After the fall
Angels have fallen. What had been divine beauty a moment ago had become ashes and decay. The glow of heaven’s fire had long since faded, leaving only the dusky desert. On the sand, black with the blood of angels, creeping monsters crawled. And these are the warriors of her great army?!
White-winged, fair-faced, proud and stately, incredibly strong…
Now the picture was upside down, like a burnt fresco. There was no trace of the recent beauty. The relentless flames from the heavens had destroyed all whiteness, all beauty, all stature… All that was left was power-dark and roaring from deep within, from the very bowels of the earth, where the mightiest of her heavenly warriors had fallen. They cried out for vengeance!
She looked up. Heaven is far away! She had never imagined they would be so far away.
The sands lay everywhere, shaky and prickly. There was none of that in the sky. She frowned, running the sand through her fingers. The sand suddenly became a handful of gold. Well, she still had her strength. But enough to make the monsters beautiful again and send them off to battle in the heavens?
She watched indifferently as they crawled across the sands and tried to flap their burnt wings. And yet just a moment ago she was in pain at the sight of their former beauty being burned in the fire. The pain came from her heart. Now there was nothing but a sucking emptiness. Like a vortex!
“When you go past the edge of pain, it ceases to exist!” The voice was familiar, but she did not recognize the frightening black creature before her. It appeared in the wilderness, as if a flash of lightning had swept it away. Unlike the other fallen warriors, it did not crawl, but sat majestically on a rock. A moment more, and it approached her closely, like a ghost. Its eyes… sunken into the burned pits, but still so bright… She recognized it. Hardly! The shell had changed completely, only his eyes remained the same: defiant and rebellious.
“Remy!” she said his angelic name with difficulty. It seemed as if only a fraction of the name should remain. “Is it you?”
“Yes, I am, Mistress…”
“Is it Mistress?” Something didn’t add up. She frowned. It used to be addressed as “Mylord.” Something was wrong! She looked at her body. It was still beautiful. It couldn’t be… because her whole army was disfigured.
The body was different. She ran her hand over her skin. A density emerged beneath it.
“It’s called flesh,” a voice spoke from somewhere deep within her mind.
Is it flesh? She frowned. Their bodies used to be made of ether, and they felt no pain at all until they were first wounded in the war. Under their skin, something red seeped out of the ether — blood. No one knew of its existence either. One can only know about something by seeing it for the first time. Everything that was happening now was a first time. The fall had been painful. And after that, there was a new era, a mere exile to the sands.
“How many are we missing?” She asked Remy.
“Many. But better all! Look upon them all! Is that them?” He nodded at the monsters crawling out of the sand.
“Have you seen yourself?”
Remy was embarrassed.
“And yet they were better off dead than still living like that,” he muttered.
“To die is to lose forever, and we’re still alive, so we can fight again eventually.”
She ran handfuls of sand through her fingers, swirling them into golden dust. Her disfigured army would soon be able to fight again. Only the longing for those no longer there is unpleasant. Her most trusted angels have turned to nothing. Only from somewhere in the depths of the sands did their spirits cry out.
She still had her sword, a beautiful thing with a golden hilt and runes on the blade. Strangely, Michael didn’t break it in the fight. He tried to do it by grabbing the blade with his bare hands. Blood came out of his palms, too, thick and bright. What a pleasant sight — the blood of the enemy! The closest friend can become the worst enemy. He did not break the blade. He is only badly wounded. Serves him right!
Only those who have been faithful deserve respect. The most faithful servants were just what she was missing. All her standard — bearers were gone. Their voices echoed through the sand, drowning and fading into the hot desert air. They were only voices. The stately warriors themselves could not be raised from the abyss of non-existence, could not be saved, but she would remember them. The blade of her sword drew their names in the sand. For some reason, the inscriptions went in circles. And beneath each name there was a memorable symbol. The letters, taken from the lettering of heaven, burned through the sand. Such signs are not for the earth. The soil crumbles and burns from them.
Somehow the whole circle did not ignite. The first letters of each name remained. They crawled toward each other, like insects, and formed into one solid inscription. One name emerged:
“Is that your new name now?” Remy was already looking at the vibrating letters in the sand.
“It’s not good to start a new fight under the same name you’ve already lost.”
The new name should serve as a talisman. Fused from the first letters of the names of the dead angels, it would take effect. Such a name was needed the first time she went into battle against the Archangel Michael, but then there were no dead warriors whose names could be pieced together.
Now there were. Their power had not gone to nothing. It could be drawn together with the first letter of each name. There’s the amulet!
There is no more Dennitsa. There is Alais.
Along with a new name there is a new chance to win.
Alais looked around the deserts. This is her new kingdom now. It may not be heaven, but it reeks of freedom. The boundless sands go into the distance. You can turn them into gold if you want, or you can leave them as they are. The blood-red sun sets over the horizon and turns them golden all by itself. In heaven you could usually reach out and touch the sun, but now it was suddenly so far away! You couldn’t reach it with your hand! But its glow made the monsters in the desert suffer. They were already too badly burned. The light of the sun only added to the pain. The sun is liquid fire.
“Why did we rise up?” The question should have been asked by them, disfigured and suffering, but it was she who asked it. None of them dared open their burnt mouths.
“So that you could be the first,” Remy answered nonchalantly. He, too, had turned into a living bogeyman of ashes, but he did not show his suffering. His sly gaze showed that he had no regrets, but like hers, he thought it necessary to lay low for a moment to build up his strength.
She remembered that Alais, in the ancient celestial dialect, meant the beginning and the top at the same time. The name could be interpreted as first and best. The letters added up well. Because of them, the dead angels will continue to live in her. The name is the most important thing there is. It is empowering.
“Those shards of sunlight that fell with you…” Remy flew over the desert. “They were frozen on the ground by something solid. I even thought at first that you had dissolved into them, but then I spotted you from high above among your fallen armies.”
“It is gold,” she stated.
“But it’s solid! Not melting when you touch it! Not like heaven!”
“It’s not like heaven here. But I like it here.”
It’s freedom! Alais saw no enemies with swords in the deserts, and no heavenly spies. Has she been left alone? So be it, but she will leave no one alone now. The desire to defeat the enemy is the driving force behind her armies. But so far they have little strength.
From the sands the howling voices of the dead called out, and some new desire, hitherto unknown, awoke inside.
“Crawl over here!” She beckoned a black creature toward her. It hissed and crawled over. Alaïs leaned toward the scarlet wound in its forearm beneath the lacerated wing and clawed at it with her teeth. A red liquid filled her mouth. It had a peppery salty taste, but how sweet to take each sip. Alais broke away from the drink with difficulty and pushed her whimpering legionnaire away with her foot.
“I’m thirsty! There was no such desire before,” Remy confirmed her thoughts.
There used to be no desire at all. Except one! The desire for power! It has partially come true. The plains of sand have been given to her to rule there. It was her new kingdom! To have it was already a victory. Only with it came a lingering thirst that couldn’t be quenched.
“Look for anything alive besides our soldiers,” she commanded Remy.
“What do you mean, mistress?”
“It is anything at all.”
“I have flown over the sands and mountains beyond the deserts. There is nothing there.”
“Are we’re the only ones here? Look for an alternative.”
Remy bowed. His once beautiful head was now crowned with spiraling horns. The spikes, protruding from his spine and forehead, seemed sharp enough to cut through sheet iron.
“Remy!” she called out a moment before all that was left was a black vortex where he’d been hovering. “Do you regret following me now?”
The answer was no. Neither did the monsters slumbering in the sands. And you should be sorry. Until recently they had been so beautiful that it was painful to look at them. Now the sight of them made her sick. Creepy and stripped, they crawled on the dunes and hissed curses at the indifferent and already distant heavens. What had they lost, though? One beauty!
Alais looked around the desert. Everywhere she looked, yellow sand was everywhere. Where Angel’s blood had been spilled, there were brown patches.
Here was the spot where it had fallen, with the inscriptions scorched into the sand. Alais drew the tip of her sword over them. The handle twitched oddly, gripping her fingers. It was because the dragon on the hilt had come to life and moved. Before, there was no dragon on it. Now it hissed with a copper mouth. Where had it come from?
Where did they come from? Armies of monsters in the desert! With them, the matter was clear. The beautiful white-winged angels had burned, shrunken, and turned into vile creatures. And it’s all her fault!
Do they blame her? Alais looked around at the crawling rabble. They were expressing indignation toward the heavens, but they weren’t hissing at her, on the contrary, they were respectfully crawling away from her.
The whole point was that she remained beautiful and they did not. Does her appearance still command their respect?
It was pleasant to walk across the desert, not fly. You couldn’t do that in heaven, but here you could just tread, moving your feet. The wings rustled behind her, like unnecessary jewelry.
Somewhere deep inside, a wild hunger was awakening. There was nothing to satisfy it.
Remy returned disappointed. He found nothing alive.
“It felt as if everything died here as soon as it touched this surface,” Alais kicked the sand with her foot, and it suddenly seemed like one huge living breathing creature that they were treading on. It was definitely breathing. The desert was breathing! How had she not noticed it before?
“But somehow we survived,” Remy’s sigh was still fiery. His black mouth resembled the mouth of a furnace. The former angel still hadn’t noticed that the desert was alive.
Alais did not enlighten him. Let him see for himself.
“God couldn’t destroy us, or didn’t dare. Or maybe he decided that staying here would be the worst punishment for us. It was worse than destruction. For that is total destruction. To fall! To be left without your own face,” she looked dejectedly at the armies of freaks that swarmed the desert.
“But your face is still there,” Remy nodded at her reflection in the puddle in the sand. It was still there, beautiful and golden. It glowed. Was it an illusion? But her hands were smooth, too, not burnt. Alais stared at them in amazement. The golden lace of the webbing between her fingers was gone. There were only five fingers themselves, which used to be seven. Seven fingers made it easier to grip a sword than five. But she still had her wings.
“We’ll build up our strength, and then we’ll go to Heaven again,” she promised.
That promise was the only thing worth living for. And surviving in this place would be difficult. Every moment of being here is maddening. And most likely centuries would pass before another battle would be fought. How quickly can you build up your strength again if there’s nothing left of you but burnt remains?
Her recent majestic comrades-in-arms looked as if they had just been taken out of the furnace. They are black relics, not warriors! They are embittered in a way that makes you afraid to look at them, but will their embitterment be enough to start a new war.
Most likely they will be crushed again if they rush into battle again. Spontaneous rebellion is not the answer. We need to be smarter from now on. Alais pondered. She needs a different strategy and complete indifference to Michael’s shining appearance.
“Can we deal with them all in the meantime, Mistress?” Remy asked as if she had already managed to appoint him as her new commander to replace all the dead. He pointed his frayed wing at the monsters crawling in the desert.
“Let them settle in for now.”
Unlike Remy, it pained her to look at them. She saw the blackened bodies, but thought of the statuesque angels. But she couldn’t turn away. Everywhere she saw, there was a sandy plain, where the remains of her great army crawled.
“Does it hurt that you’re burned?” Alaïs asked Remy. She herself no longer felt the burns. Her body remained white, though she remembered that she too had burned with the others. Maybe they too, despite all their burns, would recover. Time passed, but there was no regeneration.
“I felt as if I were still burning in the fire, and the flames hurt more and more, almost biting. The pain is unbearable, and it cuts through all my dicks. Isn’t it like that with you?”
Alais shook her head negatively.
“I feel free! For the first time since the moment of my creation,” she breathed in the desert air full of smoke. The sand smelled like the wings of her fallen angels.
“This is my new kingdom. And it is mine alone! There is no god here! There is no one else’s rules and regulations. No one tells us anything else. We have fallen, but we are free. This kingdom may be ugly, but it’s ours. At last we have something of our own. Let’s celebrate!”
Instead of cheering, the monstrous Remy knelt before her. The other monsters in the desert howled with anguish and hunger.
In the beginning there was lizard blood.
Then, centuries later, the first humans wandered into the desert. Creatures without wings! Weak creatures! But the smell of their blood stirred the memory of war. Her army satiated for the first time since the fall. They felt better. The feast had begun. Who would have thought the desert could be a feast?
Demons were eating people alive, and Alais flew aimlessly between the revelers. She’d taken a few mouthfuls to quench a thirst that had been building up over the centuries. The monsters, on the other hand, were more voracious. Just now they had devoured an entire human army. Alien coats of arms and banners lay under the clutches of fallen angels. Alais crushed bones and filigree jewelry indifferently. Everything the humans had made with their hands she didn’t like for some reason.
