The desert stretched into an ocean of almost-shadows. Against the river of lights in the heavens, the campfire barked yellow sparks, keeping the shadow-sea from cresting and crashing into a lone island in the boundless waste. Nearby Statira shifted restlessly in her sleeping furs, murmuring in a bad dream, but Arakha dared not comfort her. Even his troubled eyes might give him away. Perhaps they already had.
“You worry too much for her,” Bagoas chided. In the fickle illumination of the fire it was impossible to tell if he was smiling. “It was Statira who confronted Nanghait, the Evil Thought, was it not? Sure that it would leave her with foul dreams.”
There was no mistaking the fanged smile in his voice, and Arakha bristled despite himself. “Only a fool would name one of the Six, surrounded as we are by night, whether it is bound or not. Go back to your work.”
The other killer shrugged, his lanky arms making the gesture look bony and unnatural, then returned to running a whetstone along the blade of his xiphos.
He wondered why he bothered being so careful. Bagoas was proof enough the magoi knew. Even though they had been careful – it was Arakha’s duty to be careful – rumors must have begun, must have fermented in the minds of the other acolytes and priests of the church. Most weren’t even true, but just one was enough and had planted the seed of doubt. If Statira were not so important, were not so very willful it could have been the end for them both. Instead, Bagoas would be their third member from this point forward. Another bodyguard for a witch as vital as her.
The grind of the whetstone finally pulled Statira from her reverie. She looked about and smiled when she saw Arakha, forgetting where she was. “Why do you not come to bed?” Arakha shot a glance at Bagoas, who either didn’t notice the slip or pretended deafness. Statira looked at the other man as well, but her face was not one of worry but disgust as she remembered the unwanted and dangerous chaperone.
“Bagoas, go check the horses. There is a foulness about, and your constant sharpening annoys me to no end.”
“Of course Statira.” She was still in charge, even if the big man was a spy for the magoi. He sheathed his xiphos and walked into the night, his arms swinging to near his knees. When he had travelled beyond hearshot Arakha spoke up.
“It is dangerous the game you play Statira. If Bagoas were to tell the magoi…”
“Tell them what?” she said, “That brave Arakha is afraid to hold my hand because of some imagined rumor?”
“Just his word could be enough. If you push him too much.”
“I am not afraid of the stickman or the magoi. I am a binder of daeva. Jinn speak my name as a curse. What will some old priests do if I allow myself some small pleasure.”
He frowned when she placed his hand between hers, but did not draw it away. At least she made sure to obscure it from the direction of the horses. “I am afraid, my love. It is not you they will string up should they find the truth. The magoi do what they think is best, but what is best is not always good. They are the voice of Ahura Mazda; don’t be so quick to dismiss their reach.”
It was her turn to frown. Her green eyes narrowed before she turned away, her black hair rippling as it played catch up. “I would never allow anything to happen, this argument is old and trodden.”
Arakha knew the discussion was over. It had ended on similar terms two other times on this trip. Statira plucked a small bottle from her things and pulled the stopper. A bit of steam puffed from inside, coalescing into a sphere with six legs, six eyes and six mouths, filled with jagged rows of uneven bone.
“I’m sorry,” Arakha whispered as he walked across the camp.
“I know. So am I.” Statira replied, her sigh barely audible above the subdued, mad burbling of the thing hovering above the bottle. She watched him return to his own bed furs before beginning her dealings with the div.
“Then you understand what you are to do, Arakha?”
The Talos of the magoi loomed over him from atop the stone dais, hunched and fragile, and commanding the murder of those deemed too dangerous to live. Power far beyond the frail body that remained, that dictated Arakha’s life and actions. But power borne of wisdom and piety. It was divine to follow the words of the magoi. The myrrh burned thick in the worship chamber, a spiced cloud that watered the eyes and cast a gray pall on the tapestries and carved pillars that revered Ahura Mazda.
“A newborn,” Arakha whispered to himself, processing the new mandate he had been given.
“Veiled in the flesh of a newborn, only,” the magoi confirmed, mistaking the source of Arakha’s preoccupation, “It is a true daeva, called from the very source of the Dashodi power.”
The priest was distant now, grasping the alter with white knuckles, eyes unfocused as if dredging an old memory.
“We have seen what will be, my child. War, murder, madness, strife; all in the name of a daeva, this very daeva should it reach the fullness of its power. Kingdoms will tremble and shatter, enlightened men will be hated and feared. It must be stopped now before it is too late. That is why you must travel with Statira, why we ask you to do this terrible thing.”
