FIVE MINUTES AGO

You slip down silent temple hallways, clutching Kiira’s dagger in your fist. One wrong step, one stray sound, will reveal your presence. You know your failure is inevitable, but still you edge along the wall as quietly as you can. Aware of what awaits you, you proceed as if you are not.

There is no avoiding it: your story will end with you dead at the feet of a god. Your divinations have told you this. There is no ambiguity. The portents float at the edge of your vision, haunt your dreams, shake themselves free with each throwing of the bones.

The Iron God built this place on the ashes of the Quiet Ones’ temple, so that none would question the totality of his victory. He ordered the gathering of much wealth, so that all would know his glory. He left bodies in the square to show the extent of his mercy.

You neither expect nor desire mercy. You desire an end.

Near the God’s chamber, a guard turns the corner, iron armor ringing in the silence. You press yourself against an alcove, but he sees you and sucks in a breath to shout.

You rush forward, lack of combat prowess mitigated by the skeins of destiny, which you see now more clearly than ever. You know what is coming: so much blood.

The guard readies his sword. You thrust the dagger under his arm, the blade easily punching through thin chainmail. He gasps. Blood spills from his lips, his eyes a haze of disbelief. You very nearly envy him.

A second blow takes his life. You stand over him, panting. Only then do you feel the wound in your gut. Only then do you realize he has killed you, but slowly.

The Iron God’s chamber awaits. You have a few minutes left, a few minutes to find yourself at the feet of the Iron God.

YESTERDAY

Kiira’s body hangs in the square, her throat crushed by the hand of the Iron God, her face picked at by carrion-feeders. She was your lover so very briefly, and her death is one among many. But it is the one that breaks you.

You stare at her face for a long time, and then you hurry to your small tenement, doubling back and watching behind you, as you are in the habit of doing. It is a dangerous thing to divine the future when you contest the will of a god.

Within the cramped confines of your room there is only your reading circle, a few possessions, and your bed. You like to think your sheets still smell like her, but perhaps grief fools you. You cannot allow your casting to be deceived. You must read truly.

You hold the question firmly in your mind: if I seek to kill the Iron God, what will be the result? and cast the bones.

They lie like a series of points, the last two crossed in an X. Wounding and death.

You stare at them, wishing yourself to have erred. But there is no mistake. Death awaits you, should you proceed.

Another question: if I do not seek to kill the god, what is the result? The bones fall, large to small. The last one is the smallest, a leg bone of a mouse you had fed, kept alive as long as you could. When it died, you honored its memory by adding the bone to your work. You recognize the bones’ message at once: a slow fading away. That outcome is better, you tell yourself, than the mouse, savaged by a cat before you could intervene. Better than Kiira.

You gather the bones. You are so tired of death, so tired of the rebel bodies in the square. You are no hero like Kiira, ready to sell your life cheaply rather than face the alternative. A true diviner can always find a way to live. Less comfortably than a false diviner, it is true, but what use is comfort to you?

You glance at your bed, the sheets still disheveled. The pillow on her side is partially askew (how quickly it became her side, and her loss hits you anew). Under it, something gleams. You toss the pillow away. The dagger; the one she called Omen, as though that would save her.

For a moment, you dare to believe. You fix a new question in your mind: can the Iron God be killed?

You struggle to make sense of the throw: a line of bones, again big to small, proceeding away from you, each almost, but not quite, touching the next. The answer is beyond the horizon. Some things, even a diviner may not know.

You pick up the dagger. Its pommel feels shaped to your hand.

THREE DAYS AGO

Kiira returns to your tenement. Sunlight angles through the high, tightly framed windows and casts uneven shapes on the bare lilting walls. You had half-hoped she would stay far away and half-wished for nothing more than to see her face again. Her dark eyes are a study: determination, born of rage and the shattering loss. You would give her anything she asks. Why must she ask this?

“I waited, like you said.” She reaches out to clasp your hands. “Will you throw the bones for me?”

“I shouldn’t,” you say, feeling like an actor on a stage. She peers into your eyes, as though hoping to see hesitation, reluctance.  But you sense that her resolve is complete. This is all that remains for her. You can feel her breath on your skin. A smile tugs at the corner of her lips.

“But you will,” she says confidently.

“I will,” you admit.

The two of you kneel, cross-legged, as you prepare the bones, silently thanking them for their gifts, though lately they have read only ill. You half-expect her to place her hand on your knee, over your skirts, as she did the last time. You want that heat again. But she listens attentively and does not reach out, though you feel her eyes on you.

