by Nathan Hall
Standard legal stuff: I own all the rights to this story. All the characters involved are entirely fictional and entirely my own. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, real or fictional, is purely coincidence.
Feel free to read this, or share it with others. Just don’t alter it without my permission or share it without passing on my name as its author.
The world was frozen; the world burned. The air on the rooftop sliced into my lungs, almost too thin and too cold to breathe. Acrid black smoke burned in my chest with each breath. But I could neither let myself feel them, nor listen to the sounds from the streets far below.
Volen. That was all that mattered. Standing in that slanted way of his against the rail, Volen took another long drag from the cigarette, ignoring me. Volen, my only friend, the only one left who knew I existed. Volen, the monster.
“How could you,” I managed brokenly, the sword trembling in my hands.
The halo around the blade’s keen edge pulsed with each tormented beat of my heart. How long had it been since Volen and I had received the swords, our Nesim? Centuries. My trembles turned to shudders, as Volen sucked in a last lungful of smoke and tossed the butt over the railing, as he watched with rapt attention its twirling course to the ground.
Tall and blade-thin, Volen was striking as always, in some vague way angelic. Clean, neat, composed, he was, down to the last button-closed pocket on his thick denim jacket. Cobalt, of course, to match his eyes. That was Volen, always had been: meticulous, careful. Calculating, even when he pretended not to be. That was why he kept his hair that way, silver spikes in all directions, carefully random, the only thing that clashed with his portrait-permanent perfection.
He half-turned, facing me, and smiled.
When Volen spoke, the sounds of the world faded. Sirens. Gunshots. Screams. The thousand noises of civilization dying, shrunken and mute beneath Volen’s clipped cadence. Koah pressed in on me, a tangible, swelling darkness in the air around me. It clung, and squeezed in my head like a living fog.
“You have always lacked clarity, Garrid. Lacked vision. Perhaps that is why Chasmal chose you.” Volen’s silvered eyebrows quirked at the fierce glow around my broadsword, the sinuous lines running along the blade brighter than any bulb, harder than diamond, hot enough to melt stone. The fog built, smothering. Unbearable. “But don’t worry, Brother. I will help you through this, as I have so many times before.” Panic made a cold rush through my limbs, as my muscles…loosened. The sword started a slow slouch downward.
I grimaced, shook my head, pushed at that suffocating fog. Like a brittle glass, it shattered as my will touched it, broken pieces spilling down to slice into my brain.
“HOW COULD YOU!” Sound swelled back to fullness. My fury swelled faster, burying my shock. Volen had done it, used Koah against me. But then, why should I be surprised that my old friend would break the second prescript? He had reveled in breaking the first.
Nine hundred years, traveling always together, moving every ten to avoid suspicion. A millennium of machinations, guiding a world too frail to stand on its own. So much effort for so long, washed away in a single tide of blood.
“Please, Brother,” Volen entreated, his voice now quiet. His outstretched hands stopped short of Chasmal, as though he were warming them on its heat. His tone, at once pleading and indulgent, made me want to put my own power to work. But I couldn’t do it, couldn’t rain the Godfire down on Volen, no matter what he was now. Even if I could, I hadn’t used the power since the world had started its slow crumbling, since everything had changed.
What would it do if I tried to draw on it now?
“Please,” Volen said again. Those eyes were on me, studying me, confident. Cold. “Can you not see what I’m doing? What I’ve begun?”
“They’re all dead.” Somehow, I pushed the words through gritted teeth. My face hurt, skin too tight over muscle, muscle too tight around bone. My arms ached from the grip I kept on the sword. “You killed them all!”
Volen’s smile twitched, but he caught it before it slid away. His eyes glinted, though, and when he replied, his voice wasn’t as light as it had been. “They couldn’t see,” he said, voice almost clinical. “They tried to stop me. For the good of us all, they had to go! But it’s okay.” Volen’s hands were up, over the sword, reaching toward me. He had changed again, made his voice once more entreating. “I’ll make it okay. I’ll help you. You can count on me.”
Warmth trickled down my cheek, and I blinked in surprise. My hand moved to the dampness. Tears. I hadn’t thought I had any left.
Centuries. Carefully revising speech, fashion, thought. We’d followed abhorrent pop culture, blasphemous theology, all so we wouldn’t be noticed. After all that…
“You’ve destroyed everything we worked toward! Destroyed our dreams!”
“No!” Volen spat, his face twisting in a rictus. His voice grew deeper, harsher. “Destroyed, Garrid? Destroyed! I’ve created a new world, a new dream! One in which we needn’t puppet foolish mortals, cower behind crumbling thrones! We will rule!” Volen’s eyes burned like molten steel, the first I’d seen of real emotion, but that grin was still there, a skeletal grimace. Mocking me.
