The angel Azrael rode across the badlands on the dead horse for so many days and nights that he became lost, until a dying woman’s bloody bible set him on a path back to the world.
The parched broken earth stretched empty and lifeless in every direction as far as he could see. There were no signs to guide him one way or another, which suited Azrael just fine. He had no purpose to his ride other than to get lost and stay lost. The world had made him weary in a multitude of ways, and he wanted to be alone.
Of course, as an angel he couldn’t help but look for signs to interpret, whether he wanted to or not. So when the two buzzards that followed him everywhere went on ahead one dawn and descended out of the sky at a distant point of nothingness, he had no choice but to ride on and investigate.
The first thing he saw as he approached was the ground torn up by bullets. Maybe they were someone’s shots that had missed. Or maybe they had gone through their targets and carried on. A bloody piece of paper lay stuck in one of those furrows. It fluttered slightly in the morning breeze as if to beckon him. Azrael leaned down from the saddle and picked up the torn scrap to inspect it. The paper had been ripped from some book or other, but it was too bloodstained to make out any words that may have once been written upon it. He tucked it in a pocket of his shirt anyway, for he was loathe to cast it aside. All books had some value, even in ruin.
Soon after that he came across scattered pieces of clothing spread out on the hard-baked land, as if there had once been people inside them that had turned to dust and blown away. A wagon lay a few dozen yards behind them, turned on its side with bodies sprawled on the ground around it. They’d been there long enough the earth had already soaked up most of the blood.
The travellers had been sliced up badly. Azrael had seen enough knife wounds that he could tell only a few of these cuts were mortal. The rest had been meant to make them suffer.
There were a half-dozen of them—a woman and two men, and three young girls not old enough to lift a gun. Azrael saw from the way the bodies had fallen that the men had died trying to defend the children. He also saw that the girls bore no resemblance to the men or woman, although the two men looked to be brothers. He figured the adults had all been married or otherwise bound together, for they each bore the marks of rings on their fingers. The rings were gone now, though.
The wagon was as broken as the people. It had been tossed onto its side with some force, judging by the cracked sideboards. The wood that had been used to make it looked to be from the petrified forests far to the south, so these travellers had come a long way. The ground was littered with shattered barrels of foodstuffs and tools, stained blankets, and a couple of stuffed dolls lying on their backs and staring at the heavens. Those that had done the looting hadn’t taken these possessions, which told Azrael they weren’t that much in need. They cared little for human life if they were willing to mutilate and kill over things they didn’t even need.
The wagon and barrels were marked with a painted symbol of a rising sun, or perhaps a setting one. Azrael took it to be the family’s brand. He imagined the horses that had drawn the wagon had the same brand, but they were long gone, likely taken by those responsible for cutting up the family. Hoof prints were all around, circling the wagon and then meeting up and heading away across the badlands. Sometimes a horse was enough to shed blood out here in the badlands. Sometimes people didn’t need a reason at all.
The woman was still taking ragged breaths where she lay, and she squinted at Azrael as if trying to figure out if he were real or not. She didn’t look at the buzzards feasting on the men. Azrael got off the dead horse and went over to her, although he knew there was nothing he could do. But that didn’t mean she needed to die alone.
“Come to finish me off?” she asked.
“You don’t need my aid in that respect,” Azrael said. “You’ll be done suffering soon enough.”
“Amen to that,” the woman said. “I could sorely do with a drink before I go, though, and those devils took all our spirits.”
“I’m sorry to say I ran out of whiskey a few days back. And water a few days before that.”
“So you ain’t here to harm me but you ain’t here to help either,” the woman said. “You just like the buzzards, drawn to suffering and death?”
Azrael squatted down beside her but didn’t answer. People had said worse things to him before. Besides, there was some truth in what she said.
The woman eyed the bloody paper in his shirt pocket. “At least do me a small mercy before I’m freed from all this?”
“Depends on the mercy,” Azrael said.
“Take my bible to my daughter in Jerusalem’s Sorrow,” she said. “Where we were heading before all this.”
“I’m sorry to tell you, the girls are all dead,” Azrael said.
The woman shook her head, as much as she could. She didn’t look at the dead children nearby. “I loved those girls in my own way, but they weren’t kin. We were just trying to do what we could for them, after the plague took their parents. My daughter, she took her own journey across this land a long time ago and is still alive. Last I knew of, anyway. I could maybe rest in peace if my bible found its way to her.”
Azrael surveyed the scene once more. “I don’t see no bible here,” he said.
The woman fumbled at her dress with one mangled hand and managed to pull a book part-way out of the folds of torn fabric. It was a slim, leather-bound journal with a broken clasp and shredded cover. Azrael knew from the moment he set eyes upon the journal that it was no true bible. It was just a mundane mortal book. He also knew that the scrap of paper in his pocket belonged to it. More bloodstained pages akin to the one he’d picked up hung loose from the binding.
“They cut it up, just like everything else,” the woman said. “I don’t rightly know if they were looking for some treasure or were just being spiteful. But I managed to hide it when they got distracted.” Her eyes finally strayed to the dead men.
“Looks more a diary than a bible,” Azrael said.
“Call it what you will,” she said. “Everything I ever learned in my life, every lesson I have, is in there. If that ain’t a bible, I don’t know what is. And I’m supposing it’s the only way my daughter will ever be able to know me now.”
Azrael shook his head. “That ain’t my problem. And even if it were, I don’t know the whereabouts of Jerusalem’s Sorrow. I ain’t never been this way before.”
“You lost?” the woman asked and laughed a little, which ended in her spitting blood.
“Even angels get lost sometimes,” Azrael told her.
“I imagine something like you has ways,” she said. Her eyes fluttered shut, then snapped open again. Azrael could see she was willing herself to stay alive a little longer. “It ain’t less important to me than your bibles are to your kind.”
Azrael could have argued the point but held his tongue, on account of the woman dying. The bibles of angels were texts of real power, the likes of which mortals were better off not imagining. He reflexively glanced at the dead horse, making sure his own bible was still tucked away out of sight.
“My bible will keep me alive in my daughter’s mind,” the woman said, her breath beginning to falter. “What’s more powerful than a book that can bring the dead back to life?”
Azrael didn’t say anything to that either, just remained at her side until she was as lifeless as the dolls in the wreckage.
Then he took the bible from her still hand and shoved the loose pages back inside it. He put it in one of his saddlebags and pulled himself up onto the dead horse. He didn’t bother burying the dead. The buzzards, like most everything else in this world, needed to eat.
He followed the trail of hoof prints leading away from the wrecked wagon, for he had no other direction to follow.
He would go to Jerusalem’s Sorrow, wherever that was, seek out the dead woman’s daughter, and deliver this bible to her. Then he would find a way to become lost again.
Azrael travelled through the rest of the day and then the night without stopping, because neither he nor the dead horse needed rest. There were times he wanted to rest, but the hard ground wasn’t any more inviting than the saddle. The buzzards caught up to him after a while and trailed him like usual. The sky felt a little less empty with their presence.
Early the next morning Azrael came upon a town, as the sun was just setting the horizon ablaze. A plank of wood staked into the ground announced it as The Boneyard. Azrael figured the place had earned that name on account of the massive bone spikes that thrust out of the earth like they were trying to stab the empty heavens. There were around a dozen of them in a more or less straight line and they ranged in stature, the size of small trees at either end and the middle ones the towering height of the bloodfalls Azrael had witnessed the time he’d ventured into Hell. He recognized the bones as the spine of some monstrous creature or another, perhaps one of those that was left over from Creation and kin to Leviathan or Behemoth. Buildings were clustered around the base of each spine, but Azrael doubted their inhabitants were aware of the likely nature of the bones that rose above them or what others lay buried under their feet. Most mortals hadn’t looked upon the true monstrosities of the world in the ways the angels had.
