A few ghouls chased her but she was faster and she passed the boundary before they could even come close. Her feet stumbled constantly on the broken bones that littered the valley floor but she kept running. Once she tripped and fell forward, her hands reaching out for solid ground, a jagged end of femur looming up toward her face. Somehow she managed to roll back up to a standing position.
It was not difficult to find Mael Mag Och. His body was burning, although not as quickly as it should be. A thin reef of smoke hung in the air where he passed, a semi-visible trail for her to follow. He was moving slowly, his undead body unable to hurry, and the way was difficult. Sarah figured she had a good chance of catching him, but then what? How was she supposed to bind him?
I’ll show you, when the time comes, Nilla said inside of her mind. Sarah nearly fell over—she’d forgotten the half-melted nose ring in her hand. She’d forgotten she could still talk to the blonde lich.
“When he reaches the Source, what will he do?” she asked.
Hopefully it won’t come to that, Nilla told her. If it does—he’ll step right into the middle of it, into its center. Even I won’t be able to protect him then but it won’t matter. His body will disintegrate but his consciousness will merge with the life force itself—not just the Source, not just the rupture, but the biological field of the planet itself. At that point there’s not much he won’t be able to do. He’ll have more power than his Teuagh ever dreamed of.
“You’re right,” Sarah said. “Hopefully it won’t come to that.”
Ahead of her, maybe a quarter mile up the slope, she could see Mael Mag Och. Flickering light touched his shoulders and his head. It was too much to hope that his brain would boil in his skull. Even if his body failed, he could merely grab another from the mob of handless ghouls back by the flatbed. She pushed ahead, pulling herself up the side of a mountain, clutching at spines and skulls and arm bones, pushing herself bodily up the hill.
The relics will allow you to bind him to this body, Nilla said. It’s why the Tsarevich wanted them so badly. Then you can destroy him, and it will be over. He’ll be destroyed. Even the part of him that still resides inside of Gary will be drawn out and dissipated.
Sarah panted and sweated and cursed as she moved higher, up into thinner air. It was hard to breathe. She could see very little, her eyes dazzled by the light of the Source. She put her arm over a knob of rock and hauled herself up and there she was, on top of the valley. She saw the eroded sculptures of dinosaurs, sunlight streaming through the chicken wire-lined gaps in their plaster. She saw the low buildings, which had collapsed over twelve hard winters.
At the center of it all, where the Source was so bright it made her head throb, an honor guard waited for Mael Mag Och. Two skeletons, held up by nothing but pure energy, stood there on either side of the singularity. They were like something from the vision of the eididh she had shared with Nilla, and yet perversely horrible at the same time, as she had come to expect things to be in reality. One was nearly human in appearance, or at least he looked like a human skeleton, except that the top of his skull was torn off as if he’d blown it off with a shotgun in his mouth. The serrated edges of his skull made him look like he was wearing a profane kind of crown. The other skeleton—and somehow she knew it was female—was twisted and bent, her bones deformed in some way Sarah didn’t recognize. They were pitted and chipped and in places looked like melted wax. Her skull was fused into the top of her rib cage and the bones of her left shoulder. She looked as if she’d slowly melted, a candle left out in the sun.
The skeletons were undead, surely—they were animate, anyway, because they moved as she watched, shifting their weight from foot to foot, raising their hands to beckon the Druid onward—yet their energy was not dark, nor was it bright. It was pure, clear, the unadulterated energy of the planet itself.
Mael Mag Och stepped up before them and they bowed to him, welcoming him to his destiny. Sarah rushed forward as Nilla shouted instructions at her. Throw the noose over his head. Sarah did it. Mael didn’t even turn around. He was too close to achieving his apocalypse. Place the armband on his—on his stump. Sarah did it.
Now. The sword.
Sarah remembered she didn’t have the sword. She still searched her belt, her back, but she knew she didn’t have it. “The Tsarevich’s people took it from me.”
You need to pierce him with the sword. It’s the only way to keep him from jumping to another body. The sword, Sarah. The sword.
“I don’t have it! I don’t even know what they did with it.”
Nilla was very close to her, physically nearby. Sarah could feel the disappointment in the air. The fear, and the failure.
“There has to be another way,” Sarah said. But of course there wasn’t.
