Chapter 21
The Princes of Heaven

Location: Unknown Location, Outside Union Space
Date: Sun 08 Sep 121
Time: UST 0113

The Kodesh Hakodashim was a dome with flawless white enameled walls that had neither joint nor seam. The floor was black as pitch with a mirror sheen. From the floor emerged the twelve thrones of the Malachim. On each of these thrones was a white-robed figure clad in an ephod of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet. Fixed to each man's chest was a breastplate bearing twelve jewels and upon each head was a crown of gold with a jewel in the center, each one different from the others.
The Malachim raised their arms and lifted up their heads to receive the voice of the Shekinah, chanting to invoke Her presence among them. They were answered by the booming voice that sounded like a multitude but was One.
The floor opened up and seven new figures emerged. They too were robed in white, but instead of gold, silver was woven into their ephods and on their heads were smaller, silver crowns with the name of their patron spirits embossed in gold letters. The Seven Seraphim were kneeling in reverence of the holiness of the place and the majesty of the Shekinah.
The Seraph Ben Michael, the first among them, replied, "The Sons of Amalek are strong. They stand before us like a stone wall. Our arrows shatter against them and they suffer no hurt. They draw nearer to our promised land as You have ordained. We fear not, for You are with us, our rock, our refuge. Increase our faith, so that we would stand fast in the coming storm."
All seven Seraphim replied, "With Your help, so shall it be."
"Amen," the Malachim and Seraphim replied in unison.
With that, the assembly was dismissed. The Seraphim descended first and then the Malachim. There was much they had to do.

* * *

Location: Unidentified Empyrean Vessel, Outside Union Space
Date: Thu 12 Sep 121
Time: UST 1314

The Seraph Ben Michael sat in his quarters brooding. He stared at his crown resting on a table. The gilded letters of his namesake, his patron, and his ship spelled out a judgment against him.
Who is like God?
By virtue of his rank, his office, and even his birth, he was supposed to be close to God, but ever since he first encountered the Amalekites, he felt farther and farther away from what he was meant to be.
The Tempter's words appeared on the viewing panel. She--the Tempter insisted on characterizing herself as a woman--appeared to Ben Michael during his first encounter with the Amalekites, the Behemoth and the Leviathan. She offered him the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, to open his eyes. He refused, of course. At first.
As time wore on, the seeds of doubt were planted in his heart and dutifully tended by the Tempter. Despite his refusal to eat of the forbidden fruit she offered, the Tempter fed it to him anyway.
She told him that his whole world was a lie. The Shekinah was not God's presence among them. Theirs was not a heavenly society ascending to ultimate union with the Godhead in Arabot. Only the pretense of difference separated them from the Amalekites.
It was so plainly foolish that Ben Michael should have been able to dismiss the Tempter's lies out of hand. However, when the Shekinah commanded him to draw the Amalekites to the Shehakim in violation of the mitzvah, he was shaken to his core. There can be no contradiction with God. The Amalekites are to be wiped out, not toyed with.
When last the Shekinah spoke to him and the other Seraphim, the destruction of the Amalekites did indeed appear to be the ultimate goal, but why the games? The full force of his fleet was surely more than enough to wipe them out. The divine plan was of course beyond his fathoming, but this change of an immutable commandment gave sustenance to his doubts.
With even the slightest opening to the Tempter's power, Ben Michael found himself quickly overwhelmed by her. She showed him so much of a world, no, a universe beyond his comprehension. The Amalekites were in truth the people of all nations, called the Earth Union, banded together and locked in bitter strife against the fallen ones known as the Sheolites. What he had actually seen in the Behemoth and the Leviathan were the Union and Sheolites fighting each other. This was what the Tempter claimed.
She showed him the whole of the Union's history and even the world before the Union, when humanity was still confined on Earth, fractious and weak. It was nothing like what he was taught as a child. There was supposed to be nothing beyond the Shehakim but the endless void. The existence of the Amalekites alone proved this much to be a lie.
Even the Shehakim itself was not unique according to the Tempter. Rather than the heavenly abode, it was nothing more than the work of men's hands. One of five, two others surviving to this day.
Even though it was not the greatest of the things the Tempter had told him, what gnawed at him the most was his name, or rather, what was supposed to be his name. She told him his true name was Kyle Norris, the son of Malcolm and Caitlin Norris, born on the third day of the month called March in the year 086 of the so-called New Era. He was born a citizen of the Earth Union and even had a serial number: 976-ECJ-2375.
They did not have names in the Shehakim. They had titles, designations. Indeed, 'Ben Michael' was given to whoever commanded the Michael and led the Seven Seraphim. He himself had served under the previous Ben Michael until he was anointed the successor to the post. Eventually he would be replaced and cease to be known as Ben Michael.
But a name to call his own, a name given to him by the parents he never knew. An identity that was not bound to the post he filled or the station he held. Instead of being but one within the Tsebaot, he was a distinct, separate, individual person. It was an enthralling notion and it was perhaps what damned him in the end.
More and more, Ben Michael started to think of himself as Kyle Norris and craved to learn more about what lay beyond the Shehakim. He could not be more in the Tempter's power, so her facile question about his mood was uncalled for.
"You know why I am so vexed, Tempter."