This place wasn’t Jerusalem’s Sorrow, but Azrael had hope that maybe someone here might be able to direct him to it. He rode the dead horse into the town, a collection of buildings so scoured by the elements they didn’t have a speck of paint left on them, if they had ever been so adorned. The place was already lively despite the early hour. Groups of labourers walked up and down the main street, with digging implements of various natures resting upon their shoulders—shovels and pickaxes and the like. So The Boneyard seemed to be a mining town of some sort. The labourers wore clothes so thoroughly stained that they appeared to have risen from the earth itself. They eyed Azrael and the dead horse, but if they found either strange, they kept it to themselves.
There were a couple of covered wagons outside a two-storey building that looked to be a hotel, with a handful of men and women in matching black suits like undertakers checking the wheels and the harnesses to ready the wagons for travel. The people in black were covered in tattoos, and for some reason looking upon them made Azrael feel uneasy, even though they didn’t pay him any more heed than the labourers had.
Azrael stopped outside a building that had the words Supplies and Curiosities carved into the wood above the door—as good a place to ask directions as any. Azrael dismounted the dead horse and left it unhitched at the street. He wasn’t concerned it would wander off, even though it carried his hidden bible. The dead horse generally didn’t go anywhere without Azrael, and it seemed to be the one thing in the badlands that no one wanted to steal.
Azrael walked into the store, interrupting what appeared to be a robbery in progress. A man with silver hair was pointing a gun at the shopkeeper behind the counter. Except when the man glanced back at Azrael, it was with eyes that were also silver. He was no man at all. His unusual shade of hair and eyes marked him as one of the nephilim, the offspring of an angel and a mortal. This nephilim looked as if he had fallen on hard times, judging from his mismatched wardrobe—a dress shirt and threadbare trousers that were both stained with red dust on their front, two boots from different sets, and a hat of a style that Azrael hadn’t seen in a century. The nephilim’s gun was rusty and stained with more of that red dust, but he held it steady enough that the shopkeeper dared not move.
This nephilim was not the only curiosity in the place. At first glance it was a typical enough general store, with aisles of foodstuffs and supplies in the middle of the room and shovels, pickaxes, and other implements hanging on the walls. The wall behind the counter was not typical of general stores, however, as it was lined with display shelves that bore shards of bone. The bone shards were a variety of sizes, some no larger than a bullet and others the length of Azrael’s arm. They appeared to have the nephilim’s interest.
“You want to go on back outside right now,” the nephilim said, waving his gun idly at Azrael.
Azrael figured the light of the day at his back hid the fact he was an angel. Or maybe the nephilim was just drunk, because Azrael could smell whiskey from him as strong as he smelled fear from the shopkeeper.
Azrael cleared leather with his Hell gun and fired a single shot that blew the nephilim’s gun out of his fingers. The nephilim cursed and jerked back, shaking his hand and glaring at Azrael. He started to reach for the gun on his other hip but then paused, as he finally registered Azrael’s nature.
“The outcome won’t be any different, no matter how many guns you’ve got,” Azrael said. He grabbed a bottle of whiskey from one of the shelves and put it down on the counter in front of the shopkeeper, keeping his gun on the nephilim the whole time. “So maybe you want to go on back outside right now.”
The nephilim studied Azrael a bit longer, closing his hand into a fist as if trying to grab onto the gun that Azrael had shot away.
The shopkeeper looked between Azrael and the nephilim, taking in the ruined wings at Azrael’s back. Azrael could see that the man wasn’t sure if his situation had improved any.
The nephilim looked over the bones on the wall once more, then walked toward the door. “It ain’t right how one lone soul can have possession of such power when the rest of us are deprived,” he said. He eyed Azrael as he went. “It ain’t never been right.”
Azrael dropped his gun back into its holster and yanked the cork from the bottle. He took a long swallow of the whiskey while watching the door, then pulled a handful of coins from one of his pockets. They were mostly from the towns to the west, although there were a couple black discs made of a polished rock he didn’t know, which he’d taken from the body of a crazed djinn that had attacked him a few weeks back.
The shopkeeper stared at the coins, then made the black ones disappear under the counter. He looked at the door again as if to make sure the nephilim had truly gone.
“Enoch there took issue with the price of our curiosities,” he said, as if feeling the need to explain things. Many people felt that need when faced with an angel. “He and his lot have a craving for the spirit that’s in these bones, like a drunk craves his next bottle.” He flicked his eyes at Azrael’s whiskey, then away. “No offence intended.”
“You’ll know if I take offence,” Azrael said.
The shopkeeper cleared his throat. “I’ve sold him and his companions a few of these bones on occasion, but never anything too sophisticated. They never had the money for that. This time he didn’t even have any coins and tried to barter with some simple rings instead. But it is a most dangerous business, digging the bones of a fallen god from the earth, and I cannot simply give these unique and miraculous relics away.”
“You don’t exactly strike me as the digging type,” Azrael said.
“I have arrangements with the miners, of course. But these bones are still worth every penny that I charge for them. Why, there are those willing to pay small fortunes back east, where there are no longer....” He grew pale and stared down at the counter.
Azrael knew what he was going to say. Where there were no longer creatures of myth and magic, such as Azrael himself or whatever it was that lay beneath this town. The cities to the east were a new and different world, one built by the mortals and not the gods. Azrael wasn’t sure if it was a better world, but it was certainly a different one.
Azrael scooped up the remaining coins, but the shopkeeper cleared his throat again.
“Perhaps you would be interested in one of these mystical artifacts?” He pointed at the nearest piece of bone. “Why, this one here has the power to provide both light and warmth at night, so your tent or living quarters will be as contented as the noonday sun. And that one has restorative effects. Perhaps even enough to....” He glanced again at what was left of Azrael’s wings.
Azrael pocketed the coins. “The world is full of bones,” he said. “Plenty I can find on my own for free. The only thing I need is to know the way to Jerusalem’s Sorrow.”
The man sighed as if defeated. “Just follow the setting sun and you’ll reach it eventually. There ain’t nothing else out here.”
Azrael headed for the door without spending any more words on the shopkeeper. He’d seen this sort of thing before. Maybe the bones of whatever creature was buried under the town belonged to some dead god. Maybe they belonged to something else. Whatever the case, they likely retained some of the being’s essence, which gave them the powers the shopkeeper had claimed. If so, they would be as unpredictable and deadly as they were wondrous.
Azrael had no interest in any of it. The way he figured things, it was best to let dead gods and their like be.
The dead horse was still standing outside the shop where Azrael had left it, but a couple of the tattooed people had come over from their wagons to inspect it. A woman with a wooden left hand was gazing into the horse’s empty eye sockets, as if trying to read its mind. A man with a scar cutting across his right eye walked a slow circle around the horse, studying its rotting body. They both wore guns with worn grips, as if the guns had seen plenty of use.
Azrael saw the rest of their company watching from down the street. There were another half dozen of them, and they were a mix of races—one of the spirit people from a tribe to the west if Azrael read the ritual burns on his shaven head correctly, a demon with sawed-off horns, a woman with scaly peeling skin and gills that marked her as one of the ocean people even though there weren’t any bodies of water anywhere around here, a creature with dirty white fur all over his body, a woman with her eyes stitched shut, and even a woman whose shimmering skin told Azrael she was one of the faerie. She seemed to fade in and out of sight even as Azrael looked upon her, as though she was about set to leave this world and return to her own land. Azrael envied her that.
They were all tattooed in a mix of what appeared to be random words in near every language Azrael was familiar with, along with many strange and peculiar symbols. Azrael recognized a few as wards against magic and other rituals, but he did not know them all. He felt that sense of unease return again, and he immediately wanted to put some distance between himself and these people.
“Interesting mount,” the woman said, nodding at the dead horse but eyeing Azrael in a way that suggested she found him more intriguing. The fingers on her wooden hand drummed on her leg, and Azrael saw they were all jointed like a regular hand.
Up the street in the other direction, Azrael saw Enoch, the nephilim he’d encountered in the shop. He was leaning against the wall of what Azrael took to be the saloon, judging by the bottles in the windows, talking into the ear of another of his kind. She stared at Azrael with those same silver eyes. Her clothes were just as mismatched—she wore the suit jacket of a lawyer or some such but the work pants and undershirt of a farmer. There was a bullet hole in the centre of the hat she wore pushed back on her head. Her clothes were also stained red in the front, just like Enoch’s. They weren’t miners, or else every inch of their clothing would have been red. Given what had happened inside the store, Azrael suspected they had gotten dirty in a way that involved hugging the ground to avoid bullets or some other harm directed their way. He resolved not to turn his back on them for too long.
