The angel Azrael rode through the dust storm for three days. He figured it to be three days, anyway. It was hard to tell for certain, because the storm turned what little of the world he could see into night, and then into nothing at all. He closed his eyes and let his dead horse take him where it would.
Sometimes he heard voices crying out in the storm, but he wasn’t sure if they were a trick of the wind or his conscience. He couldn’t understand what they were saying regardless, so he figured it best to pay them no heed. He wrapped himself tighter in his coat, more to protect the guns around his waist from the elements than anything else. That’s what he told himself, anyway.
He had to stop every now and then to tighten the saddle around what was left of the horse. The storm scoured chunks of its rotting flesh away, and the saddle kept slipping. Soon there’d be nothing left of the horse but bone. Sure, he could raise another horse from the dead that would be more comfortable, just like he’d raised this one. But he had been through a lot with this horse. Too much, when he thought about it. Like the events in the last town, which he’d ridden all the way out here to forget.
He’d seen the storm coming across the scrubland, but he hadn’t tried to avoid it. Azrael wanted to get lost. He wanted to put the world behind him and come out the other side of the storm somewhere else. He wanted to find a land with no more churches, no more people, no more Fallen. He was weary of it all. He was weary of himself.
But when he eventually emerged from the dust, into the burning sun of noon, he found the same old world still there.
The horse was following a worn road Azrael hadn’t seen in the storm. It went past a farmhouse off to one side and disappeared into the horizon. Azrael could make out the spire of a church shimmering at the vanishing point, like a mirage. It wasn’t what he wanted to see, but he didn’t turn around. There wasn’t anything better the way he had come.
Azrael nudged the horse toward the farmhouse. He’d spied a pump in the yard, and he was thirstier than usual after three days of drinking nothing but dust.
He studied the place as he rode. It looked to be in danger of falling in on itself, and there were two wooden crosses planted in the ground to one side.
When he got off the horse by the pump, a woman holding a shotgun stepped out onto the porch. She held it like she knew how to hold all manner of guns.
The buzzards that followed him everywhere came out of the sun then, circling overhead. He thought maybe they’d lost him in the dust storm, but it appeared they weren’t about to let a provider like him get away.
“You here to deliver us or damn us even more?” the woman asked.
Azrael hadn’t thought anybody would have been able to make out what was left of his wings under all the dirt. Hardly anything of them remained now.
“I’m not that kind of angel,” he said.
“Well, what kind are you then?” she asked.
“The thirsty kind,” he said, nodding at the pump.
She didn’t shoot him, so he took that for an invitation to drink. He pumped for a spell, until a trickle of water came out. He lowered his mouth to it and drank. It was the first time he’d had water in longer than he could remember. After all this time, it was almost as good as whiskey. Almost.
When he was done, he straightened back up and saw a man standing behind the woman. As old and weather-beaten as she was. He stared at Azrael, but his eyes were glazed white, so Azrael imagined the old man didn’t see him. If he saw anything at all.
Azrael looked around the farmyard once more. When he settled his eyes on the barn, he caught the woman raising the gun a little more, trying to take aim without alerting him to it.
“Why don’t you keep on riding,” she said.
Azrael could have drawn and shot her down before she even thought about pulling the shotgun’s trigger. In the old days, he would have blown the doors to the barn open with a gesture and razed the entire farm with a few words. But he was tired of the old days.
He got back on the horse. “I don’t have any money,” he said, nodding at the pump.
“Who does?” she said.
“I’ll say a prayer for you,” he said.
She laughed at that. “I ain’t yet seen a soul living or dead that prayer’s helped.”
Azrael rode on without saying anything else, because there was nothing to say to that.
Azrael followed the road toward the church because there was nowhere else to go. Nothing but wasteland to either side of him and damnation behind him. It was the way of the world as usual.
The church solidified out of the day as he rode, rising up into the sky. Buildings grew out of the ground around it. He couldn’t tell if it was the beginnings of a town or the end of one. There often wasn’t much difference between the two out here.
