Toward the Light
"When you are going through Hell, keep going!" – Winston Churchill
"Come on," I said. "Up! We've got to keep going."
"I can't," Anael murmured. He inhaled sharply and his legs immediately went out from under him. He almost took me down as he fell, and it wasn't the first time. One of my knees hit the ground as I tried to cradle my friend's head. The impact hurt, and that sudden, sharp pain surprised me. I hadn't felt anything in centuries! If I actually felt pain, the Threshold could not be far away. Of course, crossing the Threshold was much more difficult than reaching it. So far as I knew, no one had ever succeeded.
A faint haze drifted across the corridor just ahead of us. I still smelled sulfur. Where were we? The third level? The second? I wasn't sure. I had ways of knowing my exact place in Hell, but not without announcing my presence to the myriad of demons and condemned souls inhabiting every twisted passageway. More importantly, if anyone realized what Anael and I were trying to do, everything we'd endured so far would become meaningless. The dead are a jealous lot. A great many of them believe that if they cannot escape damnation, neither should anyone else.
"We're almost there," I replied, lifting Anael a little and pushing him forward. "You can make it." I wasn't sure if I believed my brave words or not, but I hoped that my friend would draw some strength from my defiance. It had always been that way with us in the past. I remembered how he'd smiled when I'd first proposed my terrible plan. Madness, Anael called it. But still, he followed me. He always followed me.
"Old friend, you cannot carry me any further," Anael shook his head heavily. "That's impossible, even for you."
"Don't say that word! I hate that word! You know I hate that word," I reminded him, trying to get a grip on his body from somewhere beneath his right arm. What I got was a mouth full of feathers and a bony elbow in my gut.
I sighed heavily and let him drop. He didn't fall like a stone. He simply wobbled down to the ground as if he'd prefer to go to sleep and folded one of his wings over his head. I pushed him with my foot and poked my nose in his face.
"Damnit, Anael! Don't do this!" I ordered.
"I don't have the strength. I can't go on," Anael repeated for what must have been the hundredth time. He sounded too vulnerable. The thought repulsed me. Our kind were never supposed to be helpless! Desperation did not suit Anael. It took everything he was, and made it less somehow.
"Oh, yes you can!" I retorted. "You can go on, and you will!"
"I'm dragging you down," Anael said. He gave me one of his looks. "When we reach the Threshold, then what? You know what the Light will do to you! We can't make it together. You have to leave me. Leave me here."
I bit my tongue. If I left Anael where he was, he would surely fade into oblivion. It wouldn't even occur to him to turn around and go back down into Hell. What I wanted to say was that I could not go on without him, but my pride wouldn't let me. "Agh! Look, Anael... if you can't walk on your own, can you at least fold your wings? Or change into something smaller?" I suggested.
Such was a natural talent of all Cherubim. They were capricious by nature, and seldom stayed in one form long enough to have a proper conversation. Anael had been walking on two legs for days, and that unusual consistency worried me. I feared that his spirit was broken.
"Yes, I think I would like to be smaller," Anael agreed. He closed his eyes, and his head bobbed as if he was drifting off. Obviously, he was not lucid enough to shape-shift. Although my friend was much shorter than I was, getting him back up was like moving a sack of wet sand. He was cold to the touch, and I could feel his heart fluttering each time he took a breath. I wondered how many more times he might collapse before I would not be able to drag him back to his feet. Each step forward was more difficult, and that realization frightened me. My strength was failing, just as Anael's was. I'd started out with more strength, by virtue of my nature, but that was quickly becoming irrelevant. If we proceeded much further, everything I possessed would be stripped away from me.
Such was the nature of the Threshold. Our Maker had put it in place to sap our powers, to remind us when we conspired to escape our prison that we were nothing without Him. Worse still, it coaxed those who approached it to submit, a thing which I found simultaneously alluring and appalling. What minion would desire to be conscious of themselves if they could be purely, irrationally happy instead? It was a question I often struggled with, particularly in regards to my own defiance.
I stumbled. Anael and I collapsed together in an undignified heap, and a sharp rock poked me in the back. The ground was slick, and my hand came up glossed in something oily and black. Numb and exhausted as I was, it took me a moment to sort out which limbs were mine, and which belonged to my friend.
"Anael!" I scolded him, though I didn't know why. Our fall had been my fault.
He gasped and sat upright, like he'd been struck by lightning. Very quickly, he scrambled to his feet and gave me a salute that I hadn't seen in thousands of years.