Statira. Amidst the words of death and chaos, sure prophesy of horrors to come, all Arakha could think about was her. He had joined the magoi in the worship chambers thinking his affair with the witching woman had finally come to an end, the rumors piled one atop the other until they had become large enough to force the magoi’s hand. He had never been so nervous before, never in a hundred battles, but the knot in his stomach was finally resolving itself to a dull coldness.
“The three of you will travel tomorrow, prepare your things at once.”
The knot returned threatening to choke Arakha with its force. “Three, sirrah?”
The magoi was changed now, considering his reactions – or so he sensed – waiting for any slip of the tongue.
“Yes, three. An auspicious number. Bagaos will join you and Statira, to further guard her against any unforeseen dangers. Does that trouble you for some reason?”
“None at all,” Arakha imagined he had almost suffocated on the words, “we will prepare at once.”
“Good then. Succeed in this and there will be stories sung about the three of you for ages. Fail, and the songs will be only those of our enemies.”
Bagaos led the way, the three companions mounted on their protesting horses. Two days to their destination and the sun was more intense than ever, as if it knew of their task and conspired to thwart them. “There is an oasis ahead,” Bagaos assured them, “we can take our rest for a time, Statira.”
She did not protest. Perhaps the sun was against them, but the whole of creation seemed to rebel against Statira. Ties on her gear loosened at inopportune moments, cords snapped, her horse balked and snorted, and the wind itself seemed to blow always in her face, pushing her black hair behind her in snaked tangles. And Arakha knew that sleep eluded her as well. Since the night of their last argument, Statira had conversed at length with the creatures she kept bottled away, hanging on the bandoleer at her chest. Though he did not speak the language of such evil, there was no mistaking the terrifying howling they produced when she asked her questions and cajoled them for information. Never before could he remember such a response, like a rabbit trapped in a snare, screeching. It chilled the blood. And perhaps it unnerved her as well.
The oasis was small and lonely. A pool of water shadowed by a rocky outcropping, with shrubs and hardy plants clinging to life nearby. For all the wind, the scene was strangely still. The pond’s surface, marred by peeking leaves, remained placid as glass. There were no animals; not even insects buzzed about the flowers of the thorned flora. Bagaos pulled his horse up short and interposed himself.
“Something is wrong here,” he warned. His horse pawed at the sand in frustration, anxious for a break from thirst and sun. “What do you think, Statira?”
Statira sat transfixed, lost elsewhere. “Stand away!” She called, a demand backed by the full force of her will. It was hard to determine if she spoke to her companions or something beyond. Arakha followed her gaze. At the edge of the pool a shadow began to elongate, puddling from the water as if the earth had been tilted upon its side. It reached the margins of the overhang’s shade and pressed out further, darkening as it went. A sound like locusts droned. Statira dropped from her horse and rushed forward.
The shadow had expanded, and now it reared up like a rising sun, drowning out the glare. The sky turned the red of a sandstorm and the sound of locusts fluttered all the louder. Arakha and Bagaos joined Statira, but Arakha knew their swords would prove of little use.
“What is it?” he asked her, fearing he knew the answer.
“Amesha spentas,” she confirmed, unstoppering one of her bottles. A smell of brimstone infused the air.
The shadow had taken on a pattern, looming like skeletal wings. Statira took another step forward and looked down her nose at the thing. There was disdain there, the theater of control, but Arakha knew how frightened she must be. She had confided as much as they lay together sharing truths and secrets. He felt the same fear, but more for her than himself. If he could, he would have taken her place, but these were Statira’s battles. All he could do was trust in her skill.
“Shacheth the Malakim, Malak al-Maut. Creeping Death, Eater of Firstborn; Lord of the Sixth Host and Bringer of Plague. What is your purpose?” She demanded to the deafening droning. A shape like a face hinted in the center of the skeletal shadow. A lion, a goat, a handsome crowned man – it refused to be held to one form, each devouring the previous in macabre feast.
“Speak, Shacheth. Statira Asha Aturdokht commands it!”
The Amesha howled and shrilled in deafening volume, as if trying to be understood. Arakha covered his ears in pain, and saw Bagaos fall to the ground against the onslaught. Still Statira refused to give ground, for he knew she could not.
