One of the last great star lenses, a massive dome-like construct of purpled glass and sheared bronze, fell from the sky as Mandate took refuge in a cemetery. Which, he supposed, was fitting.
The lens, left fractured without the engine-craft that could have seen to its repair, crumbled down, buckling into itself and falling like a comet into one of the mountains across the valley, on the other side of Ashatvi down below. A clockworked beast in the shape of a gorilla, invisible except to someone like Mandate, guided a spectral copy of the thing in the opposite direction. He could tell it was of glass gears and bronze tubes, though it was colored entirely of black.
It was too far to hear any sound from the crash, except a booming wave of pressure that swept through the wind, but dust and metal threw up a short-lived fire in the trees where it hit. It was the fourth that’d fallen in as many weeks, from when he’d started seeing the unmoving messengers come for objects, craftings, instead of only for men.
The world was ending, the works of Man failing, everything becoming the last of itself. Like this shelter of a graveyard, insignificant compared to others he’d seen, yet possibly the last of its kind; an inconsequential yard on the littlest mount of the Dwashi range, fenced in with tiny iron spires painted white and blue, now peeling.
Here the passed-on possessed little wonder, not like the waterfall dead of the Toshi Palace—captured so perfectly in mirror lakes that their souls reflected up and backwards through the streams, dancing on effervescently until they were ready to leave. Not like the cloudstone biers above Banta, nor the statuary dead of Trahkander Cathedral; those hundred-foot marble epilogues to life, its end, and the little legends left behind. No, here the dead were housed in stone boxes, extending maybe ten feet below the ground and a few inches above it, faces carved seamlessly into the surface by stone-craft workers. It was already a relic, with every sort of People buried here; Dani and Odrm suffering their dead to lie beside humans.
Mandate wondered if there would be any humans left to bury in a year; if the messengers posted on either side of the graveyard’s gate, two squat and blackened monkeys out of clay, would venture ever again to the Star Wheel and the Seven Hells, shoulders weighed down by heft of souls. Perhaps not. Sleep well, little cousins, he thought to them.
Even millennia as the planet’s unassailable authority had ill prepared Man for its fall. It’d taken the Empire months to realize it was even under attack; months more to realize their aggressors weren’t fighting a war, that this was no petty land squabble, no bargain by the sword. There would be no negotiations nor compromises. All their enemies had come together into a single revolution; a great genocide.
Bandris had disappeared in a single stretch of Dani fire, their eldest Singers of the Light curving power into great metal-slagging rivers of heat and dying.
Mandate knew the count of those who had died exactly; knew it the way stone-crafts could tell granite and marble apart without their eyes and the way a blaze-dancer knew a candle from a torch from miles off, in a way he’d never known anything in his life. He’d woken with their names on his tongue, all one million four-hundred and two of them. He’d screamed them out in a single teeth-cracking sound that drove him halfway to standing, hands carved wretchedly into claw-like shapes. Mudra. His first mudra.
Birds had felt his mastery, and died; rats, dogs, vermin, little things for nearly a mile of his house had simply ended. His lips and gums had ripped, fingernails splintering into their beds and leaving a bloody mess. He hadn’t the strength to move and had stayed there, body aching, until he drew himself together for a few sips of water that made him retch.
Dani had come the next day, though he’d never been sure why; Miyacon hadn’t been large and wasn’t quite on the main roads, but come they had. With fire. He’d been sick, confused with the knowledge of a whole city of deaths, a capital of ghosts, and then he felt its prick. A sort of rushing sensation, like a shadow running over him. It happened again, and again. The shadows felt like letters, impacting into words on his skin. Dawn Child the Six Fingered. Fire Petals Behind the Glass. Strong as a Mountain. Names, neighbors.
He didn’t remember very well what came next, except that he’d left the unsafety of his granite box of a home in a sleeping robe, stumbling and cursing and half-blinded by the heat and the light.
Dani didn’t make fire like a Craft-man would; they reached up toward the sun till it dripped its offerings thick as rainwater into their hands, and spun it, limb over limb, faster and faster between their multitude of arms, the very youngest with only three and the very oldest with more than a hundred.
The one he saw had eight of them, scooping up noonday light with them and extending each limb out from its jade-plated kimon like a wheel. It stood a few buildings away, on the sunken-in roof of what’d been, Mandate vaguely recalled, an apothecary. Its tear-shaped and featureless head looked fearsome as a dream, translucent and caught in the light as it was. He watched it throw an armful of heat across neatly cobbled streets, into the house with a red roof and a blue jade staff for weather-working. There was screaming, there must have been screaming, but he couldn’t remember any sounds at all.
The shadows came thicker as he stepped outside, in little batches of five or six, hard enough and right by him that he could almost make out the graven-messengers with sight, could feel the fur and muscle of them built up behind rough and scarred skin over centuries of duty. Once he thought he looked them in the eye, just one of them, and all of them at the same time, as if there wasn’t any difference and as if each eye was the sun and the moon and a loneliness in the dark that shook him cold in a city set to flame. His hands reached for a shape.
Circle between thumb and first finger, thumb and second, a snapping of the wrist like a turning of the wheel, like a Dani twisting on a roof. Last fingers, small fingers, thrown out to whet the wind. A final gesture of upturned palms, begging, then flipping into claws—nails narrow bent as if to pluck a monkey’s eye.
They died then; Dani, human, horse, everything in Miyacon that drew breath, or whatever the Dani did instead of breathing. He hadn’t then known anything subtler than calling the full death down like a curse.
Mandate remembered falling to unconsciousness again, his mind opening up on a black causeway carved for hundreds of souls. There had been a curious scene, in that nightime of himself; dozens of monkeys and primates pushing and pulling at his skin beneath a great tree beyond the road, its branches spearing into the sky. The creatures teased and pinched at him, opening his eyes wide and letting the lids close curiously, slapping at him with weary hands like a drum beat.
