Atonement

Issue #140

We came to Dahar by moonlight, tracking General Turghar across the waste.  The bones of the haunted city—spills of rubble, broken walls, and hollow towers—gleamed pale as the salt pans we’d crossed to reach it, as bleak and white as death.

“Why’d the Old Man come back here?” Sergeant Chesha muttered as I halted our company a stone’s throw from the western gate.  Nothing lived or grew in Dahar—not since the sack, five years before.  Not since we’d breached its defenses and painted its streets and walls arterial crimson.

“Captain Zrana,” Sergeant Irkan said, reining his mount in beside Chesha’s.  “Your orders?”

“Water the men and horses,” I told him.  “And bring me the priests.”  I needed to know what we were dealing with; what the General might try to do.

Chesha snorted as Irkan turned his mount, barking orders.  “The blind Zoroastrian and the Xiong eunuch?  Zymt had to tie them to the saddle to keep them from falling off.”

“Peace, Chesha,” I said, gazing at the ruins of the western gate.  The ram we’d used to shatter it lay rotted and abandoned, not far from the gates themselves.  “Even eunuchs and fanatics have their uses.”

“True,” Chesha agreed.  “And even vultures need to eat.”

We traded sour smiles.  That had been one of the General’s jokes, before a decade of civil war had drained all humor from him.  Before Surnam, and Kurqand, and Aktar; before Second Surnam, and Bursa, and Fourth Aktar, and all the horrid, vicious skirmishes fought in wadis and canyons that only the hill tribes had names for.

After a decade of that, it was no wonder we’d treated Dahar the way we did.

I pushed my memories aside as Irkan returned, bringing the priests with him.  The sun-blind Zoroastrian wore dusty white, while the Xiong eunuch was clad in sorcerer’s black.

“This city is accursed,” the eunuch exorcist said, glancing between me and the moonlit ruins of Dahar.  “Countless ghosts wait behind those walls, thirsting for blood and vengeance.”

“A child could tell me that much,” I replied.  “Have you aught else to offer?”

The blind priest spoke into the silence that followed.  “Your General carries a spark of the Sacred Flame, gentle Captain.  He has walked in dark places, and stolen Ahura Mazda’s greatest gift to man.  No good can come of it.”

“This is no time for riddles,” Chesha snapped.  “Why did the Queen send you with us?  What is she afraid the General will do?”

The eunuch frowned at his companion.  “From what he said at the caravanserai, he’s come to cleanse the city of its ghosts.”

“No,” the blind priest declared.  “He seeks to consume them, and become a daeva.”

The two began bickering, lapsing into Pashto and Xiong as they berated each other.  “Enough!” I shouted.  “There are daevas and then there are daevas.  Are you saying the General will rival Ahriman’s greatest servants, or that he will be little more than the ghosts he consumes?”

“The least of the dêw are whispers of malice on the wind,” the blind Zoroastrian said.  “They throng the night, souring milk and spreading disease.  But with a city to gorge on, your General would not join their number.  He would be a captain of the host of evil; a monster clad in human flesh, second only to the arch-demons and those daevas who tear stars from the sky.”

I weighed those words as the wind stirred the sand at the blind priest’s feet.  “You, exorcist.  Is the fire-worshipper’s suggestion possible?”

“Possible?” the eunuch replied.  “Perhaps.  But it takes decades to master ghost-eating sutras, and your General had but a few years among ignorant monks in Kurqand.”  He sniffed, as if that settled the matter.

“Nothing is beyond those who heed the call of malign spirits,” the blind Zoroastrian retorted.  “Wickedness calls to wickedness.  Your Queen is right to fear.”

“Put aside sutras and daevas and ghost-eating,” I said.  “The General seeks to purge the city of its ghosts?”

“Aye,” both priests chorused.

Chesha, Irkan, and I exchanged glances.  Dahar lay at the mouth of a pass to Xiong—a pass used for raids and invasions going back centuries.  Since the sack, all commerce with Xiong had followed other routes, inconveniencing travelers but freeing the Queen from fear of a Xiong invasion.

Exorcising the ghosts of Dahar would open our homeland to attack.

“He’s entered the city?” I asked.

“Yes,” the eunuch said.  “And roused its spirits.  Even at this distance, I can feel their hunger.”

“Can you protect us from them?”