The sound finally abated enough to be heard, and Bagaos spun about and onto his feet. His eyes were the black of barathrum and blood trickled from their corners. His jaw had distended, leaving a gruesome, open hole to his throat. He drew forth his sword with hands that had been bent backwards, the fingers wrapping with shattered joints around the hilt.
“Murderers,” a hollow voice poured from Bagaos’ throat and he spasmed forward. Arakha was there to meet the downstroke with his own blade. “Infidels, defyers. You will bow before your King.”
“You cannot harm me!” Statira continued to talk to the death curtain that made up the world’s new edge. “The pact cannot be broken, Malak al-Maut. Go back to your master, you are not permitted such agency.”
“I am my own arbiter, Statira Asha Aturdokht! Turn back, or die.” The voice inside Bagaos blared like hunting horns in Arakha’s face. Their swords ground together with such force that he dared not attempt a counter stroke.
“Lie to yourself if you wish. You are leashed, a slave; chained to rules of conduct. Begone, or I will force it of you! I defy you!” She ordered, roaring.
There was another shrill bellow, and the shadow writhed about in impotent frustration. Arakha nearly fell forward as Bagaos went slack and collapsed.
“Your arrival is anticipated, woman. The time of the magoi is over.” a last echo droned among the chittering, and the Amesha recoiled into the heavens as if on a black ray of light. The desert returned to normal. Even the insects had been restored. Statira nearly stumbled but caught herself on Arakha. He left Bagaos to himself and supported her, wiping blood that trickled from her ears where she had failed to protect herself.
“Are you ok?” She asked, and Arakha drew her into an embrace. He couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it.
“I’m fine,” he told her, “I should ask you the same. Is it gone?” There was a brief silence before he realized she could not hear what he had said.
“Is our witch injured?” Bagaos intruded upon their comfort. Surprised, Arakha glanced behind to see the lanky man picking himself up, dazed but no worse for wear. There was a malicious grin in his gaze. “Kind of you to tend to her,” he noted.
“Yes…” Arakha said, unsure how to respond. He brought Statira to arms length and drew her chin up, speaking loudly to be heard.
“Let us rest and recover. We have a few days yet, Statira. Can you manage?”
She nodded, noting Bagaos as well, and walked stilted towards the oasis.
“Bagaos, the horses.” She commanded. Bagaos wandered off to collect the wayward beasts; Arakha knew Statira would be well soon enough. He looked to the western sky where the Amesha had retreated. A faint, daylight star now resided there, perhaps waiting for them at their destination. They would follow its invitation.
Arakha and Statira spent slow minutes tracing each other’s curves beneath the covers. Arakha’s home was a rare sanctuary for them, their visits few and far between. He was careful to absorb every moment shared. A gentle kiss on the forehead and he brought her into an embrace.
“Do you love me?” Statira wondered, her breath warm on his ear. For its warmth, her question was quizzical, pensive. He had answered before; this was not the simple inquiry of a worried young girl.
“You know I do,” he told her, pulling back and resting his eyes in line with hers. There was something else there. “What troubles you?”
“More than your – our god?” She continued, correcting herself, gaze flicking downward. “Can you love me that much?”
“I love you because of our god and with our god. The feelings are without division.” He sensed she didn’t like the answer, or that it bothered her. Her faith had been taxed in years of work for the magoi. It was something he accepted, admired even. She persevered. He saw strength and beauty in her imperfections, so much more than his own.
“I can never be a wife. Never live a quiet, simple life, Arakha.”
“I don’t want a wife. I want you.”
“I wish you didn’t always say the right things,” her reply was a sigh. Did she not believe him? “I’m afraid for you, my love. Afraid if the magoi find out. No, wait I have more. They will never let me go, do you understand that? I will bind and conjure and live for them until the day I die for them, Arakha. That is the only end for me; it should not be the same for you.”
“I won’t allow it,” Arakha insisted. “Do you hear me? I am serious; you have done too much for the church, you’re too talented. Sure they will allow you a rest in days to come. And if they don’t…” He thought about it, but knew he meant it, “Then we will leave. You and I will travel elsewhere.”
Statira laughed, a few tears in her eyes. Arakha was wounded.
“Do you think I jest?”
“I laugh because I know you are truthful, Arakha.” She soothed him, putting her head to his shoulder. “But you don’t consider what your words mean. What it means to leave the church that raised us. Where would we go?” She held him tighter, as if to squeeze answers from him. “I can’t escape what I am, my love. With a sword you control battles, you choose the time and place of conflict. When I stand before a daeva or one of the Six, do I ask any more than the permissions of such creatures? I am only as in control as the words on a page, the laws of a judge. Rules that can be broken. Sometimes I think my survival is only by luck and fiat, and it scares me, Arakha. It scares me every time.”
