Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 63
Stories
Burnover
by K. D. Julicher
A World Without
by Aimee Ogden
Comrades in Arms
by Bud Sparhawk
Sin Titulo
by Dan Stout
IGMS Audio
The Life Cycles of Goldfish
Read by Stuart Jaffe
Vintage Fiction
The Rhythm Man
by James Beamon

A World Without
    by Aimee Ogden

A World Without
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

All Knights die alone. Sveth-ban-Ara knows this. But the knowledge has sharp edges, and it wounds her anyway.

She fills her mind with the mantra even as the sweaty air of the marketplace fills her mouth, her lungs, the narrow spaces inside her armor. Her shadow falls short and thick upon the street's jagged stones; the sun has not yet reached the height of its climb across the sky. In Sveth-ban-Ara's homeland, she would often wake with the rime of frost on boots left outside the door. But it is not the sweat on her brow or the humid breath on her neck that troubles her now. Stares hang on her armor, on the heavy sword that looms over her shoulder. It's been a long time since the city of Yinar has seen a Morningstar Knight. Not every eye turns her way, not every brow folds in dismay. But it only takes one rancid fish to spoil the take. Some of them look afraid. Good. Fear is the only reasonable choice, when a god turns.

She should have had a daughter. The thought arrives unbidden and intrusive, as familiar things often do. If she had a daughter, she would not be so alone now, and after--no. She has come to Yinar in search of endings, not to crawl again through the broken glass of might-have-been.

At a crossroads, she pauses to take the new street's measure. Her sword and her services will go unneeded until tomorrow morning, at the earliest. She knows this in her bones, with the same gnawing certainty that brought her to Yinar to put her blade and her life between the city and its doom. There is no other Knight left to hear that call. She should have had a daughter--

A pebble strikes Sveth-ban-Ara's cheekbone and snaps her head around. She does not fall, nor stagger, but blood weeps to the ground between her feet. She looks up. Half a dozen youths cluster around their leader, who stands head and shoulders above the rest. A half-god, that one, with his height, the green marbled veins in his pale skin. She wonders if it is his father's name that she will whisper to her sword tonight while they sit together in vigil. But no, perhaps not: this one is too fair, too lithe of limb. Whatever godhead spawned him is long buried in the earth or under the waves. When his eyes catch hers, he calls out, "Yinar needs no Morningstar, not while we are blessed by the light of Damal!"

He doesn't know the shape of the shadow that will fall across this city. He can't know, nor begin to guess at its depth and darkness. Few ever do, in all the lands that Sveth-ban-Ara has crossed. No one wants to believe that their own god could bring them harm, that their deity too could stare long enough into the mirror of mortality to shatter his sanity. These things happen far away, to other people in distant places. Stories are just stories, until you see them come true.

It is what it is. There is no law to compel belief. That is what the Knights are for.

Sveth-ban-Ara turns her head, and her body follows. More pebbles rattle against the back of her helmet and armor, but do no more harm. Neither do the taunts. The half-god is not one of sport or war, she thinks. Perhaps he is the half-god of paper art, or sweet raisin wine. Sveth-ban-Ara licks her lips and tastes old copper and salt.

"Lord of the Morningstar. Are you all right?" Someone touches Sveth-ban-Ara's elbow. There is no contact, not with her armor in between, but she feels the weight of the foreign hand. She smothers the instinct to seize the fingers, twist the wrist, move free. She stares down into the face of a much smaller woman. The stranger's hair has been shaved from half her head, and over each eyebrow she bears a small tattoo in the common local custom. These particular marks trace the shapes of stars: a plea for wisdom, Sveth-ban-Ara recalls.

The stranger's eyes narrow and her brow furrows, drawing the stars closer together. Sveth-ban-Ara remembers that she is supposed to speak. "It's nothing." She lowers her hand from her face and looks at the blood. The wound stings, but head injuries always bleed more than they matter. "Thank you for your concern."

The stranger's hand falls away from Sveth-ban-Ara's elbow. She looks back down the street, toward the half-god and his chattering cohort. "I thought--some Knights, at least, won't suffer even a half-god to live. They all go mad, in time."

