Chapter 2—Sheol Dar

He still thought he was screaming, surrounded by insufferable heat and suffocating smoke. He knew L3 was only inches away and by his side. He should've felt much heavier from the bunker gear, his face enclosed in his SCBA mask. Now, it would've seemed like ages ago since he was this man he could only see in his dreams, a Garret Geiger from before.

"L3? You…you alive, man?" he coughed, looking down at himself, finding that he was wearing a dirty, ragged tunic of sorts and darker dirty, ragged trousers. "Where are we?" He looked over to see L3 sitting up, panting and saw that he was wearing the same outfit. "What are we wearing?"

"I've got…no clue, Gar," the captain groaned. They both looked around at what seemed like the rolling red dunes of a desert. Above them, clouds of black drifted across a grey sky. "If I had to guess, the Mojave? But…weren't we just in that warehouse fire? Didn't we…?"

A loud bellow as if from some ancient battle horn rang out in the distance. Garret and L3 exchanged a shaken look. The call of the horn lasted for a long moment, and they ran to the top of the dune in the direction they thought it was coming from. As they reached the top, they saw a city beneath them, in the middle of a massive rocky gorge probably several miles wide in diameter, a city built from sharp blue crystalline structures that seemed to be rising from the midst of the deep round pit. The sound of stone grinding against stone as the city rose from the middle seemed to almost drown out the mournful howl of the horn. The two men could see several thin black forms, some that seemed to walk like men and others that seemed to stalk around like lions, but each had a silhouette unlike anything they'd ever seen, with sharp protrusion at the shoulders and elbows or spines lining their back. Once again, they exchanged a look.

"What if we are dead?" Garret asked. "What if this is…Hell?"

L3 glared at him. "Hell naw. I'm a church-goin man! Hell, I go to church more often than the reverend hisself! How the fuck I'm gonna wind up in Hell?"

Garret shrugged. "I don't have a clue. I didn't think I was that bad a guy, either…"

Lawrence Lamar Lincoln shook his head. "It's not bein' a 'bad guy' that gets you sent to Hell, Garret. I explained this to you this last Easter when you and Tina visited."

"I'm not trying to discuss religion, L3," Garret said as he started down the steep descent of the dune towards the city. "I am trying to get out of here, though and get back home."

L3 stayed put for a moment. "Wait, what? We don't even know where here is! What are you going to do, ask those…. things…for directions?"

Garret kept descending, the sand hot against his feet. "Look, you're right! We don't know where here is, but just staying up here isn't gonna get us anywhere, let alone home. Maybe those things are friendly, maybe they can help us out?"

"I don't know, but I've got a bad feeling, Gar…"

The descent to the city was demanding; the heat from the sand was only made worse by the heat from the two blue suns hanging high in the gray sky. As they got near the rocky terrain surrounding the gorge, the massive crystalline towers of the city loomed before them, some of them levitating into the air above, and the creatures were clearly visible as they took their place in military formations surrounding the city. Hulking figures seemingly made of bone and steel, their heads vaguely reminiscent of skulls, they appeared to be undead biomechanical monstrosities, like something out of a nightmare. Garret and L3 approached their ranks slowly, with Garret in the lead. "Uhm…excuse me, fellas?"

One of the nearest lion-shaped ones snapped its jaws and snarled. A humanoid one growled in a guttural-sounding language he'd never heard before, swinging its arm dismissively towards the two firefighters. L3 grabbed Garret and pulled him away. "Looks like they're not friendly after all! Let's head back towards the desert. Maybe there's some kind of clues back there!"

"As Emir Faisal said in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, 'there is nothing in the desert, and no man needs nothing,'" a smoky woman's voice purred from the ranks of biomechanical creatures. Garret and L3 turned to see the most beautiful woman either of them had ever seen. Tall, athletic, olive skin tone, long dark curly hair that coiled down to the middle of her back, full lips, trim eyebrows and bright green eyes, she grinned a grin with perfect teeth, other than canines somewhat sharper than the average person's. She wore a shoulder-less black dress with a high slit on the left side, revealing her shapely leg as she approached them in a menacingly slow stride, black mid-calf boots clicking on the stone beneath. "You are men, are you not?"

