Lux Aeterna (City of Angels)
Chapter One: The Birthing
"…he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear'd
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th' excess
Of Glory obscur'd: As when the Sun new ris'n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark'n'd so, yet shon
Above them all th' Arch Angel."
-Milton, Paradise Lost, I, lines 589-600
That is my name. Exquisite, isn't it? Try curling the vowels around your tongue, that opulent "a", test it, pleasure it, and you'll see what I mean. I know my Maker did. He named me after the amaranth, the immortal flower, as he thought I would shine. And I did. I became high archangel, guardian of the Dawning Gate, seraph Emaranth – the Morning Star, Bringer of Joy.
I was glorious and my Maker loved me, and I loved in return, until they found a flaw and cast me out of heaven, out of Ayre. I fell through eighteen levels of fire or eighteen hells into Lower-Aerth, and now they call me the Dark Light, or the Fallen Light. Only my Maker, of them all, dared to call again, Emaranth, Emaranth. I never answered. Yet I still see him at the back of my mind, the book falling from his hands, when they erased my name off the annals – forever, the flash in his eyes.
And, as I picked myself up along the rocks, I knew that there was one thing still mine, that they could never take away. The vowels, the shadows of a word that was a name: mine alone.
You know they made me this. They made me no angel.
So Emaranth is my name, the name of a fallen angel nursing his half-broken wing, who found a home in the rocks and caverns of Lower-Aerth. Emaranth is the name of a wanderer who kept the names of all his lovers. Izara, Valente, Elodie weremy angels, my brothers or female lovers. Yet even they have abandoned me now.
I dreamed. I woke each morning trying to grasp their scent in my hair, their arms like flowered vines, and nothing.
Years passed after I fell. The tides shifted, Aerth moved. I built myself a villa within a great chasm, by the grandest waterfall in Hell, carving it out of the rocks above the river. Its interior is connected by interweaving corridors that only I know the way through. And I've amassed a wealth of mortal treasure.
I have gold and spangles, gleaming weapons, exotic wares. I run my fingers through the curios and imagine the stories of its possessors – a ring from some murderous affair, a ritual dagger that once cut hearts. My mirror reflects nothing but itself. My harp, shaped like a woman's body, pricks the fingers that play it. It is the dream of every angel, but wait till you see my divan, its fine ebony and crusted diamond. Trace the interlocking whorls like the endless mazes of my home and the labyrinth of my mind.
Don't get me started with the stories.
Because they're all lies, ballads and legends and tall tales. The fallen, prideful hero, the decadent aesthete, the fiery avenger. The angel who became legend and a legend of a legend. And always, they speak of sin or misunderstanding, a human construct. But angel or no angel, I'll tell you, they made me this. They made the very Fallen Light and hated it, hated a bestial, slavering, sex-thirsty demon that prowled through fitful dreams and dirty thoughts. They made me into a story, wrote me in books.
Don't you believe them. Don't let a single tale seduce. I am no demon; I am only a twilit angel, you see.
And one thing. When Izara, my maker-angel, cast a drop of his inner-fire into the crater of Mount Vespian, which would spark and become the immortal fire-blood of my veins, he missed one tiny ingredient, one speck of swift-winged Destiny. Which lead to one problem, that lead to another, until all the doors of regret had opened like eyeless graves and there was nowhere else to go.
If things had been another way. If only.
Today, I stand before the mirror that reflects nothing but itself. I play a harp that cuts my fingers. I trace the same bloody fingers down the pane of the mirror, and in the end, it is only blank.
It leaves a path of red. I mouth the words, You made me this.
Izara, Lord of the Vespian Gate and Wonder of Night, was a gentle soul gifted with Guardianship and – to be frank – angelic absentmindedness. Though powerful, I wouldn't have trusted him with a batch of eggs. But he had snow-white hair, thick eyebrows, and a long moustache that curled like a vein of smoke: a sage. He was old when I was born, although why he chose this body, I'll never know. Most angels strive for youth and extravagant beauty. Old age is rare.
And yet he was perfect. Izara had wings tipped in gold, a diadem around his head, and he carried a staff and lamp lit with ambrosia oil. When he tilts his head to look up – there's not much of a sky in Ayre – a childlike wonder flushes through his knowing eyes. He loved poetry and beauty, peonies that drowned in clear water, or the light of bright supernovae.