Azrael took another pull of the whiskey, because it was shaping up to be one of those days. He went over to the dead horse, and the man with the cut eye stepped aside to make room for him, but only just.
“Could use another armed escort,” the woman said. “If your price isn’t prohibitive.”
“Looks like you’re all armed plenty,” Azrael said. “Unless you’re expecting to run into a hostile army.”
“A handful of sinners like ourselves could never match the wrath of an angel,” the man said. He glanced past Azrael at the nephilim. “Or even any of their kin. Wouldn’t matter if we had all the bullets in the world.”
“Where we go, even angels sometimes fear to tread,” the woman said. She clasped her wooden hand with the other one, like she was trying to restrain it from doing something.
“Maybe you need to go someplace else then,” Azrael said, stowing the bottle in the saddlebag alongside the dead woman’s bible.
“We’re journeying to Jerusalem’s Sorrow,” the man with the cut eye said. “There’s many an oddity between here and there that can make the trip hazardous.”
Azrael thought again of the butchered family, and the woman’s plea that he take her bible to her daughter there. But he didn’t let any of that show on his face.
“What’s waiting for you in Jerusalem’s Sorrow that’s so special you’ve got to risk such a journey?” Azrael asked.
The man lifted his hand and placed it over his cut eye, as if he were trying to block out the sight of something it saw. “We’re going home,” the man said. “To our temple.”
“You some sort of priests?” Azrael asked. That would go some way to explaining their eclectic nature at least.
“We’re revelation pilgrims,” the woman said.
“In my experience, all pilgrims are in search of revelation,” Azrael said, and pulled himself up onto the dead horse. “That don’t mean they always find it.” He heeled the horse forward, pushing the pilgrims aside. He didn’t want to ride with them even if they were going to Jerusalem’s Sorrow, for he couldn’t shake that feeling of wanting to get away from them.
“We ain’t in search of revelation,” the woman said, grinning. “We’ve found it. We’re carrying holy texts back to our temple for safekeeping.”
Azrael reined in at that. “What kind of holy texts?”
“Bibles and the like,” the woman said, and Azrael took her to be the leader of their little group if she was disclosing information like that. “We’ve collected them from those who don’t need them any more. The dead gods and those who once served them and such. There ain’t no shortage of them lying about the land, waiting to be found by simple orphans of the world like ourselves.” She glanced at the bloody scrap of paper sticking out of Azrael’s pocket. “You never know where you’ll find them.”
“You’re like the miners in this town then,” Azrael said. “Only you’re looking for bibles instead of bones.”
The woman blinked a few times at that, then shrugged. “I guess that’s a fair comparison,” she said. “But we ain’t selling what we find to the highest bidder, like your shopkeeper in there. We’re keeping them.”
That explained the pilgrims’ skittishness. Holy texts that had belonged to creatures such as gods and angels and their like had genuine power to them. It was a dangerous thing to even be close to such texts, particularly for mortals. Their minds simply couldn’t comprehend the contents. A single true bible would be enough to drive most people to madness through its mere presence.
“How many holy texts you bringing to this temple of yours?” Azrael asked.
The man dropped his hand back to his gun, as if he were concerned that Azrael was about to try something. The woman kept on smiling, as if Azrael had said something humorous.
“We’ve got a whole wagon full,” she said. “But we ain’t going to tell you which wagon.”
“That many bibles should have sent you to the madhouse by now,” Azrael said.
“Probably would have, if not for all the wards we got,” the woman said, gesturing at her tattoos. “We’ve learned a few things over the years.”
So the strange symbols and curious words were not just some affectation. It was probably them that was making Azrael feel like putting some distance between the pilgrims and himself. “Well, the bibles of others for the most part no longer concern me,” he said. He still couldn’t bring himself to move on, though.
“But you know how dangerous they are,” the woman said. “And you ain’t ridden away yet. Which tells me you’re wrestling with which concerns you more. The bibles of all those dead strange creatures getting locked away securely in our temple, or those same bibles remaining loose in the world, causing who knows what kind of trouble.”
“There’s a lot of things I wrestle with,” Azrael said. He nudged the horse again and rode on past the pilgrims, up the street to the nephilim. They stared at him, unblinking, but said nothing.
“You cause any more problems here and I won’t be aiming for your gun the next time,” Azrael told Enoch.
The other nephilim dropped her right hand to the gun on her hip, but Enoch put his hand over hers. His gaze wandered to the pilgrims, then back to Azrael.
“I’ll bear that in mind,” he said.
Neither of the nephilim changed expression. They were a hard lot to stare down an angel, especially one like Azrael.
Azrael turned the horse around and rode back to the pilgrims. He watched their eyes for any signs of the nephilim drawing their guns behind him, but they just kept on studying Azrael.
“I can travel with you for a time,” he told the woman. “But don’t take it personal when I part ways after we reach Jerusalem’s Sorrow and make sure the bibles are safe in that temple of yours. I’ve got my own business there.” He went on past her, toward the wagons.
“If there’s one thing all these bibles have taught me, it’s that we all part ways eventually,” she said and laughed.
Azrael rode on without answering, but he tucked the page from the dead woman’s bible in his pocket out of sight.
So Azrael set out into the badlands again, only this time with the revelation pilgrims. The two that Azrael had spoken to rode on either side of him, on horses that looked soon to be as dead as Azrael’s. The rest followed behind on the wagons, which were pulled by horses that appeared equally spent. The flaps at either ends of the wagons were cinched shut so tight that Azrael couldn’t see inside, which suited him just fine. He had no desire to risk looking upon the holy texts of others. He made sure to keep an eye on the pilgrims, though, turning frequently as if to scan the horizon but in truth to make sure those on the wagons weren’t about to try something. He knew better than to trust anyone out here.
The woman with the wooden hand introduced herself as Judith but otherwise said nothing until The Boneyard had melted away into the horizon behind them.
“You ever ventured this way before?” she asked as the flat, cracked plain began to give way to more unpredictable ground. Shards of the earth rose up in places like walls and fell away into crevasses in others, as if something had shattered the world. The trail ahead wound through the broken land, disappearing into a range of jagged hills.
“Even angels don’t know all of creation,” Azrael said.
“Seems to me there ain’t no corner of the world that don’t have some strange angel or another causing problems,” said the man with the cut eye.
“Hush now, Ulysses,” Judith said. “This too shall pass.” Then she lapsed back into silence, leaving Azrael to contemplate the meaning of her words.
None of the pilgrims spoke again until they were deep in the hills. The trail continued on as if something had gouged a path through the land for them to follow, and the pilgrims had to get off the wagons at points and push them over rocks and other rough patches. They cursed and swore at each obstruction as if it had been placed there just to torment them.
“Ain’t there any easier ways for you to journey to Jerusalem’s Sorrow?” Azrael asked during one particularly laborious stop involving a wide, deep crack running across the trail. The pilgrims had to pull some spare sideboards out of one of the wagons and lay them across the crack, then guide the wagons carefully across. It took them some time to figure out their course of action, as if they were surprised by the obstacle.
“Is there anything easy in this land?” Judith asked, leaning on her saddle as she scanned the surrounding hills.
“What’s Jerusalem’s Sorrow like?” Azrael asked. He figured he may as well learn as much as he could about the town before he arrived. Maybe Judith knew something that would help him find the dead woman’s daughter. The sooner he could deliver the bible, the sooner he could get lost again.
“It’s the end of the trail,” Judith said with a laugh and rode on.
Shortly after that Azrael noticed the buzzards drifting off to the right of the trail, as if they had spied something of interest in the hills. He kept a watchful eye and soon spotted some wagon tracks that broke off the trail and disappeared into a narrow pass. It looked as if the pass had once been wider but landslides over the years had choked it down. Its walls slowly became the colour of dirty blood the deeper it went, as if hundreds of souls had all bled out on those slopes. Or perhaps just one creature monstrous in size.
