Over the past three centuries, rumours had been circulating around the Host regarding Michael, and his appreciation of specific regions of Italy. According to numerous reports from the Third Sphere Angels dispatched to the human world, the Archangel had been spending most of his time in a small village tucked away between the forest hills of Tuscany. The same reports described him in some of his daily endeavours – overseeing the crops and making wine in a remote cantina near Murlo, his earthly home.
The only ones who understood his recent fascination with humans were the Guardian Angels, who’d often come to his defence when other heavenly creatures had snickered at the sight of his back bent beneath a large wicker basket filled with black grapes. The Guardians understood and appreciated the little things that humans had been doing to make life interesting. Some had even tasted wine, but had suffered the consequences of severe penalties, as human pleasures were forbidden.
Azrael decided to visit Michael in his secluded haven, in order to seek his council and learn more about Lilith’s death sentence. At the sight of his double scythe, Mammon had been surprisingly generous with words of truth. No one dared to deceive the Reaper, not even the higher demons.
He flew across the hills on the outskirts of Siena. Layers of brown, orange and yellow unravelled beneath him, with sprinkles of red and green here and there. The wind was cool but dry, which was uncharacteristic for the peninsula altogether. He shot through the sky, cloaked in his plumes of dark smoke, invisible to the human eye. The sun evaded the clouds for a brief moment, and bathed the land in a warm September light. Then it went away again, and the autumnal chill returned, as deer ran across the plain beneath him.
The country home rested atop a solitary hill dressed in dark grass. A slim road snaked its way up to the palazzetto, which was surrounded by orange and olive trees. Thick brick walls with a wide archway opened up to an inner courtyard. Azrael swished past the guardian trees and ignored the barking dogs outside – they could sense him but they couldn’t see him. He set his feet down on the faded cobblestone and folded his enormous wings beneath his black cloak. Looking around, he noticed perennial flowers hung by the many windows of the palazzetto – clusters of purple and white beneath the dark red wooden shutters.
Workers walked past him and through him, men and women of different ages carrying baskets of grapes from the truck that had just parked out front. Their dialect was heavy and their voices were loud, and they laughed and talked on their way to the warehouse at the north end of the courtyard. He looked around, hoping to recognise his brother among them.
I’ve got a busy day ahead, brother. You should’ve called and made an appointment.
The voice came from somewhere above. The heavily dignified tone was unmistakable. He looked up and saw a man resting in a green metal chair, his bare feet against the cast iron railing of a first-floor terrace extending from the eastern façade. His black hair had grown past his temples, and the sun had darkened his skin to a warm hazelnut shade. His green eyes flickered with white flames, the only giveaway of his angelic origin beneath his human form.
Michael was tall and big, perhaps too much for the little terrace. He wore linen pants and a white shirt, and he looked carefree and far too relaxed. For a brief moment, Azrael felt that the Host did have a reason to look down on the Archangel. He seemed to have lost his way, without his gold armour and flaming Sword. But the moment passed quickly and he remembered that Michael was God’s right hand, and not a creature to be taken lightly.
We need to talk, little brother.
Michael looked down at his older sibling and smiled. They hadn’t seen each other in a while – seven decades, to be precise, since the war.
Azrael stood motionless in the middle of the courtyard, as the workers went on with their chores. It was close to noon now, and delicious smells of lunch evaded the kitchen on the west side. Some of them saluted Michael, who nodded back at each man and woman who acknowledged him. The Reaper observed them carefully, and was fascinated by their reverence towards his brother. They didn’t know his true form, and yet they seemed to adore him already.
You might want to put on a meat suit, big brother, otherwise people will think I’ve gone crazy, talking to the air.
Azrael dropped his shoulders. He thoroughly disliked being asked to make himself visible. It meant putting on an appearance that he’d never felt comfortable with. Pretending to be human was beneath him. He mentally reprimanded himself for his pride and looked back at Michael, who seemed very pleased with his form.
Can’t we go somewhere and simply discuss in private?
I’m afraid I don’t have that kind of time, big brother. I need to oversee the works here, as we’re getting ready for the wine production. I think we’ll have a very good year.
