This is a story set in the same world as “To the Knife-Cold Stars,” which ran in Escape Pod in February 2015.
Of Blessed Servitude
By A. Merc Rustad
The sacrificial cross threw a long shadow across the road at Bishop’s dust-caked boots. He halted sharp at the sight of it. Wind hummed through wildseed bushes strung along the ditch, yellow buds as bright as radiation seals. Bishop clenched his jaw and looked along the shadow to the cross itself. It gleamed in the sunset, a steel post with a fused crossbeam, packed dirt the color of old blood at its base. And the cross wasn’t empty.
The offering was a pretty one—young, work-muscled body, a day’s stubble scuffing his jaw. He’d been shackled naked to the cross, arms spread against the top beam. The dusty wind tugged unkempt hair across his eyes.
Bishop slapped the film of red dirt from his duster, his shoulders tense, and checked his knives from habit. He knew he shouldn’t have traveled past Providence Circle. If chokevine hadn’t overrun the only bridge across Unrepentant’s Canyon, he’d never have come near this territory. He’d never have come within sight of the town of Blessed Servitude.
He hadn’t been home in ten years.
“You should get off the road, stranger.”
“Mighty courteous of you to warn a man,” Bishop said. He shouldn’t look at the man chained against steel, shouldn’t stir up old memories. He never saved the offerings, and he didn’t try.
“Even if you’re fool enough to be out this late, you shouldn’t die for it.” The offering’s chin remained pressed against his chest. Sweat streaked his skin, but Bishop saw no obvious signs of flogging or broken bones. “Move on, stranger.”
The offering’s voice was rough, a tremor in the words.
It reminded him of Prudence. Bishop’s mouth twisted and he pushed back old, worn memories.
The offering turned his head and stared westward, hands tightening into fists. Bishop followed his gaze. Sun wouldn’t drop for another quarter hour.
The Wire implant behind Bishop’s ear hummed.
[Precision: thirteen City minutes until sunset.]
Bishop scowled. Didn’t matter if it was thirteen or thirty minutes; as soon as the sun went down, he’d be watching another man die. He kept his back toward Blessed Servitude, a domed silhouette against the horizon. When he’d finished his hunt for illegally-sold tech in Charity Circle and started his return to the Wire Cities, he’d planned his route badly. No point regretting it now. He should just carry on, leave the offering on the cross, and not look back.
[Calculation: three point five two City days remaining until deactivation.]
As if Bishop didn’t know. He shifted a step, his reinforced knee joints aching. The pain in his wired spine had spread to his hipbones, and hours ago he’d shut off the implant’s alerts about rising blood toxin levels. The closest City lay three days away by cyclone train. That’d cut the time thin, but he’d needed to finish his mission before he returned to the protected central lands. He never broke a contract or went back on his word.
The offering kept staring westward.
The offering. Hell, the man has a name. Bishop stepped off the road, skirting the thickest patch of wildseed. After he read the offering’s name, he’d leave. It was all he could do—remembering someone that’d be erased by the Deacons and forgotten by everyone else.
The offering’s head snapped ‘round as Bishop stepped close. All the red on his skin wasn’t dust; much was old blood that might’ve been his. Bishop hooked the crude iron placard hung ’round the offering’s neck with two fingers and broke the twine cord.
The offering’s words ground between his teeth. “What’re you doing?”
“You’ll be dead come morning. What’s it matter?”
The offering turned his head away, breathing quicker. Black and purple bruises scattered along his ribs and sides.
Bishop inspected the metal placard, a proper distraction. The longer he stayed, the harder it was to forget the feel of the cross against his back.
The identification showed the offering’s star-sign—a good one, the summer constellations of Faith, Humility, and Tranquility. Name: Grace Unto Order. Born: in the town of Blessed Servitude, Providence Circle. And the enticement: Strong of body and mind and has never lain with a woman.
Bishop tossed the placard aside. “Virgins are pricey.”
Grace stared past Bishop, silent.
Virginity had never made a difference to the sunspawn, however much the town deacons debated it. So long as each offering was healthy, virile, and not too damaged, he was acceptable. Only males were used; there were too few women born now, and when the demons didn’t care which sex the offering was, there wasn’t any reason to sacrifice a girl the territory needed as much as water.
[Record: sacrifices observed: forty-seven. Mercy-kills: ten. Sunspawn destroyed: seventeen. Offerings saved: zero.]
