too many guests, and goodness could Crowley create quality refreshments. But he’d have been fooling himself to say that was why he stayed.
No, the natural difference happened in what was to occur afterwards. He’d agreed to give Crowley an answer on his arrangement lark once the wedding was done, or at least he hadn’t objected enough to beggar it off now. So every hour he remained and celebrated was another that he didn’t have to think about the dilemma he was admittedly struggling over.
This was his excuse for lingering three and a half hours. By then, he was righteously drunk and his antipathy towards parties no longer seemed to apply.
By hour five, the sun was meandering below the horizon, and the children had long been put to bed. Noah and Naamah were still having a real go of it in the yichud. This certainly didn’t seem like a world on the verge of destruction. A group from the Cainan village had brought out a harp, flute, and lyre. They lost themselves in the music, chasing ancient tunes from one instrument to another, paying no heed to blistered fingers or gasping lungs. Food seemed to magically appear every hour.”
1 Due to Aziraphale or Crowley’s influence, sometimes it truly was a miracle.
“One more dance,” a breathless woman told her companion. But half an hour later they were still in each other’s arms, inching closer with every drum-beat.
Aziraphale mopped up heavily spiced olive oil with rosemary bread. He savored the pieces of peppercorn and flecks of garlic swimming in clear green gold. A smear of ground lamb pounded with sumac on grilled eggplant lingered earthy on his tongue. Add a slice of orange drizzled with honey to finish, and he could barely take another bite. Best wash everything down with the coriander barley beer that had recently appeared among the libations.
He stretched, shaking out his shoulders. They always developed a crick when he kept his wings folded away. With the joy and dedication radiating from the band, it would have been impolite not to dance; like listening to a passionately given prayer without offering so much as a hallelujah. Even Mahway stumbled around, too tall to be properly led by the woman teaching him the local footwork.
But no one danced worse than Crowley. Despite his dedication to image and beauty, he could not escape the fundamental demonic lack of rhythm. Too drunk for to care for hiding, veil abandoned in ages past, his dark hair frizzed across his forehead, jewelry gleaming like his golden eyes. The man he was with doubled over laughing at his gangly flailing. Far from taking offense, Crowley fixed him with a sharp smile and pulled his hands to his waist.
Aziraphale was too drunk to keep the thoughts and emotions of the humans around him totally from his mind. Their intoxication had created a minor library of open books. Crowley’s companion said to himself, such an enthusiastic fool. How long did he say he’d lived in this village? Are all their men such dancers? I wonder if he would let me have him later.
The clay cup Aziraphale was drinking from cracked suddenly. But now that he was listening, he could not shut the proverbial door. The pretty ones are always bad in bed, the man thought. But he’d be worth it, surely. If I put my hands lower, he looks like he’d be game, and oh that arse…
Aziraphale watched the beer run from his broken cup, throat achingly dry, and swallowed. He tried to focus on anything else. Before he could stop it his attention snagged on thoughts from Mahway’s dance partner.
So tall, his hands are twice the size of mine. Aren’t they supposed to have little wings on their backs? I know he’s dangerous, but I kind of like how everyone looks at us. He smells of smoke. I shouldn’t, this is Noah’s day, he’d be furious if I made it with a nephil on his wedding. If I invited him back to my place, he might break the bed. I don’t even know what his prick looks like...maybe it would have little wings too!
Was there anyone at this party not currently contemplating sex? So dreadful, that human capacity for infinite distraction. The mere suggestion of fondling muted all other inputs. And not only human, for Mahway was thinking filth right back at the woman. He compared the outline of her breasts to his other concubine. He wondered why she felt so different in his arms, imagined what anatomy he did have inside her.
Utterly dangerous. Better to turn eyes toward heaven, put the work above all else, avoid over-complication and effort, and ignore Crowley completely, no matter how he looked now, and how charming something about him had always been.
These people weren’t throwing their lustful thoughts at him willy-nilly. They had been led. The broken pasts and futures splayed over each other, like the bodies around them slowly pushing together, were summoned as the food and drink, called forth from his desire.
The sun had long retreated. In the low light, across the crowd, Crowley’s gaze met his, strange pupils fat with intent. He pushed the man away, content to let him rub up against another. But when Aziraphale looked, Crowley crooked his neck, earrings sliding to one side. He breathed out a sigh and a smile, like a secret between them. Like they were alone, without over twenty humans around, catching their hunger like a virus.
Aziraphale barely understood the basics of his own desires, but he was now receiving a thorough education. A woman leaned forward to kiss the older lady she’d been talking to all night. She pushed her knee between her skirts, slid her tongue down her neck. For every bold action there were a thousand bolder thoughts, running together and overwhelming his senses.
He couldn’t be causing every part of this. He was starting to realize how little he knew. Had Crowley, wanting back, made two men catch a grinning woman between them and reach for each other from either side of her body?
A man dropped to his knees and hiked his hands up the back of his partner’s legs. He worshiped her bronzed skin in the firelight, bestowing murmurs and kisses. Crowley stepped forward, thighs moving under that teasingly short tunic, and Aziraphale wondered.
Would Crowley want that, the devotion of his mouth? Would he double over and pet at where Aziraphale's wings met his back, letting his thin body shake with pleasure? Or would he delight in reducing an angel to trembling cries? Aziraphale had never bothered manifesting material between his legs. But now it was almost too much to hold back, to remain physically unmoved save the flush over his cheeks and his pounding heart. He wanted to have something to show. A thick cock, to match what Crowley was likely sporting, to press fronts like the couples between them and alight as one.
Perhaps the man’s musings were not wrong and Crowley would let him inside his body, to seek out the softest places and dance upon nerve endings. Finally he would know the thing that was Crowley and not just the beautiful skin it wore. He could hunt all night, pressing fingers or tongues until he found or created the most colorful bruises.
And if he touched or fucked right, he could be the cause of Crowley's release. Which of course, he didn’t know how to accomplish, but he would learn. He was already watching, as the mass of bodies sunk together. The floor of the tent was suddenly covered in pillows and blankets, and they added their clothes to the pile.
If he managed it, with Crowley, he’d feel him contract and shudder and convulse, keep what he could coil around close. No matter the possibility of discorporation, they two could never truly leave this world or each other. But they could brush against death in that moment: the ecstasy of creation, the beginning of those that found ends.
Every man and woman not currently crouched down to receive a thorough genital tongue-lashing had descended to the ground. They had become a writhing tangle of limbs and kisses that exhaled as one, like a great beast. Somehow, despite the fact that the musicians were engaged in other pursuits, music continued to play. Notes from lyres and pipes were plucked from each shuddering thrust and ragged answering breath. The world gleamed, in fire-light and friction, and they stood apart from each other, heaven and hell and twenty sweaty mortals between their quivering bodies.
Aziraphale had spent decades away from his brothers, kept his pride closer than his love. He had never been the last left righteous. Caught helplessly in his own trap, he wanted worse than they had ever dared. He’d transformed the desires of the only remaining humans after the promised flood into a desperate song of songs, fueled by the oldest tune any could remember. Here he stood, across from the serpent who had first made him laugh and think and reach toward humanity. Asking for more with every inch of his soul.
It wouldn’t be an arrangement, sparing his adversary. It would be the only choice he knew how to make. It would be betraying heaven. It would be easier than he had ever thought possible.
Crowley stepped to the side, around the mass of copulating humans. He looked hopefully up at him through dark eyelashes, and started forward.
Aziraphale turned and bolted out of the tent. As fast as his wings could carry him, he fled into the night.
Mahway was having one hell of a day. He’d definitely expected complications, leaving the Nephilim to seek out an answer from Enoch. His people weren’t great fans of prophets and most humans didn’t want to be near an unholy monster. But the wedding business was a complete surprise.
And as luck wouldn’t have it, Enoch had left before the reception. Every time he closed his eyes he saw the tablet washed through by water. Not understanding the warning but knowing full well it was related to the coming flood, he could almost scream in frustration. But out of deference to Noah, he’d stayed with his impromptu guard. Besides, it was lovely to spend time with humans without the pitchforks and torches.
He’d grown up around angels, though not Aziraphale, the oft-spoken-of holdout who was rarely seen around El-Aei. His parents had told him Aziraphale didn’t judge nearly as much as others said. But in person the stuffy, short fellow looked over him as if his very existence was a messy room in God’s great halls. He wore his angelic looks like his ragged clothes, as if he was embarrassed to be wielding brilliant white wings and righteous judgement. Truly not a creature of El-Aei, but no more of a friend than the city Mahway had abandoned.
The demon was new.
A few demons had tried to join up or mess around the Nephilim camp. Mahway had killed them, or at least banished their current incarnations with disproportionate violence. The one they called Crowley was definitely of their persuasion. But he acted more like Noah’s lackey than a diabolical influence, and he and the angel had seemed pretty chummy.
1 Even before the supernatural orgy started, mind. They just liked catching up.
Late in the night, he’d been indulging Noah’s sister, whose name started with L but he’d honestly forgotten the rest. She'd taught him their village’s wedding dances. He’d been drunk, and very much not alone in that. But a feeling beyond intoxication had swept over him.
It was the way she felt. Her little fingers clutching up his back, the sweat on her neck, her breath that smelled of cider when she whispered the steps to him. It all seemed so immediate, enough to make him wonder about Milchama.
She’d smiled up at him, eyes alight with liquor and song, and pulled him by the belt of his tunic just a step closer, not even feigning instruction. Her breasts were warm against his chest, and she had more of a waist and arse on her too. Maybe it would feel the same, to be within the circle of her hips. But maybe he’d never actually experienced what he’d thought was an old hat. Or, considerably nicer than how an old hat felt. Her eyes were so huge, looking up at him with a combination of hunger and approaching fear.
Then Mahway glanced across the tent, saw Aziraphale standing apart from the partiers, and knew.
He’d been under angelic influence before. When his father had raged, which wasn’t often and which he definitely had no talent in, he’d pushed on Mahway’s mind. His power made every argument worse. It was a sickly feeling, like falling under running water, to be dragged beneath all that divine passion like an afterthought. He’d learned to sense it, and carefully avoid any trace. In El-Aie, if he found a dinner companion broadcasting how good the goat butter was and how everyone ought to try some, he’d storm away from the table.
But Aziraphale was swaying drunk. He had basically tripped over a natural desire and stubbed his proverbial toe on it. His influence nudged Mahway’s existing interests deeper, muting the voice in his head that cried out in caution. The angel’s round cheeks were stained dark red, and he put his fingers to his lips, expression frazzled and almost tender. He looked, in that moment, achingly beautiful, transformed in his devotion.
Then Mahway glanced to the side and saw what Aziraphale was looking at. Crowley pawned his dance partner off on another man. Their gazes met and they spoke with their eyes. What they had to say would have gotten them banned from most polite company.
I would never have thought he would want him, Mahway thought, and the demon’s voice in his head, unaware how loud he was not talking, said, WELL I’LL BE BLESSED, I’D NEVER HAVE THOUGHT THAT HE WOULD WANT ME.
Mahway laughed, and Noah’s sister kissed the sound from his lips, and then he could not hear Crowley at all.
The men and women around them had gotten somewhat grabby. But he didn’t care, as long as he was tasting cider and honey in her mouth. She tore open his tunic, and he groaned because it was the only one he’d brought. The height difference meant she didn’t even need to properly kneel to pleasure him. He threaded a hand in her hair and glanced over at Aziraphale. The poor angel’s knees were almost buckling, and he panted and braced himself against the refreshment table as if he’d hauled himself out of a ravine.
Mahway leaned down and kissed her again, and nudged her to the floor, which had now gained quite a few unearthly soft blankets. He peeled her tunic from her sweaty thighs, pressing his fingers within her, shocked at the clenching wet, so distinct and textured compared to—
No, this wasn’t the time to think about Milchama, the years he’d thrown after what only seemed beautiful. He needed to focus on the woman before him now, breathing sighs into his skin.
Mahway let her touch him, adjusting the size of his prick to better match what he was feeling within. He lined up and she pushed her hips forward, drawing him in. At the same time, another stranger licked a line up his spine. He shuddered. Too much, too real, but it was everything.
The intruding participant moved over him, a man who’d eyed him earlier, who he’d thought stared in fear. Whatever he had felt then, now he peppered kisses up Mahway’s back, miraculously avoiding the wing-stubs. Between them, he was releasing too soon, lost in the difference of the feeling. Afterwards, he kissed her, then he kissed him, and then mouths and hands and tender parts were a bit of a blur. Only one truth had been assured: he was always exactly where he was supposed to be. The magic and copious amounts of alcohol suffusing the air saw to that.
Well, until the next morning. He woke up sticky, wedged between two new humans. The thing splitting hangovers told their children stories about at night crawled around in his skull. Enoch was looking down at him.
“Shit,” said Mahway.
“Grab some clothing, angel-son. We have catching up to do,” Enoch said. He offered a cold hand. Mahway took it, blushing and groaning while he extracted himself from the pile of revelers. In the morning, the angel and demon who had started this mess were nowhere to be found.
He located a skirt and threw it on. The fabric barely covered his knees. He felt very exposed, shoulders and wing-stubs bare, but followed after Enoch anyway.
“What’s that tattoo mean?” Enoch asked.
“Some kind of protection,” Mahway said, and got a dark “hmm” in response.
Enoch went into his dwelling, muttered to the priests scurrying about, and took him to his room. He put his head in his hands. Close up, the prophet was unhealthily gaunt with faint sheen to his skin. He looked even more pained than Mahway felt.
“Tell me about your dream.”
“There’s a huge tablet, with thousands of names carved in,” Mahway said. “It falls under this swell of rising water. Then the current retreats, and only a few names are left. The rest have been washed away. I thought it might be a portent, and last night you mentioned a flood.”
“Doesn’t take a genius for that one,” Enoch said. “The names are men of the earth, storm happens, only Noah’s ever-varied progeny survive. He didn’t adopt you, last night, by the way. Only humans allowed.”
“I, I figured.” Mahway frowned, wracking his pounding head. “So that’s it? Why show me specifically? I’m not responsible for all men, I’m the king of the giants.”
“I know you were meant to come here. You were in my vision. Or that arm of yours was. I saw the world descend into a lake of blood, and an arm with those symbols pushed up, like, you know, help I’m drowning. Then you did. So. The hearts of your people are withered. You shall have no peace.”
