She took a deep breath. All that remained now was to guide Amzallag’s soul into his new skin, and that was a simple matter for incense. She reached for a cone and turned back to Thiago. He had put his shirt back on, she was glad to see. He looked very tired, his eyes heavy-lidded, but he mustered a smile.
“All ready?” he asked her.
She nodded and lit the incense.
She bristled at the words and the caressing tone in which he spoke them. Am I? she wondered as she sank to her knees to raise the dead.
Coming up on the silent village, the slave caravan thought nothing of a sky winged by blood daubs. The anomaly would have been an absence of blood daubs; in this work, carrion birds were a given. Usually, however, the carrion was of the beast variety.
Not so now.
The dead were strung up on the aqueduct: eight seraphim with their wings fanned wide. From a distance, they seemed to be smiling. Up close, it was an ugliness to shock even a slaver. Their faces…
“What did this?” someone choked out, though the answer was writ plain before them. In sweeping letters, in blood, a message was painted on a keystone of the aqueduct.
From the ashes, it read, we are arisen.
They panicked and dispatched messengers for Astrae. Being ill-defended, they didn’t delay to cut down their soldiers but hurried on, driving their chimaera chattel with whips. A marked change had come over the captives at the sight of the dead—a brightness, a keen and shifting eagerness. The blood scrawl was not the only message; the smiles were a message, too.
The corners of the dead angels’ mouths had been carefully slit, widened into rictus grins. The slavers knew exactly what it meant and so did the slaves, and all eyes grew sharp—some with fear; others, anticipation.
Night came and the caravan made camp, posted guards. The dark was pocked by small sounds: a scurry, a snap. The guards’ hands were hot on their hilts; their blood jumped, eyes darted.
And then the slaves began to sing.
This had not happened on any previous night. The slavers were accustomed to whimpers from the huddle of captives, not song, and they didn’t like it. The beasts’ voices were raw as wounds, forceful and primal and unafraid. When the seraphim tried to silence them, a tail lashed forth from the huddle and knocked a guard off his feet.
And then, between one leap of the campfire’s flame and the next, they came. Nightmares. Saviors. They came from above, and the slavers’ first confused thought was that reinforcements had arrived, but these were no seraphim. Wings and screaming, spike horns, antlers, lashing tails and hunched ursine shoulders. Bristles, claws.
Swords and teeth.
No angel survived.
Freed slaves melted away into the landscape, dragging the swords and axes—and yes, the whips—of their captors. They would be less easily subdued in the future.
All fell still. Here, too, a message was scribed in the blood of slaughter—the same words as would be found at many such scenes in the days to come.
We are arisen, it read. It is your turn to die.
Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love and dared to imagine a new way of living—one without massacres and torn throats and bonfires of the fallen, without revenants or bastard armies or children ripped from their mothers’ arms to take their turn in the killing and dying.
Once, the lovers lay entwined in the moon’s secret temple and dreamed of a world that was like a jewel box without a jewel—a paradise waiting for them to find it and fill it with their happiness.
This was not that world.
A COUNTRY OF GHOSTS
Akiva, Hazael, and Liraz walked among the dead angels. They didn’t speak, only looked, and their silence was brittle with anger. These corpses, they were torn, as mice by cats. Akiva couldn’t tell if he had known them—the blood daubs had done their work—but on several of the faces there remained enough flesh to make out the mutilation. The obscene smiles had not been seen for generations, but all seraphim and chimaera knew them from graven memory. This was the Warlord’s signature.
It was what he had done to his seraph masters when he rose up from slavery a thousand years ago and changed the world. It was a powerful and unmistakable symbol of rebellion.
“Harmony with the beasts,” said Liraz under her breath, and Akiva tensed. His words, thrown back at him, and what could he say in response? That these same soldiers had left a string of burned villages in their wake and were no one’s idea of innocent? It would sound as though he thought they deserved this. He didn’t, but he couldn’t feel outrage, either, only sinking sadness. These soldiers had done what they had done, and been done unto in return. This was how it went.
In the cycle of slaughter, reprisal begat reprisal, forever. Now was not the time to philosophize, though, not with blood daubs circling overhead, skawing at them to be gone and leave them to their feasts. He kept his thoughts to himself.
