The room was large, quiet, and empty, and it smelled like death. It should have smelled like weathered stone, or dust, or moss that grows forgotten in dark places so long it forgets its name, but Rat knew the smell of death. He tasted it the moment they walked inside this ancient building, and he longed for the moment he would adjust and stop smelling it.
He wished he could walk closer to the three adults behind him, but the silent man would scowl, and Theodora would look at him with eyes that said, My patience is running out, and Flim might strike at Rat, even though Theo had told him they weren’t to hurt Rat. Not that she was protecting him. Rat was just the one who had to walk first. Without him, they would all die. With him… at least they would get a moment’s warning.
“You’re small enough,” Theo’d told him at the slave fair, putting her hand under Rat’s chin. She smiled in a way that didn’t mean kindness but perhaps didn’t mean cruelty either, and Rat hunched his shoulders and sucked in his stomach to look scrawnier. Theo’s smile became a smirk. “Tell me, little rat, can you run faster than death?”
He’d said yes to please her, to loosen the strings of her purse, to make her pay the man holding his papers, but now, walking through this place, he wasn’t so sure. Theo said it was a church for a religion that had been wiped out ages and ages ago, but to Rat, it was a burning pit for corpses. Nooks were built into the wall at regular intervals, each more than large enough to hold a body, and though the ones he had passed so far held nothing but dirt and the marks of long-spent torches, he kept waiting to see a grinning skull appear from the darkness.
And it was dark. There were no windows, and the door—ancient, heavy, and twice again the silent man’s height—had slammed shut moments after they came inside, leaving Theo and Flim to curse as they searched for a light, and Rat to sweat and hope he wouldn’t piss himself. That moment had reminded Rat of something he’d thought he’d forgotten in the relative comfort of the slave market, something he’d learned surrounded by victims of the plague that had taken his family and most of the country: in the dark, he was nothing but a bag of ill-formed organs waiting for death.
Eventually Theo had found her stone, the one she could call light into, and that made it better for a few minutes. But then the adults were over their fright, and Rat had to start walking, and any comfort vanished. The light from Theo’s stone was cold, hard, and dead, like the light you see behind your eyes when someone knees you in the stomach, and it did nothing to soothe Rat’s fears. It only lit a foot in front of them and a few feet behind, after all, and the dead god knew what lurked in the place beyond.
Rat passed a nook marked with a symbol shaped like an eye, and the steady click-click of Theo’s boots on the aged stone stopped. Rat froze, afraid she’d seen an omen of some trap lurking ahead. If he was going to die, he didn’t want to know first. But Theo walked over to the nook and smiled in that tight way of hers, running her fingers over the symbol. She flicked a glance at the silent man, and he placed his hand beside hers. The symbol glowed, and something clacked in the darkness, like a rusty gear testing its teeth. Rat shivered; Theo pretended not to notice. “Rat, dear, there should be a set of steps about two yards in front of you. Take the light and find them so we don’t break our necks.”
Flim began hopping from one foot to the other. He never stood still, even when hunting, and his hand never left the hilt of his knife. “And what are we supposed to do then, eh? I won’t stand here in the dark waitin’ for the kid to get back.”
Theo looked at him, her eyes so dark with scorn there was almost no white in them at all. Flim was supposed to get a cut of whatever they were looking for down here, but when Theo looked at him, Rat felt a sort of pity: Flim had been brought down here to die, just like Rat. Only Theo and the silent man would make it out of this. They had the magic, after all. Rat and Flim only had their wits and their reflexes. Theo sighed. “Light a match, won’t you, Brand?”
That was the silent man, but Rat thought “the silent man” was a better name for him, just as Rat was a better name for himself than Edgar. The silent man looked at Flim for a long moment, and Rat almost thought Flim would back down, but then the silent man drew a match from his pocket and lit it by pinching it between his thumb and forefinger. Flim shot Rat a look that meant Rat had better get to those steps and call for them before the match burned out.
Fighting back a sneer, Rat took the light from Theo. Like Flim could do anything to him. Theo could sell his papers to a crueler master or, worse, burn them. Flim could only whip him, and Rat had had worse than that. Still, he started forward with the light, quick as he could. Theo was a mostly indifferent master, but he didn’t want to leave her standing in the dark for any longer than he had to.
