Daevon burned. Smoke blotted out a cold and uncaring sun as the streets flooded with feasting flesh and screaming gristle. The slave pits burned, the manors and gardens burned, the plazas swarmed with the aberrant throngs. Fountains ran red and brown. Pillars of flesh coiled around obelisks and temples, belching clouds of brown mist into the air. Occasionally, cracks of musket fire or the trumpeting of a mammoth overtaken by the horde would echo from the distance and then go silent.
It seemed as if the entire world was dying.
The slave called Cairn stood on the top step of the high temple, looking out across the city, watching it die. The empire was passing through the last violent throes of its death. Soon there would be nothing left but the pale grey steppes and the old, sick winds.
Cairn had no master now: the artist now writhed atop a silk bed sheet with the slave-broker, their bodies fused and bloated. A tribute in undying art to the Horned King Crowned in Shame. This quiet here on the steps was only a brief respite. The peace here would not last long.
He turned from looking at the city, and passed through the gaping hole where the great iron doors had once been set. Those doors had been torn apart, the metal crumpled like tissue.
The inside of the temple was stained with blood and viscera, strewn with shattered weapons and torn clothing and the stone corpses of shattered idols. Temple guards, acolytes in white, priests, even high priests in their red robes, all of them in pieces, hacked apart.
“Brother,” a voice boomed from the throne above the high altar. “I see they gave you new arms.”
“Yes,” Cairn said. “And I see you regrew yours.” There was a faint, sad nostalgia about using his native tongue again. He had not spoken it in so long…
A figure stepped down from the throne, walking past the high altar and out of the gloom. Ab-Leshal, the First Sword of Daevon stood here: eight feet of weather-worn muscle, scarred and tattooed. Wide nose that had been broken too many times, strong jaw, crooked teeth, stringy hair, all features of the boy Cairn had played ball with on the River’s bank.
“I did not expect them to take you as bounty.”
“They considered me a trinket. A little curiosity to keep around. The man who threatened the First Sword and was spared.” Cairn brushed aside his hair, revealed the brand on his forehead: khuk, the highest rating a slave could have. “Apparently I was an excellent conversation piece.”
“Indeed.” Ab-Leshal paused for a moment, distracted by some fleeting thought. “Why are you here, brother?”
“To bring you home.”
Ab-Leshal shook his head.
“I have written the Horned King’s gospel in blood across this continent, and every life I take now feeds him further. I feel my mind slipping into an abyss, and soon there will be nothing left but the savage, mindless animal. I am damned, brother. But I will do what I can with what time I have left. I will take this empire and all its gods to the buzzing, droning madness of hell with me.”
“There is still hope.”
“This is what I deserve. Mindlessness and damnation. I have laid waste to our home, destroyed the Voice, and the Tree of Life is dead. No. You return, to guide what remains of our people. That is your place. Mine is here. To seek an atonement I cannot achieve.”
“The Seven Brides are dead. The scribes of the Texts and the Hanged King are dead. The Wonder-maker and Chou-dah-cleph and all the others have fled. Only Moluch remains. He will gather the legions, lead them here to me…and they will break upon me.” A pause. “It would be best for you to leave the city now. Before they arrive.”
Cairn nodded. What had to be said was said. They would meet again, he knew, and that would be their final meeting. When all had been accomplished, they would strike each other down.
He made his way back to the empty doorway, feet clapping on the mosaic floor.
Cairn looked behind him.
“God guide your path,” Ab-Leshal said.
Cairn, son of Adaman the Hearer of the Voice, Chief Priest of the People of the Valley, the First Murderer, the Cursed Wanderer, disappeared from sight, moving towards the west.
Ab-Leshal, son of Adaman the Hearer of the Voice, Protector and Shield of the People of the Valley, the Great Traitor, Breaker of the Bronze God, First Sword of Daevon, the Butcher of the West, returned to the black throne of the high priest, sat down, and closed his eyes.
Sun set, and sun rose.
Sun set, and sun rose.
Sun set, and sun rose.
Sun set, and sun rose.
They had come. Men with swords and muskets and war-beasts flooded the high temple, and at the head of their column, a god.
