To Salt the Earth with Tears of Jesus
rating: +25+x

The sea was made of stone. Roaring winds scoured the wasteland that had once been an ocean, dust rising over the naked seabed in cruel mockery of fog, opposed solely by the thorny metal structures erected in the midst of desolation. Over the cracked, barren earth, a merciless sun shone uncaring over the heads of the assembled multitude, the crowd of dust-bitten men and women who had gathered at the gates of a hellish fence of iron and lightning. Their eyes were wide with fear, their mouths agape with screams of hateful dread. They had gathered there to observe a monster.

The monster stood slightly beyond the open gates, reaching forward with one arm, its claw still smoking with the devilish fire it had brought forth from its own being. Its feet stood firmly on the ground, its black eyes staring intently at the remains of its victim, at the mangled, charred thing that had once been a man. Still the poor, pathetic creature trembled, clinging to life as if to spite its slayer. Nameless, faceless, it tried to get up again, only to collapse under its own weight and lay unmoving forever.

The crowd gasped, trying to overcome the horror, the shock of what they had just witnessed. Then the monster opened its mouth and, paying no heed to the assembly of reeling bodies that stood at its back, muttered to itself:

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Aníbal finished quoting Through the Looking-Glass and chuckled; like Alice, he too had come through a mirror. He stepped forward, towards the colossal corpse of the half-formed humanoid he had just blown up to kingdom come. His left arm, metal and circuitry and arcane glyphs, reformed back into its mundane disguise of flesh and skin, hiding away the vorpal blade from the awe-struck refugees behind him.

The Unclean remained still on the ground, pale chunks of flesh sloughing off the carcass in a nauseating spectacle. The creature's stench had been unbearable even before its death, streams of foul ichor dripping from its crawling form and evaporating as soon as they reached the ground, alerting the entire refugee camp to its presence; now, that same ichor bled from the man-sized hole that Aníbal's spell had burrowed into its otherwise smooth, featureless visage.

What a strange curse these people have brought upon themselves, Aníbal thought as he knelt down to inspect the cadaver, not without first turning off his olfactory receptors. This was by far the most interesting thing to happen in the last few months. Up until that point, his stay at the camp had been dull, his days spent supervising the tides of refugees that poured in from every corner of the Unfertile Lands, patrolling the perimeter with the android soldiers the Empire had sent, and reading document upon document about the doom that had come to this Earth. The people called them "Unclean," legless colossi that dragged themselves across the land with their monstrous arms, absorbing everything in their path into themselves, withering the soil with their foul touch, moaning blood-curdling lamentations with their featureless faces. Now, one of those Unclean creatures had shown up at Aníbal's doorstep, and he had intended to make the most of it… by seeing how fast he could kill it.

"By the Most Holy!" a voice came from behind Aníbal, who turned around to see Nahum pushing his way through the multitude. Some people were beginning to kneel down and pray, realizing the magnitude of what had just transpired. Tears flowed down their faces as they raised their arms to the heavens, giving thanks for their foreign savior, for the man who had done what they thought impossible. Aníbal looked on in disbelief until Nahum reached him.

"Is it dead?"

"So dead that I could reanimate and puppet it right now," the necromancer said. Nahum looked at him in horror, and Aníbal burst out laughing. "I'm joking, I'm joking! You still lost our bet, though."

"Lose the bet? I di— I DID!" Nahum exclaimed, shock giving way to joy. "You killed it! You killed an Unclean! He did it! Look, everyone! The sin is purged! We are saved!"

The crowd erupted in raucous applause: an Unclean had been felled, a feat not even the Blessed Militia had achieved. With a single blow, this youth from another Earth had smitten the monster, rent its unholy flesh and delivered them all from a fate worse than death. Some tried touching the necromancer as if he were a saint, a holy man sent to assist them in their time of need. He thought it was absurd.