“Fix your question in your mind. You are sure you want to know?” Even now, you hope she will say no.

“I am sure.” She does not hesitate, no longer fears the future as you do.

“Give voice to your question, then,” you say, resigned.

“What will be the outcome if I seek to kill the Iron God?”

You throw the bones. They clatter into place: a series of x’s, as clear a sign as ever a diviner could ask.

“Destruction,” you say, for you have vowed to speak only truth in your oracles. “Your death.” You dare a glance at her face. Her jaw is set, her teeth clenched, her back straight as a sword.

“You’re...sure?” she hisses out.

You nod. In the silence, you reach for her, but now she flinches away, does not seem to notice your hurt.

“Even if I use this?” she asks, and pulls out a gleaming dagger, like nothing you have ever seen. It radiates mystical power; the skeins of fortune, still strong from the reading, twist and writhe around it.

“What—” you ask.

“This is the blade called Omen,” she says. “With it, will I kill the god?” Now she does reach out to you, clasps your hand. There are tears in her eyes, tears in yours. “Tell me.”

You hold her hand until your heart aches for all the losses, yours and hers, then release it to throw again. A tangle of bones, a single line, and a figure, straight and unbroken.

“You will not kill the god, even with this weapon,” your vows compel you to admit. “I’m sorry, Kiira.”

Her breath is ragged. You watch her eyes, wishing beyond anything that she will abandon her plans. Her cheeks are wet. “Ask me to stay. Please,” she says, and this breaks you twice: with the request, and with what she does not say.

Later, you pretend to sleep until she cries out softly in dreams. You slide from the bed. The moon throws indifferent light across your casting circle. You hold your question in your mind: if she does not attempt to kill the god, what will result?

After the reading, you slip back into bed, and she is awake, watching you. You sense that she knows what you asked.

“What did the bones say?” she asks.

Would the future unwind differently if you could lie to her? Would you offer her comfort over truth, if that was in your power? The temptation is strong, but you do not violate your oath to the gods. Not even in the face of doom.

“If you give up on this plan,” you tell her, “then you will live long, and unhappily.”

She grimaces and nods. “Thank you,” she says, “for speaking truly.”

You feel unworthy of her praise.

When next you wake, she is long gone, her side of the bed already cold.

You do not yet realize she has left Omen behind.

TEN DAYS AGO

She says her name is Kiira. You recognize her, the woman who stands in your doorway with haunted eyes. Her body is pulled taut as a bowstring, her fingernails bitten ragged.

“I know you,” you say. “I saw you...” The thought is too awful to finish.

“Yes,” she says after a moment. “At the town square. My sibling was one of them.” Some of the priests of the Quiet Ones survived the purge, only to have their conspiracy ferreted out by the Iron God’s agents. All of them ended up in the square, such is the god’s bloodlust.

“I grieve your loss,” you say, and she leans closer, studying your face until she seems sure that this is true.

“Thank you. But I am done with grief. I need a divination.”

There is no other reason for her to be here. Yet even so, the request is barbed.

“Ask me anything else,” you say.

“You’re a diviner, and they say you speak true. Do you deny it?”

You shake your head. You swore an oath in front of the Quiet Ones, accepted the wine of the High Priestess, to speak only truth in your divinations. The Quiet Ones are dead now, their priests slaughtered or fled. But you will not break your oath.

“Then read for me,” she says. “I can pay.”

The premonition comes on so strongly that it staggers you, fills you with its inescapable truth in a way you rarely feel outside of the reading circle: that your destiny is entwined with hers.

“These days, the bones reveal nothing but agonies,” you say. “Don’t ask me, for it will be all ill omens. Please.”

“I will not blame the messenger for the message.”

You look away from her, your eyes burning. For months now the city has been the same: filled with desperate, angry, suffering people, all coming to you seeking hope but the bones offering so little. You do not know this woman, but already you have seen such agony in her. The thought of seeing more threatens to break you.

“I’m sorry,” she says after a long moment and reaches forward to touch your cheek. “I had not thought of what this might mean, for you.”

Such empathy, even while she is in the depths of pain.

“Come back tomorrow,” you tell her. “Perhaps...perhaps I can help you then.”

She returns the next day, and the next. On the third she brings wine. On the fourth you speak to each other of your childhoods, of the dreams for the future you once had. On the fifth you become lovers. On the sixth, you hold her while she cries.

“Tomorrow,” you whisper to her. “If you ask me tomorrow, I will read for you. I pray you won’t ask.”