Mahway swallowed back bile.
“I am trying to spare the rest of the men,” Enoch said. “But I could not give you any false promise. I have heard God himself speak of your kind, and...I am sorry. It is not a message I want to deliver.”
“Me personally drowning in a lake of blood isn’t exactly a sign of hope, yeah. Thank you, prophet. I’ll tell my people. And I’ll make sure your village and humans aren’t messed with before the flood.”
“It’s nice to know there’s at least one of your kind who isn’t a complete tosser,” Enoch said. He shook his hand with a firm, cold, grip.
Mahway went back to the Nephilim camp. Wandering around unarmed with his wing-stubs out, he made the journey in record time on account of the stonings and torch-lit chases. The humans would probably have retreated if he’d pretended to put up a proper fight. But it didn’t seem fair. He’d been the cause of too many graves already.
He returned where his tents had been. He’d left them right there, out in the desert. They’d staked deep into the sands, and had stood for over two years while his army batted away intruders like flies. But as of this moment, the only remains were debris, smoke, and the rotting dead.
Over a scraggly hill, a force approached, no bigger than a scouting party. In the center of the Nephilim stood Hahyah, Samyaza’s second child by five minutes and leader of the Gibborim.
Her hair was braided back from her face, gleaming forehead matted with blood. She wore black armor, which wasn’t particularly friendly to the desert heat but did appear suitably menacing. She sat astride a huge white animal that looked like a camel had undergone lengthy services with a particularly talented beautician and then had a sword installed on its temple. Behind her sat Milchama, burning curls whipping about in the wind.
They started down the hill in the lazy amble of total assurance that they were facing down no threat at all. Milchama waved.
“What is that?” Mahway asked, when they were close enough to speak.
“It’s a unicorn,” Hahyah said. “A new creature. We stole it from the El-Aei breeders. We were going conquer your Nephilim with it. But that’s no longer necessary.”
2 In the pens outside the angelic city, one of the Watchers scratched his head. “They were supposed to deliver two of every kind. Surely it isn’t difficult to count to two. These don’t reproduce asexually. Oh, this shall set us back a month at least.” He shook his head at his helper, who wrote down “one male unicorn” and made a mental note to send the order as soon as possible.
“Where’s Ohyah?” he asked. Her twin brother had no smarts to speak of, no love for him, and no love for her. He could be Mahway’s path out of this mess.
“Back at our camp,” Hahyah said, unable to keep the smile from her voice. “We have become allies once more, against you. But where is your army, Principality-son? Surrendered without their leader, and the few holdouts killed without ceremony. Now, we are united again.” Behind her, Milchama pressed a kiss to the back of her neck, and Mahway shuddered. “We shall march on the human villages and teach our parents to truly fear us—”
“Queen of giants, none of this is important,” Mahway said. Even though his heart hurt to think of his slain generals, they were no more doomed than he. “I have been to speak with the prophet Enoch. In less than a month, heaven will flood the earth to destroy us.”
Hahyah sneered. “Who sent you this vision, Principality-son?”
“We both know.”
“They have lied to us from the days of our birth, and you threw your army away on their dream. Our fathers are the true sinners, and whatever is coming for Azazel and the rest, we have no part in it.”
One of the giants beside her tugged on the end of her tunic. “My queen, the signs and portents near the camp, barren women giving birth, falling stars—”
“Shut up, Gilgamesh,” Hahyah said.
“We can’t fight Above the way we fight men and each other,” Gilgamesh said. He had the feeling he’d wandered in to issues that didn’t really concern him. This gave him the unearned courage to annoy Hahyah to no end.
3 A few months back, he’d joined the Gibborim, but mostly he’d wanted to vacation in Sumer and run out of rations part-way through the journey.
“We’re done here,” said Hahyah, and turned her unicorn around to start up the hill.
Mahway fell to his knees before the ruins of his army, and watched the guard force march into the distance. Tears ran down his cheeks. Knowing heaven would not heed him, he clutched his hands together and prayed for his cousins with all his soul.
How many young Nephilim had he taken in and taught to pillage? On the ground, he curled in on himself, hands sooty with ash and dust. He felt like the furthest thing from a giant. Despite the grand speeches and the intoxication of victory, he always knew their wars had been little more than acting out. But men had died and cities had burned. Some day, some year, the scale tipped to unforgivable.
Thirty days. Twenty-nine now.
This couldn’t be his legacy. The monstrous king of the giants. Cutting a path through men and his fellow beasts on the whims of Milchama. Chosen only to deliver the message that there would be no quarter. Even if he followed, Hahyah and Ohyah would cut him down. Even if he survived, none of his men would listen anymore. They only respected power. They would storm the gates of heaven before admitting they had been given life in error and used it to destroy.
If the world continued after, there could be a chance to do right.
Or maybe it didn’t matter. Enoch could succeed in his quest and save the humans. The waters could come. He had brought pain to the innocent, and if he wanted to fix things, there was a phenomenally final deadline.
Well, he’d probably get stoned or burnt alive the next town over. And one could never rule out hunted down by Nephilim. What a miserable end, fleeing for a life he knew damn well wasn’t worth the running.
Mahway looked down his arms, to the mess of black and red and brown on his fingers, and his eyes caught on the mark.
If he had ever needed protection, it was now. He didn’t even need more life. Just a month, and the chance to see it through.
“Help me,” Mahway whispered, in Celestial. “I need this. I need something.”
Heat crept up the letters on his forearm, which began to glow red, searing away the dirt and ashes.
A voice rang out from above.
“What’s happening? How...how did you do this?”
“What am I actually doing?” Mahway asked. With slow-creeping horror, he began to recognize that tone.
“Whoever you are, and however you’ve contacted me, you’re talking in my head. Reveal yourself.”
“Holy one,” Mahway said, closing his eyes in embarrassment. “It’s, it’s Mahway. King of the giants. We met at the wedding?”
“Oh lord.” Aziraphale sounded like he was squeaking. “I don’t remember, you know, much of the wedding…”
4 He was lying.
Mahway’s head went to his hands, then off again, for his right arm burned to the touch. “Nothing about that! I was told to use this spell for protection.”
“Say, who was your father again?”
“Shamsiel.” The name caught in his throat.
“I’d worried. Yes, I did promise to guard you, a long while ago.”
“I want to go out and help the humans, in what little time we have left. I know they’ll try to kill me. I deserve it. But I want to atone, and I can’t just wait to die. So I need you.”
“Come back to the village of the prophet,” said Aziraphale, a millennia of sighs in his words. “I suppose it’s something to do.”
“Thank you, holy one.” Mahway poked a line on the mark, which still smoldered. “How...how do I turn this off?”
“Oh, like I’d have the foggiest idea,” Aziraphale said.
5 He was lying.
Mahway batted at his own arm and only managed to send up a cloud of smoke and dust. It was going to be awhile.
Back at the Nephilim camp, Ohyah dreamed about a huge, spreading tree. She was anchored to the rich loam with as many tendriled roots as there were people on the earth. Water swept over the land, and the tree lurched and groaned like death. When the waves retreated, the tree hung in the air, unmoored save the few clusters of roots still clinging to the soil.
Ohyah bolted upright in his bed, heart pounding, tremors running down his arms. He racked his brain for any understanding that might appear. But gradually, unable to make hide, hare, or harbinger from what he’d glimpsed, the dream faded from concern.
Ohyah cleared his throat with a sip of human blood and reclined against his plush pillows. He settled into the serene repose only known to the most deeply stupid of God’s creations.
I promise I wrote this before seeing the unicorn joke in Good Omens. In my defense, Neil Gaiman and I are both cribbing Shel Silverstein / a Jewish day-school song. I couldn't bear to part with the unicorn jokes just because they were in the show too.
PS: Gilgamesh is really in the Book of Giants! How's that for a cameo?
Crowley and Enoch were making record time to El-Aei.
They had left the next morning, after Enoch talked with Mahway. Crowley wanted to be-gone-from-this-place as soon as possible. Aziraphale’s rejection wasn’t nearly as surprising as his initial interest. Yet it still stung to watch a dozen and a half humans carouse, using the tension between them as an aphrodisiac. He could have slipped right in there, splashed around, as it were. But Aziraphale had wanted him. He had the proof, enthusiastically copulating three feet from his eyes. It would have felt masturbatory, and sad, somehow, to settle like that. And to face the humans in the morning...
He always knew when to make himself scarce, and they were on borrowed time.
1 Borrowed time, with heavy interest, a shark of a repayment plan, and countless unfavorable clauses printed in type only large enough for ants to read at the bottom.
The journey ought to have taken at least forty days. Crowley could have flown it in twenty hours. They were splitting the difference, since Enoch didn’t need to sleep or eat. They wandered, and Enoch drifted on whatever creative substance Crowley was currently zapping into him.
All seemed to be in order until three days in, when they stopped to rest. Enoch’s flesh was cold, but not unmoved. A death rattle had begun in his chest, beyond his ribs, and he nearly keeled over. Crowley pitched a tent and suggested an hour or two of repose.
“Wake me at sunrise,” he’d said, his head hitting a pillow that hadn’t previously been there.
“You don’t need to sleep.”
“I want to. Sunrise.”
Enoch settled beside him and glowered. “Rubbing it in my face, that.”
When Crowley awoke he was alone.
He scrambled to his feet, looking frantically around the tent. Peeked his head out, and saw footprints all around their camp. Swearing a blue streak, he searched for Enoch’s signal and located a pulse of heavenly power three miles down the road.
Crowley flared his wings out and leapt to the sky. Keeping low to the ground, he flew as fast as possible.
Enoch was being hurried away by a small group of armed men. When he saw Crowley’s form on the horizon, he started yelling, trying to break free from his captors.
One prodded him with a stave. “Shut up or I’ll use this.”
“I don’t care, you idiots,” Enoch said, and threw himself against the wall of men around him.
Crowley dived for them. “Let him go!”
The men scattered, and Crowley touched down in front of Enoch, drawing a sword from his belt. It couldn’t flame, but the huge white wings were threat enough.
“About time you woke up,” Enoch said. “You sleep like death.”
“Get out of here,” Crowley yelled at the cowering crowd.
Instead, they dropped to their knees.
“Please, wise one, we need you,” one of the men said.
Crowley flicked the sword toward him. “You can’t have him, bugger off now.”
“You could have asked,” Enoch said, shaking dust off his sleeves.
Crowley almost threw his weapon on the ground in frustration. “Really, ‘wise one’? We’re negotiating with the likes of them?”
“Our boy, son of the village leader, is becoming a man. He’s studied for two years, and we went all the way up to the temple for the ceremony. But their priest was, uh, eaten by giants two days ago. Then we saw your tent and knew you had been sent to us—”
“So you kidnapped him?” Crowley asked. Normally he’d be pleased about hastily justified prophet abduction, but all he could do was sigh.
“If we’re making good enough time for you to sleep, we can help them,” Enoch said. “That’s certainly easier than fighting.”
“It is not,” Crowley muttered, but he put up his weapon.
The temple they went to was carved from the side of a mountain, the hopeful family gathered at its base. The teenage mite, in holy garments and carrying a huge number of sacred scrolls, rolled his eyes when the men presented Enoch unto him.
“This man is a very good prophet, darling, we’re lucky to have found him,” his mother said.
He wiped his arm on his spotty face, dislodging multiple scrolls from his grip. “My sister didn’t have to do all this to be a woman or nothing.”
“Your sister won’t be the leader of the tribe after I pass,” his father said from beneath his impressive gray beard. He steadied the falling papers.
YOU KNOW HOW LIKELY THEIR LASTING LONG ENOUGH FOR THAT IS, Crowley said in his head, broadcasting directly to Enoch, who startled and glared at him.
“Bring me to the altar,” Enoch said. “Have you arranged the sacrifices?”
The mother nodded. “We have a goat. But we hoped for a sacred reading first. Kenan’s studied so well to recite the customary prayers, and the story of the creation of the earth.”
“Do I get to kill the goat?” Kenan asked. He dumped his scrolls on the altar.
“Sure,” said Enoch. “Alright, you young menace, let’s get started now. What prayer do we say before we read from the word of God?”
“That one’s for daddy,” Kenan said. “I go last, when I become a man.”
“Praise be the one for whom our praise is due,” said his father.
That seemed a bit trite and tautological, but the words prickled at the back of Crowley’s neck just the same. By the time the man finished, he was gritting his teeth.
Enoch reached for the scrolls, to lay out the creation narrative.
His hand slipped right by them.
He glared at Crowley, expression going almost constipated with concentration.
IT ONLY WORKS ONE WAY, Crowley thought in his direction. IT’S A DEMON THING.
Enoch cleared his throat. “My angelic assistant shall hold the text for us.”
Enoch had mentioned he couldn’t touch or change objects after his body died in heaven. That didn’t seem terribly important at the time, as long as pipe and herb and flame could be replaced with a direct line. But it rather gave the game away to have their holy man standing before the altar, glowing with divinity, unable to so much as crinkle paper.
Crowley slipped between father and son to stand by Enoch’s side, and unrolled the scroll.
The moment he touched the parchment, his fingertips started to sting. Every point of contact felt like needles. Kenan began the chant in a wailing broken yelp, and Crowley whimpered and braced himself over the altar.
Enoch sat by, eyes unfocused, nodding and pointing as if he wasn’t drifting somewhere near the stratosphere.
Crowley hoped they didn’t get to his feature role in the story. He knew hell well, but he’d never before understood torture.
Crowley didn’t need to hear how the world had started. He’d bloody been there, watching the thunderclap of light from darkness, illuminating a blue marble of water. That was the point He was trying to return to, after all, wasn’t it. A perfect expanse, never marred by inhabitants or their sins. Taking away what Crowley had given, in his little contribution to history. And here this weedy boy stood, playing at manhood, mumbling and yowling his way through the party line. His voice cracked, but remained full of pride. He praised and genuflected, unaware he stood on the shores of an endless ocean, waiting to swallow him whole.
Finally, Kenan finished the first part. Another man from his village approached the altar to give his prayer. Crowley dove toward the ground and grabbed a long stick from the firewood pile for the eternal flame. He pinned back the text with the end, underlining each word at the stump.