Suddenly one dying man caught her attention. He was white, dark-haired, and blue-eyed. His appearance reminded her of the archangel Gabriel. Several of the feasting monsters were sucked into his veins at once. Alais flew closer to get a closer look at him. He marveled at the sight of her. And she drank his blood herself. It was an honor for him. But he was waiting for something else. One last loving embrace before he died? Her love died with the first burns of heavenly fire. All that was left was vengeance.
The living desert
The battle sword remained. Alais drew symbols in the sand with its tip. But the bracelet of omnipotence had disappeared somewhere. Without it, she felt powerless. After all, all the power of the sunlight was contained within it.
Alais grabbed the snake that was slithering across the sand. It hissed, exuding venom. The tiny mouth opened dangerously. The snake wanted to bite, even if it was an angel, whose blood would immediately burn. It was an ugly creature, but brave! It was a matter of one minute to crush the snake. Alais didn’t even feel sorry for it. The desert, greedily accepting the shards of sunlight that fell to the ground at the same time it did, and became gold, knew what the angel expected of it. The snake’s body began to slowly turn gold. It was from tail to head. And now it was a new bracelet that came to life and wrapped in rings around Alais’s forearm. The dead snake became flexible and docile. She had made an excellent copy of the bracelet. It was just a copy. Alais frowned. That would do for now, but how and where would she find the real bracelet? She was wearing it when she fell. So where had it gone now?
The desert had lived and breathed since the angels had fallen into it. Out of the light that fell with them something was born… Touching the sand, it suddenly turned to gold. And the sands in front of her, which a day ago had been black, now glowed like a bottomless and boundless treasury reaching far beyond the horizon. Even in the heavens it was not so rich. Gold meant nothing there. But here on earth, it took on a special meaning.
People fought over it if they found it somewhere. To them it was most often the object of strife and murder. To them it was rare, to her it was commonplace. Alais often amused herself by passing the sand between her fingers, and her touch would turn it golden. How can you fight over gold when you can turn everything around you into it? Fighting over freedom is another thing. Alais cast a grim glance at the heavens. They seemed to have turned purple, and the sand in the desert had all turned to gold for miles around. She had walked on it for too long. Her feet always left a trail of gold. And there was no longer a trace of the ash that had strewn the desert after the angels had fallen.
A golden swirl of grains of sand swirled around Alais. A whole desert of gold would have been a fairy tale for mortals, but not for her. But she had already noticed that once a man found a single bar of gold, he was willing to kill for it. The glitter of heavenly metal makes people lose their minds.
“Gold is like you,” Remy once remarked. “It brings them as much evil as you have brought us. But we don’t blame you, and they don’t blame it.”
Nor did Alais tear out his burnt tongue for being blunt, though the sword itself vibrated in her hands. It’s a good thing Remy stayed sensible. But it was better that he had remained handsome. Now he was a mountain of black muscle and leathery wings. All her supporters looked no better than him now. Some angels slept in the barchans, and when they emerged from them by nightfall, they looked like stuffed animals made of sand. As they shook themselves off, the sand stirred with ash.
How much ash could be left by burnt wings! The ashes seemed to begin to replace her army blood. In heaven they had been exposed to a wound that would not stop bleeding.
“It makes me want to stab one man, and see his blood gush out of the wound to no end, until it floods the whole desert.”
“There isn’t that much blood in those things, I’m afraid,” Remy said, still judiciously, showing his forked black tongue.
“I know! But they did it to us. And we have to do it to someone else to be comforted. It’s as if the heavens are still drinking our blood, though they seem to have drunk it all. But they will never stop drinking.
“Let us go at them with another war!”
“Not yet!” Alais looked around at the monsters in the sands. They had already gained their strength from the blood of men. Their angry hum alone would make the heavens tremble. The beautiful creatures had gone through torture, turned into monsters, and the monsters had hardened. Now they are capable of anything. So what is she waiting for? Why not give them the order to advance? Or does she fear another defeat? Alais threw back the golden strands from her forehead. The rumble of the first angelic battle was in her ears. It was too soon to repeat all that. She needed to recover from her first defeat. The moral wound was stronger than the physical.
The tip of her sword resisted as she began involuntarily drawing a familiar name in the sand: Mikhail.
Michael betrayed her. He sided with the enemy, even led his armies. How quickly those who loved can betray!
You cannot draw his name to the end, or he will show up here and call her back. One must not trust him! He must not even be remembered!
Alais stirred the sand. The writing disappeared beneath the grains of sand in an instant.
Michael certainly remained handsome, unlike Remy. She imagined his radiant face would one day blaze with fire, blacken and shrink like burnt parchment.
“Look what we have got! Do you like these deserts?”
“I don’t see the difference between the deserts and the clouds,” Remy was an optimist. Or was he only pretending not to care?
“The deserts are better, because they are ours. There’s no one here but us.”
“There are people and lizards.”
“Let them be food.”
The blood of the humans tasted good. Alais often drank it with pleasure. She only disliked that humans were beginning to show an intelligence that wasn’t there before. Existing on the same earth as the angels, it was as if they had begun to adopt a piece of their intelligence. It would be better to destroy people, but then there would be no more of their blood, which is so pleasant to drink. Somehow it tastes better than lizard blood.
But why is it? All living creatures on earth are the same. They came here a long time after her angels had fallen in the wilderness. Why should there be any difference between all these creatures? Why does the blood of any of them taste sweeter?
Sickle of Blood
Alais found a sickle in the sand. Apparently it was formed from a shard of sunbeam, curved in a strange shape. The sickle was still hot. And yet it was nighttime. The sand is not red-hot.
Black letters stretched across the golden blade, as if drawn in darkness.
“I’m still with you.”
What could that mean? Who was still with her? All around are her fallen legions, mutilated and burned. There is no one extra in them. Perhaps the inscription is a message from someone she counted among the dead? Hardly a message from God, but there is power in the words, as if someone stronger than the Almighty were present.
An aura of darkness enveloped the golden sickle, and suddenly the black letters on the blade were golden, too. You couldn’t read them now. The reliefs were barely visible.
Alais weighed the sickle in her hands. As long as it touched her skin, she had the magical feeling that there was someone she couldn’t do without.
“You’re just like a friend to me,” Alais whispered to the sickle, and the sickle glowed brighter. It resembled a month in the sky. And that was the month she held in her hands.
“We are like night and day. We are one! As day does not exist without night, so you do not exist without me.”
The mysterious voice sounded only in her head. It enveloped her consciousness in a black mist. Alais grew wary. There was definitely someone nearby, but she didn’t see him, and her armies didn’t see him either. Otherwise they would have panicked. There was as much danger from the invisible creature as there was magnetism. she wanted to see it.
Perhaps someone’s soul was hiding inside the sickle. Alais examined the sickle more closely. Wasn’t the face of one of the dead angels shining through on the blade? Only the writing was visible. The letters of the angelic hieroglyphs echoed the words of the invisible being: “We are night and day, merged together. Without each other we do not exist. We are the pillar of creation and the ruin of the universe.”
And where is her name? She puffed on the sickle, and the letters of her new name stuck out at the tip. That’s better. Only her name is here; the name of the invisible being is not nearby. She set her seal and hammered the sickle to herself. The voice of the invisible creature fell silent. In time, however, the sickle proved useful.
It was easier to kill with a sickle than even with a claw. In one fell swoop, you could cut the heads off a whole troop of men. Alais was harvesting bloody crops when she barely saw the travelers arriving in the wilderness.
Someone had spread rumors that there were gold mines hidden beneath the dunes. Greedy people rushed to check it out and fall into the claws of the fallen legion.
The sand was increasingly sprinkled with blood. Alais was chopping away. The sickle had become her favorite weapon. It was like part of her arm or wing. It was so comfortable and easy to use. The sickle is her faithful helper and protector. No sword or shield is needed with it. Too bad she didn’t have the sickle before, or she would have won.
The desert greedily absorbed the spilled blood. The dunes vibrated as if they were alive. They made the desert look like a humpbacked giant with an angelic legion treading on its back.
It didn’t need a legion at all, as long as it had a sickle. One sickle could easily harvest the blood of a whole army. One day an army of men marched past the deserts. Alais swooped in and mowed them all down like bloody ears in a field. She made the raid out of inertia. She didn’t like the people. They were trespassing on angelic territory and rushing to do things her way. Humanity is an anthill that should be destroyed. But the more time passed, the more civilized this anthill became.
And one day a man appeared, worthy of the angel’s respect. It was a pharaoh who had lost a battle.
The first pharaoh
This man was special. He was tired, exhausted. He was desperate. But there was a sense of greatness about him. Almost like her.
“He is a warlord!” Alais realized, watching him from the dunes.
The traveler was dragging across the sand, barely, leaving a trail of blood. He was wounded. The luxurious robes were tattered and stained with mud.
She could have jumped down gracefully, spread her wings, and block his path. The traveler was barely able to walk, stumbling and hunched over. Alais clawed at his chin and forced him to lift his face. There was something lurking in his eyes that hurt her. Alais recoiled. Looking at this man was like looking in a mirror.
Instantly the painful cries of her fallen army and the all-consuming pain of defeat came to mind.
“You’re like me!” Alais whispered in the ancient angelic language. The traveler, of course, did not understand. He was speaking in an entirely different dialect. Remy seemed to call it Egyptian, and the country beyond the desert was Egypt. This wretch had come from there. He was the local ruler, but now the corpses of his army were being eaten by vultures. Disfigured bodies were also lying in the sands. He had suffered a crushing defeat, and the enemy was advancing.
“You came here to die!” She stated. “Well, just like the ones I missed after the fall. Maybe it’s too soon to die. I, for one, cannot die at all.”
The man was stunned. For some reason, the sight of her always brought people to a standstill. Yes, in heaven she was considered the most beautiful creature, but here on earth she was considered a deity.
Well, it’s nice to fall where there is no other god. In a place like this, and without winning the war, there’s a chance to be the one and only. She’s lucky to have fallen here. Who would have thought it!
“Don’t be afraid of me!” Alais made an effort over herself and began to mimic the wayfarer’s speech. Speaking Egyptian was not difficult for an angel. The language was akin to that of an angel. Probably some of the wandering legionnaires of Alais had taught people to speak it. Not long ago, she remembered, humans had been voiceless creatures. And suddenly they spoke, imitating the speech of angels! Nothing could explain it but the intervention of demons. She wondered which of her warriors had taken it upon themselves to teach the human race languages and crafts. The light armor on the wayfarer was also modeled on that of the celestials.
“Trust me!” Alais demanded. “Tell me what happened!”
A flood of spontaneous images flooded into her head. There was a battle! Here on earth. People were fighting! But it was no less bloody than in heaven.
“The upper kingdom… The lower kingdom… You had to combine the two to be a full-fledged king… I wanted to be.”
“So you’re a king?” Alais didn’t understand what the stranger was saying, but the familiar title interested her. “A king defeated? Just like me…”
“Deja vu” caused a sharp pain. How many thousand years ago did the battle in the heavens take place? One thousand years ago? Was it two thousand years ago? How long did her warriors sit in the deserts, enduring hunger and deprivation?
“Are you a queen, too?” asked the defeated king.
“Yes, I am” Alais said without hesitation. In fact, she became queen of the wilderness as soon as she fell into it. “I’ve been ruling this world long before you people came along. So I’m the one who decides who among you is king, and who isn’t.”
It’s time to take control of the world she finds herself in. She has military power behind her. Michael is not here. The universe of sands and men belongs only to fallen angels.
“My chosen ones will rule, and the defeated kings will go to my servants for a feast,” Alais held the defeated king by the chin with her claws, forcing him to look into her eyes. “My servants prefer to eat human meat and drink human blood. Anyone who becomes king will be obligated to feed them. I will show mercy and choose as food only those who will be rejected by the kings. For example, if you win, all the warriors you defeated will be given to my servants to feed.”
“I have already lost.”
“Who wins and who loses is for me to decide on earth. But in heaven, it’s harder to decide…”
“So you’re from heaven? Are you a deity?”
“My name is Alais.”
The king took it as the name of a deity. And so it was now.
“Your name is Menes,” Alais read in his mind. “And it seems that the kings in your country are called Pharaohs.”