The eunuch glanced at my company and licked his lips.  “A handful of you.  Half a dozen, maybe.  I will need to prepare charm strips, and coat your blades in salt.”

“And you, fire-keeper?” I asked.  “Can you aid us here?”

“Only by cleansing you with fire and water,” the blind priest replied.

I turned from him to look at Dahar.  In memory, its towers blazed like torches and my comrades rode through its streets, their blades and clothing black with gore.

“Chesha,” I said.  “Gather the Old Guard.  We and the exorcist will go after General Turghar.”

“I thank you for your offer,” I told the blind priest as Chesha turned her mount.  “Perhaps the men we leave behind will take you up on it.”

“But you will not?”

“Even so,” I said, watching shadows slide through the ruins of Dahar.

None of us would ever be clean again.

Seven of us marched into Dahar that night: myself, Chesha, and Irkan; Zymt, Ayva, and Ishifan; and the Xiong exorcist, who called himself Chao Zhen.  We were the Queen’s Own now, with the war five years past, but all of us save the eunuch had been General Turghar’s dogs.

They’d called us the Hellhounds of Surnam, the Butchers of Bursa, and a hundred other epithets to make children wail and heroes grow faint.  We’d fought Prince Zhar’s finest to a draw at Second Aktar and ended the line of the old kings at Kurqand.  Depending on who you asked, we were the best soldiers in the world, or beasts in human form.

And General Turghar had made us what we were.

“I saw the Old Man,” Zymt said as we passed the dry heaped bones of the rebels who’d fallen defending the gate.  “After he took his vows, I mean.  I was in Kurqand for my father’s funeral and thought to visit his monastery.”

“And the abbot let you in?” Irkan said, scanning the ruins for movement.  “I thought Buddhists didn’t hold with murderers.”

Zymt snorted.  “Let the General become a monk, didn’t he?”

“Make your point or shut your lips,” I said as we reached the first plaza.  Its stones were dusted with sand and splotched with a hundred stains, but there weren’t any bones.  General Turghar had ordered the square cleared of bodies so it could be used as a mustering point.

“He wasn’t the same,” Zymt muttered as I stopped short of the shattered basin at the plaza’s center.  The ruins around us seemed amplified somehow, as if the moonlight and the stones of the fallen city were whiter and the shadows deeper and blacker than they should be.  The moon and stars overhead had swollen until the moon looked like a silvery, pockmarked melon.

“Exorcist,” I said gesturing at a wall that seemed faded, its stones dusty and its shadows dimmed, like ink diluted with water.  “Where are the ghosts?  Are they the faded spots?”

“No, Captain Zrana,” Chao Zhen quavered, prayer beads clicking between his fingers.  “Those patches are where the ghosts are not.”

Zymt, Avya, and Irkan swore, while Chesha sucked air through her teeth and brandished her torch like a weapon.  Ishifan, whose tongue had been cut out by Prince Zhar’s men, touched the prayer strip tucked inside her plate coat.

The moon seemed to swell further, its glow curdling to the yellow of old bone as the shadows on the wall deepened and the ghosts of Dahar attacked.

They formed themselves out of dust and sand and shadow, out of wind and breath and moonlight.  At twenty paces they were vague distortions, but at sword-point they became silhouettes: shadow-puppets wrought by a clumsy child.  Their eyes were frozen stars, their hands grasped like claws, and their mouths gaped like chasms, sucking light and heat from the air.

Chao Zhen chanted sutras as the ghosts approached, brandishing his prayer beads.  Chesha thrust her torch in one ghost’s face and slashed another with her sword, parting its fabric like a curtain.  As Avya and Ishifan moved to back her, ripping into the ghost she’d set alight, I formed a series of mudras with my left hand and thrust my sword into a ghost that loomed over me like a giant.

There was a heartbeat’s resistance, and then the ghost dissolved, severed from the world by the salt on my blade and the powers I’d invoked.  I repeated the mudras and cleft the shadow pushing Irkan to the ground in two.

Avya snarled curses as she fought, shredding one ghost to ribbons before taking a claw to the shoulder.  “Ahriman’s legions!” she swore as I spitted the ghost that had wounded her.  “Why couldn’t these fucks stay dead?”

“Zymt!  Staunch that wound,” I barked.  “Exorcist!  How many more phantoms are there?”

