“Come closer,” the wizened, skeletal old man said, his voice a croaking whisper. “I’ll tell you how it really happened.”
I didn’t really want to get any closer, everything in the dungeon was rank but the old man was the worst. His lower legs were gangrenous, maggots crawling in the wounds, and the tattered loincloth he wore was stiff with his own waste. Sores and ulcers decorated the rest of his body. I was sitting on the other side of our cell, a dozen feet away, and his stench still overpowered the dank background hum of human waste and decay. For a moment I considered refusing, but curiosity always gets the better of me – it’s how I landed myself here in the first place – and the claims he had made were too interesting to pass on.
“Good,” he grinned, withered lips stretching over toothless gums, as I crossed to his side. “Sit, be comfortable,” he laughed at his own joke, wheezing and wiping away the spit escaping down his chin, pausing to squash and swallow a maggot he picked from his crotch. “I’ll tell you the greatest tragedy there has ever been. What you’ve been taught is a lie. Well, not entirely, but a lot of it…”
It was a glorious morning when Lucifer gathered his angels outside the gates of Heaven – of course, every day in Heaven is glorious, but that day was particularly so. Creation was still in its infancy and the balance mostly intact. Looking down through the clouds, angel eyes the only ones capable of seeing through the billowing white vapours, the mortal world was awake and blooming, almost as peaceful and calm as it was meant to be.
The first sentient race had woken and spread across the single continent, building cities and towns around the coast, exploring the vast deserts of the interior. Like the angels, the first people were roughly humanoid – they walked upright on two legs, had opposable thumbs at the ends of their two arms – but they weren’t human. They had no noses and used echolocation to see, stood almost ten feet tall, amongst other differences. For ten-thousand years they’d flourished and another hundred thousand would pass before they passed into oblivion. By the time humans evolved, a billion years later, every trace of their existence would be wiped away by the relentless shifting of the planet’s crust – two other races came and went in that time and more would follow after humanity’s demise.
In the beginning the angels paid little attention to the mortals below. The balance was perfect at the dawn of time, the three realms connected but isolated, nothing and no-one travelling from one to another. In Heaven the angels were eternal, in Hell the devils and demons fought among themselves and on Earth the people lived and died, the spark of their lives returning to the ether to be born again. Each and every mortal is unique, no matter what their species, but the souls fuelling them all are as eternal as creation, cleansed and partially recycled with every loop of birth and death.
The angels didn’t question why the three realms were separate, it was simply the way it was. If the first people had done the same the balance might have remained perfect for eternity. The cycle of life and death, the apparent chaos and lack of meaning, played on their mortal minds. Driven by curiosity and the need to understand infinity, they began to form belief systems, turning to spirits and gods they found in fractured dreams where they caught glimpses of what was above, and what was below. None of the religions that arose held the truth, or anything more than the most rudimentary understanding, but, at times, it seemed like they caught glimpses of something the angels and demons were unaware of – a creator, an all-father or sacred mother, a true and single G-d.
Happy and content in the rolling hills and gentle meadows of Heaven, walking in the shaded forests and swimming in the crystal clear lakes and rivers, aware that it was theirs forever, the angels might have continued asking no questions, needing no answers, if Lucifer had been less restive.
He was the one who introduced the concepts of design and purpose to his siblings, his brothers and sisters, the ones who fell between and outside binary genders. He’d always been the restless one, a hyperactive bundle of energy the others frequently found tiring, relieved when he found their company dull and went somewhere else. There was no malice, no conscious choice, but he spent more and more time alone, hanging around the edges of the realm, watching the mortals below and, sometimes, the monsters below them. Like a scientist with a microscope he watched them struggle, the hundred years it took to watch three generations come and go just a few blinks of his eternal eyes.
He learned how to reach down through the clouds and listen to their thoughts and dreams, his stomach churning when he went too far and touched the minds in Hell. Impetuous and young he didn’t know that it was dangerous to try sharing the peace and joy of Heaven with the minds he touched. There was no wall around Heaven in those days, no guarded gate, and none of his siblings knew that the existential concerns of mortals were seeping into Lucifer’s mind. He lost the boisterousness of his youth, began actively avoiding the others. The ones who later argued against him, opposing the walls and gates, the army, regretted not finding the time to speak to him during those years, blaming themselves for so much of the destruction, the shattering of the balance.