“New custom,” he told the kidnappers, smiling through the pain. His fingers still smarted and the dull pounding of godliness had migrated from his head to his chest to his stomach. Beside him, Enoch swayed.
Section after section passed. Some of the men started to fall asleep. His mother wailed, “my little man, oh my little man,” through the entirety of his aliyah. Crowley steadied himself using Enoch’s cold shoulder. His hand trembled, sending the pointer skittering as Kenan completed the reading. The last few words, Crowley mouthed right along with him, tongue burning.
“Mazel,” Enoch said. “Now let all gather around the altar and pray while my assistant puts away the scroll.”
Crowley fixed him with a look that said, “If you were not currently dead, I would murder you.”
Rolling up the scroll while seven humans added live blessings to it felt like getting a petting zoo tour of the Museum of Daggers.
“I can’t believe it's been thirteen years since you were given to us,” his father said, while Kenan looked hopefully toward the goat they were bringing in.
Crowley sent a wild-eyed glance to Enoch, who gave an imperceptible nod back. Finally released from bondage, he ran out of the temple faster than he thought he could move.
In a small amount of scrub brush down the mountain, he vomited up everything he’d eaten and drunk at the party, plus some black shit he couldn’t even recognize. The surface of his palms seared when he braced them on his legs and retched at the unholy pile. His body gave one last spastic twitch, and one of his earrings fell out.
“Help me, Crowley, I need you to save the world,” he muttered to himself and wiped his mouth. Shakily, he started to rise to his feet.
A shadow fell over him.
“We are not doing that again for love or money,” Crowley said, and turned.
A blade pierced below his ribs.
Before him was an angel, gull wings spread. “Leave this place and your designs,” he whispered, and flames began to spread from the pommel to the blade.
But I don’t even want to be here, Crowley thought hysterically. He doubled over, lungs burning, and slipped in his own vomit. As he fell, the sword caught and tugged out.
Prayers of humans and the bleating of an unhappy goat echoed from the temple above. HELP ME, he sent out, knowing full well he was probably too far away for the message to go through.
His hands went reflexively to the hole in his side, which was bleeding and starting to smoke. He choked out the Word, and over him the angel raised his sword again, edge blazing like anything.
Crowley fumbled, trying to draw his own weapon and staunch the wound and back away all at once.
“Go forth and keep from sin,” the angel said. “And know that the Lord has no mercy on His own that have transgressed.”
Just then, Enoch came barreling down the lip of the temple.
“Yeqon, Cherubim of Heaven,” he yelled. “You are as much an origin of sin as he. Pretending to dispense the justice you fled from shall not save you now. Go back to El-Aei, and there you must try my mercy.”
Crowley collapsed to the ground, and Yeqon swung past his head. The angel let out a cry of frustration, and his sword tangled with the brush, flaming blade flaring out.
“I cannot undo it,” Yeqon said. He balled his fists up, trembling. “The city stands, my daughter is a monster, my love is gone. I cannot suffer as a man, or smite as an angel. Is there no path left for me?”
Enoch shook his head, and pointed a trembling finger. “Leave him be or I will beg the Almighty for your death.”
Yeqon nodded fearfully and jumped into the air. While he flew away, Enoch hurried down the mountain. Crowley backed up and writhed, almost screamed the Word, but blood still poured from his tunic.
“You smell like goat,” he said, when Enoch reached him. “I—fuck, I think some holy fire got in the wound, it won’t…”
“Be still,” Enoch said, and sank to his knees to steady him.
Crowley gritted his teeth. “Shouldn’t have flown.”
“I can pray for you. I know we’re not supposed to mention, um, my employer, but it has worked before.”
Crowley laughed, and winced at the effort. “How many demons do you spare on a day-to-day basis?”
“There’s always hope.” Enoch pressed a hand to the wound, and for once his cool touch was comforting instead of creepy. “That’s why we’re here.”
Enoch held him close and whispered another Word. Light shone out from behind him.
Sometimes the old fool really did sound like an angel.
It wasn’t enough to restore him completely, but the gash did decide to stop bleeding. Crowley rose, shaking, to his feet.
Enoch propped him up. “All that flopping around at having to touch holy implements, and yet I can heal you. I don’t believe I’ll ever understand how it’s supposed to work, this good and evil business.”
“The great plan, you know,” Crowley said. “A secret they won’t show even you.”
Enoch smiled. “I like our plan better.”
They started back on the road to El-Aei, leaving the rest of the humans to celebrate in the temple. Crowley hissed and clutched at Enoch as they walked, considerably slower now. But despite the danger and pain, they remained at their path, praying to something they wouldn't be too late.
This is a very Jewish chapter! Zombie Demon Bar Mitzvah would be an amazing band name.
Ner Tamid: the eternal flame in the temple that’s mentioned offhand, symbolizes God’s eternal presence in the synagogue
Yad: Crowley’s stick invention to keep from touching the holy scroll, a ritual pointer used for reading Torah.
Aliyah: The quote “Praise be the one for whom our praise is due” is the beginning of the Aliyah, a blessing before reading a segment of the Torah. Each reading usually includes multiple Aliyahs, and during Bar Mitzvahs this is a way of honoring relatives and friends.
The moment he started flying away from the orgy he had accidentally spawned, Aziraphale sobered himself with a thought. He spent a long time in the air, letting the cold rush past his wings, watching the journey of the stars. This high up, he only looked like a bird on the horizon.
1 Honestly, thinking about creating an orgy at all was sobering enough.
The sun rose. Mahway and Enoch conferred, and Enoch and Crowley left. The humans picked themselves up and wandered back to their houses.
Well, best to go to work. If any other humans would survive past the next year, he could have properly fled the scene. But since God Himself said that the kingdoms of the world had nothing worth saving, ministering to them could only be procrastination.
He descended and knocked on Noah’s door.
Noah answered in the closest thing to a fluffy robe that currently existed. The bounce in his steps was audible. He beamed at Aziraphale.
“Good morning, holy one!”
“Is it? I rather heard the world was ending.”
“Today I don’t even want to bother with the plans for the boat,” Noah said, and made a show of stretching.
“Well your great-grandfather has left, so you’re the leader of the village now. It’s the plans or all the questions from your ‘children’.”
Noah nodded frantically. “Right, must get started. Now I did have a dream about an ark...”
They set up shop in Enoch’s abandoned dwelling, which came with priests to shoo the public away. That suited Aziraphale just fine. Noah never need learn about the events of the party until they were well in the hazy, half-remembered past.
Aziraphale had never been anything close to a shipwright, but he could translate the Celestial writings in Noah’s visions.
“Even for all the village, there’s far too much room in here,” Noah said, pointing out a section. “And the way it’s designed, like cages?”
“Must be for the livestock.”
“Guess we’ll be on the boat a good long while,” Noah said. He peered closer at the design. “You could fit an elephant in here.”
At night, Namaah arrived to collect him. Apparently, she’d been fielding the Where Shall We Stand When the Flood Comes Oh Great Leader of Humanity questions. Now she wanted him to truly make it up to her.
“Back in the morning,” Noah said, and left Aziraphale alone with the priests.
One tapped him on the shoulder. “Holy one,” he said, voice trembling. “May I show unto you the wisdom of Enoch, which I have written down after he returned from heaven?”
“You may,” said Aziraphale, wearing a smile the Lord reserved for sharks smelling blood.
The next morning, he had persuaded the priest to let him take a copy of Enoch’s book back to his cave for safekeeping. Noah showed up still tired, and with considerably more hickies than a man nearing forty ought to be proud of.
The next day, the draft plan for the vessel was almost complete when a voice thundered through Aziraphale’s mind.
“Help me, I need this. I need something.”
Aziraphale hurried into Enoch's former room and shut the door. He tried thinking a get-out-of-my-head mantra, but there was no response.
“What’s happening?” he asked aloud, feeling silly but also more worried by the minute. This didn’t sound like orders from Above. This sounded like someone with a mistaken connection. “How...how did you do this?”
It was Mahway.
Mahway could have connected to him at any time, because Mahway had an invocation for Aziraphale's presence carved into his skin with needles, because Mahway was the infant he had promised to protect over two dozen years ago. The king of the giants, and he had sworn himself to his service.
At least his service sounded like a good cause. Or not an entirely terrible one. The humans he wanted to help were as unlikely to make it out as the Nephilim. But Aziraphale wouldn’t be any use in the actual ship-building stage of the work. This would get him away from Enoch’s village, albeit accompanying one of the participants in the festivities. He shuddered. That wedding. The worst night of his eternity thus far.
When Mahway showed up on Enoch’s doorstep, he was wearing an entirely different set of ill-fitting rags. Noah’s sister Leah trailed after him, smiling at every word that dropped out of his mouth and staring resolutely at his crotch when he wasn’t looking.
“Thank you so much, holy one,” he said, and bowed.
2 Partially this was to enter the doorway.
“Oh, don’t bother with that if we’re to be traveling together,” Aziraphale said. He started to gather up the scrolls and books he’d confounded out of the priests.
“Lord Mahway!” Noah grabbed him round the waist. “So glad you’ve seen the light about associating with humans.”
“Redemption is so beautiful,” Leah said, and glommed onto his arm.
“And just the sister I wanted to see!” Glaring conspicuously, Noah ushered her away from her prize. “Can you help me grab a cubit of walnut wood for this section?”
Angel and nephil were seen off with fanfare, including a round of prayers from the priests, a package of leftover food from Noah, and a spectacularly-launched goodbye kiss from Leah for Mahway.
“Why help me at all?” the giants asked, the moment they passed the village gates. “I wanted to tell you, there is no redemption for my people. Enoch definitely confirmed that.”
“I am well aware.” Aziraphale remembered El-Aei, Shamsiel’s stony glare at any mention of his son. “But I gave your father my word, not the word of heaven.”
“Of course their will matters though, doesn’t it? Can I even be good?”
“You have the choice.”
Mahway shook his head. “That’s all I have left, now.”
The first village they passed, Aziraphale had to play the angel card to make them back down from killing the giant. They didn’t like angels much, around these parts, but they at least recognized the uneven match-up.
“Let me know how I can help,” Mahway said. “Even if it’s simple as getting firewood—”
“You can fuck right off and leave,” said the village elder.
So they continued on.
Soon, they happened upon a few humans out on a farm. The family called Mahway a monster but took assistance when it was offered. For a day, they plowed fields the water would sweep away and helped dry out vegetables for a winter the farmers would never shiver in. The nephil couldn’t fit into their chairs for dinner that night, crouching awkwardly at the table instead. Aziraphale led them in prayer. In their barn after supper, Mahway slept and Aziraphale read by candlelight.
Almost felt like old days, didn’t it. Before the whole city lark, when El-Aei was only a meeting place. Journeying across human lands with Shamsiel, or another angelic companion. Well, he wouldn’t have had to bring a candle, if it had been Shamsiel there.
Mahway did look a bit like him. The pronounced v of his cheeks in the dim light definitely recalled. And Barzellai, as well, especially that unkempt hair.
Funny old world, that he also had chosen to forsake his kind, and travel a different path. Everything was new to him: the rush of joy in charity, the pang of a frosty reception, the comfort of a traveling companion who knew not to engage over-much. But Aziraphale remembered this too well.
The next morning, they found their first city, and their first big problem to tackle.
The city’s name was Dan. Enoch had named it. He’d been invited to the founding, asked to consecrate the ground and give their gathering a holy purpose. Instead he’d stuttered out the Tribe of Israel the land would be occupied by later.
3 But Israel didn’t exist, as the only wrestling matches between mortals and angels that had taken place so far were in the bedroom. In fact, no one named Dan currently lived. Angels thought the name was funny, Enoch was embarrassed, and the inhabitants of Dan went about their days none the wiser.
Aziraphale had visited before.
The pile of corpses outside the gates was new.
The woman that met them bowed to him. “Holy one, I am sorry you did not arrive sooner,” she said. “We have been devastated. It was like a curse, how fast the sickness swept us. There are only a few left suffering, if you have any way to help…”
Aziraphale nodded. “I’ll do what I can.”
She led them to the plague house, an old shack which creaked and thrashed like the men and women who moaned within. In one enormous room, thirty survivors were laid out on blankets and beds.
Mahway fetched water from the local well, and he made round after round, wetting cracked lips and replacing cold compresses. Aziraphale set to miracling.
He wasn’t a particularly adept healer; that was more the domain of Raphael and his vertical. Some he could only help by taking away the pain. He watched Mahway hold the trembling hand of a young girl and suspected his companion provided more comfort than he ever could.
The difficult part was that each patient seemed to be laboring under a new set of horrific symptoms. The disease didn't appear to move in distinct stages so much as flail randomly about the body. One sufferer clutched at his throat, which had sprouted dark pulsing boils. Another sweated out any water she was given, pruning rapidly. A young boy doubled over his ballooning stomach. As soon as Aziraphale had figured the source of one problem, the next patient began to wail and point at a new area entirely.
“Have we been cursed by the lord?” an old woman asked.
Aziraphale opened his mouth, unsure what to say, but Mahway cut him off.
“Of course not, or else we wouldn't be able to help, see?” he stroked her sweaty hair and her thin yellowed wrist. “What makes you ask?”
“We hosted traders from El-Aei a few days ago. Some call it an abomination, but they had such advanced things…and that woman…she said they caused long life.”
Aziraphale rose from his charge, face paling. “Did all that fell ill take goods from El-Aei?”
“The first few. Our elder told us to throw them away. But now everyone is sick. Am I going to die?”
“We’ll do what we can. So you have a chance,” Mahway said. He kissed her hand. “Thank you for telling us. Do you know where the trader left for?”
“They said they were headed south, to that one place…”
“The Stream of the House of the Squeeze?” one of the patients gasped out.
Another shook his head. “Place of the Mourning Diverted River?”
“The Well of Sorrows?”
Finally, one woman called out, “The Spring of Weeping?” All groaned in affirmation, and also various amounts of gangrene, rickets, and cancers. Technically, most of the names had been correct, but that one definitely sounded best.
Aziraphale and Mahway’s eyes met across the room. They finished rounds, and bid the city of Dan goodbye. The Spring of Weeping was only a few miles off, and there was smiting to do.