Bishop fished a lock pick from one vambrace. He knew better, but he couldn’t stand the sight of the offering waiting chained and helpless any longer. “What’d you do to earn this?”
Grace’s mouth twisted. “‘Unsanctioned intimate behavior.'” His gaze flicked over the pick and his breath caught. “Don’t.”
Bishop cracked the locks. They’d deactivate anyway when the demon approached. Bishop wouldn’t wait that long. Grace staggered as the cuffs clicked open, and Bishop caught his arm to steady him. “Was it worth it?”
Grace glared. “What does it matter to you?”
“It doesn’t.” Bishop had gotten real good at lying over the years. Not so good at forgetting.
Prudence had killed the deacon who’d found them. Snapped the deacon’s neck four times. Deacons were bestowed with three lives, as was proper for a holy man, but even deacons were finite. It hadn’t done any good, though, when Prudence’s wife had walked in and found Bishop and Prudence together. Adulterers were hanged.
Others went to the cross. Prudence had begged for Bishop’s life right up until the cable noose tightened ’round his neck.
[Update: ten minutes until sunset.]
“At a flat run,” Bishop said, “you’ll make the edge of Blessed Servitude’s border three minutes before the sun goes down.” And then the demon who’d claimed this territory would turn on the town when there wasn’t an offering for it. “Shouldn’t be any storms tonight, so you might get to the old reservoir in Gentleness Grove before dawn and find shelter.”
A muscle ticked in Grace’s jaw. “And if I don’t run?”
Bishop let go of Grace’s arm and traded the lock pick for his favorite blade, which he’d named Mercy. “I don’t like killing a man who’s crossed,” he said, “but I prefer it to watching the demon eat you alive.”
Grace straightened his spine. “So I run, or you’ll kill me now? You’re mighty generous with your options.”
“Five seconds to choose,” Bishop said. Mercy showed was mercy earned. One of the few doctrines he remembered since he’d fled to the Wire Cities. The rest of the Creeds he’d let burn into forgetfulness.
Grace lifted his chin. “I’m not leaving.”
“Fine.” Bishop swiped the blade at the man’s throat.
Grace’s arm shot up. His hand snared Bishop’s metal wrist, stopping Mercy tight against his carotid artery. Steel indented skin. A fraction more pressure and Grace would bleed out. “Don’t. Please. Just leave, stranger.”
Bishop frowned. Damned if that kind of speed and strength and calm was normal, even on the fringes. Illegal tech, maybe? He ticked his Wire-senses into full resolution.
[Scan: tracery of witch-breath detected.]
Bishop lowered his blade, gut-kicked by the reading. Lord Almighty now forsaken. Prudence had been touched with witch-breath, too—he’d always been strong, resistant to hurt, healing faster than normal. It’d taken him half a day to die on the gallows.
Bishop stepped back, sudden fury dredged up like a sunstorm inside him. A demon would take a long, long time to devour an offering like Grace. There’d be no reprieve from the pain, not even in death. No one should fucking submit to that. “You ever see a tithe delivered?”
Grace glanced westward and shivered. “No.”
“It’ll be a lot easier if you let me kill you.” Bishop flipped his dust mask up so his lower jaw and the side of his neck were visible: scars and wire alike. “Bishop, formerly of Blessed Servitude. I reckon I know of what I speak.”
Grace’s expression stiffened. “No one lives through the offering.”
“True.” Bishop snapped the mask back in place. “But some of us survive.”
[Update: seven minutes until sunset.]
He hadn’t the resources to kill another sunspawn. The demon that bound itself to a province protected the land from other Waste-born predators, for a tithe each quarter of the year. Deacons said the balance was immutable: no security without blood. Bishop didn’t believe it. Not any longer.
Maybe in the beginning, after the Waste, it’d been necessary. But he’d seen the machines in the Wire Cities, untiring metal constructs that could rip a demon apart. A hundred war machines like that could wipe out the sunspawn. But when the demons never troubled the cities, and the provinces couldn’t afford an army, there was no profit in upsetting old traditions.
Grace pressed his back against the cross, shaking his head. “I can’t let you help me.”
Bishop ground his teeth. “Whatever you did, you don’t deserve this.”
Grace spat. “Don’t I? I loved someone I shouldn’t.” His throat worked. “We were going to barter transport to Pure Temperance and somewhere safe from there. But we got caught, and the deacons–they shot Humility when we tried to run.” He blinked hard, his jaw tight. “I got him killed.”
“So what good does letting the demon eat your soul do?”
