“God Thing” by Julia August
The Last God’s angel met them in the ruins of Sepharvain.
It was Rob who first caught the ashen flash of the angel’s hair, because the goddess was surveying the soot-streaked walls and rubble and fractured streets in growing outrage. Her anger infused Rob’s stomach with acid. He picked his way through the wreckage of what must have been towers before some giant sheared off their tops like poppy heads. Granite lay in shattered pieces across the broken road. Everywhere, Rob knew, there had been glass and gardens. On the journey south from the Last God’s temple, he had passed through cities greater than anything he had ever seen. Sepharvain had been greater than any of them. The goddess had shown him something of what to expect.
It was a long way to come to find ruins. But ruins like these were worth seeing too.
The angel leaned against a miraculously intact altar just inside the city walls. An angry impulse propelled Rob forward.
“What happened?” the goddess said through Rob’s mouth. Rob would have spoken for himself, because he was delighted to see Jael, who could certainly explain whatever disaster had taken place here, but the goddess burning behind his eyes was too busy turning his head from side to side to take it all in. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Didn’t you know?” Jael said. “It happened last winter. Anyone could have told you.”
“I spent years looking for these cities. I remembered you telling me about them. I remembered everything!”
She was more than angry; she was indignant. It was a new emotion, as far as Rob was concerned, and he took the opportunity to examine it fully, since he was evidently excluded from this particular conversation. The eerie sensation of being in the wrong body rippled over him, as happened sometimes when the goddess took control.
“You could have come here any time you liked,” Jael said. “All you had to do was ask.”
In Rob’s head, the goddess set her teeth. “She didn’t want to,” Rob said, finding himself unexpectedly free to speak. He moved a few steps, looking around curiously. The city stretched out as far as he could see, a smoking wreck of broken doors and yawning walls. Sepharvain seemed utterly desolate.
“What did happen?” he added, knowing the goddess wanted to know, and also that she would not ask. His body felt normal again: his hips, his chest, his own icy hands. He rubbed the latter together to be sure. “Here, I mean. Was it an earthquake?”
“Among other things,” the angel said distantly. He looked at Rob under his brows in a way that said he knew exactly who he was talking to, and also that Rob was very much the junior of the two. “Ask Ann about the things she did while she was looking for these cities. And what would have happened if she’d met someone like her who stood in her way.”
The goddess would have glowered, if she’d been there in person. “Oh,” Rob said, glancing around again with a sense of foreboding. He tested a loose paving slab and wondered if he heard the shaken foundations of the city grumbling. Perhaps it was the goddess who heard it, and he only caught the echoes. “I thought this country was ruled by mages. I thought they’d be invincible.”
“Not against each other. There was a war.”
That put all the melted edges into a new perspective. “Were all their cities destroyed?”
“Not all. But since you’re here, you might do me a favor.”
“I left something here a long time ago,” the angel said. “Find it for me. I’m looking for a body.”
Rob had grown accustomed to the way the Last God’s angel came and went, which in any case was not so very different from how the goddess’ presence in Rob’s head waxed and waned depending on how interested she was in what he was doing. He strolled down the broader of the two great avenues, peering into windows and through the open doors. Looters had long since been and gone, leaving only bones behind them.
“Is it wrong to take things?” Rob asked. The afternoon sun beat down on the back of his neck, a pleasant reminder that he was alive and should cover his head if he didn’t want to deal with sunstroke. “No one here needs anything anymore.”
He usually spoke to the goddess out loud, if no one else was there. It made it easier to distinguish between her voice and his; besides, it was better than talking to no one. She expressed indifference on the topic. “You wouldn’t be like that if I was back in the Isles,” Rob said. “How are things there, by the way?”
Busy, the goddess said. It’s harvest time.
Rob experienced a fleeting vision of that sleepy sandstone town on the other side of the world where he had grown up, seen from a very familiar vantage point on a vine-covered hillside. He wasn’t sure whether it was a memory or a gift from the goddess. “Rather them than me,” he said. “Will it be a good vintage?”
The best, the goddess said. No thanks to you.
“Well, no. Obviously.”
The avenue had been lined with ornamental trees of an unfamiliar variety. Rob ducked into the shade, mostly just to run his palms over the peeling bark and look, without much hope, to see if there was any life left in the withered leaves and branches. A little, he decided. The problem was in the soil. It crumbled between his fingers, dry as dust, the same dust sifting through the sunny, lifeless city. The ground itself had been irradiated. Mages, Rob thought, with another flicker of unease. They had built this city and lived in it and now they had destroyed it. They were not coming back.
There wasn’t much point in trying to revive the trees. They wouldn’t last. Rob let go with some regret.
You weren’t so fond of plants in Twoford, the goddess remarked.
Rob plucked at a stem, which snapped. “Your vines, you mean,” he said, remembering his stone seat above the Twoford vineyard. He remembered, too, the steady trickle of the goddess’ power flowing through him, and the joyous responsiveness of the Twoford vines, spreading their great glossy leaves to the pale northern sky.
It had been one of the better bits of being dead.
He let the leaf fall and went back out into the sun. He was starting to feel in need of a drink, which could be a problem, because he was not sure at all that it would be wise to drink the water here. He was getting hungry too. There were some downsides to being alive.
You’re in a good mood, said the goddess, who wasn’t.
Rob shrugged. “It’s a nice day,” he said, rather than telling her that he had no particular investment in whether her fabulous cities were still standing and that he was perfectly happy to poke around a fallen city instead. She knew that already.