Garret looked at L3. "Well…of course we are-"

"Don't look at him for an answer, Garret," she hissed, her eyes flashing a bright green as she leaned against one of the humanoid monsters made of bone and steel. "A man speaks for himself."

L3 took a step forward. "Hey, lady, who the hell are you?"

She sneered and outstretched a graceful arm toward him, summoning a greenish-black smoke that slithered through the air and wrapped around L3's neck. He crumpled to his knees, trying to pull the smoke away from his neck. Garret tried to wave the smoke away and looked up at her. "What the fuck are you doing?! Let him go!"

With a flick of her wrist, she made a similar tendril of smoke lift Garret from the ground by his neck. She stepped toward them, her fanged grin wide as ever. "My name is Lilith. This land is Sheol Dar, my land, and I am God here. Is that clear, gentlemen?"

They both struggled to nod, but did so, and she released them from her smoke, which dissipated into nothing before them. As they coughed and got to their feet, she turned away from them and made a gesture in the air, and all of a sudden a large width of the ground they were standing on sprouted up into the air, rising as a tower from the earth. Lilith, the two firefighters and about twenty of the creatures both humanoid and quadruped now stood on a spire of earth about a hundred feet from the surface, leaving L3 and Garret to now look down upon the crystal city in the gorge. The fire captain was trembling now as he looked over the city, the horizon of the red dunes against the grey sky, and then turning around at the demons and Garret and Lilith. "Sheol…" he panted. "I've read about this place in the scriptures. This is a part of Hell…"

Garret went to his friend's side and Lilith laughed. "Let's be honest, you were thinking it already, Lawrence."

"What do you want from us?" Garret demanded. "What are we doing here?"

She seemed to move across the stone platform in a blur, that greenish-black smoke following after her as she was suddenly before him, her long black nails caressing his jawline, leaning in close. Her smell, of red wine and leather crept up into Garret's nose as she whispered to him. "You're becoming mine." With a step back, she snickered and waved to a pair of the biomechanical humanoids. "I only need one of you, though, so you should probably figure out which one of you it's going to be!"

L3 looked up at her slowly, still processing the shock of what was happening. Garret took a step toward her. "What? Then, why the fuck did you grab both of us? Why did we both have to die?!"

Lilith crossed her arms over her chest. "Insurance. In case the one that I take decides to get cold feet, I make the other one suffer. I saw in the fire that you two heroes were so close and I had to have you! So…who's it going to be?"

Garret turned away from her and knelt down beside L3. "What are we doing here, partner?"

L3 stared at him. "What do you mean? We're in Hell, Garret! And she's no woman…"

She grinned. "Actually, I was the first. After the kingdom of Man was denied to me, I was offered another kingdom and I accepted, becoming a High Devil and the Lady of Sheol Dar." She glared at them. "Ruling these demons has its perks, but I desire a more satisfying subject, one that I can really…" She bared her fangs. "…sink my teeth into."

L3 stood up. "I'll…"

Garret stepped in front of him. "Take me, Lilith."

L3 turned his partner to face him. "What are you doing? You have a little girl, Gar! Let me, my kids are all at least in high school!"

"Larry, you're a deacon at your church, a fire captain, and you have a granddaughter on the way," Garret explained. "You're a big part of your community, and I can't take you from your family."

L3 scanned his younger friend's face. "Garret, ever since you joined the fire department, I've watch you grow from the troubled young man you were before! I can't let you throw your life away, throw your family away!"

"Cap, I can take care of my family; I've got years ahead to work on that," Garret told him, then gave him a smirk. "Plus, you're too old to be slave to some she-devil. You get home to your family, okay?"

L3 fought back tears as he smiled. "You know, you're a hell of a guy, Garret Geiger."

Two of the humanoid demons grabbed Garret by the arms and pulled him away, while two of the lion-sized ones crept up to L3 and snarled. Lilith laughed. "Alright, that's enough of the drama, boys! Let's get on with this!"