He passed a couple of wagons abandoned in the middle of the road. Both had bloody handprints smeared down the sides, as if someone had been dragged away but hadn’t been willing to let go. But then he knew from experience no one ever wanted to let go when it was time.
He didn’t see another living soul until he rode into the town. The main street was full of dancing people. Like a drunken mob, only they were throwing curtsies and bows to each other instead of punches and kicks. Men and women in their Sunday night finery. Toasting each other with bottles and glasses in their hands, and then toasting him when he reined in the horse at the edge of their party looking for a place to get a drink himself.
He didn’t understand their words. It was a tongue he’d never heard, and he knew as many tongues as the world had forgotten. It sounded as if they were talking around mouthfuls of dirt. He nodded at them anyway, and they didn’t seem offended by his silence. A man in a black suit pressed a bottle of whiskey into his hands, and a woman in a black dress ran a hand up his leg and patted his belt buckle before spinning away with a wink, into the arms of a man in a high hat and spectacles. Some things didn’t need words.
Azrael glanced up again at the sun to make sure it was still there and he hadn’t somehow ridden into the night without noticing. The middle of the day wasn’t the usual celebration time for mortals. But they were a long way from anywhere out here, and the farther people got from civilization, the more they tended to make up their own rules.
He took a long drink from the bottle. It burned in all the ways he desired. He went to hand it back, but the man had already wandered back into the crowd and rejoined the dance.
The music was supplied by a handful of folks scattered throughout the merriment. A man in clean and pressed pants and shirt played banjo while riding the shoulders of a woman wearing a purple dress. Another man sat on the front step of what looked like the general store and bashed on pots and pans with a wooden spoon. Someone Azrael couldn’t see blew on a harmonica. Together they managed some sort of dancing tune, even though none of them were watching each other as far as Azrael could tell.
And then there was the singing. At least Azrael thought it was singing. The men and women were all bellowing something that had the makings of a song, but it was just as incomprehensible as the rest of the things they said.
He took another pull from the bottle and noted that the church in the centre of the town was empty, its doors hanging open. The structure occupied the only hill in sight, which should have made it a natural gathering place, but it looked as if it hadn’t been used in some time.
When he looked back down, he noticed the children in the crowd. Standing here and there, where they wouldn’t get trampled by the dancers. A couple of girls holding hands behind a watering trough, one of them clutching a doll to her chest. A boy sitting on a hitching rail. Another couple of boys on the roof of a shed beside the store. They all watched the proceedings with expressions that didn’t say anything. That in itself signified something.
Azrael nudged his horse around the edge of the crowd, trying to steer clear of their celebration. He didn’t know what cause they had for celebrating, and he didn’t care. He just wanted to find a quiet place in the town to kill the rest of the bottle and maybe acquire a few more bottles for the road.
But the townsfolk wouldn’t let him go. They pressed in around him, grabbing him and trying to pull him down to join their dance. They were packed so tight, the horse couldn’t move through them. Instead, it was pulled deeper into the crowd. They were leading him somewhere, but Azrael wasn’t sure where.
Before he could ascertain what mischief the townsfolk were up to, the skeletons attacked.
They came the same way he’d come, rushing out of the wasteland and into the town like some stray memories that had finally caught up to him. They were human in shape, but he knew from his first glance their way that they hadn’t ever been human. The bones of these creatures were thicker and longer than human bones, and they had hooks and spurs that no human had ever sported.
Moreover, none of them looked alike. Some were the same rough shape and size as regular folk, but others were stunted and hunched over. A couple were lopsided, with one leg longer than the other. Some had full ribcages while others had a jumble of misshapen bones holding them together. It was as if they’d been assembled into the shapes of humans using bones that had never belonged to anything human. But they carried the tools of humans: pitchforks and axes and shovels.