No one knows why he created me at that age. At two millennia, he was certainly still immortal, but would have lacked the natural desire or the calling to propagate. Still, when he made his mind, that was that. I was to be his first and only fledgling, and he would give me a bit of himself in the making, an unquenchable will and mind of iron. Like a sort of child.
On Aerth, the mortals lit their bonfires on Summer Solstice to celebrate the sun's growing, as it passed – each year – from the womb of the Aerth, into adolescence, then adulthood, and finally old age, and back through Winter's Gate. Summer was the sun's fierce prime. So on the Eve of Midsummer, as the mortals lit their fires, Izara climbed to the top of Mount Vespian with his lamp, his staff, and a glass dagger.
And what was this road? Tricky and treacherous. The steppes that lead to the crater of Mount Vespian slicked with black obsidian, smoke belched from the crater itself. Even the perfumes of Ayre did not disguise the sulphur-smell, and it was no mere coincidence that rarely anyone came here. Two angels accompanied him, an older Guardian with chrysolite wings, and maybe, a scribe with his tablet. A bit of conversation, here and there.
No, scratch that. On Summer Solstice, Izara went up the steppes of Mount Vespian alone.
Two steps at a time. The smoke, here, so heavy he could only see inches ahead, and the wavering flame of his lamp barely gestured in the fog. From far-off, traces of the Upper-Ayre Symphony spilled from the higher heavens, some holy music, (you tuned it out of your mind after awhile). Further, further he stepped. Soon, the fog glowed red.
The path stopped, into an edge of a cliff jutting some ten feet above a pool of magma. Pausing, Izara tested the path with his feet. He could always fly away, of course, if the path crumbled beneath him; no angel wants to end up in the depths of Mount Vespian. Heat simmered, but did not bother us. Izara set down the lamp and the staff, took out the glass dagger, and knelt on the stone ground with his robes spilled around.
The word lolled in his mouth. A name that was a word, and a word that would mean eternity. A name he would give me, now blooming in his mind. He began to hum an old song:
"Even the darkness will not be dark to you;
The night will shine like the day,
For darkness is as light to you."
For you created my inmost being;
You knit me together in my mother's womb."
Izara stopped, a breath. He had never created a fledgling before and though he wasn't scared, the enormity of the task still lingered. (What if the spell failed? The words, turned silent?) The silence all around further affirmed him. But he continued. "I, archangel Izara, Lord of the Vespian Gate and guardian of the mortal's nights, make you, the angel Emaranth, Eternal Light of Ayre. From henceforth you shall blaze, like a bright star, Guardian of the mortals below." Then he slit his wrist with the dagger, raised it over the crater, watched as the drop of inner-fire welled from his skin and fell-
It's fun to describe one's own birth, isn't it? An eruption of white light, winds howling and whipping it into shape, gathering the dissipated atoms into a physical form. There was, at the moment, a soul. My soul. My eyes flew open, my senses wakened, and a thousand sensations needled me, everything, in one second of an eternity. My first sensation: awe. Awe at the licking flames and heat, at the face of my Maker turned towards Upper-Ayre.
Izara continued to wave, shaping the air, crying out.
"I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Your works are wonderful, I know that full well!"
As the blaze over the crater solidified, it began to form a body. The torso appeared first, then the limbs, the wings, and at last, the head. Izara nodded, approving, and continued to shape the body until it took the shape of a young man. Not material flesh like mortals, but an immortal frame for my spirit. It would never age, never injure.
"Your works are wonderful," he whispered again, thanking the Great Mind. And that was when he finished. Slowly, the wind died down, and my soul rippled through the veins of my new body. It was orgasmic. Like a wave searing through your core. And my violet eyes, rimmed in shadows, wakened for the very first time.
Did I speak? Only one word came. The name of that my Maker would give me. I toyed it in my mind as the wind gently bore me onto the rock before him, and my fingers tickled with heat.
My Maker watched me. "My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place." he said, "Emaranth, my angel, my dear, dear, one."
He fondled my face and neck as I sank into his arms. Izara, Lord of the Vespian Gate, was father now. That, at least, was done.
After my birthing, we lay there for awhile, while the crater bubbled down and the lava turned back to clear water. Izara tore a corner off his own robe and draped it over my nakedness. He ran an electric hand over my face and limbs, testing for imperfections, though angels are never imperfect; it was pure consolation.