Azrael held up a hand to stop the wagons while he studied the area. The pass didn’t look different from any of the other natural cuts in the hillsides, the colouring of its earth aside, but the tracks had been swept over in an attempt to conceal them. It was probably enough to hide them from mortal eyes, but Azrael could see the traces even if those who rode with him couldn’t.
“Someone went off that way,” Azrael said. “Although I’m guessing it ain’t the path to Jerusalem’s Sorrow.”
“People get lost out here all the time and ain’t never seen again,” Judith said, her voice hard now.
Azrael looked at her and saw the gun in her hand. And the guns in the hands of the others. All pointing at him. They’d taken advantage of his distraction to ambush him. He was pinned in place. The only way for him to escape would be to ride into the pass they had stopped to investigate, and there wasn’t enough room for him to maneuver there. It would be so much target shooting for them.
“We’ve had practice dealing with your kind,” Judith said. “And a few other kinds as well. So don’t take it personally.” She held the gun steady and didn’t look at all bothered about facing down an angel. None of them did. That told Azrael they were no strangers to dangerous situations, because there was no situation where an angel wasn’t dangerous.
“So what’s your plan then, if you weren’t looking to hire out my guns after all?” Azrael asked.
“First, Ulysses is going to take that bible of yours from your saddlebag,” Judith said. “What happens after that is up to you. You go on your way and that’ll be the end of it. We just want the bible is all.”
Azrael nudged the dead horse a little with one knee, and it took a few steps toward the bloody pass, as if it were skittish on account of the pilgrims pressing so close.
“I thought you were collecting holy texts for safekeeping,” Azrael said, making a show of trying to rein in the dead horse. “Not stealing them away from those who may still be using them.”
“I admit we didn’t get into the particulars,” Judith said. “But we all know how much damage the gods and their servants, such as yourself, have done to the world with the help of them holy books. So we’ve been locking them up in a safe place where they can’t do no more harm, just like I told you. I spoke the truth in that respect.” She shrugged. “Sometimes we take the bibles from the dead. Sometimes from the living. But we always get the bibles in the end.”
“I can’t say as I blame you any for adopting your particular mission in life,” Azrael said. “But the book in my saddlebag ain’t what you’re looking for.”
“All the angels say their bible ain’t the one we’re looking for,” Judith said, and the faerie woman giggled. “But we got a wagon full of their bibles and everyone else’s. So let’s just cut the dance and you hold still.”
Azrael held up his hands as Ulysses got off his horse and approached, keeping his gun on Azrael the whole time.
At the edge of his vision, Azrael caught a quick movement among the rocks at the top of one of the surrounding hills. A flash of a dirty white shirt as someone squirmed into place behind cover up there. A glint of metal near the top of another rock, as someone readied a gun. Azrael kept his gaze on the pilgrims and his face impassive as Ulysses opened his saddlebag, twitching like it gave him a shock. Azrael didn’t think any of the pilgrims had noticed the movement in the rocks. They were all intent on him.
“I strongly advise you don’t follow us when we’re done,” Judith said. “Because Lucy here will see you coming, now that she’s got a read of you.” She nodded at the woman with the eyes stitched shut, who was pointing a gun at Azrael the same as the others.
“And how many of your previous victims have taken that advice?” Azrael asked.
“That don’t matter none,” Judith said. “We’ve got to give you the choice. If we don’t offer free will, then we’re no better than what we’re preaching against.”
Ulysses took the dead woman’s journal from Azrael’s saddlebag and held it up. “He may have been speaking truth. Ain’t no texts in his bags but this, and if it’s a genuine holy bible you can strike me down right now.”
Azrael glimpsed someone coming over a rock atop the hill, and he dropped off the dead horse on the side opposite from it, using the horse for cover. At the same time there were several loud bangs of different guns firing. Bullets snapped through the air where Azrael had just been. Another bullet tore the journal from Ulysses’s hand, and he cursed and threw himself away from Azrael.
Azrael pulled out his guns as the revelation pilgrims spun about, looking for the shooters. The dead woman’s bible was only a dozen feet away, but the ground was kicking up all around it as one of those shooters in the rocks made sure no one tried to grab it. The others unloaded into the pilgrims something fierce, taking down the one from the spirit people right away with a shot to the head, as well as opening up several holes in the faerie. She faded away and didn’t fade back. Azrael felt that envy for her again.
He glanced around the flank of the horse and saw the nephilim from The Boneyard up there among the rocks with more of their kind, blazing down at the pilgrims and Azrael. There appeared to be as many of them as there were pilgrims. Azrael figured the odds didn’t look good for the pilgrims. But they didn’t look good for him either.
Azrael wasn’t surprised to see the nephilim again. They must have ridden hard to get here in time to ambush him and the pilgrims, but they were half-angels after all. They likely had their own little tricks. And he’d already figured they were the type who might be prone to ambushing others. It probably wasn’t the first time they’d pulled this move, given that the red earth of the narrow pass here was the same colour as the dirt that stained their clothes. And a wagon train of pilgrims with holy texts would be a hard opportunity to pass up, to say nothing of settling the score with Azrael.
Azrael knew he wouldn’t be able to retrieve the dead woman’s bible while under fire. He moved back into the pass and pulled the dead horse after him for cover as the pilgrims blasted away with the ferocity of those who were no strangers to such situations. That kept the nephilim busy enough that Azrael was able to make it around a bend in the trail, which shielded him from the shooting.
He followed the wagon tracks through another couple of twists in the pass, looking for a way out or a spot where he’d have a better chance with the nephilim. Instead, he found another surprise.
The pass opened into a valley that was maybe the length a bullet could fly before dropping to the ground. The area in front of Azrael was crowded with more wagons, the apparent source of the tracks that had led here. Some of the wagons were half-buried in the earth while others had been flipped over or burned. Busted crates littered the ground, along with debris that had obviously once been the cargo—rags and torn pieces of clothing, lengths of rope, broken casks of nails, water skins with bullet holes in them, and more of the like. The wagons had been looted likely at some leisure, given the skeletons that were scattered around, forever frozen in various states of terror, empty eye sockets gazing at unseen horrors.
The true surprise lay beyond the wagons, though. The remains of an ancient city filled the rest of the valley. Slim towers made of red stone thrust out of the earth. There were scores of them, jutting at strange angles, each one pointing a different way. Some were connected by bridges made of more red stone, while others leaned upon their neighbours like drunks in a saloon. None were high enough to reach over the hills and thus be seen from the main trail, but they had drawn the buzzards to them nevertheless. And Azrael suspected the buildings had been taller in the past. They looked to be mostly buried now, for Azrael saw no doors or walkways, only open windows, many of which had stone gargoyles perched on their ledges.
The gargoyles, which were the same red as everything else here, were monstrous creatures, all wings and fangs and talons. They stared at the surrounding hills like they were keeping watch. It was a dead city, with the remains of the dead on its doorstep.
Judith rode up hard behind Azrael just then but reined in the horse and stared at the city, smoking gun forgotten in her hand. She was followed a few seconds later by Lucy, who was driving one of the wagons. She gazed at the city as well, even though her eyes were stitched shut.
Most of the other pilgrims followed in short order. Ulysses was the last, guiding in the other wagon. Azrael saw the wagon’s bench was slick with blood.
“Looks like you sniffed out our little surprise and prepared one of your own,” Ulysses spat at Azrael, pointing his gun at him once more. Then his good eye widened as he took in the city. “Anyone else seeing this, or am I having visions again?”
“Yeah, we see it,” Judith said. “The question is what exactly in all the hells we’re looking at.”
“Those nephilim ain’t with me,” Azrael said to Ulysses. “So I suggest you point that gun back in their direction rather than mine, if you want to get out of here.”
“We took down an angel once or twice before,” Ulysses said, not moving his gun away. “So I imagine we can take down some half-angels without too much hardship.”