Azrael turned to watch and put his hands on his guns, one forged from the unnatural metals of Hell, the other ripped from the grasp of a particularly troublesome ghost. But he didn’t interfere. He’d learned too many times about getting involved in the quarrels of others.
The skeletons went for the children. They rampaged through the crowd, shoving the dancers out of their way, stabbing and hacking at them with their weapons or slashing and snapping at them with their unnatural claws and teeth. A couple of the dancers went down, their blood soaking into the parched ground. But the other townsfolk fought back, punching and kicking and swarming the skeletons, all the while continuing to sing their song and take long pulls from their bottles. The musicians kept on playing, although the banjo player swung his instrument down on the head of one of the skeletons like an axe. Azrael had seen stranger scenes, but not many.
The people of the town managed to keep the skeletons away from the shed with the boys on the roof, but they couldn’t stop them from grabbing the girls at the watering trough or the boy sitting on the hitching post. The skeletons dragged them free of the crowd, back toward the edge of the town and the way they’d come.
Azrael went to take another drink but found the bottle empty already. He sighed and tossed the bottle aside, using the same motion to draw the ghost gun. He just couldn’t help his nature.
He wasn’t sure what manner of entities these skeletons were, but the ghost gun had always served him well against the spectral and the things most people called undead. He fired off a couple of shots, and because he had an angel’s eye, they found their marks through the mayhem of the crowd. The skeletons dragging away the girls blew apart, showering the scene with dust. The bones lay where they fell, finally dead.
The other skeletons clustered around the boy as they dragged him away. Azrael sighted in on the mass of them but then lowered his gun. It wasn’t for fear of hitting the boy, although that was a cause for concern. The ghost gun’s shells were crafted for the spectral, and they did terrible things indeed to the living. But the real reason he didn’t shoot was because there was something wrong about this scene.
Before he disappeared into their midst, the boy hadn’t fought the skeletons. Neither had the girls. The adults and the dead seemed to be the only ones inclined toward violence here. But the girls didn’t look too relieved to be snatched from the hands of the dead by the living either. They just watched the skeletons head back out of town with their prize. They lifted their hands like they were thinking about waving, but the townsfolk holding them just slapped their hands down.
No one made any move to pursue the skeletons, including Azrael. He noted the way those bone creatures clustered around the boy as they spirited him away. Like they were protecting him.
Now the townsfolk carried the girls past Azrael, in the other direction from the way the skeletons had come. They grabbed the boys off the roof of the shed as well, who looked about as happy at their situation as the girls did at theirs. They all went the way the dancers had been trying to force Azrael.
They left Azrael alone now. A few of the townsfolk looked at him as they passed, but none of them so much as nodded a thank-you. They just kept on babbling to each other in their strange tongue as they dragged the children down the street. The only one who spoke anything comprehensible was one of the girls he’d rescued, the one holding the doll. She turned her head to look up at him as the woman who’d felt his leg carried her past, holding her under one arm.
“You should have let them take us,” the girl said.
And then the townsfolk went down the street and disappeared around the other side of the hill, leaving Azrael alone on his dead horse except for the shattered bones lying in the dust.
He considered things for a while, then got off the horse and went inside the building that looked like it had the best shot of being a bar. He needed a drink more than ever.
The day was falling into night when Azrael finally staggered out of the bar. The street was just as empty as when he’d walked inside. His horse was still there, waiting for him. It didn’t look like it had moved. It probably hadn’t. The buzzards had settled on the church steeple to wait for him.
He thought about getting back on his horse and riding out of here. It would have been the easy thing to do. But he couldn’t get the little girl’s words out of his head.
He sighed and made his way up the hill to the church. He reloaded the ghost gun as he went. He wondered what had become of the boy. He knew he’d failed him and the girl, but he didn’t know how he’d failed them.
Nothing new there.
The inside of the church was a ruin. There were only shards of wood left where there’d once been pews. He figured they’d been broken up and used for firewood, as there was a burn mark on the wall where a cross would normally hang and the floor underneath it was charred, as if someone had lit a bonfire there. The missing bibles had probably been the kindling.