The world whirled around me, petals of a languid water. Wobbly shapes became fine textures, as though painted by an artist's brush. The buzzing became words and cadences, the crackling flame syncopated along my Maker's intonations. And I wanted – so much! – to touch his silky beard and robes. Even the lines on his face – beautiful.
I learned that the hot rocks beneath me were a part of the mountain, and that my Maker loved me. That his words had shape and meaning – you, I, place, stringed through the quickness of an angel's mind.
When I was ready, he propped me up, hands firm on my shoulders.
"How precious to me are your thoughts," I said, realized, I was voicing the very words in his mind.
He smiled. "Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you."
"… Is this why you made me?"
A baby's question. So my Maker pointed to the crater and bade me look. "There's a story that if you see your reflection there, you find the half of your soul that was lost at birth. You become yourself, but that is only a story."
Later on, I would learn that my Maker's song was older than time, before the first glaciers had grown and corroded the face of Aerth, before the Mind had finished composing the Upper-Ayre Symphony. The Song of Birthing belonged to the bard-king, Cerces, who was said to have met the First Angel himself, who sang of suns and gemstones and bright-white supernovae.
I wanted to find myself. And so, to find the Mind.
Then he showed me my reflection in the waters of Mount Vespian, where I saw myself, whole and hurting with desire. I saw a long, pale face fringed in black curls, eyes like watered amethyst. I saw women's eyes, startling when angered, lovely when charmed, and sometimes innocent – though my soul, or inner fire, was predominantly male. I had a strong jaw, a long mouth. I was beautiful. My Maker was beautiful and he'd given that to me, a name that was a kiss of life. And so I leaned in, closer, to feel my hand against a hand also mine, to touch my lips across the cold surface-
The mortals say, a person desires only to make love with himself. It was true for me because I was my Maker's creation.
"What do you see?" he said.
"You," I whispered. Which was somewhat, not entirely, true; a word or a name cupped in the flame of exhilaration. "I wasn't sure-"
"Lilies in clear waters. A stone casts a ripple. You have seen your soul, Emaranth, and maybe misunderstood it, too. Now I will show you the City of Angels."
The City of angels – Lux Aeterna, the capital of the heavenly Ayre. He showed it to me, far in the distance as we made our way down Mount Vespian, and the rising sun blazed, a medallion that cast noctilucent shadows over the misted mountain peaks. Waterfalls fed through the clouds and into the blue below. Some were genuinely hovering among the mists. And the water caught the sun in a mosaic of light, that flashed off the steeples and ice-minarets of Lux Aeterna.
"The City of Angels shines day and night, but in the morn, it is most lovely. This is where we will live." A thin sheet of vapour – the firmament – sheathed the Aerth below us. I couldn't take my eyes off. Aerth was not nearly so bright, but strange, scarred by glistening ice-sheets and terrain. As though a white blanket sat on top of it, on the bits of forests, rivers, and cities that poked forth from the whiteness. An unbeautiful lover, whose cheek the City of Angels and all of Ayre rested upon. Water welled in my eyes, white as milk-pearl, and Izara took my cheek with his thumb to stroke the tears away.
"We angels live in Lux Aeterna, but the greater ones go to Upper-Ayre, the higher heaven. It is accessible only through the Amethyst Gate. The Great Mind, the Creator of All, dwells there. He may liken you and call you to Him when you complete your training."
"It's so – beautiful."
"Yes, true. We cannot even see Upper-Ayre from here. It is the higher heaven that transcends all material; is the Mind itself."
"That is something you answer for yourself. It will be your Revelation. When it happens, you will know."
"Tell me about Aerth."
Izara raised his long eyebrows. His fingers tightened, perhaps, around his lamp. "What is it that you want to know? Humans are humans; like angels, but weaker and less perfect. They are made of clay and we of fire, so that is why we protect them. The Mind decrees it. Their purpose is happiness, if that is all they can ever have."
"I want to see one."
"What? You do not wish to see the City of Angels first? I thought all fledglings did."
"I thought- that they'd be different." I wanted to see if they were like the rocks, or the sky. Maybe they had horns and a tail too, though Izara's expression quickly erased that thought.
"Of course they are. They are said to be much more fascinating."
"Then let me see one."
Izara lowered his head. "Because I love you, I will do this for you. Come with me. I will show you men, women, children. Just follow me."
To the golden birds of jade feathers that flew past, none of them mortal. To the waterfalls, in the distance, that fed through the clouds and into the blue below. To the stringed harps of the city's twin gates. To the gold, jade, and lapis-lazuli: the daily dawn of the Earth, unveiling herself. I tugged at my cloak and followed him cheerfully.