Sveth-ban-Ara does not turn to follow her gaze. She has drunk deeply of half-god wine, studied the intricate architecture in the bridges they inspire and the towers they enkindle. She has overnighted in a rainbow-laced valley built by a half-god and her worshippers. The rainbows screamed when their creator's blood rained down upon the valley's stones to mix with what had already been shed, but they remained. At least until Sveth-ban-Ara left upon the morn: she could not say what had happened to that secret place in the years since. "They give so much, before it is their turn to take. I would not steal their days in the sunlight before night comes. It's not for me to destroy what is still whole." She pauses, and looks the person over again. An unadorned yellow bracelet informs Sveth-ban-Ara that this person prefers to be called woman, she, her; the heavy ink-spattered case hung by her side proclaims her profession as that of a scribe. There is little more to see, and that absence strikes Sveth-ban-Ara. No totems, no offerings, no holy tattoos. "You're Godless."

The woman's gaze jerks back to Sveth-ban-Ara. "Oh--yes. I never felt called, I suppose, by Damal or any of the others." Her mouth tilts, not a smile, not a frown. "Though I suppose there really aren't any others left. Not of the great ones."

"No." Sveth-ban-Ara shifts her weight. The sword is heavy on her back and she should find someplace to stop for the night. She could fulfill her duties without doing the vigil first--has done so before--but it would feel wrong. There is enough wrong with her job that she prefers not to weight the equation further. "Only the one, now."

"A world without gods. What will that be like?" The woman shakes her head slowly, then hard and fast, as if to toss aside that question. "But where are my manners? I am Abet-ban-Esro, and I can offer you a room for the night, if you'd have it."

The offer of lodging would startle Sveth-ban-Ara if not for the bigger lightning-strike that landed first. "I am Sveth-ban-Ara," she says, and Abet-ban-Esro's face lights up as they clasp one another's wrists. For a moment they stand there, Abet-ban-Esro's slender wrist steady in Sveth-ban-Ara's leather grasp, and her fingers steady on Sveth-ban-Ara's steel-clad arm. It is good to be in the presence of another ban: someone who is more than a daughter, more than an apprentice. Someone who knows what it is like to be the spiritual heir of another woman. All the honor that goes along with such a thing, and all the fear too. Sveth-ban-Ara wonders what the scribe Esro was like, and if she would have shared a cup of wine with Ara. She breaks the handshake first, and Abet-ban-Esro smiles sadly, knowingly. "Thank you," says Sveth-ban-Ara. "I would appreciate a place to shelter."

They leave the busy street together, and in Sveth-ban-Ara's wake, a few bodies break away from the orbits of their daily routines: running home, running to a loved one's school or work, running away.

Abet-ban-Esro leads Sveth-ban-Ara to a narrow clay house in the sprawling mid-city. Through the open back door she catches a glimpse of a tiny terrace with an olive tree in full flower; twin children play word-games in its shade. Another woman, her wrist wrapped in yellow ribbon and her belly round with child, dozes on a brick chaise beside them. Abet-ban-Esro's gaze lingers fondly on them as she ushers Sveth-ban-Ara past, and up the stairs to the second level. The children are too busy at their game to notice the scribe and the knight passing by.

At a curtain-draped doorway, Abet-ban-Esro beckons Sveth-ban-Ara forward. "My study," she says, and parts the curtains for Sveth-ban-Ara to pass. It is a small room, a desk to one side pile with books and notes, a few oddments of children's toys strewn about on the floor. Abet-ban-Esro clucks and hurries to pick them up. "I'll bring you a pallet to sleep on--Hema and Lin can share for the night and they'll be none the worse for it."

"You are very kind." Abet-ban-Esro has retreated to the door, which gives Sveth-ban-Ara enough space, barely, to heft the sword from her back. She settles to the ground cross-legged, with the blade laid across her lap, and her leather-wrapped fingers drift across the scabbard. "But I won't be sleeping tonight. I need to prepare for tomorrow." More words dam up behind her teeth, and spill reluctantly. She has made this speech before, and so often it pours out upon closed ears. She can't make anyone listen but she must offer them the choice. "Your children . . ."

Abet-ban-Esro's chin tilts downward. "If you're here, I expect that it means the great god Damal has finally gone mad. Well, he is very old and things here change very fast. It is what it is. But if you are here, is the city not safe?"