Grace covered his face. “I have two younger brothers back home. The deacons will use them next if I don’t…finish this. Lord’s sake, Bishop, I can’t let them die too.”
The cross’s shadow stretched farther along the dry, red ground.
Bishop slammed Mercy back into its sheath. Grace flinched, then folded his arms.
[Update: four minutes until sunset.]
Bishop let his breath out slowly. He needed repairs and the forgetfulness only the dustless bars in the Wire Cities provided. There he could black out his Wire implant and stop remembering the silence of those who went willing to the cross, or the screams and pleas for help from the offerings he mercy-killed—or worse, the ones he left alive until the demons started feeding and became vulnerable to his weapons.
He unslung his rifle and checked the chamber.
Grace’s breath hissed between his teeth. “What—”
“I don’t waste bullets on men,” Bishop said. “This is for the shinies.”
“You’re mad.” Grace swallowed. “Don’t do this. The demon will kill you.”
“I figured that a long time ago.” Bishop swiped his thumb over the scope lens and tapped the barrel lightly against his forehead, a proper salute to battle.
Grace took a step forward. “Do you want to die?”
“No.” Bishop rolled his shoulders. Even though he knew it’d be a different sunspawn this time, he didn’t want to face it. He’d survived being crossed once. Second chances had disappeared with miracles generations ago. “Do you?”
Grace hesitated too long before he said, “I don’t have a choice, do I?”
Bishop watched the last band of reddish light staining the horizon. In the distance, a ghost whip-poor-will cooed with approaching dusk. He’d rather risk unknown roads littered with blacklight traps and sensor mines left over from the Waste than stay here until dark.
“I’ve hunted dozens of ‘spawn,” Bishop said. “Revenge, plain and simple. I hate the fucking shinies.”
[Update: one minute until sunset.]
Bishop waited for the first glimpse of gold skin. “If you don’t want to live, Grace, fine.” He couldn’t force that choice on anyone. He’d tried, in the beginning: spared two men from cross deaths. Afterward one threw himself into a patch of wildseed. The other jumped into Unrepentant’s Canyon. “But if you plan to die, at least help me destroy the demon.”
Grace shut his eyes. “How?” he whispered.
Bishop clenched his jaw. “Distract it until its skull softens and I’ll finish it.”
[Calculation: odds of success 25%]
Grace wrapped a hand ’round the open cuffs welded to the crossbeam, knuckles pale, then nodded once. “If you see Humility on the other side of Heaven’s Door, will you tell him… Will you…?” He turned his face toward the horizon and his voice guttered into silence.
Bishop had no words of comfort.
[Update: zero point zero minutes until sunset.]
The demon walked from the sun, its eyes glowing like twin fires. It prowled east across the dusk-dimmed plain. Red winds buffeted its bipedal body and keened through the curled horns that swept from either side of its triangular head. Demons pierced their horns in individual patterns, so the wind became eerie music.
[Calculation: odds of survival 10%.]
Bishop knew that song. And this demon’s eyes had an opaque light—a blind light.
Muscles tightened in his shoulders and neck.
Ten years ago, a sharp rock and a frantic blow and he’d put out those eyes. It shouldn’t be here.
The sunspawn’s abdominal barbels distended: pale yellow tactile organs like moist, slender tentacles. Bishop’s gorge rose. He remembered the hot, slippery barbels and longer feeder tendrils closing ’round his groin and hips, pushing deeper into his ass and sucking at his skin until he screamed. He always remembered the rock, right enough. Fingers closed about the filed edges, slamming it repeatedly into the hypnotic eyes until they winked out like shattered bulbs.
Crippled demons didn’t survive long. There were other predators that’d feed on the weak right as not. This one shouldn’t have lived.
It would know him.
Bishop angled his steps sideways, his heartbeat too fast. He needed to get behind the demon for the headshot. The back of the skull was soft, more mesh-like skin than bone, so the neural tendrils could slip free when the demon fed.
Grace limped unsteadily towards the demon, fists clenched. His expression hadn’t slackened into hypnotized stupor. The blind demon couldn’t exert its will but that wouldn’t make it kill Grace any quicker.
Bishop broke into a lope.
The demon whirled, tracking him sightlessly. “Bishop.” The word rolled sibilant and musical through its horns, an impossible sound.
Bishop stopped, braced his legs, and took aim.
[Warning: sunsurge detected.]
“Grace!” Bishop shouted. “Sunsurge!”