“You ever take down more than one angel at once?” Azrael asked. “The nephilim aren’t angels, but they ain’t mortals either. And there’s a half dozen of them, unless you managed to reduce their numbers any like they did yours. I don’t think I’d put any money down on you. Hell, I wouldn’t put any money down even when I’m added into the mix.”
From the expression on Ulysses’s face, he knew it, too, but he was one of those who just didn’t know when to quit. He wasn’t the one in charge, though.
“Stand down,” Judith said. “The angel is right. Those half-breed bastards have got us. We need to work together to get out of this predicament.”
“We’ve escaped to a good, defensible area here,” Ulysses said. “We dig in among these peculiar towers and make them come to us. That should even the odds a little.”
“That don’t seem to have worked out so well for the others that sought refuge here before us,” Azrael pointed out. “We haven’t escaped. The nephilim herded us here.”
Judith nodded. “Seems like this ain’t the first time they’ve pulled this trick. This is right where they want us.”
Ulysses stared at Azrael a few heartbeats more, then lowered his gun. “Maybe there’s a way out the other side of this city.”
“Maybe,” Azrael said. “But if there was, they probably wouldn’t have been so eager to bottle us up here.” He surveyed the city again. He would have preferred to go back and retrieve the dead woman’s bible, gunfire be damned, but that didn’t look like a viable option.
“I take it you’ve never been here before,” he said to the pilgrims. “Even though it’s right off the trail that leads to that temple of yours.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the look Judith and Ulysses gave each other.
“It’s best to journey through the badlands as quick as possible and not go exploring too much,” Judith said. “Those with a curious nature tend not to return from such explorations.”
“Maybe let’s get back to figuring out a solution to those half-breeds,” Ulysses said. “For they surely won’t leave us alone too long.”
There was the crack of gunfire again from atop the hills, and the pilgrims and Azrael all dove behind the wagons. The shooting stopped quickly, though, and one of the nephilim called down to them.
“You leave your wagons and we’ll let you walk out of here. It’s your cargo that has our interest, not you lot.”
Azrael recognized the voice right away. Enoch, the nephilim from the shop in The Boneyard.
“That ain’t going to happen,” Judith shouted back, and Azrael was glad they shared that line of thinking at least. Given what he’d seen of the nephilim so far, he didn’t want them getting their hands on any holy texts of power.
“Why don’t you go back to town and buy some of them bones from that shop instead?” Azrael called up. “Seems to me you should be able to cobble enough coins together from all these poor souls you’ve ambushed here.”
“Wish we could, but we already spent it. And we’ve used up the bones we did manage to obtain from that wretched shopkeeper. That just gave us a taste for the things that help us forget this damned world. Like maybe those bibles you’re transporting.”
“Whatever holy texts these pilgrims have aren’t going to be like those bones the miners been digging up,” Azrael said, scanning the hills. He could see the signs of all the landslides that had partially buried this city over the ages, but he couldn’t see the nephilim. “Old remains like those back in the shop just have a little smouldering spark of power left in them. Bibles, though, they’re like lightning bolts. Ain’t many that can handle them without getting destroyed. And I ain’t seen any protective wards on you like on these pilgrims.”
“Well, why should the gods and angels get all the power?” the nephilim said. “Maybe some of us want to get struck by lightning.” He laughed, but it wasn’t a joyous sound. “Hell, we’ll even let you all cast your eyes upon them holy texts before we take them off your hands.”
“You know that way lies madness,” Azrael said.
“We’re already mad, Fallen,” the nephilim said. “Or haven’t you been paying any attention? But let me show you some real madness.”
A horse burst over the top of the hill then and came charging down the hillside. Azrael brought his guns to bear on it but refrained from shooting when he saw that the horse bore no rider or even any saddle. It was panicked, eyes wide with fright, likely because of the cuts on its flanks. The nephilim must have done that to get the horse all worked up, although he wasn’t sure their intention behind it. No one followed it down the hill or came at them from some other side, so it wasn’t some mere distraction.
The horse ran past the wagons and into the ruins. Azrael saw the brand on its hindquarters—a sun, the same as he had seen on that wagon of the dead family on the way to The Boneyard. Then the horse was gone, disappearing among the towers. Just seconds later it suddenly screamed inside the ruins, a sound of terror that cut off partway through.
“It appears we’re not alone here,” Azrael said.
They didn’t have to wait long to find out who, or what, was in the ruins. Not long after the horse’s scream cut off, a man wandered out from behind one of the towers. That was, he’d been a man once, or something similar. He more closely resembled the gargoyles decorating the towers, although he lacked their wings and claws. He was long dead, his skin shrunken over his bones and leather-like from the sun. Some kind of revenant, Azrael supposed. Most of his clothing had rotted and fallen away, but he still wore a few rags. He had no gun or other weapons that Azrael could spot, but that did little to reassure. He gazed upon the pilgrims with eye sockets as empty as those of the skeletons in the ground around the wagons. Then he shuffled forward.
“Well hell,” Judith said. Then there was the fresh crack of a gun, which was in turn followed by the dead man’s head exploding. He stood swaying for a couple of seconds, then toppled over into the dirt. The pilgrim with the sawed-off demon horns lowered a smoking gun, where it crouched behind the other wagon.
Azrael turned back to the ruins in time to see a gargoyle on one of the tower ledges stand and stretch its wings. Now that it was unfolded, it looked like some sort of cross between a creature from the deepest pits of Hell and one of the earthly incarnations of angels. All claws and fangs and wings and eyes that seemed to stare into the very souls of all it looked upon.
The gargoyle threw itself off the ledge and down at the demon pilgrim as fast as an eagle hurtling out of the heavens. The pilgrim got off another shot that missed because the gargoyle was closing so fast. It grabbed the pilgrim in the long stone claws of one hand and flung itself up high into the air with a beat of its wings. It tore the gun from the pilgrim’s grasp and hurled the weapon into the wagon graveyard. Then it dug its hand into the pilgrim’s skull and ripped its head clean from the body.
The gargoyle tossed both head and body down to the ground amid the wagons in a shower of blood, then hovered overhead, sweeping its stone wings in the sky.
There were immediate cheers from the other side of the hill. The nephilim clearly approved.
“Hold your damned fire!” Azrael shouted before the pilgrims could empty their guns at the strange creature.
“That don’t seem prudent,” Judith said, but she held off anyway. The other pilgrims did likewise, though Azrael could tell they looked uneasy.
“Just give it a minute,” Azrael said. He didn’t know what the gargoyle wanted, but it wasn’t lost on him that it had only attacked when the pilgrim had shot down the dead man. He kept his gun ready, just in case he was wrong.
The gargoyle lingered above, studying them. Azrael had never seen this particular creature before, but the world was full of surprises. Eventually it banked in the sky and glided back to its perch. It moved as lightly as a flesh-and-blood bird. It settled on the ledge, tucked its wings behind its body, and then was still once more.
“Well, I’ll be even more damned,” Ulysses muttered. “It was protecting that dead man.”
“Protecting or avenging,” Azrael said. “I ain’t certain, but the end result seems the same.”
“Maybe we’ve got our own reasons for vengeance now,” Ulysses said, eyeing the demon pilgrim’s headless body.
“It didn’t do any harm until your friend shot down that revenant,” Azrael said. “So maybe it figures we’re even.”
“You feeling more inclined to hand over those bibles now?” Enoch called.
“That revenant was part of the nephilim trap,” Azrael said, to Judith and Ulysses. “They sent the horse into the ruins to rouse him. Maybe there’s others in there. We shoot the revenants, that gargoyle attacks us. Maybe all those gargoyles attack us. Then the nephilim stroll down here and pick through the mess without having to fire another shot.”
“It’s a good plan,” Judith said. “Too bad we’re on the other side of it.”
“I’m going into the ruins,” Azrael said, “to see if there’s something we can turn to our advantage.”
“There ain’t no other way out, Fallen!” Enoch yelled. “We tried exploring this city when we first came across it, and we lost a couple of our own before we even made it halfway. Those creatures are more vicious than us. We figure they were the angels or some such to these dead people. You’re walking into your own grave if you go in there.”