As we walked, I wondered when we would use our wings. The wind tickled my feathers, and Izara looked as though he could use a flight through the more infuriating steppes and passes. The rock threatened to slide beneath us more than once, and (Later, a lovely, conversational linna or wraith-spirit would tell me: angels don't fly unless they need do, stupid dazdu!) But Izara seemed to like the twisting mountain paths. And my own eyes were everywhere.
With an angel's quickness, I was already adjusting to the world around me. The obsidian steps were slippery, but challenging. Izara paused to point out landmarks every now and then, such as a rocky shrine or ancient tree, while I half-listened. I was thinking about the mortals instead (two eyes, shorter perhaps, tail… anything was possible). I had, already, a slight nurturer instinct. I envisioned shyness, oblique gestures, and me slowly but surely drawing up to a man and touching him on the cheeks and nose. I had no concept of domestic pets, just yet.
We stopped at a narrow pass ("The Agate Pass," Izara noted.) There, he hailed a ferry to take us across the sky-river that wound between looming mountains. A male variant of the linna – a linnu, perhaps, who also carried a jasmine-shaped lamp, captained this particular boat. We paid him the silver coin, and he bowed low with the barest smile, one hand to his cloak.
"All journeys start where travels end," the ferryman said, "And souls traverse the milky Seas of Chaos, like logs on the stream, till they reach Infinity – the door to nothingness. And they say, too, here, the atoms disband and the soul descends into ageless Sea of Bliss. An alternate existence."
"Those are mortals' stories," Izara grinned. "We have outgrown them long ago. You no longer ferry the dead and scare them with such tales."
"The tales are still true for them."
"Yes, and scare them into good behaviour. Fear and awe form the basis of why humans worship us. Stories explain and coerce the uncertainties they cannot define. If anything, the Mind has allowed them the grace of creative explanation but not understanding, I'd say. They know not when to stop questioning!"
"Ah. Or perhaps, what they think and how they speak is only the flip side of the coin." The oarsmen winked as he turned the coin in his fingers. "Human or angel, we all make journeys in the end. There are changes, no?"
"When you return to Ayre you will see. The Mind has a new High Attendant, and her beauty has transformed us all."
"Pah! I have no need for rumours!"
Of course, I longed to learn more. But Izara pulled me along and soon we boarded the ferry, which was lined with mirrors, each reflecting an angle of the surrounding mountains. A ship of many eyes that blinked with the coldness of the stars. The oarsman soon had us underway, good-natured, and his voice echoed the waters and the ruby-gold splendour of the sun.
"And journeys, however steep their winding paths
Cross mountains and vales of jade,
However cold be the face of winter,
Or the two-faced jollity of spring;
And love, however glad our twin-twined hearts
May glance at mirrors, our opal eyes
Shine and embrace in agate trust,
Or scratch nails down the panes of glass-
Our loves are mirrors, and journeys, fingers
Touching where the bridge of Time began.
My love, may your tears shine anew
On the cheek of my bosom, my black-night, heart."
It was a mortal's song, raw and sad and strange, and it rocked me out of the beauty of my surroundings. Something they had that I did not. The oarsman uncorked a bottle of mead and passed it to me, startling Izara. The liquid burned down my throat.
"And stars, however dark their dying lights
Dim one by one…"
The vessel stirred faint ripples as it passed through the air. We wound through the pass between Mount Vespian and its neighbour, a slope of also black obsidian. Clouds scattered before us. There lay, ahead of us, a grand waterfall plunging off a floating island, shot through with rainbows, and a tall, golden arch. The arch became a window, a gate, taller than the waterfall itself, and its strings shot the air with light.
The Dawning Gate, Izara explained, that welcomed the sun each morn. The mortals don't see it, but they worship it well enough.
And beyond, or above the gate and the waterfall, lay the Emerald Gate that opened to into Lux Aeterna.
Izara said nothing. Only the light in the ferryman's lamp flickered, as his white teeth. The boat craned forth until we heard running water beneath us, the drops of a fish-teemed sea. I bent down to splash at them. They leapt from me, not so surprising, that.
More rocks and river beds. Then Izara stood up, one hand to the boat's brow, and spread his wings like spangled snow. Two arms' span for one wing. Still and synchronized with the wind, he waved them at first, slowly, and then faster, until he took off into the air.
