On the other side, nestled between thick walls of white marble and countless square miles of iridescent organza ruffles, surrounded by dim lilac flames and geometric fountain-canals carved into the floors, stood the Throne of God.
Inside a dome the size of an Austrian royal palace and framed by titanic statues carved out of the wall, the supreme seat was abandoned, covered in fine golden silks and darkness, as the light was never allowed in when God wasn’t there. Thousands of red and white flowers adorned the hundred steps below it. When God took his seat, He was always above His court, even in a resting position.
For centuries now, the hall had been silent. Cherubs guarded it – loyal, ferocious and mindless creatures who obeyed the most primordial of orders: protect the throne room and protect God. Nothing else mattered.
Azrael and Michael stood by the western entrance, firm and pensive. The hall was filled with claire-obscure contrasts, a soft blackness wrestling with the cool violet flickers of light meant to keep the complete darkness away – it looked strangely inviting. But the creatures on the cold marble floor were the complete opposite.
In a slow and almost mechanically repetitive motion, the Cherubs circled the seat of God in heavy, slow-paced steps. As their oxen hooves touched the ground, thunders echoed through that part of the city. Everyone knew to stay away.
The Cherubs were not something that God paid much attention to when he created them. By the time He’d decided that His own space required protection, after Lucifer and his allies had been cast out and had sworn revenge, God was a little bored and took His creativity into the realms of the weird. His ‘dogs’, as the angels called them, were massive creatures with features from previous ‘productions’ – the body of a lion, the hooves of an ox, four large wings in shades of brown and beige that had hundreds of eyes hidden beneath the feathers, and four heads: a man, an ox, a lion and an eagle. Each head served a purpose – devotion, service, attack and observe.
Azrael was not one to voice his opinions, but even he had found himself shivering in the presence of the guardian beasts. They only obeyed God, and the old Thrones – who were another bundle of weird all on their own. They lived in pairs, one Throne – an old man without wings, and a set of enormous wheels made of gold affixed on his head which lacked features or a face, and thousands of eyes, open and looking all over, mounted along the edges as the wheels constantly turned, crossing each other and in opposite directions, held together by a peculiar magnetism; and the Cherubim, the animal, the guard dog with a personality split in four, of which one was more extreme than the other.
For aeons, they guarded Father’s personal space. The Cherubs paced in wide circles around the stairs leading up to His seat, and the Thrones walked along, slowly, singing and humming about His glory.
Michael looked severely uncomfortable. Not a single angel enjoyed being in the presence of creatures straight out of a horrific cabinet of curiosities. Truth be told, they served their purpose well. When God wished not to be disturbed, not a single angel dared to come near the hall.
Ultimately, after some time spent pondering and observing the slow and heavy moves, and hearing the Thrones’ chants and the Cherub’s growls, Michael nudged Azrael with enough strength to push him into the grand hall. The Archangel of Death stumbled forward and regained his balance as his foot – wrapped in the black leather bands of a sandal – landed on the inner territory of the ‘dogs’ with an unpleasant thud.
In that single moment, the chants and growls faded, and all fifty or so Cherubs and Thrones froze, and turned their strange heads in the Archangel’s direction. The wheels stopped turning, for the length of a deep breath. The Cherubs had been set on ‘devotion’ at the time, their human heads staring blankly at Azrael and Michael. A second later, they switched to lions, and their expressions were lit with ferocious fangs and violent roars, warning them to keep their distance. The Thrones’ wheels started spinning again, like bicycle wheels.
The air turned hot very fast and the lilac twinkles burst into violent purple flames, bathing the hall in a peculiar pink hue.
Azrael looked over his shoulder from beneath his cape – his eyes resembled a pair of sullen stars. Michael shrugged with a smirk. He knew exactly what he’d done. He then turned his head back to face the Cherubs and Thrones, who stood there with wheels spinning and lion-heads roaring. He lifted his hands in the air, as a peaceful gesture.
His voice was calm, but there was an undertone of uneasiness that he couldn’t overcome. Michael watched from behind, fascinated by how, after millions of years, his brother still couldn’t deal with Father’s guardian creatures.
We come in peace, brothers, Azrael said.
Once more, Azrael looked over his shoulder, this time to silence his brother.
Would you like to speak, instead?
Michael stifled a laugh and lowered his head.
No, please, you’ve already started.
Azrael turned back to face the creatures, who relentlessly stared and growled at him.
Brothers, please. We do not wish to cross you, nor do we seek to enter the Hall in Father’s absence. We seek only your guidance.
At the sound of his voice, one of the Thrones stepped forward, followed closely by his Cherub. The old man’s wheels spun and ticked like the insides of a clock, as his eyes took turns in looking at Azrael and recognising his figure as that of the Archangel of Death, the Son of God. The Throne’s voice was husky and trembling, echoing not from his body but from somewhere inside the Hall.
Son of God?
Azrael nodded respectfully.
Yes, Throne. Azrael, to be precise.
Ah, Death, the old man nodded and his wheels wobbled in the process. He lifted his hand and motioned the other Cherubs and Thrones to resume their guarding process. The creatures obeyed, and the old men continued their humming walks and the lions switched back to human heads. He then took a few steps towards the Archangels, followed closely by his Cherub, who had switched its head to an eagle.
What brings you here, brother?
We have been searching the city for Gabriel. We cannot find him anywhere. We’re told the Thrones may know of his whereabouts.
The old man’s wheels stopped, and the eyes blinked several times, as if processing the information. Michael watched quietly from behind, as Azrael stood tall and quiet.
I’m not sure, brother. Why would anyone send you to us?