He had expected a hidden door, some crevice that would leap out at him from secret depths, but he was so busy looking at the walls that he almost tripped over the stairs. He caught himself, and his fingers clenched around the light stone. If he had fallen, he would have had a very long way to go. The stairs were part of the floor: they sank down into the depths of the building, taking up all of the floor except for a few narrow parts on either side. Rat swallowed hard before calling back. “It’s right here.”
Flim immediately started over to Rat and his light—crouching with fear, and Rat bit back a grin—but Theo lingered, looking at the symbol on the wall with a smile that felt like holding broken glass in a tight fist. She stayed there until the match guttered and went out. When it did, she did not rush to Rat as Flim had: she took slow, deliberate steps. Though the silent man was doubtless by her side, as he always was, Rat couldn’t hear him. He walked barefoot, and his feet were as silent as his lips.
“Well, boys,” Theo said the moment she stepped into the light cast by the stone. “Do you want to see what kind of things they keep in the crypt of a god?”
Rat passed the light stone back to her. As her fingers closed around the globe, Theo favored him with a smile as warm as a friendly back pressed against yours in the night. She had only smiled like that once before, when Rat had thanked her for buying him. There was a certain amount of danger in that smile. Rat knew Theo was dangerous, that she was only being this kind to him because she needed him to risk his life. That smile made him forget that; that smile made him happy to be a slave.
They started down the steps again, Rat leading once more. The light stone seemed less and less useful. All it showed was that the staircase seemed to go on forever. How low could this place truly go? You couldn’t build too deep underground, or the whole thing would collapse on top of you. Wouldn’t it? Rat rubbed his arms. Thoughts like that came all too often. He loathed his good imagination—bad enough death was always a threat without him being good at picturing it too.
Flim’s voice was steadier now he was safely in the circle of the light. “Can’t really be a god down there,” he said after they’d been walking for a few minutes.
Theo shot him a sharp look; the silent man set his hands in his pockets. Theo looked at him ainstead nd slowly relaxed, clasping her hands behind her back. “There’s a reason we call them the dead gods, Flim.” Her voice was too sweet, like rotten fruit.
Rat had long ago realized, however, that Flim didn’t have Rat’s sense of what was safe and what wasn’t. He was strong, and he was fast, and he was vicious, but he didn’t have enough brains to juggle with. “That’s just a sayin’, innit? Somethin’ you tell the kids when they ask why you can’t fill their bellies. ‘The gods are dead, so shut up and take what y’get. All of that, it…” He frowned, spreading his hands, and his voice turned strangely pleading, as though he was afraid of what Theo might say. “It went away a long time ago, didn’t it?”
Theo wrinkled her nose delicately, as though Flim smelled and she was too polite to say so. But she did not speak; she traced her fingers through the dust coating the wall. “Did it?” she asked, when the pause had gone on so long Rat thought he might choke on it. “Does anyone actually know the stories these days? Or is all we’ve ever heard rumors of rumors, whispers so quiet they don’t mean anything anymore? Is there any truth left in what we know?”
Flim retreated and didn’t say anything more, looking almost like she’d slapped him, or maybe scratched his cheek with her long painted nails. Theo drew closer to the silent man. And all the time they walked down, down, down.
Finally, finally, the light revealed a flat stretch of stone instead of another step. Rat couldn’t help but run all the way down, even though the light barely kissed that floor and anything could live in the darkness. He had had enough stairs for one lifetime.
Theo came closer, bringing her light, and Rat forgot everything else.
The walls of the church above them had been bare grey stone. Anything of worth up there had been looted long ago; Rat had seen empty spots where jewels once glittered in the walls, but now the only thing of interest on the ground floor were the rats. Here… Rat had to touch the walls, not to suss out their worth but just to assure himself they were real.
Here… oh, glory. A great mosaic ran from the foot of the stairs into the depths of the tunnel. The background tile was deep, deep blue—angelstone, the rarest substance in the kingdom. The varicolored ceramic tiles that made up the pictures were less valuable but no less beautiful. The one Rat touched was of a woman kneeling before a great altar adorned with the bleeding head of a lamb. When he touched the wall, Rat tasted blood in his mouth, a sure sign that magic—old magic—worked here, keeping dirt and insects from marring the spotless surface.
“Gor,” whispered Flim. That broke the spell; Rat jumped back and stared at his feet, hoping to draw attention away from himself. They must have seen him touch it, but maybe they would ignore it. This had to be what they were after, after all. Flim stepped forward as though in a trance and placed his hand where Rat’s had been. “This alone is worth all my children’s heads.”
