Author's Note: Reader discretion advised – this chapter contains descriptions of torture.


The Beginning of the End

War

Gabriel looked down at the Heavenly host. They numbered thousands, a combination of seraphs, who were the minority, angels, and the tiny, human-sized cherubs Father had created more recently to work at matching humans with each other to provide vessels for other angels. The cherubs alone amongst the host were capable of acting on Earth without vessels, though they could do no more than make humans fall in love with each other.

It was the second time the host had assembled here in recent days. The first meeting, in which the three arch-angels had told the host of Father's plan for the humans, had not gone as well as it could have. Some of the angels, and a couple of the seraphs, had refused to kneel and swear to love humanity more than God, so Michael had smote them as an example to others.

Now it was Lucifer's turn to speak. Gabriel didn't know why Father allowed Lucifer to call this assembly; all he would do was stir up trouble amongst the rank and file. The angels themselves could not refuse to attend an assembly called by an arch-angel, even if that assembly was for the purpose of telling them to disobey God's decree. As he stood there, watching the gathering from a distance, Michael appeared beside him.

"Why don't you stop this?" Gabriel asked his brother.

"Because Father has not told me to stop it, and nothing I can say will change Lucifer's mind."

"What if the angels listen to Lucifer? What if they choose to disobey, too?"

"Father will tell us what to do," said Michael, but he did not sound pleased about it.

There was a commotion from the host; Lucifer had appeared, shining more brightly than anything else in Heaven. He stood before the host, and they watched him in obedient silence.

"Brothers and sisters," Lucifer said. "I've called this assembly so that I can tell you the truth about the humans. They are not worthy of our love and our care. They are violent, primitive animals, and the only thing that makes them different to any other animal on the Earth is the fact that they possess souls. Were it not for these souls, our Father would care nothing for them. He would not bat an eye if they were wiped from the face of the planet.

"Yet despite these 'souls', they are still flawed. They are petty and cruel. They kill each other over minor disputes; for a scrap of food, for breeding rights, for a perceived insult. They are inferior in every way, and God asks us to bow down to them not because he loves them, but because he wants to replace us with them." There was a murmur of shock from the host, and Lucifer continued, gathering momentum. "I say that it is wrong. That we, as perfect beings, should have to bow down to no animals. I say that God is wrong, to ask it of us." He stepped forward, into the crowd of angels which parted before him. "I am standing up for our kind. I am saying 'no'. I will not bow to an animal, and I would ask none of you to bow either. Who amongst you will be brave enough to stand with me? Who amongst you refuses to live as a slave to a murderous beast?"

Gabriel turned back to Michael as the angels, seraphs and cherubs began to talk, to shout questions to the one known as the Morning-Star.

"Is it true?" he asked Michael. "Does Father really want to replace us with humans?"

"It doesn't matter if it's true," Michael replied. "It is Father's will that we love the humans and guard their souls in Heaven. We must obey, because he made us, and he can unmake us. For as long as we are obedient, we will continue to live. Even if we are not Father's favourites, he still loves us and expects us to be dutiful."

"What about them?" He gestured to the gathered host, which was much smaller now. Some of the angels had already left, shepherded away by their seraphs, perhaps afraid of retribution if they stayed. Some lingered, talking between themselves, afraid to leave, afraid to move closer. A small group was clustered around Lucifer, asking questions of him, basking in his light and his glory.

"We will deal with them at the appropriate time."

Gabriel nodded, and his brother disappeared. He wished Michael hadn't said 'we'. He didn't want to have to stand against his brothers and sisters. He didn't want Lucifer, his beloved older brother who had taught him so much when he had been younger and newly created, to think that Gabriel was choosing sides. But how could he disobey Father? And Michael, and Raphael... they were so sure that obedience was the right path. How could they, in their wisdom, possibly be wrong?

That was not the first assembly Lucifer called. The next time, not all of the host attended, but either Lucifer didn't notice, or he didn't care. Each time he called an assembly, fewer and fewer angels attended, until he was left with a small group who agreed with him and were ready to stand with him. Then, finally, the event Gabriel had been dreading finally happened. God called his sons to his garden.

By the time Gabriel arrived, Michael and Raphael were already there. Lucifer showed up not long after, standing apart from his brothers. Gabriel, still unwilling to pick sides, to choose one brother over the other, stood apart from the group in general, seeking shelter behind his father.

"Lucifer," God said. "I have not been blind to what you are doing, but I had hoped that by allowing you to speak your mind, you would grow out of this disobedient phase. But I can see that I was wrong to hope that, so now I am telling you; if you do not stop trying to turn angels against the humans, I will have no choice but to cast you out of Heaven, so that you can cause no further trouble. Go back to your followers, and tell them to disband, and obey me, or none of you will be welcome in Heaven any longer."

"Then you'll have to cast me out of Heaven," Lucifer said, his head held high, defiance in his silver eyes. He spoke with strength and conviction, no hint of fear or regret in his voice. Gabriel respected him for that, even though he did not agree with the sentiment behind the words. "For I will never love the humans more than I love you, and I will never stop speaking the truth."

Father sighed. "You leave me no choice, my son. Take your followers and go. If there is a single one of you left in Heaven by the end of this Earth-day, you will be destroyed beyond recall."