"You're sending him home, right?" Garret asked her. "I agree to be your slave or victim or whatever!"

Lilith winked at him as she stepped forward and tickled his chin. "Of course, but not until after he bears witness to your torment."

Garret felt his blood run cold. "Wait, what?"

She nodded, still smiling. "You didn't think he was gonna get off that easy? It's not often I get men down here, Garret; I'm going to enjoy this!"

Greenish black smoke flowed from her fingertips once more, surrounding Garret's head and neck. The air was drawn from his lungs, and he choked and gagged and strained against the demons' grasp until his strength left him and his vision faded to black.

Garret awoke to a stone hitting his forehead. Groaning, he opened his eyes to see L3 chained to the wall of the cold dark domed room they were both in, with a single hole in the middle of the ceiling allowing a beam of sunlight to shine down into the center. He found himself chained to a red silk lined chaise lounge by his wrists, ankles and neck, his shirt gone. "L3? W-Where are we?"

It shook Garret to his core to see the older man trembling as he was. "I don't know. She dragged us here hours ago, broke my legs!" He pulled at a chain attached to a set of manacles on his wrists. "I don't know what she's planning, but it can't be good; she's strong, stronger than any human!"

"I'll tell you the truth," Lilith's sultry tones filled the room. They looked to the darkest corner of the room, where her green eyes glowed from the shadows until she stepped forward into the light from the ceiling. "What I have planned…" She dashed across the room, surrounded by her smoke, grabbing Garret's face in her long-nailed hands. "…involves a lot of pain."

Lawrence tried to look away most of the time, but the sounds Garret made did not just terrify him, they penetrated his memory and replayed over and over even after the younger man passed out. Lilith didn't have to sleep, and as Lawrence discovered, he couldn't sleep through what she was doing. He heard Garret scream, sob, and after a few days, even beg for mercy. Skin opened, blood flowed as well as tears, joints dislocated. Some of what she did to him involved sex, but there was little pleasure to be found for Garret as she tormented him, broke his body, mocked him, slapped him.

Days wore on, lasting weeks. The weeks turned to months, and the months dragged out to years. Lilith often lay beside the broken Garret, demanding in the sweetest voice that he tell her stories of his youth. Lawrence tried to get answers out of her in those moments, if only in a ham-handed gesture to pry her predatory attention away from the exhausted Garret. She would lazily throw her gaze in the fire captain's direction for a few moments, smirking while he pleaded with her. Then, she would go back to asking Garret questions that seemed to be pushing him towards the edge of insanity.

"My pet, what do you think you'll do when you get back home? Do you think that your wife will want you? You'll only disgust her. And your daughter? She'll grow up and find out just how disgusting her father was. Shame…"

"Garret, how long do you think you can hold out before you lose your mind? What do you think the point is, of holding on? You think that you can bounce back from everything you've been through?"

"Garret, why don't you scream as much anymore? Why don't you fight back anymore? Is it because you've realized your role? Have you accepted that you're mine and no one else's yet?"

L3 wasn't sure when he lost track of how long they were in that dome-shaped dungeon. Time didn't seem to make as much sense after a while. Time meant even less to Garret, who remembered his life before captivity as a distant concept, more of a dream than a memory. Lilith became the very core of his existence, and it was only by making her happy that he got to have any sort of enjoyment. After an age, she let him walk outside and he reveled in the sunlight and the breeze, the smell of air that wasn't so full of his own fear or sorrow or sweat. She let him eat fresh fruit and zesty, savory meat and moist, flavorful bread and drink cool water. She also fed L3, but not as well as she fed him, and he resented himself for it, something that Lilith seemed to encourage.

"Garret, what do you think Lawrence thinks about? Do you think he is starting to regret being your friend? Do you think he started regretting being your friend years ago? Do…do you think he hates you yet? Do you think he wishes he could've been my pet instead of you?"

