Victor, Vanquished, Son
So it wouldn’t be an empty gesture. It wouldn’t be the same as on Delos.
“It will be the end for our people,” the voice said. “Some will survive, but our tribes will not. Our ways will not. There will be so many more joining us, waiting for you in death.”
That brought a flash of fear to Jeva. She’d felt the anger of those who had died, felt their blows. Was it worth it? Could she do it to her whole people?
“And you would die,” the voice continued. “Announce this to our people, and you will die for it.”
Slowly, she started to come back to herself, finding herself on the floor before the pyre. Jeva put a hand to her face and it came away bloody, although she didn’t know if that was the strain of the vision or the violence of the dead. She forced herself to stand, looking out over the assembled crowd.
“Tell us what you saw, sister,” the Speaker of the Dead said.
Jeva stood there, looking at him, trying to gauge how much, if anything, he’d seen. Could she lie in this moment? Could she tell the assembled crowd that the dead were all in favor of the plan?
Jeva knew that she couldn’t lie like that, even for Thanos.
“I saw death,” she said. “Your death, my death. The death of our whole people if we do this.”
A murmur went around the room. Her people had no fear of death, but the destruction of their whole way of life was something else.
“You have asked me to speak for the dead,” Jeva said, “and they have said that in Haylon, victory would be bought with our people’s lives.” She took a breath, thinking about what Thanos would have done. “I don’t want to speak for the dead. I want to speak for the living.”
The murmurs changed tone, becoming more confused. Becoming angrier in some spaces too.
“I know what you think,” Jeva said. “You think I am speaking sacrilege. But there is a whole island of people out there that needs our help. I saw the dead, and they cursed me for their deaths. Do you know what that tells me? That life matters! That the lives of all those who will die if we don’t help matter. If we do not help, we allow evil to stand. We allow those who would live in peace to be slaughtered. I will stand against that, not because the dead require it, but because the living do!”
There was uproar then in the hall. The Speaker of the Dead looked at it all, then at Jeva. He pushed her toward the door.
“You should go,” he said. “Go before they kill you for blasphemy.”
Jeva didn’t go, though. The dead had already told her that she would die for doing this. If that was the price of gaining help, she would pay it. She stood there as a point of silence in the middle of the arguments in the room. When a man ran at her, she kicked him back and kept standing. It was all she could do right then. She waited for the moment when one of them would finally kill her.
Jeva was quite confused when they didn’t. Instead, the noise in the room died down, and the people there stood in front of her, looking her way. One by one, they fell to their knees, and the Speaker of the Dead stepped forward.
“It seems that we will go with you to Haylon, sister.”
Jeva blinked. “I… don’t understand.”
She should have been dead then. The dead had told her that it was the sacrifice they wanted.
“Have you forgotten our ways so completely?” the priest said. “You have offered us a death worth having. Who are we to argue?”
Jeva fell to her knees with the others then. She didn’t know what to say. She’d been expecting death, and had life instead. Now, she just had to make it count for something.
“We’re coming, Thanos,” she promised.
Irrien ignored the pain of his wounds as he rode south along tracks already turned to mud by the passage of his army. He forced himself to stay tall in the saddle, not letting any of the agony he felt show. He didn’t slow or stop, in spite of the many cuts, the bandages and the stitches. The things that lay at the end of this journey were too important to delay.
His men journeyed with him, making the ride back to Delos even faster than they had pursued their assault on the North. Some of them were moving slower, shepherding lines of slaves or wagons of looted goods, but most rode with their lord, ready for the battles that were still to come.
“You had better be right about this,” Irrien snapped across to N’cho.
The assassin rode beside him with the seemingly infinite calm that he always projected, as if the rush of a horde of Irrien’s finest warriors behind him was nothing.
“When we reach Delos, you will see, First Stone.”
Reaching Delos did not take long, although by the time they did it, Irrien’s horse was breathing hard, its flanks lathered with sweat. He followed as N’cho led the way away from the road, into a space filled with ruins and gravestones. When he finally stopped, Irrien looked around, unimpressed.
“This is it?” he demanded.
“This is it,” N’cho assured him. “A space where the world is weak enough to summon… other things. Things that might kill an Ancient One.”
Irrien dismounted. He should have been able to do it with grace and ease, but the pain of his wounds meant that he hit the ground heavy-footed. It was a reminder of what the assassin and his colleagues had done to him, and one that N’cho would pay for if he couldn’t deliver on his promise.
“It looks like a simple graveyard,” Irrien snapped.
“It has been a place of death since the time of the Ancient Ones,” N’cho answered. “There has been so much death here that it has left the way on the cusp of opening. It merely requires the right words, the right symbols. And of course, the right sacrifices.”
Irrien should have guessed that part from a man who dressed like one of the death priests. Still, if this one could give him the means to kill the Ancient Ones’ child, it would be worth it.
“Slaves will be brought,” he promised. “But if you fail in this, you will join them in death.”
The scariest part of it was that the assassin didn’t react to that. He kept his equanimity while he paced to a spot that looked as though it had been the site of a mass grave, while he took out powders and potions from his robes, while he started to make markings on the ground.
Irrien waited and watched, sitting in the shade of one of the tombs there and trying to disguise how much his body hurt after the long ride. He would have liked to have ridden into Delos then, to bathe and dress his wounds, perhaps to rest a little. But then his men would ask questions about why he wasn’t here, watching all that happened. It wouldn’t look strong.
So he sent men instead to fetch sacrifices, and a list of other things that N’cho said he required. It took more than an hour for anything to come back from the city, and even then, it was a stranger collection than anything he’d demanded. A dozen death priests came along with the slaves and the unguents, the candles and the braziers.
Irrien saw N’cho smile at their presence, with a confidence that told Irrien that this was no trick.
“They want to see how this is done,” he said. “They want to see if it is even possible. They believe, but they don’t believe.”
“I will believe when I see some results,” Irrien said.
“Then you will have them, my lord,” the assassin replied.
He went back to the space he’d marked with the symbols of his craft, setting up candles and lighting them. He gestured for slaves to be brought forward, and one by one he tied them in place, affixing them to stakes around the rim of the circle he’d drawn, anointing them with oils that made them squirm and beg.
It was nothing compared to their screams as the assassin set them alight. Irrien could hear some of his men gasping at the casual brutality of it all, or complaining about the waste. Irrien just stood there. If this did not work, there would be more than enough time to kill N’cho later.
It did work, though, and in a way that Irrien couldn’t have predicted.
He saw N’cho step back from the circle, chanting. As he chanted, the ground within the circle seemed to crumble, giving way similar to how a sinkhole might have opened up in the dust wastes Irrien was used to. The screaming, flaming sacrifices tumbled into it, and still N’cho kept chanting.
Irrien heard the creaking and the cracks as the tombs started to break open. A grave near the spot where Irrien was standing tore apart with a sound of ripping earth, and Irrien saw bones being pulled from it as if by a whirlpool, sucked in toward the hole in the ground and disappearing without a trace.
More followed, pouring in as if drawn to the space, hammering toward it with the speed of thrown javelins. Irrien saw one man impaled by a thigh bone, then carried forward into the pit. He shrieked as he fell, and then it was quiet.