The weight of the sword makes Sveth-ban-Ara's thighs ache. It will be a long night. "The god is very old and very wily," she tells Abet-ban-Esro's knees. "And there is only me to stop him."

"What?" The stars on Abet-ban-Esro's brows leap skyward. "Will the rest of your order not come to help? Will they abandon Yinar in our time of need?" Her arms, thin and wiry, wrap across her chest. "My children aren't the only ones in the city."

"No. I know. I wish I had more to offer you." Her throat tightens. She tries to remember the names of Abet-ban-Esro's children--Hema? Lenn? What would she have named her own daughter, if such a creature existed? There was never any time, not to lay down the sword for all those long months, nor to lie herself down beside another body to create that new life in the first place. The idea doesn't disgust Sveth-ban-Ara, but it offers little interest. Too late now to reorder her priorities. Better by far to be a god, she thinks, and spawn offspring as you will it than to submit to such an inconvenient process. She blinks, and finds Abet-ban-Esro's stare still heavy upon her. "They would have come, Abet-ban-Esro. There should be more. But I am the last."

Abet-ban-Esro releases her frown. Her mouth works slowly, silently. Sveth-ban-Ara does not want to hear what it is she is processing: fears, condolences, worries for the future of the world when all the great old gods are gone and all the Morningstar Knights as well. She reaches into the purse at her side and yanks free a gold coin, as big around as two knuckles. "For the lodging. I would ask that you not disturb me during the night, once I've begun my vigil. Thank you for your space, and your understanding."

Abet-ban-Esro takes the coin, turns it over in her fingers. "It seems strange to me," she says, "to offer gold for the use of a space that, as you tell it, might not even be here on the morrow."

Sveth-ban-Ara shrugs.

"And where will you be come tomorrow evening, Lord of the Morningstar?" asks Abet-ban-Esro. Again Sveth-ban-Ara does not answer. She has spent all the words in her already, but for the name she must feed her sword yet tonight. Abet-ban-Esro stands in the doorway another long moment, and then the curtain drops back into place in front of her. Sveth-ban-Ara hears her small feet landing heavy on the floor of the upstairs hall, and her voice raised like a desperate prayer to a string of invoked names: Hema! Lin! Aucande! A three-part harmony to accompany the monotone beat that Sveth-ban-Ara begins to chant to her sleeping sword: Damal. Damal. Damal.

Sunlight crawls across the study floor and warms first the elbow, then the shoulder, then the back of Sveth-ban-Ara's armor. She allows herself to rise up from the trance created by the quiet, the darkness, the relentless rhythm of the vigil.

Her legs are stiff when she stands, and her shoulder clatters against the clay outline of the door. She pauses, but hears no answering sound from the silent household. Good. Then Abet-ban-Esro has taken her advice.

Her feet are heavy on the stairs down to the first floor. The household is still cemetery-silent, but she can hear noises on the street. Not the shrill tide of panic that sweeps through in the wake of a mad god, but the busy bustle of a city greeting the day. She holds still to listen for a moment. It is good to remember, now and then, why she is here.

On the table in the kitchen, a flask of tea and a lemon cake have been left behind. Knights are supposed to remain pure after their vigils, but Sveth-ban-Ara lifts the flask anyway. The liquid is tepid when it hits her mouth, but it washes away the sour taste of morning, so she bolts the whole thing. A shame to leave the lemon cake to the mice. She reaches for the heavy slice, and spots the gold coin from last night. It sits upon the bare tabletop like an accusing eye. Blood money, she thinks, and nudges the plate of cake to hide that tarnished stare.

The morning sun on the street is warm but not unbearable. The intolerable heat and humidity of the day will come later. Too late to matter to Sveth-ban-Ara. She walks along the city streets and draws little attention but from the flies. The city spits her out onto the eastern plains and she walks toward the shocking pink of the rising sun. Toward resolution.

She feels the god's nearness before she sees him: vibrations rising through the soles of her feet and humming in her bones. The city lies perhaps a half-mile behind her; she would have liked more distance. She picks up her pace, though the armor does not permit her a full run.

