Dedicated to Shani, Lail, and all other Hebrew speakers who came up with an awesome name for Moloch’s priesthood.
::waves at Emily::
The darkness pooling in the corner of the room moved.
It flowed from the ceiling, from the floor, to its center, as if a large piece of the thinnest black gauze had been spread over the far wall and the floor and now someone caught it with a hook and was pulling it to me. I forced myself to sit still, my hand on the shaft of my spear.
The darkness coalesced into a human shape, tall, lean, male, and woven of fire. Smoke swirled around him, transforming into a voluminous black robe and a long cloak. Human skin the color of alabaster sheathed him, obscuring the fire, but failing to hide it completely. It was still there, licking his skin from the inside and warming it with a soft peach glow here and there.
Not just a ma’avir. One of the high priests. Shit. At least I got Ascanio out of here.
The ma’avir folded his hands in front of him, left palm up, right resting on top of it. He was hairless. No stubble, no eyebrows, no eyelashes. Just smooth skin stretched tight over angular features. His eyes, a light bluish green, fixed me. There was no surprise in them, only recognition. He came here especially for me.
The amount of magic he required to maintain a human form had to be staggering. I wasn’t sure I would win this fight.
The high priest gave me a shallow bow, little more than a nod. “We finally meet, Dananu.”
“What reason would I have to meet with a child killer?”
Leviticus 18:21 prohibited the faithful from sacrificing their children. The specific line stated, “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech.” The ma’avirim received their name from that act. They were the ones who took living children and “passed them through the fire” to their god. One didn’t become a high priest until he murdered hundreds.
“I’ve hidden well, yet you knew I was there. Tell me, Dananu, does my magic call to you? Does the sacrificial fire smell sweet? Does its power tempt you?”
“No. It sickens me.”
“Really?” He tilted his head like a puzzled dog. “I think it beckons you. It’s a craving, a gnawing need that only sacrifice can satisfy. Imagine tasting it. Imagine the rush of power flooding through your throbbing veins.”
“Veins don’t throb. Arteries do.”
“Why deny yourself the ecstasy?”
“I don’t know, the burning babies alive part probably has something to do with it.”
“Life is pain and suffering. A nasty and brutish journey of toil and regret.”
His magic pressed on me like a heavy weight. “Thomas Hobbes called. He wants his thesis back.”
“Children are innocent and pure. We spare them a lifetime of misery. In a brief flash of pain, their souls join our God in the glorious eternity of the afterlife.”
“How very noble. Your god feeds on suffering.”
The ma’avir gave me a condescending smile. “All gods feed on suffering. Without it, there are no prayers or offerings. Mankind is selfish. They give only when they have to. If this world was idyllic and life was just, what need would there be for gods?”
The more he talked, the higher chance I had of learning why he was in Atlanta. But he was too high up on the food chain to let something slip unless I got him agitated. I had to bait him.
“The Christian God doesn’t require blood sacrifice.”
The ma’avir laughed softly. “Oh, but he did. Their god thirsted for blood, he demanded it, and when his ratings slipped, he hid behind a kinder, softer version of himself. How many died in that humble god’s name? How many killed for the martyr? Firstborn sons were his favorite.”
That’s right. Keep ranting. “And yet his followers flourish.”
The ma’avir sneered. “The gullible who willingly swallow lies and the blind who shut their own eyes for the fear they will see the truth. The cults of Abraham. The biggest con of the modern world.”
How to insult Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in three sentences or less. “Tell me, when I kill you, will you pass into the glorious eternity of the afterlife and bask in the love of your god?”
He smiled. “Eventually when I die, yes. But it won’t be today, and it won’t be by your hand.”
He was very sure of that. I leaned forward. “One thing puzzles me. Perhaps you can clear it up, given your vast knowledge.”
“I shall do my best.”
“Those Abrahamic religions you sneer at chased your god out of the world, because nobody wants to sacrifice their children and their future to a rabid glutton eager for the next hit off the sacrificial altar. Since nobody knows who he is, Moloch is starving for followers and he had to be reborn. He became flesh.”