"I will go. But you have not heard the last of me. I will do whatever it takes to show you just how cruel and untrustworthy the humans are. In the end, you will all see that I am right."

Lucifer teleported away, and Gabriel felt the same shock resounding within him as was reflected in Raphael's eyes. Though Michael had always told them stories of the Leviathans, of what might happen to angels who disobeyed, deep down they hadn't truly believed it. Now, Lucifer was gone. Their brother, the most beautiful and beloved of all of God's children, was barred from Heaven, he and his followers destined to wander the universe, homeless, without a father, without a family.

"Father, surely there must be some other way," Michael said. His face was painted with desperation.

"You would like 'other ways' even less than this one," Father said sadly. "Michael, I want you to make sure that Lucifer leaves, and all of the traitorous angels along with him. None must be left in Heaven, to spread their hatred to their brothers and sisters."

Michael bowed his head, sadness radiating from his very being. It washed over Gabriel, tugging at something at the very core of his being. "Yes, Father."

Gabriel watched his brother go. He knew how much this was hurting Michael, how much it pained the eldest son of God to be forced to witness his brother's betrayal and banishment. And he knew that from this moment henceforth, Heaven would never be the same again.

o - o - o - o - o

Raphael wandered through the paradise of Heaven, his gaze running over the angels, weighing them up whenever he encountered them. The last century or two had been quiet, here. Lucifer and his followers had left, and now only good, obedient angels remained. He'd known something like this would happen, ever since he had met Michael and Lucifer on that hillside, long ago. He'd always known that Lucifer would eventually break something valuable. What he had broken now was Heaven itself.

Things had not been as quiet on Earth as they had in Heaven. Lucifer, and those loyal to him, had gone to Earth and, despite their hatred of humanity, taken vessels. They wandered the roads, from town to town, whispering in the ears of men and women, spreading lies and deceit, nurturing anger and hatred wherever it grew in the human soul. To Raphael, there was something almost poetic about it; that angels who hated should in turn encourage hatred within those whom they hated most.

Father did nothing about the lies, about the influence the fallen angels had with the humans. He had, long ago – and without telling any of his sons – created a metaphysical realm which he called Hell. It was to this place that human souls went when they refused to love and obey God, when they committed terrible sins. In a sense, it was almost like a Purgatory for the humans, except its doors were not locked shut because there was no need for a lock.

The humans had myriad names for the most beloved son of god; Devil, they called him. Satan. Prince of Lies. Some suspected his angelic nature and his fall from grace, whilst others thought he was some evil being conjured from the nothingness of creation. But wherever his name was spoken, it was in hushed whispers, with fearful glances. Some believed that merely speaking his name could invoke him. Had they used his true name, they would not have been wrong, for every time an angel's name was spoken by a human, that angel heard it, even from Heaven.

Whenever the fallen angels corrupted enough humans in a town or village, it was deemed beyond redemption by Father. And whenever the Earth needed cleansing from such sinful places, that task fell to the garrisons of angels who were stationed on Earth to watch and report back. Father proclaimed judgement, and the arch-angels passed his orders to the seraphs, who in turn instructed their garrisons of lesser angels. Sodom was the first city to be reduced to rubble, followed shortly after by Gomorrah. It was a sight beautiful and terrible to behold; dozens of angels hung in the sky, raining down fire and brimstone upon those cities of vice. Below, humans screamed, begging for forgiveness, for salvation. But salvation did not come, and forgiveness was granted only to those who were pure of soul, who had not given in to the corruption tainting their brethren.

Those cities were the first, but they were not the last. Admah and Zeboim followed; God's retribution was swift and without mercy. Sometimes, the fallen angels foolishly tried to resist, to protect their bastions of sin and corruption from holy retribution. When that happened, God instructed Raphael to go to the Earth and lead the garrisons himself. Usually, the arrival of an arch-angel was enough to cause the fallen fools to flee. Those who thought they could stand against him were invariably destroyed.

Upon the faces of the angels in Heaven he saw tiredness, and there was a darkness in their eyes that had not been there before. This war of attrition was taking its toll on them. Skirmish after skirmish they fought; some of them died, and those who survived were forever witness to the deaths of their brothers and sisters, to the violence wrought by the fallen angels. Angels lacked physical bodies, so they did not tire as humans and mortal animals did, but actions could weigh heavily on their celestial powers, and for the past two centuries they had experienced little but guerilla warfare. Fighting other angels was not easy for them. Destroying countless humans and wiping entire towns from the map was not easy for them. Every little act of destruction took its toll.

He left the host and wandered towards Father's garden. Today, Father was not there; probably away on a visit to Earth, or perhaps some far-flung corner of another galaxy. Gabriel remained in his place, and as Raphael silently approached, he looked at his brother, assessing him as he had assessed the lesser angels.

Father's youngest son was sitting by the side of a pool, his fingers trailing across the surface of the water, causing the dark green lily pads to bob up and down very slightly. God sometimes used the pool as a way of watching Earth without having to be present, and Raphael could tell by the look in his brother's eyes that Gabriel was using it for the same purpose now. His younger brother looked as tired as any angel; more tired, in fact. The bright glow of his body was starting to dull, and his silver eyes, so youthful and lively in the past, were full of sadness and regret.

