Chapter 1, Part I
Head bowed so that strands of coppery hair fell soft as prayers over her cheeks, Asrial sat with her hands folded in her lap and shivers running the length of her wings. The echoes of the choir's final hosanna had already faded and the other angels dispersed, murmuring amongst themselves in quiet, clear voices as the last streaks of gold faded from the sky above Zebul.
She glanced up and found herself alone in all the great columned amphitheater save for the choir leader. The other female angel had a saturnine face and deep hollows for eyes, wings a white banded with dusty blue and halo a mellow gold several shades darker than Asrial's own. Blushing, she rose to her feet, her gown puddling over her toes. "Oh! I apologize... I did not notice the others leaving. I—"
"You appear to love the music very much, young one."
Asrial's blush deepened and she looked away. "Yes."
The other angel's chuckle surprised her. She chanced a look at her, and she was indeed smiling.
"I know you're new here. From someplace nearer Earth, aren't you?"
"From Machanon, elder."
"Ah, yes. Michael's realm, with the rivers of honey, milk, wine and oil, isn't it."
Asrial nodded, lifting her head shyly. "You lead us so well. It is like we become one voice, not a multitude."
"Well, I have good material to work with." The other angel clasped her shoulder. "People like you... sent, weren't you, as one of the best of your choir?" She smiled. "Little wonder then, that the music is like that of the Seraphim."
"The Seraphim," Asrial whispered and shivered again.
The choir leader smiled at her. "Well, I am glad to have you, young one. And I do not mind if you sit here after practice, if you need time to encompass what we wreak." The other angel glanced at the benches and mantled her wings. "Soon enough you'll be used to being closer to God and you'll forget your wonder."
Asrial stopped short, gold eyes widening. "Oh, never!"
The other angel had been walking down the aisle toward the center of the amphitheater. At Asrial's exclamation, she stopped and twisted around, lifting a wing out of the way so she could look at the other angel. "Have you ever been to the Seventh Heaven, Asrial?"
"No! I am no archangel, to bear such a thing." The other angel laughed, and hesitantly Asrial called after her, "Have you?"
"Why yes. To the Seventh Heaven, and to the first."
"Shamayim?" Asrial said, startled. "You have been? But why? Aren't we always on a quest to come closer to God?"
"And God sits only in Araboth, is that it?" The angel laughed, low. "Good evening, young one."
Asrial remained beside her bench, arms clasped around herself. She had never seen Shamayim—who had? She knew of no angels who dwelt there. It was a realm close enough to Earth to touch it in places, and that was no fitting place for an angel still in God's grace.
Asrial drifted down the steps and out of the amphitheater, tightening her gold-tipped wings. The evidence of the sun's light leaked from the darkening sky and stretched her pale violet shadow behind her.
The choir leader's words did not leave Asrial in her sleep. When she woke the following morning on her pallet, her heart thudding dully against the ground, she knew she would have to see what it was in Shamayim that had made the older angel speak of it within a few breaths of the Seventh Heaven, where God dwelt.
Asrial walked to the nearby stream, silver and thin and cool, and waded into it. She cupped her hands beneath its surface, splashing her face. With her wings held high to avoid wetting, she performed her morning ablutions while singing a hosanna.
In the golden light of the morning, refreshed by her bath, the sunrise and her prayers, Asrial sheathed herself in white samite, secured the chiton around her ribs with a golden cord wrapped thrice around her ribs and then across her breasts. The brooches that clasped it over her thin shoulders matched the bands on her wings, shades paler than the red-gold of her wavy hair. She climbed again to the top of the bluff and faced the east, spreading open her arms.
"God," she whispered, "Watch over me!"
And then she spread her wings and leaped.
The faint breeze, warm and fragrant with the scent of olives and pollen, played with the down on the underside of her wings. The ground blurred beneath her as she flew. Heaven was a disc held suspended somehow above and around the Earth, like a halo. God had better knowledge of that than His angels, though it was said the archangels understood the manner by which God had made Heaven both flat and curved so that it might encompass the Earth. Asrial thought of Michael, God's Champion who reigned over Machanon, where she'd been born. She had never met the Archangel; the thought of actually speaking to him stole the strength from her knees, and she was glad she was airborne. Asrial was only an angel... one of the Ninth Choir of God's servants, in the lowest of the triads. Such folk as the archangels were so far above her they were part of the Eighth Choir—and creatures such as the First Choir seraphim were so rarified that it was said angels could not even bear their presence.
"I am content," she said to herself, a rebuke for such thoughts. "I am one of His angels! And that is enough!"
The land passed beneath her. She flew on.
The Gate to Fifth Heaven, Ma'on, was an arch large enough for three to pass through abreast, built from rough-hewn stones from the mountain from which it sprung. An angel stood beside it clasping a spear, his halo spinning copper-soft above his head.
"Hail the gate!" Asrial called as she lit on the stone. It had been a long flight despite the helpful winds and she welcomed the rough rock beneath her feet.
"Hail the flier," the angel called back, mantling ivory wings edged with silver. "You seek Ma'on?"
"I do." She walked to him and offered a tentative smile. "I am spending the restday enjoying the beauty that God has made."