* * *

Date: Thu 19 Sep 121
Time: UST 0715

Ben Michael was reaching his breaking point. The slow grind of the campaign against the Amalekites and the constant barbs from the Tempter were more than he could bear. It seemed like there was no one he could turn to. He could not afford to show weakness around his subordinates nor appear to question the orders of his superiors, to say nothing of the commands of the Shekinah. He could not turn to his fellow Seraphim either. He was first in line to join the Erelim and though they tried to hide their envy, he knew they were eager to take his place in the line of succession.
There was one exception, though. In each Seraph a particular virtue was cultivated. For Ben Raziel, it was knowledge, secret knowledge in particular. He was charged with thinking in ways others would not, could not. If anyone could understand what Ben Michael was going through, it was him.
Ben Michael was still taking a risk approaching Ben Raziel, but it was the least risky choice open to him. Somewhat surprisingly, Ben Raziel responded to his hail with little delay.
"Peace be with you, my brother," Ben Raziel said.
"And peace be with you," Ben Michael replied. "I am not distracting you from your duties, I trust."
Ben Raziel laughed. "It is not my fleet but yours that is on the front line. If anyone is distracted from his duties, Brother, it is you."
"We are facing dark times, Brother," Ben Michael said grimly.
"It is but the last gasp of night before daybreak."
"May it be so."
With his first attempt to broach the topic so adroitly deflected, Ben Michael sat there silently for a moment. It did not take long for someone of Ben Raziel's perception to see through him, though.
"And yet you are troubled and seek counsel."
"I am," Ben Michael admitted, "and I do."
With a slight bow, Ben Raziel said, "I am honored you would come to me."
"You are blessed with the gift of knowledge, Brother, and I am in need of it."
"You flatter me, but speak of what troubles you. Speak freely, for none shall hear but the two of us."
Ben Michael found it difficult to muster up the virtue he was supposed to represent: courage. He had agonized over his torment for far too long and this was his best chance to get the answers he sought. He had to set aside his fears and anxieties and speak.
"What do you know of the Tempter?" he asked.
"The Tempter is our accuser," Ben Raziel replied, "exposing our failings and laying snares for our feet."
That was a common answer and Ben Michael needed more.
"Does your secret knowledge tell you anything beyond what we all have been taught since childhood?"
"The secret knowledge is entrusted to only one of the Seven," Ben Raziel said sharply.
Undaunted, Ben Michael pressed forward.
"For the sake of us all, I must know."
Ben Raziel leaned back and folded his hands.
"Tell me more first."
That was not a no. Even though he was putting himself in grave danger, Ben Michael knew that he had to continue to push forward or else all could be lost.
Taking in a deep breath, Ben Michael said, "Ever since I first encountered the Behemoth and the Leviathan, I have heard the Tempter's voice more clearly than I ever have. She--the Tempter appears to me in the form of a woman--, she tells me the most outrageous things, things that would turn the whole world on its head. She wants me to believe everything I know is a lie."
"And is it?"
"Is everything you know a lie?"
Ben Michael could not believe what he was being asked. How was he supposed to respond?
Hastily, without really thinking, Ben Michael said, "Of course not. I mean, it cannot possibly be."
While that was the safe answer, Ben Michael regretted it. He came to Ben Raziel for counsel about his doubts and to hide them accomplished nothing. His was an answer born of fear, and yet Ben Raziel was somehow able to see through it.
"A lifetime of faith rests on the edge of a knife," Ben Raziel said calmly. "You have never been tested like this before and now when the fate the Shehakim and all the Chosen hang in the balance, you are pushed to your limits."
Ben Michael sighed.
"It is as you say."
Suddenly brightening his tone, Ben Raziel said, "Take heart, Brother! The Tempter would not assail you so if you did not have the power to overcome it, nor would he--or she if you prefer--labor so hard if the situation were of lesser import."
"What am I to do?" Ben Michael asked.
"Expose the Tempter's powerlessness. Has the Tempter not made some challenge of you?"
"Yes, but--"
"Then accept the challenge," Ben Raziel interrupted. "Rather than succumb to fear and doubt, charge forward boldly for the One is with us."
Ben Michael could not believe what he was hearing. Was playing the Tempter's game really the best thing for him to do?
"Are you sure?" he asked.
Full of confidence, Ben Raziel replied, "Whatever it is, meet the Tempter boldly and utterly crush her with the strength of your faith. Walk down the path of sin to find the way to true righteousness."
Ben Michael did not know if he could accept this.
"It is a dangerous thing you would have me do," he said warily.
Ben Raziel smiled with all the cunning of a serpent.
"The greater the danger, the greater the reward."
Could that truly be the answer? If he were the one to approach the Tempter, he would be the one in control, would he not? Instead of being led to the slaughter like an unthinking lamb, he would chart his own path and escape destruction. It was certainly an appealing notion, but whispers of doubt continued to torment him.
He did not know how long he sat there lost in thought when Ben Raziel spoke up again.
"I hope that I have helped you with your troubles."
"You have, Brother," Ben Michael replied, "and I thank you. Go in peace."
"May the light of the One guide your way."
Ben Raziel disappeared from the viewing panel and Ben Michael returned to his thoughts. It truly was a bold course Ben Raziel proposed for him, but perhaps the fruits of the secret knowledge would serve Ben Michael against the Tempter's treachery. He would have to make a decision and soon.