"Hello, Gabriel," Raphael said, when he had almost reached his brother.

"Oh, hello, Raphael," Gabriel replied despondently. He glanced up briefly before returning his gaze to the water.

"Where is Father?"

Gabriel shrugged. "I don't know. I think Dad said something about taking some animals to Pandora. I'm just glad of the break."

Raphael nodded in understanding. God seemed determined to keep his youngest son out of the worst of the fighting, utilising Gabriel instead as his holy messenger. Whenever humans were straying too far from the path he had laid down for them, he sent Gabriel to issue warnings. Whenever a town was about to be judging and found wanting, Gabriel was sent to advise the faithful to leave with all haste. Whenever the orders were given to cleanse a town or city, Gabriel was usually the one to relay it to the seraphs and their garrisons. Raphael knew how much his little brother hated being the bearer of bad news, and he would have spared Gabriel if it was his choice, but they all had their part to play in God's plan.

Michael suddenly appeared in the garden, his arrival heralded by a flash of light. Both brothers looked up at him, and Raphael immediately saw the concern and agitation in his silver eyes.

"What is it, Michael?" he asked.

"It's Lucifer. He's found Hell."

Michael strode to the pool, waving his hand over the surface. The lilies parted completely. Gabriel, meanwhile, relinquished his place to his brother and shrugged.

"So? It's just an unhappy Heaven for corrupt human souls."

"It's much worse than that," Michael replied.

He waved his hand over the pond again, and an image appeared beneath the waters. Raphael stepped forward to examine it more closely. He saw a human woman standing in a crowd; her long dark hair tumbled down her back, and a shawl was clutched around her shoulders.

"Look deeper," Michael instructed.

Raphael obeyed, as did Gabriel. And when he truly looked, he saw something terrible to behold. The woman's face was an ugly, writhing, shifting mass of dark shadows, her eyes pure black, like a starless night sky. A halo of shadow surrounded her, but the humans appeared not to notice it. Raphael felt his lips curl back in disgust.

"What is it?" he asked his brother.

"Lucifer calls it 'demon'," Michael explained. "He has somehow twisted and corrupted the soul of a human to such an extent that all goodness and light has been wrung from it, leaving behind every sin known to man; greed, lust, envy... it is a beast of pure evil."

"But... why?" Gabriel asked, confusion replacing the tiredness in his silver eyes.

"Remember what he said? That he would do whatever it takes to prove how corrupt and untrustworthy humans are? I think this is his proof. I think this is the 'evidence' he needs to show Father he's wrong about the humans."

"Somebody is going to have to tell Father about this," Raphael said.

Gabriel stood up quickly. "I, ah, just remembered I have some orders to pass to the seraphs. Very important business." And he teleported away from the garden.

Raphael looked to Michael. There was still the same pain and anguish in his eyes that had been present from the moment he had been forced to cast his brother out of Heaven, but now there was something else looming in their luminescent depths. Anger. Well-masked fury and hatred. And Raphael understood. First, Lucifer had broken Heaven, forcing a split of the angels. Now, he had broken humans, chipping away the last vestiges of goodness from the soul, leaving nothing but taint and corruption behind. Lucifer had created an abomination. He was the father of a monster.

"I will tell God," Michael said.

"And I'll be with you, when you do," Raphael replied.

o - o - o - o - o

The King of Hell cast his eyes over his domain. Hell was not unlike Heaven; it was a malleable pocket of blended realities which, until he had discovered its location, had taken the form of a deep pit, into which the souls of the sinners and the unfaithful tumbled after death. Those souls, no matter how hard and how long they tried, could never get out of the pit; not even standing on each others' shoulders worked, for the pit became deeper the higher the tower of souls climbed.

The souls could not get out of the pit... at least, not on their own. The first one Lucifer had picked had been the soul of a woman. Lilith had been her name, and in life she had been a whore, a filthy, diseased temptress of men. A seducer of the flesh, a woman who thought she could hide corruption of the soul behind a painted mask. She had never believed that God loved her, and so he didn't. Here she had come, to the pit of Hell, just one sinner amongst many.

There had been no particular reason for him to choose that particular soul. He merely wanted a woman, because they were seen as the purer of the genders. They were supposed to be beautiful and fair and quiet; the opposite of their male counterparts. So Lucifer had picked her at random, grasping that shining, squirming soul in his silvery hand, stringing it out upon spider-like web so that it could be laid bare.

He had prodded at it and poked at it, trying to discover what made it work, what made Father so fascinated with it. Admittedly, it was an interesting thing. He could stretch it and stretch it – and the soul of Lilith screamed, when he did that, a beautiful song of pain and suffering – but no matter how far he stretched it, it would never snap. He could also force it into the tiniest of containers, cramming it into a box so small that it was barely large enough to be seen, even by his eyes. And that made the soul scream, too.