Theo snorted. “Just your children?” Flim glanced back at her. “Flim, my dear man, this is worth the souls of the entire kingdom—and maybe the ones in the south as well. And this isn’t even what we came down here to find.” She brushed her fingers across the mosaic and drew back sharply, shaking them off. “Good thing, too. I could never break the spell that keeps the tiles in the wall.” She looked at the picture and shook her head. “The nonsense people will go through to try and bring someone back from the dead.” She gestured at Rat to continue.
Rat glanced again at the bloody head, at the fervor in the stone woman’s eyes, and then he darted forward to the edge of the light. He used to worry that the only god of their land was dead—who would look after kids like him? Now he wasn’t sure it was a bad thing.
As they progressed down the hallway, the pictures became more grotesque. A woman gave birth to a baby with two heads. A man reached into the innards of a living goat. They turned a corner to a dead end. Rat hesitated, glancing back at Theo, but she quirked a brow, and Rat walked forward until his knees brushed the wall. He looked up at the mosaic and stumbled back. It wasn’t horrifying, like the ones to the right and left. Rather, it was just a picture of a woman’s expressionless face. But there was something about it… Perhaps the closed eyes. Perhaps the lines at the corner of her eyes and mouth. Perhaps the inexplicable sadness Rat felt looking at it.
The taste of blood rose in Rat’s mouth again, and he shrunk back to Theo’s side. He didn’t care if she scolded him; he wanted to be as far away from that face as possible. Luckily, Theo wasn’t interested in him. She passed the light globe to the silent man and walked to the wall, tapping her lips with a finger. “Now this… this is where things get tricky.”
Flim cracked his knuckles. “That’s where the old bugger’s kept, eh? Can we break it?” Theo looked back at him, one eyebrow arched. It was the most damning expression Rat had ever seen. Flim shrunk back, but, unlike before, he didn’t shut up. “It’s trapped, then.” Theo nodded, once. “Why are you messin’ about with it? Wasn’t that what we brung the kid for?”
Theo looked at Rat, her expression contemplative. “Yes, he is our warning,” she said, turning her face back to the mosaic. “And, as I thought, he has been of no use so far. All the traps in this early part have already been triggered by the looters of other centuries.” Slowly, she stretched out her hand and placed it on the cheek of the mosaic woman. Her eyes widened, and the fine hairs on her arm stood on end, but her expression did not change from thoughtful. “But in all the books I’ve ever read, all the survivors I’ve interviewed… no one has ever cracked this. No one has ever conquered the tomb. Which either means we will be the first, or we will find that this crypt holds more than just a god.”
Flim hugged himself. The fear in his eyes was absurd, like a bear forced to dance, but Rat didn’t blame him. Himself, he couldn’t seem to stop shivering, even though it was warm. Flim bit his lip. “So… if nobody’s ever done it before, how are you goin’ to?”
Theo looked back at him with eyes as harsh and damning as a clap of thunder. “Because I’m a genius. Now shut up before I really lose my patience.” Flim shrank back against the wall, not seeming to care that his shoulder pressed against some poor sod’s intestines. Theo returned her gaze to the mosaic, and the threat in the air dissipated: now her eyes were clinical, far away. Pressing both hands to the mosaic, she whispered words that made the air stink of ozone, like before a lightning strike.
Rat shrank back even further. Magic scared him. It was for people better than him, people who hadn’t spent their whole life crawling in the dust. People whose parents were kings and queens, lords and ladies, not plague victims. He should have kept his head down when Theo passed by at the market, never mind how rich she looked.
Nothing happened to the picture, and Theo backed off, laying her finger alongside her nose as she thought. After a moment, she stretched out one hand to the silent man. He passed the light stone to Flim and placed his palm atop hers. As one, they walked back to the mosaic and placed their free hands on the mouth of the stone woman.
Light flared from the stones, like dawn breaking over the ocean. That light meant pain. That light meant death. Rat closed his eyes, certain this was it—but he felt nothing but a sudden, fleeting pain and a rush of unbearable heat, like someone had cut him and immediately cauterized it. He opened his eyes.