Azrael studied the gargoyles huddled on their ledges. He wasn’t sure if bullets would even have an effect on them. Maybe the bullets from Azrael’s guns would work, but Azrael had long ago learned there were no promises of anything in this world.
“I walked into Hell and out again,” Azrael called back. “So I think I can manage.”
“Suit yourself,” the nephilim said with a chuckle.
Judith suddenly swung her gun on Azrael. “You leave your horse, though,” she said. Her wooden hand opened and closed as if on its own.
“What do you want with a dead horse?” Azrael asked.
“Maybe you ain’t planning on coming back,” Ulysses said. “Could be you’re looking to abandon us to your kin up there.”
“We ain’t in Jerusalem’s Sorrow, near as I can tell,” Azrael said. “So my job’s not done yet.”
“Well, your stated intentions aside, I still think you’re hiding a bible somewhere,” Judith said. “If you weren’t, you’d be as desperate to get at our wagons as those half-breeds. So I figure you’ve stowed it away on that horse. If we keep it here while you go exploring, then you’ve got incentive to come back.”
“I’ll come back, and I’ll keep my word about getting your bibles to that temple,” Azrael said. “But if you want my help with the nephilim, then you leave my bible be and content yourselves with those you already have.”
Judith and Ulysses exchanged another look. Ulysses shook his head but Judith nodded, and Azrael knew she was the one who counted.
“I suppose we can make an exception for you, given the circumstances,” she said. “Now go have a reconnoiter and hurry back before we change our mind.”
Azrael took one last look down the path back to the main trail to make sure the nephilim weren’t creeping up on them even as he spoke. Then he left the dead horse where it stood and headed into the ruins.
Azrael was quickly surrounded on all sides by the city. He walked through what might once have been winding streets, the towers looming over his head as if threatening to fall upon him. He saw a couple of the gargoyles turn their heads to follow his progress. They didn’t otherwise interfere, though, so he kept his guns pointed at the ground.
He came upon the horse that had run into the ruins. It was lying dead at the base of a tower, its neck twisted in a way that clearly said it was broken. Another revenant lay on the ground near it, trying to stand but falling down over and over because its left leg was flopping like the bones had been shattered. The horse must have trampled or kicked the revenant, and then a gargoyle had punished the horse much as the other gargoyle had punished the demon pilgrim.
Azrael kept walking, around a corner and nearly running into two more of the revenants. This pair appeared to be a man and a woman. They were shuffling through the sand side by side, but they weren’t paying any attention to each other. They came at him, staring with those empty eye sockets, and he wondered what they saw.
Azrael stepped out of their path and into the shadow of a tower. The stone was cold on his back and the remnants of his wings but not uncomfortably so. He was ready with his guns, but the revenants just wandered past. Azrael wasn’t sure if they had even noticed him at all. There was one thing he was sure of, though: if he left the strange revenant inhabitants of this city alone, they left him alone in return.
He kept going in the direction he had been exploring because he didn’t know that any one path was better than the other. He walked until the street opened into a broader area, like a boulevard or field or something similar. It was surrounded by more of the towers, but a different sort of tower rose from the ground at the center. It was a structure of five spires clustered around a thicker, darker one. All of them were connected with what looked like stone spiderwebs. There were markings on the surface of the spires that had the look of words or symbols in some ancient language, but it was a language that Azrael did not know.
There were more of the revenants here, dozens of them wandering about the open area and disappearing amid the towers. As Azrael watched, the earth stirred in a patch of ground near the spires. Hands broke free and clawed at the air for a moment, then shovelled the dirt aside to reveal a woman’s head. Another of the revenants. She dug herself out the rest of the way, then joined the rest in their seemingly mindless wandering.
Azrael set out across the open space, changing his path every few dozen feet to avoid the revenants. When he reached the strange tower at the middle of the spires and a half-buried entrance in its wall, he went inside. Maybe he should have gone around the square and kept looking for another way out of the ruins, but he felt compelled to go into the tower, for some reason he couldn’t identify.
It was open inside, a great chamber that stretched high overhead and disappeared into darkness. The walls were covered in more of the strange carvings, and little ledges stuck out here and there, like random steps that led upward. There was a torch holder in the wall above each ledge, although the torches had burned away long ago. There were charred skeletons resting on some of the ledges. Azrael could tell from the way the bones lay that the bodies had been set ablaze after death. He figured their condition was the result of some sort of funeral rite.
There were dozens more of the revenants in here, most of them kneeling on the ground. Some of them were partially buried, as if they had been in the same place for decades if not centuries. A nephilim lay in their midst, skin leathery from death. It looked like every single one of the bones in her body had been broken. Enoch hadn’t been lying about losing some of their number in the city.
A slim pillar rose from the earth in the midst of all this, stretching up dozens of feet and ending in a circular platform. The revenants all stared up at it as if awaiting something. Azrael could hear the rustle of paper up there, and a low whistling sound, but he couldn’t see what was on the platform. He pulled himself up on to one of the ledges that stuck out of the wall, then jumped to the next one, which was barely within his reach, and so on, until he was high enough off the ground that he could see onto the platform.
A long stone altar occupied most of it, and a skeleton sprawled across the altar. It was lost in black robes marked with white symbols that matched those on the walls. Unlike the revenants, it was unmoving in death. An ancient leather-bound tome lay on the altar before the skeleton, the pages fluttering in a breeze Azrael couldn’t feel.
Azrael knew he was looking upon the remains of a priest or some such leader. This place was a church or temple. It wasn’t one he recognized, but there were as many religions in this world as there were grains of sand in the desert. He didn’t know why the priest wasn’t a revenant like the others, but for all he knew there were plenty of other skeletons buried in the earth that was slowly swallowing this city.
He made his way up a few more ledges until he was able to leap over to the platform that held the altar and the skeleton. The revenants below seemed oblivious, ignoring him the same way the others had outside, and the skeleton was too dead to notice.
Now that Azrael was on the platform, he could feel the breeze upon him. There was a thin crack in the opposite wall, the width of maybe two knife blades, where the wind was coming in. He listened for several seconds before he realized that the whistling sound was coming from the skeleton. The wind from outside was passing through its jaws, as if the air was its breath, and rustling the pages of that tome. On the pages, Azrael saw more of the symbols that decorated the walls and the skeleton’s robes. There were also drawings of human-like creatures that could have been the revenants, rising up from piles of the dead.
Looking at the book made him dizzy and his skin feel like it was smouldering. He had to put his hand on the altar to steady himself. So it was a real bible, with true power. It was raising the dead of this city. Maybe with the help of the skeletal priest, maybe not. It wouldn’t have been the first time a bible had done such a thing. His own bible had rituals for raising the dead, although Azrael didn’t know whether or not they would work if he himself were dead. The revelation pilgrims were right when they said holy texts lost to the world could create trouble.
Azrael flipped the book shut. His fingertips burst into flame when they touched the pages, but he was able to snuff them out. Handling the bibles of others was dangerous, even for an angel. At least his dizziness had passed now that the bible was closed, and his skin no longer felt like his whole body was going to catch fire.
He checked the revenants again, but they didn’t react to him closing the book, which suited him fine. He didn’t know if he had enough bullets to take them all down, and he didn’t want to stir up the gargoyles again.
He took a minute to study the closed book. There was an illustration of a fire on the cover, the smoke rising to form wings overhead. He looked out the window the next time the wind came through the crack in the wall. Nothing rose from the ground then that he could see, even though the skull made the same whistling sound as before. Azrael stood there for a few more minutes, watching nothing at all happen outside before he was satisfied he had stopped the dead from rising.
Azrael considered the body of the priest. Then he stretched it out on the altar in the same pose of rest as the burned skeletons on the ledges. He slid a finger between the pages of the bible, his flesh immediately lighting up again, and gritted his teeth against the pain as he touched his burning finger to the priest’s robes. The fabric caught within seconds, and the smoke rose up to the unseen heights of the tower overhead. Azrael extinguished the flames on his flesh once more, then picked up the book, careful to only touch the cover and keep his hand clear of the pages inside. His fingers did not catch fire again. He tucked the bible into his shirt, for it was going to need safekeeping.
That was when the shots rang out from the direction of the wagons.