Ab-Leshal opened his eyes, rose, and took up his sword.
Moluch, the Horned King Crowned in Shame, was pleased.
A tacky little ornament dangled from the rear view mirror of Henry DeMontfort’s car, right next to the cinnamon apple air freshener. The ornament was a smiling, generic-looking humanoid with wings and a golden ring above its head, holding a scroll with the words “Don’t drive faster than your guardian angel can fly” on it.
Technically, Henry DeMontfort was not driving over that limit. He was, however, driving faster than it was physically possible for his car to move. Montag was a rather fast flyer, though he did not have a scroll, halo, or wings like the little figure he inhabited. Or arms and legs for that matter.
Salah sat in the passenger seat, loading cartridges into a magazine. He had said barely more than a few words since they had departed, focusing instead on checking and re-checking the relics. DeMontfort was sure it was a better state than what he would have been in alone. Major crisis averted.
That was one of many. There was only the most basic outline of a plan, that plan being “get in, rescue Mary-Ann and Naomi, get out”. That was effectively useless. They had no idea of the layout of the site, what the Foundation contained there, or what they would be up against. A hundred thousand variables got in the way.
But Salah was sure they could succeed. DeMontfort could see that clearly. He was completely, absolutely certain that they could pull off this rescue. Those variables didn’t exist. The alternative was impossible. Any suggestion to the contrary, no matter how logical, would be thrown away. Anything short of his own death would be, at most, a minor inconvenience.
“They’ll most likely be waiting for us.”
“They might still think that I am dead, so that may just work in our advantage. And so would be focusing on a different kind of counterattack. This is the Foundation: they deal in shadows and secrets, but they also expect that everyone else does as well. The easiest way to knock them off guard is to attack in the open. It is the last thing they would expect, and the last thing they would prepare for.”
“Because only idiots would try barging through the front door.”
“I’ve approved worse plans. What of the inkbloods?”
“I would assume that the source is contained within the site. As for the inkbloods, they are still Foundation agents, thinking like Foundation agents.”
“So not a real infiltration. More of an oblique one. You’re sure there’s no outside party?”
“Beyond the original source? No. It would be guiding actions, but not controlling them. Inkbloods operate voluntarily.”
There was a pause. DeMontfort felt a little bit of that insane, this-has-to-work faith in the back of his mind. Highly contagious stuff, belief.
Ah, if he was going to die, he might as well be doing something good.
“We’ve gone completely insane,” he said.
“No. We’re just realizing that the world is.”
The break room reminded Mary-Ann of a hospital waiting room: Water cooler, bland furniture, out of date Time magazines on the coffee table, twenty-year old television. Comfortable, but not too comfortable. An imitation of comfort, with tension underneath like a taut rubber band.
Mary-Ann stared into the empty styrofoam cup in her hands. The tea was gone. Redmond said she could take her time, to say goodbye and collect herself. She’d tried to pray, but the words were hollow, echoing in her head without any reassurance from above that they had been heard. She was alone.
She threw the cup in the trash and picked up the carrier. Naomi was still sleeping. Maybe it would be quick. Maybe there would be no pain.
“Okay. I’m ready.”
Redmond nodded, and motioned for her to follow. Down a hallway, around a corner, down another hallway. Mary-Ann felt like she would fall under the weight of her own heart. A corn husk doll wobbling down a winding, wind-blown road.
The hallway ended in blast doors, SCP-089 stenciled in yellow on the metal. The agent typed in an access code and swiped a key card. Metal ground on metal, and the door opened.
The statue sat at the far end of the chamber: a bull-headed man on a throne, arms outstretched, wings wide, mouth open. A crude, ugly, horrible looking thing. A pile of wood sat next to it. She knew what it was for.
Mary-Ann swallowed nervously as the door shut behind her.
Abraham, take your son Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go up to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust…
The borders of the room seemed to expand as she approached, the statue loomed higher than it seemed. A chill ran up her back. She could feel a presence there, surrounding her, spreading out from the statue. Something big and distant and inhuman, pressing down, tearing that hollow hole even further.