“Israel” means “wrestles with God” and comes from Jacob wrestling the angel. That’s why no one here refers to Israel or is Israeli.
The Spring of Weeping/The Stream of the House of the Squeeze and the City of Dan are actual Biblical places. The Well of Sorrows is from Dragon Age Inquisition.
Sorry for the wait between updates, stuff's been crazy so I haven't had a chance to edit in awhile! I promise I'll post a couple chapters over this weekend. The last third of this story was absolutely a treat to write, and there's quite a lot of weird Judaism and heartbreak to go!
Aziraphale and Mahway didn’t have too far to go before they reached the Spring of Weeping. The journey certainly wasn’t long enough for a proper plan. They tried for small talk instead, with tried being the operative word.
Aziraphale began. “Angels aren’t venturing out of El-Aei right now, so the culprit is definitely human or nephil.”
“Not one of mine,” Mahway said. “Our violence is a lot less subtle.”
“But you were amazing back there, at the plague house. Did you learn to care for the sick as a child?”
“No, we had the hospital for that. I’d just help my father with the sun-sign tracking. There was a bit of ministering to the needy who showed up. I never liked it much.”
But he’d held them so tenderly, and listened with rapt attention. “What changed?”
“I don't hold anything against the humans anymore,” Mahway said. “Honestly, I didn’t for a long time, in my former life. But I kept killing and stealing because it was something to do. I’m starting to agree with heaven, that there’s no mercy for me. A hundred years of good deeds still wouldn’t change a thing.”
“But you still want to help?”
Mahway nodded. “That just makes it more important, not less, to fix what I can. To learn how I could have lived, if I hadn’t been so blind. Being with the humans, taking care of them...everything feels so real. As if I've only now awoken from a dream I thought was the truth.”
When they found the town, there were no people. They had all gathered at the spring. Cold blue water poured out of the base of a mountain, thronged by trees and flowers, humming with insects. In this setting, one might expect the scenes of a movie in which two young ones would picnic. When they accidentally brush hands, the cameraman, utterly overwhelmed, would have no choice but to pan over to the swirling river’s edge.
The problem with living in that sort of place was that all the thriving vibrant fecundity became commonplace after awhile. People barely stopped to notice the splendor around them anymore. Instead, they sat in rapt attention to see the traders of El-Aei.
Their caravan was drawn by camels, huge white wings smeared in paint on the tarp. They had laid out intricate rugs over their makeshift stage area. The traders lounged on fine furniture. Beautiful pottery and lamps studded the ground around them.
Like most men of El-Aei, they had a clinging vitality about their persons. Smothered in an abundance of food and life and safety, each luxuriated in the form that suited best. Some gained thirty pounds, some wore their beards long, some dressed in fine silks from far-off lands. They looked nothing like each other but all radiated smug contentment.
There was only one woman among them.
1 El-Aei was advanced, but that should never be mistaken for progressive.
She reclined against a low chair of blackened wood. None of the other fineries around were quite like it. The thick legs ended in carved hooves. On the back, the edges had been scraped away until the shape bent and bubbled and scarred atrociously. The chair was made as if the carpenter had started from the bottom up, and somewhere along the line underwent either a deeply postmodern artistic transformation or a complete breakdown.
Her glossy dark hair, longer than anyone’s hair had ever been in the history of the world, was half gathered on top of her head. Her brown skin seemed to always hit the light shining, glimmering between invigorated flush and clammy pallor. Bright eyes, so light green that they almost matched the whites, danced about the crowd captive at her feet.
Her form was thin, except for her arms, shaped by a not-too-modest amount of corded muscle. She looked young enough to have been taken too soon, and beautiful enough to only experience age or decay when she deigned to allow it. Her flowing pristine blue top and tight gray cloth pants were a new fashion; all the rage, she claimed, around the Caucuses. She claimed an awful lot of things.
“We just don’t let enough of nature into us,” she said, and the sun would have envied her smile.
She held forth a palm-sized pot of dark cream, and swiped her finger through the thick contents. This sent up a mineral and musty smell. “Some say this alone takes ten years off your face. It’s incredibly probiotic.”
An excited townsperson crept up to her. She smeared the black goop onto his arm with one hand, raising high the pot with the other. A bow and arrow sigil was stamped on the clay, matching the pile of goods around her. The man itched at his skin, where the substance had started to dry and crack in the patterns of his arm-hair.
“This may sting for a bit,” she said. And then it would corrode, but she’d leave that for a fun surprise.
Her name was Laban. Laban, daughter of El-Aei, was almost never seen around the city, too busy roaming with her merchants. They had come to El-Aei in dire need of healing, and after receiving a little angelic pick-me-up, relaxed and prospered for years before she dropped by.
After a minute with Laban, from the first gentle touch on a wrist or a cheek, they had fallen upon her lap weeping. Suddenly, they realized: in utter selfishness, they had kept the divine truths and global remedies that saved them behind the city walls. So many still lived wracked by curable conditions. They were out there among the tribes, without hope, and with an awful lot of money. Trusting, suffering, and abandoned.
Laban had stroked the merchants’ beards, kissed their foreheads, and taken their lives, as was always her right, to her cause.
“For any stomach problems, we have an activated cleanse with potent metabolic transformation,” Laban said, beaming out cheerful confidence. She raised a glass of unidentified liquid, sickly green as her eyes. “This includes rare ancient mushrooms and traditional eastern extracts that will change your energy permanently after three days.”
Mahway stared at her intently. Aziraphale stepped closer to him. No one had noticed them yet, but he was ready for a multitude of trouble.
“I don’t know if I can hurt her,” Mahway whispered.
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows. The giant had admitted to murdering his way through swathes before, but the second their enemy batted an eyelash, he started to have doubts? He remembered his companion's fevered thoughts during the wedding night. There was no turning off that little brain, apparently. “She is quite charming, I’ll give you that, but if you want to stop whatever happened to the city of Dan—”
“No, I mean, I don’t know if I can actually hurt her. She’s not human,” Mahway whispered. “I can’t really explain it, but her essence is, uh, familiar.”
Laban smiled, directly at them. “Welcome, fellows. We are a coalition of traders from the holy city, dedicated to the spread of her bounty.”
“Nephilim,” the gathered people murmured, and began to shrink back.
“Leave them alone,” Mahway said. He looked at Aziraphale, who sighed and unfolded his wings. “We know what you’re spreading.”
“Ah,” Laban said. “You were my sister’s pet, weren’t you? Let’s make this quick, boys. Wouldn’t want to intrude on the vibe here.”
She drew a huge bow from behind her chair, loaded a white arrow, and fired point-blank at the man she’d been testing samples on.
The glowing arrow thudded into his chest. He fell to his knees, tugging at where he'd been hit, but the shaft had already disappeared. Where he was rending his garments, black spread over the wound, cracking and flaking and taking his skin away with it. He began to scream.
In that time, she’d already fired twice on the crowd. Each new arrow brought new transformations, as she’d promised. Before El-Aei, she’d only had a grab bag of colds and fevers to choose from, but the melting pot of humanity there included a few novel flavors of poison.
The merchants began to pack their goods into the wing-painted caravan. A groaning victim grabbed for one trader's ankle. He looked down, winced sympathetically, shook her off, then resumed carefully folding his rug.
Mahway rushed for her.
She hit him straight between the eyes.
He went down grabbing at her knees, his fingers tearing into the strange soft pants. Mahway howled as a rash spread over his face and his body convulsed. She grabbed another arrow, and plunged the head deep into his back. Pustules of dark matter rose from beneath his tunic, but still he grappled her, pinning her legs to the ground.
Aziraphale looked between Mahway and the humans sickening in record time, both in need of his aid. He’d promised to protect him. Shamsiel and Barzellai had trusted him with their son’s safety. He’d stood by, not even caring enough to notice his charge being led astray, for longer than he wanted to think about. So, even if Mahway would hate him for it, it couldn’t be a choice.
He swooped down on them like a falcon in the dive, moving faster than any mortal. He peeled Mahway away and leapt on top of Laban. But she backed up, scrambling on the soft stream-side ground.
Panting and gasping for breath, he grabbed her by the shoulders. “Go forth and keep from—”
She laughed. “I’m no demon. You're just blinded by what the establishment tells you.”
This was true, or at least registered as such on his celestial and infernal radar, but that made no sense.
“What do you want?” Aziraphale asked, struggling to hold her down.
“To bring the humans closer together, and closer to me. A noble aim, same as your brothers.”
That was when Mahway, covered in enough ugly red and black bumps he looked like a lizard and weeping blood, broke a huge amphora of product over her head.
Cleansing liquid poured down her perfect dark hair, and boils followed. She screamed, and it sounded like a hundred people screaming.
Aziraphale leapt to the sky, and Mahway plowed into her set-up like a bull, staggering and unable to see. He drove the urns and pots and jars into the spring.
“My creations!” she yelled.
Mahway turned at her voice, seized her by the front of her draped shirt, and dragged her into the water with him. The calm blue waves were turning green and black, swirling with endless noxious bacteria and viruses. The Spring of Weeping had now become the Spring of Malariaandplagueandwestnilevirusandrabies, which admittedly, was not that much worse of a name than the Stream of the House of the Squeeze.
They flailed around in the muck as he held her under. Aziraphale couldn’t tell what was friendly giant and what was Evil Sickness Lady.
He focused on the outline of the wing-stubs, and the general size difference, then flew down to take his Mahway's ankle and pull him from the waters. As he tugged he tried to multitask and heal, because every cell in Mahway’s body was crying out in terror at the siege that had befallen them.
Aziraphale collapsed and knelt near the nephil. That was the most physical he’d had to be in absolute ages. He pushed him over with a wing. Mahway hacked and coughed, handsome face smeared with the disgusting creams and their painful effects.
Laban was rising again, strands of dark long hair held down by mud trailing off her thin body, light eyes burning from the black.
Aziraphale pressed his hands into the shallows and the spring ignited.
Flames danced across the water in a flash, caught the products and clay fragments, and the formerly romantic scene started to look like a Michael Bay movie.
Laban’s long hair caught first, and she plunged beneath the waves, shrieking.
The smell of death and pus and weird Eastern herbs hit like a wave. It would have choked anyone with a mortal respiratory system.
Beneath the fire he could sense her there, waiting and licking her infected wounds. She wasn’t a demon, for a demon would have given up and disincorporated. She didn't belong to heaven, though many at El-Aei might have turned a blind eye when the merchants stopped by for more “product”, caravan heavy with gold. But she couldn’t escape now without risking immolation, and the fire would go on for as long as they needed. Whatever she had put in those creams aside from deadly contagion, it was potent enough to crust over the water the way it had coated that poor man’s skin, and it burned slower than oil.
If the flood came, the rain would free her. If Enoch and Crowley succeeded and saved the humans, they would have to let the fire wear off anyway. Keep her away from El-Aei and work on a more permanent solution, if such was in the Plan.
Aziraphale reached out to Mahway and grabbed his friend’s hand, pushing every last ounce of energy he could muster into his body. His promise rung heavy in his ears with the pitiful moans of the humans around them.
Gradually, Mahway’s breathing evened out, and he pushed himself to his feet, groaning. When he drew his hand across his brow, the mud flaked away, and his skin was smooth beneath.
He looked at the blazing mess behind him. “Is it over?”
“It had better be,” Aziraphale said.
Mahway smiled and reached toward him, then stopped, realizing he was covered with what was probably the most disgusting substance in existence. Aziraphale rose to his feet, looked at his rumpled tunic and grime-smeared hands, and stepped forward instead. A little late to be worrying about cleanliness now, and nothing Laban used could truly hurt his body unless he allowed himself to be infected. Mahway smiled and pulled him into a bone-crushing hug.
“I won,” he said, almost laughing in relief. “I didn’t need her, we won, we saved them.”
Enfolded in his huge arms, warm and stinking, the pride in his deep voice rumbling through him, Aziraphale felt a little bit of strength return. Mahway wasn’t his charge by heaven, wasn’t human, but that didn’t seem to matter. He’d helped him learn glory. Aziraphale breathed out the giant’s praise and shaking giddiness like this was the work he was made for rather than the bond he had chosen.
Newly hale, he cleaned their clothes and bodies with a gesture. Together, they helped the few remaining humans, the angel healing, the nephil comforting. Most were in a bad state, after the contagion of the arrows had rapidly throttled their immune systems. One girl had already died. She lay there, twisted and cold, no more than seventeen. But he was able to save most. Aziraphale closed the corpse’s eyes, sent a prayer towards heaven, and left Mahway to help the rest return to the city.
The traders were half a mile away when Aziraphale touched down next to their winged caravan. Before he could open his mouth, they went trembling to their knees.
“Mercy, holy one, we didn’t know what she was! We thought we were spreading life!”
“Give your gold to the poor, repent, do not return to El-Aei, and I, er, might consider mercy,” said Aziraphale, who did not give a fig for their fates. Where they were going after all this wasn't really his decision. “Also you must give me the map of your route.”
They cried and promised and delivered. He returned to the Spring of Weeping, plan in hand.
Over the next week, they traced back the merchants’ stops, inoculating and healing where they could. What an amazing sight, every time, watching the people that had initially feared Mahway take his hands and his whispered prayers as a balm. It was a kind of forgiveness the angel hoped heaven could learn to imitate in time.
He wasn’t expecting the trial run to start with him, and far sooner than imagined.
On the road from El-Aei, heading back from the caravan’s last stop, two figures appeared in the hazy distance. One was thin and golden-skinned, and he was propping up the other, tall with a familiar dark veil and short tunic.
Crowley had been wounded. He limped along, a steadying hand on his bandaged side. When they stopped to chat, Enoch stretched his dead flesh and the demon leaned on a makeshift walking stick, panting.
“What happened?” Aziraphale asked.
“One of your lot got him,” Enoch said. “What’s the good of being able to heal if neither of us can finish the job?”
“I’m fine,” Crowley said, gesturing to his body as if it wasn’t curled around his injury, and almost falling over. “We’re still making time, aren’t we?”
Enoch growled and pointed at him. “We’re not making much of bloody anything. And every time you stop to take a nap I have to worry your body will die and turn into dark smoke!”
“Let me see,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley shook his head. “Now that’s definitely not playing by the rulebook.”