So I followed.
It terrified at first, as the unnoticing (or perhaps, uncaring) ferryman rowed on, his song dimming into the distance. My Maker smiled at a distance, like it was the breeziest thing in the world. The wind flagged beneath me, turbulent; I thought I would fall for a moment. Then my wings were there, and they bore me forth. Look at me, look at me! I swept past him and dove a double-spin, laughing, and even Izara smiled.
Flying, we passed mountainous ridges, a wildwood, streams of divine water, which made up our beautiful Ayre. There were no angels milling about yet. Perhaps it was too early, and most angels don't like rising early.
And journeys, however steep their winding paths
Cross mountains and vales of jade…
Up ahead, my Maker pointed. The Dawning Gate loomed closer, shaped like a harp, shot through with rainbow. It was strange and unlike the organic lines of nature that I'd come to recognize in trees and rocks and streams. Rather, this was smooth and constructed, even intellectual: a design.
And then he plunged down the waterfall, graceful as a sea-bird. I followed and a wallop of water sprayed me over.
More rivers lay some ten-thousand feet below us, though these belonged to rocky Aerth. The air grew dryer, heavier. Then Izara turned to glide along the water.
Aerth unveiled herself below us, a face of ice. Small streams fed off of thick glaciers and ran through evergreen woods. We passed mountainous ridges and sculpted fields, bright within the light of the rising sun. It was dawn for mortals.
"The universe is flat, sheathed in layers one atop another," Izara spoke over the wind, "from basest to the most divine. At the lowest level we have Lower-Aerth, where minimal life dwells, then above that, the Aerth proper, realm of short-lived mortals but eternal winter. Winter as in ice – the whiteness, you see, that locks everything together. Higher still we have our home, good old Ayre, and above all, the Upper-Aerth, where only the greatest of angels attend the Great Mind. Lovely place."
"What about the sun?"
"The Sun passes through the Dawning Gate each morning, and leaves the Port of Stars each night; and at evensong, the Moon takes over. They say that while the Sun is masculine, is light, the Moon is a mysterious feminine altogether."
With that, Izara tilted himself to dive downwards. The wind enshrouded us as we circled, gently, round and round a rocky formation at the mouth of a surging river. The rock became a building, or ruins of one, also man-made and unnatural. It came closer to view like a silvered cage, all columns and delicate spires. And it filled me with an emptiness I could not explain.
I landed beside him. He let me pry open the broken doors and run down a long, iced corridor beneath coloured windows. At the other hand lay a shrine, a stand for worship. The ice had done much affect here and already broken into much of the walls' ruined masonry. The high ceiling seemed to drip with sharp, frozen tears – icicles, Izara called them. And the sun cast slow webs of light that held everything in a strange glitter.
Below me, the floor glimmered in ice and marble, vein-like, a lifeless sea.
"This was a house of worship," I said. Angel deduction and vision. The walls craned towards high Ayre. "It's gorgeous. But what happened to it?"
He said nothing. A look that I would come to recognize later, transparent and opaque. The look said this: this place was made by humans. A divine, god-like man had died here and was risen back to life. This was the face of death they feared, a dimming of the stars one by one that they disliked.
"Then what happens when they die?" I murmured.
"The atoms of their material bodies decay, and their spirits are disbanded altogether. There is no afterlife for these disbanded souls."
"This house of worship must be a lot older than its builders or worshippers, then."
"Indeed so, Em. This is all their memory, now." Izara said as he bent down to rub a piece of dirt between his fingers. "A sculptor sculpts a piece and dies before his time, but the piece lasts eons after his death. An architect builds a great cathedral, gilds it in stone and gold, dies after it is completed. His face is forgotten, but the work of his hands remains. Then his apprentice matures, adds to the structure, continues where the designer left off. These are the two strands of the Great Life. One that lives and dies and cycles over and over; the other, the great continuation of things, the natural order that never gets displaced. You see, the Mind sees both, and knows both. We're lucky that we get a piece of this secret, too." I nodded obediently.
"But here lies the trick. We may live forever, Emaranth, but I'd say, it's the fragility of life that allows humans to leave behind things more beautiful."
We walked down the length of the space or the nave, towards the front sanctuary where rites had been carried out by mortal clergymen. Some of the windows to the side had fallen too, but the ones that laid intact sparkled, coloured glass wrought in tessellating designs. The sun that still touched them played designs over the floor and walls, again a melting dance. It danced over my Maker's eyes, too.