But no one is left to hear your prayers.

ONE MONTH AGO

For a while, you told yourself that, by reading the bones truly, you could save lives. Perhaps these doomed rebels would give up on their plans to overthrow the Iron God. They could survive.

But when the representative of the priests came to you, the grim reading you provided did nothing to change the clenching of their fists, their jaws. After they leave, you again cast the bones, and the reading confirms what you already knew. The priests will proceed despite the future you foretold.

You don’t understand it. Why would anyone enact a plan they know will fail? Why would they sacrifice themselves for nothing?

It is true that some have heeded your warnings, fled or accepted quiet lives. But not as many as you hoped. The world has ended, and they are determined to end it again.

In the square, the priests’ bodies hang, along with others, so many others. More even than in the days following the Iron God’s invasion. So much loss that even your dreams are no respite from it. The griefs of the past and the ones your bones portend for the future: a thread of misery.

A woman stares up at the bodies. In her face you see little but wreckage. In the oceans of her eyes, rage has replaced hope. You think you recognize her, but you cannot place from where. She glances at you, then stares longer, and there is recognition on her features.

She turns and disappears into the crowd. Only later do you understand the moment for what it was: premonition.

The thought terrifies you. The only omens left to you are cruel ones.

ONE YEAR AGO

The Temple of the Quiet Ones burns day and night. The streets are a tumult of sobs, of screams. The Iron God’s soldiers root out priests, the faithful, or anyone suspected of being hostile to the new order. For the first time you are grateful that your true seeing is less popular than the charlatans who claim to know the future. They have not been blessed by the gods and read no more truth in the bones than anyone else. But truth is rarely a comfort.

When the Iron God’s soldiers finally come to your door, you offer them a reading, because such is your oath and your only hope of staying alive. One asks about a promotion: he will get it. Another about her future: blood and bones. Their captain asks about the remaining priests of the Quiet Ones. Their plans will fail, you tell him, and the soldiers go away satisfied.

And so you will live, alone in your hopelessness. You tell yourself this is a small blessing.

NOW

In his gilded chamber, resplendent with the spoils of his victory, the Iron God awaits you. He smiles, his metal body shining, his teeth whiter than your casting bones.

“So, you come to me at last, True Seer,” he says, and you know in an instant why Kiira and the priests and so many others failed: the Iron God too can read the skeins.

“Here I am,” you say, because you can think of nothing else.

He rises from his throne and walks to you. Your blood spills from your wound, patters on his immaculate floor. Its bitter taste coats your tongue.

“We will chat, you and I,” he says with the confidence of one who knows the future and has shaped it to his ends. “You will tell me why you are here.”

“This was the future that I saw.” A small truth that conceals a larger one, and you can see in his face that he knows it.

“Come now,” he says, smiling benevolently. “Do not speak to me as though I am a fool. I have indulged your little plan so I could ask you this question: why come here, when you know you are doomed to fail and to die?” He strokes your cheek, as a lover would. Your stomach turns violently.

“There are worse things than death.”

“Hanging in the public square, your gifts squandered? What could be worse than that?”

You think of Kiira, of the burning temple, of inevitability, of vows you swore to dead Gods, and of all the unspoken truths between you and her.

“Betrayal,” you whisper.

“Ah,” he says, disappointment written on his unyielding features. “Then you are only a fool like the rest of them, unwilling to accept the true order of things.”

He moves quickly, but your premonitions have prepared you well. His hand closes around your neck. You lash out with the blade Omen, the one Kiira left behind for you. She entrusted it to you for this purpose. There is a sound like crystal shattering, and a small wound opens in the god’s side.

He looks down at it, curiously tilting his head, then swats your blade away, as his other hand tightens around your windpipe.

“All this, for so small a wound,” he says. “How foolish you people are.”

Bones in your neck snap. Darkness swallows the edges of your vision. There is no time left, no escape. A final premonition emerges, unbidden, an answer to the question you had posed yesterday, a lifetime ago: can the Iron God be killed?

Not with a single stroke, nor even with a hundred. But a thousand cuts, or ten thousand?

Everything dies.

You have your answer. With a blood-red smile, you meet your fate.

Read Comments on this Story (3 Comments)

Izzy Wasserstein is a queer and trans academic and writer of fiction and poetry. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Fireside, and many other magazines and anthologies. She shares her life with the writer Nora E. Derrington and their furry companions. She's an enthusiastic member of the Clarion West class of 2017.

Return to Issue #325