“A Start to Judgment” by Benjamin C. Kinney

Arsha plays the role expected of her, though she’s known for years how their rebellion will end. She thought she could endure one last survey of her knights and archers and footmen before the final battle, but the guilt still cracks her insides like a pickaxe. The free people of the world have placed their faith in her, the Chosen One. Tomorrow she’ll face the Flensed Lord and betray them all.

The inside of her arm itches, longing for the knife.

Everyone but her thinks the army is a distraction. Their hope rests on her voice, resonant with power that shatters flesh and iron under every syllable. She keeps her lips pressed tight, and lets the soldiers and generals see her as they need to, stoic and strong.

They think she can do anything. They’re almost right. Her voice can destroy anyone but the two people in the world who deserve it.

I have to go, she signs to the generals, and hurries to her tent to take her one respite from the guilt.

When the final confrontation comes, there will be no epic duel of Chosen One against monstrous god. Instead, He will reclaim what’s His. Her power is the Flensed Lord’s power, forged by a thousand years of strip-mining the land and people and skies.

Fresh blood trickles along the line of her inner arm. A start to judgment, for her sins to come.

A thousand years ago, one of the Seven Hundred and Seven Ascended Ones carved himself into cruelty and ambition. He slaughtered his comrades and bound their souls and power until He alone ruled: the Flensed Lord, Butcher of the World, He Who Scars the World.

No source of magic remains, save Him.

Sometimes she thinks the Flensed Lord gave her this power on purpose. Other times it feels like fortune, coincidence, curse. She no longer wonders about beginnings. Only about endings.

Her sidekick enters the tent, and she hides the knife too late. He masters his surprise, catches her arm, and sits next to her with a clean bandage. She avoids his eyes, his handsome rugged jaw. She signs, Don’t tell anyone.

“Just hold on a little longer.” He squeezes her hand. “I know it’s hard, with Him so close. But you’ll be free soon.”

She could tell him everything. Her sidekick is the one person who might believe her theory, but his revulsion would hurt worse than any of the Flensed Lord’s tortures.

The truth wouldn’t save anyone. With or without her, He and His creatures will butcher the rebellion.

As long as she hides her fears, they can believe they’re dying for a purpose.

We’ll make Him regret this, she lies. The deception hurts, but she deserves the weight in her heart.

The Flensed Lord knows no remorse, no love, no mercy. If these qualities ever reawaken in Him, He slices them out like offal and casts them into the night.

Arsha has always wondered whether it hurts.

The army rallies on the plain, around siege engines enchanted by months of Arsha’s hoarse-voiced whispers. They might have a chance against the monsters pouring forth from the Flensed Lord’s tower. More likely, they do not.

She has companions like a tale from the days of heroism, when the Seven Hundred and Seven quested for godhood. Her sidekick, two scouts, the fugitive, the scholar, and her father’s old sergeant.

Arsha tried not to learn their names.

Her sidekick’s name is Weber.

She hisses at the sewer grate, and the bars curl like burning hair. The fugitive leads them upstream on hands and knees into His tower, through muck that smells of shit and clotted blood.

The first guardian is a moon-grey thing like three crabs fused back to back. Too many claws tear open the pipe, too many more snatch the sergeant in front of her. Arsha yelps in fear, in shock, in cursed relief. Her shout mulches the creature into a slurry of chitinous parts.

The sergeant won’t survive his wounds. Arsha’s not sure who’s to blame, the guardian or her.

She’s not sure she cares. Her fingernails dig against the inside of her arm.

Every monster is more fearsome than the last, but each one kneels and crumbles before Arsha’s voice. The Flensed Lord’s creatures know their master.

She keeps hoping the scholar will figure it out on his own.

At the innermost gate, Arsha presses her hand against the iron-studded door. Once it opens, this will all be over, one way or another. No more choices, no more being chosen.

Her heartbeat quickens with anticipation.

Weber puts a hand on her shoulder. “Ready?”