A wall of fire stood between them and the mosaic, flowing from the silent man’s hands like water from a hole in a dam. The silent man’s face was fixed in concentration, but Theo’s showed open fear. She gripped his hand tightly, and white light flowed from her into him. Rat turned his face away from the heat and waited for the real pain.
And then, blessedly, the heat vanished. Rat peeked through his fingers at the silent man and Theo. The silent man glared at the mosaic, but Theo had relaxed; her fingers now hung loosely in his, and her lips kept twitching. She glanced at the scorch marks on the floor and walls and laughed with a touch of hysteria. “Well. That explains what happened to everyone else.”
The light flared once more, and all of them jumped back. The face came out of the mosaic, like someone surfacing slowly from a deep lake. It was no longer made of stone; Rat was sure he would feel flesh, and that only made him more frightened. The face’s eyes fixed on Theo and the silent man. “Would you enter?” she asked. Rat covered his ears, but he heard the echoes of her voice in his bones, in the back of his mind. He felt he would never stop hearing it.
Theo licked her lips. If she was scared now, Rat couldn’t see it. “We would,” she said, taking a step forward. The silent man followed at her back, his eyes dark and unmoved.
The face considered her. Then she nodded. “Would you see?”
Theo’s eyes narrowed, as though she wasn’t sure what to make of that question. “…We would.”
The face nodded again. “Would you tell of this?”
Theo’s lips parted. Her hand clenched into a fist, and she glanced back at the silent man. His face had not changed. Theo frowned, and then she looked at the face again. “…We would.”
The face smiled. It was a smile Rat was familiar with: the smile of a person with nothing to lose; the smile of a person who knows there is no point; the smile of a person who will never truly smile again. “You may enter.” The eyes closed once more, and the face sunk back into the wall—but there was no wall there now, just empty blackness.
Theo turned around and sunk to one knee in front of Rat. She put her hand under his chin, as she had at the fair. Her skin was so, so smooth. She had never done a day’s work in her life, something Rat found both fascinating and strangely… detestable. “Well. This is what you’re here for, Rat.” She stroked his cheek and stood up. “No one knows what might be in there. You’ll be the first person to find out. And if you’re quick…”
Rat smiled, because he knew she wanted him to, even though he also knew she was putting a pretty face on his death. You couldn’t outrun magic. “I’ll be quick,” he whispered. Theo smiled and touched his cheek once more. Rat closed his eyes and pretended the touch came from someone who cared about him. Then he opened his eyes, took the light stone from the silent man, and stepped into the room beyond.
He expected the floor to drop out from under his feet the moment he touched the tiles. He expected arrows to fly out of the walls. He expected spikes to rain down from the ceiling. But… there was nothing. Nothing except his little circle of light, darkness, and the smell of death. Rat took three steps further into the room—for luck—and held the stone above his head.
Unlike the rest of the church, this room was small. The ceiling was low enough that the silent man and Flim would have to stoop, and perhaps five men could have stood abreast here. The walls and the ceiling were plain white stone, untouched by dust, plants, or insects. The floor, however, was dirt. Smooth dirt, perhaps, but still dirt. Rat glanced down; something winked in the light. Rat started and bent down for a better look. Veins of smooth, glittering black stone ran through the dirt.
Theo came up behind him and plucked the stone from his hands. “And that, gentlemen,” she said softly, “is what we came for.” She gestured at Flim, who came forward slowly, like he thought he might be dreaming. Theo quirked a brow, but it was self-satisfied this time, not threatening. “Before you ask the obvious question, yes, this is what you think it is. This is the deepest, truest vein of raw angelstone ever found.” She held up her hands and spun slowly on the spot, so the light stone shone on every inch of the room. “And they built a church on top of it!” She laughed suddenly and hugged herself, like she couldn’t help it.
Flim dropped to his knees. “Gods’ bones.” He ran his hands over the stone. When he looked up at Theo, his eyes were glazed over, like a zealot’s in the midst of self-flagellation. “We’ll live like kings for the rest of our lives.”
“Like kings?” Theo snorted. “We’ll be kings, Flim. Get your tools out.” She knelt beside him and pinched her fingers over the stone, like she was plucking a stray thread from her sleeve. With a great wrenching crack, a single vein rose from ground and fell at Theo’s knees. Flim took it reverently and set it on the ground. He drew a small chisel from his pack and tapped the stone, searching for the weak points so they could break it into smaller pieces without ruining the ore.
