Yari was alone now, he was sure of it.
Everyone else he knew, everything else he knew, it was all gone. Departed or changed, only Yari remained as he was. Yari, standing insensate in a red expanse, silent in the dust, lost in thought. Yari, alone now.
The wind whirled and whistled in Yari’s ears, bringing with it dust from his barren fields to sting his unblinking eyes. Whether through despair or fortitude, he stared unflinching, standing still and loathsome like a gnarled tree at the edge of the dusty rows of his field. Drinking in the mockery of dead, dry earth, the memory of crops ever having been there itched at the back of his skull. It was a phantasmic breed of truth, confusing dreams that seem reasonable with memories that seem absurd. It mattered little, all of it; his departed gaze no longer felt the ache of his hate. He was as the earth, unspoiled by the noise of life or change.
He raised a hand to meet a swirling sheet of dusty air, the color of old blood. His hand gently curled in the tiny painted cyclone. The ruthless red dust that had no place anywhere, from somewhere other than here, risen up against him: the earth had betrayed him to it, in league with the heinous winds that were as barren of the rain as his fields were to the life they would have fed.
The sun no longer seemed to rise or set in a sensible way. It would rise and fall to the edge of sight, and rise again; it had been Day for days. In the days preceding, it had been Night for nights. It was as if the whole of creation had become stuck in wicked little cyclones.
The hiss of the sand skittering free of parched earth reminded him that he didn’t have to stay. Yari was a young man; he was healthy enough to start a new life. He was not just capable of change, but owed it out of decency. He could abandon the land that had abandoned him. He was a young man. He was sure of it.
He had only just last summer drunk a horn of mead to his nineteenth season, there in the barn across the hissing field before him. Laughing and singing with the grinning beards of his kinsmen, uncles, brothers, his father—perhaps it was two summers ago. His head itched again. How long had he been here? It was getting harder to remember, to account for time.
Yari began every day by reciting his name; counting as high as he could before losing count; writing all the letters of his language, and taking stock of his limbs and finger and toes. His features he accounted for in the small reflecting pool in his home, a hammered piece of bronze set into a recessed pit beneath his shrine to the Sun. He would gaze at his square, sharply angled features, every day a little stranger.
This is you, he would remind himself. You are Yari, you will not die this day. Would they still recognize him, back in that moment in the barn?
It didn't matter, the memory of his face, his name, his last birthday; those things were not of the world of now, were a glint of joy in a joyless time. It was wrong to allow them a place in the irsch klum feht, so named by his people: the Age of the Bleeding Earth. Though there was no one left to speak the old tongue now, and Yari had long ago tired of speaking to the wind.
Now he simply stared. He would recite and count and write, but at the end of it all he always ended here, at the edge of the field. His family had been its steward back and back, before the land had a name, before steel, before even fire if the stories were true. It wasn't until Yari was the hand that worked this earth that it had chosen to die. He had felt mocked at first. He felt nothing now.
A slow blink ended the burning stare. Yari shaded his eyes with a calloused paw of a hand, and looked to the sky. He looked to the setting sun, the Father of Sky and Fire. Sweat beaded up on his brow, the brow of a man who worked the earth: burned deep by the sun, weathered by troubles unnatural. The bitter wind took hold of his mud-caked curls, dreaded and red. His eyes, like two deep wells, spoke for their silent master: Save us, they prayed.
The hideous, hot-iron sky had been red now for days. If it had been days; accounting for time had to be done with a system of running sandglasses, easily forgotten. It may have been a week that felt like a year, or a lifetime that seemed a day. Whatever the case, the sky held its peace.
Yari breathed in, slow and deep as though in prayer. His broad, cracked hands brushed dust away in a futile gesture from his thick, hard-built arms, his roughspun tunic. The dust would be replaced soon enough, but these small acts of defiance had replaced his god after his god had abandoned him. Like the white of his tunic and the color of his flesh and the Fire Father of the sky, the blood earth had taken it all. Victims of an age.
All around Yari was the enormity of a hushed emptiness, nothingness in place where once a fullness bloomed. The winds clapped unbarred shutters and doors to their frames as they stalked the lifeless streets of the hamlet skirting Yari’s land. There was a mischievousness to it, a pointed spirit. The hamlet was abandoned, the neighboring fields and their stewards departed. The mad few that remained behind had not lasted long, choosing to stay because they were too old or sick to run, or too stubborn to be wise, or too proud to be sane. Yari was the last of these.
They still littered their land in death: sun-whitened bones in vulture-torn rags, half-buried in the red dust.
A rich forest had once curled about the clutch of homes and fields, but it had dulled to gray when the droughts came, robbed of the life-giving stream. Now it was black char and ash from when it had caught fire like so much kindling, and the rut where the water had departed was a noxious, desiccated thing: a creekbed turned the sickly color of running pus, wreathed in curious lichens and algaes that bloomed in mockery of the absence of living water or rain. The sickness of the land bubbling up through the flesh of the world.