"Anael?" I eyed him suspiciously. Was he delirious? Did he know where we were, or was he remembering something from ages ago? It did not matter. If he had strength enough to stand, I could direct him. "Stay with me, soldier," I sighed. The two of us linked arms again, as we had when we first set out. "One foot in front of the other," I advised, guiding him forward.
For a little while, my friend was quiet. Then he recoiled slightly, which told me he'd come out of his vision. I wondered what that was like, remembering the glory of our past and then abruptly seeing my present, damaged appearance. "I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me," Anael said.
"You knew it would be this way," I reminded him. "The Threshold doesn't just exhaust your physical strength. It takes everything that makes you independent. Your mind and memories especially."
"Keep talking to me," Anael nodded. "It helps."
"What do you want me to talk about?" I asked. Anael had been barely conscious for hours. However short-lived his second wind might be, I intended to make the most of it.
"Home," he said, sounding wistful.
"Nothing else?" I sighed heavily.
"At a time like this, what else is there?" He replied.
I immediately turned to avoid him. Despite what my friend had been through, he was still beautiful. One of his golden curls refused to stay behind his ear. His eyes were red from the smoke and sheer exhaustion, but their color was as brilliant as a summer sky. I wondered how he could stand to look at me. I hated my own reflection so much that I would pitched rocks into still water just to shatter it.
"Why won't you look at me?" He asked, ever so gently.
"Why do you think?" I retorted.
"It's been more than a thousand years. I'm used to seeing you like this. It doesn't bother me," Anael sighed.
"You're kinder than you should be," I told him.
"Kindness is my nature," he replied. "And yours."
I did not reply to that, though he must have guessed how I felt from the way I snorted and quickened my pace.
"I suppose you want me to believe that you are a monster," Anael sighed. "You've carried me through Hell. Do you think everyone does that for their friends?" He demanded.
"If not for me, you wouldn't be here," I reminded him.
"That's ridiculous. I made my own choice. We all did. Did you help Kushiel when he tried to escape?" Anael asked, abruptly changing the subject.
I hadn't thought of Kushiel in centuries. In truth, I'd never liked him much.
"Kushiel? Of course not!" I scoffed at him.
"Why not?" Anael tilted his head. He stopped walking again.
Damn Anael, and his wretched questions! I gritted my teeth, swallowing the words I wanted to say. "The Ophanim are all imbeciles," I said. Bluster was always my greatest defense, and at that moment I used it admirably.
"Well, that's unkind," Anael scolded.
"But not incorrect," I replied with a smirk.
"So why help me?" Anael teased. "Aren't I a member of one of the inferior Choirs?"
"You are different," I said, stopping myself. The words I had almost spoken could not be unsaid, and Anael needed every ounce of resolve that he still possessed for the challenge of the Threshold. I would not feed him anything that might cause him to hesitate. For a moment, I considered admitting defeat. I had enough strength left to take us back the way we'd come, and if we could make it as far down as the fourth or fifth level, I could summon someone to care for Anael. In time, he would recover. It was only the Threshold that made us so weak, our nearness to the light of our Maker. If we turned our backs on it as we had so many times before, we would be like gods again. Lonely gods, but gods nonetheless.
I hesitated, all kinds of uncomfortable thoughts whirling in my brain. Why was I helping Anael? Did I want him gone? I knew what it would be like without him in Hell, more miserable than I had the heart to endure! Still, if my friend could make his way to the Threshold, I would not stand in his way. He would be happy out there in the world, happier than he could ever be while separated from our Maker. I could not deny him that.
"How are you always so strong?" Anael asked, leaning on my shoulder.
"It's my nature," I replied, using his silly line. "I'm strong because I'm supposed to be."
"Your nature?" Anael laughed. "You were never what you were supposed to be," he reminded me. "Not from the very beginning. In fact, I think that's why He loved you best of all."
It was the first time Anael had mentioned our Maker in a very long time, and I didn't know how to react. "I don't..." I began, not sure what I intended to say.
"I know you, old friend, " Anael sighed. "You may have everyone else fooled, but never me. You don't want the Earth and all its pleasures. You don't want a war with our Maker. You want to go home. You want to be loved by Him again."
"It's not possible," I replied stiffly. Damned Anael! Every word from his mouth was poison! He filled me so full of doubt that I almost wept.
"But what if it is?" Anael pressed. "We must be near the Threshold by now. If you have it in you to lay down your pride, I believe He will take you back. Forgiveness is His nature."
I was too exhausted to stay angry with my friend. In my moment of weakness, I considered his words. What if Anael was right? A mortal life was not something I desired, but if I lived wisely and well, that journey might eventually take me home.