"Surely He could ask no more of His own," he said, laughing. "Go on, then."
Asrial smiled and passed through the Gate into Ma'on: a land of subtle hues, so dim that the few strokes of light that fell upon its shadowed valleys were a blaze of color. Her eyes watered, but she did not blink; instead, she looked across the darkened land to the next mountain, where the Gate to her birthhome, Machanon, stood. The day remained young. Asrial ran lightly, bare feet against stone, and launched herself from the cliff, wings stretched wide to embrace the wind.
She spent the better part of the day traversing Heaven, flying from Machanon through the Gate to Shehaqim, and from Shehaqim to Raquia. The further from Seventh Heaven she went, the fewer angels she saw. It was late afternoon when she finally reached the last Gate, for she had slowed as she'd reached the Heavens she'd known only by name. Shamayim, the last, was strangest of all. The very air felt different; heavier, almost viscous when the wind bore against her body; the earth spreading before her was not as luminous, its palette muted.
Asrial soared in circles, riding the rising drafts. To the west was the Gate back to Raquia; to the east, another mountain with a Gate where supposedly human souls were accepted into Heaven. Asrial wondered with a shiver what it would be to actually look at a human, touch one. Even their souls were made of different stuff than those of angels, so dense they could never press deeper into Heaven than Shamayim. Here they were destined to stay, and angels not to come; Raquia was the furthest Heaven out that still birthed angels, and the furthest out that angels ever returned to visit companions not yet ready to move closer to God.
Dark clots marred the ground, eruptions of people and tents. Perhaps humans lived there, as they purportedly did on Earth: clustered together, in mortal fear of solitude.
The south held more of the same rolling land, but there was another mount in the north, a sullen pewter thing hulked against the horizon. Curious, she banked that way. The mountain broadened as she approached, gathering shadows to its rumpled flanks. Unlike the Gate mounts, it did not sparkle with veins of hidden gold or silver or copper. It was peculiar in its very colorlessness, and Asrial's mouth was dry as she beat her way closer.
Gliding to a landing, she ran off her momentum on the narrow, flattened head of the mountain. It was barren, without plant or tree to interrupt the lines of a building and attached tower. Asrial approached, slow foot-steps on stone.
No answer. The shadow of the tower fell on her as she examined the building: circular, one story, with a cupola of muted grey metal that poorly reflected the sunlight. It was as large as the choir's amphitheater but without window, pediment or ornament. With a tentative hand, Asrial pushed on the door of plain banded wood. When it did not open, she pressed her bare shoulder against it and shoved.
The door flew open, spilling her onto a marble floor of patterned gray and black. Startled, she lifted a hand.
Her voice echoed in the room, but no one replied. Hesitantly she gained her feet... and gasped, circling in place.
The room was lit by the glow of the hundreds of halos mounted on the walls. They did not shine like the halos Asrial had seen all her life... but she had never seen a halo off its person, no more than she had seen an angel without wings. Her body began to tremble, and again, she called out.
Her voice echoed back to her. Asrial looked around again; facing the door was a pedestal beneath a halo larger than all the others. Her feet carried her to it beyond her will, for she could not stay them even with her dread. She walked all the way to the other side of the room, companioned only by her shadow on the polished marble floor, and stopped at the pedestal beneath the halo... so beautiful, broader and flatter than most, even larger than an archangel's. It hung there, emanating that sadly deficient light without flicker or spark, and beneath it was a plaque. Asrial covered it with a hand before she could read it and glanced wildly over her shoulder at the other halos; they also had plaques.
Her heart strained in her body as she parted her slender fingers and read the name there inscribed.
She moaned as she slid to her knees and hid her face in her hands, her shoulders and wings shaking.
No one spoke of the Fallen. Everyone knew they were beyond redemption. They had turned their back on God and Heaven and all their fellows. Their sins were manifold and graver than any human's on Earth. They were His Scourge, tormenting Him with their disobedience and hatred. The Great Betrayer had led them all into darkness. To even say their names was to invite their doom.
So why... why this chamber, where their halos rested silently, dimmed as if to save energy against the time when they might return?
Asrial sobbed without tears, unable to still the jerking of her throat and chest. She wasn't sure what had whelmed her: this evidence of the Fallen in Heaven, or the inescapable intimation of the vastness of God's mercy.
Asrial jolted upright, gasping for breath. A figure stood silhouetted in the door, spread wings illumined in every cranny by the soft glow. She did not recognize the angel, but the slack hang of his mouth and the upshot white brows served as warning enough. She skidded back against the pedestal, pressing her spine to it and curving her wings around her shoulders. The feathers trembled where they grazed the floor.
"What are you doing here? Don't you know that this place is forbidden?" He swept to her and his frown was stern. The angel bent beside her and touched her knee. "It is a terrible place, this one. You should not have come."
"I... I didn't know," Asrial whispered.
He shook his head. "This place is secret, kept so by the reluctance of our kind to come so far from Heaven's center. Kept so by our trust that angels would always work their way inward, and never return out. You should not be here." He lunged forward and grabbed her shoulders, the motion so unexpected that Asrial's cry choked in her throat. "Don't you understand? You shouldn't be here!"
© 2011 M.C.A. Hogarth, Stardancer.Org