Arsha doesn’t deserve him.

She whispers to the lock as gently as she can, but her breath brings destruction all the same.

The Flensed Lord stands alone, His back to the door. His hair is a clear cold night, lit by the stars of seven hundred and six silver rings. His prizes glow, even in His shadowed braids, with the shackled power of the gods they once were.

He faces a line of scrying-glass windows, aglow with soundless scenes. A prison, bars stretching beyond counting. A battle, monstrous claws rending steel and meat.

Arsha’s companions loose crossbow bolts, throw daggers. The projectiles land on the floor, as if miles of space stood between them and the god.

She hasn’t shouted. Her reckoning is long past due. To her surprise, she doesn’t want to make this easy for Him.

He turns around. His expression is curious but indolent, His face unblemished. His scars must lie somewhere deeper than His skin.

“Child. You have something of mine. I wish to see. Bring it here.”

Her feet take a step forward. She gasps, and her legs return to her control.

This isn’t what she expected.

Weber grabs for her hand. She pushes it away. She can’t look at his face. Run, she signs.

Her companions don’t question her. Nor do they obey. She’s tried so hard not to love them, but she hasn’t stopped them from loving her.

As one, they draw their swords.

“Enough.” His word bowls them to the floor, and their blades clatter against stone.

Arsha thought she’d stand helpless before Him, in silence or in shout. But if He could take His missing piece, He would’ve yanked it from her soul already, or pried it from her corpse.

He needs her alive and willing.

She grabs Weber’s shortsword. Their steel can’t reach Him, but she has another target.

Arsha raises the sword to her neck. If she’s right, one mote of His power will die with her. It’s not victory, but at least she’ll get the judgment she deserves.

The god’s expression remains unchanged, as languid as ever.

He crooks a finger. “Speak, child. Must I find other ways to convince you?”

Either He has no reason to fear her suicide, or He’s long since carved away His ability to fear.

So much of Himself he’d flensed away, to conquer and rule. Until one piece of the Flensed Lord’s soul lodged in her heart, forever in agony over pain it might someday cause.

She’s had it backward all along. This piece of His soul carries not just power, but the remorse He once carved so deep to avoid.

Arsha snarls. It’s yours, she signs. You win. But— “—you’ll regret this.”

He snatches her words from the air. His satisfaction dissolves into horror. He stares at one window, then another, and recoils from the images of gore and battle.

The god’s face crumples with guilt for what must be the first time in a thousand years.

He lifts the braids of His hair and stares at the luminous rings with an expression Arsha has only ever seen in mirrors.

He lops off His braids with a sharp-edged word. They spill to the floor, and glittering rings peal against the stone like seven hundred and six silver bells. Light blossoms like flowers at dawn, and drifts free.

The citadel shakes. The scrying windows begin to dim. The god retreats into a fading scene, and the last of the window’s magic vanishes. Only ordinary glass remains, and the sky shines through, bright despite its scars.

Weber rolls onto his knees, reaches for Arsha’s hand. “What did you do?”

“It’s over.” Her voice croaks, dry with disuse. She could tell him anything. The truth would be, I surrendered, and it destroyed Him. I never needed the army, or my father’s sergeant, or you.

She chooses a lie, and helps him to his feet. “I beat Him.”

The deception hurts, but the pickaxe-bite of guilt is its own comfort. This sin belongs to her, and she’d rather endure the pain than cut it away in some desperate scramble for respite. She doesn’t need escape, not from a sin she’s chosen. Her regret will be judgment enough.

Benjamin C. Kinney is a neuroscientist, SFF editor, and a finalist for the Hugo and Ignyte awards as assistant editor of the science fiction podcast Escape Pod. His short stories have appeared all across the internet and print, including Analog, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and elsewhere. He is confident this is the shortest epic fantasy he has ever written, but you can check against the rest of his work at benjaminckinney.com, or follow him on Twitter or Instagram @BenCKinney.