Yari exhaled. The sun had sunk. It had sunk a great deal. He had watched, unblinking, in his vigil of silent defiance. The sun had finally gone to rest behind a plateau on the horizon, and the sky began to bruise into a whispering twilight. His shock was unrepresented on his face; behind his eyes, mute fury and despair shrank before his instinct to survive, lazily stretching to take its place at the reigns of his mind. His lips parted, then closed again. The last bits of red light had slunk behind the mountains now, the huge, cyclopean claws of their shadows surging forth across the wasted land to grasp his tiny blasted bit of home, the last of the life in this place, and drag it into the lurking jaws of twilight.
His body tensed. Now was when this forsaken age not only had substance and presence, but form as well. The night had made a womb of malice of this land, where things slithered and skittered in the dark, glided on leathery wings, and howled in voices not nearly inhuman enough to be mere beasts.
Here and there, the stars emerged in the withering light, in mute attendance to his plight. Yari hated them for it. He didn't need to be reminded of that permanent host in the sky, watching his tiny, impermanent farm. The rotting place where he refused to die, to give over to the curse. He survived in resistance of all of it: the wind, the dust, the loveless sky. He was the silent, seething guardian of a scant few acres.
His tiny cottage, with its rough-hewn shutters and door facing hopefully toward the East, had taken to the enemy, its cracking wattle-and-daub walls oozing here and there with the curious algae fed by the dew of the long nights. The barn housed only bones and ghosts, and memories of a man and a time Yari had come to doubt ever truly existed at all.
Anything that had not died—cows, a chicken, his cat—they had all been traded for food, the passing droves of refugees regarding him with unspoken horror and confusion. The refugees would speak; Yari, the last man in a village of ghosts, rooted to an earth that hated him for being so, would not. He would simply point to what he wanted to trade in exchange for what he wanted in return. Strangely, not one of the refugees had ever refused him.
With mad eyes, shaken hearts, and no explanation, they had come. First the traders, who had not taken root for leagues, such was their fear; then the free folk in their caravans, more interested in staying afoot than plying their usual trade of trinkets and fortune-telling. All they had offered was a warning, and many people from his village had taken up with them and left.
But what Yari remembered clearest were the small folk, like him, that had followed: how they had been sullied, somehow, down to the soul. Quiet and joyless, they marched, many with strange patches of bruised skin, babies born with colorless eyes. They had had nothing to say to anyone, save to flee.
The last to frequent the roadways, adjacent to Yari’s withering lot, were the holy men. They were the only group to still return, and the sight of them had become a sour thing. In the beginning, the packs of hairless priests in their white linens, flanked by swinging braziers of incense, had made Yari rejoice. They had come to mend the land, to heal the earth and sky. He had given them food and shelter, and what little silver he had, in exchange for blessings and prayers made in his favor. He and his neighbors all had. But nothing had come of it, nothing but rot and wasting.
In time, there came no more passing refugees, travelers, or traders. Humanity had abandoned this place, little by little, out of reason and a will to live. Whatever was happening here, it had happened first further to the East, and there were no people left further to the East. But the sickness was in the sky itself, though no one but Yari seemed to know it.
Only the priests still came, but they no longer spoke. They no longer sang, nor did they strike the curious gong they carried with them. Slower, quieter, they came only at the setting of the sun. Yari turned his eyes over to the road, his head a slow, creaking thing, and sure enough, there they stood. They watched him as he watched the dead earth. It was a cold fixation. They watched from behind strange, black veils they had not worn before.
Yari had begun to doubt any humanity remained within them, suspected that these false men might be yet another plague set upon the land. At best they were ghosts, but there were no ghosts; Yari knew there were no ghosts, no way out of this, no life waiting after life.
The tales of paradise on the other side were spun by impotent charlatans. He had seen with his own eyes, cowering behind his shutters, corpses rise and sway and dance clumsily in the moonlight. He had seen bones, lashed together in the shape of a man, shamble across his field when the sun had been gone for days. But these creatures never became the men they once were; the gnashing jaws of a child’s skull could not say aloud the name of she who had owned it in life.
There are no ghosts, Yari thought. These priests were merely true to their essence at long last: ash and shadow, false hope. There are no ghosts, and if there are gods, they surely drink pain to survive. It was for this they grew men in a field they called the earth, seeded by truth but nourished with lies.
It didn't matter. His hate for gods and the priests who served them was too thunderous to heed any fear of either. Yari spat at their memory. How dishonorable, how shameful for a farmer to trade his grain for empty magic.
Tears blurred the twilight.
He turned on his frayed boot heel, strode slow and silent toward the cottage. His eyes stayed on his feet as he walked the cobbled path he had lain a few springs back. The red dust had started to creep in over it, filling the spaces between the stones, spreading over here and there. Washing away everything he had built.
Yari dared not look up, his stride growing purposeful. On his left, he passed the only two things that had sprung up in his field since the onset of the red dust: the grave markers of his son and wife. Ari, lost to fever, and Bol, lost to Ari. Bol’s memory coiled about the grave marker, her unreturned gaze weighing him down, threatening to anchor him. He did not relent.