"Enough!" he bellowed. "I'm just doing my job: keeping you safe until the Immortal Empire has decided where you will be relocated to. Now, if you want to be of help, start digging! The androids will assist you."

"Digging?" a woman asked. "What for?"

"To bury your dead, of course," the necromancer responded.

At that moment, a grueling sound was heard, a rumbling moan of both agony and relief. Under the horrified gaze of those assembled, the Unclean disintegrated into a pile of naked bodies, hundreds of men, women and children, all of them coughing one last breath before expiring.

"Calm down, everyone!" Aníbal half-heartedly said, the crowd again screaming and weeping in sheer terror. He turned to Nahum, who clutched another refugee's hands between his own while muttering incoherently. He leaned in and whispered: "Mourn all you need, say your prayers, then give these people a proper burial. It's what little dignity we can afford them."

The sun was beginning to hide beyond the horizon, signaling the end of an eventful and tragic day. The dust had settled on the skeletal remains of fishing boats and warships scattered through the arid waste like tombstones, sad reminders of the sea-that-was.

As the blood-red rays tinged the sky and bonfires were readied to face the frigid desert night, Aníbal sat reading in his tent, weary after an entire day of performing funerary rites for the victims of the Unclean. How could he have refused them? However misplaced their faith was, however deluded they were in thinking their "god" cared for them, these people deserved some semblance of relief, and the dead deserved a proper farewell. Aníbal, servant of death, was bound by oath and duty to honor the departed and their still-living loved ones; he hadn't it in him to deny these poor souls a final prayer.

Aníbal could tell the months spent on this alternate Earth were beginning to take a toll on him. Every week his dreams were fewer and fewer, and when he woke up they faded away even as he tried clinging on to them with all his might. To compensate, he'd thrown himself upon the groveling masses of people who inhabited the camp, seeing to their every need like a watchful shepherd over a flock of fearful sheep. Every day he'd wake up and walk out of his tent to find more and more refugees asking something of him, and he'd do his best to see their beggings fulfilled. Mouths were fed, wounds were healed, the camp and its people were protected.

Still something bothered him, something other than the unyielding heat and the smell of damnation, something far more unsettling than the wails of sorrow that echoed every night: it wasn't out of dedication or charity that he did these things for the refugees— he was bored, and that made him desperate enough to play messiah.

Of course, he could always go back to reading to stave off boredom, but it would only be a matter of time before the books themselves pushed him into corrosive contemplation. The book Aníbal was reading right now was written by a gentleman named Lord Theodore Blackwood, a nineteenth century explorer from Great Britain who had spent some time in this world prior to its apocalypse, before the genetic abominations swallowed civilization whole. Before returning to his own world and age, Blackwood had left behind his findings on how to destroy the Unclean, only for the people who tried to spread the message to find themselves deemed heretics by their theocracy, sentenced to be fed to the lumbering monstrosities. How ironic, Aníbal thought, they rejected his message, yet now they are fully dependent on the charity of others to survive. Had the Empire arrived earlier — had I arrived earlier — would they have listened?

Aníbal's ponderings were interrupted when a copper-skinned head with long, curly hair and green eyes peeked into the tent.

"What is it, Nahum? More bodies?" Aníbal asked, setting down his book and getting up from his cushion. "Tell them I'll see to it now."

"No, no… I was—" Nahum stumbled. "I was hoping I could join you for the night. I… have had much to think about."

"Come in," the necromancer said. "I was just about to light a fire."

Nahum sat on a cushion opposite to his host, who used a simple spell to ignite the pyre between them. A cozy fire rose between the two men, illuminating the necromancer's austere lodgings. Aníbal had thought it appropiate to lead by example, so he had brought few things with him for his stay: beyond the most basic necessities like fresh clothes, a hammock and some cushions, only a few books had come through the mirror. That and one other small luxury.

"Chocolate?" Aníbal offered as he placed a pot over the fire and poured some ingredients into it.

"Pardon?" Nahum asked.