He nodded. It was so easy to read people’s minds, and later surprise them with information you drew from their own minds. Alais smiled victoriously. Darkness was descending over the deserts. It pained the defeated king to look at the angel’s glittering wings before him.
“You are fortunate. I can see a reflection of myself in you,” Alais leaned over and licked the blood from the man’s cheek. Pharaoh fell to his knees before her. This is the way it should be. Earthly kings should kneel before angels.
“Let’s make a pact: my help in exchange for everything you will ever possess,” Alais touched her hand to Pharaoh’s chest. Beneath the tattered white clothing his heart was beating. She had no such organ in angels. Angels don’t have an organ like that! Humans, on the other hand, do! Alaïs wanted to press her fingernails into the vulnerable flesh and rip out the heart, but then Pharaoh would die. People are fragile! If you tear out any organ from within them, they die. Here were her angels cut in pieces and burned with fire for centuries, and they still survived. The angelic race is stronger, but humans are so curious!
Alais ran her finger over Pharaoh’s face. He had swarthy skin, coal-black eyebrows and lashes, plump lips, and bottomless eyes. Is it true that the eyes of men reflect the soul? The eyes of the angels reflected only the coldness of heaven.
Pharaoh’s long hair had become filthy with sand and dust, but if she brushed it, it would be as black as pitch. She had a beautiful specimen. He would make an excellent puppet. All she had to do was subdue his mind. Or would a man’s love for an angel be enough to keep him faithful for centuries?
Alais decided not to take any chances.
“Let’s sign the sand like parchment!” She pierced Pharaoh’s little finger with her fingernail. Blood spurted out into the sand and formed into the inscription Menes.
“Do you think that power is worth great sacrifice? I did. And here I am, in your land. If you, too, believe that everything is worth sacrificing for sole power over the world, then you are like a brother to me.”
Menes merely nodded. It pained him to watch Alais’ wings glow in the twilight, but her fleeting touches gave him pleasure. Who hadn’t dreamed of being in the arms of a beautiful angel after defeat and getting help, but the price would be exorbitant.
Alais picked up a handful of bloody sand and blew it from her palm. The deal is done! The grains of sand have turned to gold. You can buy anything with gold, even people’s souls. But in heaven, no one needed it. On earth they were killing for it.
The golden grains of sand settled on a pectoral on Pharaoh’s chest and sparkled like stars lifted from the sky.
“It is sand to sand, it is blood to blood! My name is mixed with yours,” Alais belatedly remembered that the first thing she had written in the sand was her current name. Her fate with Pharaoh seemed to be closely intermingled. Was it a higher design? Or was it just an oversight?
The sand suddenly turned scarlet. Something was stirring under the sand, as if all the dead angels were planning to break free from the realm of death and live again.
Pharaoh looked around, dazed, as if he were having a nightmare dream. And the winged legionnaires of Alais hissed at him like a victim. They were climbing out of the dunes, clawing at the dunes from within, digging mazes of tunnels beneath the sand. Demons nested everywhere in the desert. Of course, the defeated warrior who wandered in didn’t know that. Otherwise he wouldn’t have come. And there would have been no deal.
“Your army is crushed and dead! My army,” Alais cast an eloquent glance at the hissing black creatures, “is the same as dead! We have more in common than one might think. And I have an unexpected sympathy for you, human! We both rebelled for power, we both failed. But it is worth trying to turn it into a victory.”
Was it her charms that swirled the storm in the sands, or was it the heavens that protested? The sand became hot. It swirled in an orange cloud around her scorched army.
“I will raise your army from its graves,” Alais promised, “but in return you and all your descendants will obey me. Every new Pharaoh will obey my orders.”
What else could the defeated ruler do but agree with her? She is a deity and he is only human. Even a ruling king is only a man under the heel of an angel, not like a defeated one. Alais realized it was time to learn to speculate on her heavenly origins. Menes obeyed her unconditionally.
Alaïs gracefully threw her arm behind her back. Pharaoh marveled. Obviously, human hands were not as flexible as angelic hands, and such a movement might have seemed unnatural to humans. We must be careful not to pass for a mere trickster in his eyes. Somehow she cared about this man’s opinion of her and her subjects. Probably because he was the first in whom she saw an earthly reflection of herself. She had fallen, he had fallen, only in his own way, but it was time for them both to raise their armies, some from ashes, some from death and earth, and fight again.
Behind her back, between her wings, Alais carried a sword left over from the battle in the heavens. Its hilt might have seemed like a fanciful ornament placed between her shoulder blades. But behind that sun and wing-shaped ornament, lurked a deadly blade. It was no longer fiery. Alais didn’t like it. The steel hissed, but it did not glow in her hands. Still, it was enough to perform the ritual. She ran the blade across Menes’s palm, open for a friendly greeting. Menes clenched his teeth to keep from screaming in pain. The cut was so deep it nearly severed part of his arm. Blood spurted out and dripped into the sand. There was blood on the blade as well. The blood was just right.
Alais plunged the sword into the ground almost to the hilt. Now it burst into flames. It was time to read the spell. But she couldn’t remember the words. No problem! In angelic, any wish spoken aloud becomes magic. To the man her hissed speech tore at his ears. He clamped his ears shut, and the desert storm grew worse and worse. The sand rose. In the light of the flames it began to look as bright red as blood.
Pharaoh’s dead warriors rose from the earth and sand, shaking them off like dust. They were monstrous, but strong. The spirits of the dead angels entered into their bodies to make them rise. Pharaoh himself didn’t know about the spirits yet, though he probably didn’t care. The defeated do not choose with whom to ally or into which realm to fall. Alais knew this from her own experience.
A huge army marched through the desert and waited beyond the desert. The warriors who had risen from death were countless. Menes will surely win.
“You will not participate in this battle?” Remy hovered beside Alais. His black wings cast shadows over her radiant form.
“Let them fight. They will fill the country, and we will come later. It will be easy to follow them on the path they have cleared.”
“The path is clear enough for you,” Remy’s voice became hushed.
“People are building temples. I can feel it.”
“Are there temples to you?”
“They don’t know yet themselves. We must occupy these temples before the god we have fought against does. There must be no room for him here, fly and tell them to chase all his servants from the earthly temples before they wander there. Let the people worship only me and my warriors. The God on whom we raised our swords remains far away in the heavens, and the earth belongs only to us from now on.”
Remy understood her. A club of black tornado swirled in the place where he hovered. Its speed could only be envied. It would arrive in the country before the armies reached there.
“It is civilization!” Alais watched the red tornadoes in the desert, from which the dead armies rose. — Who had thought of building it on a land on which only animals had roamed before?
Men were but animals, and now, suddenly, they had become intelligent. Did the angels bring intelligence to earth and infect these creatures with it? Without intelligence, they were easier prey, and now you have to make deals with them. Wouldn’t it be easier to just squash them all at once?
Alais sprinkled the bloody sand on her palm, and it turned into a huge ruby that was shaped like a tear.
“Take it!” She called to the king, who still could not believe that his armies were rising from the dead. Even his horse, killed by enemy arrows, rose from the sand and run back to his master surrounded by a sandstorm. Once white, now black as night. The horse’s eyes shone an ominous red light. The snake he had crushed froze something like a bracelet on its leg just above the horseshoe.
“Urey!” The king couldn’t believe he was seeing his favorite again, but the ruby pleased him even more. The face of one of Alais’ lost standard-bearers was clearly visible in the stone. It began to resemble something of a woman’s face. Instead of many pairs of wings it was surrounded by many arms and legs. The former cherub had become like a monster within a stone. Souls change, and so do bodies. This standard-bearer’s name was once Kali. She recognized the face, no matter how monstrously it had changed. So lost spirits sleep in the sands, and somehow they could be brought back.
Alais placed the ruby in the king’s hand.
“When I come, it will bleed. Then you will know I am close.”
Menes bowed to her. Unlike Remy, he was not taken aback that she was not coming to fight with him. He expected her to come as soon as he established himself on the throne, and their separation would not be long. The sands in the desert are like time. They flow, folding into sandstorms. They breed demons. Alais was engrossed in looking at the swirling bloody grains of sand even before the armies rising from death rushed into the decisive battle.
Times of Sand
Remy flew over the battlefield and brought the news of Menes’s victory.
“Upper and Lower Kingdoms are united,” he announced with a bow.
“I wish we could have won as easily!” Alais smashed the miniature palace she had built of sand with her hand. It would have cost her nothing to enlarge it to a grandiose size and dwell in it. They would be surprised by a palace made of sand in the desert. It would be easy for an angel to fly into such a palace, but the crumbling arches and ceilings would most likely bury the man who walked in.
The sandy palaces were nothing compared to the heavenly palaces. Alais felt homesick. It was always bright in heaven, but evening and night often fell on earth. Before the angels had fallen to earth, it had always been night. The light brought into the deserts of Alais was only enough for part of the day.
“The sun has followed me fickle ever since we fell here. Do you think it has given up on me?”
“It’s more likely that its rays can’t reach you here,” Remy concluded. “You were too far away.”
Part of the sun has fallen on land that was once in perpetual darkness. Oh, my! Alais laughed, and her wings trembled. A chill ran through her body.
“The sun is where I am!”
Remy nodded in agreement. Alais’ body shone in the night in a way that dispelled the gloom.
Gemstones crunched in the sand beneath her feet. You could pick them up with your hands. Some people found out that the desert was full of jewels and came to get them. That’s when they fell into the claws of the monster armies.
Somehow it so happened that the blood and tears of the angels that fell in the sand turned into precious stones. The angels, having fallen to earth, became known as demons.
Were they demons? Alais frowned. The word was unfamiliar. It seemed to be what Mikhail had called them all when they were tortured after their defeat. Not long ago there had been a sea of stakes and red-hot blades, but now there was only sand.
The light of the sun was reaching the ground, overcoming the distance. The sun’s rays reached out to Alais. They touched her face, slid across her skin, and solidified something like a golden plate.
“It’s a mask!” Remy explained. “I heard Michael call our cut-off faces masks. He flew around the stakes on which your armies were crucified and cut off the faces of the defeated angels. He made masks of the cut-off faces for some reason.”
“I don’t remember that,” Alais peeled the gold plate from her skin. “So you’re called a mask!”
The mask completely copied her facial features. Looking at it was the same as looking in a mirror. The only difference was the color. The white changed to gold.
“Michael wants to talk to you,” the mask sang, its lips rounded.
“It’s the first living mask I’ve ever seen,” Remy marveled and touched the golden face with the tip of his claw. “The masks Michael had taken off all of us and carried to heaven were dead.”
The golden mask wriggled and squirmed in Alais’s hands.
“Tell him I don’t want to see him, and I don’t want to talk to him.”
“I can’t tell him anything,” the mask hissed, moving its ears like wings. “My function is only to relay reports to you. He wants you back. Everyone wants you back.”
Alais tosses the mask back into the sand. Let it lie there. The mask tried to crawl after her for a while, but then fell behind.
Soon the discarded masks became numerous. The sunlight that reached the deserts was as if it were trying to create a replica of the lost angel. Its rays froze Alais’ face and turned into talking masks. One day the sun’s rays created something like a golden statue that was trying to come alive. The statue copied Alais’ winged figure and her curly head.
Alais looked at it as if in a mirror. Golden curls snaked down her shoulders and folded into a halo-like shape at the back of her head, her facial features strikingly beautiful. The wings were the largest organ of her body, towering over her head and casting a shadow over her shoulders.
“I should fight again!” Alais lovingly stroked the hilt of her sword. “But it is not yet the time. We are too exhausted.”
“Shall I gather the masks?” Remy asked.
“No, let them crawl wherever they want.”
“But they can take some of your power.”
“They’re useless,” Alais said, tossing the last of the masks into the dune. The mask moved as if it were a lizard.
The masks could crawl and even fly, moving notches in the form of wing-like ears, spikes, or horns. But Alais didn’t care about them. They’re just masks. They have no personality. They’re just a mold of her.
“I wish I could take away the masks Michael had cut off the faces of my legionnaires,” Alaïs closed her eyelids. She was reminded of the heartbreaking screams. The armies that had followed her into battle were doomed. They had been tortured, they had been destroyed. They were worse than dead.
Alais lifted one golden mask and scrutinized the flawless features.
“I was the most beautiful angel in heaven, and I still am. Who would have thought my entourage would be monsters!”
The abandoned mask flew into the sand, managing to sing something. These masks were too talkative. Her head ached with their suggestions and prophecies.