Mael Mag Och had finished with the skeletons. Whatever passed between them was not for Sarah’s ears. The Druid walked past them, into the wreckage of the buildings. The skeletons closed ranks—they would not let Sarah pass.
There is a way. It’s so simple. He needs me to shield him from the Source. I can’t stop doing that, any more than you can stop breathing. But I can make myself visible.
Nilla’s voice was very soft. I’m only able to perform this function because of my power, the ability I have to subtract my own aura. If I make myself visible I will be consumed by the Source, just like any other dead thing. Mael Mag Och will lose his protection and his body will be destroyed. I think his consciousness will be trapped here, since all the possible bodies he could inhabit are too far away. Does that make sense?
Sarah’s body shook. “I can’t—I can’t ask you to do that,” she said, but she knew that if Nilla refused she could, in fact, ask, she would beg her to do it. She would threaten her, plead, beg. “But you’ll die!”
I died a long time ago, Nilla said. It’s okay. I’ve got my memories.
It happened so fast, then.
Nilla appeared before Sarah, beautiful, blonde, dressed all in white. There was a sad smile on her face. She erupted in a column of flame, instantly. Sarah could only hope there was no pain. Even her bones burned, reducing in a second down to nothing but ash.
The skeletons didn’t move. From beyond their barrier Sarah heard a single, throttled scream, and saw another burst of fire. She rushed forward. The skeletons held her back but she could see Mael Mag Och’s body burn as fast as Nilla’s had. Perhaps even faster.
Banners of flame licked at Mael Mag Och’s ashes. The skeletons waited for a moment, then parted, allowing her past if she so chose. She could have the energy of the Source, if she wanted it, they were telling her. If she possessed the faculties to manipulate it. If she knew how, she could undo everything. She could lay the dead to rest, and make the world green again. If she knew how.
She didn’t, and there was no one left to teach her.
She turned around and headed back to the flatbed in the valley below.
“What did you do?” Ayaan demanded when she arrived.
Sarah couldn’t seem to get the words out. She could only point. Her finger stabbed out toward the mass of ghouls that had been waiting patiently in perfect formation for the world to stop. Now they were moving, surging forward as a mass. They were headed for the event horizon. Sarah had an idea why. Mael Mag Och was trapped, just as Nilla had suggested. He could project his consciousness a certain distance to take another body, but all the available bodies were too far away.
“What did you do?” Ayaan asked again. She grabbed Sarah by the arms and shook her.
Sarah looked up into her mentor’s face. “I answered a question,” she said. “They asked me what was more important than the end of the world, and I told them.”
Ayaan released her. “What could be more important…?”
The ghouls marched right into their own destruction. As each of them reached the event horizon he or she was consumed, utterly.
“You stopped him, I take it,” Ayaan said, very quietly. “That… that’s good,” she said. The smoke from the burning dead stained the air around them and the stink was oppressive.
Eventually there were none of them left.
“It’s over,” Ayaan announced. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” She jumped down from the flatbed and headed for the pass that lead down toward the road.
“I just have a couple of things to do,” Sarah said. “You stagger along. I’ll catch up.”
Ayaan frowned at that but she could hardly deny that Sarah could walk a lot faster. She shrugged and headed down the path.
Sarah pulled Gary’s tooth out of her back pocket. “Are you watching this?” she asked. “He’s out of bodies. He’s trapped inside the Source. I don’t know if that counts as killing him or not but he’s powerless now.”
I don’t think you can kill him any more. Believe me, I’ve tried. As for being powerless—don’t make the mistake of underestimating him. I’ve got part of him inside of me. He likes to taunt me and call me names. He’s still there. You’ve stopped him though, for now. Gary sounded very faint and very far away. Sarah imagined it had to be a trick. He would be somewhere close, holing up and licking his wounds. He didn’t want her to find him.
Well. He had good reason.
“Gary,” she told him, “there’s no one left to heal you. You’re not bulletproof any more.”
I have a right to exist, he told her.
“I don’t recognize that right,” she replied.
He was silent for a very long time. Let’s not forget that I helped you out when you needed it, he suggested.
“And let’s not forget you kept my father a prisoner of conscience for twelve years. I’m coming for you, Gary, and I will put you down. That’s what I do. I kill liches.” She didn’t want to hear his reply. She threw the tooth as far away from her as she could manage. It was lost instantly in the scattered bones of the valley.