Had there been any human eyes to see him, they might have found him cold—that he would spend hours regarding his lack of crops, yet would not spare a single moment for his fallen kin. In truth he was drained, as all things were, by the lifeless red dust; but it was the loss of his family that had broken him. A scarecrow to an empty field, though his very same empty field had little need for scarecrows now. Host to the bleaching bones of long dead crows, their once-vast murders had been silenced by the unrelenting wrath of the sun and the parched, bitter winds.
For Yari, it was grim indeed to watch his fellow scavengers and survivors slip away beneath the sea of ash and blood. He knew his time was long past come, and the land knew it, too. The syzygy between he and it, alongside their mutual hatred, had become the whole of everything. It was very possible, Yari thought, that there was nothing else in all the world.
He was at the door now, stalked by the shrunken memory of Bol. The wood of the door was tarred deep and pounded with resin and coal, painted with boiled clay and white ash, and it had somehow resisted the plagues. It glared at him in the receding light, a lone white eye in a sea of bruised night. Before he crossed the threshold, he put one broad, veiny hand on the smooth bright skin of the door. Leaned in. Kissed the humble, pale portal with his dry, cracked lips.
It was a habit Bol had taken up when he had first finished the door, and they had never had the compulsion in common while she was with him. It hurt him to do it now, hurt to remember, but he refused to stop.
She had been so full of love, every movement, every word, every error; she was a being made of love, and for it, this world had wrenched everything away from her.
Yari paused for a moment out of respect, holding the door ajar so as to welcome in the shade of his departed wife. More pointless, immutable sentiment, but he could not deny the urge.
When he entered, he barred the door behind him to keep out the things the rare night brought in. He shuttered and latched and blocked the windows as well. He prayed to no one that the things would not whisper tonight—the things that would masquerade as children, clawing at the doors, writhing their pale, lifeless fingers in through the slats in the shutters, begging for food and water and shelter. Things no sane man would welcome in out of the moonlight, things that loped and slithered over the land that this rotting, bleeding age had come to possess.
Yari did not fear them, nor the death they heralded. But he refused to die an empty man with an empty field, a victim to a putrid season that fancied itself the victor. And it did.
The irsch klum feht was alive, he knew. He could feel authorship in its wrath, motive in its wind; to spite it at every turn had become his cause. The way to survive against it, he had found, was to behave as it.
He would defeat this age, and he would do so without his dead god and the fools that peddled his hollow words.
He took from those that could take for themselves. He ate the locust and the lizard, both able to subsist on the oozing wounds of the dry creek and lake beds. They roasted even now on spits above his fire, and eventually he would consume them in dreary silence.
He cured and smoked the flesh of the queer, gibbering things that appeared as hairless dogs with faces like men. When he had seen that the few he had gutted could be eaten by the buzzards, he caught them in traps he would have used for rats. Then he bled them of their black blood, lancing their flabby, gray-skinned necks. Their yellow eyes would roll back, their grasping hands clawing at the earth in twisted mockery of dying men.
Be they monsters, demons, or some sickness of his own mind, drained of blood and smoked, they were now Yari’s food. Their strength was now his.
Their obscene carcasses had taken the place of the river fish from the springs and summers of his youth. Those seasons, too, had become things of wonder, their memory to be doubted.
Yari ate a mash of locust and lizard, pounded to paste with mortar and pestle and smoked in vulture intestines. Water was drunk twisted from a spigot on the end of a crude assembly of cauldrons, simple banded-reed piping, grooved stones, sealed buckets, and capped boiling pots. The queer thing rose like a great, otherworldly serpent above his fire, dominating his hearth and home.
He had been compelled to assemble it one day, before the coming of the dust, with the hope of making wine. Now, the curious device boiled blood from vermin and algae from the creeks, producing a liquid so fetid and vile that it was very nearly as bad as dying of thirst.
The iron water-pot in one hand and his drinking horn in the other, Yari crossed the slate floor of his home. In a past life, he had been proud to have collected and crafted and mortared it, piece by piece. The chips of slate had been churned from the ground by his plow every year, and every year there had been more, as if some great stone tree had wept stone leaves in some forgotten time, buried by man and earth alike.
Perhaps he should have noticed that this was no miracle, that more likely it was the first of the greater strangeness to come.
He placed the water on the table by his bed. Animal skins blanketed the woven, straw- and feather-stuffed fabrics of the place where he slept, and he sat upon these.
He could see her again: the quiet, smiling memory of Bol, the dwindling image of his past moving toward him. Undersized and distant, trapped in some other time, it regarded him sightlessly.
He clapped the sides of his head, clenched tightly his eyes and his teeth. When he looked again, the feeling had passed, but it was replaced with the sense of eyes on his back.