But he slowly took his hand off the wound, and wobbled on his feet. Aziraphale created a nice comfy chair and helped him to sit down beside the road. He did a great job not thinking about the fact this was the first time he’d touched Crowley since before the wedding, before they’d shared and summoned desires in the dark. Well, he did a great job not thinking about it until he thought about what a great job he’d done, and then there was no getting the image out of his head.
Beside Enoch, Mahway attempted a smile. “You’re looking pretty good, wise one.”
Enoch glared at him. He’d lost a few wrinkles in the weeks since they’d met, so his glare was less intimidating. “I hate that everyone says that. I was taken to heaven, but I’m still dead.”
The wound was a couple inches wide, and deep, and empty. It had stopped bothering to bleed or scab over, lingering on dark and open, tender enough for Crowley to flinch when he prodded. The edges smelled like fire, even from an arm’s length away. Not lying, then. This was definitely an angel’s doing.
But Aziraphale had been healing humans with far stranger and more destructive sores all week, which had served as a bit of a crash-course. He focused, murmured the Words, and channeled holy energy to sealing what holy energy had cauterized.
Crowley whimpered, biting his lip under the veil. “How’s it look, doc?” he asked, voice shaking.
“I’ve seen worse, dear boy,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley braced his hand on Aziraphale’s side, grabbing at his tunic. “Worse than the likes of me? You cruelest of messengers, why not push the blade in deeper?”
“Hush,” he said, but he smiled.
After almost a half-hour of healing, the wound closed completely. Crowley stood up, took a few unsteady steps, then bounded back in glee.
“Thank you,” he said, and grabbed Aziraphale’s hands. “These are strange times for us all, but I had a feeling you would understand. You’ve always been the one with an actual head on your shoulders, out of that lot.”
“Well, you’re welcome, but I still wouldn’t recommend making a habit of needing me. We’re headed away from El-Aei, at present.”
Crowley cracked a lazy grin. “Keeping busy till the end?”
“Keeping my word. And learning, a bit.”
Aziraphale thought about the honeyed warmth that had poured down his spine when Mahway had clasped him. That was a lesson indeed. Kindness, even delivered by an enemy, could eternally knit together what celestial magic had only begun to heal.
“Um, good luck,” he said. Now his voice had gone to trembling. One couldn’t be certain what strayed too far from company policy, but he was definitely dancing on that line, thin as the head of a pin. “With Enoch, and saving the humans, and such.”
His fingers darted forward, and before he could convince himself not to, he had lifted Crowley’s veil off his face, placed it back on his shoulders, and stood staring into unblinking yellow eyes.
“Uh, yeah,” Crowley said, eloquently.
Aziraphale leaned up and pressed their lips together.
There was a terrible heart-stopping moment where Crowley was still above him. He knew they had both been keen or the entire wedding mess wouldn’t have happened. Yet Aziraphale kissed him once, almost melting inside, and hesitated. It could have been a year, waiting for an answer. Then they breathed out together, and wonder of wonders, Crowley followed him forward. His mouth was warm and a little sticky, and his tongue didn’t need to obey the laws of man. It felt lovely and curious and incredible, just as Crowley had always been. Aziraphale interlaced his fingers at the back of the demon’s neck, in his soft dark hair, as they parted. He noticed he’d been hovering half a foot off the ground and blushed, descending quickly.
“Well, good-bye then,” Aziraphale said.
Neither of them moved.
“Yes, sure, I’ll be seeing you,” said Crowley, and rubbed at his nape, where he had touched him.
They set off back to their respective travelling companions, and continued in opposite directions.
“Good thing your young man was there or we’d have been in a bad way,” Enoch told Crowley as they left.
Crowley scoffed. “I’d hardly call us young.”
Then he turned back.
“Our arrangement,” he yelled toward Aziraphale, even though both could hear perfectly fine from rather far away. “Have you given it a thought?"
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, and smiled. He’d been thinking a lot lately, although at present most of his brain was still somewhere back on the road, lost in the kiss.
“You mean more than…”
Aziraphale nodded. "We’ll talk at El-Aei. After we know.”
“After we know,” Crowley said, like the words were their own blessing, or whatever the demonic equivalent happened to be. He waved as they headed off.
“Where are we going, exactly?” Mahway asked. His smile had turned conspiratorial. He seemed to be under the impression that the previous display amounted to a hidden stash of candy in the drab cubicle of Aziraphale’s life.
“Toward Galilee,” Aziraphale said. He could turn breathing on and off at will, but at present, he was failing utterly to keep his cheeks from burning. “We’ll help humans along the way, of course, but now that we’re done with the stops from the caravan, I have something to show you.”
And he had a book to install in its proper home, the one he’d wheedled out of the priests, currently wrapped in parchment and nestled in his pack. Whatever awaited Enoch and Crowley at El-Aei, the prophet’s truths would not be wasted.
Aziraphale had lived for millennia, but he didn’t particularly feel it. Up in heaven, one could engage in a round of bland small talk with fellow angel, fall into a habitual rhythm of “of course” and “oh yes” and “praise the Lord”, forget to pay attention, and only then realize the conversation had stretched for as long as there had been time.
The war had barely touched him. His brothers had fallen, but he didn’t recognize most apart from Lucifer, who he’d always privately considered a bit of a twat. Aziraphale had defended the gates of heaven against intruders. They’d won, of course. The disobedient were sealed away in Hell, and the whole plan for the creation of the earth was announced. Still, all everyone could talk about was the Great War. That got just as boring just as quickly, save the paranoid focus on who would or would not fall now that there was such an option. Before he could blink the world was there.
1 He wasn’t really given to blinking in those days. Too many eyes to work with.
Afterwards he’d been sent down to guard Eden. Standing around in front of gates with flaming swords seemed to be the sole angelic professional duties. At first, facing the crawl of night to day from beneath the firmament rather than above had been existentially terrifying. Then, he acclimated. Multi-century human lifetimes rushed by, travelling about, returning to Mount Hermon, foiling demons.
Everything was different, after the Watchers founded El-Aei. And everything was different now, with Mahway.
He’d never traveled with a companion for more than a week. Mostly he'd been with Shamsiel, who might have looked the word agreeable up in the dictionary and patterned his personality on the definition.
Half a month was such a short amount of days to wait before a cataclysmic flood. But each brought new challenges and beauties and heartbreaks, with the nephil bounding around desperately trying to help. At night he slept like a stone, and Aziraphale sat by his side and read, keeping an eye out for mobs.
Eventually it seemed to him, despite all reason and evidence to the contrary, that he’d never spent this much time with anyone, ever.
Sometimes he forgot that Mahway had shed an ocean of blood, watching his companion climbing around the mountains like a giddy boy. Sometimes when he drove away bandits from human encampments he remembered quite vividly.
Mahway was a ruthless, devastating fighter with an encyclopedic knowledge of sun-signs and portents, but he could barely cook or read a map. He said he didn’t consider himself a man, probably because no one had ever referred to him as such, but Aziraphale privately thought that bundle of contradictions and reckless bravery was human to the core.
Near the shores of Galilee, they sat on a hill bursting with lilies and watched fishermen haul their catches to the rocky beach. Yesterday, Mahway had pulled a capsized boat from the water, one hand grasping the bow, the other the hapless passenger. But today no heroics were needed, and instead they shared a handful of dates.
When clouds gathered in the distance, the fishermen, hedging their bets, toddled off with the day’s bounty. Mahway and Aziraphale crept closer. The air was sticky and smothering, the water warm as it slipped over their feet.
Mahway shed his rags and walked out into the blue. He washed days of grime and dust from his massive bowed shoulders, curved like an angel and muscled like a human. The white bone stubs at the end flexed. Even though he’d said they didn’t hurt unless directly touched, Aziraphale felt the ghost of his own wings smart sympathetically.
It was always strange to read his own name in Celestial, part of the invocation tattooed up Mahway’s arm. It was hard not to stare. He wondered if, knowing what he knew now, he would have made the promise all those years ago. Most of the time that he could have drawn on Aziraphale’s protection, Mahway truly had been a monster. But here he gazed up at the sun, the thick line of his neck dark against the hazy gray-blue sky. When he looked back, his features, angular and heavy enough to be the world’s most murderous male model, wore their calm smile askew like an ill-fitting tunic.
Aziraphale waved. Mahway came in from the shore, what little he still wore soaked and clinging to his muscled thighs, seeming to tower over the horizon as he drew closer. He shook water out of his tangled black hair, threw his rags around his neck, and sat beside the angel. They watched the sky darken.
Mahway chose a small flat rock with an edge on the end, and skipped it across the white foam. Aziraphale tried his hand, and his pebble leapfrogged out into the sea past eyesight.
“That’s cheating,” Mahway said.
Aziraphale smiled and skipped another. “The thing that helps with living on earth, I've found, is taking your harmless pleasures where you can get them.”
“And that’s how I happened.”
“You aren’t what many would call harmless.”
Mahway shrugged. “Near enough, nowadays. Sometimes I still want to menace the humans, if only so they’ll be the ones running away.”
“But you don’t, that’s the point of it, see. I told you that you could be good, and you have been, you are. Every living thing has a choice.”
“No,” Aziraphale said, voice becoming strained. “Crowley, all demons, my brothers, we aren’t living. Living means being able to, you know, not live. We, um, we all...exist.”
“But the Watchers had a choice,” Mahway said. “They made the wrong one.”
“They didn’t have orders. The communication system for Up There right now, it’s a bit bollocksed. I think Crowley has orders, too, but I hope they’re to stop the flood. He seems invested in Enoch and his family, as much as such connections can be possible. And he doesn't usually lie, which happens to be a rare trait in his lot.”
Aziraphale swallowed and stared out at the sea, mouth drawn tight.
“Never mind,” Mahway said.
“Even though I...enjoy his company, I can’t be sure if it’s alright. He is the least evil demon I’ve ever met, but that doesn’t make him not a demon.”
Mahway grimaced. “Just like the least evil of the Nephilim.”
Aziraphale chased his hand and covered it. “You don’t serve hell, Mahway. You strayed from the path, because you’re human, or, part human.”
“I used to serve war,” Mahway said. Maybe it was Aziraphale's imagination, but he almost pronounced it with a capital letter. His huge hand trembled in his grasp. “Followed only greed and glory. Then starting out with you, I threw myself after charity like it was another army to conquer. I’m still not sure I’ve got anything right, and there’s too little time left.”
As if to illustrate his point, it began to rain.
“Then...don’t think about the time?” Aziraphale tried. “Let’s visit my cave, and relax for a few days. You have already done so much, and even the Almighty needed rest.”
He stood up, and Mahway took his hand, rose to his feet. Together they walked through the forest. The patter of raindrops on the canopy echoed as Aziraphale pulled them deeper into the wood, over huge boulders. The air was perfumed with old water and new, mixing with the bite of bitter karob and brined olive on the wind. Brush bit at their ankles and pine needles crunched underfoot.
The cave yawned open from the earth, protected by a hoary basalt outcropping. Aziraphale had to duck to get inside and Mahway almost crawled. In the dry darkness, the rock scraped rough on his hands and the smell of minerals and parchment permeated. With a gesture his fingers blazed to fire, as lanterns hung from the ceiling flickered on.
Layers of grey, black, and sandy stone were painted above. The almost level floor was patterned, snakelike, with the river that had once carved it. No stalactites dripped from the ceiling, but soft pink veins of crystal quartz glittered in the lantern-light.
He kept the cave nearly empty of creature comforts. Almost no one would define Aziraphale as a creature, and he hadn’t seen the need to pretend he’d ever have company. A thick red rug spread over the floor, and a padded chair in the corner sat near the brightest light. He’d widened the ventilation shaft so the air didn’t get too smoky, but that was mostly to preserve the contents guarded here.
Mahway gasped, seeing the rows of books and parchments, hundreds, thousands. Aziraphale had painstakingly carved shelves from the rock and warped what little stalagmite had grown around them, a bumpy system of protection diverting any errant water droplets from his precious collection. They were organized by era, by subject, by author. But they didn’t need to be. He knew where each and every manuscript was filed.
“Every book in history that I found the chance to keep is here,” he said. “The first time I saw a man writing—I cannot begin to say how impressive it was. My kind keep our knowledge in our heads with perfect memory. But mortals preserve and deliver down their wisdom, an act of perfect humility and pride. Some of my brothers used to say writing was from the devil himself.”
“We both know most of them are fools.”
Granted, the man who started the trend was Cain, and his other contribution to human advancement was considerably gorier, so Aziraphale couldn’t blame them much for judging. And they’d come around, or at least stopped caring whether heaven wanted humans to write at this point in time.
2 The autobiography of Cain was wild. Half lies, half excuses, and all complaining, but he’d been one hell of a writer. Aziraphale treasured it most.
Aziraphale shrugged. “I know my collection isn’t much, compared to the one at El-Aei.”
“I fled El-Aei,” Mahway said, and reached out to place his hand on a column. “You are...I can feel you, here. This is your home, isn’t it?”
Aziraphale went to the shelves. Between the poetry of Seth’s wife and Methuselah's recipe book, he added the transcription of Enoch’s journey through the cosmos. The wonderful part about being an angel with a library was that there would always be a perfect space for each newest addition.
He turned back to Mahway, and his lingering question. “I don’t really have a home...but, well, yes, it is.”
“There was a saying in the city, that angels marked worse than dogs. It’s like the place breathes with you. When I was young, my mother told me that’s how heaven felt, permeated with holiness. But she can’t have known.”
“It’s love,” Aziraphale said, softly. “I can’t keep it in, all the time. And I happen to like being here a great deal more than heaven. Heaven is perfect, and beautiful, but on earth, I get to help, bless, and know different people.”
Mahway sank to his knees, and his fingers trembled over the rock. “Tell me what you remember of heaven.”
“I remember everything.”
And he did.
“...that sounds weird. And boring.”
“But you see, if heaven wasn’t perfect it wouldn’t be an eternal reward.”
“Guess I’ll never get to find out,” Mahway said. His voice was thick. “Suppose I should start asking about the other place.”
“Not my area of expertise, I’m afraid.”
Aziraphale placed his hand on Mahway’s shoulder, near the vestiges of where his wings would have been.