Garret couldn't respond, and he was grateful that she didn't punish him for it. She often asked these questions while laying his head in her lap, stroking his shaggy unkempt hair. He hated those questions, and he wanted to hate her, but he was so happy when she wasn't hurting him, so happy to have a gentle touch, a warm, delicious meal and fresh clean water. When they were outside of the dungeon, they even had fun together, especially when they visited Shangri-Lah, the bright green place where she met with representatives of Heaven, the Archangels.

In Shangri-Lah, Garret experienced the closest thing he could remember to joy, he and Lilith chasing each other about the grassy meadows and fragrant orchards. In that hazy golden light, he forgot all the pain she'd caused he and L3; he even forgot completely about L3 sometimes. Lilith laughed when they tumbled in the grass together, a sincere, genuine laugh, not the cruel poisonous derisive laugh he'd come to know in their years together. And one day, he kissed her, a long, soft warm kiss. He would always remember how unlike herself she was for that brief moment after, that tiny, brief moment in eternity where she was something she probably had never been: vulnerable. And she hated him for it, threw him off of her, considered breaking Shangri-Lah's rule against violence, and then stormed off back to the main temple. Needless to say, she took it out of his flesh when they returned to Sheol-Dar.

Weeks later, L3 was allowed outside the dome, and he and Garret walked out onto the spire, taking in the waning light of the double sunset. L3 had so much he'd wanted to say to Garret, so much he wanted to ask him. For years, he'd wanted to encourage his friend, praise him for surviving as long as he had, admitting that he'd nearly hated him for how Lilith seemed to spoil him at times, tell him how much he'd suffered. Then, at that moment when they stood before the sunset, none of these thoughts seemed to matter. There was fresh air, there was sunlight, there was a beautiful vista before them, and he was standing without chains holding him. All he could manage to say was: "Garret," and his voice came out hoarse, tired, dry. It was strange; he hadn't heard his voice in years.

Garret had turned to face him then, the years showing on his face in deep lines along his eyes and cheeks. His eyes looked tired, ancient as he looked back at L3. "Yeah, L3?" his voice sounded choked up, as if he'd been waiting for a chance to talk to his friend.

L3 had felt the tears burning at the corners of his eyes, a reaction, a sensation he hadn't felt in so long due to being desensitized. That moment that they had right there on the spire, was the most beautiful peaceful moment they'd had since first arriving in Sheol. Every horror seemed years away, seemed almost as faded as all those beautiful memories from before, of his wife Mary, of the four children they'd raised, of the two grandchildren and one on the way. At that moment, he could barely remember those faces, and somewhat clean water brought him more joy than those memories used to. So, he reached out and put a hand on Garret's shoulder. "Beautiful…isn't it?"

Garret had blinked at him, as if surprised, as if disappointed in what L3 had said. Then, it had looked as if he'd forced himself to smile and said: "Yeah. Beautiful."

One day, Garret sat on the edge of the spire, looking down at the crystal city and its towers as the sun glistened off the peaks and parapets, the emerald hills of Shangri-Lah in the distance. Lilith came up behind him and wrapped her arms around his neck, gently. "My pet, I wanted to apologize for what happened in Shangri-Lah."

Garret's memories for the past several years were largely a blur of Lilith hurting him in some way or another, so whatever had happened in Shangri-Lah that she would have apologized for was unclear to him. "What do you mean, love?"

"When you…kissed me," she explained, her voice low when she said the word. "You see; I haven't been kissed like that since the dawn of the planet. Once, very briefly I knew love. But I was ambitious, and for that, love was taken from me. Paradise was taken from me, given to other humans and I had to watch them prosper. So you see, a kiss holds a bitter memory for me, a memory of hurt. You won't hurt me, will you, Garret?"

He wanted to. He had wanted to. Everything horrible that she'd done to him, all the pain and all the shame. But she'd also given him food and water, she'd also shown him great kindness after the fact. She'd held him, touched him, made love to him. He had a faded, blurred memory of a wife and child he'd left behind, but it didn't seem real, they weren't real. Lilith was real; he could smell her, taste her, feel her. He leaned back against her arm. "No, I won't hurt you, Lilith. I am yours."

She sighed. "Good. But something is required of me, required of you, required of us."