The ma’avir stared at me. Hold on, I’m getting to it.
“So, answer me this, high priest. If I kill you now, and you pass through the mortal veil, what will you find on the other side? Your glorious eternity is empty. Your god isn’t there. He is in Arizona digging in the dirt. Your soul will float in nothing, lost and alone. Do you know what hell is? Hell is the absence of god.”
His face rippled. Ha! Direct hit. I sank his battleship.
The ma’avir opened his mouth. “Say what you wish. Fight with everything you have. Struggle, kick, bite, none of it matters. He wants you and you will come to him. You will dedicate yourself to him and when that moment comes, you will beg to bring him your mother’s head on a silver platter. You will weep tears of gratitude when he devours her eyes.”
“That’s beautiful. You should write that down. If my journey so inevitable, what are you doing here in Atlanta? Why not just wait for me?”
He leaned forward, the flames inside him flaring. “I will carve you into pieces and bring them to my god. The drop of power you stole will keep you alive, and when you awaken half a century from now in his fiery embrace, we will speak again.”
Fear hammered a cold spike through my heart. I could see it in my head, my body in pieces, clinging to life, aware, watching, but powerless as everyone I cared about died one by one. I had to kill him. If he won, what kind of world would I wake up to?
The high priest showed me his teeth, blood-red fangs made of fire. “I can hear your heart flutter. I watched you walk around this city you used to call home, wearing pretended arrogance like armor. Now you understand. He is a god and you are still an abandoned child craving approval and shivering in the dark.”
The fear crystalized into a new emotion and I let it fuel me. “Fear isn’t the only thing that can make a heart flutter.”
“What else is in your heart, orphan child?”
I spat power words, a command from a language so old, it shaped magic itself. “Sert ranam girreh!” Bar the city gates.
Magic pulsed from me in a flash of blinding pain, splashing against the boundaries of the room, and burst into an invisible wall, cutting us off from reality. My grandmother used this spell millennia ago when enemy armies besieged Shinar cities.
The ma’avir recoiled.
I leapt over the desk, Dakan in my hands, and stabbed at the priest, aiming just under the breastbone. The spearhead shone with red as it sliced the air. I had brought two canteens full of vampire blood primed with my own. An hour ago, when I took up my post behind the desk, I had coated Dakan in the blood mix and solidified it, turning the metal spearhead into a razor-sharp blood weapon.
The ma’avir turned to smoke. The spear pierced him and passed through with no resistance.
The swirl of smoke surged to the window and rammed the invisible magic wall, turning solid for a micro-second. The magic tolled in my head like a huge bell being struck with a hammer.
I stabbed at him and he went ethereal again. My spearhead shredded smoke.
The high priest streamed toward the door and slammed into my wall again. I thrust at him before the sound of the impact rolled through me. Dakan met only air. Missed again. Damn it. I couldn’t stab smoke and he couldn’t break the wall unless he turned solid. Fine. I could keep this up until he got tired or I got lucky.
We danced across the room, him throwing himself at the boundary and me trying to nail him with my spear to it. The world shrank to the clump of smoke and the tip of my spear.
Where was the fire? Absorbing Moloch’s eye granted me some immunity, but it had limits, and a high priest would burn through them in a single blast. Why wasn’t this room a sea of fire?
Using the language of power took a hefty chunk of my magic. I could hit him with another one – I had a whole arsenal at my disposal – but there was no guarantee it would work. He was holding back and until I knew the full extent of his power, so would I. The blood spear would work just fine.
Stab. Stab. Stab.
My spear sliced through solid flesh. Fire splashed the magic wall, and then the ma’avir was smoke again. Nicked him. I just had to be a hair faster.
The smoke turned into fire. A glowing nebula of light and heat splayed out near the ceiling and contracted, like a star collapsing into a tiny white-hot spark. It shot across the room like a bullet, shrinking into a blinding mote of light, and bit into my wall.
