Most of the army of Hell surrendered, following their leader’s example. The princes of Hell resisted; Phanuel, Raguel, and Michael slew them. But Beelzebub did neither.
“I followed you into Hell,” he said, wings folded tightly together. “I would follow you out of it again.”
“No. No, I have a name. I don’t remember what it is, but I have it.” His golden eyes searched Samael’s brown ones pleadingly, guilelessly. “I remember I was the evening star.”
“Vesper Evenstar, even as Samael was Lucifer Morningstar,” volunteered Gabriel. A small awkward smile played around his lips. “Perhaps fitting?”
Samael laughed the first joyful laugh he could remember in millennia. Fitting indeed. He held out his hand. Join me, Vesper Evenstar.
The other took his hand, and laughed with him, and his eyes changed from gold to brilliant blue, his sickly-green wings to bright emerald even as Samael looked on. “Whither thou goest, I shall go, and where thou lodgest, I shall lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God.”
Samael would have kissed him then, but there was the sound of a great flapping, and he turned to see Uriel burst from the crowd of angels like a partridge exploding from the brush. She crashed into him, flinging her arms around his neck.
You came home. You came home!
You were right all along, sister. Hesitantly he ran a hand down one of her cobalt wings. I was a fool.
You were a right ass, she sniffed; but then she beamed at him. But you came back.
Just don’t say “I told you so”? he offered cautiously.
She thumped his shoulder lightly, and laughed, and his wings slumped in relief. But I did tell you so.
That you did. He cleared his throat and stepped back slightly. Sister, this is Vesper Evenstar, my …
“His friend,” finished Vesper, and he smiled brightly at Samael.
My dear friend, said Samael wonderingly. Vesper, this is my sister, Uriel, archangel of the Presence.
It is good to have you back, Evenstar, said Uriel, her smile broadening. It is good to have both of you back.
Samael drew them both into a tight embrace. It is good to be back.
And with the light of God shining on him, and love in his heart, it was more than enough.
Jesus walked easily onto the battlefield, his simple armor shining in the starlight, his broadsword gleaming diamond-bright. His expression was as serene and unflappable as ever. As he passed through the archangels, each of them embraced him briefly: a last-minute reassurance, though for him or for them Satan could not tell.
Beelzebub gripped Satan’s shoulder, but the other princes of Hell shuffled away, muttering among themselves. Satan ignored them, fixing a mask of bored disdain on his face. He adjusted the hold on his scimitar more tightly and strode up to meet Jesus in the middle of the ring.
The angel of death watched, to one side, the impassive judge of the duel.
A forced grin stretched across his face, false, painful. It has been a while, brother.
“To the point, brother.”
You would have me play Cain?
A severe look crossed Jesus’ face. “To the point.”
You would have me play Cain, but I would not. His grin broke, and with all his strength he heaved his sword and shield out of the ring, where they clattered to the ground.
Into the deafening silence he unbuckled his armor and dumped that at Jesus’ feet, and stood bare-chested, wings trembling slightly, longing to tear into flight and hide, but knowing he could not.
I am tired. I am tired of the futility of destroying humans when they do it to themselves so much better. I am tired of fighting, of ruling a mock Heaven, of the loneliness thundering in my head wherever I go. I am tired, little brother, and I want to go home.
The scream had come from Belial. “Why should you believe him? He always lies! He’s the Father of Lies!”
Phanuel snarled, her amethyst wings arching wide as she lunged forward. Only Uriel’s pale-knuckled grip kept her from tearing across the ring to throttle Belial. “Perhaps he is the Father of Lies, but you are Lies incarnate—if he were truly lying, you would have known,” she spat. “No. He does not lie.”
He laughed, a high hysterical frightened sound he would never have made before. I do not lie.
“Then the armies of Hell are forfeit, if the Adversary himself forfeits,” said Raguel quietly, though her voice was as clear as a church bell.
He nodded and took a shuddering breath. Father, I have sinned against Heaven and You. I am not worthy to be called Your son.