Garret stood and turned to face her. "What do you need me to do?"

She caressed his cheek. "For millennia, demonkind and angelkind have maintained a delicate peace, and that pact has been based around the preservation of the planes. You see, Heaven and Hell are all accessible from the Edge of the Earth, a several-mile length of land that includes Sheol-Dar and Shangri-Lah, lesser planes of Hell and Heaven, embassies of their sovereignty, if you will. Souls come to the Crystal City in Sheol-Dar or go to the Golden Meadow in Shangri-Lah for processing into further planes based on their character; its these souls that provide the energy to maintain the border. Over the centuries, troubled souls and rogue demons have broken free from these embassies and fled across the border to torment humanity. This weakens the border further, making it easier for these souls to escape."

"What can I do, my love?" Garret asked her, holding her hands in his. "I am only a man."

Lilith grinned. "For now. In order to retrieve these wayward souls and demons, Heaven and Hell needed someone who was of both planes, Man and Angel. After much debate, it became clear to those of us at the Edge of the Earth that we had to utilize the soul of a Man and implant them with the power of an Angel in order for them to be able to cross the border and serve as our Retriever."

"Retriever?" Garret laughed. "Like a dog?"

"You're already my pet!" Lilith snickered, kissing his lips gently. "Why not be a dog?"

Garret looked down at the Crystal City. "So…I'll be going back to Earth?"

She turned his head to face her again, her eyes fierce. "Yes. But that's not your world anymore, not your home, my pet!"

He nodded, unconvincingly. "Right."

Lilith snarled and grabbed him by the neck with both hands, raising him off his feet. "You are mine now, Garret Geiger! I've spent these last few years trying to beat that into you!" She let him fall at her feet, coughing. "Do you remember your wife, Tina? How about your daughter, Gwen?"

He gasped as he caught his breath; memories that had seemed shadowed and faded now seemed to come to light and color-in. Garret saw sunbathing with Tina at North Beach just south of Henry Kalven River, picking her up and throwing her in the water when she said it was too cold. He saw their wedding on a hot and sticky August day, a beautiful ceremony at Central Park where at least they had the shade. Then he saw the day his only child, Gwen Anna Geiger was born, the stupid mustache he'd had on in all the pictures with her and Tina in that hospital bed. He saw all the picnics with the Station 4 crew, his little girl playing with L3's granddaughter, Aisha. Shaking with terror and anger, he looked up at Lilith. "Y-You bitch! What have you done to me?"

The demoness scowled. "Apparently not enough; you've managed to hide away memories of your family from me. But you can't keep those memories if you don't have a soul, my pet!"

He was able to flash her a confused look for only a moment before her boot swung into his chest, throwing him from the edge of the spire. In mid-air, he could only flail helplessly as he tried to turn and right himself, as if it might save him from the fall. Wind rushed past him as he considered whether he could die again, and he managed to turn in time to see his descent upon the Crystal City, its streets full of souls. His body tensed as he neared one of the peaks, and then he realized that he wouldn't reach the ground. The stop was abrupt, and he felt his body grow cold and numb almost immediately as he bent in half over the point of the tower, its spike having impaled his body. He tasted blood, felt the trauma causing his body to tremble, and heard a ringing in his ears. A shadow fell over him and he looked up to see Lilith hovering over him, her dress flowing in the breeze.

"You can't die here, my pet, but you can lose your soul, have it trapped here in the Crystal City," she explained, gesturing towards the crystal towers around him with a grin. "And all the pleasure and agony of emotion goes with it."

Garret felt something rushing out of him, not breath, not fluid. It left him feeling groggy and cold when it was gone though, a feeling that seemed to subside moments after Lilith lifted him from the tower's peak. Then, he only felt detached, and in a way that was different from how he'd felt in the middle years of Lilith's torture, between the pain and shame at the beginning and the Stockholm Syndrome at the end. He could recall every horrific moment, he could even recall all the memories with Tina, Gwen and L3 from before. But the only difference now was that he felt nothing whether he imagined the good or the awful.

