Building towards the climax with a demonic Joan of Arc and a little visit from Lilith. Gods, have mercy on my stupid closing scenes.
I am dressed in chainmail and armor, my breastplate molded to fit my bosom and gauntlets padded with leather. My saber is drawn, and with it I direct my Legion, 777 penitent, hardened veteran Damned mortals wishing to go to Purgatory and Judgment through faithful service. That promise may or may not be a lie, and my men and women are scarred and mangled with sins and vices manifest on their bodies like unholy stigmata, and they are dressed in Roman armor, for Beelzebub is a stickler for traditional dress amongst his legions. I have a Spartan helmet worthy of Ares with a red fringe, forged from the finest of adamantine.
I stand on a podium on the practice fields behind Beelzebub’s military bunker. I open my mouth and speak into the microphone:
“You’re all hardened soldiers of the Legion, and you may think, what is a pampered princess like Samael’s consort doing meddling in military affairs? Well let me speak my peace: what I lack in experience I make up for in passion. Passion for our lords and princes of Hell and the desire to see Heaven toppled and the angels brought to justice. They put you here to be tormented against your will. But Hell believes in humanity’s free will – it is what Samael sacrificed so much for, to free Adam and Eve from the shackles of a slave master. Yahweh is long gone, he abandoned his throne at the peak of the Fall, and the angels fight a pointless war on decrees long forgotten from a Father who thinks us better off dead. And not just the Damned, Michael rules over Heaven in his Father’s stead, and do you think he looks upon his Father’s desertion as divine favor? God has cast angel and demon alike out of his grace! I say, the angels defend an empty throne room, and they dare wage war on the paradise we have built on the ash and bone of the Fallen, this Hell where so many migrant spirits and wayward souls flock, our home? To the wastes of Gehennom with that! With Judas as my second in command, we will be the mercenaries of Beelzebub’s Legion, for only those of mortal bloods can easily kill immortals, for we have tasted death before. Our very blood is poisonous to angels’ immortality. I will be at the helm with my flute, binding angels and exorcising any seraphim or ophanim or cherubim that stands in our way as you raze down the hosts! Onwards to Heaven, I say! We will drive back the angels once and for all and end this most ill-fortuned of Civil Wars!”
There is a clattering of spears and swords, and my legion roars their approval. As planned, Judas comes to the forefront and climbs the podium to take his place beside me as my second-in-command. He is dressed in the simple armor and leather and robes of a Sicario, what would have been seen in Jerusalem during Herod’s rule. He raises his sica to his lips and kisses it, then raises the blade high.
“My lips kiss ruin into my enemies! My lips damned the Savior to three days in Hell. What power do my lips and limbs have but those of the most decorated soldier in the Legion? Comrades, you know me well, we have fought for two millenia beside each other against a war we did not choose. Some of us fell under Charlemagne’s sword, some of us were cast into the Jordan River and drowned for not bowing to the King of the Jews, all of us were damned for our sins, but I say, let us make a nesting ground of Heaven, let our atonement be in the blood of the holy, for to drink an angel’s ichor fills the spirit with the Pentecost, and our disfigurements and cancers will disappear, and we shall be healed and made whole again in New Jerusalem. For that is the outcome in this most blessed of uprisings: salvation for the Damned. If Heaven belongs to us, it is we who become the angels, and we who decide our fates! Follow the Iscariot and Shaylen on to glory, board this train headed skyward and let the mettle of our creeds and adamant souls be tested in the fires of Mulciber’s forge!”
There is uproarious applause, then chants of “Sicario!” and “Princess!” Training begins, and I train with Judas, who instructs me further in sword work on my saber. His sica is fast and sharp. I demonstrate outside reaps and one-armed shoulder throws to him, and he laughs at the precision and grace with which I execute my moves.
“Asmodeus taught you well,” Judas laughs in the shade of a fig tree on the outskirts of the practice grounds. He lifts me and throws me, and I do an inside roll to protect my inner organs. We rep it out, then back to blade work. “That devil always knows how to have a good time, and I’m sure training a green princess was delightfully twisted to him.”
I smile, then, when I have wrestled him to the ground with our blades crossed, I whisper. “Judas, will our plan work? At what point do we give me our forces to Michael and surrender?”