“Hundreds,” Chao Zhen said, lowering his prayer beads as the tide of ghosts seemed to ebb, the eerie moonlight fading as they retreated.  “But they’ve fled.  Strange.  I’ve never seen ghosts withdraw once blood has been shed.”

As Zymt cleaned Avya’s shoulder with a wine-soaked rag, Chesha sidled up to me.  “What was that you did?” she asked, imitating the mudras I’d used.

“Something the General taught me before Fourth Aktar,” I said.  “In case we ran into ghosts.”

Chesha glanced at Chao Zhen, who’d seated himself on the lip of the fountain.  It took decades to master ghost-eating sutras, he’d said.  Decades the General may well have had.

The hardest thing about having power is resisting the urge to use it.  Another of the General’s sayings.

It was all too easy to imagine the General, burdened by age and old wounds, succumbing to the desire to be whole again— whatever the cost.

As Zymt bandaged Avya’s wound, Irkan, Chesha, and I drew maps in the dust and argued about which path to take through the city.

“We don’t even know where he’s going,” Irkan said.

“Like hell we don’t,” said Chesha.  “He’s headed for the White Spire.”  She gestured at the minaret from which we’d flung Princess Nawyata to her death.

“It would be the natural focus of any exorcism rite,” Chao Zhen allowed.

“Assume it’s the White Spire,” I said, forestalling Irkan.  “How do we get there?  We can’t go through the Scholar’s Quarter.  The astrologers’ tower blocked the ring road when it fell.”

“Can’t use the Street of Poppies either,” Chesha said.

I nodded.  Chesha and I had sealed the alleys and side roads so Irkan and his men could use the Street of Poppies as a killing ground.  The street had been carpeted with corpses before we were done—it would be choked with vengeful specters.

“How about the Street of Lilies?” Irkan said.

Chesha and I stared at him.  “Rokhshan had that sector,” I said.  Rokhshan, who’d spent ten days flaying one of Prince Zhar’s companions before he allowed the man to die.

Irkan paled.  “Not the Street of Lilies, then.”

We glanced up as Ishifan crouched beside us.  She took the bone I was using as a stylus and drew a snaking track from the square we occupied to one near the White Spire.

“The Beggar’s Track and the Street of Exile?” Chesha asked, prompting a grunt of confirmation.

“That takes us to the Yard of Sighs,” Irkan said, licking his lips.  “Close quarters.  Less ghosts, though.”

“Best chance we’ve got,” I said, nodding to Ishifan as I rose.  “Avya.  How’s the shoulder?”

“Fine,” Avya said, flexing her arm.  “No worse than a fleabite.”

I glanced at Zymt, who turned his palms upward.  She wasn’t bleeding enough to risk her life or ours, at least.  Good.

“Chao Zhen,” I said.  “You and Irkan lead.  Chesha and I have the rear.  Move.”

“You really want Irkan in front?” Chesha asked me as we headed for the back street Ishifan had suggested.

“Why not?”

Chesha rolled her eyes.  “‘Even fanatics have their uses,'” she quoted.  “Or have you forgotten who the General was referring to, that first time?”

I hadn’t.  “Irkan was just a boy,” I said, recalling the mad zeal that had driven him to reclaim the Queen’s banner at Second Aktar.  “Besides.  We have our orders.”  I touched the sandalwood baton tucked into my belt.  It was one of the six standard battle orders, its dire command carved into its lacquered wood:  No quarter.  Slay all who oppose you.

“We do,” Chesha agreed as we picked our way between ruined buildings.  The Beggar’s Track was just barely wide enough for us to draw our swords, and I felt hedged in as I pondered my reply.  Chesha was implying that it might not be wise to kill the General out of hand.

“You think we should talk?” I asked.

“We owe him a chance to explain himself.”

“Captain,” Irkan called from up ahead.  “Problem.”

“Well, fuck,” Avya said, as our column ground to a halt and we all stared at the scorched and splintered wreckage that clogged the Street of Exile.  The buildings here had been timber and paper, built in the Xiong style.  Now they were an impassable tangle of charcoal and jutting beams.  “Guess we’re not going that way.” 

“When did—?” Chesha began, then cut herself short.  Those parts of Dahar that could burn, had.  Ishifan spread her hands in apology, but I waved it aside.  I hadn’t thought about what the fires would have done to this part of the city.  None of us had.