The feathery-looking spines that layered the sunspawn’s back bristled. Stored UV energy flared through each spine, a mantle of sunlight. Bishop activated both optical dampeners a microsecond too late. The negative images burned into his eyes as he twisted his head aside.
The demon’s feet thudded along the dry ground as it sprinted at him. Bishop squeezed the secondary trigger. Recoil absorbed into the wires and plates in his shoulder. He knew he’d missed like he knew the burn of panic in his belly. It was his last round.
He sprinted sideways, momentarily blind. Talons scored his shoulder blade, cutting flesh cleaner than a Wire-surgeon’s scalpels. Acid-sharp pain ripped through his back. He choked down a cry and tossed the rifle aside. Bishop drew Mercy and another blade, Peace, as his vision cleared. The demon scythed its talons at his gut again. Bishop deflected them with Peace. Shock rippled up his arm.
Bishop retreated farther from the cross. His mouth was drier than rusted steel. If Grace didn’t divide the sunspawn’s attention soon, neither of them had a heretic’s chance.
The sunspawn crooned. It was Prudence’s voice, stolen from Bishop’s memory: “Help me, Bishop, help me.” It wasn’t real. Not this time.
Grace scooped up the rifle and took aim.
Bishop’s pulse jacked. “Shit. Don’t—”
Grace fired. The primary barrel was loaded with high-volt stun nets. The net looped ’round the sunspawn’s horns and covered its face. One strand of netting zipped farther, wires targeting heat, and snared Bishop’s wrist.
Searing pain wracked Bishop, shorting out his breath before he could scream. Dampeners absorbed the brunt of the energy before it electrocuted him. Not much he could do but endure. The pulse-shock made the sunspawn shriek. It dropped atop him. The horns deflected most of the surge. Best to aim for the trunk or legs.
[Calculation: odds of survival approaching 0%.]
Fuck, but didn’t he know.
The sunspawn pinned his wrists with its talons. It repeated his name until the sound sickened him worse than the barbels writhing at his waist.
He twisted and levered his left arm against the demon’s strength. Sweat sluiced into the hollow of his throat, bile hot in his mouth.
The sunspawn bent its neck, mandibles wide. At two handspans, they could slice through his spinal column in one snap. Except it wouldn’t bite his head off until it finished eating his softer flesh.
Bishop’s heart quavered. He stared into the blind eyes, the glazed scar-shells. Dust itched against his open wounds. He struggled to raise his modified arm, Mercy still gripped in his fist. Should have expected this—the nightmare he’d relived in sleep for ten years.
One of the sunspawn’s thin feeder tendrils wormed through his shirt and probed the wireweave vest. It found the seam and burrowed against his skin. Bishop thrashed, trying to pull himself free.
There weren’t any rocks this time.
Muscles bulged in his arm and shoulder; he lifted his wrist, vambrace protecting his tendons and metal bones from the talon edges. A little farther—
The tendril stroked the scar tissue along his hip. No, not this again. Bishop tried to gain purchases with his legs, lever himself free, but his boots slipped on the smooth ground. A tiny stinger injected paralytic toxin into his vein. Bishop hissed. The touch, like memory, incapacitated him quicker than a firemoth’s venom. His Wire-modified body would neutralize the toxin, but not fast enough.
[Status: internal systems at 34% percent efficiency. Caution: antitoxin reserves critical.]
Wispy golden threads branched from the sunspawn’s head—the neural tendrils that would feed on a victim’s thoughts and emotional energy, then drink his soul.
Bishop twitched, helpless.
Grace’s silhouette appeared over the sunspawn’s flattening spines. “I’m your tithe, demon.” He grabbed the sunspawn’s sharp horns and wrenched its head ’round.
The antitoxin worked its way through Bishop’s veins, hot as fire. Still too slow, too fucking slow.
Grace heaved against the demon’s weight, pulling it toward him. “Do what you will, shiny. No one else will die because of me.”
Mandibles clicked and the shredded net fell away. Grace’s face contorted, his bloodied hands slipping on the horns. The sunspawn twisted toward Grace in one fluid movement, flung him to the ground, and crouched over him.
[Status: sunvenom neutralized. Internal systems stabilized.]
Bishop swore and freed his left arm with effort. He rolled sideways and came up in a squat as he struggled to tamp down panic. Grace had stopped fighting. He’d given Bishop exactly the distraction needed.
The sunspawn’s skin rippled, releasing a hallucinogenic pheromone. Once it began feeding, it’d look like whatever the offering most wanted to love.