Sweat coats her, soaking through the light cotton beneath her armor. Up ahead, a shadow has begun to drink down the light of day, a swirl of stormclouds that surrounds a growing obelisk on the horizon. Not an obelisk: a man, or something wearing the shape of one. Each of his steps carries him forward as much as a dozen of hers would have; his footfalls shake the world.

She reaches behind her back and draws the sword clear of its scabbard. In the darkness of the god's wake, the sky parts to weep stars and fire. The city should have noticed by now what the morning has brought. Sveth-ban-Ara hopes that Abet-ban-Esro and her family are far from this place.

Her legs bend into a defensive crouch as the sword comes up in preparation to slay this god of strength and sex and fire. The sword knows what to do as well as Sveth-ban-Ara does, and they move together with old familiarity. The weight of its age and experience warms her arm, almost enough that she can shake off the weight of her own years.

The god slows as he approaches. He is spawning new half-gods with every step, half-formed figures squirming helplessly free from beneath his eyelids, under his tongue, the waves of his hair. Some flee as soon as they strike the ground; others have gathered about his feet and ankles, tugging at their father and begging him to stop. While Sveth-ban-Ara watches, he stoops low and seizes one of these in his horse-sized fist. The distant crack of breaking bones reaches her across the plains as the half-god is ground into dust between its father's molars. As if his body could reclaim what it has already given. As if that would restore what has been shattered in him. The tea and cake roil in Sveth-ban-Ara's belly.

The god has stopped moving. He is very close now. Not close enough to strike her, nor she him. He must know by now that this is where they will both lay down their lives together, his and hers. Then the world can figure out its new shape, when neither gods nor Knights remain to put hands to that unfired clay. Sveth-ban-Ara's fists flex on the grip of her sword.

The god smiles at her through blood-smeared lips.

Then Sveth-ban-Ara is running toward him. Every step hammers the breath from her body, but she has to stop it, whatever it is, whatever lightning-strike is coming. But the god is already dropping to his knees. His hands drive deep into the earth and the chorus of half-gods scream as he rips the world asunder.

The ground trembles and bucks beneath Sveth-ban-Ara and she and her sword are flung end over end into the dirt. Her hand cannot find the hilt, her impact-shocked lungs cannot find the air. Dust rains upward and a chasm yawns wide between her and the god. Then his footsteps crash into the distance: past her. Onward, toward the city.

Sveth-ban-Ara looks down at her hands. Their backs are spattered with blood; perhaps someone is throwing pebbles again. She lays her forehead against the backs of her wrists and closes her eyes against the thunder of the god's laughter.

When Sveth-ban-Ara's eyes peel open again, the city of Yinar is aflame.

She coughs up bitter clay dust and staggers to her feet. Nausea spins her around and she vomits up a mouthful of acid. Her vision clears reluctantly, and she can pick out the god amidst the billowing smoke and broken rooftops. He stands atop the city wall, or what is left of it; behind him it stands in ruins. He is trying to walk its edge like a tightrope-dancer and it splinters to pieces beneath his weight. Under one footfall it gives way so suddenly that the god pitches sideways and crashes to the earth outside the wall; he screams in rage and lashes out with one foot. A temple arch shatters beneath his heel. Half a dozen tiny figures of half-gods, new ones or old, swarm over him with makeshift weapons: nets and spears that may as well have been cobwebs and splinters for all the good they do. He sweeps them aside and shoves himself back to his feet.

Sveth-ban-Ara picks up her sword. She starts to walk, skirting the edge of the newly-carved canyon.

The bright light of the noonday sun hurts her eyes, but when she closes them, the dark is still slashed through with light: the afterimage of Ara's sword buried up to the hilt in a freshly-spawned half-god. Sveth-ban-Ara's belly is empty, but it works against itself anyway, and she spits to clear her mouth of the acid fumes. No one, not even a god, may come to lay claim to the lives offered to him. Yinar may be Damal's holy city, the seat of his glory, but he cannot drag fifty thousand lives down with him in the spirals of his sorrow. What is offered under false pretenses cannot be fairly claimed.

Light and fever play tricks on her. She corrects her course when she drifts dizzily sideways. She wonders which lost lover, which slain offspring, was the one to tip the god into the abyss of his rage. Or perhaps it was the slow erosion of detail, of texture, from a world that spins too fast for his tens of thousands of years to perceive. Perhaps it has been the constant change stacking up until it overwhelms a being incapable of change.