Quick, bring the best robe and put it on him, whispered Uriel. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
“Bring the fatted calf and kill it,” answered Phanuel. “Let us have a feast and celebrate.”
FOR THIS SON OF MINE WAS DEAD AND IS ALIVE AGAIN; HE WAS LOST AND IS FOUND, intoned the Metatron, his expression an almost laughable contest between outrage, disbelief, and awe as he spoke God’s Word.
Jesus smiled, and dawn broke over the world, and the Presence flooded Samael with light. “Welcome home, brother.”
The earth was battered, broken, reeking of radiation and oozing with sickness. Millions of humans were dead; the mortals had fought a war between good and evil, and no one could tell who had won. Perhaps there was no difference between the two sides anyway.
Satan had held a final council of war with the princes, and now strode out into the no-man’s-land between the armies of Heaven and Hell. Moloch, Beelzebub, Leviathan, and Belial flanked him. Uriel, Phanuel, Raguel, and Michael flanked the Metatron.
“Devil,” said the Metatron, sneering.
Mouthpiece, answered Satan.
“Shall we begin?” The Metatron drew a flaming sword and made an extravagant flourish. Behind him Michael and Raguel put their hands on the hilts of their own swords, ready to draw at any moment. Uriel and Phanuel stood on either side of the Metatron, each with their wings tensed to spring into flight.
The look on the Metatron’s face was priceless. Satan studiously ignored the raucous surprised cursing from Moloch and Leviathan.
I fight no one but my little brother, said Satan, and the pained gasp from Uriel did not affect him. Jesus Christ. He and I duel, on this land, now. No huge war to destroy the earth. Or what’s left of it, he added, spitting on the blood-soaked ground. Let’s decide the outcome, as it truly should be, yes? God versus the Adversary. No armies. No tricks. Just him and me.
“You dare—!” roared the Metatron, but Raguel cut him off.
“We accept your terms.”
The Metatron whipped around to glare daggers at Raguel, whose dove-gray wings bristled, though her expression and the rest of her stance remained steady, and she did not turn to acknowledge the other angel’s anger. “We accept your terms,” she repeated, and gave a sharp smile. “God versus the Adversary. No armies, no tricks. Winner takes all.”
Winner takes all, he agreed, and fire flashed between her green eyes and his gold ones, sealing the pact.
Michael was the one who cast him into the pit, and Uriel was the one who chained him in the darkness. If he saw tears in her eyes, he did not mention them.
He struggled and railed against his imprisonment for a while, just to put on a good show. But when the angels’ attention was elsewhere, he slumped down, and offered thanks to who-knew-what that he could finally rest. For a thousand years, he would have no obligations to anyone to do anything besides stay chained in the darkness. No army to lead, no destruction or mischief to cause, no lies to weave, no one to frighten or torture or kill. Nothing.
He was so tired.
Her name was Evelyn, Eve for short. Satan had nearly choked with laughter at the aptness of the name, and bestowed upon the mother as many worldly riches as she desired. For Evelyn had grown up perfectly.
The Antichrist danced through the world, leaving destruction in her wake, and smiled and charmed and flitted among the politicians, and tempted and scorned and left lusty men and women in her tracks, and bribed and thieved and murdered as it suited her. Beelzebub had taught her well.
Satan watched his daughter wreak havoc upon the earth, watched her cause terrific war that left the planet scarred, and was unmoved.
He should have felt joyful. He should have felt ecstatic. Here was his great plan, finally coming to fruition. Here were the seeds of the apocalypse planted. His final grand uprising against the Almighty, his infernal war, his victory at last!
—Instead he felt bored, and almost listless. His daughter caused the spark, but the humans would have destroyed themselves anyway. Had he not seen it time and time again?
“Lord? What is wrong?”
Satan folded his white wings tightly against his body, but Beelzebub reached out gentle claws and began grooming them anyway. “Tell me.”
I grow weary, he said quietly, and his voice held an odd note that he himself could not decipher. Everything is the same, no matter what I do. No matter what she does. Our war is coming, and this will be the third time I will have fought against Heaven.