"There's an angel on that first window. He is-"
"Neither you nor me. He is the First angel who had eyes of fire and stood on a pedestal before the Mind."
"The Evening Star," I whispered, his eyes told me that too.
"Yes. The mythical First Angel, after whom Mount Vespian was named. Vesper, his name. A word of sorrows."
"Did the Great Mind... love him?"
"Ah! More than the Sun and the Moon and the Aerth combined. He was the most beautiful angel of all, with much more power and responsibility than you or I can dream of, Em! The Mind forged him with His own two hands, out of the then-new crater; thus angels have been made from fire ever since. Vesper stood on a rock of diamond, and saw the Aerth in one glance. All in creation, He was the most like the Mind. So he was given only one command, that he would love the Mind endlessly, with all body, heart, and soul."
"What happened then?" But I had already skipped ahead to the next window. The same angel stood in a temple-court now, surrounded by angelic spectators. Their faces were a myriad of glass flakes, and certain colours marked the higher angels from the lower, but their uniform expressions were dizzying. The First Angel, though, stood like a figure out of the chasm, fist raised and face twisted by incredible jagged fierceness, as though he was raging at something, against the pane of immaculate light that beamed before him. He was railing against the Mind.
"He was too close to the Mind," I said. "And so he started to grow sick…"
"Somewhat, Em. He looked to the Mind and expected to see himself. He fell in love with his angelic being and projected that into his desire for the Mind, equating himself to our soul creator and perpetuator. The ultimate fall."
"I don't understand."
Following the angel's pointed finger, I saw the third window. Gentle colours diffused along the double-paned glass, and the effect was more nuanced, less imposing. It was an image of a woman, her face blank, long golden hair filling her waist and breasts.
"The Mind created other angels, the first guardians. Then it created the first human, the female, the womb of the Mother Aerth, and commanded our First Angel to bow to this creation. There are many versions to this! But the most common one is that the Angel refused, called her base and below him. Why must he, a spirit of fire, bow down to this creature of clay? He declared that he loved the Mind too much to bow to anything else but the Mind, and so refused outright before the Assembly…"
Bewildered, I watched the human figure. She was beautiful, even I could see that, and the craftsman had carved her well out of the snowiest glass. But to worship… a tumult of feelings. I hadn't even seen the Mind yet myself.
"So he was punished for his pride, the ultimate sacrilege."
"The Paradoxical Love. He loved the Mind more than anything, enough to disobey the Mind's one desire – that he worship another in honor of the Mind itself. I do think there was pride. Displacement. That he could do one thing better than another. Three times the Mind ordered him, and three times he refused. At the third trial, he pointed at the human, cursed her immortal soul, and declared that he would remove her distracting presence from the Mind. One finger, and they say, she spouted in flame. There is another song about that, flame and fire and foam-"
"There was one thing to be done. The Mind called the Assembly, and the order given. The ultimate punishment was to throw the Angel back into the crater. Pure annihilation. The Angel was given chance to repent, but again they refused. They said he had a song even as they took him to his death, and he sang it while the flames smothered his voice and the Mind wept – wept, for the first and only time – and hid Its face henceforth from the world."
He looked away at the altar, a deadpan expression. The look angels have when they are touched.
"Well, where are the humans?" I asked impatiently. "I thought you said they lived here."
"That way," he said, pointing to the south.
Something happens when stories are told, Izara had said. They take wing like an angel's flight, or like song, and scatter before you know it through all four corners of Ayre and Aerth.
The pain of the First Angel had been like no other. And humans still retold his story because, Izara explained too, they worship us, they think we have four arms or omniscient perspective and up to six soul-trajectories. But that isn't the case. We are powerful beyond their imagination, but in some ways, also restricted.
That I learned later.
Izara busied himself at the altar, pausing at times to study an icon, a picture of a mother with baby, or a sculpted man on a cross, and to drop them into the depthless pockets of his robe.
Somewhere out there, the Mind was hiding Its face from the world and no one had seen It since, because of this love… Otherwise, what imperfection Vesper must have done, what dent in the (perfect) time-space frame of Ayre, had been edited. Somewhere out there, Izara had also said, there was such a thing as night (the mortal night). That was when the skies went night and the stars came out. If we stayed long enough, I might witness that.