All things must change and even gods must die in their turn. So too the Lords of the Morningstar. What will the world be like without the Knights? Sveth-ban-Ara ignores the smaller question bound up in that one: what will the world be like when I am gone?

She lifts the tip of her sword, which has begun to drag on the dirt, and moves faster. Soon her footprints fall in line with those the god has left behind, an erratic staccato to his inexorable rhythm.

She comes upon him astride the River Ayyin, into which he is pissing prodigiously. Where his urine strikes it, the water turns into clotted blood. Or possibly menses. A half-god, hiding under the ruins of the midcity bridge, freezes when he spots Sveth-ban-Ara. Green veins gleam under the sunlight that pierces the shadows. He backs away and buries himself deeper between two slabs of concrete. Sveth-ban-Ara ignores the godling and slices her sword deep into the back of Damal's ankle.

The god roars and falls toward his injured side. Sveth-ban-Ara thinks she has severed the tendon. Whatever else comes, they will settle this here. If it is her turn to write the pages at the end of her life's book, she will write his too, in blood. When the god hits the ground and splinters the remnants of a park on the left bank, blood sprays skyward and Sveth-ban-Ara lunges. She aims for his naked side, but he is smeared with filth and gore and aim is guesswork as much as craft. Her blow glances off the edge of one massive rib. Sveth-ban-Ara loses her grip on the hilt in the reverberations and the god is already reaching for her.

The remains of the god's spawn still cling between his canines. That fate is not for Sveth-ban-Ara. She heaves herself aside before his fingers can catch her, crush her. Still she takes a glancing blow from the side of his hand. The ground catches her and not the blood-choked waters. No time for false relief; she spits blood and reaches for her sword.

No--the blade is still pinned to the god's body where it struck. Two stories or more over Sveth-ban-Ara's head, and moving as the god drags himself upward, forward. She screams frustration and he laughs again, spraying blood and hot foul breath.

Now she must fight her armor too, to regain her feet. It is heavier now than in her trek across the plain, than in all her long days walking here. Her body obeys her reluctantly. Her ribs took their share of abuse in the fall and they remind her of that now. She commands her pain into silence and launches upward before the god can grab for her again. Fingernails dig deep into flesh and she pulls herself hand over hand. Footing comes from old scars and sticky smears of half-dried blood. The god grunts, and picks at his belly like a dog after a flea. He moves slowly, but she does too: his speed muted by size, hers by armor. So close now, and him too--the restless scratching of his fingers bumps her skyward. Within reach! She stretches beyond the willingness of her shoulder and locks one fist around the sword. The god's hand falls away as his belly contracts around a wail of pain--a matching chorus sings in Sveth-ban-Ara's bones as she dangles from one arm. She cannot let go now. Not without the sword. Not without her name-blessed blade. It is all that stands between her and the god's rage. It is all that will be left of her when she is gone.

She cannot let go. But as the god rolls to hands and knees in wordless, senseless pain, his muscles and tendons shift. His body forgets its grip on the sword and Sveth-ban-Ara plunges groundward.

No time to adjust her landing. An ankle cracks, a hip cries out. She keeps the sword but loses the full use of one leg. Such a short fall from her feet to the ground, after the greater drop from the god's side, but she feels as if she falls forever.

A blur of motion comes before she can bring the sword back around. The god is moving--but not for her. A half-god--a pair of them, both naked and still slick with whatever afterbirth they carried from the god's body. The bigger of the two thrusts a broken sign-post into the god's eye; the other slashes at his neck with a cleaver nearly as long as her forearm.

The god's skin parts around the blade, though not deeply. But the sign post strikes home and he screams as his eye bursts wetly around it. His knuckles grind against his brow and the offending half-god's cry is muffled when he is caught between those outsized fingers. The god shoves him into his mouth and bites deeply. When the god yanks the body free of his grinding teeth, it has been severed above the shoulders. The god's breath catches in great heaving sobs as he chews: huh, huh, huh. No sign of the godling with the knife, and Sveth-ban-Ara does not wait to look around. She raises her sword high, and the heat of the burning city at her back gives her the strength to drive it deep, deep into the god's belly.