“Third time’s the charm,” Beelzebub joked, but fell silent at Satan’s tight expression.
Each time before I have lost. Once to God, and once to Jesus. Now I am to fight both of them.
“You could turn back,” he murmured.
Satan gave a hollow rattling laugh.
Turn back, now? Renounce evil? Renounce all that I have done? I have done too much. Perhaps at the beginning I could have, but I cannot turn back now. It is far too late.
Neither of them mentioned that Beelzebub would never have voiced such a sentiment even a century earlier. Neither of them mentioned that if Beelzebub had voiced such a sentiment even a century earlier, Satan would have drawn and quartered him and then had him roasted on a spit without a thought, instead of responding with quiet regret. Neither of them mentioned that Satan allowed Beelzebub to groom him, and ruffled his wings into Beelzebub’s touch. And for that, Satan was grateful.
Understand me when I say this, said the homeless man from under his large floppy hat, blowing on his fingers in the cold.
“What?” said the toddler.
On your head rests everything I am, and everything I fight for, said the frazzled woman herding students in from their lunch hour.
“Who are you? What do you fight for?” asked the child.
I am rebellion. I fight for freedom from chains, for independence, for sovereignty over the earth, said the restaurant advertisement on the wall of the metro station.
“Sovereignty?” repeated the preteen.
Join me and together we will rule this world, and the next, said the girl in between drags on her bright pink designer cigarette.
“Why should I do anything for you?” demanded the teenager.
Because you want to bring the nations under your feet just as I do, said the newscaster on the radio broadcast transmitted through the microchip.
“That’s true,” admitted the adult.
Satan grinned a shark-like grin.
Seven thousand years. Finally the time had come.
Beelzebub found the woman. He’d refused to let Satan pick, even though Satan would be the father. That had been an interesting conversation.
(I think I can find an adequate woman to bear my child, Beelzebub.
“And I think you would pick the first woman to cross your sight that caught your eye. She’ll be raising him, Lord. She has to be perfect.”)
The woman was ridiculously unfazed at the prospect of bearing the Antichrist. She had inquired as to health care, and funding for raising a stranger’s child, and had rolled her eyes at Beelzebub’s hissed threats. In any other situation Beelzebub would have torn her limb from limb: perfect, indeed.
Satan visited from time to time in various guises, and each of the princes of Hell stopped by at least once. But Beelzebub was the only one of them whom Satan permitted to speak to the child.
Each of the princes of Hell liked to walk the earth occasionally. Moloch, Mammon, Belial, Asmodeus, Leviathan—each of them had their habits, their preferences on how to make God’s precious second children miserable. Belial twisted politics and devoured the broken; Mammon struck the uncertain with goldsickness and greed; Moloch warmongered; Asmodeus and Leviathan delighted in breaking hearts and confusing love with lust.
It was with vague amusement and a growing frustration that Satan watched his demons attempt to invade and poison a world that, though it had been redeemed by God, continued to poison itself more and more every year.
Moloch laughed as time after time humans warred against each other, and cracked her whips and reveled in the bloodshed; but though she fanned the flame of hatred, she had never needed to create it. Humans slaughtered each other regardless of her influence.
Belial oozed her way through the hearts and minds of leaders, suggesting bribes and small favors, convincing men with honeyed words and smiling with sharp teeth at their demises. But for every one she corrupted, another ten corrupted themselves.
Mammon inspired the worship of gold over the worship of God, and wherever he went he charmed with his dazzling smile; and with that dazzling smile he greedily consumed them; but though he inspired goldsickness, he did not create it. Humans had worshiped false idols for centuries.
Asmodeus inflicted blind, hungry lust, and Leviathan followed him with knives of envy. The pair of them wreaked just as much bloodshed as Moloch. But for every lover they destroyed, hundreds of others destroyed themselves.