The bitter aftertaste of her disappointment gave a delicious frisson to every breath Rob took, which only increased his good humor and her irritation. “What’s this body His Angelicity wants us to find?” he said. “Do you know? Why does he need me to do it?”
The goddess’ silence told him she had an idea, but was not going to share it. Rob laughed and looked around. Empty streets branched off in all directions. “As long as you really will know it when I see it,” he said. Perhaps the angel was playing games with the goddess. It was the sort of thing Rob thought they might do. “Do you know how far it is to this tower His Most Serene Sanctity mentioned? Should I run his errand now?”
No. He meant the Tower, not a tower. You won’t have time to search it today.
“How long will I need? Hours? Days? What do you mean, ‘the Tower’?”
Weeks. It’s where the mages lived. There will be a lot of magic there.
Rob kicked half a cup down the cobbles. “Oh good,” he said. “You’ll enjoy that.”
He hadn’t had so much of her attention, or for such a sustained period, since his departure from Temple Vale in the spring. He hadn’t realized he would miss her. For that matter, he hadn’t realized he had missed her. But now he knew that she would answer him, or would at least refuse to answer him rather than just not notice him at all, he found it hard not to chatter. He knew what language he was speaking, for one thing. He was still getting used to filtering everything he heard and said through the goddess’ voice.
He had spent seven months riding, walking and hitching lifts on passing carts and wagons on the long journey south from the mountains. He didn’t know how many countries he had passed through and he had lost count of the towns, but the implacable impulse in the back of his head had driven him onwards every time someone had invited him to stay. He didn’t actually mind, though, because he was burning to see this whole wide world the unexpected gift of the sea had opened up to him. He was so far from the Isles no one could have counted it in miles and he never, ever, wanted to go home.
They miss you, said the goddess of the Isles. Sometimes they ask about you.
“Screw them,” Rob said amicably. “They put me on that seat. And you kept me there.”
Of course. Someone had to make the grapes grow.
Rob laughed at her. “You know what?” he said. “I hope I never see a grape again. And I like grapes.”
He swung his bag at a pane of glass, which failed to break. Enchanted, probably. Anyway, the door was open. The sign swinging overhead suggested the place had been a grocer’s shop, although the goddess translated speech better than writing. A couple of split sacks spilled flour across a storeroom floor beside a barrel, still untapped, that might contain wine.
“I’m going to do some looting, since you don’t care what happens here.”
The goddess preserved her silence, and also her disapproval. It was an absentminded disapproval that suggested she was engaged with someone elsewhere, however, and Rob almost suggested burning the place down just to recover her attention. Then he went up the stairs at the back and discovered a deserted home where children must have lived once, their dolls still scattered in porcelain fragments over the naked floorboards, and laughed at himself instead.
One of the dolls was still intact. Rob propped her up in a chair, folding her hands in her blue satin lap. “I wonder who owned you,” he said. “I wonder what she called you.”
The doll’s painted head slipped to one side. “I hope she got away,” Rob said.
There was no firewood in the shop, but no one was using the empty shelves, so Rob broke one up and built a fire on the dusty grate. “Lady?” he said, and only silence answered him, so he braced himself and reached deep into the place where the goddess’ power lived. A few sparks drifted into the fireplace, hovered momentarily, then burst into flame. Rob sat back on his heels, breathing fast. Fire made his chest seize up, even now. Working with soil and green things was much better. The aftertaste was sweeter too.
He wiped the sweat from his face. He couldn’t help remembering how it had been before the sea had snatched him from the Isles and thrown him up, alive, onto an icy shore in the path of pilgrims travelling to Temple Vale. He had moved and spoken and acted entirely at the goddess’ command, and when she had no commands he had sat on the stone seat above the vineyard like a discarded doll, able to move only his eyes and tongue. But her power had flowed painlessly through him. It was an advantage, if not one it was worth being dead to have.
He lay down to sleep, which was nothing like death. In his dreams, he was back in the Isles. He was talking about vines, about the harvest, about the wine and the weather and the departed prince’s progress, and he was sure it was really the goddess speaking. She let Rob listen over her shoulder. “I have work to do, you know,” she said, and Rob rubbed his eyes and said, Of course. Someone has to make the grapes grow.
“Quite,” said the goddess. “Among other things.”
Is this your tower? he asked. He remembered it uneasily: the halls, the silent staircases, the bodies and the bones. He tried to work out whether he was looking out of the goddess’ mirror. When he concentrated, he could almost see her hair flickering pale on the edge of his vision. Did you open it up after I left?
“No,” said the goddess, after a pause. “I closed it. Go back to sleep.”
She flicked her fingers at Rob and he tumbled away, the dark spinning up around him, and sat up, wide awake, on the grocer’s bed. “Dadda,” he heard a little voice saying. “Dadda, there’s someone down there. Dadda, wake up, someone’s trying to get in.”
He rolled off the bed, his heart hammering wildly, and slammed up against the wall. It was a clear child’s voice, it was in the room with Rob, and as his head cleared and his eyes adjusted, he made out two golden pinpricks of light glowing in the chair. He stared at the doll in disbelief. “Dadda,” she said insistently. “Dadda, it’s dangerous.”
It’s enchanted, said the goddess in his head. It’s a warning.
Rob shuddered all over and rose slowly. “Of course she is,” he muttered, edging toward the door. “Of course she’s enchanted. Of course she adopted me. I hope I meet her owner sometime soon. I’m sure she’d like her back.”