It didn’t matter. He hadn’t come up here for solace. He just wanted the high ground.
He could still hear the townsfolk singing that damned song, although it was as faint as words on the wind now. He went back outside and looked around, but he couldn’t see anyone. He climbed up the side of the church and pulled himself up the spire for a better view. The buzzards took wing and disappeared into the fading sky.
The road ended around the other side of the hill, at a hole in the ground shored up with timbers and lined with torches. A mine shaft. Azrael couldn’t see anyone in the entrance, but the strange song of the townsfolk drifted up to him, along with the sounds of a girl crying. And the steady noises of pick axes striking rock.
Then the sounds of the digging stopped, as did the weeping of the girl. But the singing didn’t. It grew even louder. And then there was a sound he’d only heard once before. When he’d fallen from Heaven. The sound of him being ripped from his rightful place and cast down here.
He felt a wind on his face, originating from inside the mine. A few seconds later, a geyser of dust erupted from its entrance, billowing out into the night. Azrael hung on to the church spire and waited to see what came out next.
But it was just the residents of the town again. They came up out of the earth singing and dancing some more. Azrael thought maybe they had done something to the children down there, perhaps spilled their blood in the mine, but the little boys and girls were dancing and singing along with the rest of them. Holding the hands of the adults and speaking in that strange tongue.
None of them looked up at Azrael on the spire. They just danced their way back to the town and continued on with their festivities. Celebrating whatever it was they were celebrating.
Azrael still didn’t move. He had all of eternity to wait. And after a time, something else came out of the mine.
More of the skeleton creatures. Four of them. They looked just as misshapen as the others, as if they had been assembled from random bones. They had the same hooks and spurs as did the ones that had attacked the town. But these bone creatures were smaller and moved more tentatively than the others. Like children. They looked at the town for a moment, and then crept out into the night. They headed across the scrub in the direction of the farm where Azrael had stopped for water.
Then he was falling once again, as the spire snapped under his weight, and darkness claimed him.
He woke to find a handful of people from the town carrying him into the mine, including the man wearing the spectacles and hat. The fall from the church would have killed an ordinary man, but Azrael was an angel, so it had only stunned him for a time. Besides, it wasn’t the first time he’d fallen.
He could have torn himself from their grasp and gone for his guns, but he wanted to see where they were taking him. There was something going on here. He’d encountered many an abomination before in underworlds but not usually right underneath a town. Then again, the people of this particular community weren’t like most townsfolk.
The tunnel went straight down for a spell, then began to twist and turn. The walls were scored with the marks of pick axes everywhere, and rocks and piles of dirt lined the sides of the tunnel. After a few more minutes of descent, further tunnels began to branch off the main one, disappearing into the darkness. Only the main tunnel was lit by torches, though, and the group carrying Azrael remained on that path.
Azrael received his answer when they came across the bones. Bits of them scattered across the ground. The men and women carrying him took care to step over them. Then they passed a few larger spiky bones just lying there, as if the skeletons that had emerged from the tunnel had forgotten to include these bones in their unnatural bodies.
And then the tunnel ended before them in a wall of bone. Skeletons were embedded in the earth in a mess of grand proportions. They were jumbled together, as if they’d all been killed and broken apart and then tossed in a pile and buried. Maybe they had, Azrael mused, but now they were being unburied. The pick axes he’d heard leaned against the wall, amid piles of freshly chipped rock and clods of dirt. A couple of skeletal arms hung out of the wall nearby, as if reaching for the tools to dig themselves out. More of those hooks and spurs on them. And there were more bone pieces scattered everywhere here, covering the ground like ash in a fire. And dust. The dust was everywhere.
But it hadn’t covered the doll yet. It lay amid the bones, half-buried. Azrael looked at it for a moment, then back at the skeletal wall. He’d seen a lot of the dead in his time, but he didn’t recognize any of these remains. They looked ancient, like they’d been down here for millennia. They looked older than him.