I lunged with Chasmal before I could stop myself, before I could think of using the power. Volen stepped adroitly around the wild jab, his hand out to one side.
A flash filled the rooftop with an instant of blinding light, a boom louder than thunder, as Tohu answered its master’s call. Blacker than midnight waters but for splintered scarlet streaks along its edge, it darkened the air around it, as though it sucked in light. It had always been that way, dark and cold, the opposite of what Nesim should be. But those splintered streaks were new. As though it was shattering, as though it bled…
Volen swept my sword aside, eyes cold again, a sneer on thin lips. “Careful, Brother. You know how dangerous that is.” There was no sadness in his eyes, no regret. Contempt, yes. Confidence, even—was that hunger? But nothing of the man I had followed for centuries, across the reaches of the known world and beyond. Nothing of my brother, nothing to save.
It was decided, then. My heart was being torn from my chest by some cold, sharp instrument, but it couldn’t change things. Volen had to die.
I took a single step backward on the rooftop, along that painted orange H of the landing platform. Distancing myself. Making room. I tried to steady the sword, and succeeded, tried to swallow that tearing sensation as it crawled up my throat, and failed. “I think we both know you stopped being my brother…the moment you slit Reina’s throat.”
Finally, Volen’s smile shrank. “Can you not see how useless this is?” With a cracking, broken sound, the blades scraped together, showering a thousand sparks on the rooftop. Volen watched them with the same intensity he had afforded the cigarette in its fall, as if nothing else mattered. As if I didn’t exist. “It is done, Garrid. It cannot be undone, and I would not have it back if I could. The world is ours, now, and it is our duty to lead it. Your death, or mine, would only drive the world closer to the abyss.”
There it was, that old camaraderie. It made me hesitate. But then there was the relish lacing the word ours, Volen tasting the word, and liking it. I managed a quick nod, a jerk of the head. My heart twisted in my chest, pushed out at bars that kept it prisoner in a body that would soon kill him, kill the only remaining tie to the world I had loved.
“That may be true,” I breathed, my voice quiet, steel, on the edge of breaking. “But you started this, Volen. You had to know where it would end.”
Volen met my gaze, gave a shrug I almost couldn’t see. Quiet enough that I had to read his lips, he said, “I guess I did.”
That quickly, he lashed out. If I hadn’t spent hundreds of years sparring with the man, the blade would have opened my throat. As it was, I had barely turned it aside when it darted back at me. Time after time, I only just deflected mortal strikes, strikes which a millennium had made quick, and clever, and vicious. Volen’s blade seemed to move all on its own, energized by the murder of ten companions. With each strike, it was closer to finding flesh, closer to killing.
The air blazed with the heat from a million brilliant sparks that bounced and skidded on the roof. The sound of each strike cut into my ears, sliced into the frail bonds that kept my heart from escaping—the sounds of my world shattering all over again. The names of the others, Volen’s victims, fed the flame that kept Chasmal aglow. Fed into my soul, those names kept me moving.
Majian and Tychon and Hiram. Liuhan and Khalid. Tammaro and Aetius, Eolus and Buri’Gal. Reina.
I moved to block a slash at my thigh, and Volen’s blade turned, sliced upward, into my arm. Leaping backward, out of Tohu’s reach, I sucked in a breath. My eyes darted to the wound in my arm, and from there to the man who had made it.
“First blood, Garrid.” Volen nodded to the wound. I spat in his direction. “Mine, as always. Shall we call it, then?”
I remembered. Eleven hundred in the year of our Lord, almost eleven hundred. We’d been pages in the court of William the Red. That was when it started. As pages. In the midst of the war, we’d been trained in battle as much as in etiquette, drilled often to first blood. Those months had seemed dark to me then, under the cruel king’s eye, but they glowed now in my mind, warm, cheery. Volen’s joking smeared them in dirt and blood.
I had hated Volen, then, envied the older, more graceful man for being from a richer family. For flirting with the maids so easily, while I stammered. For a hundred different reasons. I’d fought with him constantly. But I’d also loved him like a brother.
Volen lowered his blade, while I struggled to keep mine raised with one good arm. My other arm hung limp, made useless by the cut at my bicep.
“This isn’t a game, Volen!” My eyes moved back to my wound, helplessly fascinated by the sight of my own blood. “One of us is going to die here.”
It hadn’t been long after that, when that simple time ended, that I had last bled. Hundreds of years between then and now, but I remembered what my blood looked like, how pain felt. This wasn’t pain. Just—cold. Colder than I’d ever been, cold and numb. It seeped across my skin. Was this what they had felt, Reina and the others? And the liquid, slicking my arm around the wound, couldn’t be blood. Blood had never been so black, so viscous.