“My father used to talk about Eden all the time.” Mahway reached up across his chest and curled his fingers around the angel’s touch. “Why the hell would you tell a child born into a fallen world about the colors of Eden?”
“I’m sure he never meant for you to suffer the way you did,” Aziraphale said. The words tasted like cold comfort on his lips. Maybe someday, he would understand how to soothe as Mahway could, to pour out attention and acknowledgement and care as if his cup would never empty. He rather doubted it, though.
“You think that’s why you all can’t write? Because your stories would be too much for our fragile heads to take, generation after generation?” Mahway leaned back, on Aziraphale’s legs. He closed his eyes, and breathed out with force. “Tell me anyway. I never wanted to learn before. Now everything I hated doesn’t seem to matter. It only feels like you.”
Aziraphale swallowed. Over the days of their journey, they had grown comfortable casually touching, or as comfortable as either was likely to achieve. But in this moment, Mahway’s grasp burned across the back of his palm. He had often checked into the giant’s mind during battle together. Now he hovered at the edge, unwilling to dip a toe in the waters of his soul, which suddenly seemed far deeper, like how the brightest, calmest stretch of beach masked the riptide.
“There’s only one part of the story that changes,” he said.
It wasn’t as if his secret would last the week. Somehow, that made the truth harder to tell.
“I stood guard at the gates of Eden with a flaming sword. When Adam and Eve were banished, they were alone in the woods, and scared, and I just had to help them. I gave them my sword. I don’t know where it is now. Cain had it for awhile, and you remember that whole business. But I’m not an idiot, he’d just as happily have used a rock if that’s what he had in hand.”
That’s why he’d tracked down Cain, before. To find his sword again, to prevent more needless bloodshed. But Cain had already lost it. Instead, he had shown Aziraphale the draft of his life story. That night, the angel had given into fear and smuggled the manuscript away. He’d read the book, holding his breath until the end, terrified of what it named. But Aziraphale’s gift was never mentioned. He’d read it again, anyway, fifty more times.
Mahway shook his head. “And that was the first heavenly secret, given before the appointed time?”
“I’ve never done so since.”
Mahway leaned down, and pressed his face to Aziraphale’s hand, his beard scratching over the back of his palm, cupid’s bow of his lips catching on his knuckles. “Thank you,” he whispered.
The angel leaned over him, grasping at where his shoulder met his neck. “This may be justice, and what’s best for the world, but it isn’t what you deserve.”
Mahway smiled, his brown eyes crinkling at the edges. Despite heavy brows and hollowed cheeks, serenity spread across his face. “I’ve made my peace. You were the one who gave me a chance to find myself, to be more than a brute. Wherever I go, I will remember that.”
Aziraphale had never regretted a moment. Bring him back to Eden, or to the birthing tent, or to the king of the giants’ summons, and he would stumble toward the same choices, again, hold them close to his chest like his manuscripts. And if Above could not forgive him, or his brothers, what difference would it make? He had been created to protect humanity. He could not change, as humans did. He never wanted to, no matter where his weakness led.
Mahway pulled him down into an embrace, and Aziraphale gathered him in his arms, as much as he could with their size difference. He pressed his head between his shoulders. They sunk to the ground, the plush red carpet, curled around each other’s body heat. He listened to Mahway’s deep breathing. When he tried to match the rhythm, all came flooding in. The heavy condensation of the air, the warm rock of the cave, the tunic he was pressed up against that smelled of Galilee. For the first time in his existence, Aziraphale let his body slide to sleep.
In the morning it was still raining.
They ventured out, debating which way to go next. Mahway wanted to head farther inland, toward the sea. Aziraphale cautioned that human dwellings would be difficult to find around that area, and they were better back among the fishermen. The road from El-Aei stretched out near the shores of the lake. By the time they reached it, though their argument remained unresolved, the path was already occupied. Thoroughly occupied, as a matter of fact.
A line of animals, each species with their own individual pair, trundled down the road, away from the angelic city, and rather toward the village of Enoch. Heedless of their biology, cheetahs ambled as slowly as cattle, and tortoises as fast. Lion and lamb, in their doubles, walked one after another at a clipped pace, ignoring instinct. Their procession stretched to the distance, taking up the entire road. The mobile zoo sent up dust and chatter as they continued on. It looked like the initial phase of the breeding program had been wildly successful, although he doubted the parade portion was the Watchers’ doing.
“What is that?” Mahway asked.
“I haven’t a clue,” said Aziraphale, but Mahway glanced toward him with doubt in his light brown eyes. They both knew. They’d been counting the days, and there weren’t many left.
“Let’s go back to the cave. Roads are going to be messed for awhile.”
“Always the worst traffic when you need most to go on your way,” Aziraphale said. “They really ought to have a sign, or more than one lane.”
The giant slapped his hands together. “Right! Well, we don’t need to leave. Honestly, it’d just be a headache.”
They went back. Mahway browsed the collection, and Aziraphale miracled a nice bed for him. That night, Mahway tossed and turned. He awoke sweating and grasping at his face. Aziraphale, settled in the lone chair, lowered the book he was reading. This had happened once or twice before. Prophecy had a nasty little habit of refusing to leave even after one understood the warning completely. Wordlessly, the nephil put forth his hand, as if looking for anyone else in the dark. The angel crossed the cave, and knelt to trace the calluses along the top of his palm. At his touch, Mahway closed his eyes. His breathing began to even out, as if the sensation of a thumb across the tattooed lines on his wrist could push away any destructive visions.
After the giant had gone back to sleep, Aziraphale pressed his lips to the center of his huge hand, and curled the thick fingers back into a more comfortable position. He quietly moved the chair and sat down again, by his side, ready to chase back the waters.
The next day, Mahway went down to the fishermen. He brought a huge haul in for their dinner table, then while they cooked and celebrated, he fixed leaks in ten huts and tied nets with thick ropework. If they noticed that his always-frantic energy currently trended toward desperation, they didn’t mention a thing, too full of joy in their bounty.
“We will never be able to repay you,” one of the women said, pressing a white lily behind his ear, into his tangled dark hair.
Mahway took her hand between his own. “I know. But you have let me share in this evening, and that is enough.”
Back in the cave as night fell, they ate leftover fish, rubbed with marjoram and lemon rind, grilled over olive wood. Afterwards, Mahway knelt down to braid the lily through Aziraphale’s curls, around the stubborn gray strands at his temple. His hands, perfumed with oil, carded through the angel’s hair, untangling knots that had existed for centuries.
“I’m sure it looks quite ridiculous,” Aziraphale said.
Mahway pressed his lips to his cheek. “Of course not. Tomorrow, you ought to start the flight to El-Aei…”
“Yes, I think so. One never knows quite when these things begin. We can hope to see each other again soon—”
Mahway jumped back as if burned. “I don’t have any chance, I told you. Whatever your demon and the prophet can accomplish won’t be in my direction. And I do hope, I want them to succeed, so much, so that all the people we’ve met and helped are saved. But we only have tonight, and I’m trying to ask you…”
He pulled his face to Aziraphale’s, pressed their foreheads together, and thought at him so intensely as to almost be begging. After days spent pushing his mind away, when the angel opened up, the contents almost choked him. The message flew in, fast and strong.
You look beautiful, Mahway told him, whether you’re wearing flowers or dirty rags. You have taken me here, all the way to where you belong, and every inch of this cave bursts with your light. I hate that I only have the courage to ask now, like this. I was never shy before. But you could be my last, if you want me.
“I don’t really know what I want,” Aziraphale said. His voice came out deep and breathy and somehow, by the end of the sentence, they both moved in and began kissing anyway.
They were near enough to the bed that it only took a quick fumble to fall onto the sheets. The sheets were soft, but Mahway’s lips were ever softer, despite the scrape of his beard, strange and rough on Aziraphale’s cheeks. His mouth tasted like smoke and herbs and salted fish. His hands wasted no time in exploring greedily, from his waist to neck, cupping his ear. He accidentally crushed the lily in his hair and pulled away, laughing at the white petals scattered around them.
Aziraphale smiled back and nuzzled his face down the trail of stubble on Mahway’s neck. He found a tendon, thick enough to lave over in an open-mouthed kiss that made the nephil shudder. He’d never thought the smell of human sweat could be comforting, could make him ache to be closer. A flood of want cycled back between them, building in wave after wave.
You feel so fucking good like this, Mahway thought. Better than any of my dreams, knowing that it’s you, my protector. Let me see you.
Mahway ripped the tunic off his shoulders and found a line of dark moles to trace like constellations with his fingers and mouth. Every place he touched singed with sensitivity in the after. Aziraphale could hear a fervent silent prayer, echoing in his head. The text began with an ode to his dark skin, and continued on the softness of his curves, finishing with a call to worship the sensation of his carefully kept hands.
The angel generally wore his human bodies heavier than the norm, which was, more than a sign of wealth, just a nice layer to keep warm during cold desert nights. He’d never imagined his flesh handled this way, the giant’s huge palms spread over his thighs and arse, tearing at his clothes. He’d never meant to be desired.
Mahway took his wrist and pressed his hand down beneath his underclothes, and Aziraphale gasped. He’d always assumed there would be a jutting shape to match his hulking muscles and heavy masculine looks. But what he felt was wet and soft and empty, and slid over his fingers.
“I thought you would…” Mahway whispered. He pushed his hips forward, riding Aziraphale’s palm, eyes darkening.
“Is that...usual?” Aziraphale asked. “After the wedding, you were different.”
Mahway shook his head, breath coming out in a gasp. “No, I thought you would want...you remember that night?”
Aziraphale used the hand that wasn’t currently down his clothes to cover his own face, still embarrassed after everything. “Vividly. You had, er, the other equipment, then. Not that this isn’t lovely,” he said, and tried crooking his fingers.
Mahway laughed and pulled off. “Sorry, got that mixed up. I’m more comfortable with a prick anyway, and I guess tonight would be better not worrying about what a three-quarters nephilim ends up like.”
“Speaking of equipment, I should get ready down there…” Aziraphale pulled Mahway’s hand between his legs. For the first time, he concentrated, gave as much of an effort as he could muster. Even calloused fingers stroking empty skin felt incredible, and when there was something to touch, the sensation absolutely couldn’t compare. “Oh goodness,” he said, almost whimpering, and thrust into his grip. “Oh, oh...”
Humans went around with these, in perpetuity? No wonder they were insatiable, ever-distracted idiots. Suddenly the past forty years made all too much sense. There was no thinking properly, in the moment. If chance put a mistake in front of him right now that involved Mahway’s teeth worrying at his lip and his thumb swiping over the crown of his prick, he’d have made it a hundred thousand times.
As he was stroking him, Mahway configured his downstairs to match. When they pushed together, he melted into the giant’s massive arms, pulling him closer for warmth and rutting desperately against the ridge of muscles on his hip. He grabbed for his back, and Mahway groaned as his scrambling fingers almost touched the bone of a stub.
“Here, let me,” he said, and flipped them over. He kissed down Aziraphale’s chest, pausing to savor every trail of hair and patch of dimples. He ran his tongue over the rolls around his belly, then lower, sucking at the crease of hip and thigh. When he pulled away to look up, Aziraphale marveled at the purple mark blooming where he’d bitten, outlining too-sharp teeth. His heavy brown eyes asked for permission, and his open mind spoke to a dozen creative, lurid plans, summoned from memory and fantasy. The angel rose to his elbows and nodded, tangling a hand in the giant’s already-wild hair. Mahway hummed appreciatively and dipped down to keep every single promise. At the attentions of his mouth, unable to hold steady, Aziraphale threw back his head and his wings unfurled.
Around 1605, a man who had many names but called himself Marisi began to have strange dreams every time he slept in his art studio. For a fortnight, between balls and duels and hobnobbing amongst the Roman elite, he painted like a man possessed. As possessions went, this was a mild case, with no vomiting, speaking in tongues, or swiveling limbs involved. But the images still burned at his head and his hands until he put them to canvas.
Upon seeing his latest draft, his partner, Prospero Orsi, asked him if they’d received a new commission, and if he’d left him out of it, the dick. “Any religious twaddle sells fine enough,” Marisi told him.
“Uh-huh,” said Orsi. “What is it?”
“Jacob wrestling the angel,” said Marisi, proudly.
Orsi frowned and leaned in. “I know you’re very clever, M, but no one is going to think they are wrestling.”
“The market’s hot for holy ecstasy these days. I shall get a Cardinal to buy it.”
“Those dimensions are terrible.” Orsi pointed from the two figures, one significantly larger than the other, to the white growths on the back of Jacob’s shoulders. “And what are these?” Keeping a careful distance from the wet paint, he traced the black writing on the larger figure’s arm. It ended around his dark-skinned hand, clenched on the detailed sheets. “Not to mention the body markings, like a savage. This is beyond experimental.”
Marisi shrugged. “If you don’t like it you don’t need to take any of the profits.”
Not that long after, as tended to befall the type with more talent than good sense, he was run out of the city on murder charges and died ignobly in exile. During the next few generations, Marisi’s remaining work gained acclaim, attached to the name of his hometown. Collectors and historians would search out anything mildly related to his genius. But out of all the lost Caravaggios, one alone would definitely never be found.
Aziraphale’s wings stretched out, almost bumping the roof of the cave. He groaned and tried to fold them in, which had never been a problem before, but currently felt like crunching one too many pieces of parchment into an overstuffed pack. Mahway paused in his ventures and looked up at him with barely-concealed fascination. Which was ridiculous, since Mahway had seen his wings dozens of times, mostly while he’d been defending him from angry humans.
“Does it feel better this way?” Mahway asked.
He ducked his face beneath one, breathing out a shaking gasp. “I don’t know. They won’t go back.”
Mahway reached out, and ruffled his hand down a line of pinion feathers. His fingers slid through an unkempt patch, using a preening motion. Aziraphale shuddered at the soothing sensation. Not as intense as his new cock being touched, yet still unbearably intimate.
The giant’s hand crawled up his back, to the little underwing feathers at the base. He continued gently rubbing, then bent down to envelop the head of his cock once more. One after another was almost too much. He could only brace himself on Mahway’s huge shoulders, curled around and over him. When he tried to still his hips, so as not to choke his friend, his wings twitched instead, sending up a gust of air.