The townsfolk dropped him to the ground, so he figured that was as good a time as any to stand up and draw his guns.
“I don’t know what your particular superstition is,” he said, “but the sun has set on it now.”
They didn’t show any signs of understanding him, which didn’t surprise him any. Instead, they just grinned at him like they were the ones holding the guns, not him. Then the man wearing the spectacles and hat reached out and took hold of one of those arms jutting from the wall. He snapped it free of the wall, like he was breaking a twig from a tree.
A cloud of dust erupted from the bone, as dark as the night in the unlit tunnels they’d passed. It engulfed Azrael, flowing into his mouth and nose, grinding against his skin. He could feel something residing within it. Not a soul, not exactly what he’d call life. But whatever had once animated these bones wasn’t fully dead yet. And now Azrael understood.
The townsfolk weren’t the townsfolk anymore. They’d been taken by whatever ancient beings were trapped in these bones buried deep in the earth, forgotten until the miners had dug down here and discovered them.
But Azrael was no mere mortal to be possessed by spirits lost to time. He was one of the Fallen, who were few in number but made up for it in destruction and despair. He let the form he took these days slip just a little for a second, so the bone spirit could glimpse his true nature. It abandoned its attempts to seize him. The dust swirled away, forming into a whirlwind that howled its way back up the mine shaft and out into the night. It left the others coughing in its wake, stumbling away from Azrael.
He didn’t let them escape. He delivered wrath and judgment upon them with his guns, and they fell amid the bones. The wind blew away to nothing, and the dust it had disturbed drifted back down to cover the ground once more. He couldn’t see the doll at all now.
Azrael reloaded his guns and headed back to the surface. He needed another bottle, but that was going to have to wait.
Azrael emerged from the mine into the continuing party in the street. He didn’t know why all the townsfolk hadn’t accompanied the others into the mine with him, like they had with the children. Maybe it was because he was an outsider here, or maybe it was because he was an angel. Or maybe it was because they were too busy celebrating the additions to their dance, the children who had come up out of the mine. But Azrael knew these children were children no longer.
The closest townsfolk turned to welcome him, reaching out their arms for an embrace, but then they paused when they saw it was him and not whoever or whatever it was they’d been expecting.
He shot them down and opened up a path to his horse. The girl who’d been holding the doll earlier came at him. She didn’t seem to be missing her doll at all now. He shot her down too, plus a few more of the dancers in his way. Then he rode out of town before they could swarm him.
At the abandoned wagons in the road, he encountered the old woman from the farm. She was running, dragging the man with the white eyes behind her. They appeared to have run the entire distance from the farm to the wagons. Or at least she had run. She was without shoes, and her feet were bloody. But the old man looked to be in worse shape, given he was more or less lying on the ground, with her hauling him along by the collar. His pants and the back of his shirt were torn, and his blood streaked the ground behind them.
Azrael stopped to warn her, but then saw from the way she looked at him that she wasn’t the same person anymore. Her eyes just moved over him, like he was so much air. She was humming a tune. The song the dancers had started up again, behind him.
Azrael looked at the empty road behind her. Now he knew where the entity in the whirlwind of dust had gone. He put a bullet from each gun into her, one in the head and one in the heart, and left her for the man to bury if he wished. The buzzards had enough sense to leave her alone as he rode on.
The sun was easing into the sky by the time Azrael reached the farm. The door to the farmhouse hung open, but he didn’t bother looking inside. Instead, he went straight to the barn. He pulled the doors open with his hands and looked into the gloom on the other side.
The barn was full of skeletons. It was the mob of them that had attacked the town. Although he knew now that they had actually been trying to save the children. Fifty, maybe sixty of them. About the same as the number of townsfolk. They turned to look at him as he stood there, and then they grabbed whatever they could off the ground. Pitchforks and axes, a couple of shovels, a few lengths of wood. The ones that didn’t have any weapons hung back, clustering around the children who’d been sleeping on piles of hay in the middle of the room until Azrael had intruded. A couple of boys and three girls. And the smaller tentative skeletons that had crept out of the mine the night before.