"I'm offering a cup of hot chocolate," the necromancer repeated. "It is a very popular drink where I come from. Some like to drink it sweet, but I prefer to add some spiciness to it, like my ancestors did. Still sweet, but fiery."


"I'll have one!" a voice called from right outside the tent.

Both men turned to see an elderly woman standing at the entrance, flanked by two of the androids. She was smiling ear to ear, her wild gray hair tangled and dusted up by the wind.

"Miriam," Aníbal greeted. "I'm glad you've seen it fit to invite yourself in."

"Don't mind if I do!" the old woman gave a few long steps and settled down next to the necromancer. Despite her age and the circumstances of her life, Miriam still retained the elegance and snide cleverness of her youth, her clothes a colorful bundle of contrasting textures and sights that gave her a strange regal air. She was one of the few living people who still recalled the sea, her hands calloused and scarred by rope and salt. "Now give me that drink of yours. Spare no spice with me."

Aníbal handed her a cup, from which Miriam took a long, audacious sip.

"WOOH!" she exclaimed. "Now this is some good shit you got here! And your ancestors drank this every day?"

"Mine is a land of cocoa and maize," Aníbal assented. Reminiscing about home felt strangely bittersweet here, universes apart from all he knew. He tried brushing it off. "But let's not focus too much on trivialities. I believe Nahum wants to speak his mind on something."

Heads turned towards the young man, who stuttered as words blurted from his mouth.

"Yes, I— I want to… I'm having… today I—" he paused to collect himself before continuing. "I want to thank you for what you did today, Aníbal."

"It was nothing," Aníbal sighed. An image lingered on his mind, the joyful faces of the refugees turning to horror and despair upon seeing the mountain of corpses. A man could grow used to being surrounded by death; that was his entire profession. But to be surrounded by grief, by the helplessness of fathers and mothers cradling the cold remains of their children, by the pain of a people broken and cast out into the waste— Aníbal wished there was something he could feel for them other than pity. "I'm only doing my duty: keeping you safe, putting your dead to rest. It's what I was sent here for."

Nahum nodded and bowed his head, his hands together.

"That said, don't think I've forgotten about our bet!" Aníbal tried laughing. "I expect you to bring me those nice books of yours at first light. Especially the little forbidden novels you smuggled out of—"

He realized Nahum had his eyes closed and was now whispering something, his words inaudible under the fire's crackling.

"What are you doing?" the necromancer frowned. Then realization dawned upon him. He couldn't help cough out a disdainful laugh. "Are you praying? Nahum, the dead have their peace. There is no need for this anymore."

Nahum continued praying as if he had not heard the necromancer. Confused, Aníbal turned to Miriam, but she simply raised her eyebrows and continued to sip her chocolate. At last, the young man finished his prayer and faced Aníbal and Miriam.

"I'm not praying for the dead. I'm giving thanks," he shyly said. "For you."

"Giving thanks to whom? There's no one out there, at least no one who cares," Aníbal stared intently at the supplicant. "You know this already. I showed you the reports, what Blackwood wrote. He did this to you, your god. The Second Coming, the war, the Unclean: these were all His fault."

"We did this," Nahum muttered, his eyes fixed on the fire. "You said it yourself. The High Fathers, the Most Holy One… they abused His Holy Tears to make us docile, to control our minds, our hearts, because they loved power more than they loved us… or Him. It was them."

"And who provided them with those, Nahum?" the necromancer asked. "Who came down from the heavens and proclaimed a holy war for His love? Who gave you the Tears that mutated your people into the Unclean? He did, Nahum. To Him you were but playthings, ants in an anthill pitted against each other for His amusement. Why do you insist in giving thanks to a god who deserted you and left you to die?"