We are tired the hands said to him, sad and happy and absolute in ways he didn’t understand, but we are not done. They said this many times, pounding his flesh until it was hollow, until he was a branch in the tree, until he was a root and his hands slapped on the wood-not-skin of his body-in-the-wheel just as theirs had. You must remember that we are not yet done.
He’d woken to ashsmell and rotsmell, the sounds of nothing living but eagles and carrion-eaters that had flown in after for the feast. Everything was burnt around him, to the extent where it seemed the only reason he hadn’t died was Death being so busy from his calling that it’d simply forgot. But death was not yet done; there would be more. He scavenged what he could, clothing, food, money, and fled.
Things had gone like that for a while, Mandate running from one city to another until the enemy found it; crafting a path of broken bodies slowly Northward. Speaking to few, taking fruit and fish from corpses and the homes of corpses, killing when he had to and walking numb as a skin-blind past the dead. Once, he woke in the night, hands carving a choking shadow to slash at a thief’s throat, to find it was only a child. She was a little girl, with plaited braids of hair only a little disturbed by the grime. He let her go, learning her name a week later when the Dani burned the warren city outside of Bandris’ ruins. Plum and Scarlet Flowers.
Eventually math-masters of the Odrm devised his existence. It’d taken him too long to learn anything but the bridge-calling, the sentencing of every soul within his reach to the Wheel. He’d left too many signs.
He realized that they knew of him when an arrow pierced his arm on a street corner in Toshi, and it would have pierced his heart if he hadn’t felt a slap reverberate along his ribs just the moment before. We are not yet done. Two other arrows missed him, shattering through stone with a sound that made him shrink back into himself even as he stepped off the corner and into the street. He’d been staying in a sandstone and cement district, near the docks and the edge of the wall both, and the streets were the dank kind where roofs leaned in so close together that the cobbles beneath rarely got enough light to burn off the rain.
The city had been taken peaceably by the Odrm, or as peaceably as any, and there were humans left enough to keep it running for the snakefolk. It was why he’d gone there; hoping to blend in, to hide. He’d been grateful, by the arrow-time, that there were so many dead and so few walking about. It made it easy to see. Three horse-sized serpents covered in large bands of green and blue feathers waited at the open mouth of the alley—Odrm. Each had a quiver full of arrows strapped around it in a sort of harness. One of them had more gold between its bands of blue than green. None of them had bows, or hands to use them.
“Cursesss! Kill it! Kill the freak now!” the Gold Band screamed, and Mandate smiled. The Odrm hissed something then, all together, a series of numbers that sent arrows hurtling towards him. He ignored them, except slightly to flinch. They were working in death. He would show them better.
His fingers extended into straight rods; he fanned them through the air, lifting arms and sleeves slower than seemed to fit in the time they moved. The shadow extended out from beneath his arms, stopping and withering the arrows in its path. A single hand, boneless and sinuous and almost-formed, squeezed its way between their feathers into their hearts, their zero souls. They dropped, half-taken breaths collapsing out of their lungs unfinished.
They had hunted him then, ever further. They had driven him on, his arrival a doomscalling to any place he dared to rest in. Sometimes hours, usually days; once it’d taken them a whole week.
After a while he stopped visiting towns altogether, killing animals with a whisper in the woods for his meals. It didn’t matter. He could see the fires, felt the now-familiar rush of messengers greeting their charges. By that time, he could make out their differences and just as well have seen them.
There was the short-and-almost-pale that always bore the children; her hands were soft. There was the faceless one that the Dani took, whose only eye was split between the webbed fingers of his hundred arms. There was the almost-a-gorilla that took only the very wisest and kindest; there was the monkey of the hooked-smile that often rode his shoulder and took the cruel. Mandate knew them all, each time, in every city, but Ashatvi was the last. He had come here. Man had never pierced the Dwashi range, and Mandate would travel on, away, past the hunt. None would follow him through the cold mounts.
If he continued on, there would be nothing. He would live, and die, maybe be captured or maybe not. The messengers would lie in slumber around him. It would be finished.
He took a breath and, after a year of running, they struck him like a hammer; the shadow of names, still under his skin, driven deeper into him than muscle or bone could cover. Six million ninety-four thousand, five-hundred and twenty. He knew every single one of them in intimate detail, to the cadence with which they had been given and with which they had thought of themselves. It was the mass of it, wrapping around him like a cloak, that made him shiver out an answer. Not that he had a question, but answers rarely cared about that sort of thing. He’d heard that from a story-man once. The messengers had been insistent, firm. They were not done.
Why was it important to know that there would be more death? That the messengers would onward go, soul-heavy and duty clad. Soul heavy. Sea water pushed behind his eyes, fingernails groaning as he clenched them against the grave-box he’d been sitting on.
Chase him to the roof of the world, force him to kill, kill millions themselves, keep him scared and running without any room for thought—they could do all this, but they could not end death. Nor would they end Man. It was not yet humanity’s time. This, as all things, shall pass, he thought, and I will not let them forget it.
His bones were stiff as he stood up; he probably hadn’t dressed for a trek through the Dwashi anyways, winter-kimon or no. It was cold up here, even in the summer.
His body worked out its kinks in measured stride as he walked through the gates, smiling at each statue and tapping it gently on the head before moving down the wending cliff of a path. His packs lay on the ground behind him, scavenged, purchased and strapped together from half a dozen cities. The monkeys, for there were more than two of them now and not any of them baked from clay, smiled at him. One was pale, and one sinuous, and there were several without faces—their one eye spread between many hands.
The Dani were coming to Ashatvi, but so was he.