Because Gabriel likes to play with these mutts before he goes off on long trips, Michael interjected, with little patience left. The Thrones were known for their hesitance and far-too-slow thinking.
The Cherubs all growled but did not break their rhythm. It was enough to let Michael know that he had offended them. The old Throne shook his head slowly, and pulled on the leash of his Cherub. Azrael sighed, unable to respond.
You’re being terribly rude, brother Michael. These are majestic creatures, gloriously crafted by your Father. They deserve the same respect that you show towards your Archangels.
I apologise, old man, but we’re in a bit of a rush. So, if you have seen Gabriel, please, just tell us, Michael held his head high, unable to behave any less than the slightly arrogant leader of the Host.
The Throne addressed his Cherub.
Tell them what you’ve seen, Khassil. Your memory is far better than mine…
The creature shivered and purred at the sound of his companion’s voice. Michael rubbed the smooth blade of his nose, as if seeking some form of stress relief, while Azrael nodded politely.
Thank you, brother. Forgive Michael, he is simply concerned about the absence of our dear Gabriel.
Michael rolled his eyes and waited for the Cherub to fulfil his Throne’s command. The head switched to that of the man, with long brown hair and green eyes and soft features, reminding them of Old Masters paintings from the human world. The young man smiled at the Archangels, and started humming beneath a blank stare.
Give him a moment. The Eagle records everything but the Man is a bit slower in retrieving the memories, said the Throne.
The Cherub then gasped with excitement, as if his mind had found what they were searching for. With almost mechanical twitches of facial muscles, the Cherub recited its account of the last encounter with Gabriel, as if reciting a memorandum in a neutral tone of voice:
"It was the eve of the Song Season when the Archangel Gabriel last visited the Throne of God. He came in at midnight, with concern etched on his face. He played with us for a while, and traded jokes with the elders. He taught Mattias a new joke he’d heard from the human world, with naked women and horses."
A slim, wooden object was dropped at the back of the Hall. The Archangels looked up and saw an old Throne pick his cane up from the floor with trembling hands and wheels turning frantically, all eyes blinking nervously in the middle of an otherwise peaceful ensemble of guardianship. Michael tried hard to stifle another laugh, as the Cherub resumed.
"After several hours, the Archangel Gabriel prepared to take flight directly from the Hall, saying that he did not wish anyone knowing where he was going. Mattias did ask him, however, and the Archangel Gabriel said that he just wanted to fly over the human region currently known as Syria. He said he had had trouble sleeping, with prayers ringing in his ears from the besieged city of Aleppo.
He said he felt sorry for the innocent children and that he just wanted to have a look, with no desire to intervene in the affairs of man. Our guess was that he sought to cause some sort of aerial or natural disturbance that would curb that fighting for long enough to give the children and their mothers time to at least seek shelter or flee the city. The Archangel Gabriel is a very sensible being, and we are very fond of him for that."
Did he have his Horn with him? Azrael asked.
The Cherub blinked several times, as if zooming in on a detail in the memory.
"Yes, he did. It hung by his belt. He wore his emerald armour and golden helmet. He then proceeded towards the eastern archway of the Throne Hall, the one opening out to the White Rivers of Mount Atlas. He waved us goodbye, and then he flew away. That was the last time we saw the Archangel Gabriel. Precisely, 27 days and 2 hours ago."
Azrael and Michael looked at each other for a brief moment. Despite the cape, Michael was able to guess his brother’s next question.
Tell me, Cherub, did Gabriel tell you anything about an order from God?
The young man’s eyebrows angled into a frown, as if rewinding the memory.
"The Archangel Gabriel’s only mention of God came in the following context. As he was scratching one of us behind the lion ears, exactly 23 minutes before his departure, the Archangel Gabriel sighed and stated that he wished he could see our Father again, as he hadn’t seen or heard from Him since the order for Lilith’s release came through."
That was all he said?
"Yes, that was the only mention of our Lord and Father."
Azrael and Michael nodded slowly, as the old Throne patted the Cherub on its hind. The creature switched back to eagle and stared at the two Archangel curiously. The Throne bowed politely:
Will that be all, brothers? We need to return to our posts.
Michael scoffed and headed back towards the main entrance of the palace, leaving a string of muttered words behind.
As if Father’s coming back anytime soon…
Azrael bowed in return, as a show of respect.
Please forgive him, brother. He misses Father.
The Throne’s wheels turned, eyes flickering and blinking erratically.
Father will be back. And when he does, we will be here, waiting.
Without hesitation, Azrael turned and swiftly caught up with his brother, who walked down the corridor with anger stiffing his shoulders and impatience clutching at his lower jaw. They soon left the restricted quarters of the palace and returned to the main entrance, where the maidens had previously greeted them. Michael was quieter than usual.
What are you thinking, little brother? Azrael asked with a voice softer than usual.
I’m thinking that there’s something going on here, and that you were right. I hate it when you’re right.
With wide steps and determined strides, they reached the top of the thousand stairs that overlooked the marble city, now glazed in darkness beneath a starry midnight sky. Wisps of purple clouds crossed it, like whispers on a canvas. The city slept. The Angels laid quietly in their beds, contemplating the silence, in the absence of sleep.
I’m always right.
Don't think that doesn't piss me off, Michael replied dryly.
I’m sorry, brother.
It’s the way Father made you. At least you’re not smug about it like other Archangels we know. Come on, let’s go. We’ve got an emotional fool to find!
Michael spread his wings and took off. Azrael stopped for a moment, enough to watch his brother flap his wings several times as he accelerated towards the human world. He shuddered as his obsidian wings expanded and followed Michael on a flight to Syria.