His heart pounding in his mouth, Rat watched them. He… he could make it out of this. He would still be a slave, but he’d be a slave to one of the richest magicians in the kingdom—maybe the richest. And a slave, unlike a servant, had a place for life. He crossed his arms over his thin chest and tried not to think about it too much. They weren’t gone yet, and he wouldn’t be comfortable until they were.
Theo and Flim were hard at work, but the silent man stood still, staring at the wall farthest from the entrance. Rat didn’t want to watch Theo anymore, so he walked over to the silent man. He knew what would happen to everyone else. Theo would return to her life in the aristocracy, suddenly richer than her peers, and Rat would go with her. Flim would go back to his wife and his kids. But the silent man… would he go with Theo? Rat thought so, and so he wanted a better idea of the silent man. He knew Theo, but the silent man was unaccounted for, and that could mean problems for Rat.
The far wall was not a wall at all: it was an altar that happened to have a back which supported the ceiling. A stone slab, broad enough for a man and a woman to lay side by side atop it, rose high enough that Rat would have to step on his tiptoes to see over it. The far end of the altar featured an intricate wooden carving of a cup. Rat put his hands in his pockets to aid resisting temptation, though he couldn’t look away from the cup. Before the plague, he had liked to whittle; he loved smooth, planed wood under his palms. Even though he knew that wood had to be preserved with magic, he wished to touch it so badly it ached somewhere inside.
Rat glanced back at the adults. Theo and Flim were still working; the silent man was looking at the surface of the stone altar. Rat looked down and realized there was a tapestry draped over the stone. Unlike everything else here, this showed its age: there were holes in it, and the fabric was faded and worn. He could tell there were pictures, but it was coated in dust. Were they as gruesome as the ones outside?
Somehow, Rat doubted it. If this really was a tomb, it was supposed to be a place of peace. People who didn’t know much about death liked to think it was good, that it took you away from all the sorrows of this world. Rat had stopped believing in that years ago, but, somehow, he wanted to think it was true here. If this really was the tomb of a god, couldn’t it make one good thing true?
Rat walked up to the altar and blew on it to clear some of the dust off the tapestry. The silent man didn’t glance at him. Now Rat could see that the tapestry, worn as it was, had to be worth as much as the mosaics outside: it was set with gold and silver thread, and tiny angelstones winked in the light like little eyes. What a beautiful thing. He wanted to see it better, so he reached up to brush some of the dust away.
“Don’t touch that,” said the silent man. His voice wasn’t harsh or forbidding—it was, in fact, rather gentle—but Rat still jerked his hand back like the silent man had slapped it. Rat looked up at the silent man, shocked. The silent man did not smile, but still, Rat found himself wondering if he had read the silent man wrong. His face was indifferent, but up close it was… softer. Much less intimidating.
Without looking at Rat, the silent man pointed at one of the stones. Rat followed his fingers and noticed there was a minute symbol carved on the jewel. “Remembering.” The silent man pointed to a different one. “Seeing.” A third stone. “Hearing.”
Rat bit his lip, but the question escaped him anyway. “Why would you witch a tapestry and leave it to rot?” He glanced at the silent man, waiting for the smack or the forbidding glare, but the silent man just kept looking at the tapestry, as though he was wondering the same thing. Rat clasped his hands behind his back. “…Can’t be a lot of magic there if it’s falling apart.”
The silent man raised his eyebrows, but he seemed to have exhausted both his words and his interest in the tapestry. He looked at it for a moment longer, then walked over and joined Theo.
Rat studied the tapestry. He could see vague forms beneath the dust, but nothing interesting. He lifted his eyes to the cup again. Oh, he wanted to touch it. He wanted… he wanted something familiar. If he could just touch that cup, he could believe they could get out of here intact. He glanced at the adults again. All of them had their backs turned; they were inspecting the latest vein, which was half again the length of Theo’s forearm. Rat bit the inside of his cheek. Surely only the stones were witched. He slid his fingers under the tapestry and pulled himself up on top of the altar.
He’d thought it was safe. He was wrong.
The moment his bare knee brushed the tapestry, heat rushed from him in a wave like he’d fallen in freezing water. Rat fell back on the bare stone, crying out despite himself. The adults turned as one and saw what he saw. Rat could no longer see the tapestry, but he didn’t need to. All the stones had lit up, shooting glowing beams into the ceiling. They pulsed once, then tilted until they met in a single point. The point moved until it reached the center of the whole room and stayed there, pulsing slowly.
