The ice was slippery, but it was less than an hour to reach the edge of the gaping hole. Nash knelt down, and frowned, staring down the smooth walls of ice. Climbing them would be impossible. “Fuck,” he murmured. One of the chains hung nearby, massive iron links looped together, ending in a tremendous collar that hung down, into the blackness visible within the ice. “Not getting out that way,” Nash muttered, and shook his head as he stood up. “Unless any of you might be able to pull something off?”
“Might have something,” said Beelzebub. He shook the staff once, and held it out, over the opening into the bowels of the earth. He shook it once, and it began to extend rapidly, stretching downwards, into the darkness. “If we-”
There was a terrible shattering sound, and a light flared in the darkness. The staff reverberated and shattered to splinters, and Michael ascended from the pit. Six wings spun around him, and he stood dressed in a shining breastplate. A sash hung around his hips, as he stood, his features fair and androgynous as always. He stood, and there was a distinct look of satisfaction on his face. “So you finally return to where you belong,” he said, his eyes on Nash.
“No one belongs here,” said Nash. “This place is designed to torment people. To torture and twist them, and hurt them. This place is designed to make people worse, surround them with the worst examples they could have, to goad them into sin. This isn’t justice, this isn’t even revenge, it’s just cruelty. What the fuck kind of god would allow this?”
“What kind of God,” said Michael, his voice soft. The satisfaction drained away from his face. “I ask myself, so often, whether he is even there. My faith wavers. But this place restores it.”
“That’s sick. There are people here. They deserve another chance.”
Michael slowly smiled. “There are no people here.”
“Do you know how the underworld works, ‘Silas’?” asked Michael. There was a twinge to his voice, something mocking. Something questioning.
“People die. They go where they believe they belong.”
“Yes. Broadly, yes. Each human has a different set of beliefs about what will happen to it after it dies. There is some morality involved, sometimes. It depends on their beliefs.” Michael raised a hand. “No one appears in this place when they die.”
Nash stood for a moment, and frowned. “That’s-”
“When a human dies, they do not wind up here. No human goes to Hell when they die. This place is a prison, true, for those we have been sent to capture, for those who threatened humanity in one way or another. But none of them are dead.” Michael swept his hand across the damned frozen in the ice. “I know that every person here deserves to be here, for I was there to see them be placed in their shackles. They have spent their chances, betrayed trust, given up.”
“Maybe people just don’t think they belong in hell,” said Nash, although there was a touch of uncertainty in his voice.
“Maybe. Or maybe, Hell is an empty threat to humanity. God is merciful. God is always benevolent. And God never condemns those who believe in him, who love him, to this place. This is a place for gods, and monsters, and heroes. Not for men.” Michael pointed. “Look at those who walk behind you.”
Nash turned. Asmodeus looked up at Michael, her eyes filling with hatred. “There was a city.”
“Yes. You wandered from it. You became diffuse. Maddened. You threatened the world. You desired to shatter the gates of the underworld, to loose the dead on the world, to gorge themselves on the flesh of the living. You did not think that you could continue to make that threat forever, did you, Ishtar?”
Asmodeus rocked back on her heels, taking a step back. Michael turned. Mammon wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Tempter of the Buddha. Father of Craving, Discontent, and Passion. You who spawned pain on this world, who tormented with that which people did not have. The mirage of water in the desert. The smell of fruit in rot and decay. The glitter of worth and value in hollow, heavy, empty gold.”
“You were the one who took my daughters,” whispered Mara, and tusks were visible at the corners of the golden god’s mouth. “You stole them from me. I sought to reclaim them.”
“You are temptation. That which attempts to fell great humans, to lead them off the path. Perhaps I was tired of seeing virtue tested until it broke,” said Michael, calmly. He turned his head again. “Jormungandr. The serpent. I know the prophecies of Ragnarok. You were to herald the end of this world. I could not allow that to happen before the right time. But don’t worry. Your time is nigh.”
Leviathan- Jormungandr- simply stared, her eyes turned towards her own feet. Her shoulders were hunched, her head lowered, the anger burning visibly inside of her. “I don’t want the world to end.”
“Everybody wants to go to heaven,” said Michael cheerfully, “But nobody wants to die.”