He shivered and dipped his horn in the water. For every gulp he consumed, he spilled a few drops on the floor in offering. Not to any god, but to the memory of his wife, to the spirit of the remembrance of her and his son. Another ritual of many that the irsch klum feht seemed to have dredged out of his suffering, his unwillingness to end it.
He took up his rumpled, rough-woven bedsheets in his free hand. They had never laid flat. Bol had blushed while presenting them, embarrassed to have worked so hard on a gift that had ended up so poorly-formed. But Yari had loved them. He had kissed her. It was the night they had conceived their son.
Once the pot and horn were drained of water, he replaced them to their stations among the strange still and retired to his bed. He did not quench the fire, nor did he cap the oil lamp on his bedside table. He only rolled onto his side, regarding the beaded lengths of the prayer mat on the floor, the painted shrine to the sun on his wall. Yari had turned on the sun as surely as the sun had turned on Yari, but it went deeper and stranger than that: as if, perhaps, evil existed—chaos, madness—but not good. That perhaps light was not a fullness, but simply the absence of darkness; that perhaps the rain was a putrefaction of the sky, and life was an accidental lack of peace, abhorrent in the eyes of whatever god had made the rock and the flame and nothingness, had returned only to find an infection of tree and beast.
Whatever the case may have been, Yari had made his choice in choosing to survive. The gods would have a hard fight in taking him. If death was their will, than his every breath was blasphemy.
He had not asked to be born of their world. They were wrong. Powerful, and wrong, and deserving of nothing but contempt. Capricious children, born too high above ground to be useful.
Bol’s memory chastised him from the shadows, shunned him for his unshakeable choler; again, he grit his teeth until the sense quieted. But sleep was yet denied him: he could feel her along his body, in some memory he could no longer prove had any kinship with truth, tracing with a tiny finger the muscle of his bare arm.
He lay in bed, gazing at the receding flames in the stone firepit, listening intently for the outside to come to him. All remained still, silent, a deafening and uniform nothingness that was broken only by the gentle hiss of sandy wind against the walls.
His mind wandered, along with his gaze, over Bol’s carefully-dusted and long-unused bottles and vases, the heirloom pottery that had been her bride-gift. He could almost see her now, fawning over them as she often had, humming some wordless song. He thought of the night they were wed, how the ornate, centuries-old pieces had made her weep. Their inks depicted springtime and the wages of the virtuous, the paradise that awaited his people when they departed this earth. Peaceful things. She and the pots belonged to one another for this.
He counted the slate pieces of his floor, each one remembered, relished as it was laid into the pounded dirt. The slate had been a hidden fortune for his family, though it could buy nothing now.
His eyes drifted up, heavily. He resisted, he did not want to see it, but his gaze rose anyway. He knew what waited for him on the wall, but he was compelled by a force stronger than his will to live, stronger than the land’s will to die. It needed him to see it, there on pegs meant to bear a family standard, perhaps a hex symbol—something he was willing to share his home with.
But, no. From the shoulder strap of red leather, it hung: the broad, ancient sword. Firelight caressed the hilt, illuminating every hateful inch of the timeless, unrusting iron in the guard and pommel. Flickering yellow and orange seduction over a sheath that depicted wolves mad with hunger descending upon terrified men.
He had always hated the thing, even as a boy when it had known only his father’s hand. One summer, even, a trader had come to the hamlet, had set his cart and mule to wait in the center of the muddy crossroads of their small town square. There, in front of the longhouse of elders, Yari had tried to sell the sword to the stranger. He had not cared how dishonorable the act would make him: the blade wasn’t right, he knew it now and he had known it then, though no one else had seemed to understand. It was all wrong, so big but so light for all its size, shaped so strangely as though meant for a king. But it had always been here in Yari’s family, going back for generations, the elders said. And no one had coveted it, in all the years, in all the hamlet. So Yari had thought, perhaps, that a stranger might take it away.
The merchant was a traveler of the free folk, all color and spice, waxed of beard. His silk-tented wagon had seemed so out-of-place in the quiet, gentle hamlet that Yari had been sure the stranger would be enamored of such an unusual piece.
The merchant had doffed his queer, scarlet hat, flourishing in a low bow at Yari’s approach, all smiles and song. His bald head had gleamed. But when Yari had unfolded the cloth and revealed the blade, the merchant had seemed disgusted at the idea of buying it; and when Yari had asked why, the man had simply said it was unseemly. There had been tears in his eyes and sweat on his brow: he had been afraid. He had refused to buy it, and he had sent Yari home.
After, Yari had found that he could not even give the sword away. His friend Lawi, a boy from a neighboring farm, had only looked at the thing once before growing visibly afraid and running off without a word. Years had passed before he would even speak to Yari again, and it wasn't until they were both much older that he would respond to Yari’s greetings at all, or meet his gaze.
But when Yari had brought up the sword in conversation, Lawi always pretended he hadn’t heard him.
Eventually, Yari became a man grown, and the sword had passed to him. He had decided to bury it deep in the cold, dark earth at the edge of the field, much to his father’s chagrin, though it had been Bol to come to him one morning as he was at the plough.