Honestly, I didn't see any point in staying among the ruins of some humans I'd yet to see. But I said nothing, even as Izara lifted the cover of his lamp to light a candle on the altar, and then another, until the whole front was ringed with glowing lights. Meanwhile, I wandered towards the south transept, also chillier and ringed with icicles.
I undid the heavy, ice-laced door and went up the steps. They were icy, slick, but no problem for my feet. They must have been awfully steep for mortals. And awfully quiet, too. The air was still as a knife.
Now in the ruined clerestory, the upper galleries, sunlight peaked through the smaller windows. At the end there was a door, and that, I opened.
A tiny room, now.
The only light that came through here came through one broken window, a broad opening onto the setting sun outside. It did not light, however, anything before me. And so in the weird shadow I contended with the shapes and forms instead that jutted out of the dusty dark. A rotted hanging here. A candelabra there. The squeak of a rat somewhere. A series of what seemed like ivory, perhaps carved bowls or rods for a staff, littered the ground. The clergymen, for whatever reason, had decided to store their used goods up here, although what rites they served, I did not quite know either.
The air here was tight, more metallic. Which was strange, and strong, but not strong like the sulphur of Vespian. My eyes turned to a pile of books that had frozen on the floor, books that once had been precious in material, and now lay rotted and frozen by time. They seemed to lay on top of some sculpted rod-like objects. I knelt for a closer look.
One of them was open. Strange shapes that hinted at meaning, yet I knew not what. Some were drawings. On one page, a lovely gold-leafed page of an angel, but this time more quaint and less magnificent. I took the covers and closed them with a snap, and the binding broke. A wince of regret.
That was when I saw.
Behind the book, beneath the covers. The light fell on the ivory bowl of a skull, and the rods of its arms and ribs. And not just one! Some splayed out of the ground as though they had passed out there, or where dumped in uncompromising position; others scattered as though they had been lashed here, a glittering chain still on one arm. Only two of the bodies – the things – looked peaceful.
I stepped back, and the thing beneath me cracked: another skull.
A human skull.
White, mottled, frozen-
Bile rose in my throat; emptied out. A poet I am at heart, you see, sickly, sensitive, too much in my oblique heart. Something broke in me and it brought me to my knees in a spasm of white pain. Groping for the walls – a shard of ice fell off, pierced my hand – I pulled myself out and stumbled past the door, down the clerestory, the stairs, through the south transept, and out through the nave and towards the great double doors – startling Izara. I cannot, I cannot, I cannot-
"Are you out of your mind?" he cried, and for a moment, his arm seized mine. I wrested him off. "Why did you bring me here?"
Izara, my patient master, caught me in his great arms and clutched me close. It was almost violent as he locked me against him, and my flailing arms struck him in the chest and shoulders. He cried. It was instinct, or insanity, me reaching for a feather or a hem of a robe. Then he heaved me off my feet and threw me to the ground, a crash, the force of the marble cleaving through my shoulders and wings, my first real pain. My knee jerked against him and he slapped my cheek.
"They're dead!" My face was pressed against his throat. "They're dead, and let me go-"
"Look at me, Emaranth!"
Grey eyes. Lines like fine geography, fanning from their frame. He ran his hand through my hair again and crushed his hands into mine, pinning them back.
"Listen to me, child. I am your Maker. And if you do not hold still, I will kill you!"
I stopped. Lay on the ground like a wounded moth, pinned beneath him. His eyes softened, as though he hadn't meant what he said.
"You – you cannot kill me,"
"No, I cannot."
"Because I'm immortal."
"There are worse things than death."
"Death? Did you bring me into this world to see only that?" Yes, betrayal. Yes, hate. The first true emotion an angel feels – the first true emotion that claims him, consumes him, is what becomes him. It is his passion, his will, his purpose from then on. Izara had not feasted my eyes on noble truths or love or beauty. He had only given me a sample of the morning sun. And then broken me with death.
"I understand, it's difficult, the Breaking is hard for every angel-"
"If you loved me, you would understand!"
"Then do you love me?" I croaked, my eyes on him. "If you loved me, could you still do that and still speak to my face-"
"I love you as an angel loves," Izara hushed, his eyebrows still furled, and sagging with longing, "With an angel's love, and for the full purpose of an angel's love. You will understand that someday."
I did not understand. I only wanted to learn. Why those skulls had seemed to stare at me with very alive eyes. Why Izara returned to this place every month to look onto the sorrow that was also his. I turned my face away and covered my eyes, groaning.
"Come this way," Izara said.