His fingernails dug into the dark, scarred skin on Mahway’s back, accidentally, and then with vigor, because Mahway liked that very much. He could tell by the groan around his prick, the tangle of live-wire nerves and heated thoughts. He could definitely tell when Mahway licked a broad stripe down the shaft in gratitude.
He used his grip on his hair to pull him up for a kiss, their noses bumping together. Mahway sucked on his tongue, as fervent as he had been with his cock, and Aziraphale let his fingers carve red indents down overcurved shoulders. He pulled Mahway in by his hips. He had to shift almost into his lap to fit one hand around them both. The other anchored on his arse, which seemed to be made entirely of muscle.
The fact that this was Aziraphale’s first experience was likely obvious. But he had more data to go on, and he was determined to track every burst of pleasure coming in from their connection. Technically speaking, since he had perfect access to his partner’s mind, he didn’t need to catalog Mahway’s every tremble and panting gasp as well. Somehow, that further proof, true visual and visceral confirmation that his touches were not unwelcome, enhanced things tremendously. Aziraphale would ever be a collector at heart.
The air in the cave was heavy with moisture, and under the warm cradle of wings, breath fogged between them. Aziraphale stroked until his wrist started to cramp. Mahway kept kissing him like he was trying to devour him whole. He could get a nice handful of feathers from this position, and abused that advantage heartily. His head was filled with visions of Aziraphale on his cock, the heat of squeezing not quite flesh around him.
“I could be persuaded,” Aziraphale said.
The images stopped, and Mahway drew back. “I didn’t mean—whatever you like is fine, it’s great, I wasn’t trying to pressure you.”
If only Aziraphale had known a single thing he liked beyond being kissed and having his prick pampered, he’d have a useful contribution to make. But he had no experience and Mahway had no time. Cocooned in his library, in his friend’s arms, ancient squeamishness faded into curiosity. There was little he wouldn’t give at least the old college try tonight.
He kissed the stubble underneath Mahway’s jaw and leaned to whisper in his ear. “Pressure? Perish the thought. You have been gentle and giving, darling. And that is why, Mr. King of the Giants, I would like for you to have your way with me.”
Mahway’s hips stuttered up, pressing at his arse. “Oh fuck.”
He didn’t know what Mahway wanted to use, and he didn’t want to ruin the moment by asking, so he created a line up of olive oil, honey, grape-seed oil, clove oil, and shredded purple yam.
1 The last two were Eastern specialties. They really did carry every substance on earth at the El-Aei markets.
“Honey, really?” the giant asked. He laughed and reached for the olive oil. “How much of that scroll collection is just unrealistic filth?”
“I only wanted you to have options—ah, Mahway, that feels—and for your information I gave most of my books of that nature to the library at—another finger, gnh, you’re so deep in there—at El-Aei, but all human creations are sacred—what is that, how, what are you doing to me?”
His voice had turned into a wail. Mahway kept a steadying palm on his back, between his wings, while his other hand practiced what must have been alchemy below. Aziraphale managed some of the loosening up himself, using his control over the body he was in, but the onslaught of sensations was what carried him through. He laid his head on Mahway’s shoulder, closed his eyes. He sunk into the feeling, until his feathers began to puff up in pleasure and he had to shake his wings out.
That was the best part, he thought, as Mahway adjusted their positions and lined himself up. The ever-present multitude of concerns that had long ago become background noise in his head, muted for a moment. No guessing the correct course of action, no worrying over tomorrow, which at present was rather a lot of tomorrow to worry over. When he braced his knees on Mahway’s muscled thighs and sunk down close, time stopped rolling forward.
In that crystal moment, lit by firelight, they breathed together, mouths ghosting over each other in an incomplete kiss. His body was screaming at him to move, but all he could do was stare, like he’d never seen Mahway’s face before. Like they were two desires calling for each other across the black, heedless of history or meaning.
After a minute the spell was broken and the angel oriented himself: he traced the puffy bag under Mahway’s eye, the jut of his cheekbone, where his sideburns met his beard. He pressed his thumb to the divot in the center of his plush lips, and Mahway looked up, eyes darker than they’d ever been, and moved.
The feeling of rising totally on Mahway’s hips, bouyed by his own wings, undid any composure he had managed to retain. He had seen Mahway throw men down, and now all that fierce divine strength roiled beneath him. Pushed into him, aimed for the place his fingers had previously abused. He stuttered a moan past Mahway’s lips, and was rewarded with another moment like the last, and another, world without end. The giant had been cautious, but every thrust, Aziraphale gripped his shoulder harder, nails scratching. So Mahway fucked him as a king fucked his conquest, and it should have felt less like love.
Aziraphale reached down and touched himself. One steadying arm around his neck, one wing crooked to shield them from everything else. Still it was all he could do to hang on. He was so sensitive that even his own fingers burned. Every time he tried to catch a breath, Mahway did something incredible, like bite at his neck or change the angle. They moved together, faster and faster. The rhythm ended up totally off between them since Mahway pushed his hips up punishingly hard and all Aziraphale could do was hang on. The giant was groaning and grunting quite a bit. His thoughts had devolved to nonsense, exertion, and white noise.
Everything inside clenched up, and the angel felt the build of warmth, from his tingling fingertips to his chest flushing over brown-pink. He drew his hand around himself, thrust the head of his prick against the absurd muscles on Mahway’s belly, and let his vision shatter into light.
When he regained his senses, Mahway shuddered beneath him. Aziraphale’s eyes had somehow become wet with tears, and he was too weak to control himself. No thoughts tumbled through his head, but he gave a hiccupy sob and jolted forward, pressing them chest to chest, their mingled sweat and fluids caught between. If he’d been in control enough for a miracle, Aziraphale would have sent himself away. He wanted to reconstitute near the shores of Galilee, cleaned and dressed and panicking. Instead, he stayed where he was, heart thudding like thunder.
“It’s okay, it’s…” Mahway’s voice was a ragged gasp. He scrambled to disentangle them, placing Aziraphale down on the bed. The nephil hovered over him like a worried nurse, his trembling sweaty hand touching his cheek.
Almost beyond his control, Aziraphale saw himself grab Mahway’s arm and press kiss after kiss to the writing there, lips over his own name in Celestial.
“It’s okay,” he said back, over and over again, between mapping the tattoo with his mouth. He was still a bit teary-eyed, but the wave had broken. “It’s amazing. You could stand to show me more. If you like.”
Mahway laughed, and kissed him.
They spent a long night. He took his turn on Mahway’s body next, which involved a terribly awkward quest to find the position that could accommodate their heights. Then they abused his plush chair together. A few hours before sunrise, they lay back on the ruined sheets. He ached in places he didn’t even have the human name for, but the night was quiet and warm. As Mahway stroked over the covert feathers near his shoulder, he gave him a multitude of sighs.
2 That was another revelation, that Aziraphale, who winced at the sight of a speck of dirt, could happily wallow in sweat and heaven hopefully never knew what else. He’d had enough energy to clean up at several points, but didn’t bother.
Mahway raised his arm up, and spoke in the angelic language. The mark blazed to life, glowing between them, and his voice overlapped and echoed.
“I don’t think the communication works both ways,” he said. “But I’ll let you know if—if anything unexpected happens. If you want to hear from me.”
Aziraphale leaned in, kissed the bridge of his nose. “How could I not?”
Mahway closed his eyes, breathed out another whispered Word, how he’d learned to turn the summons off. Then he smiled. “I have never thanked God for it before.”
“Well, the cause was your parents, mostly.”
He pulled Aziraphale in by the waist. “They didn’t make you answer me.”
Their lips met. Aziraphale didn’t think he’d ever get tired of kissing him, even though he knew the vanishing likelihood he’d be able to test that hypothesis. He slipped into Mahway’s mind again, and found him mostly hungry and thirsty. Well, he did have human, er, half-human needs.
Aziraphale sat up, stretching and groaning. With a wave of his hand, he produced a goblet of beer and a few nice almond cakes.
“Ugh, now that’s sexy,” Mahway said, and drank deeply. Once he’d gorged himself, he admired the craftsmanship of the goblet. Aziraphale averted his gaze; he hadn’t meant to make it pure silver, nor for the gems to be smoky topaz, matching Mahway’s eyes.
“Needs something more than beer,” Mahway said. “I mean, thicker. Darker. I don’t know, this type never looks right.”
“I’m sure mortals will figure a new substance out eventually,” Aziraphale said, and stifled a yawn. How odd, these new side effects from thoroughly overusing his body.
Mahway put the goblet by the bed and lay back down, on his side, arms cushioning his propped up head. “Wake me in the morning, okay? Before you leave.”
“And...Aziraphale?” his voice remained deep, but in that moment, he sounded almost young. “You’ve done so much for me. When I learned about the prophecy, I kept thinking about having no chance at life, or to fix things. I know you made the promise for my parents, not for me, I mean, I wasn’t born yet. But it’s between us, now.”
The angel reached out, took his hand, thumbed over the back of his palm, and listened.
“I could not ask for more,” Mahway said. “So I won’t. Consider it fulfilled.”
Aziraphale nodded. “Alright, then. If that’s how you want things to be.”
Mahway smiled gratefully. In no time, he had closed his eyes, and began to drift to sleep. For one last night, Aziraphale watched him.
In 1606, Marisi’s illustrious career in Rome ended when he semi-accidentally stabbed a man more socially important than he in the crotch. Hiding at Orsini’s friend’s friend’s house, he frantically sent those he trusted back to his studio, desperate to gather enough money to flee.
He’d taken a blow during the fight, currently sported a greenish mark on his forehead like a bruised apple, and was halfway sick besides. He sweated and tossed in a spare bed, not nearly delirious enough. Few of the luminaries that had begged for his work even inquired about where he was squatting, and even fewer felt inclined to help. One never knew their friends until one was wanted for murder.
So when his former neighbor, who owned the bookseller upstairs from his art studio, dropped by with food and money, Marisi began to cry.
“Angelo, you shouldn’t have come,” he said, hiding his face in his hands. “Weren’t you the one who always told me off for street fighting? Now I am ruined!”
“That doesn’t matter, signor,” said Angelo.
He was a dowdy older man, and Marisi had often made fun of him, trying to get his models to laugh. Now he leaned into his touch, which seemed to spirit away the pain and confusion clouding his head.
“Take anything as thanks,” Marisi said, and spread his hands wide, to the half-finished works he had holed up with him. “You can sell these for a fortune after they have executed me.”
“We’ll make sure that doesn’t happen,” Angelo said. “And I don’t need—”
Then his eyes fell to the most completed painting.
“Is this one alright?” Angelo asked.
“Alright? You’re the only one who ever liked it.”
Angelo laughed, a bitter coughing bark that Marisi had never heard before. “This still isn’t a fair price.”
He added another bag of gold to his gift.
“My friend, we don’t choose the price in this world,” Marisi said. He rubbed the bruise on his temple, which smarted when touched. “We only pay it.”
But Marisi was smuggled out to Naples later, and escaped his death sentence for a few years. Angelo, as he called himself back then, had kept the strange painting.
From the black canvas, points of light dripped over the muscled back of the larger figure, following the trail of his tangled dark hair. His arms were braced behind him, fingers curled into the barely-visible crumpled pattern of the sheets. Two bright stubs warped from huge shoulders. Brown flesh was built up around them as if the artist had torn holes in the canvas and filled the gaps with shadows. Every tendon stood gleaming and tensed. On the right arm, carved grooves of ink faded into the pervading darkness.
Astride him was the angel. White-yellow wings spread out from his form, each feather carefully textured, taking up the entire top half of the piece. He leaned away from the larger man, his belly waxing full between them. His chubby arms were thrown up, hiding his eyes and face. Beneath you could see frizzed grayed curls like a halo, a soft jaw and stretched neck. In the center of the painting, the bowed red mouth seemed to be caught in movement, shaping a word or a sigh forever. Their frozen dance moved across the canvas, immediate as life.
Centuries passed. The masterpiece remained with Aziraphale, through name-changes and the move across the Channel. Currently, his lost Caravaggio sat in the back of his shop, behind old signs and stacks of rare books. Not once did he take it out. Yet despite the creeping of the years, the painting never managed to gather a speck of dust.
Notes: all the substances Aziraphale creates are real historical lubricants, although a few of them are not very safe/comfortable. Caravaggio’s life was indeed a hot mess. It is almost impossible to write a sex scene with an angel and not devolve to wing porn.
Despite his venerable history, Crowley’s wisdom of ages past happened to be fairly simple and standard-issue. For example, free will was best gently massaged toward sin rather than blunt-force hurdled at it, since a human suddenly reaching the limits of their morality was just as likely to run off and repent as to settle into utter iniquity. Naps warmed by the sun were definitely the highest grade possible. Etc.
One of those wisdoms concerned the fine line between optimism and idiocy.
Before meeting with the other group, Crowley had privately doubted they would make it to El-Aei in time. Thinking about stopping was the closest to relief he could imagine, since every limping step stabbed into the gash on his side. He’d even said to himself that maybe things would be alright. If Enoch had a role to play, the show could come to him rather than the other way round. If the flood did occur, the diversity of Noah’s current offspring meant he’d have an easier time afterwards than he’d previously calculated. There were always at least a couple weak, greedy individuals among any gathering.
Then Aziraphale had healed him completely, the tingling aftertaste of his magic sticking around like a fermented drink at the back of Crowley’s throat. He’d kissed him, and smiled with those crinkled dark eyes, and said there was a possibility…
And suddenly Crowley wanted more than anything to pull off the rescue mission of the millennium. Hell said saving the humans would make them easier to corrupt. Enoch desperately fought against a rapidly disconnecting body. And Aziraphale thought it noble. Aziraphale seemed proud of him, which frankly was more of a miracle than him sealing the wound.
It would work, Crowley had decided. They would protect the non-Noahide mortals. He’d meet everyone at El-Aei. Aziraphale would vouch for him against any angry angel-denizens. They’d return Enoch's walking corpse safe to his village for celebrations and/or a funeral.
Then, before anything crazy could go down at the party, he’d discreetly take Aziraphale by the arm to talk in private. He no longer kept even a facsimile of a house in the area, but he was creative enough. Crowley imagined sneaking aboard the ridiculous ship Noah had been commanded to build, sequestering Aziraphale away. Then they could be alone together, deep in the belly of the ark, in some small unfinished cot where no one would find them for days.