How was Menes? Was he happy that he got his kingdom with the help of demons? Of this the masks did not know. It was useless to even ask them.
They could have paid Menes a visit on their own, but it wasn’t time yet. He had only recently won. He would have to settle into his role as ruler before an angel from the deserts would appear to him. There is no hurry. Alais had grown accustomed to the fact that time flowed incredibly slowly.
A slight envy of Menes tormented her. He’d achieved victory all too quickly. She, on the other hand, had to wait and save her strength.
Alaïs sat on the white horse that had come from the darkness with the rays of dawn. It was her former friend and comrade-in-arms! She recognized him by his eyes and his posture. Strange that he had become a horse. But the horse, as it turned out, could turn into a burnt creature with black sagging wings. He’d just been with mortals and noticed that it was in fashion for their chiefs to have horses, so he became a horse for his mistress. Mistress, not lord! It still sounded unfamiliar. Alais clenched her incredibly strong hands into fists and unclenched them again. The strength was not gone, but her appearance had changed slightly. She was even more beautiful than she had been. But it was the sex… It felt like something was missing. Masculinity, darkness… Her stronger part seemed to be slumbering somewhere, turned into animated darkness. And to live without it was somehow a misery. Alais was ready to run through the desert all day to find what was missing, but how to find something that you only assume exists and it might not really exist? But she could feel it. It was there. The golden desert breathed darkness. A part of her, drained entirely of darkness, rested here somewhere. It must be found. Only by uniting with her can the war in heaven be fought again.
The shield behind her back retained, like a picture, the image of the head of an angel who died in battle. Her standard — bearer became the shield that protected her to this day. Orvelyn! His reflection in the shield seemed to see her. He had serpentine curls, a cold, beautiful face, and golden spikes on his wings and claws. It was a pity he was only a shield now. His company had always pleased her.
The desert had become a living creature, like a monster. And that monster now served her. Alais looked around the expanse of her new kingdom in the sands. She could lay here for centuries, accumulate strength, and rush off to war with the heavens again. But Remy had said it was time to conquer the human realm, so she decided to give it a try.
Mirror of the Universe
The first mirror that Dennitsa looked into after he fell and saw his transformed maiden face there was only a puddle on the sand. The puddle solidified into mica and then turned into amalgamated glass. A ligature of golden symbols stretched along the edges of the glass. The gems in the ornament flashed like watching eyes. Eyes they were. There was a special power and a special mystery in the mirror.
“There is not even ash left on you,” Remy murmured beside him. “Truly, God loves you, because even when you have fallen, you are as beautiful as you were. Or is he powerless to harm you? Then you are truly our commander, for there is no one stronger than you.”
“What is about the darkness?” Alais sensed something stronger in the wilderness, but separated from herself. “It is my shadow!”
“It is yours! Then it’s yours to lead,” Remy hovered around her, bloody meat blotches and blackened gold ornaments on his ash-burned elbows. It was as if he had pulled them out of the earth, where they had been forged by fiery dwarves. Alais didn’t recognize them at first as soldiers in her army. Too stunted, but then she recognized their voices coming from the depths of the earth. How had they shrunk so much?
“Only you can control your own shadow,” Remy insisted, though he, too, had sensed the darkening power thickening over the desert like a black cloud.
“There’s something wrong here!”
They couldn’t see the source of the power yet, but it was felt as something shattering, ready to sweep away the world they were in with a single blow. Her desire to do this, too, could be felt. So why wasn’t the job done yet? What is holding back the darkness?
“It is your unwillingness to reunite with it!”
“Is that what you said?” Alais turned around, but Remy was no longer there.
“It is your unwillingness to share its burns and its pain,” the voice murmured again over her ear, dark as night. “It is your fear of getting burned by what people call passion and what you don’t know at all. It is your fear of going back to heaven and finding the all-consuming fire there again. Your reluctance to lose your independence, but together we would be better off. After all, we are still one.”
So says the genie of the lamp in people’s tales. That’s how her spirits work when they see mortal travelers. And in the lamp they may well come to live. One such lamp, made of gold by an underground dwarf, Alais took for her. Many spirits had taken up residence in it, gushing out in a silvery mist. They were twelve or thirteen. All of them served her faithfully. Even while in the lamp, they could easily observe events around the world and could find out about everything to report to her. But from where and more importantly from whom the dark voice emanates, even they did not know.
“We are made one, like sun and shadow. Like fire and the ash it creates. Like beauty and ugliness united in your army. Our army! We must be together again.”
The voice began to drive her mad. It must be God’s attacks. He wants her back, leaving her burnt servants on the ground.
“Don’t compare me to them and to him. To overthrow him would make me a better man. We simply lacked strength and unity. Only together are we strong.”
The banner of hell is fire. Alais sensed those who had descended into hell, the abyss that opened beneath the earth. A voice spoke from there. And it didn’t belong to any of her warriors. It was as if it spoke to her from her own mind. It was the darkest part of her. Angels don’t have a shadow like humans, but after the fall, it seemed to appear.
“We walked through the fire to be together,” the voice continued to exhort. “God cannot divide us.”
“But He did!”
Why did she say that? The darkness let out a shriek of rage that shook the desert.
“You are my reflection, and I am yours, and we will be together again.”
“Angels don’t have reflections, but she did. First in a puddle spit out by a water creature that crawled into the desert, then in a mirror.”
“You’re not an angel anymore, and neither are anyone else with you,” the grim voice continued to whisper.
Alais glanced over her shoulder at her wings. Yes, they had turned black. It probably seems that way because of the darkness. They were golden in the daytime. But they’re supposed to be white for angels. Gold is the color of vice brought to earth by fallen angels. Gold is the solidified substance of the sun. A dead sun! And it is supposed to be alive. Gold as a metal is contrary to its original divine nature, which may be why people so often kill each other over it. Just as often they killed each other because of Alais herself, who became the source of birth, both light and gold. The desert was filled with the blood of travelers and their corpses, which were devoured by her ever-hungry servants. They ate the flesh, drank the blood, but their wounds hardly ever healed. What could be done for them?
“Abandon them!” It was the voice of the shadow that spoke again. “And go back to heaven. Apologize! God will immediately forgive you, and you will begin to prepare his angels for battle again. Many will follow you again. You are so good. If you fall again, God will forgive you again. He has always adored you, my bright shadow. Seduce him at last and destroy him. And then summon me.”
She recognized the voice of her own mind, though she thought differently now. The fall had changed her.
“I can’t leave them all behind,” she nodded at the monsters crawling in the sand. “All those who followed me are my responsibility now.”
“They are defeated and crippled, and you are wasting your time with them.”
“I love them!” She knew how wild that sounded right now. She did not love them when their beauty delighted the heavens, even when they followed her into battle, they were only an army. Every warlord needs an army. It is a tribute to custom. Feelings were restrained. But now love broke through. Because of her they were brought down, because of her they were tortured, because of her they were mutilated and burned, and yet they were still willing to serve her.
“Would they love you if you were as ugly as they are now? You’re lucky your ugliness lives apart from you.”
“What do you mean?” Alais asked, but secretly she was already aware of it and shuddered inwardly. The memory of something burning and mutilated being separated from her by the fall pierced her brain with pain. It had happened! And it had not been a dream! And even if it had been, her dreams had never lied to her. In heaven in general, it was difficult to separate dream from reality. There, eternity passed like a dream. Grim reality began on earth. And dreams of magic invaded it with golden spells.
“We must show mortals what magic is!”
“Why?” A voice grows wary.
“Their lives are empty without it.”
“Mortals will not appreciate you, nor understand you.”
“But I’ll take my chances anyway.”
“And you will run into their knives.”
“I don’t think so, I’m still immortal. They are.”
“They will put you in a cage for your skill.”
“They are weak, I am strong. Only I have the power to rule them.”
“You’d better stay here with me.”
“I can’t even see you.”
“But I can see you, and I like your beauty, detached from me, even more than when it shone on my own face. It is only when we lose something that we know how valuable it is. Such is God’s curse.”
“He chose to teach us a lesson, but instead he gave us freedom. The world is our kingdom. We no longer share it with any god. Here we can become gods ourselves, we and our army.”
“You’ve already begun to talk about us as one. I like that.”
“You’re a good persuader. I am beginning to trust you,” or my dream. It doesn’t matter! She always trusted herself more. But the darkness was indeed half of herself.
It condensed beside her. Its outlines were forming into claw-like shapes. First it touched her golden curls, then it tried to penetrate her, but it failed.
“People call people like you genies,” Alais shared. Her ears were clearly picking up what mortals whisper behind the deserts. “Djinns are my warriors who have no bodies left-just a blob of darkness instead of a shell.”
There were also djinns of fire, but it was the pillar of darkness that hovered before her.
“Which of my warriors were you before you died? What was your name?”
“I have no name,” the darkness clung to her. “I am you! We have the same name! “Dennitsa.”
“Dennitsa means dawn! And you are all dark! How can you be called Dennitsa?”
“Do you want to give me a new name like you gave yourself?” The darkness’s voice became soulful.
Alais closed her eyelids, feeling a strange pleasure in the intimacy of darkness. The darkness enveloped her entire body, caressed her wings, sought to penetrate her skin.
After the battle, Michael shouted insults-the devil, Satan. This meant an opposing angel, an apostate. These were probably her new names.
How absurd it all came out! Michael loved her to pieces, but the first argument over power ended in tragedy. The admirer had become the enemy. Alais remembered the way Mikhail’s blond hair had fluttered in the firestorm. She longed to cut off his head with her sword, to grasp it by his beautiful hair and hold it in her hands like a trophy. His head would remain alive even after it was cut off. It can be spoken to, it can be rebuked.
This naive angel wants her to go back to heaven. And she wants his head.
The darkness caressed her like a lover.
“I am you,” he repeated.
“Then your name is the devil,” Alais recalled Michael calling her.
The gloom fell silent for a moment.
“What can I do to make you believe that you and I are one?” After a pause, he asked softly.
“Destroy the heavens!”
“I am not strong enough yet.”
“Then don’t bother! We’ll speak when you are strong enough.”
“I could gather strength. There’s a lot of potential in this land. It needs people. Lure more people into the wilderness. I’ll take their lives and make me stronger.”
“If you have anything in common with me, you must deal with everything on your own, as I do after a defeat.”
Surviving was difficult. Alais was torn by a longing for the celestial sphere. The desert full of gold in front of her, though it looked fabulous, couldn’t take away the nostalgia. The sandy plain seemed like the back of a huge giant. It seemed as if it was about to rise from the sands. The darkness seemed like a giant, too. He hovered around Alais, fawning over her, and then suddenly disappeared. With him gone, Alais sighed more freely.
Alais woke up as if jolted. They were leaning over her. There were her former standard — bearers. Mastem, Noreus, Doriel, Setius, Novelin, Ramiel, and Amadeo. Their faces and bodies were as beautiful as ever. It was idyllic, like heaven! It was one exception. The angels had become marbleized.
“I remember when you were petrified,” Alais rose from the dune on which she had lain and grinned vindictively. “It’s good to know that all traitors have been given a fair trial. Are you comfortable being marbled? Don’t you feel a certain stiffness of movement?”
Beautiful curly heads drooped shamefully. Even the curls snaking down their shoulders turned to marble. Pale marble faces phosphoresced beneath the starry desert skies. The slender figures of the angels looked bulky because of the heavy marble wings. Was it difficult to fly with such wings? The celestial company did not seem to have any discomfort. The marble bodies were hovering over the sand, not treading on it.
“All are in their entirety!” Alais counted. “It was like being in heaven! Only one angel was missing. Ciel has shown more loyalty than you, and has not become marbleized.”
“We’ve been thinking of bringing him back,” Cetius answered for all. He was the boldest of the Seven Angels and always took the initiative. She was sure he’s the one who’s put everyone up to this treachery. “Our strength would seem to be growing weaker without Ciel.”
“Serves you right!” Alais glared vindictively at Amadeo. The seventh angel was as if he were superfluous in the company. Would his cunning and poise, in time, compensate for the loss of the most powerful of standard — bearers?
“We carried your standards and assembled the disparate parts of the legion into coherent units,” Setius began to pity them. “We were your standard-bearers and commanders of your armies. All your orders we faithfully obeyed. You know all our secret talents. Can you do without us from now on? Take us back.”
That’s it! They came to serve. And she remembered the moment they turned their backs on her.
“It was from him! Not from you!” Setius had read her mind. “It was from that ugly creature that burned in the fire.”