He wasn’t sure what to offer. There was no salve for the sort of pain she felt, and it stung him that he could not take it from her.
“All I can say is I share you fear, Statira. I am afraid when I fight, because I might lose my time with you. I am afraid when you partake of your duties, because I wish I could take your place. But I will stay with you, for as long as I can. Maybe we can find some small calm together. If that is the best we can do, I know it would still make me happy.”
She looked at him again, tears still clinging to her eyes. “It would make me happy, too.” She kissed him and together they forgot the night.
Beit Lahm was a tiny town made large by a sudden influx of travellers. They had journeyed near a week after the oasis encounter, the westward leading false-star now guiding them day and night. The trip had been uneventful. That troubled Arakha all the more.
“There are no guest rooms available,” Arakha informed as they met together near the center of town. “I have asked at every house. The census has brought too many; hospitality only goes so far.”
“Are we sure the parents will come here?” Statira asked. The mornings had found her ill for the past four days, and she looked worn by the desert. He worried it was some holdover from the amesha she had confronted. “Is Beit Lahm a common stop?” It struck Arakha that the church only provided her with certain details of their task. The arrangements for the trip had been left up to Arakha and Bagaos. She wouldn’t even have known this destination if he had not shared all he knew before they departed.
“Caesar has decreed a census be taken. Even expecting a child, it would be foolish for our targets to defy the laws of the Emperor.” Bagaos said. He tugged at the reins of his fidgeting horse. “They should arrive by tonight, we should be on watch and prepare ourselves.”
The next hours were spent scanning the outskirts of Beit Lahm and preparing gear and disguises. Arakha noticed Bagaos’ eyes stray towards Statira more often, grinning at some private realization. “What has your attention?” he asked pointedly when the stick-man’s leering grew tiresome.
“I am merely looking after our witch,” Bagaos answered, “If something were to keep her from her duties, it might be brave Arakha the magoi blame. You should be so concerned she is all right.” His words held some riddle and his stare was accusation, but Arakha could not solve it. More rumors of their affair, perhaps. Even though it still worried him, the game was old. He scowled back then approached Statira.
“Are you well?” he hushed as she bundled frankincense. She would offer it as a gift to mollify any guards and get closer to the daeva. Each of them had brought a similar gift. At the very least it would add an air of authenticity to their cover. “Has your sickness passed?” She looked at him strangely. Was it disappointment, worry? Certainly bemused about something.
“I don’t think it will pass for some time. But I will be fine. Do I look enough like a magoi in these clothes?”
“You are too ornery to be a wizened old man,” he prodded, helping her with her discarded cloaks and bandoliers. “Or perhaps just enough. It is as good as can be expected, though.” Only a few of her more potent bottles and trinkets remained, hidden safely in disguised pockets. Against a true daeva, he wondered how much help they could be.
“Arakha,” she became conspiratorial, looking over at Bagaos and whispering. “Would you still leave? If you had to? Disappear somewhere together?”
He was startled. Statira had never been one to take second guesses so near to the end. “Is there something wrong with this mission?” He asked, “If you have doubts, let me know. We will find a way through this. But you know what the magoi said, if this daeva is allowed to live -”
“No, no. Nothing to do with the mission. After all this if you want. It doesn’t matter. But will you walk away?”
“Why?” He could tell it was frustrating her, but was it not fair to hear her reasoning? What had changed so suddenly to bring this up in the midst of such a dangerous enterprise? The discussion was interrupted by one of Bagaos’ informants approaching from the North.
“Sirrah, I’ve found the two you are looking for. They have taken refuge in a stable nearby; as you said, there were few places to bed. I can show you the way.” He held his hand out, and Bagaos slipped him some coins.
“Yes,” Arakha whispered to her as they grabbed the last of their things, “I will. I would do anything for you. Let us talk later; put it out of your mind until then and be safe.”
Bagaos approached drawing his scarf across his face.
“Statira, it is time to go.”