* * *

Date: Fri 20 Sep 121
Time: UST 2317

The door to the meeting room opened and the Aleph Ebed Michael, Ben Michael's chief attendant, entered.
The Aleph bowed low and said, "Peace and blessings be upon you, my Lord Seraph."
"And also with you," Ben Michael replied. "I wish to speak with you."
"Yes, my lord?"
"Did you know I was once the Aleph to the first Ben Michael?"
The Aleph nodded.
"I did know it, my lord."
"Do you aspire to become the Ben Michael one day?"
"It would be an honor."
A certain measure of humility was expected of an officer of the Aleph's rank, but Ben Michael could not sense any real eagerness behind his words. The Aleph was a child of the Age of Rakia, a far more stable time than the tumultuous Age of Vilon that Ben Michael grew up in. The children of the Age of Rakia were not as driven as their elders and the up and coming children of the current Age of Shehakim even less so. It seemed to ensure greater social harmony, but the loss of zeal among the younger citizens was no virtue.
"To become Ben Michael, you must have ambition," the Seraph said. "Ambition can be sinful, but a certain measure is necessary."
What Ben Michael was saying was clearly alien to the young Aleph, so he tried to explain it further.
"It is a difficult balance to strike. Many things that are good and necessary can become sins when taken in excess."
He was starting to sound like Ben Raziel. Of course, it was because of Ben Raziel that he was speaking to his Aleph like this in the first place.
The Aleph bowed his head and said, "I gratefully receive this lesson, my lord."
He was only saying the words. Rather than struggle with conflicting thoughts, the Aleph dismissed the whole thing and simply stuck to protocol. It was a little disappointing, but perhaps Ben Michael could still glean some value from the conversation.
"Let us see if you can teach me something," he said.
"My lord?"
It was not the custom of teachers to draw out the knowledge of insight of their pupils, nor were the younger ever to presume to teach their elders. The Aleph's surprise and confusion were only natural, but Ben Michael was hoping to find something useful beneath the surface.
"What do you do in times of doubt?" Ben Michael asked.
"I trust in Providence, my lord," the Aleph replied promptly, almost reflexively.
"Do you believe the One provides for all?"
"The One provides what is needful, my lord, and what is deserved."
Now for a more challenging question.
"Is the hand of the One ever fettered?"
"Indeed not, my lord, though the One may withhold His hand when it serves His purposes."
And now for one more challenging still.
"Could the Amalekites defeat us?"
"Only if the One withdraws His blessing due to our infidelity."
"Do you believe we are faithful?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Then through the One's blessing, anything is possible?"
"Nothing is impossible with the One, my lord."
Satisfied with what he had heard, Ben Michael said, "Very good, Aleph. You are dismissed. Go in peace."
"Blessings be upon you, my lord."
With a bow, the Aleph shuffled away. Ben Michael himself rose up and returned to his quarters, pondering along the way what the Aleph had said.
The Aleph's answers were not particularly inspired, but Ben Michael could hardly hope for much more. Anyone from the lowly Ishim to the Malachim themselves would have replied much the same. Indeed, Ben Michael did not expect anything different. After all, neither disbelief nor heresy were suffered in the Shehakim.
As predictable as the Aleph's responses were, they helped solidify Ben Michael's resolve. If the Shekinah truly was God's presence among them, then the Amalekites were no threat. If the Tempter was telling the truth, then their blasphemous society deserved to be torn down.
It is written that you are not to put God to the test, but Ben Michael could not sit idly by. He had to know the truth and if that meant playing the Tempter's game, then so be it. He would risk damnation for salvation's sake.
Looking at the viewing panel, he said, "Tempter, I am ready."