He drew his guns but he didn’t fire.
“How many more children are there?” he asked.
For a few seconds, none of them moved. The skeletons didn’t speak, but he didn’t expect them to. Then one of the boys got up and stepped forward. The one these bone creatures had dragged away, when he’d first ridden into the town.
“There’s just us,” he said. He looked at Azrael in a way that said he didn’t seem to be any happier here than he had been in the town. “The dust people got the rest of them.”
Azrael nodded at that. He didn’t know what the things buried in the earth were, but “dust people” seemed as good a name as any.
“These are the people from the town,” Azrael said, looking around at all the skeletons, and the boy nodded back at him.
“They’ve taken pretty much everyone,” the boy said. “They got the lady in the farmhouse during the night.” He didn’t say anything about the old man, but he didn’t have to.
“Which one of these are your kin?” Azrael asked, studying the skeletons. They weren’t advancing, but they weren’t letting down their guard either.
“I ain’t got no kin left,” the boy said. He brushed some straw from his clothing. “You shot them down when everyone came to rescue us the other night.”
Azrael dropped his guns back in their holsters. He understood what had happened, even if he didn’t quite understand how. The people of the town had unearthed the dust people, and the dust people had repaid them for the favor by possessing their bodies. But they hadn’t just taken them over. They’d switched places with them. So the people of the town now inhabited the bones, and they’d somehow managed to cobble together their skeletal bodies out of those bones. Maybe there was a way to reverse the whole process, but if there was, Azrael didn’t know it.
“You should keep moving,” he told the boy. “Get as far away from this place as you can, and maybe those dust people will forget you were ever alive.”
The boy looked past him, at the world outside. “Some of the last people tried that a few days back,” he said. “The dust people sent a storm after them and brought them all back.”
Azrael thought again about the storm he’d ridden through to find himself in this place. The cries he’d heard. The abandoned wagons on the road.
“I seen all the bones,” the boy said. “I snuck into the mine one night. There’s too many dust people. There’s not enough of us in the town for all of them.”
Azrael looked away from the skeletons. The boy was right. There were many more of the dead still waiting down in that mine. Who knew how many? Maybe just a town’s worth. But maybe more. “I can’t help you if you stay here,” Azrael said, turning and walking back to his horse. “But if you come with me I might be able to protect you.” He had an idea. He wasn’t sure if it would work or not, but he had to do something.
The children and the skeletons followed him out of the barn, looking in all directions for signs of the dust people.
“Where are you going?” the boy asked, standing in the doorway.
“Back to the town,” Azrael said, and the buzzards took wing from the roof of the barn.
Azrael rode back into the town, followed by the skeletons. They still carried their weapons, and they trailed behind him, but they came. The ones who weren’t holding farm tools or improvised clubs carried the children in their arms. The children didn’t say anything, just clung tight to the racks of bone.
When they passed the abandoned wagons in the road, there was no sign of the woman he’d shot down or the man with the white eyes. Azrael couldn’t give it any more thought.
The people in the town didn’t falter in their dancing until Azrael rode into their midst. They reached out to him, as if to welcome him back. But then they stopped when the skeletons came into sight and halted at the edge of town. The two groups eyed each other, and the song died away, replaced by the sound of the wind blowing down the street from the direction of the mine.
Azrael shot down the man with the banjo and a woman holding a bottle of whiskey in either hand. They had more than enough numbers to take him down if they so desired, but he imagined from everything that had taken place that they desired even more to live. He was right, as they scrambled to get out of his way, leaving the dead man and woman lying in the dirt.
Azrael rode down the street to the mine, leaving the skeletons and children behind. But not the dust people. They followed him, and now they pulled out knives and guns. They were too late, if his idea worked. If not, well, it wouldn’t be the first time one of his gambles hadn’t paid off.