He managed to slide open the bedroom door with the absolute minimum of creaking. The doll was right: someone, or something, was in the shop below. He heard footsteps padding toward the stairs. What do I do? he demanded. Do you think the doll’s right? Are they dangerous?
Probably, the goddess said. Kill them.
Rob straightened up so fast he hit the doorframe. “Are you serious? I can’t do that!”
The noise from below cut off abruptly. Rob rubbed the back of his head and shut his eyes. What are you thinking? he asked the goddess, with considerable indignation. I can’t kill them! I don’t know the first thing about killing people! How do you even think I could do it?
You have a knife, don’t you?
For food! It’s blunt! It barely cuts rope!
A confused rush of images flickered before Rob’s eyes, as if the goddess was fanning out his options like a hand of cards. He received an impression of stolen breath, of bodies withering and crumbling, of death wearing a hundred different faces, none of which were bloody. Perhaps that’s true, she conceded. You might have trouble.
That’s what I said! Besides, what do you want me to kill them for? They haven’t done anything to me. They probably didn’t even know I was here.
If you kill them, they won’t be able to do anything to you, the goddess said. It often saves time and effort.
“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Rob said out loud. Another outbreak of surreptitious scuffling told him the intruder was still down there. “You can’t just kill people because they might do something! You wouldn’t let that happen in the Isles.”
You left my Isles. I don’t care what happens here. You’re my only shrine on this side of the world and I need you to stay alive.
I don’t remember you having any qualms on that front before.
I’m not sure I could bring you back from here. Besides, you were quite difficult about being dead. She might have frowned. Actually, there is something you could do. I don’t have to use your body. You could put me in theirs.
Rob caught his breath. Remembering death was easy: what was hard to remember was the blessed silence of an empty head, or what his life had been like before the people of Twoford had given him to the goddess. He had put all that behind him. Forgotten, like a dream of far away and long ago.
She was waiting. “No,” Rob said, his voice coming back more strongly than he intended. “This is stupid. I’m not killing anyone and I’m not giving you away. I’m just not.”
He needed her, anyway. Without her, he had no way to understand anything anyone here said. He ground his palms together, focusing on the sensation of sweat and heat.
His chest tightened, more in discomfort than pain. Light was easier than fire. Already a violet glow leaked out between his clenched hands.
The goddess’ disapproval followed him down the stairs. He went down with one hand on the bannister and the other against the wall, feeling his way in the dark. “Hello?”
The word left his mouth in an odd shape that told him he was speaking the universal language of gods and the dead. He crept towards the front room, where the overturned shelves were lightly lapped in moonlight. The door, which Rob had bolted, was shut; the shutters hung open.
“Is someone there?” he said. “Look, I don’t want to hurt you and I really don’t want you to hurt me—”
Someone swung at him from behind. Rob yelped and jumped sideways. “Hey!”
His assailant fell back. In the mingled gray and violet light, Rob gained a confused impression of startled eyes, a short, stocky form, a cap of uncombed hair and a raised length of wood, probably seized from the heap Rob had broken up to burn. Rob backed away, holding up his hands protectively.
“Really, I mean it. Please don’t try to hurt me.”
The girl lowered the stick, not all the way to the floor. “You’re a mage? What are you doing here?”
“No! No, I’m not a mage.”
The girl looked disbelieving. Rob folded his hands together, closing off the light. “I just wanted to get your attention,” he said. “Honestly, I’m not a mage. I’m a priest.”
The girl’s name was Lettie.
“Let me get my things,” Rob said, and hurried upstairs to snatch his bag before either of them could think better of this. The doll’s golden eyes stared accusingly from the chair. Take it, the goddess said. I want a closer look at those spells.
Rob swept the doll into his bag with a muttered apology. He would have taken her anyway, because he knew what it was like to be left alone in the dark.
Down in the shop, Lettie was hopping impatiently from foot to foot. “We can go out the door,” Rob said, wrestling with the bolts, and saw Lettie flinch. “Too loud? Is it dangerous out there? I haven’t seen anything.”
“How long have you been here? Keep it down!”
She led Rob through the midnight streets. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing to worry about, but Lettie darted between the shadows as if they might meet monsters at any moment. He wasn’t going to be able to retrace their path in daylight. Lettie slithered between two largely intact walls and up some winding steps, and he had to wonder if her intricate route was deliberate. At the top, the girl attacked a nondescript door with a rhythmic sequence Rob tried, and failed, to commit to memory. It jerked open.
“Look what I found,” Lettie announced, pulling Rob inside. “He talks to himself and he doesn’t know anything, but he’s better than a puppy. He bounces. Can we keep him?”
Rob stood there blinking and trying not to yawn. The room was square and dim and warm, a gloomy parlor crowded with floral armchairs and flocked wallpaper, lit by a couple of haphazardly placed lamps and the glowing hearth. On the carpet before the fire, the alabaster fingers of a statuette poked out of a bundle of rags. Other cloth-wrapped bundles had been piled on the furniture. They’re not just looters, said the goddess, with a hint of something dangerously close to anger. They’re stripping the city.
“Is that Lettie back yet?” a woman called from above. “Did something happen?”
You don’t care what happens outside the Isles, Rob reminded the goddess. He smiled as disarmingly as possible at the thickset man who had opened the door, and who had presumably been bundling up looted items before that. “Lettie said you were having trouble getting around the Tower,” he said. “I thought maybe I could help.”