Unable to sleep easily, tormented by the increasing conflict he saw below – the first religions as fractious as all that would follow – Lucifer disappeared into Heaven’s interior, the hills and mountains the angels had never cared to explore, happy with the rolling downs, blissful meadows and shaded woods of the exterior. Like the mortals he had become convinced that there was something more to creation than what his own eyes could see, that there was a purpose to his existence if he could only read the signs, understand what was wanted from him.
His quest lasted centuries and when he returned the only answers he had were the ones he’d found inside his own mind, his lack of certainty bolstering his faith. When he started he had believed that, somewhere in the mountains, he would find a way to see through the veil and look in the eye of The Creator, that he’d be given the answers. The long, lonely years of failure and disappointment taught him that, whatever The Creator’s true form – male, female, multiple – all he could do was try to maintain the balance. To worship and be true to The Creator, he and every angel and mortal had to fight to maintain the balance, stop the chaos and violence of Hell overpowering them all. If they failed, the veil would be torn open and The Creator exposed to the decay and disease of the lowest realm.
In his absence the first people had become sophisticated, surpassing every achievement of humanity except space exploration – of all the sentients, only humanity would ever leave the planet. Their achievements brought them no more peace than their eventual heirs. Their single continent, only fertile along the coast, wasn’t enough to support the billions living in their cities and their religions and cults had become ossified and belligerent. Total war was inevitable and when it came it was fought with science-fiction weapons – disintegrator rays and singularity grenades, acid-showers and nanovores. It seemed like nothing more than coincidence that, as the first genocides were undertaken, the supercontinent was also beginning to fracture, the barren interior desert sprouting volcanoes and fissures like an adolescent’s face.
Barely noticing his return, the other angels joined Lucifer to stand on the shores of Heaven and watch the destruction below. It took a thousand years for the first people to wipe themselves out, long enough for the handful who’d bothered to watch the realms below to start clustering around Lucifer, understanding that of them all he was the one who knew the most. They laughed uncertainly when he told them about the veil and The Creator, about the duty of the angels, but they didn’t walk away, at least not for long and when they returned they brought their friends.
Fifty-thousand years after the first people died the supercontinent finally tore itself apart. The mortal realm had been almost lifeless, only the most basic marine lifeforms clinging on, for half that time and only Lucifer and his followers cared to spend any time looking through the clouds. The clouds of sulphur and ash rising from the thousands of volcanoes were enough to reach the shores of Heaven, bringing tears to the delicate eyes of the angels, burn their velvet throats. The non-believers had gone back to the delights of paradise, seeing no reason to waste their time on things that brought them no delight. They came back quickly enough when the rupture struck, the shockwaves of noise and pressure ringing throughout the whole of Heaven, a clarion call of war.
As the planet continued to age and cool the mantle plume would split and drift, creating the supervolcano below Yellowstone and the Hawaiian hotspot, but at the beginning there was only the one, rising beneath the interior desert of the first people. The lesser volcanoes that had been poisoning the atmosphere, trying to make Earth like distant Venus, were only the warning signs, a hundred Krakatoas reduced to feeble whimpers. As Lucifer and his followers watched a hole the size of Australia opened in the centre of the supercontinent, billions of tonnes blasted into the atmosphere. It stung their eyes but for a hundred years they looked down through the clouds and smoke, saw the boiling ocean of molten rock and the things swimming up from the depths, clawing at what was left of the land.
“We have to stop them,” Lucifer said when the skies were clear enough to be certain of what he was witnessing. “We are the guardians.”
Despite what he thought he saw, and what the demons were trying to do, Lucifer was the first being to leave his native realm and cross to another, swooping down through the clouds on wings he summoned when he realised that he was falling. He was charred and blistered before he hit the ground, his landing an ungraceful collision and tumble that left him prone and vulnerable. With nothing more than instinct he threw off the first demons and staggered to his feet, creating a sword of light.
“I defend the balance!” he shouted, willing himself to be strong despite the unpleasant pull of gravity and the burning fumes rising from the lake of fire. “I stand for the light!”