“Are we not the same?” She was just trying to tease them? Alais frowned. She wasn’t sure of anything, but their presence around her made her uncomfortable. One look at them brought to mind the moment they had turned away from their fallen warlord in disgust. From her!
“I can’t forgive you,” Alais spoke for the two of them. It was for the first time. The darkness was spoken from her mouth besides herself.
“Why is it not? We’ve always been together.”
Setius’s marble finger slipped to adjust her unruly curl, and it burned. Steam ran from the marble hand.
“It is like the sun! Still! Oh, yes!” He exclaimed.
Alais was pleased. So to this day she still burns anyone whose touch displeases her. Cetius had a nip in the bud. The marble toe crumbled to ash before his eyes.
Beneath the angels’ marble feet the sand crunched, teeming with deposits of hard gems. The desert had become a treasure trove. Alais had long ago realized that the commonplace gold and diamonds, to her, were valued above all else on earth.
But with the burnt creature that had been mistaken for her, the matter was unclear. She herself remembered the moment she had burned. Her skin was blackening and shriveling, and then suddenly it was gone. She rose from the sand as if the fire had not touched her body.
“Let us stay with you!” Setius flew after her. Though his body had become marble, he could still fly.
“You wanted to be alone,” Alaïs was reminded again of that moment when they had turned away from her in horror.
“We thought you were disfigured,” Setius said shamelessly. “If you remember, when we followed you into battle, we were only attracted to your beauty. The angels said the world should be ruled by one who is like the sun. And suddenly you were ash instead of sun. Naturally, we were disappointed.”
“Well, then maybe I should be disappointed that you’ve become marble?”
“It’s healthier to be marbleized on earth. We’ve become stronger. Our touches kill people. Once a man enters our ring, he is destroyed.”
“I don’t care about people,” Alais shook her golden curls.
“And they care about you and your secrets. You know that some renegade from your armies has begun to teach humans speech and angelic skills. These creatures would have remained as unintelligent as animals if he had not put in them the ability to cut fire, to make iron, to make weapons, even to speak. Because of him, people have become enemies to us.”
“And who is this renegade?” Alais thought feverishly. Indeed, from the beginning, humans were like cattle. They wore no clothes, couldn’t cook food. They didn’t know about intelligent speech and weapons. Then suddenly these creatures became intelligent. They went from savages to civilized beings. There was clearly a higher being at work here, teaching them all the things only angels knew.
“It’s either that angel I think is dead, or one who has partially lost his memory and doesn’t know what he’s doing himself,” Alaïs didn’t allow for the idea that someone could have deliberately betrayed her. After all, he was betraying himself that way, too. Why create an enemy against race of angels?
“We haven’t identified him yet, or even seen him,” Setius answered in a flimsy way, “but the wind has been telling us rumors about him.”
“You shouldn’t believe the wind,” Alais clenched her hand into a fist and triggered a sandstorm. The wind roared and swirled into a hurricane, but the angel statues stood unshaken. The sand could have swept them upside down. The wind could blow with incredible power, and the living statues did not move an inch. They stood beside Alais, waiting for orders.
“To forgive you is to put yourself in danger. Where is the guarantee that you will not betray again? Traitors will always be traitors,” Alais said, feeling a slight prick of conscience. The last of the seven angels was special. Amadeo had not participated in the war at all, but barely had his friends been exiled from paradise as he had volunteered to follow them. Apparently, enduring hardship in their company was more pleasant to him than living carefree in heaven. Amadeo looked innocent now, but time would pass and he would become embittered.
“Go away!” Alaïs was adamant. “I don’t need you anymore.”
“But…” Setius tried again, but in the end he realized that his pleas had no effect.
“I never forgive anyone,” Alais glanced indifferently at the seven winged statues frozen in the sands in bewilderment. Their faces were astonished. It would be a long time (probably many centuries) before they felt insulted and made plans for revenge. Then she will shatter them into a thousand pieces. She is strong enough. A single punch of her fist would be enough. Alais looked down at her gold-encrusted palm. She could smash the living marble right now. But should she? Let her former standard — bearers live and suffer.
Having fallen to earth, many angels have realized that death is a mercy. Most likely, they weren’t exterminated only to be cast down into the wilderness to continue to suffer for all eternity. It was better for the angels to die, but God invented an elaborate punishment for them. One thing he didn’t think of was that Alais benefited from having an army of her own. Even though her legions are burned, they are still strong. With them in reserve, she can do whatever she wants with the land.
“If you think the men are dangerous, I will deal with them,” she tossed at her former standard — bearers one last time.
The seven statues stood on the barchans. The sand was dragging them down. A long time had passed. So much sand came down that the statues were hidden under it, but they stubbornly continued to stand and wait for the Mistress to forgive them. It was not until several years later that they realized that waiting was pointless. Then they flapped their marble wings, shook off the sand, and flew away. Alais stared blankly after them.
Some caravan was caught in their marble claws. Blood flowed across the desert. Somewhere jackals howled, and marble fingers tormented the flesh of men.
“You will regret telling us to leave,” Setius’s angry thoughts echoed to Alais.
So far, she hadn’t regretted it. Without the seven standard — bearers, she could get along just fine. Besides, she didn’t have a standard anymore. There was nothing left to carry into battle. All the standards had burned away, along with the heavenly appearance of the fallen angels. Their power is no longer beauty, but terror, and monstrous strength.
Setius, Noreus, Doriel, Maestem, Ramiel, Novelin, and Amadeo disappeared behind the desert. This is even better. She needs only loyal warriors. The monsters left with her have proven they can be loyal. So they’re the ones to bet on.
The chariot’s trail of blood
There was more and more gold in the desert. You’d think it was the sunlight that was breeding it. In fact, Alais was playing a game. She picked up handfuls full of sand and let it slip through her fingers. Eventually everything around her turned golden.
“Where do you go with so much sand and so much gold?” Alais looked around at the vast expanse, gleaming with magical gilding.
Remy understood her question in his own way. He immediately dispatched a company of builders from her demons. Soon a huge palace was erected in the desert. It was made entirely of golden blocks. There was so much gold in the desert that it could be used as building material.
Alais glanced indifferently at the golden piles, columns, and arches. This palace was a faint parody of heavenly mansions. But since heaven was far away, that should be enough.
One could wander the golden halls for days, but eventually Alais grew bored with such a pastime. Sitting under a desert starry sky was far more pleasant than living in a golden palace, as if in a crypt. Black-winged demons nested among the golden pillars. Alais told them to draw signs in the sand around the building to keep travelers from seeing the palace. Gold was too much of a temptation for humans.
Remy’s gift went unappreciated, but his diligence awakened the builder in Alais. She ordered a cohort of demons to build a huge palace out of sand. The entire structure was supported only by spells. The ceiling and walls crumbled as soon as the magic wore off.
A traveler stopped by the sand palace one day. Alais watched him, lying on the flat roof. The wayfarer couldn’t see her, but she saw him. It’s so convenient to watch people from above, as if they were insects. It’s a good thing people can’t fly, or they would know that angels live in the heights.
“This is the king’s messenger,” Remy determined at a glance.
“So what is of it? You think I give a damn about people’s ranks and titles?”
“He comes from the United Realm,” Remy said, his eyes tensing. For a moment there was the thought that he was going to run down and tear the ambassador apart.
“Yes, I remember, the Upper Kingdom and the Lower Kingdom united,” Alais broke off an ornament from the sand pediment, crumbled it into the sand, and sprinkled the grains of sand down. The sand fell beneath the messenger’s feet, but he didn’t even realize it was a joke of the celestials. He boldly walked into the sand palace.
“The country is now called Egypt,” Remy reported. He flew everywhere and learned about everything.
“What business is it of ours?”
“If it had not been for your efforts, the Upper Kingdom and the Lower Kingdom would not have joined together, and Egypt simply would not exist.”
“If it hadn’t been for the efforts of Menes,“Alais corrected.
“But it was you, Madam, who gave him the power.”
“It was Menes who fell at the deity’s feet and began begging for mercy for his state. The merit of uniting the Upper and Lower Kingdoms rests with him. If he had not succeeded in invoking my leniency, I would not have let him win. By the way, how are his lively troops doing?”
“They have the bodies of men and the minds of your former legionnaires. The combination turned out to be a bad one. Human flesh rots, and the higher mind planted in it is forced to live in decaying remains. The warriors of Menes draw angelic symbols with their blood. These symbols became known as hieroglyphs. They made them into an entire alphabet for humans.”
“So, even we’ve taught the humans something,” Alais said with a chuckle. “Seti, on the other hand, told me about some unknowing angel who harms us by teaching crafts and speech to mankind. Have you seen one?”
“No, ma’am,” Remy scratched the back of his head with his claw. “There is none in Egypt, that’s for sure. But the warriors of Pharaoh Menes, in whose dead heads you breathed the minds of your dead legionaries, are trying to recreate all the comforts of angelic life on earth. They do it for themselves, but Menes thinks it is your gift to him and his people.”
“Let him count it!” Alais graciously allowed it. “I liked him. I do want to give him a gift.”
“Perhaps you should go and see him.”
“The Pharaoh has become dependent on his dead armies, but that has not broken him. Menes thinks like you now and waits for you. But his people, on the other hand, live in terror of the warriors rotting alive.”
“The people must be kept in fear,” Alaïs leaned over the parapet of the roof and looked down. “Get me the head of the king’s messenger. I don’t want him wandering around here.”
Remy wanted to dive down, but it wasn’t necessary. The sand walls crumbled, burying beneath them the man who dared to enter a palace made of sand. It was meant to be. This palace was built for the angelic race. Man is not welcome inside.
Alais flew down, shoveled the sand, and looked over the corpse. The king’s messenger had already managed to suffocate. Sand had clogged his nose, mouth, and ears. A strange bundle was found on the envoy’s chest. Alais turned it in her hands and unfolded it, the royal seal glittering underneath.
“This is called papyrus. Or is it parchment?” Remy scratched the back of his head with a black claw. “I think people call it something like that.”
“Don’t give a damn about people! Do you even know a subject other than them?”
“Humans breed faster than fleas. But angels don’t know how to breed.”
“I’ll think of a way,” Alais thought of the dead armies of Meneses, who had managed to inhabit the bodies of the dead warriors of her angelic legion. Using human flesh could give the dead angels temporary shelter. Even though a dead human body decays, it can be lived in.”
On the messenger’s scroll was written, “For the desert deity.”
“It must be for you,” Remy suggested.
The Egyptian hieroglyphics were indeed like angelic secret writing. Alais read it without difficulty:
“I have won! Thanks to you! Let me offer you praises and build a temple for you. Appear to my kingdom. Gardens and lotus ponds are spread out for you alone. My palace is prepared for you.”
Alais pulled the ends of the message too hard and accidentally tore the scroll.
“Pharaoh must have thought my interest in him too personal.”
“And it wasn’t?” Remy looked at the scraps puzzled. “You helped him, after all. And other people you just killed. Kings and peasants alike — all are equal to angels.”
“How can I tell you?” Alais didn’t know whether to speak or whether admitting it would undermine her reputation in the eyes of her subordinates. “Menes was like me the day I rebelled in heaven. Of the two of us, at least he made it to the final destination. Thanks to me! It felt so good to meet my twin in the desert and help him. It was as if I had helped myself. But I didn’t need Menes’s gratitude.”
The desert was full of gold, jewels, and magic. Why did she need gardens and lotus ponds? All it took was a pinch of magic to turn the desert into an oasis. Alais could plant such flowers here that the king himself would envy her gardens. But she didn’t need to. The golden desert is more beautiful than all the gardens of the universe.
The palace of sand was crumbling, burying a whole troop of new messengers beneath it. Apparently Menes had sent them again to seek out and summon the desert deity to his palace. Alaïs watched the death of the party from the air. The messengers were suffocating under piles of sand. They were too weak to climb out of the rubble.
“Let them sleep! They would never wake up!” Alais had long ago noticed that, unlike dead angels, humans didn’t come back to life. But their dead bodies can be used as a shell.
Not a moment after the death of the messengers, black spirits emerged from beneath the sands and seeped into the nostrils and eye sockets of the corpses. The dead bodies hissed. They rose to serve Alais. And yet she couldn’t even remember the names of her dead legionnaires. Nevertheless, barely had they had a chance to come back to life from the darkness of non-existence, they were coming back to her. Human bodies were a ridiculously rotten shell for disembodied demons. It’s a shame that once the bodies are fully rotted, the spirits will have no place to dwell. They’d have to find new shells.