“I don’t want either,” said Nash, and Michael’s gaze turned towards him, fury replacing the moment of light-heartedness like a forest fire.
“I’m not done.” He pointed towards Belphegor. “Achilles. You sought your lover here, in the heart of Hell, for despair of ever finding him. You searched for countless years, before you succumbed to ennui. The rage burnt out. He was never here. He died, and went where good Greeks go, where you will never go, where you can never go.”
Belphegor sat, his eyes empty, his hands crossed over his lap, staring at nothing. Michael shook his head, and pointed at Satan. “And you. Slew your son in a fit of rage, slew him for the crime of following your instructions. Did you think that you would find him here? That your rage could undo your mistakes? You spent so much of your life acting, Hound of Ulster. You made mistakes that you can never undo, no matter how you spasm.”
There was a flicking tension in Satan’s expression, one of the tendons in his neck standing out. “You. I remember you.” His knuckles popped. Then Michael turned towards Beelzebub.
“I just thought it’d be a laugh,” said Beelzebub, grinning. “I may not be greater than God, but I am certainly Heaven’s equal.”
“These are the ones you surround yourself with, Silas Nash. The fallen and the damned. Is it any wonder that I should hate you, for forgiving those whose sins I have seen in such stark relief?” The sword flashed. “Suffer.”
Nash raised his hands, though Michael was some distance away. The others sprang to either side. A massive wedge of the ice below him, approximately the size of a football field, suddenly melted. Nash reached out, and there was nothing to catch. He fell with the water towards that massive, gaping pit, a great torrent filling the air with raging sound as Betty reached out for him. It was a futile gesture, but he appreciated the thought.
As the water swept him towards the edge, he struck the cold, hard ice. His fingers reached out, and tore into the sheer surface, huge gashes opening up as it splintered and spread around his fingers. He was swept to the very edge, left dangling from both hands, fingernails dug into the ice, barely able to hold.
“Which of you has what it takes to face me!” Michael roared. Nash lifted his head. He could see the demon princes, their stances aggressive, spread around Michael, Betty making her way down the edge, Eumaeus’ spooling out wire to a line wrapped around her waist. She was making slow progress. Nash kicked his legs out, but the falling water had frozen again over the edge, leaving him hanging from a shelf of ice. He couldn’t get his feet under him. He was forced to watch.
“You see this, Nash?!” Michael turned, his eyes focusing on Nash’s. “You give hope to those who are better off without it. You inspire madness. I did not want this world to end! I did not want Prester John to sacrifice what he is prepared to sacrifice! These poor souls who are going to give up everything for your sake are your responsibility!” He turned towards them.
Beelzebub moved like a flash. The Handsome Monkey King, Sun Wukong, the Sage Equal to Heaven, landed a flying kick that could’ve shattered stone on Michael’s perfect, androgynous features. Hell held its breath for a moment, as Michael raised a hand to his lips. Blood ran down one of his fingers, his lip split open. “Not so invincible after all, eh?” asked Wukong, grinning widely, the shattered remnants of the mandibles falling from his lips.
Michael moved just as fast. His free fist arced upwards like the exponential curve of mankind’s ascent, and caught Wukong in the chin. The demon prince flew into the air, higher, and higher, disappearing into the darkness above, too small to be seen anymore. Michael returned to his resting stance, sheathing the flaming sword by his side, his eyes dark. “You think that I win because of Grace, because I am untouchable? That I was God’s champion, that I threw down the Adversary into the bowels of hell, because I am untouchable? Do you think that when my most beautiful, my most skilled, my most kind-hearted brother turned his back on everything that we knew, that I was certain in my purpose? That I felt Grace when I placed him in chains? You are not the greatest fighter in the world, Nash.”
Jormungandr, Ishtar, and Mara charged at him. They were strong, strong beyond reason. But even if Michael did not have his Grace, they couldn’t land a blow on him. He dodged between their strikes easily, moving with an effortless lower-case grace that allowed him to spin away from each blow, riding the cracking and fracturing ice beneath their feet with nonchalant ease. Jormungandr tried to leap at him, and found herself drawn through the air, spun in a quick loop, and hurled into the other two, knocking them to the ground, and pinning them beneath her senseless body. “Artless,” said Michael, shaking his head. “Pathetic. A subjective eternity spent in this place, and this was the best-”
Cu Chulainn hit Michael with a spear tackle, lifting him into the air, and then slamming him violently down. Michael’s six wings spread out, cushioning the impact and spreading it out across the ice. It still left a crater, and the ice creaked alarmingly under Nash’s nails. He tried not to notice the way it was melting between his fingers, the icy water running down his arms. Betty was about halfway there.