“Did she,” said the man, in a tone that suggested he would be having a word with Lettie about that. Like Lettie, he was short, stocky, and had probably had the same brown hair once, although half of his tufts were gray and the other half had gone, leaving only his salt and pepper eyebrows to bristle for him. He looked Rob up and down. “Did you?”
“He says he’s not a mage,” Lettie said. “He can do magic, though.”
“How does that work, then?”
“It’s a god thing,” Rob said. “Don’t worry about how. But I can break enchantments. That’s your problem, isn’t it?”
The man’s expression did not get any warmer. “Maybe you’d like to find our guest a room, Lettie,” he said, without removing his eyes from Rob. “It’s late. He’ll want to rest. And then maybe you could get your mother and her brothers down here. All right?”
The message was unmistakable. Rob let himself be shuffled off into a depressing cupboard of a room with a gloomy cot and an ivy-covered window. Lettie left him the lantern she had used to light her way through the streets, a clever thing with one opening and a sliding panel to control how much light it emitted. He heard Lettie lock the door on him before she went away.
“Can’t blame them,” he said to the doll, which had fallen into a froth of celestial satin in his bag. Her eyes had ceased to glow. “But listen out anyway, won’t you? Do you have a name?”
The doll did not reply. It’s just a thing, the goddess said. It’s just the sort of thing these thieves are looking for. You can’t trust them. And you don’t need them.
“Well, I might, mightn’t I? You don’t know what’s in this Tower. I certainly don’t.”
He could hear a heated conversation going on down below, although it was hard to make out any of the words. Rob flung himself onto the bed with a buoyant certainty that things were going his way. He dismissed a niggling reminder of how quick the goddess had been to suggest switching bodies. “Anyway, it’s better than running into them there, isn’t it?” he added. “Do you think there are more people like them out there?”
Probably, said the goddess, with that same undercurrent of oddly personal anger. Death attracts scavengers.
“You should know,” Rob said. “Goodnight.”
Rob was never wholly sure how many people occupied Lettie’s house. He met her parents and one of her uncles, but there must have been other people there too, because he heard doors banging and floorboards creaking as Lettie’s father Jocelin toasted stale bread over the fire in the front room and explained that the Tower had been sealed off after the war, but he and his brothers-in-law had dug a tunnel to get in.
“The Council took the important things and left the rest,” he said. “There’s plenty there for us. If we can get at it. What was it you were looking for?”
“A body,” Rob said, seconds before the goddess said, Say books.
Jocelin’s eyebrows bristled harder. Why books? Rob asked the goddess.
They might have believed that, the goddess said. Well, go on. Explain what you want a body for.
Judging from the glances going around the room, she had a point. “It’s a god thing,” Rob said hastily. “Relics. Sacred relics. But nothing valuable, just a body. Probably. The goddess likes that sort of thing. My goddess, I mean. If you help me find it, I’ll see what I can do about the other enchantments.” He consulted the goddess briefly. “There’s probably a place where the Sevenths were buried. It’s probably there. Do you know where that would be?”
Who were the Sevenths? he asked the goddess, while Jocelin and his confrères conferred. Why were they buried in the Tower?
The Council of Seven ruled this country, the goddess said. There was a Seventh in each of the six cities and the Seventh-Envoy had the casting vote. Any one of them could have stood against me on equal terms.
And they fought each other? Rob shuddered. No wonder this happened.
A volcanic throat-clearing announced the conclusion of Jocelin’s conference. “There’s a place it could be,” he told Rob. “But it’s pretty well sealed up. Looks like it’s one of the areas the Council dealt with before they left. So you’ll be able to show us what you can do, young master Not-A-Mage, It’s-A-God-Thing. Right?”
“Looking forward to it,” said Rob, trying out another disarming smile. It had about as much effect as the last one, which was to say none whatsoever, although Lettie nodded encouragingly behind her father’s back. She looked about fifteen in daylight, a round-faced girl in practical clothes with freckles and her mother’s endearing owlish eyes. He gave her the end of his smile and was warmed by the reflection that it was not the goddess gazing back. “Is the Tower far?”
The Tower took up at least a quarter of the city. Despite everything the goddess had said, Rob was amazed. He stood in the churned-up middle of what had been a square and tried to imagine how it would have looked when the gate was shut and all the towers were standing. There was glass and rubble everywhere, except in the gaps where the Tower wall had been breached, for a reason that was obvious to anyone with the goddess’ eyes.
What must be the seal of the Council of Seven was emblazoned across the invisible barrier. Its seven interlocked rings blocked most of the gateway. Do not enter. The Council forbids entry to unauthorized persons.
“Rob!” Lettie called. When Rob turned back, he saw the girl waving from the ruins of a house. He hurried towards her. “Down here,” she said, disappearing into what turned out to be the house’s cellar.
Rob followed Lettie through the wreckage of the Tower, although he was trying to look everywhere and more than once was tempted to slip off and explore a particularly interesting ruin. But he would be free to do all that once he found the angel’s body, he reminded himself.
“You really are a puppy,” Lettie said, catching Rob twisting his neck round to stare at a cluster of dead trees and a dry fountain. “You’re so enthusiastic.” She grinned at him. “What’s this goddess of yours? Why does she want bodies?”
“It’s not really the body,” Rob said at random. “I guess. It’s probably buried with something sacred. Sacred books. Probably. Is that the place up there?”