“Which way, Captain?” Irkan asked, glancing down the paths leading to the Streets of Poppies and Lilies.

I hesitated.  Just a heartbeat, but long enough for Zymt to croak a warning.  The moon seemed to swell as the ash and charcoal from the Street of Exile swirled into motion, coalescing into a half-dozen inky forms, and then our swords were out and we were fighting for our lives.

The ash-wraiths were worse than the ghosts of the plaza, dissolving before our blades touched them and reforming instants later.  Chao Zhen struck one with his prayer beads, dispersing it to the winds, and the General’s mudras seemed to slow them down, allowing my blade and Chesha’s to carve rents in what passed for their flesh.  But those rents closed, and as the fight progressed, Chesha and I found the wraiths had cut us off from our companions and were driving us towards the Street of Poppies.

“Irkan!” I shouted.  “Get to the Yard of Sighs!  We’ll regroup there.”

Irkan raised his sword in what I hoped was acknowledgment, then the ash-wraiths drove me and Chesha around a bend.  Their substance grew steadily more diffuse as they herded us, and two intersections later, they dissolved into shadows and a thin haze of soot.

“Great,” Chesha said, her chest heaving as she slumped against the alley wall.  “You think we can make it to the Yard through the back streets?”

“Most of the way,” I said.  “But there’s no way around the Gate of Curling Smoke.”  We’d barricaded the gate and held it against a tide of men and women fleeing Irkan’s advance.  It wasn’t my fondest memory.

“You don’t believe in karma, do you?”

“No,” I said flatly, wrapping the charm strip Chao Zhen had given me around the hilt of my sword.  “There’s no justice, Sergeant—just consequences.  You drop something, it’ll fall.  You kill people, you get ghosts.  This isn’t a judgment or a punishment for our crimes.  Anyone fool enough to chase the General into Dahar would get the same.”

“Maybe they would,” Chesha said, the moonlight making her look wan and half-dead.  “But they wouldn’t be reminded of what they did to make Dahar like this.” 

“It’s done, Chesha,” I said, more gently than before.  “We can’t change it now.”

“Funny what sticks with you,” Chesha said, gazing down the alley.  “I spitted children with my spear and shoved them off the barricade without even blinking.  Greybeards, grandmothers, babes in arms—it was all the same.  But after we finished Nawyata, I stepped on a wooden doll.  Broke it in half and almost fell.  It took me an age to see the dead boy who’d been holding it.”  She shot me a sidelong glance.  “I had a doll just like that, back home.”

“I remember,” I said.  “You wanted to go back to get it.”  The dusty terraces of our village were fresh in my mind, seen from the mouth of the cave we’d hidden in.  My hand had covered Chesha’s mouth as we waited for Prince Zhar’s men to go; I’d smelled rotting blood and tasted my gorge as flies buzzed around us.

After so many years, the bodies of my parents and neighbors were just a blur.

“You don’t feel guilty?” Chesha asked, gesturing at the Street of Poppies, whose shadows were unnaturally dark.  “We killed an entire city, for the crime of harboring a woman and her unborn child.”

“She would have claimed it was Zhar’s.  And the war would have started back up again.”

“I don’t care why we killed Nawyata,” Chesha said, her voice rising.  “I want to know why we marched through the streets butchering everyone we found.  You’re not Irkan, Zrana.  You don’t do things just because!  Why in hell did we do that?”

“As an example,” I said, but Chesha was already laughing.

“Horseshit,” she said.  “We made a hundred examples, and it never did a damn bit of good.  Dahar was defiant.  We were tired and angry, and the Queen wanted to consolidate her power.  But none of that was why.  Not really.”

I closed my eyes for a moment and opened them to find Chesha giving me an expectant look.  “We did it,” I said at last, “because the General thought it best.”

“And we trusted him,” Chesha said.

“Yes.”

“Can you trust him now?  Enough to ask why he’s come back?”

“It’s not a question of trust,” I said.  “He’s going to cleanse the city and open us up to invasion.”

Think, Zrana,” Chesha snapped.  “You heard the Zoroastrian.  Whether or not the General is trying to make himself a daeva, do you think no one else will try?  Dahar isn’t a shield against the Xiong.  It’s a dagger aimed at the country’s heart.”