One of his greatest achievements was his discovery that the soul was not some whole, complete thing, which gave the human instructions from birth. Quite the contrary. The soul was a tabula rasa. When a human was born, nothing at all was written on it. Humans made their own instructions. They wrote their own souls. The human soul was a tablet for recording rules and laws which the human mind obeyed, and each one was different. What made each one different were the memories stored within the soul. The memories of happy times, and of sad. The memories of families, of being loved or unloved, cherished or hated, of friendships won and lost, of food eaten, drink drunk, of sexual encounters and life experiences in general. The memories were where the rules on the soul came from... and new memories could be made.

It wasn't easy. It took care and patience. Even he, with all of his power and strength, could not strip the memories from the soul. Oh, he could erase them temporarily from the mind of a living human, but they were still recorded on the tablet within. It wasn't quite the same. The soul clung to its memories, each one melded to another by some force he could not determine. So he couldn't get rid of the good memories. But he could overwhelm them with the bad.

From the soul of Lilith he called up every bad memory and experience she possessed. The hatred in the eyes of women and sometimes men who looked at her and saw her for what she was. The abuse of her flesh by the greedy and the lustful. The long nights spent alone, crying in sympathy and self-pity for herself. The days spent cursing God and his name for bringing this upon her, never realising that she had brought it upon herself.

These memories, and more, he had called up and forced her to live over and over and over again, until she begged for release. And he made some new memories of his own for her, too. He made her think she had a body again, and he tore it apart, piece by piece. He threaded hooks through her flesh and pulled them slowly apart, watching her skin stretch, hearing her shrieks of agony. He set her running through a forest and had beasts chase her, which fed upon her slowly as she lay dying on the cold hard ground. He placed her in a town of men whose only aim was to rape her time and time again. He invented a hundred, a thousand, a million memories to torment her.

For a long time she screamed, and it was like music to his ears. Every day, every torture, every scream, made that dull, tainted soul a little darker, a little blacker, until it was the absence of colour, like the cold empty space within galaxies. The weeping soul finally stopped screaming, and it sobbed.

Please stop, she said. Please stop, and I'll do anything you want. Anything.

"Anything?"

Yes. I swear.

"Will you do to others what I have done to you?"

Yes.

So he'd let her down from the web, that dark and blackened soul, and he'd hauled another soul from the pit and stuck him in her place. The new soul probably knew what was coming; he'd heard Lilith's screams for decades. Now, it was his turn

From there he had expanded rapidly. One soul turned another. Two souls turned two more. Four became eight. Each round of torturing brought new corrupt souls forth, and he gave a name to them. He told them they were called 'demons', that he had made them and he was their Father. They accepted this, and accepted the face of his vessel as his true face. Had they seen his real visage, they would have been destroyed; they were still humans, after all.

He kept the pit. He liked the pit. It was where new souls came first, to wait, to stew, to hear the screams of others and know that it was soon to be their fate too. But he changed some of the other aspects of Hell. The web of pain remained as the first place of torture. There was also the cave of fire, where souls were sealed inside to be burnt until they were crispy. There was the road of despair, where souls were chained down and eaten alive by vultures and lizards and foxes. And his finest work; the chamber of dreams. Souls flung into that chamber thought they were on Earth, or in Heaven. They thought they were safe. They lived lives and were sometimes happy... and then the curtain came crashing down, bringing with it the knowledge that they would never know anything but pain and despair.

With every soul that was turned, he expected a message from God. An apology. An admittance that he had been wrong. That humans were flawed and corrupt, and that they could not be trusted. But no message came. No angels came. All they did was lay waste to the human towns and cities, trying to scour them from the Earth as if lancing a boil from the body. They would ultimately fail, those tiny fools, because no matter how many you killed, you couldn't stop humans from being humans.

"Lucifer!"

Samiaz, one of the lesser angels who had followed him in Heaven and on Earth, interrupted his assessment of his growing demon army. The fallen angel looked worried.

"What is it?" Lucifer asked.

"News from one of our informants in Heaven, Lord. The host has been assembled, and every angel has been told to arm himself. God has commanded Raphael and Gabriel to lead the garrisons in a purging of the Earth. Michael himself has been instructed to lead an army of the host here, to destroy you."

Hell reeled around him, and he struggled to stand upright. Michael was going to kill him? Without even talking to him? Without giving him a chance to show his brother what he had achieved here? How right he was, about humans being corruptible and weak?

"Why?" he whispered, more to himself than to Samiaz. But the lesser angel heard the question, and answered anyway.

"They have heard of our plans to take the Earth for ourselves. They fear we will strike at Heaven, next, bringing the demons to destroy God's realm."

They thought he was going to strike at Heaven? At his brothers? At his Father? He would never do that. He loved his family. Even when the fallen angels skirmished with the garrisons, he did not partake in the fighting. Even though it meant losing some of his followers, he did not intervene. Despite what the host had been told by the arch-angels, Lucifer was not a monster. He would sooner harm himself than his family. Why couldn't they see? He was doing this for them.

"Lord?" Samiaz said, looking concerned once again. "What should we do?"

Lucifer straightened up. What would happen, would happen. If Michael was coming for him, with an army of angels behind him, they would not find Lucifer cowering in fear like some pitiful, grovelling human. They would find him strong, and righteous. If this day was to be his last, he would not end it on his belly.