Michael noticed the Reaper’s discomfort, even without seeing his face through all the darkness that he enjoyed wearing like a cape. The corner of his mouth twitched.
Besides, lunch will soon be ready and I certainly don’t want to miss out on Carlotta’s ravioli. She makes them by hand. In fact, she picks the spinach herself, from the garden out back.
His musings were met with silence. He stood up and straightened his shirt.
I’ll come down. Just make yourself decent and visible and don’t creep my people out, please.
Michael disappeared inside. Azrael sighed and allowed the darkness around him to subside, until it revealed him in the form of a tall, young man with midnight eyes and medium black hair framing his face. His skin was pale and bones accentuated his features where needed.
His shoulders were wide and his long arms rested against his side. He wore a black shirt and an equally black pair of pants – nothing special, just simply necessary as mankind had long forgotten how to be naked without feeling ashamed.
Michael came up to him and smiled with great satisfaction.
That’s much better, big brother! My apologies for making you decent, it’s just that my people here are quite religious and easily scared. This has been my holiday spot for quite some time, and I would hate to spoil it in any way.
Once more, nothing but silence came from the Archangel of Death. Michael sighed.
Let’s walk, then, and you can tell me why you’ve come all the way here to not speak to me.
They headed outside and went around the palazzetto, downhill and away from the property. Dried leaves crumbled beneath their shoes. The wind brushed past them and the sun sought refuge beneath the clouds. It was a beautiful country, Azrael thought, as he looked around.
A couple of wild boars ran from their path, seeking refuge in the nearby bushes. Some time passed before Azrael spoke.
What do you know of Lilith’s sentence?
Michael’s eyes darted to him, surprise carved into his beautiful face. He looked away and chose to focus on the view ahead.
Not much, big brother. I heard the order come through from the Host. It was Gabriel’s Horn that announced it.
I am aware of that. I heard it as well. But what do you know about it?
What do you mean? She needs to die.
But why? What has she done to upset Heaven?
I don’t know, Azrael. But it’s big. I haven’t heard the Horn in centuries. It came as a surprise, to be honest. She must have annoyed Father again.
Azrael stopped walking, and watched Michael as he took a few more steps before he stopped and turned to face him.
Father hasn’t been around since before she went to Hell.
It must have been Father. The Horn only delivers His messages. Gabriel wouldn’t use it otherwise, big brother.
I know that as well, Michael. But my question is – what has she done to deserve death?
Michael sighed and looked up. Clouds danced in the sky and migratory birds flew over their heads in wide V’s as they sought the warmth of the southern lands beyond the Mediterranean for the winter.
I don’t know. But I do know that when that Horn blows, we all listen. We obey.
Azrael resumed his walk and Michael kept up by his side.
I saw her.
Did you kill her?
The silence made Michael turn his head to observe his brother’s expression.
You let her go?
What do you mean ‘for now’? She’s been sentenced to death, Azrael. She must die.
I’m well aware of that!
The Reaper’s voice thundered and stopped Michael in his track this time. Birds scattered out of the nearby rattled trees. Sparks flickered in his wild green eyes. A smirk pulled at the corners of his mouth as he watched his brother walk ahead.
I knew it!
Azrael stopped once more, lowered his head and let a sigh roll deep from inside his chest. He was about to hear the same thing he’d heard many moons before, when Lilith ran off with Father’s Wings, and when she was sent to Hell for her crime.
You don’t want to kill her.
The Reaper turned and faced his brother with a solemn expression.
I never want to kill, Michael. But if I do have to kill, I need to know why. I deliver death with reason. And we both know that she hasn’t done anything to deserve our kind of death.
Father must have had a reason.
What reason, Michael? When she took his Wings, he laughed and said she needed to be taught a lesson. When Lucifer refused to bow before Mankind, he made you strike him down. Father does not kill His Children, and you know it. So, what could she have done to deserve her end?
Michael sighed and scratched his head, his fingers engulfed in his dark and wavy hair.
What did she say?
She is as clueless as we are.
Maybe it’s because of all the men she’s killed since she got out of Hell.
Azrael shook his head.
They were all dirty, corrupted. Criminals who escaped justice. They tormented and killed innocent women. Father wouldn’t bother over them, not when they’re born in such large numbers.