It was a long and brutal battle, the early stages fought on his own. Mutated and monstrous, belching fire and spitting acid, the demons swarmed from the lava, screeching from multiple heads. He hacked and slew, his fine sword of light becoming a spiked club as his strength waned and it was all he could do to stay alive, learning that immortal is not the same as invulnerable. His wings were torn to shreds before he realised that he could make each stolen feather an arrow and they took one of his eyes before he mastered the art of letting Heaven’s light flow through his pupils.
Michael was the first to join him; followed by Azrael, Baphomet and Cabal; Gabriel, Vishnu and Brahma; Morpheus, The Endless and a thousand others. Some came down on wings and others in chariots – Thor and Odin crashed down on the back of a thunderbolt; Slaine burst from his cauldron and the spirits of dancing wolves and sitting bulls did their thing. Every religion that would ever be was represented, even Loki and the other tricksters fighting for creation that day; all of Heaven briefly understanding its purpose. Only the pacifists stayed behind, and no-one faulted them – everything and everyone has a role to play in keeping the balance and the returning warriors had wounds that needed to be healed with licks and kisses.
It was a decisive victory and, although it took a million years for Earth to recover, the angels knew they had a purpose and, in Lucifer, they had a leader. The title wasn’t made official, not at that stage, but they all knew that he was the wisest of them all, and none was brave enough to start something new without his approval. Lucifer himself tried to avoid it – he knew that he wasn’t the one to say yea or nay when some group or another wanted to name themselves lesser gods or household gods, spirits of the glen, spirit-guides or whatever took their fancy – but it became easier to go along with their demands and, as the world healed and the second people started to rise, he couldn’t deny that he felt vindicated for all the years he’d spent ostracised and ignored.
After all, he had been the first to understand what The Creator wanted from them.
The second people were the least humanoid of all the sentients, rising from gastropods and opting for stalks and tentacles where the others favoured skeletons and fingers. They never had the chance to develop far, taken by the comet that claimed the dinosaurs. It was hard for Lucifer and his acolytes to explain the comet in the context of existence being for the benefit of Omni – their creator – and the first Heavenly schisms followed, the heretics claiming Omni was just one among many.
Whatever the truth and whatever the source, the demons and devils tried to invade through the gaping wound left by the comet. Lucifer was the one to lead the defence, his shining sword more graceful and controlled than the last time. Hell had grown strong since the first battle and Heaven suffered its first fatalities, Baphomet the strongest of those who fell, his name starting the slong slide into ignominy. Despite all his glory, even Lucifer was wounded, forced to supervise the rebuilding from his bed, draining pus from a wound in his side that would never heal, nicked by the tip of a poisoned spear.
Search parties were sent out to look for the bodies of the others who had fallen, coming back empty-handed but with proof that some of the monsters had managed to escape and were living in the middle-realm. The balance had started to tip in the wrong direction. Not long after, only partly at Lucifer’s command, the first wall was built around Heaven, just in case. A hundred feet tall and fifty thick, the angels made it from solid marble and coated it with an inch of burnished gold.
“We have to take the battle to them, if we are to restore the balance,” Lucifer said to his gathered army that glorious morning. “We will conquer Hell!”
His warriors, blessed berserkers and atavistic amazons, cheered and clashed their weapons against their shields or raised them in the air, the ones wearing wings stretching them like eagles. They only numbered a few hundred, a third of all that were left in Heaven, but he knew they would triumph. The hole in his side was painful, sometimes burning and sometimes frozen, always weeping and foul. It would heal once he had restored the balance – he could already feel it knitting together in anticipation. The depravity, the blasphemy of the lowest realm would be curtailed today; by the tip of his sword and the army behind him.
Then, when Creation was how it should be again, he would see The Creator, be welcomed as the equal he had become.
“Victory is ours,” he whispered to himself, kissing the hilt of his sword and unfurling his own wings, magnificent and pristine white. “The Creator wills it.”
He plunged easily through the thin blue sky of the mortal world, still reeking of the third people’s rotting bodies and unclaimed souls. Behind him his army followed, the air they pushed forwards giving him the velocity he needed to break through the barrier separating Hell from Earth – this would be the first, and only, time the passage had been made in this direction. When he and his army were done there would be nothing left of Hell but pebbles and bad dreams.