“At the gates to the throne room that Michael guards, in the second heaven, Machon. Michael will bluff with his forces to allow your legion to seem like it is winning and approach. Machon is his dominion. Leave the rest to me and the archangels,” Judas murmurs, then rolls and tops me with quick work of his sica to make it look like we are still practicing and not plotting the downfall of Hell. I suppose a union of both betrayal and martial practice are occurring in a confusing fashion. Up this close, Judas smells like old silver coins. Maybe it is just his armor, or maybe something far more wretched and bloody.
He is a panther atop me, our blades crossed at my neck, and he leans down with an arcane, untamed smile. Pursing his lips, in the shade of a bent old fig tree, he kisses my cheek with passion. “So I betray you to Heaven’s deliverance, and Yeshua’s words come true: “You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations—and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy generation.” I shall take my place with Peter and Thomas and Matthew and James and Levi and John, with sweet Mary Magdalene and sweeter still Salome and Joanna and the Eternal Virgin. They are still my family, you know. I often thought of them in the barracks, when I was bleeding out from mortal wounds in the shitty demon infirmaries and they healed me with their necromancies when all I wanted to do was flee with my soul and die, die, die. Die and ascend, on a hangman’s noose lifting my corpse out of Hell. I deserve no less, you know.” His whisperings in my ear are like the slithering of a snake.
One of the troops calls for Judas for guidance on a lock and parry, and he dismounts me and goes over to supervise, and I let out a strangled breath. I inhale and exhale quickly, terror rising at his harsh, prodigious words. I am putting my fate in the hands of the divine, a choice I have never had before, as I had only been a martyr for the infernal, no free will in my bonds to Hell.
At the end of practice, I am bruised and happy, resolute in my secret plan, and address the 777 souls that have bound themselves to my seal in blood. In aligning them with my sigil, they will become redeemed the moment I drink from the archangel’s Holy Grail, or so Judas has said. So will Samael, as I possess his heart.
“You’ve done me proud, my men and women!” I proclaim, thrusting my saber into the wood of the podium and standing proud, arms open. “I will lead us on in a fortnight’s time to Machon, to claim the throne Michael guards and for once and all end this struggle of holy and infernal. Are you with me, you men of steel and glory?”
There are yells and hurrahs and a thousand tongues screaming my name.
Judas, besides me, places his hand on my back.
“Shalom,” he says under his breath, then squeezes my shoulder blade.
I cannot tell if it is a blessing or the curse of betrayal, but I am pinning all my hopes on this Iscariot.
Naamah, Astaroth, Suri and I go to the River Styx for the water purification ceremony the night before my wedding. We strip of our clothes on the banks of the river and hang them on a linden tree that weeps over the water with succulent blossoms.
“Oh, Shay, you dear thing, tonight is the night you truly become a woman,” Naamah sings, her breasts proud and blushed sandstone and high. Astaroth looks like the Sumerian goddess of love and war she once was, and Suri is fiery veins and igneous and obsidian rock. The women form a triangle around me and take an alabaster jar as we wade into the waters, Suri drawing the red waters into the vessel and pouring it over my head.
“I gift you fire, so that your love never falters,” she whispers, and the magic of this wedding night ceremony means the three demonic fairy godmothers’ blessings will come true, as any bride of Hell can attest. This is where the myth of fairy godmothers comes after all, from the purification ceremony of Pandemonium that weaves magic into the veins of its archdemonesses and children alike.
As the ruby waters pour over my breasts, cool and resplendent, I feel heat sear my veins and then clarity. My passion for Samael foments.
Suri passes the alabaster jar to Naamah. “I gift you clarity, so that your judgment as a princess will be true.” She drizzles the liquid down my back and it flows in a river down my buttocks.
My eyes sting then ice, then the truth of things become apparent: I am the real key to Heaven, Saint Peter be damned. The future suddenly becomes clear to me, and I see Samael, and all the archdemons, returned to their angelic forms under the Tree of Life, made anew. It is a secret I thank the Lord for, a God I have never really believed in despite everything.
Finally, Astaroth takes the jar and scoops a generous amount of water. She anoints my brow with a wet upside-down cross. “I give you beauty, of not only the body, but the soul, so that you may be pleasing to the eyes and heart of your bridegroom.”
My hair grows in luster, my skin grows golden, my freckles bloom cheekily, and my nails grow gleaming and long.
“Thank you, sisters,” I say, at last taking the alabaster jar and scooping it up full to douse myself in the waters. I open my mouth and gulp down the red shards of the past, then swallow the crimson future and all garnet doubts. Nothing but peace.