Anael smiled, as if he knew what I was thinking. "I am glad you came with me," he said. "At least this far."
I must have stared at him for too long, because Anael put his hand on my shoulder, as if to comfort me. Frail as he was, I couldn't tolerate that wasted motion. "Put all of your strength into going forward," I told him. "Don't waste your sympathy on me!"
Anael suddenly faltered. The color left his face. He squeezed my hand.
"What is it?" I wondered fearfully.
"I can't hold this form. I... I need something simpler," he stammered.
"There's no shame in that," I reassured him. "Go ahead, change. I won't leave you."
He slowly sat down. I didn't try to force him up again. It seemed cruel and useless to do so. If Anael couldn't even hold his true form, he would never make it across the Threshold. I regretted dragging him so far. The edge of Hell was an ignoble place for a Cherub to fall. Anael deserved much better.
"It's not working. I... I don't think I can change. I think I'm done, old friend," Anael whispered, intertwining his fingers with my own. "I think this is as far as I go. But you... you can make it! You are so strong. You always have been, stronger than any of us. Leave this place, please! Go home."
"Not without you," I said, brushing his hair from his eyes. "Never without you."
I kissed his head softly, and did not attempt to hide the tears that were welling up in the corners of my eyes. Anael curled up into a ball and closed his wings. In a flicker of white light, his form constricted, and I was left staring at a dove, lying in awkward position with one wing bent beneath it, as if it had plummeted from the sky and broken its body on the earth.
I cupped my hands around my friend and slowly lifted him up. His weight was still considerable, more than the size of his frame would suggest... or perhaps I was only too weak. I took a deep breath. The smell of sulphur was gone. It had always been so pervasive that the sudden lack of it struck me like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. Kushiel's escape attempt had been unsuccessful, but I had not forgotten his description of the Threshold.
Climbing through the many levels of Hell had been a feat in and of itself, but all we had been through paled in comparison to the challenge that lay ahead. Only the truly repentant could pass over the Threshold. Each step I took, I could feel the enormous weight of my sins. Anael, though small, became heavier and heavier, until I felt as though I were carrying a lead weight.
I fell to my knees, still cradling Anael, and inched forward on my belly like a snake. The tunnel ahead of us made a sharp turn, and I began to feel a warmth that I had not felt in an eternity. I squinted at the sudden light. It wasn't a fire, or the filmy flicker of a damned soul. It was the early morning sun, rising over a spectacular vista. Rocky cliffs, green pines, and sweet-smelling cedars, and the vast, cobalt-blue sea.
"Anael, look!" I exclaimed, breathless. I rose to my knees, and every fiber of my being drank in the Light. For the briefest of moments, I felt as though I was rising from my twisted, cursed form.
I opened my wings, every pair of them perfectly restored. Radiance surrounded me, a corona of white-gold light. Once, such a sight would not have been unfamiliar, but at that moment I was so startled that I nearly dropped Anael. He looked up at me. Although in the form of a bird he could not speak, the two of us had never needed words to communicate. What his eyes said was that he recognized me.
And then I heard my name spoken by a voice that was not a voice, but a force so powerful that it flowed through every inch of my being. I might have been made of glass, as fragile as I felt. For the first time in thousands of years, I felt the pull of the Light. All I had to do was let go of my foolish sense of self, my damnable pride, and succumb completely.
Anael was wrong. Kindness was not my nature, though no Cherub would understand that. Loyalty was my nature. I was a warrior first and foremost, one of the finest swords forged by the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
The temptation was overwhelming. For a moment I was so close to surrender that I could hear all the Choirs singing. Only the soft weight in my hands stopped me. My friend moved his head just slightly, and took another labored breath.
I considered where I found myself. Anael was right about one thing. I had more strength than he did. I'd carried him for hours when he could scarcely raise his head. Even at the Threshold, I was able to move. If I dug my fingers into the dirt and crawled, I could pull myself over into freedom, but in order to do that, I would need both of my hands.
I could not bring myself to let go of my friend. His heart was slowing, and his body felt fragile, like a melting snowflake. If I left him so near the Threshold, he would surely cease to exist before he could cross it. And yet there was no way I could carry him further, except cupped in my palms as I had him then. As I considered that, I realized that I had just one choice. Anael surely would have protested if he still had a voice, and that thought made me more determined. I felt a conviction I had not felt in a thousand years, and I realized that I was finally about to do something right.
"Wake up, old friend!" I whispered. "Fly!"
With all my remaining strength, I lifted him high, and cast him in the direction of the light.