Tenderly but firmly, she had asked him to compromise by mounting the sword over the fireplace: a symbol for their family. He need never bare the blade, she had offered, and the display would avoid shaming them. He never could deny her.
In the end, it was she and his son who taken the strange blade’s place in the earth, and it was the sword that now took up residence in his home. There it hung above Yari, every bit as permanent and hated as the sun. In many ways, it was his only companion: this tool of death by which man made war on man, watching without eyes the man who made war with gods by denying death.
Yari had tasted war; he had consumed war as a sacrament, as was the way of his people. He had fought when the foreigners came to the hamlet, situated as it was at a bend in the river that bordered his Lord’s dominion. He had been young, barely out of fourteen summers. He did not like to think of it. There had been no wickedness in his enemies. Just a willingness to serve—a faith.
Then, at seventeen, the king’s men had come to the village square, offering a piece of gold and a demand: join with them, wear a certain cloak and helmet and jerkin, and fly a certain banner.
And he did, and it was men he had never met that paid the price.
The sword was his, presented to him at his wedding alongside Bol’s beautiful, virtuous pottery. He had refused to bring it with him to serve the King. He had sensed that it wanted to go, and he resented the thing for its effect on him. Yari did not want to sense a sword. The choice had done little to sever him from the awareness of the blade, and every day he had strapped on the standard-issue sword from the camp’s quartermaster, he had felt a sympathetic contempt for this unfamiliar iron. He knew where the feeling had come from, and it horrified him.
He had not hated the army, but it had taken him from what he loved: his new wife. But comfort had come eventually, as it always did, with familiarity. Being a soldier had not been so unlike farming; the drilling structure had not been foreign, and the friendships forged in soldiering had seemed to make the institution bearable. At least until the killing had started. And the dying.
In his three-year career, he had killed six men by the sword and another six by the spear. He could swear he saw their faces now, depicted in the finely-wrought leather inlay of his scabbard. As he regarded the wolves that all looked alike, Yari wondered what had become of the army, and his Lord, and the King, and their borders. Did they know the world was ending?
In the maddening silence of his tiny home, he gazed still upon the red leather. It felt different this time. Something welled up within him, bearing memories: maimings, woundings, brawls, gouged eyes and ripped cheeks, testicles burst in a desperate grip. The lesser, unsung mechanisms of the field of war. He tasted blood in his dry mouth. His nostrils were suddenly aflame with the scent of rending bowels and bile-stained mud in the rain, and he found he was not repulsed.
His head ached.
There was a drumming, perhaps another memory, but only the sound. He cocked his head to listen, but he could not tell if it was from beyond his walls or within his skull.
There was a music, thumping and virtuous, old and emotionless. It boomed silently in his mind, seeping from across the room to linger just before the fire and the sword. There, propped lazily against the wall and peering from beneath empty grain sacks and discarded clothing: his round bronze shield. It was singing, though not to him.
Yari lurched up, his body nude and vulnerable in the creeping darkness. He buried his face in his weathered palms, feeling warm in the cold house. Every pore seemed to seethe, weeping drops of sweat, and his muscles clenched in steely coils, sinews tugging at one another in shivering chills.
The thumping would not stop, though he knew it could not be real. He cursed the gods in desperate whispers over cracked lips. What fever of the mind had they sent to bedevil him now? Would his suffering never be severe enough for them? At last his jaw fell open, and he roared as if in anguish. But it was no cry of pain, no mournful howl—this was a distinctive cry, the annunciation of battle, a booming war call that rocked the silence of the house, and were it capable of fear, it would have been made to tremble. He screamed alone in the dying firelight. He screamed in defiance.
Yari did not remember rising to his feet. But there he stood, fists raised in a directionless challenge. Sweat ran down his heaving chest, his breath measured and deep, his bed thrown to the wall.
In a manic pace, he circled the room, his mouth agape, his eyes wild and bloodshot, his breath ragged, his whole face concealed in a forest of muddy, red-tangled coils of wild hair. He halted before the flames, which were curiously revitalized. His muscular frame was terrible to look upon in the red light, as if his malice were haloed about his being in an aura of rage.
It was then that the world fell away in one image: there, on the wall, was his shadow.
Carved out of the light, his silhouette was cast over the bed and up the wall. He raised his hard-bitten gauntlet of a hand. The stranger made of shadow returned his greeting, but it was not simply the shadow that had caught his eye.
It was the shape that snared him, an enthralling fear. He had not seen it. It had been so gradual, it all had happened too far from what he could see in the reflecting pool of his shrine—he was changed. The shadow called to him from memory, from a time when he was a small boy standing before the fire. His shadow on the wall had been as tall as his father, halfway to the rafters. Playing along, his father had come to his side, backward strides toward the fire.
“Look there, Yari!” he had said, in a voice pretending alarm. “It is a giant come for you! Run, little man!”
The shadow of a grown man had towered over his, and they had laughed. Yet, now, as he looked upon his shadow, it would have dwarfed his father’s own.