“We have come to pay our respects,” Arakha said to the man who stood nervous watch near the darkened stable. The ox and lamb of the small farm house shared in his discontent. They sang at some disturbance, fearful bleats and snorts that peppered the night. A few others had gathered to view this daeva as well. Rich and poor, they were an odd menagerie. A young boy in patchwork played a somber march on his drum, as if in a trance. Still, there were fewer guards than he expected – in fact, he could pinpoint none. All of the men and women present seemed to be worshippers, here at the behest of the daeva’s strong and growing charm.
The daeva in flesh was but a newborn. It rested upon a carved stone trough and drew the eye like a lodestone. But Arakha had dealt with such powers before, and was more curious after the woman that sat and watched over the child nearby. Perhaps the mother. She had a far off look as she considered the daeva with a faint horror and revulsion. He wondered at the pain of being forced to conceive such offspring without her permission, at the behest of some vengeful doshodi and fledgling religion. A “virgin” birth; still violation. If the daeva’s cult were allowed to grow and expand the mother would likely be held up as some sort of willing saint. History had a way of being written by the victors. He glanced at Statira who was mumbling a few incantations under her breath. The similarities troubled him; moreso that they struck him only now. What the magoi demanded, how they used – perhaps it was right to run away, as Statira asked. But there was work yet.
“Gold. For the child,” Bagaos was telling the man, pushing past to join with Arakha and Statira. “What is taking so long, have you confronted the daeva yet? Call it forth.” He growled.
Statira finished her mumblings and uncorked a stoppered bottle. A few ghostly fumes poured from the stopper, before they rapidly solidified. The substance dropped to the ground, red as blood and accompanied by the sound of steel on steel. That had never happened before. She looked up from the bottle and focused on the child. Her face was a mask of terror.
“There is something wrong. Very, very wrong Arakha. We should leave, now. Now!”
Her voice raised as one of the worshippers walked nearby and touched Bagaos’ shoulder.
“Three magoi, three wise ones,” the stranger intoned, a hint of mocking in his voice. Bagaos tried to shrug the hand off, but the man gripped his robes and held on. “Kneel before your king.” He rasped.
Bagaos’ xiphos rang from its sheath and removed the offending arm at the elbow, eliciting smiles and blank looks from those gathered, far worse than any screams of panic and shock. “Statira, do your work!”
She looked stunned, almost white with fear, but she obliged, beginning another incantation as the worshippers stood slowly and plodded near. There was a sudden flash from the child’s manger. It dazzled Arakha, but Statira cried in pain covering her eyes. Bagaos yelled in anger and rushed the dias, shouldering past the small group. The mother made no move to stop him as his sword came up.
Then he paused and looked skyward, as if noticing some great blight in the sky. His knees fell to the ground, and his head came down in supplication, sword forgotten.
Arakha was keeping the cultists away from Statira who had not regained her sight. The little drummer boy’s march continued unabated, now the pulsing of his heart as he tried to protect his love from the clumsy mob.
“Arakha, we must kill it. We must. The things it showed, of the future…” She drew her own dagger and scrambled past Arakha before he realized what had happened. Statira blindly groped to the edge of the manger and pulled herself up to the daeva. The avatar burbled and chirped happily, while the mother looked on, tears now streaming down her face. The dagger went up, intending to land upon the child and instead plunged into Statira’s collarbone. She writhed on the ground, hands stuck on the hilt as if unable to let go.
Arakha was right behind her, kicking aside an old woman who had the empty eyes of a fanatic. He could hear Statira calling, insisting he kill the babe before it was too late. And then he saw what Bagaos must have seen, what must have forced him to his knees. What must have demanded the actions of Statira, and ruined the mother that still cried towards Arakha, with eyes that sought forgiveness. Or perhaps for a rescue that would never come.
A daeva, terrible and formless in its brightness hung in the heavens, projected from the babe. Only the crown upon its head was defined against the painful light of its being. “Behold, the King of Kings,” words that were not words blared like trumpets within his skull. “Cast your swords before the throne and kneel.” It demanded.
He took a shaky step forward, and another. Statira bled and tried to crawl nearby; all he wanted was to get to her. It was the only thought on his mind, the only purpose for his being. He buried his focus in it. But his steps foundered. The daeva was selfish beyond all measure. “I am the only salvation. Kneel.”
As his knees met the ground, and his forehead touched the dirt he knew they had failed. War, murder, theft, lies; myriad atrocities awaited at the behest of the daeva’s cult. The talos of the magoi had been right; the songs of glory would only be for their enemies. He wondered what part three assassins might play in those tales. It was over, and their history would be written by the victors.