"Summon the others," he said, feeling the fire of anger inside him once more. "Michael will not find us an easy victory. He may have an army of angels, but my demons out-number them. You will lead our brothers on the field against Raphael, Gabriel and the garrisons. I will release the army of demons and they will spread across the land; the host of Heaven will be hard-pressed to stop them and fight you at the same time. I will remain here, and await Michael."

Samiaz left, still looking worried. He probably knew that his chances of surviving this battle were slim. The chances of any of them surviving were slim. Though the demons out-numbered the angels, an angel's true form was fatal to them. And the garrisons alone, without the full host of Heaven behind them, were more numerous than the fallen. But that didn't matter. They were just a distraction. Something to keep Raphael and Gabriel busy whilst Lucifer dealt with Michael.

He didn't know if he could kill his brother. He didn't want to find out. But today, it was clear; one of them had to die.

o - o - o - o - o

Two billion years of existence, and I am right back where I started.

The thought came to Michael as he sat beneath the redwood tree on his favourite hillside in Heaven. Everything was quiet, not a single angel in sight. The heavenly host was busy preparing for battle. For the moment, he was alone. Just as he had been when Father had first created him.

He didn't want to do it. He didn't want to obey Father's orders. Lucifer was his little brother. He was the first angel Michael had ever known. His oldest friend and confidant. The one who could make him smile no matter what. For centuries Lucifer had been gone, and now he would never return, for the Morning-Star had committed a terrible crime. He had broken humanity beyond repair. The only thing stopping God from starting afresh with the Earth again, was the trickle of souls which made their way to Heaven each day. As long as even one pure, faithful soul remained on Earth, Father would leave the planet alone. He would give the humans a chance to grow and redeem themselves.

But that could never happen whilst Lucifer and his fallen angels were allowed to interfere. Already they had corrupted millions. They could not be allowed to take any more.

Another angel arrived on the hillside, and stood beside him in silence, surveying the green fields of Heaven. Michael looked up at his brother. Raphael was wearing the same shining white armour and carrying the same silver sword as himself. Those swords were the only things which could kill angels, and tonight, they had many to kill. Raphael and those in the garrisons would need to take vessels, to fight the fallen angels on Earth, but Michael had no such restriction. His destination was not Earth, but the deepest layers of Hell.

"Is all ready?" he asked, his voice dull and flat even to his own ears. He had no heart for this. He wanted to put it off for as long as possible.

"The host are gathering. The garrisons are circling their vessels," Raphael said, calm as ever. Then, there was a flicker of hesitation in his eyes before he spoke again. "I... cannot find Gabriel."

Michael briefly checked Heaven and Earth, looking for his youngest brother, but there was no sign of him.

"Gabriel is busy running an errand for me," he lied to Raphael. Today, he would have to confront one brother. To punish him for his crimes, under his father's orders. He couldn't punish two of his brothers. It was too much. And Gabriel had always been the youngest, the most innocent, the one with no taste for fighting. Wherever he was, Michael hoped he was happy.

"Then we are ready."

Michael stood up, and looked out across Heaven one last time. Then, with a wave of his hand, he removed the tree forever. He lowered the hill, so that it no longer rose up and offered its fine view. In just a few short seconds, his personal haven, the place where he came to be alone, and watch, and think, was no more, and it would never be again.

"Can you do this, Michael?" Raphael asked. Concern for his brother flickered in his eyes.

"Have I ever given you reason to doubt me?" he countered, knowing that it sounded cold, but not caring. He couldn't afford to care. Very soon, good, obedient angels would be dying on the battlefield. Very soon, he would have to punish his brother. To do that, he had to make himself cold and hard, like one of the glaciers at the northern-most point of the Earth.

"Forgive me for doubting you," Raphael said. "I know you will not let us down. You are a good son. An obedient son."

And for that, Father tests me with this command, Michael thought. God needed to know that he could trust the angels to guard Heaven and Earth, even against their traitorous brothers.

He did not reply to Raphael. Instead, he teleported both of them to where the host had gathered. They stood before him in perfect rows, each small, shining angel looking up at him, waiting to follow his lead. The seraphs were at the head of the procession; most of them would not be partaking in the battle – like the cherubs, their skills lay elsewhere – but they had come to observe, to watch from above and see to any human souls who made it here through the cross-fire.

He did not give a speech. There was no point. Every angel knew what had to be done. They had already been given their tasks, and they needed no further words to tell them how important this battle would be, how much hung in the balance. With measured calmness, he gestured to the one-thousand angels who would be accompanying him to Hell, and they fell in line behind him, a phalanx of warriors who would give their lives at a single command from him.

He nodded to Raphael, and his brother disappeared. He would be on Earth, now, giving the signal to the angels of the garrisons. They would take their vessels, and the battle for Earth would begin. That battle was down to Raphael, now, but Michael was not worried. Raphael could handle the responsibility. He would not turn betrayer, like Lucifer, or be crushed beneath the burden of command, like Gabriel.

With his brother gone, he turned to survey the host of angels behind him. A quarter of the host of Heaven would be following him into Hell. Another quarter were already stationed on Earth, separated into the garrisons Raphael would be leading, and the remaining half would stay behind in Heaven, to be sent off to whichever battle needed them most if things started to go wrong, and to protect Heaven itself, under the leadership of the seraphs, in case Lucifer sent demons to invade whilst the arch-angels were gone.