Lettie’s father stood with her uncle before a great bronze door. The building it fronted was grand and marble, raised up on tiered steps and surrounded by pillars, all miraculously intact. A frieze of painted lilies ran around the top of the mausoleum. I can deal with that, said the goddess, assessing the spells on the building. But it will take a while. And it’s going to hurt.
“All right,” Rob said, bracing himself inwardly. “Let’s do this.”
It really won’t be hard, said the goddess, pulling on Rob’s body like someone pulling on a pair of gloves. She cracked Rob’s knuckles against his chest and rolled his shoulders. He felt her fill his lungs, then wrinkle his nose for him.
“Smoke,” she said, using Rob’s voice. “I hate smoke. Very well. Keep back.”
She walked wrong. It’s like wearing someone else’s shoes, Rob said. The soles are worn in all the wrong places. Don’t wear down my soles!
“Be quiet,” she said. “I’m busy.”
She was walking around the mausoleum, so probably no one else heard her. Rob peered out through her eyes and saw the ropes of magic plaited around the pillars. She flicked one with Rob’s fingernail. It thrummed like a harp string. “Interesting,” said the goddess. “Remind me to have a look at another one of these. Later.”
She thrust both hands into the transparent web, seized one of the humming cables, and pulled on it until it snapped. Magic washed over Rob’s hands like acid, distantly felt, tingling rather than burning because the goddess had coated his skin in magic of her own. She dug in her heels and hauled on one of the lashing ends, tugging it hand over hand until the whole web began to warp and snarl.
What’s that? said Rob, seeing something glittering in the weave.
The goddess clicked his tongue. “Ah,” she said, reaching for it. “Good.”
It was a piece of clear quartz. The goddess turned it over in Rob’s fingers, then held it up to the light. “They used stone,” she said. “That will make this easier.”
She crushed it with a burst of power that burned in Rob’s throat. “Good,” she said again, closing his eyes, and brought down the edge of his hand against the nearest rope. It came apart singing. Another piece of quartz tumbled out of the web. “Don’t touch that,” she said, seeing Lettie sidle round the corner of the mausoleum. “Don’t touch anything. Get out of my way.”
The girl backed away, looking shocked. In the back of his own head, Rob sighed.
He was ready for a rush of intense exhaustion when the goddess discarded his body, but not for just how weak his knees would be, or the sudden burst of shivering and icy sweat. He slumped against the nearest pillar, sliding down it to the steps. He leaned on his knees, waiting helplessly for his body to feel like his body again. It felt all the wrong shape.
It is, the goddess said. I liked mine much better.
“I wish you’d wear yours, then,” Rob muttered. “If you hadn’t noticed, I’m using mine.”
He couldn’t even raise his head when Lettie came back round the corner of the mausoleum. “My father’s very impressed,” she said, approaching cautiously. “They’re getting the door open now. Sure you’re not a mage?”
A loud metallic clanging, accompanied by curses, told Rob that the process would not be kind to the door. He winced. “Certain. If I were, it wouldn’t hurt so much.”
Lettie sat down on the steps. “Are you all right?”
“I will be.” He rubbed his mouth with a shaking hand. “Sorry I snapped at you. It’s dangerous, that’s all.”
It was dangerous to get under the goddess’ feet, was what he really meant. Somewhere, the goddess rolled her eyes.
“My cousin got hurt,” Lettie said. “Really hurt. Last week. And that wasn’t even in the Tower. Don’t worry about it.” She gave Rob a sympathetic look. “Sounds like they’re in. Do you want to come and see?”
She lent him her arm, for which he was grateful. He felt lightheaded and sick. He stumbled into a long white hall hung with marble garlands, all space and shadow, lit dimly by double lines of glowing stones along the floor and ceiling. Jocelin and his brother-in-law stood at the far end of the hall examining a massive urn. A bronze inscription took up most of the wall behind it.
Lettie squeezed Rob’s arm. “This must be right,” she whispered. “That’s the last Seventh-Envoy. Well, it’s her name on the urn.”
Rob took a couple of breaths, hoping the roaring in his ears would subside. “Where are the others buried, though?”
Jocelin scraped his heel over a dappled patch of marble. Rob glanced down and saw a heavy bronze ring inset into the stone. It flashed a disconcerting shade of green. He shut his eyes in momentary despair.
“How are you feeling, Master God-Thing?” Jocelin said. The brother-in-law was grinning. “Looks like you got work to do.”
Three levels lay under the mausoleum and each of them hurt more to open than the last. Rob lost track of time almost immediately, along with any awareness of anything but the goddess and the layered enchantments. In between doors, he slumped on the floor, breathing heavily. Lettie brought water and bread and sometimes read out the names on urns imprisoned behind iron gratings. Unintelligible symbols snaked around the barred niches. “Is this your body?” she would say, and Rob had to shake his head.
He ached in every leaden limb. It was going to take a week to recover from this. The goddess used more power with every spell she broke. There’s no rush, Rob pleaded, and the goddess said pitilessly, “Be quiet. I’m almost done.”
She smashed the final strand and let Rob fall. He lay dizzily on the chilly floor, watching the shadows spinning. Lettie’s concerned face loomed over him. “Do you want something to lie on?” she asked, and Rob remembered again, and was gratified again, that he had not given Lettie to the goddess. She would have been scared and confused and in so much pain.
No one deserved that. Certainly not Lettie. He laid his head on his bag in lieu of a pillow while Lettie and her father descended into the third vault. After a few moments, Lettie’s head reappeared. “There’s one more door,” she reported. “It’s… different. Maybe you should rest first.”