She was alone. Completely, utterly, absolutely alone. The Foundation and Initiative were gone. Salah was gone. God was gone. There was only her, Naomi, and the statue and its power, floating in an empty abyss.
The flame flickered, and went out.
Mary-Ann, take your daughter Naomi, your only daughter, whom you love more than anything else in the world, and go into the depths of Site-36. There you shall offer her up as a holocaust…
At least, when this was done, millions of people would go about their day as if nothing happened, and they would live out their lives as if nothing happened today, that it was a day like any other, filled with happiness and sadness and boredom and anxiety and anger and love and hate and laughter and tears and births and weddings and funerals and life. A million days today, and a million days tomorrow, and so on.
At least, Naomi would have saved them.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…
Mary-Ann was at the foot of the statue. She set the carrier down, and took Naomi out of it. Her daughter wriggled in her arms, but remained asleep. Mary-Ann kissed her daughter on the forehead and hugged her close, for one last time.
“Goodbye, Naomi. I love you.”
With one hand she reached out and opened the chest of the statue. Gently, she placed Naomi inside and closed the hatch. She bent down and began to fill the furnace that was the throne with wood and kindling. Build it like a log cabin, her counselor had said all those years ago at summer camp. Big logs on the outside, kindling and tinder in the middle.
There was a lighter there, sitting on the floor next to the wood: a cheap plastic thing one could buy at Wal-Mart.
Into your hands, God, I commend her spirit. Amen.
There was no answer.
Mary-Ann lit the fire.
A 2009 Honda CR-V smashed through the front doors of the Sanderson Chemical Plant at two hundred miles per hour. Metal screeched and crumbled and bent and burned in a shower of glass and shards of wall. The doors were torn off their hinges as Salah and DeMontfort leapt from the tumbling wreckage, wreathed in fire and mouths and eyeballs, landing safely as the hulk finally crashed to a stop.
They were in. Step one complete.
Naomi screamed. The sound was cut off by a cacophony of drums and cymbals over loudspeakers, and a rumbling that shook the chamber. Oily smoke billowed from the statue’s mouth and nostrils. The rumbling grew louder, and the tremors more intense.
Any assurance that Mary-Ann had that she was doing the right thing shattered with that scream. She stood there, shuddering, unable to move, bile frozen in her throat, tears welling up in her smoke-reddened eyes.
She had done it. She was burning her daughter alive.
She was saving half a million lives. More than that.
Eventually, Naomi’s screams would stop, choked out by the smoke. Her death would be a few pitiful gasps for one more lungful of air.
You killed her.
When that was done, and the smell of burning fat and cooking meat would fill the chamber, rising up with the smoke.
Death is too good for you.
When all was done, the door would open, and there would be nothing but ash and charred bones.
You deserve to suffer
Tiny, charred bones.
DeMontfort brought a donkey jawbone down on an agent’s head, liquefying it. Behind him, Salah fired a stream of burning white bullets down the hall, searing through ink and body armor alike.
Mary-Ann’s arms shot back up to the hatch and tore it open, ignoring the searing heat. She grabbed Naomi out from the statue and ran towards the far end of the chamber, as far away as she could from the statue. Naomi coughed and sputtered and gasped and cried, her skin raw and red and burning.
“No no no no…oh God please no… I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…Ssssshshshshhhhhh…it’s okay, mommy’s here. Sshhhhhhshshshh mommy’s here…you are my sunshine, my only sunshine…you make me happy, when skies are grey…” her voice creaked off-key with desperation, as the grim realization that she had rescued Naomi only for her to die in her arms rose to the surface of her mind.
The coughing and gasping stopped.
Mary-Ann pressed a finger to Naomi’s neck. There was a faintest pulse there, and the tiniest wisp of breath from her mouth. For now. Mary-Ann let her held breath and rested her back against the wall, holding Naomi in her lap as gently as she could. If Naomi was going to die, it would be better like this. Better to die like this, than alone and abandoned in the bowels of that thing.
Another tremor shook the room. Naomi opened her eyes, just a tiny squint, and nestled herself against Mary-Ann’s chest, as if seeking protection from the pain.
She doesn’t know I put her in there…she just woke up in a fire and I saved her…
The tears came again, though this time from the pain of being forgiven.