He deemed his warriors as ready as they would ever be. There was nothing more they could do to prepare. They would live or they would die, but they could not wait any longer. With every day that passed, Lucifer's demon army grew larger, and Father had finally decided that it posed enough of a threat to challenge Heaven.

Michael spread his wings, teleporting not only himself, but the legion of angels who followed him, to the Earth. They materialised in the sky above a dark, maw-shaped cave. This cave was one of the entrances to the underworld, and by passing through it could one reach Hell. Suspended in the air, his great wings supporting him, he looked at the mouth of the cave, which looked ready to swallow him whole. I don't want to do this, he thought, making sure he kept his thought private from the host. But I have no choice.

He gripped his sword more tightly, then leant forwards, his body finding the air currents, his wings propelling him forwards and down. Glancing behind, he saw the thousand tiny angels doing the same. They were little more than children, and he was leading them into Hell, possibly to their deaths. But he had no choice. He'd never had a choice. He could not betray Father and he could not betray Heaven, even though he wanted nothing more than to stop this battle and take Lucifer back home so that they could be a family again.

As the host approached the cave, it seemed to open up larger, to open wide enough for them to enter so that they could be swallowed in one gulp. Plunging into the great hole, Michael found himself in darkness, the only source of light being the silvery light of his body, and that of the host behind him; even together, they were not quite as bright as him. They followed him down, breaking formation as they were forced to dodge sharp rocks which stuck out from the sides of the cave, like fangs of some foul beast. As a river of silver water spilling over a falls, they flowed down, flooding the cave with the light of Heaven, and the darker the cave became, the more brightly they shone.

The smell of sulphur rose up from the depths, a blast of hot air accompanying it. Michael ignored both; he could detect the sulphur, but it did not trouble him, and the blast of scalding air was nothing compared to the heat of the newly-reformed Earth, eons ago. The smaller angels, however, were forced to dodge the blast; one was a little too slow, and his light was extinguished as the heat tore into the celestial energy of his body. The other angels were more wary, after that.

For a long time there was nothing but darkness ahead in that narrow, rocky gullet, but finally Michael saw a light at the end of the tunnel, and he steeled himself, knowing what had to come next. The light grew brighter, and the cave ended, and Michael and the host spilled out into Hell's stomach, their light stretching to every corner of that dark, fire-ridden place. Glancing briefly around, the arch-angel saw souls trying to clamber out of a pit; he saw souls stretched out on a web to be tortured into compliance; everywhere he looked he saw pain and suffering, and Lucifer's influence on what was meant to be nothing but a holding place for the unworthy. The Morning-Star had turned Hell into a mockery of everything Heaven stood for. Angered by his brother's trespasses, Michael turned to face Lucifer.

"Welcome to Hell, brother," Lucifer said, spreading his arms wide. "I'm sorry I couldn't have prepared a better reception for you, but I had to send my demons somewhere your army could not wipe them out with one blow."

"What have you done, Lucifer?" Michael asked, as he hovered in the air above his brother. Nothing in Heaven or on Earth – not even a direct command from God himself – could have made him touch down on the ground of Hell. The taint of the demons had spread to the very rocks themselves, and he felt repulsed by the thought of touching anything here.

Lucifer smiled, a cold gesture which did not light up his eyes as it once would have done. "Scattered them into the wind. You and yours will never find all of them. They are to be my legacy. Consider them... something to remember me by."

"How did it come to this, Lucifer?" Michael asked in disgust.

"Ask Father. He's the one who cast me out. Who failed to see just how flawed his precious humans are. All I did was show them what they have the capacity to be. How do you think I managed this, brother? There is a demon inside every human, every single one of them, just waiting to be released. And these are the beasts Father would invite into Heaven, to share our home with us? I would rather share my home with a pack of savage wolves. Wolves, at least, do not pretend to be what they are not."

What little sympathy Michael had kept for his brother faded at Lucifer's words. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps, truly, the humans were flawed, corruptible beasts. But that didn't matter. What mattered was that Lucifer had disobeyed. He had betrayed Father, broken Heaven, shattered humanity... he had to be stopped.

"I'm sorry, Lucifer," he said. The silver sword felt cold in his hand, like a dagger of ice. "I take partial responsibility for all that has happened. Maybe I could have been a better brother. Maybe I could have done more to dissuade you from this course of action." Hell seemed to close in around them. The rest of the host, hovering in the air behind him, disappeared from his mind. There was only Lucifer, and him. "All my life, I have been cleaning up your messes. Covering for you when you made mistakes, or did things which upset others. But I can't do that anymore. I can't pretend that everything is going to be okay. Father has asked me to punish you for what you have done, so now it is time to face up to your crimes."

A blade appeared in Lucifer's hand, identical to the one carried by Michael. The younger brother gave an angry sneer. "Do you think I wasn't expecting this, brother?"