I swallowed as Chesha’s argument sank in.  She was right.  And the General—whatever his motives—had seen it too.

“All right,” I said, drawing the sandalwood baton the Queen had given me from my belt.  “I’ll talk to him.”

“What about that?” Chesha said, gesturing at it.

Wordlessly, I broke it over my knee.

We salted our blades again before setting out for the Gate of Curling Smoke, and I drilled Chesha in the General’s mudras until she could repeat them without thinking.  The alleys danced with shadows cast by the torch Chesha carried, but the chiaroscuro was reassuring—a sign they weren’t packed with vengeful spirits.

“Ready?” I asked Chesha as we stared down an alley at the moonlit gate.

“My mother bore no cowards,” Chesha said, shooting me a rueful grimace, and for a heartbeat, I was standing in the ruins of my home, glaring defiantly at the General as he studied the two of us from horseback.

“‘Our mothers,'” I murmured.  Our mothers bore no cowards.  We can fight and hate and kill as well as any man.

The latter half hadn’t been true yet when I said it, but the General had enlisted us anyway.

Steeling myself, I took a step towards the unbearable brightness of the Gate’s white stones, leaned forward, and broke into a run, hearing Chesha’s footfalls behind me.  The moonlight turned a bilious yellow as we ran, soiling everything it touched, and ink-black shadows spilled across the ground, not flinching from the torchlight.  Specters rose from them in ghostly ranks, each spirit blurring into the next, joined by linked arms, unbound hair, and ropes of midnight gore.

I howled as I fell upon them, carving a path with my blade and the mudras that I shaped with my free hand.  The prayer strip Chao Zhen had given me blazed with heatless flame as my pommel struck a ghost and dissolved it, and though spectral fingers clawed at my sleeve, Chesha’s blade and torch reduced them to threads of mist, leaving numb patches on my skin.

With the gate a spear’s throw away, the sea of phantoms drew back and screamed without sound.  A frigid wind snuffed Chesha’s torch and made my teeth and bones vibrate, and the pressure of raw hatred drove me to my knees.  I fought my way upright and stood over Chesha, sword and hands trembling, as faces I’d last seen clawing their way up a barricade leered at me with vacant eyes and yawning mouths.  Each breath tore at my throat and lungs.

“Do your worst,” I said through gritted teeth, and braced myself for an onslaught that never came.

The sound of metal rings striking one another came from beyond the Gate of Curling Smoke, and as one, the ghosts turned to face the sound.  A figure rounded a corner, leaning on a four-ringed Khakkara—a monk’s staff, meant to warn animals and insects of the bearer’s approach.

The General had changed.  His head was shaven, and he wore the dusty yellow robes of the Kurqand monastery—but more than that, the utter confidence that his posture had once conveyed was gone.  The mix of exhaustion and determination which had taken its place was something I’d only seen on forced marches.

A susurration seemed to run through the spirits surrounding me.  Then, as one, they rushed towards General Turghar like a wave.  His staff blurred into motion as they bore down on him, and his voice rose, chanting a sutra in Xiong.

At first, only the ghosts he touched with his staff dissolved, but as the General waded through the Gate of Curling Smoke, a bubble of empty air grew around him.  Any specter that crossed its boundary came undone, leaving only threads of mist and shadow behind.  This drove the ghosts to new heights of frenzy, and as the General approached, Chesha and I fought our way to his side, falling at his feet in our haste to reach safety.

“Begone, foul spirits!” the General commanded, and struck the end of his staff against the ground.  A clap of thunder—more felt than heard—shook the earth, and when I looked up, only a handful of ghosts remained, dissolution spreading from one to the next through the limbs, hair, and gore that joined them.

The General grunted in satisfaction as the last ghost dispersed and helped Chesha to her feet.  “Zrana,” he said as I levered myself upright.  “The Captain’s cloak suits you.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, sheathing my sword.

“You have orders to kill me?”

I inclined my head.  “Had.  Yes.”

General Turghar turned to face me.  “Had?” he said, his voice drier than the desert wind.  “You lost the Queen’s baton?”

“No,” I said.  “Chesha convinced me the Queen had been hasty.  So I broke it and threw it away.”

“A good soldier obeys her orders.”