“It’s okay. I’m here.”
A massive, noodly appendage lashed out of the splatter of marinara sauce on the wall, slamming through the blockade of Foundation agents. It twisted itself into a thumbs up as Salah and DeMontfort ran past before returning whence it came.
Mary-Ann sat there and watched the statue belch smoke and the furnace burn bright, and listened to the rumblings of the earth below. The question of why no Foundation agents had come in yet, or the threat of what would happen from a half-finished ritual came to her mind and faded just as quick. They didn’t matter. Not now.
A strange peace fell over Mary-Ann. The same sort of peace that a condemned man had on his last night, perhaps. Naomi still loved her, even here, at the end of everything. That was enough. Enough to fill the hollowness, enough to keep the world from crushing her completely. Enough to keep that one little flame alight in the dark.
It was enough.
Mary-Ann had killed. She had killed a whole lot of people, some of whom probably didn’t need to be killed. That had been her life: taking lives so that others could live in peace. Standing in that ugly, bloody margin between the dark and the light because someone had to stand there. She’d taken so many lives out of the world, and only brought one into it, and even after trying to destroy that one little life, she was still loved.
That was enough. She wasn’t a monster. She could keep living, keep enduring the pain and the guilt and the shame. With that little bit of love, the world shifted into clarity.
She wasn’t alone.
God was there, in that little bit of love between a dying child and her broken mother, stuck in the deepest pit of a vast, uncaring, absurd, and horrific universe. God was there, recognizable when everything else had been stripped away. That little bit of love, in all its frailty, transcended all the pain that surrounded her, all the grief and anguish, all of it.
Peace. She was at peace.
Mary-Ann’s gaze once again moved to the statue. The presence was still there, but lesser now. Lesser now that she had recognized that it was a fraud. The despair she had felt before, it was a lie. A lie to make her despair, a lie to break her spirit, a lie to make her afraid, and through her fear, lead her to a horrific act. A lie big enough to make her carry out that act willingly.
A coward’s ploy. The work of sniveling, warped, pathetic power, hiding in fear behind the shadows and lashing out its own despair on humanity. Never overt, never forcing its hand, no. It broke people. It made them afraid, through lies and shame, drove them to greater and greater depravities. And it fed off of that. Coward that it was, this power had grown old and strong feeding off of that despair.
Fuck that noise.
Mary-Ann raised a middle finger at the statue and cloud of smoke and smiled, the first time since she had been playing her guitar for Naomi.
“All right. I’ll call your bluff. You want her so bad? Come at me.”
“This is the room.”
“Right.” DeMontfort punched the blast door.
Mary-Ann sat bolt upright at the sound of crunching metal. A massive dent had appeared in the door, then another, another, and then a fist tearing through the metal. The hand withdrew, and the puncher tore it wider, wide enough to stick a head through. The helmeted head that poked through the hole was that of Henry DeMontfort. Mary-Ann felt as she might just break out laughing.
“Mary-Ann.” He nodded politely before retracting his head. More creaking, more crunching, and DeMontfort had torn the hole big enough for someone to step through.
Salah stepped through the hole.
He cleared the space between the hole and Mary-Ann in an instant, and dropped to his knees next to his wife. There were tears welling up in his eyes.
He made a rescue mission.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt? Did…oh God help us…” He took in Naomi’s current condition, horror creeping over his face.
“She’s alive,” Mary-Ann said. “But she needs help, fast.”
“Right. Henry, could we use the Matilda to stabilize her?”
“The cat we tested with it came out fine, so-”
“We’ll use it.” Salah unslung the beaten old traveling bag of Mary MacKillop off his shoulder and opened the mouth as wide as it would go. Mary-Ann handed him Naomi. He gingerly placed her in the sack, and drew the drawstrings tight. There she would remain in stasis until removed.
Mary-Ann stood up, stretching her arms. Everything was clear now. The future unfolded in front of her. She knew what had to happen, knew what she had to do. The power was drawing closer, with each rumble of the earth and cloud of smoke. Coward that it was, it was a powerful coward, and she had threatened its work.