Rob couldn’t have moved if he’d wanted to. “Good idea.”
He drifted between vivid dreams and dizzy wakefulness. Sometimes Lettie was sitting beside him when he woke, unless that was something he dreamed too. “Where are you from?” she asked. “You talk strangely.”
“A long way away,” he said. “Across the sea. So far away you wouldn’t believe it. The goddess lives there. She rules the Isles.”
His voice had a hollow echo. He listened to it with the helpless fascination of complete exhaustion. Lettie offered him water. “What did you come here for, then? Who is this goddess of yours?”
“She makes the grapes grow,” Rob said. “That’s who she is.”
The goddess looked on disapprovingly. Rob was so tired her disapproval made him laugh, which made his aching ribs heave. He couldn’t stop laughing, though.
“There was a woman once,” he said to Lettie. He’d told this story a hundred times since leaving Temple Vale. “She fell out with her family. She crossed the world and walked for a hundred years until she came to the Isles. And there she stayed. Our goddess-in-a-mirror. She makes the grapes grow and tells us what to do and we give her the shrines she uses to do it. But you don’t want to know about that.”
Lettie’s owlish eyes had never been rounder. “Why not?”
“The good ones volunteer,” Rob said. “The bad ones don’t. Except…”
“Except when there aren’t any bad boys and none of the good boys will volunteer.” He shuddered. “It’s a god thing.”
Lettie looked down on him solemnly. “Were you a good boy or a bad one?”
“A good one,” said Rob, exhaling cracked laughter. “Definitely a good one.”
“I thought so,” she said. “I don’t blame you if you ran away.”
He felt a feverish flush of warmth towards her. She fumbled to give him another swallow of water and he traced her freckled nose in wonder, and the shadow of her eyelashes against her soft cheek.
She’s older than she looks, the goddess said dispassionately. She’s probably older than you.
Are you jealous? Rob taunted. Really? Well, be jealous. She’s the sweetest girl I ever met.
The goddess seemed taken aback. Rob felt laughter bubble up again in his bruised chest. “I’m so tired,” he said fretfully to Lettie, who patted his hand. “I wish I lived in a mirror. It would be easier. I don’t really mean that. I wouldn’t want to live where the goddess lives.”
He let the darkness swallow him up. He needed to sleep, really sleep, but he found himself standing in the goddess’ sandstone hall anyway, although there was so little light he might have been floating instead.
The only light there came from the goddess, who stood on a heap of red sand streaked with white. She was fuzzier than Rob recalled her being, hazy around the edges, her pale hair blending together and her pale robes blurring. Her eyes still shone a particularly chilly shade of blue, though. She regarded Rob in silence.
He looked around for the mirror, but the whole glass wall seemed to have dissolved into sand. What happened? he asked. Did the mirror break?
“Things change,” the goddess said. “It was broken. Did you need something?”
Sleep, he said. I need sleep!
“Then sleep. I don’t need you. I have things to do.”
She was talking to other people, using other bodies. The thought seized Rob in his fever and would not retract its claws, although it was not a new realization, or in any way surprising. He couldn’t not think of them, though, all those other boys across the Isles whose mouths the goddess moved. Lettie likes me! he said to her, hoping to surprise some other expression on the goddess’ chalk-and-charcoal face. I like her too.
“Do you?” said the goddess, after a pause that seemed mostly bewildered. “Does she?”
You’re older than she is. You’re definitely older than I am.
“Yes,” said the goddess, after another puzzled pause. “Quite.”
He wanted to fix the shape of her face in his memory, all straight, unyielding lines, from the firmness of her mouth to her eyebrows and high cheekbones and steady wintry gaze. Already, though, the light was blurring into an indefinite glow. He rubbed his eyes, lost himself in a yawn, and realized he had lost the hall as well. The vault was colder, but the air was clearer too. In the Isles, even in the goddess’ sandstone tower, it was impossible to escape the smell of the sea.
He tried to move and rediscovered how weak he was. “Ow,” he muttered, mostly to see if Lettie was still there, and was gratified to hear her jump up. There! he threw at the goddess, who maintained her faintly baffled silence. He mocked her in his head.
“Lettie?” he said.
“I didn’t tell you the other thing. Why I came here.”
“Why did you?”
“It was the goddess,” Rob said. “She got tired of her mirror. She wanted to go home.”
The lowest vault was so dark Jocelin had left his lantern on the bottom step. Rob descended shakily and sat down beside it with a bump. I could do this more easily, said the goddess, and Rob said, No, don’t. Not yet.
“Dadda,” said a little voice. “Dadda…”
Above Rob, Lettie dropped his bag with a stifled exclamation. Oh, the goddess said. You brought that thing.
Rob reached round behind him for the bag. “Don’t worry, it’s just a toy,” he said to Lettie. “I found her in the city. Look.”
He pulled out the doll and sat her on his knee, straightening her crumpled skirts. Her eyes were glowing again. “Dadda, it’s dangerous,” she said in her clear child’s voice. A distant crash underscored the warning. “Dadda, I don’t like it.”
“Well, it is dangerous round here,” Rob said and grinned over his shoulder. “Isn’t she clever?”
He thought Lettie would laugh, or admire the doll, or display some signs of covetousness. He waved the doll’s hands at her. “Great,” Lettie said, staring at the doll. “She’s… great. Do you need anything? The door’s at that end. It’s not like the rest.” She backed up a step. “I should just— I’ll be right back.”
Rob listened to Lettie’s footsteps dwindling upwards and sighed.