“A good soldier protects her country,” I replied.  “Whatever the cost.”  We traded sour smiles, recalling a conversation outside Surnam where our roles had been reversed.

Chesha elbowed me in the ribs.  “Are you going to ask him?”

“Forgive me, sir,” I said, giving her a quelling look.  “Sergeant Chesha is worried you might have come to Dahar to devour its ghosts and make yourself a daeva.”

“And what do you think?” the General asked, taking his staff in both hands and putting his weight on it.

“I think if that was your plan, you would lie to my face.”

“So I would,” General Turghar agreed, and I heard no anxiety in his voice.  “But that’s not why I’m here.  Would I have saved you if it was?”

“Possibly,” I said, and was rewarded with a grim chuckle.

“Suspicion over gratitude,” the General said, shaking his head.  “I taught you well, didn’t I?”

“I don’t know, sir,” I said, gesturing at the ruins surrounding us.  “Did you?”

“All of us make mistakes, Zrana,” the General said, his expression hardening as he followed the sweep of my arm.  “Only some of them can be rectified.”

“As you hope to cleanse Dahar of its ghosts?”

“Yes,” General Turghar agreed.  “Before some sick fool uses them as a stepping stone to godhood.”

“We’re with you, General,” Chesha assured him.  Neither of us looked at her.

Are you with me, Zrana?” the General asked.  For an instant, his voice cracked and he sounded like what he probably was: a tired old man whose chosen heir was thinking of cutting him down.

“I am,” I said at last, praying I wouldn’t regret it.

Chao Zhen and the rest of the Old Guard were waiting for us in the Yard of Sighs, and Irkan sprang to his feet as I strode onto the execution ground.  “Captain!  I knew you would—”  His jaw clicked shut as he caught sight of the General.

“Stand down, Sergeant,” I said, touching my sword’s hilt as Irkan drew steel.  “Things have changed.”

“Oh?” Irkan snapped, pointing his sword at General Turghar.  “Did new orders come over the city wall, tied to an arrow?”

“Did the Queen promote you while I was gone?” I retorted.  “We need to cleanse Dahar before some necromancer devours its ghosts and wields their power against us.”

“We had orders,” Irkan said, his eyes narrowing.  “They came from the Queen’s own hand.”  With a sinking heart, I realized he hadn’t heard a word I’d said.

As Chao Zhen gaped in disbelief and Zymt and Ishifan and Avya eyed each other, Irkan started across the yard, and Chesha and I drew our swords.

“Stop this madness!” the exorcist cried, dodging Ishifan as she reached for his sleeve.  Chesha saw what would happen before I did and let out a strangled cry as Chao Zhen grabbed Irkan’s arm.

Irkan’s blood was up, and he expected an attack.  Without pausing to think, he pivoted and thrust his sword through Chao Zhen’s belly.

“You idiot,” Avya bellowed as Chao Zhen screamed and collapsed, blood pooling around him.  “You’ve killed us all!”

“General?” I asked as the moonlight turned arterial red, and headless quartered forms took shape in the deepening shadows.  “Your advice?”

“Get to the White Spire!” General Turghar barked.  “Leave the exorcist; he’s done for.”

“And Irkan?” Chesha asked as our comrades fled the Yard, leaving us with Irkan and the ghosts he’d called up by spilling blood.

“Him too,” the General said, and ran.

As Chesha and I followed suit, Irkan shook himself and sprang after the General.  I spun to intercept, but Chesha was quicker, blocking his path and engaging him blade to blade.  “Go!” she said.  “I’ll hold him!”

Blocking out what I could see of the Yard’s dismembered ghosts, I took a position at Chesha’s side, forcing Irkan to retreat.  “No cowards,” I mouthed, and then there was no time for anything but murder.

Irkan never fought so well in all his life.  He parried thrust after thrust that should have pierced his plate shirt, and cut after cut that should have severed tendons or opened arteries.  One overextension on my part, and he swept my leg from under me, sending me sprawling.

By the time I regained my feet, he’d severed Chesha’s windpipe.

Moonlight stained the world red, and as blood spilled down Chesha’s chest, my vision narrowed to a tunnel.  All I saw was Irkan and his blade; my only thought was his destruction.  “Ahriman take you!” I spat, and our blades kissed once, twice, three times.