When he looked up, Cu Chulainn sat straddling Michael, raining down blow after blow, in the throes of the Warp Spasm, blood streaming from his spiked hair. Michael moved his head perfectly, each blow slipping across his shoulders, like a boxer in the depths of a flow state. The angel’s wings flared, and Cu Chulainn stumbled back, his arm over his eyes. Michael began to rise, which is when Achilles came at him from behind, slamming a foot into the back of Michael’s knee, sending him stumbling forward.
Cu Chulainn and Achilles struck from both sides, but each of their blows was swept aside by an arm or a wing, Michael’s ten limbs flashing as he fought. The two of them pressed forward. Nash looked. Betty was only a few feet away, scrabbling towards him as quickly as she dared along the lip of creaking ice.
Cu Chulainn and Achilles were forced back as the flaming sword swept in a single perfect circle, right arms hanging limply. Michael shook his head. “Rage is no match for discipline.” He swept the sword into the sheath, and turned towards Eumaeus, whose arms strained with the effort of keeping Betty from slipping off and into the Abyss. “Odysseus.”
“Wrong guy,” said Eumaeus, grinning cheekily. “I’m Nobody.” He turned, still holding the rod in both hands. “Going to fight a man who can’t defend himself? What kind of angel are you?”
“Not a proud one,” said Michael, shrugging lightly. “And what now? What clever gambit do you have, Odysseus? You’re a good fighter, but you’re no Diomedes. You’re no Achilles.”
“I was going to distract you,” said Eumaeus, and sighed. “But I fear I’m playing to type.”
“Really. Doing a poor job of it if you didn’t want me to notice you trying to save Nash. Do you think he can stop me?”
“Yes,” said Eumaeus, smiling. “But he’s not the one I’m distracting you from.”
Wukong fell like the wrath of God. He fell like an empire. He fell like a very heavy object with a terminal grudge against whatever was beneath it. The blow with the staff sent tremors rocking through the ice, and the shelf broke off, falling free of the ice. Betty’s eyes widened as Nash fell backwards into the darkness. Michael was slammed down into the ice, flaming sword and shining wings tracing an eerie pattern of light into the heart of the glacier as he moved, twisted, and spun back towards the surface, visible by his own light.
Nash scrabbled up, pulling himself onto the falling chunk of ice as Michael and Wukong exchanged a blinding series of blows. The air shook with the impacts, but neither landed a blow, as Michael put everything he had into the fight, striking and slashing, Wukong matching him blow for blow. It lasted for the single timeless moment as Nash pulled himself to the top of the shelf of falling ice, and kicked off.
He saw he would come up short. He would not reach the ice. He hung in the air, his racing mind catching a glimpse of Wukong slamming one of Michael’s wings aside hard enough to spin the angel, and taking a brief moment to strut in a circle, arms raised to the great crowd of damned rushing down the glacier towards them, before catching a counter-strike from Michael on his staff. Nash began to fall.
Betty’s hand met him at that moment. Her fingers tightened around his, and Eumaeus’ arms strained to hold both of them up. Nash saw as the staff flew out of Wukong’s hands, a smile on the Handsome Monkey King’s lips, the insectoid arms falling from him. In this moment, he looked as he must have once, furred, inhuman, but close enough. Michael’s sword burned at his throat, but Wukong kept smiling.
“Any last words?” asked Michael.
“Never,” said Wukong, still grinning. Michael lifted the sword.
Nash ran across the sheer wall of glare ice like he would’ve run across a tarmac. His toes shattered the ice beneath his shoes, and Ariel gave him the balance he needed, and the speed. The sword descended, and Nash’s hands wrapped around the angel’s wrist, twisting them to the side as his knee rose. The flat of the blade struck Nash’s knee, and shattered. Michael pulled back, dropping the hilt, and narrowed his eyes. “You never did know when to give up.”