"I— I don't…" Nahum doubted before solemnly saying, "it's all I know. When I served under Blessed Father Elijah, he told me to always be thankful for what blessings came my way, and for what trials I had to endure as well. A true servant of Him should find joy and hope in adversity. So when the Unclean began spreading out of the Unfertile Lands, I thought that this may be one of His trials, a holy test to separate His true children from those sick with sin, from those who should have been put to the Tears for cleansing. I was… I was—"

"Wrong," Miriam said, putting a hand on Nahum's shoulder. "We all were."

Tears welled up in their eyes, Nahum squeezing Miriam's hand in his.

"Do I sense a crisis of faith?" Aníbal asked. He filled another cup with steaming chocolate and handed it to Nahum. "Drink. Fire warms the body, but this warms the soul."

The three of them sat in silence as darkness crept over the land, as the cold embrace of night covered the camp. Outside the tent, a thousand bonfires mirrored the starry sky, the remnants of civilization huddling close together to face another night of uncertainty.

"Thank you," Nahum said after finishing his drink.

"There's more if you want," the necromancer said. "Perhaps now you will tell us what burden you bear."

Nahum averted his sight and exhaled. He clawed at the earth beneath him and pulled up a fistful. Streams of sediment slipped through his fingers in cascade, salt crystals like mournful diamonds shining through the ashen dirt.

"This was once an ocean," he said, tossing away what sand and salt remained in his grasp. "I don't remember it. I never saw it for myself. All I ever knew about it was what I was told by my teachers, by my parents, by the books I read. I saw pictures, yes, but never witnessed the rocking of the waves. I never wet my feet in shallow water, never felt the salt in the breeze. But still I believed there was a sea. I knew there must be, and dreamt of one day seeing it for myself. Now I've seen it and it's… gone."

Miriam took Nahum's hand in hers. A sad smile crept upon her wrinkly face, the ravages of longing making themselves known.

"It was really beautiful, boy. You would have loved it."

"The more I think about it, the more I realize it's the same thing with Him, with God," the young man continued. "When I think about Him, I feel just like when I came to this place. All my life I believed in one truth: His truth. I didn't witness the Second Coming. I never saw God. But I believed in Him, just like I believed in the sea."

"Well, in that regard you were correct, Nahum," Aníbal said. "Unfortunately, God is real, just like the sea used to be."

"I didn't just believe in Him, Aníbal. I believed He was good," Nahum retorted. "Before all this, I thought that all He did was for our good, that He cared for us like a father cares for his children. I was a scholar back then; I studied His word, His commandments and His teachings. Through them, I thought that I understood our God, the very essence of Him. But now…"

"Now you see the truth," the necromancer sighed.

"Yes… the truth…" Nahum said bitterly.

"Yet you continue giving thanks, praying to a god who deceived you, who relished as the Unclean devoured your world. Some good the truth has done you."

"Oh, please!" Miriam snapped at him. "Don't act like you would fare any better in his place!"

"No," Nahum said. "Aníbal is right. God is not good. But still I believe His truth— whatever that truth is. I cannot let it go."

Broken. Nahum's faith was broken, Aníbal could tell. His eyes glistened with fractures, devotion nothing but dying glints, weak candles beset by roaring winds. The devotee's heart, once a cathedral — a fortress for Him — had been laid to ruin, its pews empty, its altar overturned and despoiled. Teethering at the edge of despair, Nahum had raised his sight looking for salvation and found nothing but absence, a god-shaped hole where his Lord's mercy should have been.

And yet, somehow, he held on to the edge. Shattered, his faith still stood, shambling on despite the cracks, refusing to crumble under the duress of reality. Aníbal found it disturbing: the young man's faith was insane, a putrid, nauseous thing that should not be. Nahum knew how wrong he was, yet he insisted— stubborn, foolish!

Something within the necromancer simmered, a corrosive, poisonous impulse to stand and grab the former scholar by the neck, to gaze into his eyes and force his way into his heart. He wished Nahum to supplicate for mercy to the dark and terrible god that was Aníbal Salazar, so that fear may break the blind chains that bound him, free at last from the curse that was Him.