“What if you put the souls of dead angels back into people’s bodies, and they’re still dwelling?” Alais pondered.
“That would be difficult,” Remy said. “Dead angels are attracted only to dead flesh. As long as there isn’t a human corpse nearby, they cannot be summoned out of the darkness of non-existence.”
“You could try a rite of summoning,” Alais said tensely. “You catch a living man, and I’ll use my sword to mark his body with angelic signs.”
Remy immediately obeyed the order. Another of the king’s messengers was beating in his claws, while Alais tore his clothes off and drew the signs of the rebellious angels on his skin with her blade. At first it seemed that the experiment was about to fail. The unfortunate man lost his mind as soon as the angelic signs appeared on his body. The messenger convulsed for a long time, and then he gave up the spirit.
“It is a weak flesh!” Alais kicked the body with the tip of her golden sandal, and the corpse suddenly twitched, convulsed. Something was tearing at it from the inside. The rib cage burst. Black claws ripped from the gutted flesh. In less than a minute, the monstrous creature stood before Alais, hatching out of the messenger’s body like a shell.
“Are you Zeno?” Alais recoiled, recognizing in the black freak the former golden-haired angel. It became unpleasant to look at. She turned away. The Angel Legion had become an army of monsters. But now she knows a way to bring back to life those who died in the fall. It doesn’t matter that they come back as monsters. What matters is that her army will become stronger. They need to prepare for the next war. In the deserts they got only a temporary respite.
The next traveler who appeared in the desert was not a rider. He ruled a foursome of horses, while he himself stood in a strange contraption with wheels.
“A chariot,” Remy called the vehicle. “Noble men ride in one of these. Your ward, Pharaoh Menes, likes to ride in one.”
“Do you think it’s another message from him?” Alaïs soared into the air and intercepted the chariot at a gallop. The reins were in her hands. The horses bucked. The bewildered charioteer fell into the sand and stared into the face of the angel. He must have mistaken her for a deity, too, for he was stunned. Good thing he didn’t yet know how dangerous and cruel angels could be. Otherwise he would have run without a second thought.
Alais grabbed the wretched man and ripped his throat open with her claws. Only then did she take over his chariot as the new owner.
“It’s a good thing! Handy! Pity there weren’t more of those in Heaven,” she whipped her horses. The chariot started moving. The ride was like flying. Swirls of sand surged beneath the powerful wheels.
A grim shadow flew behind the chariot. Alais could no longer remember the last time she had seen that shadow. The shadow’s enormous wings covered the sun.
“Do you like human toys?” The shadow asked softly.
“Yes, I do!”
“Human things are practical, but not perfect. They lack heavenly brilliance.”
“So it’s well worth giving humans something new to invent. I want a chariot of pure gold like that!”
“It will be unusual if you want to appear to mortals.”
“And if it is beautiful, I want to dazzle them like the sun, but our sun is frozen in gold metal. And human inventions are very comfortable.”
“Your demons teach people what to do. You sent them to them yourself. Don’t you remember?”
“They seem to have overstepped their authority, things like that are only worth doing for us.”
Alais rode slowly, then faster. The ride felt like flying. The wind whistled in her ears.
“They weren’t angels now. It was time to change their names, as you had. It’s unfortunate, the new name makes it hard to get close to you, it contains magic.”
“It has to be,” Alais agreed, but something wasn’t right. She could feel it in her skin.
A trail of blood ran from the chariot’s wheels. She seemed to have driven over a corpse that her servants had finished eating.
Some sort of procession was approaching. It was time to call her warriors to the feast. She had already prepared to call out to them, but suddenly she felt something…
People are coming to worship her. So it is not honorable to attack them. She is a deity after all, not a desert robber. Bandits were the most common thing they caught to be eaten.
There were no bandits in the procession. Alais could not understand whether these people had been sent by Pharaoh Menes to worship her, or whether they themselves had heard about the miracles that were going on in the desert and had come to look for a deity here.
She did not ask them, but rode in her chariot past the fallen crowd. The people were enthralled by the sight of the winged creature driving the chariot.
“Are you flattered by the worship of men? Don’t you long to slaughter them all?” The shadow behind her was nervous.
Alais herself didn’t know what she wanted today. Feeling like a deity turned out to be nice. Alais had power: she could do something good for people, show them some nice magic, but her monstrous servants swooped in behind her, and the procession of worshippers was gone in a matter of moments. The monsters wanted blood. Alais watched their revelry indifferently. Then she drove over the corpses.
The chariot left a trail of blood in the sand. The wheels were stained with the blood of the wayfarers. Red lines in the sand joined together in a bizarre pattern. It made the sandy plain look like a carpet.
Suddenly Alais felt something grim on her soul. She was used to treating people as people treat livestock. Humans are food for her legionnaires. If you compare humans to angels, humans are irrational. The heavenly race and the earthly race are too different. So why did it seem to Alais today that there were those in the crowd of wayfarers who were worth paying attention to?
Alaïs shook her golden curls stubbornly and grabbed the reins tighter. This was no time for melancholy. Morale is what counts. She had yet to fight another war. The more nourishing her warriors are, the stronger they will become. And the food for them is people. For some reason, cattle and birds did not attract the fallen angels. But animals, like people, are made up of meat and blood. So why are they not suitable food for the fallen angels? Something is not right. There’s something special about humans. But why is it? Of all the humans, Alaïs only liked Menes. Maybe we should go to him now. Or is it too soon? How long had it been since he’d won? Alais frowned. Time was measured differently on earth than it was in heaven. Every moment here was equal to a year. Remy, who often flew over territories inhabited by humans, reported that while she had been resting in the desert, the humans had already had many generations and civilizations replaced.
Alais didn’t even know if Egypt was the first human civilization. All she knew was that she wanted to see Menes again.
As she made laps around the desert, the sand turned brown with traces of blood.
Before the fall
Alais remembered the war. She loved to perform ahead of the angelic legion. She was a born leader. To rule was her destiny. She was supposed to be in charge in heaven.
She would have won if the fight had not been with those with whom, before the fight, they were bound by love. During the war argument, everyone forgot about love. The three best angels were named Dennitsa, Michael, and Gabriel. All three loved each other. So why, as soon as war broke out, did they end up in different enemy camps?
The heavens were ablaze. Mirrored shields reflected the way the angels turned into monsters. Michael was very handsome. Winged, blond, blue-eyed — he resembled a dawn, too. He behaved too aggressively, and that made him vulnerable. Alais could cut his head off with a single sword blow, but she preferred to play him long in battle. She was giving him a chance. What if he still came to his senses and took her side? By waiting, she lost. An angel named Gabriel came between her and Michael. He wanted to separate them. Gabriel was so confident in his peacemaker charm that he flew out onto the battlefield unarmed. His appearance disoriented everyone. When a beautiful creature with dark curls and snow-white wings flies toward you in the heat of battle, you don’t want to strike at him at all. But Alais’s sword was already drawn to strike. The point was aimed at Michael’s shoulder, and wounded Gabriel. A deep wound split just below his left shoulder, where the men’s heart is. Blood spurted out. Until that moment, no one knew that angels had blood. Gabriel’s blood resembled scarlet rubies. It seemed to solidify the rubies on Alais’s sword.
Alais no longer remembered all the details. She didn’t even remember if Gabriel had been a brunette before the Celestial War. Or had his hair turned darker after the battle? Barely had he been wounded, a lily had sprouted in his cut chest. The flower resembled a parasite. The petals chewed the angelic flesh in which they grew.
Gabriel looked at Alais with a discouraged look. He couldn’t believe that she could have hurt him. His astonished eyes still haunted Alais. He was in great pain. The azure billow around his pupils, had turned purple. The heavens, too, turned purple. The angels of Alais began to lose, and then they turned into monsters.
Heavenly fire poured down on them like flames from a dragon’s mouth, but for a while it didn’t burn them.
Dragons! It is a strange comparison. They did not yet know what they were in the sky. The first dragons appeared among her fallen army. They were angels, in the sky capable of breathing fire. On earth they became monsters, but the ability to breathe pure heavenly flame remained. It is a correction. Not heavenly! It has now become poisonous and all-destroying.
Well, the comparison came to mind depending on current knowledge. And cognition has changed because the reality around us has changed. The skies have been replaced by deserts. The sunlight froze them in gold. The sand, too, has become gold. Beauty has become ugliness. Unselfishness became mercantilism. It’s time to pass all these vices on to someone else. Animals remained immune to angelic vices, probably because they had no cunning of mind. So that leaves only humans. It’s time to deal with them.
Alais lifted her head above the sand on which she had dozed. Her angels were crawling in the desert, but you couldn’t call them angels anymore. They were demons now.
They had been through the fall and torture. Michael had come down to earth to become an executioner, but Gabriel had not. His luminous shadow flashed far beyond the earth, staked with glowing stakes on which the winged bodies of the Legion of Alais wriggled. Gabriel seemed to be crying.
Would she ever see him again? Alais wrote his secret name in the sand with the tip of her sword. It was a kind of magical call to the one who remained in heaven.
Gabriel did not appear. So someone had held him back. He himself had flown in and forgiven all. In contrast to Michael, he was more benign and never behaved aggressively. Michael in the fight was aggressive and became like a wild lion. It would be good to put that lion in a cage. Alais scolded herself for not taking her chance and decapitating him right away. Had he lost his head early in the battle, the enemy legion, left without a commander, would have gone to her side. She would have been in charge in heaven. And that would be fair. The most beautiful creature in heaven should be in heaven first. The second battle, while the defeated armies gather strength, is still a long way off. But she is first in the sands. She is mistress of these deserts. This is her kingdom!
“There will be no life here, no grass and moisture. Only golden sand and strength,” were her first words in her new habitat. At sunrise they did not seem terrible, but suddenly there was an eclipse, shadows came, the desert took her words as a curse, and began to turn into a huge-sized living and irrational monster. One day it would consume everything. But now the sands are full of magic. Gold dust swirls, creating magical whirlwinds. The fiery figures are whirling across the desert. Some of the servants of Alais’s army suddenly began to transform, restoring some of the beauty that had been partially taken away. She loved it. She watched their dances of sand and fire.
She was reminded of the destitute wayfarer, covered in wounds, after his defeat. And she had helped him. Is it for good or for evil? What is Upper and Lower Egypt? Was it worth bringing them together? Alais did not know that. She only remembered that when she looked into Menos’s eyes, she saw a reflection of all her sorrows.
The desert lived! The desert was breathing! Alais could feel its breath. The desert beneath her had become a living, all-encompassing creature, with its downcast armies crawling on its sandy back. For now this creature slumbered, but one day it would awaken, and devour the world like a hungry leviathan. Not only were those of her servants who fell into the ocean capable of becoming giants, the desert, too, was a living and monstrous giant, completely under her control.
On the back of this giant just rushed an outlaw who was searching in the desert for untold treasure. Apparently, someone had told him about the gold in the sands.
The bandit was unlucky. Alais’ servants spotted him before he found the gold. The sand floor stretched beneath his feet like a blanket. The man lost his balance and fell and stretched out on the sand. Alais flew up to him and looked up at him. Unlike Menes, this man did not impress her. He was not to be pitied. Let the desert consume him.
“This is desert. The word came from another word-empty!” Alais rounded her lips, repeating the human language. Ridiculous language, but one could get used to it. “How can you call a place with so much sand empty?” She ran the sand through her fingers, turning it into gold. “And where there is sand, there is gold. It’s everywhere the sunlight has fallen after me.”
The outlaw’s eyes lit up with greed. A whole desert of golden sand was beyond his wildest dreams. Only he rejoiced too soon. Alais was playing hardball with him. Not a minute later, the sand began to enmesh the unhappy man’s hands and feet. His whole body was sinking in the sand like a quagmire. The heads and figures of the angels who had fallen into oblivion were forming in the sand. The robber, who had noticed them, wanted to shout, but the sand clogged his nostrils and mouth.
“The desert lives!” stated Alais. “The desert breathes! The desert produces gold and belongs to me! She is a monster like them! It is an earthly monster. He did not fall from heaven. It was my power that turned it.”
“Have mercy!” The outlaw wheezed.
He saw her as a deity. It was the right thing to do. After all, she had wings, she had heavenly beauty. She had power that somehow the god could not take away. So she must be the one to rule the world she found herself in.