“One of us will have to die.”
A muscle twitched in Volen’s jaw as silent seconds passed. Then, raising his sword to meet mine, he said, “It seems so.”
With an ease bordering on derision, Volen battered my blade aside, lashed out with practiced, inhuman speed. I strained to match him, strained until my bones ached with the effort, and managed to block some of those slashes and chops. But, first at my shin, then at my shoulder, and then at my side, little nicks added up. Every one of them plunged me into icy slush, drained strength from my muscles. A deep gouge in my calf brought me to one knee, left me struggling for breath with lungs half frozen.
Even then, fury was there, fury and Koah, pumping fire through my veins, keeping the cold at bay.
“You should know better.” Volen smirked, contempt making his voice hollow, his eyes gleam. “After all, Hiram held the power of us all, and I overwhelmed him.” He made a small, spiteful bow. “So it’s mine, now.” Yes, contempt. It was a measure of his contempt that he hadn’t tapped into Koah from the others in the duel.
I was laughing, I realized. It sounded disjointed and strange in my ears, forced and pained and maybe mad. But it was laughter.
“You think he was the one? Truly? The power of us all, and you killed him just like that.” I laughed all the harder, wheezed at Volen’s quiet bemusement. I laughed through my tears. “They called Asufah, remember? When we first got here. You remember what a nuisance it was, to hop a ship right back to England, when we had only just arrived. Why’d they do that, you think? Called all of us together for the first time in six hundred years.”
“Garrid.” Volen sounded amused. “Stop it.” He didn’t understand. Not yet.
“They knew. Two hundred years ago, more, and they knew. You couldn’t resist, you had to play God.”
Laughter faded, tears slowed, and I put my foot beneath me and rose to stand before Volen. A sudden wind blew between us, hot as the inside of a furnace. Volen said nothing.
“But I couldn’t see it. No matter how desperate they’d become, they should never have let you hear Tohu’s call, never should have let you join. No matter how I begged.” Yes, laughter was gone. But so was the cold.
“You’re lying,” Volen said, his voice quiet, not quite shaking. “They wouldn’t wait, Garrid. If they knew, they would have—” His eyes widened, as he answered his own question. Execution required the full council’s agreement. “You…”
I nodded. “Me. And Reina.” Which meant the council waited, and planned.
“Nonsense. You’re bluffing; I know you are.” Volen’s lip curled at the corner, though it never reached his eyes. “I’ve played against you enough to know. It’s your way to bluff after the gold is in the pot. But I’ve already won, Garrid. As I always do.” The jeer was forced. Calling upon our history to barb me was a common tactic, but it was desperate, here. Our history couldn’t make me hesitate. My doubt was gone.
“We wouldn’t believe,” I continued, as though Volen had said nothing, “so they made another plan. You did what they knew you would, what I feared.”
“You lie,” Volen repeated, slowly. “I was there, as you were. I saw. Nesim to Bej’arden, and from there to Hiram. He held the power.” The certainty in Volen’s voice clashed with the tremble in his breathing.
“Did you pause long enough to find it curious, Volen? Why she would be chosen to hold the Star—she, the weakest of us?”
My tone hardened as I spoke of Reina’s death. She had followed the plan much as I had, without believing it necessary. Volen would never betray us, never hurt us. Had she even fought him? Or had she been too shocked to see the blood on his hands, to hear his Voice, to feel Koah pressing in around her?
“Did you think, Volen, or did you just glut on her death?!” Hesitation was gone, weakness burned away. Knowledge sparked in their place. I knew what would happen, how it must happen.
My body screamed as I drew Koah into me. The power of them all burned through me; my heart urged them along in my blood, warming the farthest, coldest regions of my soul. That coldness that passed for pain had melted. All was warmth, and light, and strength. The world slowed to a crawl beneath its weight.
The monster’s human façade slipped in the smallest increments. First, the crease in the forehead eased, the furrow between the eyes relaxed. Then the frown lines disappeared, as the mouth opened and the lips curved upward. The eyes spread wider, wider, until the entire iris glowed cold in their center, the pupils shrunken to the barest dots. Finally, the throat and tongue made the sounds I knew would follow: one last empty jeer.
“YOU CAN ASK HER SHORTLY!”
I moved first, now. Time and space expanded; the trice it took for the blades to meet spread to hours, and the millimeters of skin on Volen’s chest, over his heart, spread to acres.