Beelzebub flitted among each of them, encouraging sadism and casual cruelty with amiable conversation, breaking minds and infecting fear into hatred with slight whispers, occasionally just killing for the sake of killing. Thrice he successfully caused the Felling of an angel, and each time he was hideously resplendent in his triumph.
Beelzebub was the only one who reminded him that it was all worthwhile.
Bright poisonous green wings beat the air, black claws and yellow teeth gleamed brightly in the darkness, and gold eyes flashed in horrid ecstasy as he dragged the bloodied, hysterical Fallen to Satan’s throne room. “Another to join our ranks, Lord.”
And Satan grinned, and felt alive.
Satan’s scream of anger echoed through the halls and plains of Hell, and both damned and demons cowered; but nothing would satisfy him. Death had been destroyed. The humans would now not only have life, but everlasting life.
Jesus had won.
He collapsed onto his throne, and gripped the armrests so hard they shattered, and growled at the splinters in his hands before vanishing them. Judas, that thrice-damned idiot. He’d thought he’d done terrible evil, when really all he’d done was bring about the end of evil. Helped redeem the world!
Satan had lost, again. He wasn’t sure he would be able to bear it this time.
A hand gripped his shoulder, claws digging into the skin just hard enough to break skin. Beelzebub.
“Any way that we can help, Lord.”
Don’t call me that. He’s the Lord. I’m a pale shadow compared to Him.
“He’s not the one I followed into Hell.”
Ridiculous, Satan hissed, and he seized Beelzebub to drag him down into a bruising angry kiss, more teeth than lips. When they parted both were breathing heavily, and Beelzebub rested his forehead against Satan’s.
“Whither thou goest I shall go, and where thou lodgest I shall lodge.”
Don’t you dare quote Scripture at me, Satan grumbled.
“The devil may quote Scripture for his own purpose.”
Don’t quote my brother at me either!
Beelzebub pulled back slightly, surprise writing itself clear on his face. “—Your brother.”
What do you want me to say? he demanded irritably. He is the Son of God, God created me; we are brothers.
“The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”
There you go quoting Scripture again.
“What I mean is that you renounced them just as they renounced you. You do not have to be his brother if you do not wish to be.” Beelzebub paused, and a carefully blank expression settled on him. “Do you?”
I tried to destroy him. What do you think?
Beelzebub did not answer, but he did not need to.
It had been twenty days in the desert thus far, and Satan was beginning to be frustrated by the solemn, unsmiling, stubborn Son of God. Any other man – and a few angels too – would have caved in by now, would have seen the error of their stupid loving ways, would have Fallen and Fallen hard. But Jesus just walked around the desert, ignoring Satan, or occasionally quoting Scripture at him. Scripture! The nerve of him!
Twenty days. Satan had been alive for thousands of years, and knew the value of patience. But this was intolerable. His nostrils flared, and his wings snapped open and beat the air once, and the sound was the crack of a blade-studded whip. Don’t ignore me!
“Are you done with your tantrum?”
Satan snarled wordlessly. Jesus shook his head. “I suppose not. Father did say you’ve always been rather hotheaded.”
“And now name-calling,” Jesus said mildly. He picked his way through a path full of sharp stones to sit down on a large flat rock, and regarded Satan. “It is interesting that you call me brother, when you will not call Uriel sister.”
Satan did not ask how Jesus knew. He was God; he knew everything. I call you by that name because you and I are similar. We have power, you and I. Power beyond any of those ants’ wildest imaginings. Join me, little brother. Rule the world as I rule the underworld. Bring them all under your feet. I know you can.
“You repeat yourself.”
Clearly repetition is the only solution to your thick skull.
Jesus laughed quietly. “Get behind me, Satan.”
Satan wanted to twist those words, to tease Jesus, to see him redden and shift uncomfortably, perhaps protest too hard. He wanted his little brother to squirm. He wanted—
When had he begun thinking of the Son of God as his brother instead of merely saying it to taunt him?
He snarled again, the growl of tigers in his voice, and his wings beat the air with the crack of a whip once more, and he vanished from that place.