The sun was rising. It touched the stalks of jess with a fairy glimmer, and the tassels fanned like wings in the breeze. Green-gold, gold-green, not yet ripe and never now to ripen. Soldiers were touching fire to the field’s edge, and the flames would spread fast in this tinder heat. Before the sun was fully up, the jess would be crackling, and so would the slain. Fire take the dead. There were no funerals for soldiers.
A shout from above. “You there! What are you doing?”
Akiva tilted back his head. The rays of the early sun lit his amber eyes, and the seraph in the air saw who he was and blanched. “Forgive me, sir. I… I wasn’t informed that you were here.”
Akiva launched into the air to meet him, his brother and sister coming up behind him. “We’ve come with the reinforcements from Cape Armasin,” he said.
The largest garrison in the former free holdings, Cape Armasin had sent soldiers to bolster the small southern contingent in response to these attacks.
The young patrol leader, whose name was Noam, looked slightly dazed to find himself face-to-face with Beast’s Bane. “It’s good to have you, sir,” he said.
For the second time: sir. Liraz made a noise in her throat. Akiva was no sir. Though fame afforded him a certain esteem, he was Misbegotten, and his rank was as it had ever been, and would ever be: low. “What have you learned?” he asked.
The soldier was wide-eyed. “The fight was under the aqueduct, sir.” It stood just behind them, a massive, ancient span, trees enough sprouting from the cracks in its stones to make it a kind of aerial forest. It would have been built by seraphim, Akiva knew, in the early days of the Empire’s first expansion, many centuries gone by, when the angels had come to this wild land of primitive, hostile beast tribes and civilized it. Subdued it.
Subdued. What a gentle word for the slave-making and spirit-crushing that had brought the chimaera under the Empire’s fist. The Warlord had destroyed that fist, but it was back, and now Akiva was a part of it.
“An ambush,” Noam added. “They were killed in the underpassage, and strung up there.” He indicated the red message painted on the aqueduct’s soaring upper story.
Akiva stared at the words. Who?
Liraz spoke. “Could the villagers have done this?”
Noam glanced at the dead. “It’s a Caprine village,” he stated simply, which Akiva understood to mean that the placid sheep-aspect beasts could never have committed such an act, let alone wrestled the corpses up the aqueduct.
“Are there enemy dead?” he asked.
“No, sir. Only our own, and no blood on their weapons.”
So they hadn’t managed a single stroke in self-defense? And these had been seasoned soldiers who had survived the war itself.
“And down there, sir.” Noam indicated the line of the road wending south through the hills. “The slave caravan was hit, too.”
Akiva looked. The scene was pastoral: a softness of valleys, hills shading one behind the next like the shadows of shadows, all of it as tranquil as birdsong. And there, lingering just above the horizon, was Ellai. A ghost moon all but vanished by the dawn. I saw what happened here, she might have taunted. And I laughed.
“The slaves?” he asked Noam.
“Gone, sir. Into the woods. The slavers were… fed chain.”
“Fed chain?” repeated Hazael.
Noam nodded. “The slaves’ shackles.”
Akiva watched his brother and sister for a reaction, but they gave away nothing. What would you do, he wished he could ask them, if someone put our people in chains?
Slaves were held to be a necessary evil in the affairs of empire, but Akiva did not share that belief, and didn’t mourn the loss of slavers. Soldiers, though, were another matter, and here were eight more. The death toll was sharp and rising. There had been five attacks in all. In one furious night, at Duncrake, Spirit Veil, the Whispers, the Iximi Moors, and here, in the Marazel Hills, seraph “cleansing” patrols had been taken by surprise, killed, mutilated, and left as gruesome messages for the Empire.
It was worse than war, he thought, to bleed out your life while your faraway folk danced hallelujah and raised their cups to the peace.
Akiva looked down. The flames were halfway across the field by now, the first soldiers already swallowed up. Squalls swam in the rising heat, dropping down almost lazily to pick off the smoke-stunned grassjacks that fled in clouds ahead of the blaze.
“Sir?” asked Noam. “Can you tell what did this?”