“I guess you can’t be that interesting,” he said to the doll. “Maybe every child in Sepharvain had a toy like you. Still, I like you. I think.” He propped her up against Jocelin’s lantern and heaved himself to his weary feet. “Just you sit quietly now. Dadda’s got work to do.”
His eyes had almost adjusted. He limped down the vault, expecting another trapdoor, and was surprised, as Lettie and her father had been, to find instead a bronze door in the end wall that must lead into another chamber. The door was covered with the same symbols as the niches where the urns stood.
Wait, said the goddess. Let me have a look.
She spent so long examining the symbols that Rob said, At least you don’t have to watch when I do boring things. Is it magic?
“No-o,” said the goddess. “Not magic.”
She spoke with a degree of uncertainty that Rob had never heard from her before. What, then? he asked. Is it something religious?
“No. The opposite. It’s a god-ward. My grandfather taught me… I think he taught me how to do this. It was a long time ago.” She traced over one of the symbols experimentally, taking great care not to touch the door. “Yes. It must be. It’s a mage thing. It’s meant to keep gods out. Gods and spirits. They meddle sometimes… well, that’s the theory. I never really bothered. None of them ever really bothered me.”
Her tone was clinical, but Rob sensed controlled eagerness. She was consumed by the desire to learn what lay beyond the door. Can you open it? he said, and the goddess said, “Of course.” She flexed Rob’s fingers. “You’re not a god.”
She tore apart the seal like paper. Rob felt her power running over him and through him and tried not to think about how much it was going to hurt when the goddess sloughed off his body. There was no point in protesting, because she wasn’t listening to Rob, or to anything else, for that matter. Somewhere in the distance, the doll was saying, “Dadda, it’s dangerous, Dadda,” and overhead it sounded as if the mausoleum had begun to collapse, one thundering marble block at a time, but the goddess’ attention was entirely focused on opening up the next chamber.
The enchantment collapsed. She set Rob’s palms flat against the door and concentrated until the bronze shimmered, exhaling heat, and the symbols vanished. The door shone as bright as a mirror. It made little chinking noises as the metal cooled.
The goddess tested the handle, which turned. The door swung open.
Light blazed out of the final chamber. Ow! said Rob, and the goddess covered his eyes until the dazzle cleared. Blind, she ran Rob’s fingers over the doorframe, tracing more god-wards carved so deep into the stone it seemed the sculptor had wanted to hammer them there. “This is it,” she said. “This is the place.”
He expected to see an urn when she opened his eyes, or maybe a sarcophagus. Instead, a wall of white light blocked the doorway completely. The chamber had been doubly sealed, both from outside and from within. As the goddess rubbed Rob’s eyes, the image of a woman in black robes flickered into existence before the inner seal.
“This room is sealed on the authority of the Seventh-Envoy, Lady Lélian hou’Viresperel,” she said pleasantly. She was tall and fair and probably more than middle-aged, although that showed more in the oddly familiar set of her head than in her skin or hair, which was only lightly touched with gray. The way her impersonal blue gaze swept through the goddess told Rob she was an illusion woven into the seal, rather than really being there, or really speaking to them. “It is sealed permanently. Do not try to enter.”
Oh, said the goddess, silently.
In the long pause that followed, Rob analyzed the goddess’ state of mind with amazement. He had never known her stunned, or caught off guard by an uncontrolled emotion, or in any way vulnerable in any real sense of the word. She devoured the illusion with Rob’s eyes. “Oh,” she said again.
“Dadda,” said the little voice of the doll on the steps. “Dadda, I’m all wet…”
A black liquid was trickling down the steps. Is that blood? Rob said, startled.
“No. It’s water.” The goddess frowned. “And dirt. And ashes.”
The crashing noises from above had ceased. Rob tried to look around, but was prevented by the goddess, whose stillness was rarely the precursor to anything good. Her gaze was fixed on the illusion’s face.
He heard noises on the stairs, then a cry of alarm from the doll. “It’s open!” he heard Jocelin say.
The goddess turned around slowly. Jocelin was there, along with his brother-in-law, both of them holding iron crowbars. Lettie, who had picked up the doll and her father’s lantern, peered down from the steps. Movement echoed in the upper vaults of the mausoleum. More people must have arrived while Rob and the goddess were breaking the enchantments.
Jocelin bounced his crowbar in his palm. “Is that the last seal?”
“What,” said the goddess, “are you doing?”
“Waiting for you to break that seal,” Jocelin said. “There’s bugger all else in this place, but anything buried this deep has to be worth having.”
The darkness had acquired an oppressive quality that made Rob uncomfortably aware of the people moving around the upper vaults. He remembered the busyness of Lettie’s house, all the comings and goings and the sense of meaningful activity in what amounted to a warehouse full of looted property. It was an organized operation. They must be sending everything away to buyers outside Sepharvain. There must be a lot of money involved.
“You’ve been breaking the urns,” the goddess said. “What did you think you were going to find?”
“More than we did. You’d think they’d bury Sevenths properly. There aren’t even bones in these things. Half of them are full of water.” Jocelin was eyeing up the door and the inner seal. “This body of yours,” he said, a bit too casually. “This sacred relic. Gotta be worth something. Right?”
Rob experienced a flash of unpleasant foresight: the seal broken, the door opened up, a blow from behind, waking up to find the chamber already stripped bare. Lettie’s concerned owlish eyes. Someone else must have got there first. Maybe it’s somewhere else in the Tower… maybe we can help you find it…
He saw Lettie holding the doll by a leg. Oh no, no, he said, wanting to reach out to her. This is stupid, Lettie. Don’t do this!