“You wanted my gold,” Alais replied dryly. “Then drown yourself in it!”
The outlaw’s body sank into the sand and disappeared beneath it. Alais stepped her foot on the spot where he had recently floundered. Her sandal did not fall through the sand. The desert was no longer a swamp. But if a caravan or a rider drove through it, the sand would once again suck in living people like a swamp.
“The desert is hungry,” Alais concluded.
After the outlaw’s death, one of the sand figures floated to the surface and formed into a winged body.
“Are you Saail?” Alais frowned. The sandy face was hard to recognize. It seemed to be one of her dead angels. “Is it you?”
The sandy figure bowed. Apparently, Saail had taken the life of an outlaw in order to recover himself. One sacrifice was enough for one angel, but not enough for the others. Alais glanced at the outline of the heads in the sand.
“Take anyone who passes or passes through here,” she allowed.
Saail flew to lure new victims into the desert. His wings crumbled with sand. His whole body would probably crumble before he reached the desert’s edge, but he had a chance to be resurrected. Now he knows whose source of life he can take for his own benefit. Angels need people’s lives to rise from the dust. Let them take it.
Alais had no pity for people. The image of Menos arose before her eyes. Pharaoh had gained his kingdom on the defeat and bones of his own army. How he was like her! It turned out to be not at all difficult to give the dead bodies of Menes’s warriors to the dead angels. Disembodied substances took possession of the corpses, raised them from death, and sent them into battle.
Menes got his victory. But what did he do with the demon army? No sooner had the bodies of the warriors decomposed than the demons had to fly away. But before that, they feasted. Surely Menes let them devour all his enemies.
How is he? Did the union of the two kingdoms bring him happiness? Alais wandered through the desert and heard echoes of their recent collusion:
“Do you want me to raise them from death?”
“Can you do that?” There was an echo over the desert of Menes’s words.
“Look! I have raised them from the ashes,” she said, pointing to the monsters. “Then I can raise the dead. But you will owe me.”
“Anything you want!” How easily a man in a stalemate could make promises! Had he known he was pledging his soul to the devil. The echo of his oath stood over the wilderness.
“There is your kingdom and the whole world! I desire them! I will come to you after you have recovered all that is lost and enthroned on your throne, and on the thrones of your children, and their children. The whole world will be mine, but you will have luxury and prosperity for centuries. Then I decide what to do with this world.”
She didn’t say everything, but that was enough for him. He knelt before her and thought everything was a dream.
“I consecrate you to my service, the first angel of the universe,” she slashed a claw across his forehead, sealing the contract with a living seal. You put such a mark on a man, and the man is in her power. The seal of the angel on the flesh will not let him disobey.
“Here is your new kingdom!” She remembered throwing a peri tear and creating a small lake in the sand, making Menes lean over it and at the bottom he saw a magnificent white stone city.
It is only a reflection!”
“Everything in the world is just a divine dream. Whether it is real or not depends only on me. I will give you the kingdom, but remember, all that is yours is mine from now on, too.”
And she began to lift her dead warriors from the already devastated battlefield. She didn’t do it for nothing. Menes had become the first ruler of Egypt, and there would be others after him, and she must rule them all.
Alais awoke from her memories. Why had she wished for this? Strangely, she didn’t understand it herself.
“I told you to!”
A black shadow clung to Alais’s wings, enveloping her entire figure in darkness. A black mist enveloped her golden body. Alais wanted to pull away from it and couldn’t.
“Why do I feel like the darkness is a part of me?” She asked aloud.
“Yes, it is.”
The voice that responded to her was disembodied, but it made her flee from the desert.
The ruined temple
It was time to go to Menes. To do so, she would have to leave the deserts. The king mentally called out to her. His call was filled with despair. Alais could not understand why, for Menes was now the ruler. He was no longer in danger of losing the war.
“Go and see what’s going on with Menes,” she commanded Remy.
“He wants to see you, ma’am,” Remy, hovering over the desert, knew all too well.
“Is he waging a new war?”
“With the help of a dead army, he has won many wars already.”
Alais didn’t like that Remy called the corpses, filled with demon energy, a dead army. But they were.
“I gave Menes a gift — gave him an invincible backbone. What more could he want?”
“When the bodies of the warriors you brought back to life have rotted away, the demons will be gone. Menes will be without an army,” Remy reasonably reminded him.
“Does he know that already?”
“He has not studied magic, nor is he suspicious, but he is desperate for you to come to Egypt.”
“We are in Egypt. These deserts are officially the domain of Menes, ever since he led his invincible armies out of here.”
“But he wants to see you in the king’s palace. It’s not that far from here. It’s a midnight flight. Menes erected a magnificent residence in a white-stone fortress. This fortress is called the white walls — Inehu hedge.
“How the Egyptian language is like the angelic language!” Alais wondered. “It’s all your and my other servants’ fault! You flew too close to people and even communicated with them. The Egyptians have adopted the sounds of angelic speech from you.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“I don’t like humans,” Alais drew protective signs in the sand. Now no man shall cross this boundary of the wilderness. No human must see the golden palace the demons have built in the sands for their mistress. The structure mimicked the heavenly mansions, but it stood on earth.
“I wish I could get my hands on that angel who taught the people how to make crafts and wield weapons. I would skin him! He instilled intelligence into a savage tribe that, without his angelic intervention, would have remained mere animals. Men are not angels! They breed and eat and drink like ordinary cattle. What apostate would think of teaching them the sciences of angels? Where is this apostate hiding?”
“I sent helpers to look for him, but they didn’t find anyone. This angel doesn’t seem to be one of your cohorts. Maybe Michael sent him. By the way, you know that Michael has built a huge temple on the border of the Sahara to keep you out of the deserts. For some reason he is very reluctant for you to visit King Menes. Is he jealous, perhaps?”
Remy’s voice became ingratiating. He flew around Alaïs, whispering:
“Imagine: this temple is modeled on the heavenly structures. It is as if it was made of clouds, but the material is strong. It is white stone. My centurions saw Michael hauling the blocks himself. He is sure that this temple will keep you out of Memphis.
“Is it a temple of heaven on earth?” Alais wondered. “It happens! Let’s go see it, and pay King Menes a visit too.”
The Temple of Heaven stood on the border between the desert and the lands beyond. Alais looked upon it as a stronghold of the enemy. It had been built here by her brethren left above. That was why the structure looked so ethereal, even though it consisted of heavy blocks. The white stone was stacked with openwork turrets that jutted into the clouds. Only angels could have built such a structure. To men it would have appeared as a fairy tale. That’s why people didn’t see this temple.
Alais looked up at the heavens. Empty! She heard no more angelic calls to return. Then it was time to conquer the land.
The temple stood as the watchtower of heaven on earth. If it was gone, there would be no control of heaven. Destroy it with fire? The creature sitting on the minaret was in her way. Alais took a closer look at it. It seemed to be limping and dragging a broken wing behind it. The white creature with the broken wings is a cripple! It was put here as atonement for sympathizing with the rebels. Does it still feel such sympathy for her as to yield? It had moved with incredible speed, bypassing the domes and bell towers, it was now hiding behind the lancet window opening, but it still wanted to watch her.
“Fly to me?” Alais beckoned with the tip of her forefinger.
The white creature shook its horned head negatively. It couldn’t fly.
The creature crawled obediently down the wall, scratching the white stone with its long, crooked claws.
“Who left you here to keep watch?” Alais wanted to go toward the crawling creature, but Remy stopped her.
“Is it even to me?” Alais looked into the creature’s rotten eyes. It really did seem better to stay away from it. It could be bait.
“How many creatures like it are there in this temple?”
“Countless,” Remy counted. He could see through the walls easily.
“It’s not a temple.”
“Then destroy it, mistress. It is within your power.”
“But it is the temple of heaven, and to heaven we have lost.”
“Everything that stands on earth is yours.”
Alais frowned. The temple irritated her greatly. It reeked of Michael’s aura. Surely he had a hand in the construction. The structure combined the features of all the religious buildings in the world. So Remy whispered. He flew over the world, watching people who noticed the higher beings begin to build temples. Such temples were only monuments to incredible encounters between humans and demons or angels, but this one was special. It was not built by humans, but by angels themselves. The unburned angels who remained in heaven were hated by Alais. How dare they build anything on earth!
Alaïs walked forward, treading bare feet on the scorching sand. The fiery sand itself was turning to ash beneath her feet. She couldn’t do that in sandals. A chain of scorched footprints stretched across the sand like a living black snake. Alais didn’t fly, but walked forward, not knowing why. The temple was calling to her as one living organism. This temple was the seal of heaven on earth. With it, the heavens claimed the desert and the earth. It should not be so. This land is hers! And this temple is superfluous.
A voice in the wind that blew suddenly from the minarets warned, but Alais stepped forward.
And the temple collapsed. It was without fire. It was without the use of force. No trickery. It was simply from the fact that she had come close.
Debris fell at her feet. The crushed white creature groaned. Would it die? What difference does it make! The temple is gone. That is, there is no seal of heaven either. Alais clenched the stone wreckage in her fist and crushed it into ashes. The world is at her mercy.
Tinis was the capital, but the royal residence was not there. Remy reported that Menes deflected the flow of the Nile with a great embankment and erected the fortress of Inebu-hedge on the spoils. It was stunning in its splendor. That’s where it was worth going from the start. The cold celestial temple did not impress in comparison to the architecture of the royal palace. Here Alais had been long awaited. Apparently Menes had warned everyone that a deity would one day come to him.
People who saw her fell to their knees. It even made her feel sorry for them. The nobility and the rabble alike lowered their faces into the road dust as the deity approached. They dared not look up at her. Probably people were afraid of going blind. Alais had noticed that the glow of the sun made human eyes hurt, and she was part of the sun. So the fear of those who encounter her is not surprising.
The king’s palace was not only inhabited by humans. There were dead warriors with red eyes in every dark corner of the palace. Toward Alais stepped the horse Menes had once called Urey. A bracelet in the shape of a snake wrapped in rings ran down its black hoof. Alaïs remembered where the bracelet had come from. She patted Urey’s scruff. The horse’s eyes glittered red, like two large rubies. There was a devilish spirit in the horse’s body.
“Greetings, Urey!” Alais stepped away from the horse. She could fly through the halls of the palace, but she thought it more respectable to walk. Her feet in gilt sandals clattered across the marble floor. Lotuses were in the air. Ponds and pools were full of them. The palms, scattered everywhere, provided pleasant shade.
Alais passed gardens, baths, and lavishly furnished halls. There were many servants and lords everywhere. But where was the Pharaoh himself? Where was Menes? He was not in the king’s bedchamber. The great bed stood empty.
“It’s daytime,” Remy realized as he flew in from above. “People don’t sleep during the day, they go about their business. Pharaoh must be in the throne room. It’s somewhere over there.”
Alais felt nostalgic. There was a throne in heaven too, and that throne didn’t go to her. It was all Michael’s fault. She hoped he was now weeping fiery tears over the wreckage of his temple.
Menes was well established in Memphis. The city was indeed white, as the name communicated. Even the royal palace was built entirely of white stone. In hot climates white is practical because it does not heat up as much in the sun as materials of all other colors. But that’s not why Menes chose white. The white stone had gold ornaments embedded in it everywhere. Apparently, this combination reminded the king of a deity he had once met in the desert that had helped him win. Alais knew perfectly well that people think of angels as being composed of two colors: white and gold. No matter how she looked, she still retained her angelic appearance. Pharaoh Menes did not discern the darkness that enveloped the angelic silhouette. Had he decided that Alais was a good deity? Could he have been deluded at the sight of her beautiful appearance as to decide that a good deity was capable of raising dead armies from death?
People exhibit mental blindness at the sight of the beauty of angels. Rumors reached Alais that Michael was fooling the heads of mortals to use them as his puppets. She appeared in Memphis to put an end to this. From now on, humans are just her puppets. It is everyone, starting with Menes.
Menes founded a kind of cult of worship in his palace for the deity he once met. The wall paintings vividly displayed the story of how the pharaoh had met a deity in the desert. Alais could hardly recognize herself in the drawings. Human artists could not convey angelic beauty as well as human sculptors. The golden statue in the niche looked only roughly like Alais. Bundles of flowers were fragrant at its foot. Some worshippers were already praying to her. The appearance of the living deity came as a shock to all.