“Bishop!” Grace cried. “Bishop, oh Lord—kill it!”
Bishop heaved himself up. “Shut your eyes, Grace.”
He drove Peace and Mercy into the demon’s softened skull. Its shriek echoed across the territory, its talons flailing. Grace screamed.
[Record: seventeen sunspawn eradicated.]
Make it eighteen.
Bishop grunted and sliced the blades deeper, all his fury behind it—a vertical cut, then a horizontal one. He wrenched the blades free in a mist of pale blood. The demon arched back, spines fluttering as light dimmed and the golden skin burned darker red and into black.
It crumpled. Bishop pinned his knee against the demon’s back. He sliced the undersides of the spines, peeling them away in thick patches. Blood stained his gloves. When the demon’s back was stripped, he flipped the husk over and gutted its barbels.
[Record: eighteen sunspawn eradicated.]
Didn’t he fucking know it.
He left the pieces where they lay. His lungs ached as he struggled to catch his breath. Purple-gray twilight deepened the shadows around him, the landscape still muted after the demon’s death-cry.
[Warning: deacons’ presence detected. Estimated time of arrival: five point two minutes.]
Well, shit. They must’ve gotten trigger reports that something had gone wrong. Bishop dragged himself upright and looked for Grace.
The man lay curled on the ground, cupping his face. Blood dripped between his fingers and pooled on the ground in a widening stain. Bishop knelt and pried Grace’s lacerated hands away. Grace moaned. Talon marks raked Grace’s face across his forehead and cheek, bone laid bare. The eye was lost. Witch-breath had saved him from having his skull split open; it’d keep infection from taking root, for now.
Grace pulled away and Bishop let him go.
[Estimate: offering’s odds of survival 45%.]
Bishop silenced the Wire-sense updates. Only his thoughts mattered now. He held Mercy at his side.
“Don’t.” Blood and spit clogged Grace’s words. “Please. D-don’t leave me like this.”
Bishop couldn’t stop himself trembling. “I know people who can fix that, in the Wire Circles.” If Grace wanted to survive. The Wire-techs couldn’t fix a broken will. Just bodies.
Grace shook harder.
“No one’ll know if you leave,” Bishop said. Truth couldn’t hide his desperation. “Your blood’s still on the sunspawn’s talons. They don’t leave bodies, you know that. Your brothers won’t suffer if you’re dead in the eyes of man.”
Bishop held out both hands, Mercy in one, the other empty. Lord help him, but he wanted to save Grace.
“You deserve to live.” Bishop had been told he didn’t. He’d believed it for a long time, too.
Grace shuddered, blood still dribbling down his jaw and throat.
But he took Bishop’s hand. Not Mercy.
Bishop sheathed his blade. He hauled Grace to his feet, tugged off his shredded duster, and draped it over the Grace’s shoulders. His back ached from the claw wounds. He found the last of his gauze-patches, ripped the package open, and adhered the sterilized cloth and wire mesh to Grace’s face and cut hands. It’d hold until they found a surgeon.
“Thanks,” Grace said, barely audible.
Bishop nodded. He scooped up his rifle and led Grace toward the road. They could reach the rails and one of the cyclone trains by dawn, ride to the sanctuary of the Wire Cities. Deacons wouldn’t follow them.
The true challenge would come later, when the physical wounds had healed or scarred. Surviving the nightmares and memories and guilt.
“You’re still wrong.” Bishop’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “Don’t repent for caring about someone. I reckon I can speak from experience there. I lost the one I loved to the gallows. His name was Prudence.”
Grace tilted his head away, his blind side toward Bishop.
The ghost whip-poor-will struck up its eerie tune again, joined by crickets and the far-off howl of a razor-wolf. But there wouldn’t be a demon song this night.
Bishop took a breath. “I’ll help you if I can.” He stared at the road lit with the wildseed blossoms’ faint yellow glow. Ten years and counting, he’d been walking it. He was too tired to keep going alone. “If you want.”
Grace pulled the duster tighter about his chest. “Do I get five seconds to choose?”
“Take all the time you need.”
He thought he saw Grace half-smile in the dark.
“Yes,” Grace whispered at last. “I’d like that, Bishop.”
Bishop blinked hard behind the mask, his throat tight, and with Grace at his side he walked away from the cross and Blessed Servitude.
About the Author
Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter or their website. They have a story forthcoming in Do Not Go Quietly and Unlocking the Magic, as well as several other anthologies out later in 2019.