He got down from the horse at the mine entrance, but he didn’t go down that tunnel again. Instead, he stopped there and shook his wrists a little, loosening up. It had been a while since he’d done what he was about to try. The dust people nearest him stepped back a little, as if they thought he was getting ready to open up on them again. But he holstered the guns instead. And then he slammed his hands together and said the words in the forbidden tongue that he hadn’t uttered in centuries. He wasn’t sure if they’d still mean anything or not.
They did. The air itself rent open before him, splitting with the force of the power that flew from his hands to the mine. The walls of the tunnel exploded, earth and rock and wooden support beams erupting and crashing into each other. A giant cloud of dust billowed out, engulfing him and everyone behind him, but it was just dust.
Azrael uttered a few more words that were damnation to hear and slammed his hands into the ground. He heard the ceiling of the tunnel collapse, and felt the earth tremble under his feet. He stood back up as the dust settled around them all. He surveyed his work. The entrance to the mine was so much rubble now, the tunnel collapsed. The dead were buried again. He bowed his head for a moment, feeling the exhaustion all the way in his bones. He was glad that had worked, that the words still had power, because he didn’t have another plan. He’d been working on faith he didn’t know he still had. Or maybe didn’t want to admit he still had.
One of the torches outside the mine entrance somehow still burned. He took it and then turned and made his way through the crowd, which was now a mix of the dust people and skeletons. No one tried to stop him. No one touched him now. They’d seen his wrath and wanted none of it.
He went up the hill to the church. He stood on the front step and surveyed the crowd. The skeletons and the dust people and the children stared up at him. They waited for his words.
“I could have destroyed you,” he said, pointing the torch at the woman in the purple dress among the dust people. “I could have smote you down,” he said, pointing the torch at the man who’d given him the bottle when he’d first ridden into town. “I could have razed this town and turned even the memories of it and all of you to ash, to be scattered on the winds.”
No one said anything, because what was there to say to that?
“That mine, it’s sealed forever now,” he said. “Even I couldn’t dig my way down to those bones now. But I ain’t taking any more sides than that. What’s dust is dust.”
He went inside the church, his boots echoing in the empty room. He knelt down before that burn mark on the wall. It had been a long time since he’d kneeled, and it didn’t feel as natural as it once had. Nowhere near as natural.
He said a prayer for the woman from the farm, like he’d promised. There was no sign it was heard, but that was nothing new. Then he said a prayer for the entire town, with the same result. When he was done, he touched the torch to the wall. If there was someone listening to his prayers, he wanted to make sure there weren’t any misunderstandings over the way he still felt about things. When the flames caught he went back outside and pulled himself up on his horse.
The boy who had spoken to him back at the farmhouse stepped forward. Azrael had figured he would.
“What are we supposed to do now?” the boy asked, looking at the townsfolk. Azrael wondered which of their bodies had been home to his parents.
“This is a hard land,” Azrael said, as the church burned behind him. “You can keep on killing each other. Or you can learn to live together.” He saw the man with the white eyes in the crowd. He couldn’t tell if he was still human or one of the dust people now. “That’s up to you to decide,” he added. It was the sort of judgment that he’d been riding away from all these years, but he’d come to realize that sometimes there was no other kind of judgment.
“What kind of fate is that?” the boy asked.
“Your fate’s your own now,” Azrael said. “Make it what you will.”
He rode through them then, the skeletons and the dust people, back down the road and out of the town. He didn’t look back.
At the farmhouse, he stopped. He found some pieces of bone in the barn and used them to make a couple of crosses. He planted the bone crosses on either side of the wooden crosses. He didn’t have any bodies to bury, but sometimes it was the gestures that mattered.
Then he got back on the horse and rode out into the wasteland beyond the farm. There was another dust storm growing on the horizon, and he headed toward it.
As always, the buzzards followed.