Nash raised his hands. The damned were only a few dozen feet away. They were out of time. They…
Michael’s stance was relaxed, his arms lowered, as the demon princes pulled themselves to their feet. The waves of damned fell, supplicating, to their knees. Flat on the ground, arms outstretched. The Damned from every circle, from the river Acheron right down to the suicides, carried by their fellows, not left behind. Charon and Phlegyas and countless others. They all lay in worshipful rows, their heads pressed to the ice.
“What in the hell,” he murmured, frowning.
“Yes,” said Michael, “quite.” He smiled. “I have a proposal. One last chance for redemption.”
“fuck you,” growled Cu Chulainn, recovering from the warp spasm, standing canted slightly to the side.
“A chance for redemption for everyone in Hell. The end of days has come. All shall be released, with a very simple action. You do not need to fight. You do not need to strike out. You need only forsake him.” Michael pointed towards Nash. “Leave him, alone, here, in Hell. You will be freed. You will be free to do whatever you wish, so long as it does not go against Prester John’s plans.”
“Do it,” said Nash, even as the mouths of the others opened.
“Nash,” said Betty, turning towards him.
“This is your chance. You can get back. You can do some good, you can take care of Horace.”
“I’m not going to fucking betray you, Nash!” she said, and the emotion, the heat in her voice was surprising. “I’m not letting you sacrifice yourself!”
He smiled. “I’m not sacrificing myself. Do you think that he can keep me here, in Hell? He’s just making my job easier.” He flashed her an easy grin. “Trust me.”
She looked up at him, and he saw the pain in her brilliant green eyes. But she nodded. The demon princes exchanged a look, before lowering their heads. Nash turned back towards Michael, and Wukong shook his head. “Are you sure about this? We could help you.”
“I don’t need your help here. I need you to help the people in Paradise. Things are going to be going bad. People are going to be terrified. They’re going to need help. Guide the Damned. Be heroes. Give people hope. I don’t know if you can take on Famine, but you can protect people. Limit damage.” He smiled. “I trust you.”
“Well, of course you do,” said Wukong, preening a bit, grinning. “I’m fantastic.”
The angel’s eyes were narrowed. His wings fluttered as he spoke. “You really are arrogant, aren’t you?”
“Hey, look, you’re the one who set this up, you don’t get to accuse me of a messiah complex,” said Nash, smiling lightly. “Take them.”
There was a brief thunderclap, and then, Hell was empty, save for Michael, and Nash. Nash raised his hands into a fighting stance. Michael shook his head. “I’m not going to fight you.”
“What, after all that? You’re just going to wuss out?” asked Nash, his head tilted.
“Aren’t you tired, Helel? Aren’t you tired of this endless war? Aren’t you tired of fighting?” Michael swept a hand towards Nash. “This poor mortal shakes under the burden of your power. Your madness. Your war against Heaven. Can’t you please have faith in God? Can’t we please be brothers again? When you left, a year ago, I thought perhaps, you had escaped to do something worthwhile, to be happy again…” Tears ran down Michael’s cheek. “I’m so tired of hurting you.”
Nash didn’t know much Hebrew. But he did know that name. “Michael,” he said, very softly. “I am not Lucifer.”
“You are a liar,” said Michael, smiling, and his lips quirked at the corner. “There are three beings who could challenge me this way. My God, his son, and my brother. I cannot believe that the first two would ever find themselves arrayed against me. I cannot believe that I would ever become so lost as to strike against them. You must be Lucifer.” Michael’s voice had grown very soft, and very weak. “Please?”
“I’ve never been so sorry to say this, but I’m not the Devil. I’m not God. I’m not Christ. I’m not the Antichrist. I’m nothing special. I’m just…” Nash shook his head. “I’m an empty vessel. I’m hollow. All I am is what people wish that I was. For Betty, I’m an ally in a war she’s been fighting alone for millenia. For those who are lost, and without hope, I’m a savior. For the Sisters, I’m a white knight. For Bella, I’m the one person who would forgive her. And for you, I’m a lost brother, offering the tantalizing chance to be together again.” Nash reached out, and rested a hand on Michael’s shoulder. “But I’m just a stupid bastard who got himself in over his head, and who can’t bear to disappoint the people around him. That’s all, Michael. I’m sorry.”