Azrael descended back to the ground and ran out of the tower. He retraced his path through the ruins as fast as he could, but he was not as fast as the dozens of gargoyles that launched themselves from the spires all around and flew toward the wagons. There were more shots, and then screams. Both ended quickly.
Azrael dodged around more of the wandering revenants, but they didn’t pay him any more attention than they had before. Azrael didn’t pay them much mind himself. He knew now they were no threat. These dead were just an accident, like so much of this world.
Azrael stopped at one of the last towers before the wagons and snuck a glance around it, in time to see Lucy fall out of the sky, bloodied and broken. A gargoyle hovered overhead. More lifted off from the wagons to fly back to their towers, leaving behind dead pilgrims scattered across the field of broken wagons and bodies showing the marks of stone claw and fang upon mere flesh.
One of the pilgrims’ wagons had been turned on its side, and Judith lay pinned underneath. The other had a hole ripped in its cover from above, where a gargoyle had no doubt ventured in after some pilgrim trying to hide. The horses were all shot down and dead. Blood was splashed everywhere, the scent of it mingling in the air with gunsmoke. A number of revenants littered the ground as well, skulls punched open by well-placed shots. Only Ulysses was unharmed, crouched behind the wagon that had been flipped on its side, trying to lift it off Judith, glancing back and forth between the sky and the surrounding hills.
The nephilim came over the top of those hills now, guns in hand but sauntering down the slopes as if they knew they had nothing to worry about. It didn’t look like the pilgrims had reduced their number any. They closed in on the wagons and the dead horse. There was no way Azrael could escape.
He reckoned what had happened from the way the bodies lay on the ground. The nephilim had managed to round up some revenants and drive them toward the wagons, much like they had herded Azrael and the pilgrims in here. The pilgrims had clearly panicked and shot them down, and now Azrael was looking at the result of that misstep.
Ulysses stopped trying to help Judith and readied his gun as the nephilim neared. The gargoyles had let him be, so Azrael figured he must have had the discipline to stop himself from shooting any of the revenants. There wasn’t any way a lone man was going to prevail against the nephilim on his own. But he wasn’t alone.
Azrael grabbed a couple of revenants wandering past him and pushed them toward the wagons. They stumbled a bit but went in the direction he wanted, and Azrael followed close behind. The gargoyles on the towers eyed him but didn’t leave their windows and ledges, so Azrael figured he was all right as long as he didn’t shoot or otherwise harm the revenants.
The nephilim were just starting to encircle the wagons when they saw Azrael coming. He shot the one in back first. The bullet through her head made her hair dance like flames as she fell.
The others all aimed their guns at Azrael now, but they hesitated, given that he was hiding behind the revenants. They realized they had strolled into their own trap.
Azrael gunned down another, a man in a black mourning dress with bandoliers strapped across his chest. By that point he’d drawn close enough to the dead horse that he could make a break for it. He could maybe retreat into the city and keep searching for some other path out of this predicament. But he needed to find a way back to the main trail and the dead woman’s bible.
“Hold up!” Enoch cried, moving his gun away from Azrael and up at the sky. “Just get on your damned horse and ride on out of here, and we’ll call it square.”
Ulysses looked up from the wagon, where he was still caught between helping Judith or going down with guns blazing. The expression on his face said he expected Azrael to do just what the nephilim had said.
Azrael pulled the revenants in front of him to a stop. “You kill that family back on the road before The Boneyard?” he called.
Enoch frowned, as if not understanding the question. “We’ve killed a lot of people, as I imagine is obvious to all. Truth be told, they all blend together in my memory. I expect the same can be said for you.”
“They had a brand on their wagon,” Azrael said. “A sun. Maybe rising, maybe setting. The same as on that horse you drove into the city.”
Enoch glanced at the ruins. “What’s any of that got to do with you riding on out of here and saving us a bunch of bullets?” he asked.
“Somebody who’d be willing to slaughter a family of innocent travellers like that would likely do much worse when they had the power of bibles at their fingertips,” Azrael said. He stayed close behind the revenants so the nephilim wouldn’t have much of a shot at him. “Who knows what someone like that would be capable of?”
“What do you care?” Enoch said. “You see something about this world worth saving?”
“Let’s just say I aim to not make things any worse,” Azrael said.
“And how you intend to do that, Fallen?”
Azrael heard rocks crunching under boots to his right and knew they were trying to flank him. He poked his gun around the side of the revenant and fired a shot that way. He was rewarded with a cry and the sounds of a body thumping to the ground. He quickly fired a shot to his left as well, and was answered with a grunt of pain and a curse.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to do what’s right,” Azrael said. “Even if you don’t want to.” He shoved his Hell gun in between the revenants and fired another shot that took Enoch in the shoulder.
“God damn you, like the rest of us!” Enoch cried, clutching at his wound.
The other nephilim were fanning out to the sides now, to get an angle on Azrael. But still they hesitated at pulling the trigger. They knew they were caught in a predicament. If they missed and hit one of the revenants, or if Azrael shoved one of the revenants into the way of a shot, they would be undone.
Enoch swung his gun back toward Azrael with a snarl, so Azrael shot him once more. He could have ended Enoch there and then, but he didn’t. Instead, he shot him in the leg. Enoch cursed again but was tough enough that he didn’t go down.
“I’m going to cut you into pieces,” Azrael said. “Just like you did that family in the badlands.”
Azrael ducked back behind the revenants. Then he waited. If the nephilim kept their calm, they’d eventually be able to flank him and finish him. If they didn’t, he’d have a chance.
He didn’t have to wait long.
“To hell with it,” Enoch muttered. Azrael could hear the resignation in his voice. It said he knew he was leaving the world, one way or another. “To hell with all of us.”
Azrael leaned to the left, exposing his side a little to make himself a target, then pulled back just as quickly. A shot cracked out as one of the nephilim finally broke, and a bullet tore through the revenant on the left, scoring Azrael’s arm. The pain was something fierce, like he’d been lit on fire there.
Then the rest of them all opened up, as if that had been the excuse they had been waiting for. Bullets ripped holes in the revenants, and the one on the left sagged to the ground until Azrael caught it under the arms. He held it close and fired back, placing his shots carefully. He dropped a nephilim running at him from the right side, then spotted one crawling up on him to the left and hammered him even deeper into the earth. The nephilim blasted away at him in turn, but their shots found only the revenants. The bullets blew away most of the head of the one he was holding up and took out the other one’s knees, so that it fell face first to the ground and left Azrael exposed. He shot down the one in the suit jacket from back at The Boneyard as she tried to find cover behind one of the wagons, and then his gun was empty. He was out of time.
That was when the gargoyles fell from the sky again. They dug their claws into the remaining nephilim and lifted them up into the air, tearing at them and rending their flesh. All except Enoch. He stood there untouched, pointing his gun at Azrael, and Azrael realized Enoch was the only one who hadn’t shot the revenants. Now he had a clear shot at Azrael.
“You ain’t no different from us,” Enoch said.
“Maybe not, but I’m trying,” Azrael said.
Enoch’s first shot blew the Hell gun out of Azrael’s hand. His second shot took Azrael in the left shoulder, and Azrael’s arm instantly went numb. The impact was enough to knock the bible from the ruins free of his shirt. It dropped to the ground.
Enoch’s gaze fell on the book, and he pulled the trigger again without looking back at Azrael. But Azrael saw what was coming and had already shoved the other revenant in front of him. Enoch’s third shot slammed into the revenant instead of Azrael’s leg.
The gargoyles fell from the sky once more. Enoch dropped his gun and lunged for the fallen bible, scooping it up and opening it like he was searching for something to save him. His hands burst into flame, and more flames erupted from his eyes as he stared down at its pages. He was a nephilim, not a full angel, and Azrael knew he did not have the constitution to look upon such a dangerous holy text.
But Enoch did seem distressed or even in suffering as the flesh around his burning eyes began to turn to ash.
“Oh, I see,” he said. “I finally see!” And his voice sounded full of wonder.