Irkan was a heartbeat too slow, at the end.  I beat his blade out of line, stabbed him in the armpit and again in the throat as he dropped his sword.

There were ghosts all around us by then, and as Irkan toppled, they swarmed over him like locusts.  A glance at Chesha showed me she’d been drained dry, and then I was running towards the General and the White Spire, hearing a susurration I thought was laughter.

Fool that I was, I’d thought the General and Ishifan’s group would be safe.  I’d forgotten what sort of woman Nawyata was, and why we’d had to kill her.

The moon’s light was still blood-red when I stepped into the shadow of the White Spire and found Zymt sprawled on the ground, his neck snapped and limbs in disarray.  Ishifan, Avya, and the General faced down a single specter, clad in luminescent white, and only as I approached could I see that the fabric of her gown extended to cover half the plaza.  Periodically, Nawyata’s train would seethe with the faces and hands of other ghosts before smoothing itself flat.

“Another woman?” Nawyata sneered as I took up a position beside Ishifan.  “Really, Turghar.  How you beat my husband with a mob of girls and cripples, I’ll never know.”

The General’s reply was to brandish his staff and chant his sutras more loudly.

“What in hell is she?” I asked Avya.

“Cannibal ghost.”  Avya spat at Nawyata’s gown.  “Who ever heard of ghosts eating each other?”

Ishifan gave an expressive growl, and my mouth twisted.  “Not a ghost.  Not any more.  She’s a demon.”

“So she’s a daeva?”

“Do I look like a priest—?”

Nawyata’s glow flickered, and Ishifan made a strangled noise.  The General struck his staff against the ground, making its rings chime, but by then a section of Nawyata’s train had seized Avya and swept her high into the air.  Before I could react, Nawyata flung Avya like a stone, hurling her against the face of the White Spire.  Her body left a crimson trail as it slid down the tower’s face and fell broken to the ground.

“So fragile,” Nawyata murmured, running her tongue over her lips.  “And delicious.”

Ishifan and I traded looks, and I shifted closer to General Turghar.  “Sir,” I said.  “We can’t fight that thing.”

The General never paused in his recitation.  Gripping his staff with one hand, he reached into his robes and drew out a ruby that blazed with inner light.  At the end of a verse, he tossed the gem to me and jerked his chin at the White Spire.

I ran for the Spire without thought or hesitation.  Only as I passed its gates and climbed its steps did it occur to me that the gem must contain the Sacred Flame the blind priest had spoken of, and that I had no earthly idea what the General meant me to do with it.

Momentum and the habit of obedience carried me up the tower, to the chambers Nawyata had occupied.  Though part of me expected to find her waiting, her rooms were empty aside from moth-eaten rugs and rotting furniture.  Horrible noises filtered up from the plaza—the General and Ishifan were plainly keeping her busy.

“What should I do?” I asked, even as my feet carried me to the balcony from which we’d flung Nawyata.  For a heartbeat, as I stepped into the moonlight, I thought I saw Chesha and Irkan flanking me, as they had all those year ago.

The wind was a scourge, flaying the heat from my skin, and as I approached the railing, I realized with mounting horror that I did know what to do.  The susurration I’d heard earlier wasn’t laughter or the wind howling round the Spire but something worse: a chorus of daevas, muttering their approval.

Wickedness calls to wickedness.  How many people had I slain in the sack of Dahar?  How many deaths had I ordered?  I’d flung Nawyata from this very balcony; opened Irkan’s veins and left him to be drained by hungry ghosts. 

I’d feared General Turghar might call on the daevas’ corrupt knowledge.  How much less capable was I, who had been his accomplice, his agent, his executioner?

I stopped an arm’s length from the rail, sucking panicked breaths through my teeth.  Terror gripped me in its jaws and shook me like a doll.  Surely there was some other choice, some other path to be taken?

As Nawyata let out an inhuman screech, I forced myself to look at the ghosts submerged in her train, doomed to drown forever.  That was the alternative to the General’s plan.  Chao Zhen was dead, and the Old Man was busy.  Either I would consume the ghosts of Dahar, or Nawyata would.

Sometimes there are no good choices.

I clutched the ruby tight and spoke the words that resounded in my mind, performed the mudras I knew by heart.  And as the spark within the gem flared sapphire and violet, I devoured every ghost in the city.