Perhaps she interfered with the natural order of things. Perhaps she wasn’t supposed to intervene in the affairs of Mankind, Azrael. Just like we are forbidden from changing the outcome of anything they do unless He specifically allows us.
Lilith does not belong to the Host. She doesn’t obey the same rules. She’s part of Mankind, in a way. This makes no sense to me, Michael.
This time, it was Azrael who was met with silence. He looked at his brother and recognised the smirk. He fought hard against his instinct to roll his eyes. The reactions around his demeanour towards Lilith were always like this. In many ways, the Angels were no different than children at a playground. ‘Azrael and Lilith sitting in a tree’…
You really don’t want her dead, do you?
Fine. I see your point. I really do. What do you suggest we do, then?
Azrael cocked his head to one side, amusement glimmering in his dark eyes.
Michael raised his arms to his sides, slightly irritated.
Well, you’ve already spoiled my holiday! I’ll have to postpone my Tuscan affair until after we’re done, because now I’m curious!
For the first time in centuries, Azrael smiled, and it gave his brother all the more reason to want to help clarify the situation. Very few in the Host were aware of the Reaper’s unspoken interest in the First Woman.
In fact, only Michael, Lucifer and Raziel had noticed him during the early days, when he’d snuck out to watch her learn the ways of the wild world. And only they had seen the quiet rage in his soul when she had been cast into Hell. In hindsight, Azrael did have a point – Lilith had scrambled with God before, but never to the point of a death sentence.
So, what now then, little brother?
Michael looked up and lifted an eyebrow.
We go see Gabriel. If anyone knows more about this, it’s him.
He then scowled at Azrael.
I’m missing out on a nice hot plate of spinach and ricotta ravioli because of you. And my people will have to crush the grapes without me. Make no mistake, big brother, I am very irritated right now. I hope we can finish this quickly.
The Reaper nodded respectfully and returned to his dark form, his jet-black cloak hung loosely on his tall figure. His black wings burst from between his shoulder blades and fanned out, spanning across several hills both ways. The wind grew heavy as he flapped them twice and sprung upwards.
Michael watched him fly away and shook his human form off like a layer of dust. His gold armour shone brightly in the emerging sunlight, and his giant white wings spread out and he took flight in pursuit of his older brother.
They passed layers of puffy white clouds, planes and strings of wild geese as they abandoned the earthly dimension and pierced through cosmos itself. The view before them warped, from giant planets and burning stars and wandering space debris and satellites, to a spectacular ensemble of white marble cities resting above a sheet of turquoise water. It levitated defiantly against the common laws of physics, surrounded by dozens of minor stars and satellites, at the heart of a different galaxy, in a different strip of time and space that flowed quietly along the human one.
The heavenly plain laid itself out before them, with pristine towers and gold filigree details that glistened under the white light of a nearby sun. The air was still and remarkably clean, unspoiled by gasoline fumes and coal plants. It was all pure, and every time he came home, Azrael remembered how God had told Mankind that they’d been given Heaven on Earth – and every time, his insides shuddered from his own laughter. Man had nothing as divine as what the Angels called home. Man had soiled his heaven ages ago.
They flew across the pale orange sky and followed a stream of lower Angels into the main city. Songs emerged from beneath, and rivers of angelic grace flowed through the streets as the Spheres moved around.
Azrael and Michael darted across and emerged from the aerial traffic as they shifted towards the very centre of the main city, where a palace rose on top of a thousand stairs. Its floor-to-ceiling windows were carved into the marble walls and framed in fine gold. Lilac fires burned by each entrance on every level, and fine iridescent organza curtains hung loosely on the sides.
The Archangels landed at the top of the main staircase, in front of First Sphere Angels armed with spears and wide shields encrusted with mother of pearl. Pink and gold mosaics adorned the outer walls, depicting scenes with angels offering flower garlands to God, pictured there as a gentle young man, whose central vertical axis was the southern archway.
The guards took several steps back once they recognised Michael and Azrael. As the Archangels passed them and entered the main hall, the soldiers bowed respectfully, then resumed their positions. Throngs of white silk-clad maiden angels emerged from the side entrances, with gentle expressions and soft voices, as they welcomed the winged Sons of God into the palace.