“No,” Theo whispered, “no, no, no.” She shoved Flim to try and get him moving again, but he was frozen, staring at the point of light with terror in his eyes. The silent man grabbed Theo’s arm, but she shoved him away. “No, Brand!” Her voice was shrill, hysterical. “I’ve been waiting for this too long—I won’t let it go now.” She bent down and grabbed pieces of angelstone, shoving them into her pockets.
“Dora, we have to go,” said the silent man, grabbing hold of her again. Theo looked at him for a moment. The fierceness in her gaze almost made Rat forget he didn’t know what he had awakened, and that he was terribly afraid of it. Surely nothing could stand against her. Then, with a noise that was almost a sob, she pushed him away again and turned to the door.
But there was no door anymore. The wall had reappeared, and there was a mosaic on this side of it as well. It was the same face, only the eyes were already open. “No,” said the face’s voice. It came from the walls; it came from inside Rat’s head. He shrank to the ground in fear. “You will witness, and you will tell. You will tell.”
There was a noise like the ringing of a great gong that made Rat cry out in pain. The point of light pulsed again, so brightly Rat was nearly blinded, and then it expanded until it covered the entire ceiling.
Rat didn’t want to see it. There was only one thing this could be, and he had seen enough death. He tried to turn his face away, but it was like a great fist grabbed him and squeezed. All the air went from his lungs, and he fell down again, his eyes still fixed on the light.
A picture appeared, and everything around him vanished, like he had pressed his face into it to block everything else out. A man and a woman stood in the church above them as it must have been when it was new. The stone was clean and fresh; people sat in the nooks on the wall, laughing and talking. They were dressed in bright clothing that glittered like jewels in the light from their torches—Theo’s people. Magicians. Aristocrats.
The image vanished, and a new one took its place—the man and the woman again, sitting alone at the base of the altar in the church, facing each other. As the picture moved in closer, Rat gasped. This was the dead god as he had been in life. No one had ever drawn pictures or painted portraits of him, but Rat knew all the same. The woman pressed her hands to the god’s face, laughing. “God on earth,” she whispered, her voice shaking with joy. “God on earth, and he chooses me. I can’t believe it.”
The god covered her hands with his and smiled. Rat felt something clench in his chest. The god had a smile like Theo’s, one that made him forget all the bad things in the world. Nothing mattered except that smile; the world turned on it.
The picture vanished again. Suddenly, Rat felt like weeping. He didn’t want to see any more. God was dead. Wasn’t that bad enough? He didn’t want to know.
The woman, by herself this time. Now she was somewhere private, though it was still in the church because the room was made of the same stone. The woman’s face was no longer lit with joy; her hands shook as she smoothed the hair away from her face and took a quick glance at herself in a hand mirror. There was a table beside her with a stone chalice resting on it, which her eyes kept flicking toward. A knock came at the door, and she swallowed hard before calling, “Come in.”
The god’s face was just the same: handsome and so full of trust and love Rat shuddered with fear and longing. He had never seen a look like that on anyone’s face. The god walked to her side, kissed her cheek, ran a hand over her hair. And all the time Rat wanted to cry out, wanted to tell him something was wrong.
She wouldn’t look at him, but he didn’t seem to notice. Instead of speaking, she smiled at the table—not quite a real smile, but close. She touched his lips, then turned and picked up the chalice, offering to him. Still smiling, he took it from her and drank.
Oh, Rat wished he could close his eyes.
Nothing happened, and the woman’s face broke into a true, dazzling smile. She touched his face, just as before, and laughed, just as before, and her voice trembled, just as before. “I had to know. I had to know if it was true.”
His lips parted, as though he wanted to ask her what she meant, and he reached up and moved her hands. Before he spoke, his eyes closed, and a strange pallor came over him. His skin turned grey. The woman let out a gasp that was almost a scream; her hands flew to her mouth. The god did not move. Horror came into her eyes—slowly, like flame licks up a piece of drying cloth. She reached out to touch his face. When she brushed his skin, his whole body crumbled and collapsed in front of her. What hit the ground was not skin or even bones: it was black stone, like the stone in the floor beneath Rat’s feet. It bled into the ground and vanished.
“No,” she whispered, falling to her knees. “No.”