Lilith walked him to Shangri-Lah, stopping as they reached the main temple, surrounded by its colorful trees, fragrant flowers and ornate statues. She pulled him in tight and gave him a long kiss, running her fingers through his hair. "I'm going to miss you, my pet. The only comfort in your leaving is that you won't be able to love your family when you return." She grinned a wicked grin. "It will be inevitable that you will return to me, my pet."

Garret had the memory of hating her, recognized all she'd done to him and all he could do was nod as she spoke. The doors to the temple opened outward on their own, and a tall grey-haired man with a shaggy beard stepped out in a white tunic, leather trousers, boots and coat with a damaged chain mail shirt between the tunic and coat. He made his way toward the two of them, smiling at Garret with a weathered well-sculpted face and golden eyes, using a sheathed longsword as a walking stick. Lilith regarded the tall man white a glare and kissed Garret one last time and slinked away as dusk began to fall. "Goodbye, my pet. Nice to see you, Michael!" she called back over her shoulder.

The tall man waved after her as he stepped up to Garret, shaking his head at Lilith as she went. Garret looked up at him and the man raised an eyebrow. "Garret Geiger, I am Archangel Michael, High Seraphim and commander of The Army of Heaven. I understand that you are the offering to be our Retriever, hunt down the wayward souls and demons on Earth?"

Garret nodded slowly. "Yes. That's me."

Michael scrutinized him, then placed a hand on Garret's forehead. There was a flash of bright light and Garret was left blinking. "Oh, Man. Man, she took your soul. Only a fraction of your humanity remains, barely enough for the Binding to take effect. Lilith is a cruel creature; why would she take your soul when she could still torment you?"

"She wanted me unable to feel emotion when I return to Earth, so that my marriage and family fall apart," Garret explained in monotone, looking Michael in the eye. "I know I should be angry or heart-broken or something, but…"

The Archangel shook his head. "No. Don't worry about that. Come."

Garret followed him into the temple, which conceptually was a misnomer; when the two of them walked in through the doors they were suddenly in another realm, a place with a dark green sky and a white tile floor covered in a few inches of crystal clear water. It was a strange place and it made Garret uncomfortable; it might've made him afraid if he hadn't lost his soul. "Where are we?" he asked.

Michael stopped and turned to face Garret, his expression a gentle smile. "This is simply a small and very calm realm in which I can perform the Binding."

Garret shrugged. "Well, let's get this over with."

The Archangel raised his hands overhead and there was a flash of light. A small golden shard appeared just above his head and floated down into his hands. Michael squinted against its light, regarding the artifact with something akin to fear or sadness. Garret saw this. "What is it?"

"This is the source of your power," Michael said grimly, walking the shard over to him. "It's a fragment of an Archangel's soul, the only part that remains when an angel's life comes to an end."

Garret admired the soul fragment. "An angel can die?"

Michael looked at him with all the warmth of the grave. "An angel can be killed."

"Who could've killed an Archangel?" Garret asked him.

"Your lover, The First Woman," Michael told him. "She is very powerful, and has been since the Dawn of Man. She killed a lot of angels during the war after Samael and his angels established their kingdom in Hell, becoming Devils and Demons. A hundred years after Man rose from nature, I managed to corner her while she attempted to overrun Shangri-Lah and I almost killed her. Tetragrammaton, the Will of God, stopped me and declared that Heaven and Hell needed to form a truce in order to preserve the balance between the planes. Ever since, Lilith and I have worked to preserve the Edge of the Earth, turning dead men into Retrievers and sending them back."

Garret looked back over his shoulder in the direction he'd come from and shrugged. "Why not kill her anyway?"

Michael groaned. "We keep the peace now. Killing Lilith at this point, when the Edge of the Earth is compromised, could drive Samael to war, and he would come charging through Sheol-Dar without any barrier to stop him. Then he would take his demons to Earth and conquer Mankind."

"What if I killed her?" Garret asked him. "I have no alliance with Heaven or Hell."