Then the gargoyles swarmed him and lifted him into the sky, where they tore him apart. Blood rained down on the parched land, followed by flaming bits of flesh and then the strange bible, landing with a heavy thump.
Azrael kneeled down to retrieve the bible and shove it into his shirt once more. He cracked open the cylinder of his Hell gun and reloaded it on the ground with one hand, because his left arm was still dead.
Dozens of the gargoyles circled over him, as if studying him. He wasn’t sure about their aims other than to protect or at least avenge the revenants. He’d been careful not to harm any of the revenants himself, and he was counting on that meaning something. There was no denying that he’d put the last two in harm’s way by using them as cover. But he hadn’t pulled the trigger on any of the shots that had struck them.
He was somewhat relieved when the gargoyles broke off and returned to the towers. A few circled higher in the sky, as if keeping watch, but that was all right with him.
Ulysses pulled again at the wagon pinning Judith, then shook his head and waved over Azrael to help.
“Them damn half-breeds sent the dead down on us in a wave,” he said, confirming Azrael’s read of the situation. “I knew better than to shoot them, but the others figured they had no choice. Hell of a trap.”
Azrael holstered the Hell gun and stepped closer, eyeing the lay of the wagon to figure out which corner he should put his shoulder against to lift it off Judith. So he had no time to react when Ulysses drew his gun and shot him.
Ulysses had suckered him as smoothly as the nephilim had the pilgrims. The shot punched him in the chest, knocking the wind out of him, and he fell back onto the ground. He tried to scramble away, but Ulysses stepped closer and aimed at Azrael’s head. Azrael knew he would never be able to bring his guns to bear in time, so he didn’t even try.
“There ain’t no living soul that can save you now,” Ulysses said.
A shadow fell upon Ulysses then, and he looked up in time to see a gargoyle descend from the sky and grab hold of him. It lifted him up into the air before he could get off another shot, ripping the gun from his grasp.
“Aww, hell no,” Ulysses said, and then he didn’t make any other sounds, not even a scream.
Azrael dug under his shirt and found that Ulysses’s bullet had struck the bible. There was a smoking hole in the front cover where the bullet had entered, but there was no exit hole. The bullet had gotten stuck in the strange pages, saving Azrael.
“I thought you were done with bibles,” Judith said from underneath the wagon. There was blood in her eyes, so much that Azrael knew at a glance that she was dying.
“Yeah, but bibles never seem to be done with me,” Azrael said.
“Amen,” Judith muttered.
Azrael sat down beside her and held her hand—her wooden hand, because the other one was pinned underneath the wagon. He knew now there was no point in lifting the wagon off her.
He didn’t know why the gargoyles had helped him with Ulysses like that. Maybe they were protecting the bible. Maybe there was something about Azrael they liked. Maybe it was because he’d finally laid that priest to rest after who knew how long. He would probably never know. Hell, maybe they were like him and they just couldn’t help themselves from getting involved.
“Where’s your temple?” he asked Judith. “I’ll complete my end of our agreement.”
Judith laughed and blood flowed out over her lips. “You’re looking at it,” she said.
“I ain’t following,” Azrael said. All that was around them was the dead.
“There wasn’t ever any temple,” she said. “We made it up so we could get you out here.”
“So there ain’t nothing in Jerusalem’s Sorrow for you,” Azrael said. Somehow he wasn’t surprised.
“Don’t even know where that is,” Judith muttered. “We saw you go in that shop back in The Boneyard and listened outside. Heard you say you were travelling there. We figured if we could get you on the trail alone, we could get your bible. So we told you we were going there.”
“That’s why you didn’t know about this dead city then,” Azrael said. “And why you had so much trouble with the trail. You’ve never been this way before. You even have a temple?”
“Ain’t nothing in the world secure enough to house all these holy texts,” Judith said. “Temple or otherwise. We carry them with us wherever we go, and we stay on the move so others can’t find them. Don’t know who’s going to keep them safe after today.”
Azrael saw that the sky was empty of gargoyles now. They’d all returned to the towers. There were only the two buzzards circling up there. When he looked back at Judith, she was still.
Azrael let go of her hand and got to his feet, in the blood-soaked field of the dead. The wagon that lay atop Judith was full of supplies that had spilled out of barrels and crates when the wagon had been turned on its side—canned and dried food, water skins, tools of various sorts, extra wheels and the like. It was all of value, but not to him.
He went over to the other wagon. The inside was filled with jumbled crates that had fresh blood stains all over them. Azrael pulled one closer and pried it open. The crate held an assortment of books bound in leather, each locked with heavy chains. One of the dead pilgrims outside probably had the key, but Azrael didn’t bother looking. He didn’t need to open them— he knew real bibles when he saw them. He didn’t want to open them either. If the rest of the crates all held holy texts as well, then there had to be hundreds of bibles and the like in this wagon.
Azrael got a shovel from the first wagon and dug a long trench in the ground. He only had one good arm, but he’d had a lot of practice at digging graves. He laid the pilgrims in it one after another, even fetching the ones that had been killed back at the main trail. He took the corpses from the past ambushes and put them in the grave as well. He added the crates of holy texts and the bible from the tower. Then he shovelled the earth over the trench.
He dug a separate grave for the nephilim, far from the first one. He didn’t want them too close to the bibles, even in death.
The sun was setting by the time Azrael was done. He was weary and he wanted to rest, but it wasn’t time for that yet. He went over to the dead horse, which was splattered with blood but otherwise unaffected by all the misfortune and madness of the day. He took the whiskey bottle out of the saddlebag. A bullet had penetrated the bag and taken the top off the bottle, but it was still half full of whiskey. Azrael took a drink from the jagged broken neck, then returned the bottle to the saddlebag.
He reached inside the dead horse, feeling around in its rotted innards until he found his own bible where he had left it, tied to the horse’s rib bones. Many people had tried to make his possessions their own over the years, but no one had ever thought to look inside the dead horse. Azrael undid the knots and pulled his bible out, wiping it clean with his sleeve, then faced the ancient city.
His bible did not burn him or make him feel dizzy like the other bible. Instead, it made him feel whole inside, like it filled the absence he suddenly realized had been there all along. He flipped through it, and with each turn of the page a dust devil sprang up nearby and swirled away. He found the section he wanted and began to read aloud the words written there. They faded from the page even as he read them, but that was all right. This needed to be done.
The revenants at the edge of the city paused in their wandering and stared at him as he spoke. The earth all around them spun in more dust devils, each a small sandstorm that surrounded one revenant. The gargoyles watched intently from their windows and ledges but did not take flight.
Azrael said the last of the words, and the page was blank now. At the same time, the sandstorms all froze in mid-air, then fell back to the earth. The revenants fell with them and were still.
Azrael stood there for a moment longer, waiting to see what would happen.
The dead did not rise again. The gargoyles did not take flight to attack him. Instead, they started to come apart. Their stone flesh cracked and crumbled, chunks falling away and disintegrating into no more than powder in the air, which drifted down the towers and to the ground below.
Azrael didn’t know why this was happening to the gargoyles, as it hadn’t been part of his ritual. Maybe now that the dead of the city were finally truly dead, the gargoyles no longer had to watch over them and could rest themselves. Azrael envied them that.
They kept dissolving into dust until there was nothing of them left. There was only the dead city and the dead people on the ground. And Azrael and the dead horse, surveying it all.
Azrael secured his bible back inside the dead horse and led it out of the valley and back to the main trail, kicking dirt over his tracks as he went. He didn’t want anyone else wandering down that path to discover the ruins and all those holy texts.
The dead woman’s bible still lay on the main trail where Ulysses had dropped it. Azrael took the bloody page from his shirt pocket and slipped it inside the bible, where it belonged, and put the book in the saddlebag again. Then he pulled himself up onto the dead horse and rode on without a backward glance. He was going to find the dead woman’s daughter, wherever she was, and give her the bible, just like he’d promised.
And then? Well, he didn’t know what would happen then. Maybe he’d finally get lost and find some peace. Maybe.
So the angel Azrael rode the dead horse down a path toward the unknown, followed by a couple of buzzards in the empty sky and, as always, leaving a trail of ruin behind him.