The time for words had passed. Michael struck at his brother, Lucifer's silver blade reaching up to meet his. The weapons clashed, lightning arced from the meeting of the swords, and thunder pealed around Hell, the sonorous boom echoing around the walls, causing the souls in the pit to cower in fear. Michael's sword was drawn back, and again he struck, with enough force to push his younger brother back by a pace when their weapons met once more. Each strike, each flash of lightning, each peal of thunder, tore through Michael's heart even as he tried to harden it, to protect himself for what had to come.

It was the ninth blow; he had counted each and every one, praying that the next one would not be the last... fearing that it would. On the ninth blow, Lucifer's sword was knocked from his grip, and it fell down, into an open cave of fire. Lucifer's eyes followed its descent, before snapping back to Michael. The younger brother stood up tall, his arms held out, displaying his defenceless body, still the brightest thing to be seen despite all the terrible things he had done.

"End it, Michael," Lucifer said. "Finish me."

Michael looked at his brother for a long moment, and then sheathed his sword. Surprise and confusion warred with each other in Lucifer's shining silver eyes.

"I'm not here to kill you, brother," he said.

"I don't understand."

Michael threw himself forwards, gripping his brother tight, pushing him over the precipice. He kept his grip as gravity pulled them down, into the pit of wailing souls. They hit the floor of the pit and it caved beneath their weight. Down they fell, Michael holding tight to his brother as Lucifer tried to spread his wings and halt their descent; it was a futile gesture. Lucifer was brighter than Michael, but he was smaller, not as strong. Held immobile by his older brother, he could do naught but struggle like a fly trapped in amber.

The cold hard floor of the deepest layer of the bowels of Hell rose up to greet the brothers. Michael saw it, and, gathering his strength, threw his brother down, letting go whilst he was still airborne, and then spread his wings, halting his own fall. Lucifer tumbled and spun out of control, landing on his back on the bare hard rock, too stunned, dazed by the impact, to move. His wings were splayed out beneath him, forced into odd angles by the sharp rocks on which he lay gasping for breath.

Michael flapped his wings and began to rise. The light of the Morning-Star grew dimmer and dimmer, until he was nothing but a speck in the deepest dark below. An image came unbidden into his mind. Two brothers, young and innocent, lying on their backs on the bare rock of the Earth, looking up at the stars shining above them.

Up and up Michael rose, until he was back in the pit, where the damaged souls shied away from him and cried with fear. He ignored them, holding out both hands over the hole he had made during his fall. Across the hole he spun a web of rock and energy, a web that would take even an arch-angel a very long time to break.

"Michael!"

Lucifer's cry reached his ears, tugging at his heart, causing him to falter. His beautiful little brother, his closest friend, was alone and in pain. He wanted to go to his brother, despite the things Lucifer had done. He wanted to put his hand on his brother's shoulder and tell him it would all be okay, that he would look after him. But it was a desperate wish, and his words would have been a lie. He couldn't take care of his little brother any more. His little brother had become a monster, far worse than the humans he loathed.

"Michael, no! Please!"

He ignored his brother's screams as he finished spinning the web of the cage that would hold Lucifer until the end of time. His eyes would not move from the ground where only moments before had been a hole. Where only moments before had been his little brother. His body did not respond to his mind's commands to move, and eventually his mind gave up trying. He simply fell to his knees, his hands pressed against the bare rock, and in the back of his mind he thought he could still hear Lucifer screaming for him.

Brilliant white light filled Hell, like a thousand suns igniting all at once. Michael looked up, and through the shadows in his eyes that would have been tears had he been human, he saw six hundred angels standing at the lip of the pit, surrounding it entirely. They shone so bright with Heaven's power that they may even have eclipsed God himself. Then, one by one, their lights dimmed, their bodies fading back to their usual sparkling brightness, tiny stars to the sun they had briefly been.

When they were finished they stood there watching their commander, watching his fingers grip the rock which formed a single layer of the prison his brother was bound inside for eternity. And because he knew they needed to see him strong, Michael pushed himself to his feet.

An angel approached him, the only seraph to have been assigned to this excursion to Hell. She looked at him with sympathy before speaking. "It is done," she said. "The six-hundred seals have been placed on the cage, and Lilith has been bound to one of the deepest layers of Hell we could find."

"Thank you, Naomi," he said. "Take the host and join Raphael and the garrisons. You have demons to hunt down."

She gathered the angels and left, and the shadows of Hell closed in around him as the light of the angels departed. For a long time, Michael remained, staring at the bottom of the pit, ignoring the souls which pushed themselves against the bare walls and whimpered in fright. For a long time he heard a single word, screamed over and over again. "Michael!" And when he could finally bear it no longer, he turned his gaze to the world above. The battle was over. The fallen angels were defeated. The demons were being tracked down and killed one by one. It wasn't a fight anymore; it was a clean-up.

The arch-angel Michael stretched out his great wings, and returned to his Father in Heaven.

o - o - o - o - o

What came after

The snow shifted beneath his feet, each step producing a crisp, crunchy noise which reached his ears but travelled no further. The trees of the forest, towering pines and spruces with coats of dark green needles, wore a dense covering of white which muted all sounds and gave a feeling of stillness and isolation. This deep into winter, very few animals were out and about, but the forest path was still well-worn, the snow compacted except what had fallen during the last brief fall.