He’d never thought he would be excited to approach the angelic city. But the moment he saw the white wall of El-Aei in the distance, all three chambers of his heart lifted.
“The place didn’t look this massive when I flew above the earth in my dream,” Enoch said.
“City would have to be pretty big to sink beneath six burning mountains, right? Maybe they’re, you know, smaller mountains. Six burning hills doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, though.”
“They were as tall as that one,” Enoch said, pointing to the slope of Mount Hermon. “Don’t contradict or question me when I start communing. We’re taking enough risks even showing up here.”
“But we aren’t communing with anyone yet.”
Enoch glared, probably thinking that if Crowley weren’t keeping him stocked and sane, he’d tell him to go commune with himself. As ever, his moods oscillated between a floating trance and a scowling grumble. But the mantle that wore them was almost unrecognizable. Years of vigorous substance abuse had been stripped from his flesh, leaving behind newly smooth skin and a crop of nut brown hair. They had stopped telling people who he was. Even those that had come to him for advice before didn’t believe them.
Crowley lowered his veil as they passed by the fields. But the students and laborers paid them no mind when they walked by, too busy with their duties and conversations. A piece of parchment nailed to a tree near the shacks read LOST: TWO PAIRS OF EVERY CREATURE IN THE WORLD. IF FOUND PLEASE RETURN TO ZAQIEL OR DEPARTMENT OF ANIMAL HUSBANDRY.
At the gates, the angel Yeqon stepped forward, Samyaza behind him. Their wings were out, and they were clothed in golden silk robes, hair braided, artful makeup darkening their eyelids and lips. In his shining regal beauty, Samyaza could have been an idol. The same fineries on Yeqon resembled a costume of his superior, one that lurked in the bottom-bin of Halloween stores with scratchy cloth and chipped plastic for the shiny bits.
“Welcome, prophet of God,” Samyaza said. He looked down on them through lapis-lined lashes. “We are honored by your presence. Demon, your kind are not to pass through these gates.”
Crowley rolled his eyes. There was still a part of him that remained faintly resentful of Samyaza for standing him up over an entire half-century. He had been excited to see the leader of the Watchers looking as haggard and haunted as his prospects. The glowing splendor in front of him was not nearly as personally satisfying.
Enoch brushed away Samyaza’s offered hand. “I’m not here to play guest, holy one.”
“We know there must be a grave cause for your visit,” Samyaza said. “There are rumors of a divine cleansing. I want you to know that the Watchers make no plans to use war or magic, even against the mortals that will never accept our presence. Here we hold humanity sacred, most of all.”
“Your corruption is what brought this threat upon the world,” Enoch said. “Your children and your experiments are against the Plan. You greet me dressed as kings, but you are subjects of heaven. Ask my mercy now.”
“Mercy, wise one,” Yeqon said, lowering to his knees. Samyaza glared at him, and Crowley stifled a laugh.
“Tell Him we only meant to help! Do not let them destroy us without a word of warning, a chance—”
Enoch shrugged. “Alright then.”
“Alright?” Crowley asked. “Just like that?”
“I came here to try to fix this. The Nephilim are doomed, that’s for absolute certain, but the Watchers still have to answer for their sins, and they have resources we might need.”
“I shall begin a circle around Mount Hermon,” Yeqon said. “Gather the Host and summon the voice of the Almighty. Then you can make our case.”
“I came here for humanity,” Enoch said. “If your lot get saved in the bargain that’s nice too, but it won’t be my first request.”
Crowley tapped him on the shoulder. “You should ask for cars. We’ve got way too long to go before cars—”
“Demon, the activated circle will disincorporate you,” Samyaza said. “You have been cast out, never to know the music of heaven again, and even the reflected presence of Above shall burn your ears to dust.”
1 This wasn’t strictly correct. The music of hell was even more wide-ranging, as it included almost all of the music of heaven, plus rap and country.
“Glass houses,” Crowley muttered.
“We’ve got one of those,” said Yeqon.
Samyaza pointed him away. “Go and start the bloody circle.”
Enoch turned to Crowley. “I’ll be fine now. I should probably be sober for this part. Thank you, my friend, for bringing me here.”
“Don’t try sending me away now, you shit,” said Crowley. He knew God hadn’t been showing up properly for the Watchers for a good long while, and if there were further complications, Enoch might need him. They’d meet at El-Aei, Aziraphale had said. He was done with fleeing.
Yeqon leapt into the sky, singing faintly. his tune meandered through the city, and angel after angel swept up on the wind. They flocked together, the flapping of their massive white wings and hum of their unearthly song crackling through the air.
Crowley wrinkled his nose as the notes pounded into his head. Thank Satan they were far enough away not to send him into retching.
The congregation circled toward the mountain. Their spiraled dance solidified as hand joined hand.
“Only approach the summit when you are called, prophet,” Samyaza said. “There will be an earthquake beforehand.”
Then he rose to take his place at the front of the chain, and guide the group up the mountain. They gathered, a white cloud of wings about the snow-tipped heights of the rolling range. The song was almost deafening, echoing across the valley, and under its might the earth began to tremble. Fissures crawled toward the gates. Crowley steadied Enoch as the ground wobbled beneath them.
Suddenly, Enoch’s eyes rolled back in his head. Crowley collapsed under his limp, cold body, letting his wings push out to shield them both.
“Stay with me, old man,” he said.
“Just as I thought, a day before the appointed time,” said a laughing voice. “Can’t you manage anything, Crawley?”
Crowley turned back. An angel was descending, his short inky hair floating on the breeze, glittering green tunic unlike anything in El-Aei.
“All can be rectified, of course,” said Gabriel.
“Piss off,” said Crowley, who could sound indignant but could not help his fingers twitching where they were clutched at Enoch’s shoulders. His self-preservation instincts had withstood the Watchers’ flight, but the archangel had them scrambling for cover. Perhaps he’d cower in one of the sheds, or bury himself in the crop fields.
“When it came to pass that you were the one the prophet had chosen for the pilgrimage, I was prepared to descend and take over. But then I thought, it seems poetic, doesn’t it? The original sin shepherding the scribe of righteousness to the final end for the men he hath led astray.”
“We came here to prevent the flood. After everything he endured, he deserves to be heard out. It may be your message, but he’s more than a messenger. Your boss listens to him, Gabriel. This isn’t over yet.”
“Charming, how you keep talking, as if you could do anything at this point,” Gabriel said. He thrust his hand forward.
Crowley thought the song of the angels could not get any louder, and yet it did, resounding against the fields and hills. As the hum that had become a rumble became a roar, Enoch rose to his feet, his eyes clearing. His skin shone golden, wrinkles, pockmarks, and veins smoothing into nothingness.
“Holy one,” he said, but even he sounded afraid, looking down at the magic currently crawling over his wrists and fingers. “I must speak to the Almighty. I must tell Him of this world, the men and women who have come to me for help, the tribes with their own dances and foods and sacred texts. I promised my grandson and my people, and the angels here, that I would take this mantle.”
“He shall not speak until you do,” Gabriel said.
Enoch nodded, tears in his shining golden eyes. As he bowed his head and prayed, his feet left the ground, body drawn toward the sky like a marionette. Though he looked like barely more than a boy now, his voice was deep with wisdom and grief.
“My God and the God of my fathers, there is no world left for me but this, no bright future but the children You wish to destroy for the crimes they only might commit. The humans that defiled Your creation did so in ignorance, lead by the Watchers You abandoned. The Nephilim must die, but there are other ways for the rest to pay their price.”
“The Nephilim are dying at this very moment,” Gabriel snapped. “That was never a question. Are you finished?”
“I will not stop praying before I have an answer,” Enoch said. He kicked his heels against the wind, but still it drew him up. He squirmed, pinned in the air between the cloud of angels at Mount Hermon and the city spread below.
Gabriel’s annoyance melted to a majestic smile, and he took to the sky, flying behind. He placed his hand over Enoch’s head.
“You are and have always been the answer. Scribe of righteousness, the path you must take has been prepared for you.”
Crowley leapt up, heading toward them. He’d be dust in the air in seconds, but he couldn’t let Enoch go without a fight.
“I have been young, but now I am old!” Enoch yelled. “I never asked for this glory, I just wanted—”
Gabriel looked down at Crowley and shook his head. The palm hovering above Enoch opened, huge eye across his skin blazing with flaming tears. Enoch moaned, and contorted in the air, collapsing over the angel’s outstretched arm, magic holding his form fast. Light poured from his skin, from under his grimy tunic. His ancient, hoarse scream pierced the chanting of the Watchers.
Two white wings erupted from his back.
Without perfect control of his human body, Crowley would have pissed himself.
In the beginning, far before the Great War, he remembered sitting in the heavenly throne room, watching the creation of his brothers. Instant after instant they’d appeared, draped in robes of blushing dawn, blessing and rejoicing in their new existence.
The amount of holiness it took, stuffed up the cold corpse of the prophet, was profoundly ugly. Like a butterfly shedding its dry dark cocoon, the fire-kissed angel burst forth from what had been Enoch, wet with dew, scraps of molted flesh still clinging to his shoulders and feet. By the time he emerged completely, the rest had cracked and fallen, vanishing as it peeled away.
The reborn Enoch radiated light and heat like a miniature star. His skin remained golden, but now shone orange and red as well, tongues of ember moving over the surface of his body like clouds. Underneath, where there had been veins, blue sparks swirled, licking at his fingertips. Crackling lightning seared over thick eyelashes, and when he opened his eyes, the whites were two torches, their blaze only broken by fat black pupils.
Gabriel snapped his fingers. From the mountain, two hundred angels descended around them like vultures, still caught in their connected trance. Gabriel’s hands, opened with eyes and flames, hovered above Enoch’s form, fingers splitting in the gesture of protection.
“The heavens look down in wonder at your eminence, Youth and newest of our ranks,” he said. His words resounded across the mountains and valleys. “The Lord shall bless you and protect you, deal kindly and graciously with you, bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!”
Enoch’s neck jerked up, body bowing out, as the force of the anointment coursed through him. The gasp that echoed from his throat was light as air. Gabriel thumped him on the back, and when he settled, continued his invocation.
“Welcome and thanks be to you, Highest of the Hosts, Son of Man, Prince of the Countenance, Angel of the Veil…”
“Oh come on,” said Crowley, flicking his own headpiece. That part was just cruel.
“You have been given a name like your master along with a throne beside Him, for He calls thee Metatron, Voice of the Lord.”
Enoch turned on him, arms out in question. “That is to be our name, Gabriel the Revealer?”
“It is so,” said Gabriel.
“It’s rubbish,” said Crowley. “This has nothing to do with what he asked for!”
Gabriel glared down at him. “Don’t listen to that demon. He could never understand how you were needed.”
“Noah needs you,” Crowley said. “All the people out there—”
Enoch cocked his head, flaming eyes filled with confusion. “Young man, we have no idea who that is.”
“He’s your great-grandson!”
“We’re fairly sure we don’t have one of those. We were only twenty. And we can’t see how there shall have time for fathering anyone, considering. At present we have become a prophet of the Lord. Now we’re also an angel, and God Himself speaks through our lips. You must have us confused with some other chap.”
Crowley’s wings wilted. The clamor of the Watchers had set his head to ringing. What once was Enoch stared at him with beautiful blankness. “All those years are gone? Our journey together? What about preventing the flood, surely you remember that!”
“The prayers of angels and humans have gone unheard for centuries,” said the Metatron. “We are the answer to this calamity. After the flood, we will remain in heaven and on earth as required, preventing such depravities and preserving mortals until the End Times.”
Gabriel glared at Crowley. “You are fallen and unworthy to speak to the Voice of the Lord. Begone now.”
“Make me,” said the demon. He’d just watching his plans dashed and an angel hatch from the dead flesh of his friend. He was rather tired of this “being in the world” business.
Gabriel laughed. “Make you? I would not sully my blade. I have more important work.” He pointed above them to the circling Watchers. “Good-bye, Crawley.”
He flicked his hand, and the wound from Yeqon tore back open, burning deep in his gut.
Crowley hurdled from the sky and crashed into the dusty road outside El-Aei’s gates in a tumble of blood, smoke, and feathers. He curled around his side and howled, joining the song of the angels. High above, the Metatron flew through the ring of Watchers, toward heaven and his mission.
He grabbed at smoldering flesh, searing his hands in the process. The Word, he told himself. But the pain was almost too much to think. He could try to fix himself with the Word that Prince Beezlebub had given him, if he could only find it.
When the Metatron was almost a speck in the distance, the chant of the Watchers started to fade. Crowley’s head cleared and the memory struck like a thunderbolt. He whispered the infernal command, over and over.
The wound closed, tendons knitting over, dark skin rushing above to cover the gap. Of course it only helped at the last moment. The whole thing had Vual’s hoof-prints all over.
Well, time for backup.
Groaning, Crowley rose to his knees. The Metatron was long gone, probably being welcomed Up There with a resounding “Hey, Come Watch This”. The spell of the song had broken, and human citizens of El-Aei poured from the gate. Thankfully, they gave the demon a wide berth. In the center of the crowd, below two hundred angels and Gabriel, between mountain and city, Crowley knelt. He dipped a finger in the splatters of his own blood that surrounded him and began to draw a circle.
“God does not play games with His loyal servants,” said the Metatron, but in a worried tone of voice.
“Whooo-eee,” said Crowley. “Where have you been?”
- Good Omens (pg 365-366 in the paperback)
The biggest plot twist for this story is really spoiled by just reading the Wikipedia introduction for Enoch or the Metatron. Oops.
“My God and God of my fathers” is the beginning of multiple Jewish prayers.
“The path you must take has been prepared for you” is a Revolutionary Girl Utena quote and is not related to Jewish text or mythology.
“I have been young, but now I am old!” this is Enoch’s most famous saying.
“The Lord shall bless you and protect you, deal kindly and graciously with you, bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!” This is the Priestly Blessing, spoken by God to all of Israel. It’s used at the end of services, and said be Cohanim (descendants of the priestly class) in Conservative and Orthodox traditions. Gabriel is also using the hand gesture associated with it, which readers might know better as the Vulcan salute, aka “Live long and prosper”.