Thought flooded as power did, so thoroughly that I could only separate one from the last, from the next. The thought became my mantra as the blades met, flashing with enough sparks to light the rooftop brighter than noonday in summer; as power swelled in Chasmal; as the thin white lines spread to overtake metal, hotter than magma, hotter than the cores of a thousand suns. The thought flooded my soul as Volen’s blade shattered along those crimson lines, as the tip of my sword met that acre over Volen’s heart. The thought sustained me as my blade boiled fabric and skin, muscle and bone, like a glowing hot poker through water. That single, miserable thought kept me from crumbling when through the sword I felt Volen’s heart explode.
He murdered her. The thought burst in my head like a mote of dust, clouding over everything, distorting everything.
Volen’s mouth moved to speak, eyes meeting mine, but then his face fell slack, and his eyes glazed, empty. Tohu fell from limp fingers, exploding into glimmering white dust as it hit the roof. And then, inch by inch, Volen’s body did the same.
I stood stiffly still, just watched as all that had been my friend dissolved into that bright cloud. The jewel, Bej’arden, hit the ground, and the cloud stirred around it in liquid ripples. Like water above a drain, the cloud spiraled down, flooded into the single imperfection on the jewel’s smooth, crystalline surface. As the jewel sucked in the last few grains of power and fell dark, my knees betrayed me, and I stumbled back a step before I could stand again.
A flash lit the rooftop as Chasmal returned to the void before it could fall to the ground. A wordless cry tore from my throat; my heart quivered in my chest. Some cruel, giant hand squeezed viciously. My heart couldn’t beat. I couldn’t breathe.
They were dead. All of them. The world I had loved, had accepted this loathsome eternity for, I’d let be destroyed. All the other worlds, worlds that had been and worlds that could have come to be, I had killed with my own hands. For this. Nothing was left, nothing but the cold above, the flame below. Nothing but death.
Stepping forward, I picked up the jewel from the corner of the giant H, cradled it in my arms as mortals might cradle a child. I peered into those dark depths, into the single, scattered coil of light at its center.
There’d been a night, not so long ago, when it had seemed that all our dreams were coming to fruition. Not even twenty years ago. Reina had brought me to a roof, much like this one. A telescope sat on its tripod; through that glass sat the universe. Planets and moons. Stars, asteroids, meteors. Through that telescope, I first saw stardust, the clouds of the galaxy, eclipsing the beauty of a thousand worlds. Stardust in the void—a cloud that obscured truth. That was what this glow in the jewel’s depths resembled.
A single imperfection marred the jewel’s glassy surface, what seemed a crack at first glance. But, much like the squared corners of the jewel itself, the lines of that artifact were too straight, too regular, for nature, and too perfect for the hands of man. Saint John had seen. In his right hand were seven stars and from his mouth he drew a sharp double-edged sword. John had also seen a sword of fire scorching a third of the world.
The jewel glowed hot in my hands; I stumbled backward, clutching the railing to keep from falling over the side. Hot as the sword had been, it pushed inward at my stomach. Clothes and skin didn’t give way, and the jewel didn’t fade or grow less solid, but it pushed its way up and in. In, until it rested deep in my chest. There it burned in me, every pulse of power reminding me what I’d done. What I’d allowed to happen. What I had become.
“Asufah.” I chuckled mirthlessly. Assembly, it meant. The council’s grand word for the full gathering, only called when a decision needed to be made—a decision that would alter the face of the world. And I was all that was left of them, of their good intentions. Chaos. All our efforts at using the primordial powers for mankind’s benefit, worse than useless. I turned to hold the rail with both hands as I looked over the city. Wind, cold against my face, raked icy fingers through my hair. Smoke burned in my lungs.
The colossus of glass and steel now wore gaping scars, or bore fiery wounds that guttered thick black smoke. In places, I could see their bones; in places, bones were all that were left. Mine was one of the few that had escaped mortal wounds. The smaller buildings were less lucky.
Hundreds of vehicles choked the city streets—squashed, mangled ruins after their owners’ frantic flight. Ambulances and fire trucks and police cars peppered the wreckage, some still sounding the flashing, whining sirens, others sitting dark and silent.
Bodies. Bodies beyond counting. They were piled on sidewalks, scattered on streets, under cars and in them. They hung from windows and lay against walls, Burnt or broken, sliced or shot, beheaded or disemboweled. Some were days dead, but even those that still drew last gasping breaths were without hope.
The few people who might yet survive moved with frenzy, with malice. A handful ran or hid, scrambling to escape this world gone mad, but the larger portion was hungry, with no thought but satisfying their own whims. Mankind could be like that, sometimes. I’d seen it before: in war, in famine. Under tyranny.