He reached a clearing, and immediately knew it was not natural. This clearing had once been a gathering place of the fairy-folk, though they had long since abandoned it. They liked to move around a lot, fairies, and they mostly went where the people were.

A wolf stepped out from the forest, loping into the tree-less circle, the snow silent beneath its large paws. The creature was huge, one of the largest species of wolf to walk the Earth, and its agouti fur was peppered with darker bands of black and lighter patches of silver. It looked at him with golden eyes, its pink tongue lolling from its mouth as it panted.

"There you are," he said to the wolf. "That was too easy."

The creature transformed, standing upright on two legs. Its fur changed appearance, altering to thick leather clothing, sturdy leather boots, and a reindeer-pelt coat that was trimmed with wolverine fur around the hood. The paws changed to hands and the grey muzzle retracted into a pink face, becoming a human nose.

Gabriel found himself looking at a perfect replica of his own vessel. It had taken him years to find his true vessel, years of running and hiding, fearful that his brothers would catch up to him if he stayed for too long in one place. Years of burning his way through lesser vessels, having six months with them at best before they deteriorated behind his ability to repair. But this one... this vessel was different. This one, with its floppy brown hair and hazel eyes, he could keep forever.

"I didn't want to make it too hard for you," Loki replied with a grin. "I've heard how unimaginative you celestials are. Besides, you can hardly talk; it took me only three days to find you hiding behind that waterfall in India."

"Next time I won't be so easy to find," Gabriel assured him. "I'm just getting warmed up."

"Well, for the moment, you'll have to get cooled down. I've got a... thing... to attend."

"A thing?" he prompted.

"Odin's called a family meeting. He's... concerned... about this Christianity thing that's all the rage in the south."

"You haven't told them about me, have you?" he asked the trickster.

Loki scoffed. "Please, I still have some self-respect. If my family hear I've been hanging out with an angel, I'll lose any credibility I have. No offence, Gabriel. As far as celestials go, you're alright by me."

"Thanks," he said, letting out a small sigh of relief. In truth, he had enjoyed his time with Loki. The trickster-god of the Norsemen was much more fun than the angels, and he was a surprisingly good teacher, for a pagan. "How long will your meeting last for?"

"I have no idea. Odin does like to waffle, especially when he's had a drink. But I intend to make a little fun for myself."

"Oh? What have you planned?"

Loki smiled, his lips parting mischievously. "First I'm going to steal Mjölnir from Thor. He has an unhealthy attachment to that hammer... I think he might be compensating for something. Then I'm going to seduce Odin's wife, Frigga. She's quite the looker, for a frost-queen. Also, I intend on spiking Baldr's mead with moonshine. He's such a self-righteous prick, he deserves to get drunk and make a fool out of himself."

Gabriel wandered over to one of the trees, and saw a bare, loose branch, one end a little sharper, as if it had purposely been fashioned to a point. He picked it up and tossed it into the air, watching it spin before catching it. "Your family meetings sound like a lot more fun than mine," he said, walking over to his friend and mentor, still playing catch with the stick.

"To be fair, your family are a bunch of freedom-hating fanatics," Loki shrugged. "I don't hold it against you."

Gabriel smiled. "Thanks. He stopped spinning the branch, and looked into his own face. "Y'know, Loki, I really appreciate everything you've done for me; helping me to hide from my brothers, showing me some of your tricks, teaching me how to get inside the mind of a human. I know I have no right to ask it, but there's one more thing you could do for me. If it's not too much trouble, of course."

"Oh? And what's that?"

The branch, soaked in the dried blood of Loki's last victim, was thrust forward, into the trickster's chest. Gabriel felt it pierce the demi-god's rib-cage, felt the tip strike his heart, knew the blood was working its way through Loki's body like a poison. The trickster's hazel eyes looked at him, full of pain and confusion, and Gabriel caught the god's body as it crumpled, and he lay his friend down on the cold, snow-covered ground.

"Why?" the trickster asked, blood covering his lips, trickling from one corner of his mouth.

"I'm sorry," Gabriel said. And he truly was sorry that it had to end this way. "But now I need to be you. It's the only way I can hide from my family."

The trickster's eyes flickered, closing as his body expelled its last, rattling breath. Gabriel stood up, looking down at the corpse, the branch still sticking out of its chest, and felt his hands, sticky with blood, close into fists of their own accord. He had not been certain it would work. He hadn't been sure about the shaman's claim of how to kill a god. He hadn't known if he could do it. But now that it was done, he felt relief, and a little guilt. Loki was the first friend he'd ever had, and now he was lying dead in a fairy-circle. But this was the way it had to be. It was a small price to pay, for the freedom he desired.

With a wave of his blood-covered hand he disintegrated the body of the god, and removed the blood from his hands and clothes. Then he turned his gaze north, to where the other little gods were waiting. The time of Gabriel the arch-angel was over. Now he had the life of a trickster to live.

- The End -


Author's Note: I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. I wish I could have made Lucifer a little more sympathetic, but you can't win 'em all I guess. Thanks to you guys who have given me feedback; your time and your words are truly appreciated.

So, what next? Do you like Meg? I've written a back-story for her, which I hope you'll enjoy. It's a bit sad. First of five chapters will be up next Friday. Hope to see you then!