He was all too clearly aware of the goddess’ anger and his own helplessness to avert it. Don’t! he cried out to the goddess. Please don’t hurt her!
He felt as if he was jumping up and down outside a window, trying to be heard. They had no idea, any of them, what the goddess was like when she was angry. They had no idea what she could do.
He struggled for control, and failed. She had been waiting for this, he realized. She had already decided what to do when this happened and she hadn’t told him because he wouldn’t have listened. Please, he said desperately. I like her!
The goddess pushed up Rob’s tatty sleeves. “Get out,” she said.
“What?” Jocelin said.
“I said, get out. Get out of here. Get out of the Tower. Get out.”
“Just what do you think—”
“This is my place,” the goddess said.
She spoke in her own voice, which rattled Rob’s teeth and echoed all around the inside of his head, underlaid as it was by a fresh rush of power that filled Rob’s chest and rippled a dangerous shade of violet down his bony hands. He felt a towering, uncontrolled emotion rattling against his ribcage: her bitter disappointment that Sepharvain had fallen before she reached it, or her wrath that anyone else would dare to plunder the ruins, or some other emotion connected to the illusory woman that might transmute into violence at any moment.
“I don’t need you,” she said. “I don’t want you here. Of course there aren’t any bones in the urns. That’s what happens to the body when a mage dies.”
She advanced down the vault. Even Jocelin backed away. “Who the—”
“My name is Ann hou’Viresperel and I can strip every bit of flesh from your bones,” said the goddess, in a voice that rose up from the marble floor and echoed throughout the mausoleum. Startled cries rang out above, then footsteps. The light emanating from the open door cut off abruptly, plunging the vault into darkness. “Go away, or I will. This is my Tower now. I don’t like scavengers. I protect my own. Get out. And don’t come back.”
Once the mausoleum was empty, the goddess dismissed the veil across the door and removed the god-wards with a few passes of Rob’s hands that enlarged the frame by several inches, piling up dust on the threshold. Rob, watching, nursed his wounded feelings and wished fruitlessly for something different, feeling woefully grateful the goddess had not done anything worse. “Time,” said the goddess pitilessly, “and effort,” and Rob could only sigh. At least she had only driven them away, he consoled himself. At least she hadn’t killed them.
The goddess circled the vault defacing god-wards while the illusion repeated her warning. “You can come out now,” she said to the air, which parted neatly. The Last God’s angel stepped out. “Thank you,” he said.
The seam sealed up behind Jael as if nothing had happened. “I expect you can do something about that,” said the goddess, gesturing to the illusion.
Jael approached her. “Mother,” he said respectfully, bending his head.
In the moment before the illusion flickered and changed her face, Rob was surprised by the image of the angel as a link between the woman and the goddess, who shared her grandfather’s youth and beauty and chilly brilliance, but who had inherited Lélian hou’Viresperel’s flaxen complexion and level blue gaze. Rob wanted to see all three of them standing together, along with the other members of the family he had met at Temple Vale. But the goddess was far off in the Isles and the woman must be long dead.
“Jael, my dear,” said the new version. “Did it really come to this? I am sorry. You see I did what I could, though. Perhaps you might visit me one of these days and tell me what happened. I know you can.”
She vanished. The seal vanished too, leaving the doorway clear.
The body of a young man lay in a block of ice in a stone trough. It was so cold in the chamber that Rob’s breath smoked in the air, although only he seemed to notice this, since the goddess was otherwise occupied and it was entirely possible the angel never noticed the cold at all.
“I knew it,” said the goddess, under Rob’s breath. “I knew it.”
Rob stared out from behind her eyes in blank surprise. Is that—? Surely not…
The dead man’s hair fanned out lazily around his head. His eyes were closed, his lips were bloodless, and his arms were folded across his chest. The ice was cloudy, but not so cloudy it was impossible to recognize the angel’s face.
Jael touched the ice, which was starting to melt. “Thank you.”
“What are you doing?” the goddess asked. “Putting it somewhere safer?”
“Something like that,” Jael said. “You will appreciate the importance of knowing where your bones are.”
“Yes,” said the goddess of the Isles. “Yes, I do.”
She walked around the vault while the ice melted. Rob didn’t think she could read any of the writing, but she peered at the names under the niches as if they meant something to her anyway. You can’t leave me here, Rob said, as her grandfather called her back to help to pull his body out of the water. He foresaw the goddess dropping him in a crumpled heap right there on the ground. I’ll freeze to death. You might not remember what being alive is like, but I do.
The goddess ran Rob’s hand along the wall. She was thinking about ruins and what it took to rebuild them, and how to keep out scavengers, and the many interesting things she might find here. “I won’t.”
Rob ached to see Lettie again, to ask if she had known what her father planned and what had been going through her head. Whether Lettie would give the doll back. When the goddess returned his body, he was going to lie down wherever she left him and sulk for a week. You have to look after me, he said childishly. I’m your only shrine here. You just scared off everyone who could replace me. Without me, you can’t do anything.
“Of course I will,” the goddess said. “I protect my own.”
|Julia August is interested in looting and creepy dolls. Her short fiction has appeared in the Journal of Unlikely Academia, Women Destroy Fantasy!, PodCastle, and elsewhere. She is JAugust7 on Twitter and j-august on Tumblr. Find out more at juliaaugust.com.|