We return to the shore and don our ritual black robes. Astaroth takes one of her doves out from a dovecote she keeps on these banks for future brides – usually her augury is costly, but for me it is free. She lets it flit about for a little while, it coos in her hand, then she snaps its neck with a decisive oomph and slits its belly with her talon. The guts pour out in her hands. She tangles her talons in the heart, lungs, and liver and her eyes glaze over.
“In you rests the fate of Hell. That is all I am allowed by the grace of my pagan ancestry to see. Choose wisely, Shaylen,” Astaroth says, discarding the dead dove remain into the river.
I shudder despite the summer heat. “I will,” I say.
They take me to the bridal chamber in Lilith’s palace of worship and bedeck me in the lunar purple abaya Suri gave me, henna my feet and hands in intricate spirals and place dried resins in the folds of my pockets to perfume my body, oil my hair with lavender, then paint and manicure my nails. Suri, Naamah, and Astaroth are joined in sisterly love songs in Hebrew, the Song of Songs in particular in Solomon’s native tongue, for the demons claim Lilith as Queen of Sheba wrote that particular book of the Old Testament after fancying Solomon lover for a time. They are sung at Lilith’s temple all the time. Finally, they place a betel nut in my mouth.
“For the sweetness of love,” Suri whispers, then takes it from my tongue.
Adorned in fine beaten silver the shape of the moon around my neck in honor of lunar Lilith, I walk to the Well of Wishes at the heart of Lilith’s bridal chamber courtyard, where it is said she cried her first tears at God’s betrayal and harbored her sister Shekinah as she fled God into the wastes of th human world, having fled from Heaven on high. Lilith is Queen of the Fairies, more fey than human, and has lost most of her demonic qualities long ago, roving Earth in her broken yet glorious courts of neutral angels, now earth and sea and mountain elementals. She rarely visits Hell, just to stock her pleasure houses with new beauties and take offerings from the temple, but there is the whisper of bells at ankles and baby bones, and as I make my wish and toss the betel nut into the well, I see Lilith’s red hair reflected in the moonlight in the night waters.
“Queen,” I say, then bow so low in my abaya my wine-stain sleeves touch the ground.
Lilith laughs, grasping my hands in hers. “Oh dear Eve, I remember you. We were sisters once, how much I long for those days. Two wives of Adam, two lovers in the garden we were, it was not just Samael who tempted you, my child.”
She is like the Pre-Raphaelite painting by Dante Gabiel Rossetti of Lilith at her toilette. A fair maiden of auburn hair in red and gold dress with a diadem of rubies at her white brow and earrings of peridot dripping from her ears. She smooths the hair back under my abaya and removes my veil to give me a passionate kiss. Her tongue roves my mouth then she bites my lower lip playfully.
I am in awe. This is the blessing of the Fairy Queen, more powerful than anything in Hell, for Lilith is more tangible than all the Qliphothic realms, of Earth and celestial fire. I smell pines in Maine and salt water of the Atlantic on her breath. She is wild, a goddess, and I am dumbstruck.
There are rings at her fingers and bells at her toes. She licks my lips, then lowers my veil and lifts the floating betel nut from the well to eat it. “Dearest sister Eve, you are Jacob’s Ladder now, cannot you see it?” She laughs like a coyote, the sound a trickster song. “You will be the death of all pain. True, evil will still exist in the world, as it was when Samael planted the seed of choice in the hearts of men, and nature can be kind and cruel like me, but that evil will no longer come from Hell. No more demons, no more angels, we shall be more like the fey. Free and wild, riding the winds on wings of fancy and love. In you lay the sleeping generations, and in this promise you have made, lay true endings. But furthermore, a beginning.”
And with a beat of owl wings, Lilith lifts into the night sky and becomes indistinguishable from the moon. I gasp and fall to my knees shaking. Lilith does not even deign to grace her first love Samael with her presence, much less any archdemon. She is the true untamable, wild wolf woman. Owl of the night and giver and taker of life. To have her prophesize my bargain with Heaven coming true, having the true name of God she has never told anyone giving her even more clarity than Astaroth, that I will free demon and angel alike, is a secret I will take to my grave if these plans do not work out.
I go back into the bridal chambers, face haunted. Naamah, Astaroth, and Suri are feasting on bacon-wrapped dates and Chardonnay. I disguise my surprise at the kiss of the Whore of Babylon and her sweet as sugar words, then dine later that night and go to sleep in a silken bower, my belly full, a ruby apple, or heart, ring shining full and round on my hand.