Revenants, Akiva thought at once. He had seen enough dead-strewn battlefields to know that only the biggest, most monstrous and unnatural chimaera could have caused such rending of flesh. But the revenants were gone. “Probably some survivors of the war,” he said.
“There’s talk,” said Noam, hesitating. “That the old monsters aren’t really dead.”
The Warlord and Brimstone, he meant. “Believe me.” Akiva was besieged by memories of their last moments. “They’re dead and more than dead.”
And what would this wide-eyed young soldier say if he knew how fervently the hero Beast’s Bane wished they weren’t?
“But the message. We are arisen. What else could it mean but resurrection?”
“It’s a rallying cry. That’s all.” The Warlord and Brimstone had gone beyond all retrieval. He had watched them die.
But… he had watched Madrigal die, too.
A sliver of doubt slid under his certainty. Was it possible? Akiva’s pulse gave a short, sharp spike. He thought of the thurible he had found, its small message scrawled in a bold hand: Karou. If there was another resurrectionist, maybe the word was not such a terrible taunt as he had believed.
No. He couldn’t let himself hope. “There was only ever Brimstone,” he said, more harshly than he’d intended.
Liraz was watching him, her eyes drawn ever so slightly narrow. Did she know what he was thinking? She knew about the thurible, of course. “No more secrets,” she had said, and there weren’t. Did a brief flare of hope count as a secret? If it did, it was one he felt justified in keeping.
Noam nodded, accepting his word. With a light tone, as if he were repeating foolishness he himself did not believe, he said, “Others are saying it’s the ghosts.” His eyes, though, betrayed a real fear, and Akiva couldn’t blame him. Brimstone’s last words chilled him, too.
He remembered how Joram’s voice had reverberated through the agora of Loramendi in the silence after all resistance was crushed. The Warlord and Brimstone had been on their knees; they had been kept alive to witness the deaths of everyone else.
“You doomed them,” Joram had hissed in the Warlord’s ear. “You were never going to win. You are animals. Did you really think you could rule the world?”
“That was not our dream,” the Warlord had said with quiet dignity.
“Dream? Spare me your beast dreams. Do you know what my dream has been?” asked Joram, as if there were any who didn’t know he sought to dominate all Eretz.
The Warlord’s stag antlers were broken, ragged. He had been beaten, and it seemed to cost him great effort to hold up his head. At his side, Brimstone wasn’t managing even that. He was hunched forward, his weight on one splayed hand, the other arm wrapped across his middle where he bled from a gash, and his great shoulders heaved as he tried to draw breath. He wasn’t long for life, but still he managed to raise his head and answer.
That voice. It was the only time Akiva ever heard it, and the sound of it—the feel of it—would never leave him. Deep as the beat of a stormhunter’s wings, it had seemed to lodge in the base of his skull and live there.
“Dead souls dream only of death,” the resurrectionist told the emperor. “Small dreams for small men. It is life that expands to fill worlds. Life is your master, or death is. Look at you. You are a lord of ashes, a lord of char. You are filthy with your victory. Enjoy it, Joram, for you will never know another. You are lord of a country of ghosts, and that is all that you will ever be.”
It sounded like a curse, Akiva had thought, and it had pitched Joram into a fervor. “It shall be a country of ghosts, I promise you that. A country of corpses. No beast shall crawl but that it drags a weight of shackles and is so scored by the lash that it can hardly raise its head!”
Anger was the emperor’s resting state. Seraphim were beings of fire, but it was said that Joram burned hot, like the core of a star. It gave him enormous appetites—such an inferno to feed—and when it snapped into rage it was terrible, beyond all reach of reason or control.
He killed Brimstone on the spot. One slash; surely he meant to sever his head, but Brimstone’s neck was thick and he failed, and as Brimstone collapsed in a torrent of blood, Joram wrenched up his sword and raised it for another try. With a bellow of rage, the Warlord, ancient creature, lowered that rack of broken antlers and launched himself at the emperor. It took two soldiers leaping in to put him down, but not before he speared Joram on one jagged prong and felled him, not killing him, not even seriously wounding him, but stealing his dignity on his day of triumph.