The feminine figures had short, pale yellow wings and long white hair braided with gold thread down their naked backs. A slim gold band adorned the base of each of their necks – the head maiden’s was thick, identifying her as the leader of the charge. They held flowers, pitchers of water and porcelain bowls filled with translucent pearls. Michael took one and chewed it – the bead was a sweet liquid dressed in a clear membrane. The Angels had their treats, as well.
The head maiden stopped in front of them, and bowed with her gaze affixed to the polished floor. She was the only one to speak, and yet her voice sounded like a thousand angels concentrated into her vocal chords.
Welcome, Sons of Heaven. Welcome, Michael, oh He Who Is Like God. Welcome, Azrael, oh Angel of Death.
Michael and Azrael nodded in response. The Reaper was a dark stain in the middle of the grand white hall. The maidens avoided him and trembled beneath his stare, but before Michael they blossomed and lit up like stars. It was a natural response. The Reaper was never a welcome or pleasant sight. God’s Strongest, on the other hand, captured the hearts of all those who beheld him, the proverbial dashing knight in shining armour.
As they stood side by side, Azrael remembered just how different they were, as opposed to the dozens of almost-faceless maidens before them – service machines with pleasant forms and delicious smells, but no individual character. His darkness was unique, and he embraced it.
We seek Gabriel, Michael broke the silence.
The maidens stood up straight, and looked at their leader, whose expression was somewhat befuddled. Her eyes were wide and pale yellow like her wings. The size of her jewels designated her as a superior among the maidens, and so did her chin raised up high above the others.
Gabriel has not been seen around the Palace for some time, Your Grace.
A thought crossed Azrael’s mind. A ridiculous thought, but one that merited a minor amount of attention.
But you all heard the Horn several Moons ago, correct?
They all nodded, and their voices rang through their leader.
Yes, Your Grace.
But you haven’t seen him.
They shook their heads collectively.
No, Your Grace.
Michael turned his head to face his brother. His frown said more than his words.
What are you implying, big brother?
Nothing. Let’s go to his Hall.
Azrael walked past the head maiden, and Michael followed him closely. She looked over her pale shoulder and her eyes glimmered in bright yellow.
You won’t find Gabriel there.
Well aware of that, Azrael motioned her away.
The maidens dispersed with swift steps and the main hall was empty and quiet once more. Michael walked behind his brother as they traversed a number of corridors. The Palace was a treacherous maze to those who did not know it, but for the Archangels it had been their home for aeons. Gabriel’s Hall was at the far northern end, as far from the crowd as possible, where he could play his music undisturbed.
Azrael found it with ease, as he’d spent many days and nights hiding there whenever the world got too heavy for him. Gabriel had always welcomed him, with arms wide open and a kind smile. The Hall was empty, with minimal furniture and thick emerald drapes keeping the starlight out. Musical instruments were cluttered away in a corner, looking sad and abandoned.
The bed had been made and it looked more like a museum piece, covered in dark green satins and pillows embroidered with gold thread and diamonds. The Messenger of God hadn’t been there for a very long time, from what they could see.
Michael looked around, as if committing every corner and every object to memory. His fingers passed over a massive desk, erected from white marble and covered in empty scrolls. His index lingered on the rim of an empty ink bottle, a feathered quill still resting in it. He pulled it out and observed its sharp tip, darkened to a dirty shade of indigo that matched the dried-up content of the ink bottle.
He’s been gone for a while, big brother.
Azrael stared at the musical instruments, trying to remember whether it had been the violin or the flute that Gabriel had been most fond of. Gold dust had settled on the ivory keys of an old piano, on the brass length of a trumpet, and on the rigid maple wood of the violins on top of the musical heap. He turned to face his brother.
I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
Michael approached Azrael and pulled a crimson cape over his shoulders, to cover the wings that withdrew beneath his shoulder blades. Azrael tucked his wings away as well, and remained hidden beneath his pitch-black hood.
So how do we find him?
Several seconds passed before Azrael could think of an answer.
Michael couldn’t help but snort at the response, and patted his brother on the back.
Well, then, let’s go, Detective Death.