A scalding hot needle of pain punctured my skull from one temple to the other and vanished. He was through. Shit.
The fire exploded outside the window, snapping into the ma’avir. I spun to the desk, dropping the wall as I moved, grabbed my bow, turned, and fired. It took less than half a second. The arrow tore through the ma’avir and streaked into the night.
The high priest laughed. “Chase me, daughter of Shinar. Catch me. Drive me from your city. Try to take my life before I feast on the eyes of your loved ones. Show me what you can do.”
I let out a shrill whistle, swiped my spear off the desk, and ran downstairs. He dared me to chase him, which meant he had a trap prepared and would lead me to it. That was the plan all along, and I would follow him into the trap. I had no choice. He had seen Ascanio and probably Luther. If his rant wasn’t a bluff, he might have seen others. Stella. Monkey. Nick. My family.
I had to kill him no matter what it took.
I burst out of the front doors. The ma’avir hung above the lawn, fifty feet in the air. Too high. I unscrewed Dakan and slid its halves into its sheath on my back.
Tulip came running, and I sprinted to her and jumped into the saddle. Above us, the ma’avir surged across the sky, an ink-black swirl of magic that blotted out the stars as it passed. Amra took to the air and I sent him high, out of the reach of the priest. I chased the shadow in the sky heading west.
Tulip dashed through the deserted pre-dawn streets. The priest turned north. I made a left on Clifton. Tulip broke into a gallop. Buildings rushed past us. The smoke veered right, to the north east. Woods loomed in front of me, the entrance to the trail cutting through them illuminated by a single fey lantern streetlamp. I steered Tulip onto it.
The trail shied left, then right. Tulip took a turn too fast. Tree branches slapped me.
I couldn’t see him, but my magic told me he was still there, trailing spicy smoke and echoes of human weeping.
The trees on the right ended, as if jerked out of sight. Asphalt replaced packed dirt. We galloped along a lake, Tulip’s hoofbeats too loud on the paved ground.
A shred of darkness streaked on the edge of my vision and disappeared beyond the trees ahead. I would kill him tonight. It was that or my people would start dying.
We reached a bridge and tore across it. The trail turned right, the trees parting like opened hands. A huge ruin loomed ahead, pale grey in the light of the dying moon. A sign flashed by. Atlanta VA Medical Center.
The thing I was chasing hovered above it and dove down. This was it.
I blinked into Amra’s vision. It was fuzzy and dark, but I saw the ruin from above. The roof was gone, but the outer walls and some of the inner ones still stood, jutting into the sky anywhere from fifty to seventy feet high, turning the abandoned building into an unpredictable labyrinth. The inside of the medical center had collapsed and was cleared, probably looted or salvaged.
A spark ignited in the heart of the ruin. The ma’avir making sure I didn’t get lost.
I dismounted. Tulip stared at me, wild eyed, and I hugged her to me. “If I don’t come back, go to your mother.”
She knocked me with her head. I grabbed my bow off her saddle and ducked into the building.
The air smelled of concrete powder, a dry chalky scent that lingered in buildings chewed up by magic. Weeds grew through the crumbled floor, widening the cracks. Here and there, walls rose, distorted by remnants of wiring and plumbing. I glided through it, quiet and fast.
A slight breeze fanned my face, bringing a hint of smoke. Close now.
I walked through an arched doorway. A big square room lay in front of me under the open sky. The floor was a memory, all grass punctuated by a tiled chunk here and there, but the walls were solid, without breaks. At the other end, the ma’avir waited, poised against the pale backdrop.
Too far for an arrow. At this range he would dodge.
I took a step. Another.
The ma’avir waited.
This was a killing box and he wanted me to get deep enough for him to slam the trap door shut.
“You’re making me do all the work,” I told him. “Come. Show me the might of Moloch’s chosen.”
“You’re right. You’ve come all this way. Let me show the hospitality we reserve for the royalty of Shinar.”
The ma’avir spread his arms. The world ignited.