Run, little man.
Yari’s shoulders and his chest were far broader than any man’s should be. Misshapen.
Silently, he strode to the dowery chest at the end of the bed, throwing back the lid. His massive paws shoveled aside bits of precious fabric, bronze rings, a silver bowl he’d looted in the war. At last, he found what he sought: the helmet. His helmet, buried at the bottom, hiding. Trepidation and doubt spun around his arm like twin serpents as he reached for it.
He opened his hand, made a fist; opened his hand again. He hesitated before finally reaching for the helmet. It was like some drunken dream, his fingers enveloping the iron-banded wood, agonizingly, more and more, until at last his massive hand was completely covering this helmet, this shape of a man’s skull, this anchor to the world before the red time. It looked like a child’s toy in his grasp.
Yari recoiled in fear, feeling for the first time the weight of his massive body. Falling back onto the floor, his haunches slammed the slate. Wild with revulsion, he pushed himself, kicking, away from the chest, until his back was pressed to the wall.
For a long moment he did not breathe. He had not noticed how quiet it had gotten.
There was no wind outside. The winds that came in the daytime with the dust and the rot would lean on his walls, making the roof creak like a ship at sea, but there was no wind now. There never was when they came, in the night, as if the wind and the creatures could not share the world, just as the sun and the moon could not share the light. The chittering in the mists, the scraping on the walls, quiet fingers in the slats of the shutters: first came always the silent, windless peace.
After, they would whisper. Wordless whispers from a thousand dusty voices, twisting in the moonlight beyond his walls.
The silence a tree, his fury its fruit, he stood. For the first time, he realized that he had been hunching. How long had he unknowingly concealed this from himself, stooping low enough to clear the doorway?
He suddenly knew for sure that he did not truly know when his nineteenth summer had passed. How had he not noticed? All this time, the madness had hidden itself from him: his tearing clothes, attributed to the wasting in the air, and to running down the gray-skinned horrors that were fool enough to remain behind in the sunlight. He had merely assumed that his farmer’s linens were not meant for the work of stalking and slaying, all while the very clothes on his back were breaking apart over his changing form.
He began to pace the room, listening for the night whispers, hoping for them to save him from these thoughts. Was he one of them now? He was all that remained of mankind in this wasteland, and he was—
He knew not what he was.
There he stood, nude and mad in the firelight. He ran a palm up his arm, bulking and feral, fed by the flesh of vermin and lizard, snake, locust, fly and maggot. It had been worked to precision; everything that remained of it after this harrowing existence was more than it had been before it began. His arms had once worked the implements of agriculture, and these same arms now bashed with rocks the hairless, writhing masses of flesh that had dog legs and human hands. The hands that had swung the mattock at the earth now swung the same mattock at leather-winged white lizards, cleaving smooth, eyeless heads, their black-lipped mouths full of human teeth. With the jaw bone of a mule, his arms swung and clubbed at vulture and feral painted dogs. All the while, he had changed without his knowing. His hands were murderous, tearers of raw flesh from the coyote and the crow.
He set his teeth, somehow unusually strong, the crushers of bone and cartilage, the grinders of the demonkin he consumed. Bol would not know him now.
His wife would not know him now.
She would not recognize him. He did not recognize himself, nor could he remember what he had been before coming to be this.
It was the sound of the last log snapping in the fire woke him from his feral state.
He stood not against the gods.
Like a sculpture sanded and waxed, he was finally finished—or perhaps they were finished with him. The product of the will of a hateful earth, the stolen son of the sky. A wild eater-of-lands stood where once a pious farmer had stood.
They had at last won. Even were he the first and only, Yari could feel himself anointed into a new flock. Warmth rolled down his cheeks, cutting through the red dust on his face in two long swathes. He could hear his wife speaking to him in memories.
“You frighten me.”
Her memory faded to truth, and the truth was a wickedness that put all other trials of this hateful age to shame.
Her tiny voice was real for the first time: “Why you are crying, Teeth?”
Like the rasping whisper of a child, it called to him from the blankets of the toppled bed.
“Why you are yell?”
He saw her truly now. His wife’s face in the blankets, the memory he had seen—how long had he denied this creature? How long had it shared his home with him, hiding within his grief?
“You break our bed, Teeth.” She rose up, the sheets slipping off her tiny frame. Her nude form was a twisted parody of Bol’s familiar curves and swells, and her hair, straight as reeds and black as pitch, hung over half her face. It cascaded down her ghostly gray skin, covering a small, round breast. The woman, his woman, from his memories, sat wrapped in the blankets of his overturned bed. But like him, she was also wrong: too-small like some hill fairy, barely larger than a child of ten summers, but shaped for all the world like a grown woman. With the face of Bol.
“My hands,” Yari began in a shaking whisper, “buried you. You’re dead,” he finished with a growl.
“Not dead,” she responded, her full, black lips parting widely around a yawn. “Just haves a sleep, look dead. You see now.” She stretched her tiny figure. Silently, Yari strode to the window and, despite his better judgement, opened the shutters.