As Dahar’s ghosts passed my lips in an endless torrent, I tasted ash and mist and bone meal, ice and ink and hot blood.  I kissed the floor of the Queen’s audience chamber and licked the sweat off another woman’s skin; drank jasmine tea and the milk of the poppy.  The water from my home village made me want to weep, while a banquet of chicken cooked in pomegranate roused a savage satisfaction.  Old ghosts and new; strangers, friends, and enemies—I swallowed them all, and was not sated.

By the time I was done, the flame within the ruby had guttered out.  The gem was riven with cracks, and it crumbled to dust as I flexed my palm.

A captain of the host of evil, the blind priest had warned; a monster clad in human flesh.  But in a sense, I had been both those things before I even entered Dahar.  And though the wind no longer chilled me, and I could taste incense and camel dung on the wind from Xiong, my first thought was for my companions.

I found Ishifan closing the General’s eyes as I left the tower, and she planted a kiss on his brow before rising.  I parted my lips to ask how he’d died, then tasted horse sweat and leather and shut them again. 

Without speaking, I knelt by his side.  The first tears that escaped me froze on my eyelashes and left icy trails down my cheeks.  And as I bowed my head and dusted the General’s robes with frost, an upwelling of anger more powerful than anything I’d ever felt before blossomed in me, like a spark leaping from scroll to scroll in the depths of a bone-dry library.

“This—” I breathed, and the stones of the plaza shifted and splintered as I spoke.  “This is wrong.”  The General was dead; all but one of my comrades were dead; the entire population of Dahar was dead—and for what?  So the Queen could sleep easy?  So the Xiong would stay on their side of the pass?

What the hell had any of it been for?

“This world is broken,” I snarled, each syllable abrading the edges of those stones that were still intact.  All joy was transient, while suffering could soak into the stones of Dahar and hang in the air like a stench.  The prayers the blind priest had sung at sunset rang in my memory, but now I recognized them for what they were: the pleas of a child, begging a cruel parent to beat someone else in their stead.

I glanced at Ishifan, almost wishing she would contradict me, but her answer was a wary nod.  Of course.  Ishifan knew better than anyone that the world was full of cruelty and horror.  She’d borne the scars of that lesson for all the years I’d known her.

I wiped the rime from my cheeks as I rose, determination solidifying as my fury receded.  The world was sick beyond any hope of redemption, just like Nawyata and Zhar had been.  A more compassionate woman might have hoped to cure it, but that had never been my way.

All I could do was cut out the sickness—one life, one tribe, one country at a time.

“The Queen sent us here,” I told Ishifan, and this time my words didn’t split stones or make the White Spire tremble.  “Set us against the General.  Set Irkan against us.”  I paused, searching her eyes for understanding, then added, “She has to die.”

Ishifan nodded, then spread her hands, as if asking, When?

“Once I know my own strength,” I said, running a finger along the jagged edges of the flagstones my words had splintered. 

Once I knew what sort of monster I’d become.

We took the Street of Lilies to the western gate, and before leaving the city, Ishifan halted and turned one of her palms heavenward, glancing at our company’s encampment.

“We were too late to stop the General,” I said, fixing in my mind the lie I would tell everyone.  “But not too late to kill him.”

Ishifan nodded slowly, then pointed at her eyes.

“The priest?” I asked, and got a confirming grunt.  “Slit his throat if he makes trouble.”

We left Dahar together: daeva and mortal, soldier and enemy of creation.  And in the silence before dawn, you would have been hard-pressed to tell the difference between us.


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Alec Austin enjoys fantasy fiction which draws on the complexity of real history. He's a game designer, media scholar, former nuclear reactor operator, and an alumnus of Clarion West and Viable Paradise. Alec's prior work has appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues. He's @AlecAustin on Twitter.

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3 Comments on “Atonement”

3 Responses to “Atonement”

  1. This a terrific swords & sorcery story, feeling almost like the Black Company wandered into an Arabian nights tale. I hope there’s more to come from this world and it’s characters.

  2. […] “Atonement“ by Alec Austin was interesting, but its unexplained mix of the fantastic with Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Southwest Asian place names threw me a little. Since I’ve liked the stories I’ve read by Austin in the past, I told myself to lighten up, let it go, and just follow along on his band of soldiers’ adventure. […]

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