Volen had been a fool. Had he really thought that humanity would bow before us? Would accept us, the superior beings, for rulers? Had he believed that when the world was shown the truth, was forced to acknowledge it, they would fall in line? Or had he thought that, with all our power, the two of us could press the mortals into accepting, using Koah.
The thought stopped me for a second. I clutched the rail tighter, to keep my hands from shaking. With the power I held now, the power of us all, I probably could. If I wanted, I could rule the world, force the most stubborn mortal to obey.
Fear quivered in my stomach, a snake that coiled and slithered, biting my insides. Poisoning me.
And in those days, and in the days after, Nephilim roamed the earth. Born of the sons of God and the daughters of man, they obtained power from Seraphim but retained human souls. They were…abomination. Chapter six of Genesis. I had known that by heart before I became a page in William’s court. Lifting the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, I drew the strings tighter. It wasn’t the cold that made me shiver, though.
Gabriel looked and saw that his sons were full of sin. When he saw what his sons had wrought, he cried to Heaven and asked for forgiveness. God turned from him. It was then that Gabriel took his sword, which was called Chasmal and which was made from fire and from blood, and drove it through his stomach. So Gabriel passed from the Earth, and so his sons inherited his sin. From those days to the end of days, the sons of Gabriel carry his doom in their blood.
Aiga’dah. Legend. A collection of scrolls as old as Genesis, scrolls that had been kept from the ancient books. Scrolls that spoke extensively on Nephilim. It was possible to trace family lines from those scrolls, Nephilim lines. I had been taught every word on those scrolls when Chasmal called to me, before we were allowed to be united.
When Chasmal chose me, I’d been told what it meant. The blood of Seraphim was in my veins, the ancient sin lived through me. But it was only now, as the world burned, that I really understood.
For a long moment I scanned the horizon, watched as it flared red in the light of the evening, the light of the city’s fire. Then my hands briefly clutched the railing for momentum, as I vaulted over the roof’s edge.
The street rushed up to meet me, wind roaring against my body like it meant to hold me up. The squared windows of the building across the street were streaks, but the surface of the sidewalk and the mangled cars below grew clearer and clearer. The wind was like wool pressed tight against my mouth, making it hard to breathe, but, blowing under the hood and through my hair, it reminded me of another time, long ago. If I shut my eyes against this milieu of madness, I was there.
Reina ahead, low on the back of her horse, laughed raucously and shouted for me to catch her. Her hair flailed behind her like fire; her riding cloak danced in the air. She was beautiful. I hadn’t realized how beautiful. Then, it had just been about catching her, about proving that I was her equal. Racing through the lush of early spring, while the air still bit at exposed skin, I laughed along with her, kneeing my gelding faster, faster. She was the one who oversaw my training when I joined the council, the one to teach me what this new life meant. It was then, as I was catching up, as my hand reached for her shoulder and she shied away teasingly, that I learned.
I didn’t know until afterward that my horse’s hoof had caught on thick vines, that it had broken its leg and torn so many muscles that it would not heal. All I had known was that it was gone from under me, that I was flying at a tree headfirst, at full gallop.
My body slammed into the car beneath me. In a single instant, roof buckled, windows shattered, seats collapsed, tires exploded, axles broke. The ground beneath shuddered at the impact. Then, for a moment, there was only the sirens, and the fire. Soon enough, though, the noises of humanity’s fall resumed; they had stopped and watched only long enough to see me die.
My wounded mind stretched thin between the warmth of memory and this cold present. The terror of that moment, and then the smack of skin on bark, the crack of the trunk splintering. The cacophony of the apocalypse.
I cursed as I flipped over off the side of the crumpled car, landing on my hands and knees on shattered glass and black-top. I remembered that day, remembered pulling myself to stand, hearing the cries of my horse in the moments before Reina gave it a quick death. My heart had hammered in my chest, but the pain I expected never came. I knew then what this life meant. Immortality. Freedom from pain, freedom from age, freedom from death. Freedom.
I pushed away the memory; looking on it hurt my eyes. The joy, and awe, and promise. The bliss I’d known in the centuries since, and the knowledge of where it ended, would break me if I let it.
Instead, I focused on the present, berated myself for letting my mind drift in free fall. I could have hit bare street! Then I’d be in the sewer. A rueful smile pulled on me as I shrugged off a last remnant of that cold, as I suppressed the fire roiling in my chest. Putting my feet beneath me, I used the side of the car to rise.
It was time to get moving, to brace the walls Volen had tried to tear down. Time to undo what the fool had done, what all of us had done for the last nine hundred years. I owed it to them.
I owed it to her.
Feel free to comment and let me know what you thought! Hope you enjoyed!