He did not want to look. He never wanted to, and he had not done so for a space of time he could not account for. But now he had to see, to know.
There, in his field. Both graves had been opened, the coffins broken apart and thrown aside.
Grown by some unclean magic in the wicked season, this beast had emerged from the bones of Yari’s wife. It bore her exact likeness. Though every part of him ached with fury, he did not lunge at the tiny she-demon. He did not curse it, or roar oaths of vengeance. He calmly strode toward it with heavy steps.
His hands came up and took hold of her head and neck. Tears and spittle running from his flushing face, he could hear his heart in his temples.
“What have you—,” his voice was pitched and rasping through grinding, clenched teeth. “What have you done, demon?”
It was the fear in her face, in the eyes of his wife, that caused his crushing grip to relent and allow her to slither free of him.
“Not demon!” She hissed, pleading a case that she was losing by the second with every reality the passage of time revealed of her form. Beneath her thighs and above her knees, her legs merged into the long body of a black serpent. She stood on inky coils when she stood to correct him, her eyes now disapproving. His wife’s eyes.
No—they were black, not as they were in life, but rather they were completely black. Her eyes were two pools of gleaming obsidian, pleading for Yari to find his decency. “Not demon, am your wife.”
Yari fell to his knees weeping. He did not know that the hatred of gods could run so deep. His head shook slowly, his eyes unable to leave her form. His body convulsed as he sat back on his ankles, and he bit into the knuckles of his fists.
“Know me you?” she asked.
“Good,” she chided, placing her hands on her hips. Just like Bol used to.
Yari moaned powerlessly, the lancing pain of grief unfathomable skewering him as he watched his tiny wife slither nearer on the coils of an asp. She embraced him, her little arms circling his waist.
Yari breathed in, gasping and choking as he took hold of her again with murderous intent.
This time she did not manage to get free. “If you are real, I am going to pull off your head,” he swore unevenly.
She writhed in his grip. “Do not!” she pleaded. “Haves no quarrel with the Teeth!”
“Stop calling me that!” Yari spat, struggling to hold the little woman fast.
"Haves no quarrel with the Teeth. Loves the Teeth, lies with the Teeth as had what cast my shadow—”
The fear in her voice, some gray echo of his wife, sapped his strength. He could not do it. Not to her, he could never hurt Bol. If the demon had meant to win, it had most certainly done so. This is a battle he would not fight.
“Why are you calling me that,” he asked softly.
The little creature, only a moment ago terrified, now looked for all the world to be embarrassed. “Because I not remember things. Many things, from before, I not can find.” She pointed a perfect tiny finger at her inky tresses. “The others,” she waved at the walls, and Yari understood her to mean the world beyond them, “not you and not me—the night folk. Look like me, not—,” she seemed frustrated, unable to find the words. She placed a spread hand over her chest, determined. “Not same this.” She paused to read his face, concern worn so honestly across her own. “They call you the Teeth. You not like rest of meat to them. You not can be like them, you not die, turn to dirt. You eat all. You live. Biggest hunter, biggest man. Biggest teeth.”
“You aren’t real,” Yari sighed. He had come to a decision. “You aren't a ghost. There are no ghosts. The beasts simply dug up Bol’s body and—ate it—,” he breathed deeply. “And I am mad.”
The tiny creature’s black eyes had become wet.
“Am real,” her voice trembled. “Wish was not.” She choked back a sob. “World is awful, wish was not ever real.” Tears broke from her curved eyelids. “But am real. Am your wife, Teeth.”
She sniffed her tiny upturned nose. “And you not mad. Is just,” she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “Is this place. Why we stay here?” She shook her head, at a loss, her gaze falling to the floor. “Why you keeps us here so long?”
Yari rose to his feet. Something in him had finally broken under the weight of these words.
“You will call me Yari,” he said. “Now come with me, ghost. We are leaving.”
And with that, he took from the fireside the large leather sack he used to carry firewood, lifting the childlike half-serpent image of his wife by the waist and placing her inside. He shrugged into the strap. “There are no ghosts,” he absently muttered, slinging the sack around him to rest against his back.
“Am not a ghost, am your wife,” the muffled voice of the she-creature corrected/
He did not know if she was truly real, but he was past the point of caring. The fact that he had this token of his wife seemed to sustain him; he felt, finally, ready. He realized that he had had no answer for this odd reflection of Bol. He just had no reason to keep them here.
New life came to him as he darted about the home, gathering up everything he felt he might need. He was leaving, he was taking his ghost on his back and leaving.
Mindless and wanton, his powerful arms sprang to life independent of his body, tearing his sword from the wall. The pegs came with it in his fury, leaving behind dusty gouts. He worried at the terrible sheath, pulling the blade free like a drunkard pulls free a whore’s tits from her slip.
Glowering at the blade, Yari held it before him at arm's length. He glanced into his own eyes in the reflective surface, then took hold of a mass of his unkempt hair in a brutal fist. He sheared the locks from the side of his head. They were black, dark and rich under the layer of red.