He wails as she splits him from flank to groin, and worse than wails, he strikes out at her using his dismembered son as his club. Armor gives way. Bones break, Sveth-ban-Ara's or the half-god's or both. Blood gushes out of the great god's wound, and when it sweeps over Sveth-ban-Ara it fills her mouth with the taste of sweet raisin wine. She coughs and sputters and when her eyes clear it is just in time to see the god's fist coming in for another blow. She cannot dodge; she clings to the pavement and hopes that she has done enough.

The half-god's swinging legs clip her only hard enough to roll her over onto her side. She grunts, and brings one arm up in the sad shadow of a block. But the god's hand is already falling away. He groans once more, and bones creak in the godling's body as the giant hand clenches it tighter. Then death rattles in the great god's throat. His remaining eye slackens, but stays open. Two more godlings crawl out from under his lolling tongue and flee.

Sveth-ban-Ara drags herself to her knees, but can go no farther. She is not ready to die, but she will never be readier than now to leave this battered body behind. A single gold coin lies on the wet ground beside her, blinking in the blotted-out light of the sun. Blood money, she thinks. Where has it come from? Perhaps it is the self-same one that Abet-ban-Esro left behind.

In the god's lifeless hand, the body of his offspring twitches. The half-god is not ready to die either, it seems. The deep rents left by its father's teeth abrupt the torso where a neck should have stood. Sveth-ban-Ara's sword is still in her hand, stained though it is. The blade was forged in the blood of demons, meant to kill gods from the moment of its creation. Surely it can put this poor creature out of its misery. Sveth-ban-Ara drags the weapon onto her lap, but she lacks the strength to heft it. "I'm sorry," she tells the godling, but it has no ears left to hear her. No room for small mercies in the silent echoing space left by the wake of a great one.

Feet scratch softly on the scorched dirt behind her. Sveth-ban-Ara's chin has dropped to her breastplate, or what remains of it; she lifts her head now to look around. A child, she thinks, a girl-child naked and wild. This is no place for such a fragile creature. But the girl crouches in front of Sveth-ban-Ara, with the mountain range of the city's dead god behind her, and stares unafraid into the dying Knight's face. A half-god, then. The one who wielded the knife against her father? Difficult to say now, and pointless to wonder. Sveth-ban-Ara coughs. "You should go. The smoke . . . it is no fit place for man or beast or godling either."

The half-god child does not speak. Her head tilts as she looks over Sveth-ban-Ara's bloodied face and ruined body. In the smoky breath of the god-fire, sometimes it looks as if the creature has two arms, and sometimes eight enormous wings. Sveth-ban-Ara licks her lips, tries again. "What is your name?"

The girl takes in a deep breath. Her lips peel back slowly from the word as if it is an unripe fruit, not quite ready to be shared. "Death," she answers. Her eyes are black wounds in her face and her wings of serrated shadow reach out toward Sveth-ban-Ara. Touching her hair, probing the sodden edges of her armor.

Sveth-ban-Ara does not flinch. "But you are so new . . . " It makes no sense. There has always been death in the world. She stares at the child, and the wreckage of godhead behind her. Whose death, though?

Sveth-ban-Ara slides her hands under the sword. She finds the strength to lift it an inch off her knees. Two small hands reach out and tenderly accept the offering. Sveth-ban-Ara can still feel the warmth of their touch as the half-god child rises and lifts the sword. "All gods go mad in time," says the Death of half-gods. "But my time is new yet." The blade spins and pierces the ruined half-god, who goes still at last in its father's grasp.

So many important things to share, the history and traditions of the Knights, the wisdom of when to leave honor and custom behind, and it all goes to ash on Sveth-ban-Ara's tongue. She wants to ask for what is not hers, to steal a glance at the blank pages that will be written by this creature to whom she has just passed her pen. "I never had a daughter," she says instead, and the girl-child, the godling, sits beside her with the stained blade lying on the ground between them.

The-Death-of-Half-Gods eight wings weave around Sveth-ban-Ara, and the embrace is warm. Sveth-ban-Ara does not die alone, as all knights must, but time changes all things as it sweeps them ever forward.


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