Salah was next to her, the bag once again over his shoulder.
“Henry how are we looking?”
“Maybe a minute and a half until they get past what we did to the elevator,” DeMontfort said from the other side of the blast door. Salah put his arm around Mary-Ann.
Mary-Ann smiled, shook her head, and moved Salah’s arm away.
“You two get Naomi somewhere safe. I’ll finish things here.”
“What?” Salah’s face switched from relief to dumbfoundedness in an instant. “Mary-Ann, I’m not going to leave you behind, we can get you out of here.”
“It’s not that. Do you want to know where those burns came from? She’s burnt because I put her in that furnace. Right over there. There is a power behind that statue, and it lied and connived and misled me until I was willing to burn her alive. I’m going to kill it."
Dumbfoundedness turned to horror.
“Go. I’ll catch up to you. Just trust me. I’ll be okay.”
Salah said nothing. Mary-Ann wasn’t surprised by this. She could see it in his eyes behind all the horror and relief and rage and care, that he understood. She wrapped him in a hug and kissed him.
“When you get home, I want to you go to my dresser and look at the bottom of my sock drawer,” she said. “There’s something there for you.”
“I love you.”
“Love you too.”
“Yoink.” Mary-Ann swiped a long obsidian knife from Salah’s belt. “I’ll just be borrowing this. You guys get out of here.”
“Right.” Salah hesitated a moment before ducking out of the hole.
Their footsteps were swallowed up by the rumbling. Mary-Ann calmly walked towards the statue, now cloaked in its cloud of smoke, hefting the knife in her hand. The blade was incredibly sharp, and she didn’t believe that it was much more than that. A very sharp knife was all she needed.
Salah couldn’t believe what he had just done. After all he had done to rescue Mary-Ann, he was willingly leaving her behind. His rage was gone. It was not that he believed that she would win, no. He knew that she would. It was a certainty, as certain as if the sun would rise tomorrow.
One final push to freedom, then. The last surviving inkbloods and guards had regrouped themselves, and Salah found he was not troubled by the bullets and slashes of black that once again filled the air. Those were only a hiccup on the way home.
The smoke, now a sizeable mass, coalesced into a column, swirling and thundering about. The tremors were almost constant now, humming in the deep.
Mary-Ann tossed the knife from one hand to the other. The coward was revealing itself, and she had no fear of it. She was ready for it. Her pain had melted away, replaced with strength. empowered by all those who came before her, all those mothers and children crying out for vengeance, for justice.
The column collapsed into a compact blob of black. There was a single, final tremor, and the statue exploded, spraying the chamber with molten bronze and shards of clay. The smoke melted away into nothingness.
Standing where the smoke had been was something like a man, ten feet tall and hairy with the head of a bull, curled horns, and tattered crow’s wings. A misshapen crown of tarnished bronze rested on top of its head. It stank of clay and coals and old stale sweat. Spittle and foam dribbled down to the floor, steaming.
It lumbered forward, footfalls like lead, and stopped a few feet in front of Mary-Ann. It stooped low in a mockery of a bow.
“Hail the little whore of Babylon, hail!” It raised its head, its lips twisted into a crude facsimile of a smile. Mary-Ann locked her eyes with the thing’s twin coals. There was no fear in her eyes, no fear on her face.
“You are brave, and you are a fool, whore.” It rumbled in a voice that shifted continents. “You challenge Moloch the mighty with your little rebellion. Ab-Leshal, the First Sword of Daevon himself could not even defeat me, and you will attempt with nothing more than a cooking knife? Foolishness on top of foolishness. I have called your name, Mary-Ann Lewitt, and you are mine.”
Mary-Ann continued to say nothing.
“A pity your tongue is gone, whore.”
“Your silence grows tiresome, whore. Speak. Make your pleas. Cry out to your impotent sky-god to deliver you. Beg for my mercy. Whatever you wish. Your silence is dull.”
Mary-Ann smashed her head into Moloch’s face.
The wreckage of the car and the exit were in sight, as were the bulky, shadowy forms that were waiting outside, backlit by the floodlights mounted on their SUVs.