“I… didn’t know if Prester John was right. He told me, that if we were acting wrongly, then God would show us a sign. If we were in the wrong, if we were in the right, there would be a sign, unmistakable in its clarity. And Lucifer vanished, and you appeared. I didn’t know what that meant.” He put his hands over his face, and began to sob, an ugly, scratchy sound that filled the air. “I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know which way is down. I have lost sight of the light of God, and all I can do now is push forward, and pray that I am moving in the right direction.”
Michael lowered his head, and his hands fell away, his wings hanging limply behind him. “Where is my brother?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you bring him home? Can you make him be my brother again? That is my happy ending, Silas. That is all I want. Do you think you can give that to me?”
Nash shook his head. “I don’t think so. I can’t change what people believe. I can’t make him follow God, any more than I think I could make you Fall.” He paused for a moment. “But you can. You don’t have to agree with him to forgive him. You can still love your brother, even if you hate everything he does and stands for. You just have to forgive him.”
“You have seen what happens when you forgive,” said Michael. He unfolded a sleeve, produced a cigarette from the pack, and lit it on the edge of his shattered blade. “People die. Souls are ripped from children. Evil, so far as you view it, wins.”
“Not yet,” said Nash. “And I’ve thought about that. When you kill someone who could have been forgiven, you never see the consequences of that. You never seen who they would have helped, who they would have saved. When forgiveness fails, it’s easy to point out. When execution fails, nobody even notices.”
Michael slowly shook his head. “I cannot change my course, now.”
“Yes, you can,” said Nash, softly. “It’s never too late to change.”
“I am an angel. We do not have free will.”
“Then why are you even bothering to argue with me? Why are you doubting your faith? Don’t give me that ‘we’re too different’ shit.” Nash smiled, and raised his fists. “We could fight, if you like. People always seem to be able to change their minds after a fight with me.”
“No,” murmured Michael. “I have a job. To slow your return.” He swept the blade, and there was a great rush. Water fell, and froze, filling the gap in the earth. Miles of it. Hundreds of miles. For all Nash knew, it went straight through to the other side of the world.
“I’ll push through it,” said Nash.
“I have no doubt,” said Michael. “Whatever you are, you are not stopped. I can see how dangerous fighting you is. How persuasive you can be.” The angel was silent for a moment. “Have you ever met a woman with silver hair and golden teeth?”
Nash frowned. “Doesn’t sound familiar. And I’d think I would remember.”
“Yes. If you do… Be careful.” Michael shook his head. “Goodbye, Nash. I hope you are too late to stop this. It still must happen.”
And then he was gone.
And Nash realized, for the first time, how deeply and utterly alone he was. Hell was empty. Every damned soul gone, gaps in the ice visible where they had been. The giants disappeared. He shivered softly as a cold wind blew. He had never been alone, in the previous times he had gone to the underworld. Cassandra had always been by his side, in Yomi, in Tartarus. When she had left, Sisyphus and Ixion and Tantalus and Pearl had found him soon afterward. There had always been a friend to help and bolster, or an enemy to oppose.
Now there was nothing. Even Lili didn’t speak, quiescent in her prison.
No one to support. No one to oppose. No friend, no foe. He was alone. And he was nothing without other people.
The hollow man let out a hollow scream, raised his hand into the air, and struck the ice. Cracks fissured out. He raised his fist again, and let it fall upon the ice. He was nothing, and felt nothing, alone, and forgotten, and he knew he had chosen this for himself, and he couldn’t be weak when he had forced everyone to depend on him being strong, he had chosen to be alone, and didn’t he deserve this?
Of course he did.
His fist rose, and fell. He died a little inside.
His fist rose, and fell. He died a little more, inside.
His fist rose, and fell. He forgot how many times it happened.
His fist rose, and the smell of tobacco wafted around him.
“Nash,” said a voice. Low, smoky, rich, feminine. He turned, and Tezcatlipoca stood there, Baron Samedi beside her. “You do not have permission to die. You are still needed.”
Beyond them, set against the dark and empty ice, the tropical blue sky shined through a square hole in the air. Nash grinned so hard his cheeks hurt.