The Archangel smiled. "Now, that's the right train of thought. You'll have your chance at vengeance, Garret Geiger. And this…" He offered him the golden shard in both hands. "…is the key."

Garret reached out to the shard and paused, looking up at Michael. "And when this is done with, L3 and I go home to Earth?"

Michael nodded. "I swear it. Are you ready?"

Nodding slowly, Garret took the golden shard and it started to vibrate violently in his hands. Reflexively, he tried to loosen his grasp, but found he couldn't let go. A powerful energy started to pulse through his hands and up his arms. Looking down at his arms, he saw golden lines running up from his hands, glowing as they made their way up to his shoulders and disappearing under his dirty tunic. The lines burned as he felt them cross his chest and run both up his neck and down his abdomen. Soon the fragment was gone from his hands, having dispersed into the lines crossing his body. He felt strength and pain surge through his muscles, and watched as his body started changing from his fingertips up, transforming into a dark bony biomechanical armor looking like a combination between a human skeleton, muscle structure and the carapace from an arthropod. The armor continued to crawl up his neck, covering his face in a black crystalline visor. When it was all done, Garret looked down to see his reflection.

Looking back up at him was a terrifying form of ribs, spiked joints and armor plates, his head a smooth featureless skull of obsidian, trimmed by cheekbones, chin and two sharp ears on either side of the skull. He groaned and a red flame licked across the face of the obsidian helmet. "What? It…changes when I talk?" He cast a glance up at Michael, who seemed surprised at his appearance. That didn't comfort Garret. "You're making me think that this isn't a normal transformation?"

"No," Michael said quickly, walking around him and looking over the armor. "This must be a side effect of losing your soul. Fascinating…"

"Is this a problem?" Garret groaned, clenching his fists and rolling his shoulders restlessly. "Because I feel great! I'm ready to spill some First Woman Blood…"

He turned on his heel, but the Archangel grabbed him quickly by his shoulder. "Not yet. Now is not the time, Retriever! You're nowhere near powerful enough to fight Lilith, let alone kill her! And I guess I'll remind you that we don't want Samael to invade Earth and enslave humanity, don't we?"

Garret sighed. "No. I don't want that."

Michael patted his shoulder. "Be patient. Vengeance will be yours. Until then, understand that separation between the planes is your responsibility, and in order to maintain that separation, you must maintain the border here at the Edge of the Earth. Your powers will allow you to sniff out the souls and demons that wander the Earth, pull them from their hiding places and kill them, returning them to the Crystal City and the Golden Meadow. You will gain power from these battles, growing stronger with each one, but you must be patient if you truly seek Lilith's downfall."

Garret cast his eyes in the direction they'd entered the realm, then with a step, dashed across the water-covered tiles within an instant. "I'm fast," he said, then reached out toward the door and he felt his hand vibrate as he did so, illuminating the outline of the doors in green. "I…I found the door?"

Michael was at his side. "Yes. Finding things is your specialty. Your speed, your strength, your inhuman vitality; these things you'll discover are the natural gifts of being part-angel."

The doors opened and Garret stepped out, dashing across the stone path and emerald grass to the Cliffside overlooking the valley of Sheol-Dar, its Crystal City and the spire where Lilith's dome sat. Garret wanted the helmet off and the obsidian visor split and opened, dissolving into the air until his entire head was uncovered. He saw the Crystal City beneath him, stared across at the dome, and felt a visceral drive to destroy it all. Green fire gathered around his armored hands and he clenched them into fists. "This is quite the burden…why me?"

"It had to be someone," Michael told him. "Lilith loves her victims and we need a half-human to walk between planes."

"I get it," Garret told him. "Let's get going. Earth ain't gonna save itself."

Michael nodded, crossing his arms over his chest. "Very well. You're in my thoughts, boy."

Suddenly, gravity seemed to release Garret, and he rocketed up into the sky, spinning and turning end over end as he ascended into the grey sky. He passed through a thick layer of cloud cover, the sky became a blur and it grew heat the higher he went. He closed his eyes and the heat increased beyond his comfort. And when he awoke, he and L3 were climbing out of a pile of debris and ash.