Ayaan wouldn’t have approved. She would have said that the tooth represented a source of intelligence, that the more Sarah knew about Gary the easier it would be to kill him. Sarah reminded herself, though, that everyone who ever listened to Gary had reason to regret it. He could seduce with words, and he could lie with the best of them. Let him fear her. Let him wonder where she was. It would do him good.
That was taken care of, then. Just one more loose end to tie up. She searched the yurt at the back of the flatbed. She found the female mummy waiting for her, her arms still outstretched to take back the jar. Sarah shook her head. “You’re free now. Ptolemaeus Canopus died to make you free.”
The mummy didn’t move. She might as well be dead. Well, she had plenty of time to figure it out on her own. Most likely she wouldn’t spend eternity there waiting for the jar to return to her arms but if she did—it was her own choice. At least somebody had been successfully rescued. Sarah sighed and dug through the various boxes and chests in the yurt until she found what she wanted. Her Makarov PM. She shoved it in the pocket of her hooded sweatshirt and stepped back outside and down from the flatbed.
Ayaan was about two hundred yards away, her back turned to Sarah. It couldn’t be that easy, though. Sarah owed Ayaan something more. She jogged to catch up and then tapped the lich on the shoulder.
Ayaan turned around painfully as if she had a stiff neck. She didn’t look at all surprised to see the pistol in Sarah’s hand.
She didn’t waste any time begging for her life. She had a better argument to make. “When your father was dying I was with him. I was in your position, looking down my sights at a monster. He asked me not to shoot, and I didn’t. I think you’re probably glad for my decision.”
“You just killed my father, like, permanently!” Sarah said, blood rushing into her cheeks. “How dare you invoke him now?”
“You had a little more time together. Wasn’t that better than nothing? Life is precious, Sarah, and death is eternal. Any reprieve from the void is a good thing.” Ayaan said.
“Come on. You’re a lich, Ayaan. You’re an abomination. What would your God say if he saw you now?” Sarah’s hand was shaking. She switched to a two-handed grip and it helped.
“Oh, He sees me just fine,” Ayaan said. She closed her eyes and her mouth moved silently for a while. Sarah knew exactly what she was doing. She was praying. When she finished she opened her eyes and looked very calmly down at Sarah. “This is what you’ve made up your mind to do, then. I will not beg like a dog. If you truly believe you can pull that trigger then please do so now.”
Sarah gasped. She could barely think straight. “It’s what you taught me to do.”
“I did not,” Ayaan said, very slowly, “teach you to talk. I taught you to shoot. I hope you will remember what it takes to kill a lich. I hope you remember how you will have to mutilate my corpse. You will need to smash my head to powder, are you prepared for that? My body should be burnt, or crushed with heavy stones.”
“You think I can’t do it,” Sarah said.
“I’m betting on it, actually.” Ayaan considered her with a long, cool look. “I think you haven’t prepared yourself psychologically for this. I think that you will be haunted by it for a very—”
Sarah squeezed the trigger. The noise of the gunshot bounced off the walls of the valley. When Osman found her, several hours later, she had burned Ayaan’s body with gasoline and spread the ashes on the wind. Only the heart remained. It refused to burn. There was no magic in that—a human heart was a hard lump of dense muscle tissue and not very flammable. Sarah held it in her hand when Osman came for her. She was hoping to hear Ayaan’s voice in her head. She was hoping that Ayaan had become a ghost like Mael Mag Och.
She was also hoping that nothing of the sort would happen. In that she got her wish.
Osman took one look at the charred organ in her hand and rubbed his head with his long fingers. “You can’t bring that on my helicopter,” he said. “No way.”
Sarah dug a little hole in the ground near the valley of the Source and buried the heart. It was the closest thing to a grave Ayaan could have. Sarah remembered what Ayaan had taught her about baraka, the dangerous blessedness of the Sufi saints. It was said you could invoke baraka when you stood by the tomb of a powerful person. Sarah wondered if in some future generation warriors would come to where the heart was buried and from it gather some strength. She left no marker, no gravestone. Those future warriors would have to find the burial place on their own.
She strapped herself into the co-pilot’s seat of the Jayhawk and they lifted up and away. Osman carried her off over a green world, a world of trees and rock and water and no people. An emptied-out world where even the dead were in scarcity. A truly silent, truly haunted place.
It was that kind of planet. It was going to be that kind of planet for a long time to come.