Fire rose like a monstrous dust storm and rolled toward me. I shut my eyes. It singed my skin and kept going. I opened my eyes. The walls were on fire. They shouldn’t have been, but they blazed, so bright, they looked white. Heat assaulted me, unbearable and dense. This was nothing like the weak attacks the other priest had tried. This was like standing in the heart of the sun. Or hell.
At the other end of the room, the priest was a living flame, a simulacrum of a human made inferno.
The heat burned my back. I took a step forward. The room was shrinking, or rather the fire was moving. He was herding me toward him.
“Ranar kair!” Come before me.
Agony sank its fangs into me and ripped me apart. For a terrifying second, I thought it killed me.
The torrent of power shot from me to the priest. The fire flashed… and nothing.
I had pulled fifty enemy troops to me with that one command. He didn’t even waver.
It didn’t work. He had no body. He was M0loch’s sacred fire, and that placed him beyond my power.
The heat licked my back again. The stone walls sagged, melting.
The scorched ground twenty feet in front of me burst into flame. The thin layer of soil burned off, revealing a gaping pit. Four-foot-tall spikes bristled at the bottom. Not steel, tungsten, just beginning to glow with heat. Burning me would consume my flesh. It would take me longer to regenerate. It might even kill me. The high priest didn’t want to take the chance. He had prepared a tiger trap for me instead.
I had a choice: I could burn to death, or I could be impaled and cut to pieces. How considerate.
Heat scalded me. I took another small step.
The pit was at least thirty-five feet across. Even if I were an Olympic champion, I wouldn’t clear it.
The air felt thick like soup. It was getting harder to breathe.
I could not die here. I would not die here. I’d come too far.
The fire wall behind me moved another six inches.
I had one shot. One chance to get close enough. If I failed, if it didn’t hold…
Another half a foot. I took another step. This would be my last one.
I ripped the canteens of blood from my belt and squeezed their caps. Two small blades popped up. I stabbed them into my shoulders. The magic shivering in my blood broke free, ready to go. I pulled on it and it shot out of me in twin streams, turning into crimson mist. I hurled the contents of the canteens into the air, mixing it with my undiluted blood, and sprinted to the pit, bow in hand.
The ma’avir’s fire flared and I saw his face within it, lips spread in a wide smile. He knew he had me. He thought I had chosen the easier death.
The blood mist rushed to me, coating me, sheathing my skin and my hair. I had done this hundreds of times. It was as easy as breathing now. I just hoped it was strong enough.
I leaped into the pit. For an instant, I flew, weightless, as my blood and magic combined on my body. Then gravity hit and I plunged like a rock, the ma’avir vanishing from view. A low laugh rolled through the room.
The blood armor snapped together, covering me head to toe. Only my eyes and nostrils remained uncovered. I needed sight and air for the next few seconds.
My feet touched the spikes, heat burned me, but I kept running, my blood boots blunting the sharp points, shaping an arrow out of my blood as I ran. The edge loomed in front of me. I wasted a precious half second to crouch and jumped straight up. The priest’s shocked face flashed before me, only twenty-five feet away.
A cone of fire roared toward me, impossibly hot.
I shut my eyes, letting the blood armor flow over my entire face. Deaf and blind, I took the shot.
I landed badly. My left ankle rolled under me, heat burning the soles of my feet through the armor.
There was no air. I held my breath and waited. It felt like I was being cooked alive. I had sprinted so hard. My body screamed for air.
I staggered forward. The few precious moments of oxygen my movement cost me would make no difference.
I let the armor slide off my face. It fell off in black chunks, crumbling in midair, its magic exhausted.
The ma’avir hung from the wall in front of me, no longer fire, but pale flesh. My arrow had pierced through his heart, or through the place it used to be.
Got him. I got him.
His light eyes focused on me. “I can see now. I understand why he wants you. Forgive me. When you ascend to his side, I will serve you in the afterlife.”
His eyes rolled back in his head. I dropped to the ground, building a new face shield from what little blood I could still take.
The high priest detonated.