He remembered now. Just like the earth on his land. His mind reeled, a riotous, twisting fire like hell itself: a conflagration of hate and loathing, despair and animal fear, the reeking fuel of human iniquity at its roots. But unlike any hellfire, his was blasphemous, unnatural, and entirely justified.
He had fought, he had fought his whole life for peace.
He had eschewed an honorable life as a soldier to become a man of the earth. He had longed only to be a farmer, to be a father. He had gone to war with men he had never known, with men he’d had no quarrel with, for the sake of peace. He had fought his father when he had hung up his sword and taken up the scythe, had left his shield to rot to work the earth.
And now he fought still, fought to deny the gods his soul. It was all for nothing, though. He had fought for peace and he had lost.
He regarded his home and the life he had lived there, the memories he had so treasured. For the first time, Yari realized that it was time to admit he was alone. He knew, but the world did not. He was apart. He had not succumbed to the red earth for a reason; the night creatures hated him for a reason.
Why had they not just piled up and over the walls of his tiny home? Why had they stopped at the walls?
Alone, and new. Reborn in a form more suited to this absence, where only hatred sang in the silence and the ashes. A form demanding flesh, to raise steel and draw blood in this time where the very earth he walked was bloodstained sand. These trials, this time and its faceless will, had worn on him, burned so much away, killing what was unworthy.
What was left now was something else. Defined by absence, this form had taken shape in him without his knowledge.
His blade and his shield were his family now. He was man and he was nothing, and he was all that remained. He stood against the gods.
Yari swiped his hand against his chin and took the mass of his beard to the unnatural, razored edge of the wide sword-blade. When he was done, he rubbed his rough jaw and examined his palm for blood. He gazed at the stains of red earth.
Everything is blood.
He sheathed his sword and shouldered its band. His mind and his body, his faculties and his soul, all seemed to be clearly distinct from one another, almost independent in the chaos—yet they all seemed keener, sharper, the unspoiled edges of an executioner’s axe.
His mind thought of the beasts and horrors without fear. His arms led his rabid hands to the shield, which he fixed to his arm with the leather tie, aligning his grip with the handle. It had been some time since he had last polished it, and the painted device of his clan had begun to chip, it seemed, long ago. It had become less unique, less of itself, while in exile from its purpose: reverted to the simple tool of conflict that it had always been at heart.
That night on Yari’s farm, fury had taken harvest, bringing the scythe’s edge to the very roots of a man at his humanity. On Yari’s farm, the irsch klum feht had reaped what it had sown: a new man, a man fit to drink blood from hearts innocent and wicked alike. A beast meant to trample the unworthy and feast upon the flesh of the unfit. The living harvest of a dead field, the last life of the whole hamlet: Yari, all that remained, stood armed and nude and ringing with purpose.
The song of steel hummed once more, giving unholy vitality to his limbs, to his senses, to his being. His mind and soul were separate and unified. He was not one man, but not apart; he was as rain and gale and thunder and lightning and broken brush on a curling squall, bearing only the name of storm. He was a rabid, wild pack of wolves in the hulking form of a man, with an arm of iron and an arm of bronze.
His old army cloak, hidden in the dowery chest at the end of the upturned bed, was meant to be forgotten. But it was never forgotten. He donned it, then strapped the boots to his feet.
As he approached the door, the pack shifted against his back. “Too cold,” the little demon huffed. Yari looked over his shoulder and his eyes fell on the lumpy, uneven blanket that Bol had made.
“Am thanks of,” his ghost sighed, after he’d tucked the blanket inside with her.
When he came upon the door, his fist stopped at its surface. He leaned in and kissed the worn wood one last time. Then he stepped out into the yawning maw of the hungry night.
In the moonlight, at the edge of the field, a deliberate wind blew at Yari’s back: a mother vulture urging her young to take wing. Yari pulled the cloak tight around him.
At the edge of his land, gazing into the char and ash that was once the forest, he spoke to the night that he knew was pregnant with horrors.
“Spirits of this place,” he boomed, louder than he thought possible.
In answer, the darkness was suddenly host to a legion of glowing eyes, the shadows writhing with unclean life.
“I am the last. I have a name.” Yari drew the massive blade. “Know that I am called Yari, and that when I send you back to hell, you will split your putrid lungs screaming it!”
He raised his shield and rushed the mass of what had become the living will of the irsch klum feht. He had come to slay them and eat them, his will now twinned to some foreign influence that straddled his fury and his hunger and his bloodlust like a mount rode into war.
If he had been chosen by some wicked rival god of the irsch klum feht that had devoured his world, Yari did not care. He would kill them all. Break their walls, their weapons, their bodies, their gods.
The sword boomed like thunder from his hand, and the red dust parted in a mighty swathe before him. It went nearly an arm’s-length down, revealing the old, black soil.
This would be the first harm he would inflict on their world, and he was pleased.