“Shit!” DeMontfort spat. He grabbed a piece of metal from the car and held it like a shield in front of him while Salah ducked behind a pile of rubble.
Keep them safe.
“Montag, where are you?”
There, a little spark nearby. Leap, roll, grab the tacky little ornament, throw it to Salah.
“Montag, get them out of here!”
Salah felt himself surrounded in a whirlwind of fire and eyes as the ground fell away underneath him and he flew away into the night. For a moment, he glimpsed DeMontfort charging through the agents and their line of vehicles before darkness enveloped him.
Whether the moment’s recoiling was the result of surprise or pain, it was an opportunity thrown wide open. Duck down, forward, move up, single swing to the testicles, pivot to the side. Moloch howled in pain as steaming blood splashed on the concrete floor. It smelled like sulfur and iron.
Stars burst inside her head. A fist smashing down on her. Bones snapping. Thick, leathery fingers grabbed her hair, pulling her up from the floor, her scalp tearing and bleeding. She screamed, but the sound was cut off the furnace blast of the god’s bellow. Her skin peeled and blistered from the heat. She swung the knife, the blade glanced off of the thick skin. Moloch tossed her aside like a broken, bleeding rag doll.
Mary-Ann’s body rolled to a limp rest, and was still. The god snorted and lumbered over to her prone form, ready to finish its work. It grabbed her body, raised her to its mouth.
The knife lashed out, burying itself deep in Moloch’s eye. It bellowed, and the knife drew back and stabbed again: face, neck, eyes, snout. Blood poured from Moloch’s face as it dropped Mary-Ann to the floor. Air rushed out of her lungs along with the crack of ribs.
“Death would be too good for you, whore,” Moloch boomed. “All break eventually under the weight of their own shame. Do you not remember your nights with your legs spread wide, moaning and crying as they fucked you and tossed you aside? You were never more than a passing pleasure, a slut to bed because they had become bored with their right hands.” Moloch’s face was right next to Mary-Ann’s head, his furnace breath enveloping her with its burnt-flesh scent. “You think he cares for you? He is nothing more than a lonely and desperate man. He took in a worthless piece of shit like you because he couldn’t catch a better woman. So he settled for you. A monster and a slut. Nothing more.” Moloch sat down next to her, legs crossed. “My most pitiful servant.”
There was movement. Mary-Ann pushed herself up, rising slowly…slowly…slowly… to her feet. There was nothing but pain now. Raw, red, searing pain. Her left arm hung limp, the shoulder crushed and useless from the impact. Her clothes were torn and soaked crimson. One eye was swollen shut, the other half-blinded by the blood that ran down from her torn scalp. Hair was matted and clumped with crimson. Ribs crushed. Fractures everywhere. Pain everywhere. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain.
She was smiling.
“F-f-fuck you.” With a last burst of strength, she reached out and tore the knife from Moloch’s eye. Millennia of mothers and fathers and children cheered, screamed for the Horned King’s blood.
“Fuck you.” The knife plunged into Moloch’s other eye.
“Fuck you.” Moloch’s throat.
“Fuck you!” Mary-Ann threw herself against Moloch’s chest, and the bleeding god toppled onto its back.
“Fuck you!” Again in the chest. “Fuck you!” Again and again, emphasizing each shout with another stab of the knife. "Fuck you! Fuck you! Hahahaha! Fuck! You! Fuck! You! Fuck! You! You picked the wrong mom to fuck with, motherfucker!”
The burst of strength ended. The end was here. Mary-Ann could feel it, approaching like an old, long-awaited friend walking down the street.
“Heh…eh-heh-heh…you…can…” Blood dribbled over her lips with her raspy, mumbling breaths. “Run…but sooner or…or later…”
She tore the knife out of Moloch’s chest one last time.
“God’ll…cut you down.”
Mary-Ann swung the knife back down, down deep into Moloch’s forehead. The Horned King shuddered, and its last breath rattled out of its lungs. She pushed herself off the body, took a few wobbling steps away from the corpse, and fell to her knees. She stared off into space for a moment. Her lips moved with the beginning of some silent word.
Mary-Ann Lewitt fell to the blood-stained concrete floor and died.