The image vanished. Rat still felt locked in place, but Theo could move. She looked down at her hands, and then she started to laugh—true laughter, like someone had told her the best joke in the world. “That’s the story of the dead god? That’s the story of the mother of our country?” She covered her face with her hands, and her laughter turned into something sharp and terrible, painful to listen to. “That’s not the truth. I refuse to believe it.”
Rat wished he could draw some air into his lungs so he could speak—and, just like that, the great fist released him. He didn’t care that Theo held his papers, that Theo could destroy them; he had to speak against her. “Didn’t you see that? Of course it’s true! You can’t make that up!”
Theo turned to him, laughing too hard to be angry. Under other circumstances, Rat would have been overjoyed, but now he could only think of the injustice he just witnessed, of the injustice of believing it was all a lie. “Oh, little rat.” She brushed a stray strand of hair away from her face. “You know nothing of the world.”
She turned away from him and took the silent man’s hand. “Come away,” she said, her eyes suddenly hard. “At the very least, we’ll come out of this wealthy. I don’t need knowledge to be respected if I’m rich enough.” He hesitated, and she whirled on him. “Bones and dirt, Brand! We’ve wasted enough time on this. I want to get back above ground and on with my life.”
The silent man tilted his head, studying her. “All right,” he said, and Rat wanted to tell him no, that they were in trouble. They started for the exit, but the wall was still there.
Theo growled. Teeth gritted, she pressed both her hands to the wall. “I have had quite enough.” White light flared from her hands, like the sun breaking out from clouds.
This time, the noise wasn’t like a gong—it was a gong, ringing in Rat’s ears, his teeth, his bones. He fell hard to the ground on his elbows and knees, but he didn’t feel it; his mind was gone, lost in the noise. Terrible white light burst from the walls. Had he thought Theo’s magic was like the sun? This was the sun, bright and harsh and pitiless.
And inside that light, he saw everyone else die.
Flim was first and easiest. He vanished in a single gout of blue-white flame, leaving nothing but ashes to fall back to the floor.
Theo and the silent man pressed close to each other, back-to-back. Magic rose from both their hands, but it guttered, pointless as trying to light a match in a strong wind. Hands, large enough to match the mosaic face, rose from the light and grabbed the silent man, pulling him away from Theo. Theo cried out, her eyes locked on his face, as the hands took the silent man and squeezed. Bones cracked; blood ran from the corner of his eyes and mouth. Theo screamed. Only then did the flame take him.
The hands vanished. Part of the light condensed and took shape, like water flowing into a clear jar. The mosaic woman—the god’s lover—appeared before Theo. She looked like flesh and blood, but her eyes were stone. Rat tried to close his eyes, to push it away, but, just as before, he could only watch, his whole body shaking.
The woman cocked her head too far to the side. She reached out and put her fingers under Theo’s chin, just as Theo had done to Rat so many times. Theo’s head jerked back, and she screamed. Not as before: that was a human sound, a cry of grief. This was something animal, visceral, like wolves in the night.
The woman’s stone eyes narrowed. She dropped her hand, and Theo fell to her knees, shock written across her face in broad, bright strokes. Terrible burns marked the places the god’s lover had touched her.
The god’s lover walked up to Theo and tilted her head again. There was no sympathy in her eyes, or even any anger. She let out a deep breath, like she needed to prepare herself, and she raised her hands, as though in prayer. “Look at me,” she said softly. Theo obeyed. She didn’t try to move away, though her eyes were full of hate and pain. A faint smile crossed the woman’s face, and then she placed her hands on Theo’s cheeks.
Theo screamed. It went on and on, even after Theo’s skin had melted away. Even after her bones burned black and crumbled to dust.
Finally—finally—it ended. The light vanished, and Rat was left sobbing on the floor. Everything hurt. His nose was bleeding, and he had bitten down on his tongue so hard that was bleeding too. A hand touched his shoulder; Rat screamed and jerked away. He opened his eyes and regretted it. The god’s lover sat beside him, looking at him with those stone eyes and her head tilted too far to the side. Rat buried his face in his arms.
The god’s lover stroked his shoulders, as Rat’s mother had once touched him before the plague took her. “Don’t worry, little one. You will live. And you will tell.” She brushed his tangled, overlong hair from his face and kissed his cheek. Her lips felt like stone grating against his skin, but all the pain he felt vanished.
But Rat stayed there for a long time.