The red sky of Hell, until then a featureless expanse over a flat, barren landscape of dust and ash, fractured. The Hellborn – the vampires, ogres and ghouls – looked up with dull, ignorant eyes, hunks of rotten flesh and shards of bone, the physical remains of the souls they had claimed from the world above, dropping from their cancerous maws. As the first clouds formed in the sky and the beam of Heaven’s light set fire to the atmosphere and mauled the ground they became sentient, understanding for the first time that they had names and dreams, that the souls attached to the corpses they’d dragged down from the realm above tasted sweeter than any flesh ever could. With one voice they screamed at the sky, the spreading firestorms and chaos, and left their meals to join the battle.
Lucifer had a brief glimpse of Hell, limitless and flat, before the ground below him sank and convulsed like an underground nuclear explosion. The convulsion repeated, then repeated again and again, getting stronger each time. He tried to ride the air, spreading his wings wide and concentrating his mind – his wings were torn away and he found himself falling with no control into the gaping hole opening up below him. The light of Heaven was still all around him and he tried to grab it, to draw the strength that it had always given him.
There was nothing he could grasp, all his effort doing nothing more than stabilising his fall. Facing upwards, the clouded shores and golden walls of his realm far, far above, he saw the massacre of his army. They fought bravely and well, but they were all torn apart or dragged down into the writhing mass the ground had become.
Then he was inside the crater, the sheer black walls already starting to collapse. He knew that when he stopped falling, if he ever stopped falling, he would be under the deepest root of the mountain at the centre of Hell, the focal point of a realm that he had brought into maturity.
In the very distance, before the singularity consumed him, he caught a single glimmer of the light behind Heaven. He tried to scream his repentance but there was no air.
“It’s a good story, old man,” I said, trying to sound brave. I didn’t want to believe that the master I had come here for wasn’t what I thought. “Got any proof?”
“Roll me over, look at my back,” he cackled, making himself cough. The spit he shot out when he was done was thick and black, streaks of green under the thin red sheen. “Roll me over.”
I did what I was told, my flesh creeping at the feel of his thin, slimy skin. His spine was hunched and twisted, the vertebrae straining against their confines. Two long wounds ran from his shoulder-blades to just below his ribcage. They were as rotten as his legs, maggots tumbling free as I moved him, noxious puss flooding out. At the top and bottom of each wound there was a stump of bone, the curve of what was left enough to suggest the shape and size of his severed wings.
“No,” I said, remembering the children I killed to get this far, the pain of passing through the gateway. “You can’t be. I read everything, this can’t be it.”
“You came for Lucifer,” he cackled again, his voice and body growing stronger with his amusement. “Thought you could pledge yourself to him? Be favoured for the sacrifices? That’s what you thought, isn’t it?”
“You can’t be him.”
“Of course I’m not. I’m just one of the fools who followed him. You thought you could find him? The Prince of Darkness? The Morning Star? No-one knows where he is, not even the fuckers inside the mountain. You’re not the first to come looking, and you’ll not be the last. None of you’ll find him, not a single one. Lucifer is gone and Heaven lies in ruins; I’ve been here, rotting, for a million years. Maybe more, maybe less – either way I can remember the fields of Heaven and the mistakes I made. I’m no likelier to leave this place alive than you. Thought you could find Lucifer, become a player? Fucking idiot, that’s all you are. You know the story now; piss-off back to your corner until you get weak enough for me to eat you.”
“What if I eat you first?” I was scared, but I’d read the literature. The rotting angel’s story changed little; I’ve known from the start that proving my loyalty would be hard. Lucifer is waiting for my fealty; I will be a Chaos Lord, a power of destruction. I’m here, in this foetid cell, because of the blood I’ve spilled and my dedication to myself; fear is something to be conquered. “You ain’t nothing.”
“Try it, boy. I’m rotting and old but I am still an angel. Go on, try it.”
I retreated to my side of the cell, disturbed by the sudden fire in the old man’s eyes, the pointed teeth starting to emerge from his gums. I know I should keep fighting, I just can’t make my body do what my mind wants.
“Fool. Coward. Got no fight.”
He’s still cackling to himself, rubbing his crotch with one hand and sucking the fingers of the other, looking at me with hungry eyes whilst the flesh returns to his bones, the maggots building where they were eating an hour ago. I’m trying to rise again, cross the cell and strangle him, but my limbs are heavy and numb; I cannot move.
I think I may have made a mistake.