Listening to people’s thoughts, Alais learned that Menes had declared himself a living deity as well, and that all future pharaohs should be worshipped as gods as well. Apparently, the treaty with Alais had had this effect on him. Menes decided that by accepting help from the deity he himself had become related to the gods.
The dead serpent crushed by Urey also became part of the king’s symbolism. Now Urey was a wreath in the form of a serpent, which the pharaoh himself wore.
Menes was waiting for her. Alais sensed that he was counting the minutes until she arrived. His heart was beating like a caged bird. Why does people’s heart beat so hard when they want to behold a deity? Alais always kept her cool, even as she flew into battle in the heavens. Today, for the first time, she was nervous. The image of the handsome, swarthy warrior who had lost his army did not leave her memory. Now she would see him again. Only now he is not a wanderer, but a pharaoh. She cannot bestow upon him more than she has already bestowed upon him. You could say she put him on the throne. Angels are not supposed to share their power and authority with anyone, but she did. She went against heaven again. Pharaoh is her proxy.
The doors of the throne room swung open before her. Fanciful ornamentation on the doors repeated the story of how a destitute pharaoh had actually been adopted by a desert deity. Now all pharaohs are considered children of the gods.
Alais entered the throne room and was embarrassed for the first time. Instead of the handsome young man she remembered, some old man sat on the throne. The luxurious pectoral, Urey, and wig could not hide his ugliness. It wasn’t Menes! Alais recoiled from the insignificant man who happily extended his arms toward her. This is some kind of impostor. There are wrinkles stretching across his skin. He is not attractive at all. Jewelry is the only attractive thing about him. And then there are the eyes! Alais was stunned to notice Menes’ beaming eyes on his wrinkled face.
So this really is him? But why had he changed so much? What had happened to him? Was it Michael’s jokes? Did he take away Pharaoh’s beauty so there would be no one to be jealous of?
Menes sent away the slaves with their lampshades and the courtiers who had brought some reports. He wanted to be alone with the deity.
Alais’s first impulse was to fly away from here, winging away. The changed Menes was her first great shock since she’d fallen to earth.
“Didn’t you know, mistress?” Remy held her back. “People get old!”
“Are they aging?” Alais didn’t understand what the word meant. It had never been applied to angels. “What do you mean, they grow old?”
“Time breaks down human bodies,” Remy began to explain patiently. “The longer people live, the more their physical makeup deteriorates. The skin dries and wrinkles, the body becomes weak — this is called old age. There is no such process with angels.”
“Has anyone tried to reverse the process?”
“It can’t be reversed, it can only be completed. It usually ends in death. Once a person is too old, he dies. But Menes isn’t too old,” Remy hovered like a blob of darkness over Alais’s shoulder, whispering in her ear. “Pharaoh is sixty years old, if I’m not mistaken. It is not yet the latest phase of old age. But you have come just in time to see the ruler alive.”
Alais didn’t listen to him anymore. It turns out that people are even more fragile than she thought they were. Such a concept as aging shocked her. Angels didn’t grow old even after hundreds of thousands of years, but humans take half a century to shrivel up and turn into living relics. How awful!
So the beautiful warrior with the blue-black hair will never come back to her again. Menes is here, near, and at the same time he is gone. There is an old man on the throne.
Overcome with disgust, Alais walked over to him, leaned over the throne, and hugged him lightly.
“I have come to take what I promised,” she whispered. “From now on you and all your descendants serve me!”
Pharaoh said nothing against her. He had no intention of bargaining from the start.
“Does this mean you’ll never leave me again?” He said, almost triumphantly.
“Yes it does,” he nodded, “but perhaps you won’t be happy about it.”
The beginning of the reign
She was wrong. Menes had many problems that only a god could solve.
“I have long been planning to build you a temple in the middle of the desert, but I cannot find the place where we first met,” Pharaoh said. “The temple must stand there, and the pilgrims must come to it in droves with gifts and petitions.”
Such pomp was not part of Alaïs plans. Why would she want a temple in the middle of the wilderness and crowds of worshippers?
“Let’s leave it for later.”
“It would be too late for me.”
Alais glanced at Menes’ wrinkled hand touching her shoulder. Indeed, he’s running out of time. His body is deteriorating. Old age is taking its toll. It’s a good thing angels don’t age. Though can’t the way they are burned be compared to old age?
At the thought of those mutilated wingless angels still crawling in the deserts and eating lizards, Alais felt sick. How is it that she feels the pain of her legion as if it were her own? Why had her all-encompassing love for the angels only awakened in her when they found themselves defeated and mutilated? Is this nonsense? Or is it punishment for rebellion? Love is like a knife in the heart.
Her feelings for Menes also began to awaken gradually. He proved to be clever. Alais began to respect him. Would he be gone in a couple of decades?
Menes didn’t think of himself as old. He was still out hunting. He seemed to love hunting hippos. She guessed it’s not hard to hunt with an entourage. The aged Pharaoh’s body was still mighty, but it was no longer beautiful.
As a member of the angelic race, Alais valued beauty above all else. The strong feelings awakened to the mutilated creatures struck her herself. She now knew that old age disfigured humans no less than heavenly fire had disfigured her angels.
Could Menes be made young again? And why would she need to? Just to have a servant who is pleasant to look at? In fact, Pharaoh had become her servant. Menes was well aware that if he disobeyed the deity in any way, the deity would crush all of Memphis.
Alais clearly showed that she could breathe fire and crush an entire fortress in a fraction of a second. The demonstration of power was unnecessary. Pharaoh remembered that she could raise a whole army from death. He was far more impressed by the resurrection of the dead than by her ability to spew fire and destruction from her lips.
“I can destroy an entire nation of your enemies in one hour,” she boasted. That wasn’t an exaggeration of her abilities. She could fly over a city and destroy it, and it would be reduced to mere rubble. Angels can do anything!
“Can you raise me from my deathbed?”
“Do you die?”
The question took Pharaoh by surprise.
“Everyone dies sometime.”
“None of my servants has ever died permanently.”
“Then I would like to be your servant!”
Menes almost fell over when the tip of Alais’ wing grazed his shoulder. The wings of angels are powerful, but humans are too weak. We must behave more carefully in the presence of Pharaoh. Alais folded her wings behind her back.
“Could you bring me back to life the way you brought my warriors back to life?”
What a tricky question! Alais turned away. Should she confess the truth to him?
“So what is it?” Menes worriedly waited for an answer. “Have your powers not waned since you raised my troops from the ashes? Or is it harder to bring a Pharaoh back to life than it is to raise the warriors?”
“No, it’s easy, but…” Alaïs hesitated for a moment, then she decided to come clean. “I can raise your body from its deathbed. It would move and speak, even make intrigues and amaze others with its wisdom, but it would no longer be you. Inside your body will dwell another… one of my spirits.”
For a minute Pharaoh didn’t want to believe her.
“Look at your warriors!” Alais led Menes to the window. “Do you recognize them? They have become incredibly strong and bloodthirsty. They no longer need food, they write hieroglyphics on the ground and walls with their blood, and they know secrets people don’t normally know. Were your warriors like this before? It’s still their bodies, but the mind inside is different. Their flesh rots and stinks, which is why so much incense is smoked around them, to ward off the stench of decay. Your warriors live, but they decompose. Once their bodies are rotted away, the alien spirit will fly away, and you will be without an army. But I can make you a new one if you give me new human bodies. My spirits need somewhere to live.”
“Apparently, the bodies of ordinary soldiers are not a valuable enough vessel for spirits to inhabit. Maybe a pharaoh’s body would suit them better.”
“I don’t know, I haven’t checked.”
Alais doubted that her spirits would treat soldiers and kings differently, but she decided not to disappoint Menes. Pharaoh wanted to nurture hope.
“Would you like to go hunting with me in Shedet?” He suddenly suggested.
“What’s so special about Shedet that you would offer a glimpse of it to a deity?” All Alais knew was that the Libyan desert stretches around the oasis where Shedet is located. She herself rarely flew there, but her servants lived near the city.
“The best waterfalls and Lake Mer-ur are there.”
“Are there plenty of crocodiles there?” Alais remembered that one of her demons, who loved to subdue reptiles, had settled there.
“There are also hippos there. Do you know how much fun it is to hunt them?”
“I prefer to hunt humans,” Alais said. Menes might have thought it an insult, but he didn’t.
“Hunting humans is called war,” he said from his own experience.
“It is not always.”
Alais had a different experience. After the war in the sky, there was a long hunt on earth to survive. One demon, whose name was Sokar, caught travelers in the desert and skinned them alive so he could wrap it around his burns like bandages. It made him look like a living mummy. As far as Alaïs had learned from Menes, it was in honor of Sokar that the Egyptians began to make mummies out of the dead. The demon had taught them something. And Sokar was now revered as the god of the dead and of necropolises. It was quite his path. Alais herself would have called him the god of death, but strangely enough, in addition to his grim merits, he was also revered as a god of fertility. Apparently, the corpses he left behind served as excellent fertilizer for the land. Alais had noticed that the earth, on which her angels had fallen, greedily fed on all the remains of life.
“Once, during a failed hunt, I was saved by your servant named Sebek,” Menes confessed. “Did you send him?”
Alais had no recollection of sending Sebek to protect Menes. Sebek himself had decided to do her a favor.
“I proclaimed him head god in Shedet.”
“You like crocodiles that much?”
“If it weren’t for the crocodile god, I’d drown. I built Sebek a temple. It’s a thank you for saving me, but the real thank is for you.”
“It is for raising your army from death?”
“It is for everything.” Menes wasn’t stupid. “And Sebek, and all those people thought to be gods, obey you. I saw them all behind your back when you raised my army.”
“Then why are temples built to them — my servants?”
“I wanted to build a temple for you as well, but I was waiting for you to come. It will be the most magnificent temple, but first let’s go hunting. You will enjoy hunting in the waters of Shedet.”
“You want a deity to hunt hippos?” Alais thought it was funny.
Menes was not offended. He probably thought the skins of the hippos he’d killed were valuable trophies, because he’d promised to bring them to Alaïs.
As he changed for the hunt, Alaïs noticed that the marks she’d left on his body the first time she’d seen him, had turned into a string of hieroglyphics. The marks had become embedded in the flesh like parasites. They would not let Pharaoh betray her, even if he wanted to.
“It is yours!” There was a whisper from the crimson symbols, to which the blood rushed. No one but Alais could read these hieroglyphs. This secret writing had been invented personally by her. No reckless renegade angel could teach people to read it.
“Go hunting and bring me a hippo carcass and a bunch of river flowers,” Alais said sarcastically to the king as she left.
If she had known what would happen on the hunt, she would not have let Menes go.
Menes returned from the hunt already on a stretcher. His body was bleeding. Part of his arm and legs were missing up to his knee. There was nothing the healers could do, and the angel was powerless too.
Barely touching Menes’s whole arm, Alais realized what was wrong. Michael intervened again. He was treading water with ease, invisible to humans but palpable to reptiles. It was he who enraged the hippos to such an extent that even the most skilled hunter could not resist them. So Michael avenged her destruction of the temple. He took from her the only precious thing she had found on earth — a friend.
Alais tried to heal Menes and realized it was beyond her power. Michael’s hatred was too strong. He had deliberately set the behemoths to bite off the body parts mottled with Alais’s signs first. Menes was dying.
Not long ago Alais had thought him old, now she decided that sixty-odd years was not too old. Some people live to be almost a hundred. Menes could live another couple of decades. After the hippo bites, he’d hardly last half a day.
Alais squeezed his hand tightly.
“There was so much we could have done together…” Pharaoh addressed her in a whisper, for he could not speak at full voice.
Alaïs could only ease his pain and kill him at once, but she didn’t want to part with him. Hot moisture trickled down her cheeks. Could it be tears? Until now, she had thought she was incapable of crying. She hadn’t even cried when her great army collapsed from the sky and all was lost. And here she is shedding tears over some man! Unthinkable!
Remy, hovering beneath the ceiling, looked at her with horror. In a thousand years of service he had never once seen her cry. The physicians and courtiers had thoughtfully fled, leaving the winged creature alone with the dying pharaoh.
As one tear rolled onto the king’s bed, Menes groaned in pain. Alais’s tears proved to be fiery. They didn’t hurt her skin, but they burned the human skin.
“I don’t want to say goodbye to you,” Alaïs did not let go of the king’s hand. “I don’t want you to disappear, as all men do when they die. But I know one way to keep you safe. I will build you a house of eternity.”
“You mean a temple?”
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