But Aníbal did no such thing. Why should he? The chains of faith were not his to break and, for all he cared, Nahum could ensnare himself in them until they strangled him. And yet…

"You are a fool, Nahum," Aníbal fumed. "A deaf, blind fool."

"Aníbal!" Miriam protested, but the necromancer silenced her with a gaze that could have turned sand to glass. He stood, his shadow swallowing the tent as he moved by firelight, as he pointed an accusing finger at Nahum.

"Yours is a Sysiphean faith, poisoned honey, self-deceit!" he growled. "You, and her… you both know the truth! I showed you both the reality of your world! Those outside, the thousands that still pray and grovel at His feet, are mercifully ignorant! That is their excuse! What in seven hells is yours?"

"And yours, Aníbal?" Miriam asked. "What is your excuse?"

"What?" the necromancer sneered in confusion.

"Your gods, Zeus and Odin and Tláloc. They're cruel, monstrous even," Miriam accused. "Yet you have faith in them."

"My faith was long ago," Aníbal said.

"Yet here you are, discussing with two blind, stubborn fools," the old woman responded.

"We are all our gods' fools," Nahum muttered. He had sat drawing formless figures in the sand with one of his fingers. "We give praise, we give faith, and hope that in exchange we are protected, delivered from evil. We are afraid, and that is why we pray. Like Uriah."

"Who?" Aníbal turned.

"Uriah, His First Martyr," Nahum said. "It is a story from the Third Testament. It tells of suffering, strife… and faith. Unyielding faith."

"Like yours?" the necromancer scoffed. "Please, amuse me."

"I am… not sure it will change anything for you, Aníbal," Nahum stood and faced his host, eyes glistening with unperturbed determination. "But I will speak, and you will listen."

Uriah walked into the desert and wept. Burning tears carved their way through the filth that covered his face, mingling with the blood of festering wounds. Bloody raindrops they were, drank by the barren earth in frenzied thirst. Uriah saw the waste that was his suffering, his blood and tears fed to a sterile land, and wept even more.

When no more tears came from his swollen eyes, when his flayed feet could walk across the sands no longer, Uriah knelt and raised his arms towards the heavens and prayed: "Lord, why have You abandoned me? I, Uriah, who worshipped in Your temples, annointed in Your Grace, knowledgeable in Your Word, am cast out to die, to perish here, that the Unclean may devour my flesh and rend my soul. What sin have I committed that You would allow Your loyal servant to suffer such unholy fate?"

No answer came to Uriah and, despairing and exhausted, he resolved to expire amidst the scorching sands.

In the heat of the day did Uriah renounce his life. In the cold of night did dreams come to his dying body.

First came Remembrance, impure thoughts of war and strife. In cruel memory Uriah saw the cities burning, the people abusing His gifts for their own sinful pursuits. Pretenders of His love, unworthy and ungodly, they rent the world apart. Men burned in many-mouthed furnaces, women were raped amidst the ashes of their children. War marched on, merciless, and in its path, in the wake of its orgy of violence and depravity, the Unclean arose like maggots.

And in his dreams Uriah did curse Him for allowing such suffering to take place.

Next came Prophecy, the promise of His eternal love for His children. The Promised Future, the world without pain or sorrow, without sin or damnation, glistened before Uriah, bathed in holy light. Here he saw the Unfertile Lands purified and full of life, smiling multitudes worshipping Him and His Glory. The chants of His people carried praise to every corner of the Earth, so that all who believed may rejoice in their salvation.

But still Uriah did not understand why the blood of millions must be spilt to water the roots of paradise, and in his dreams he did question the ways of his Lord. For what heavenly reward merited such anguish, such horror as man slaughtering man?

Last came Revelation, a mirror crystaline and pure. Uriah's reflection looked at him in sadness, and he could not meet its gaze, for in his heart he knew the great sin he had committed, the blasphemy he had raised against Him and His love. For this sin he had been exiled, cast out to be swallowed by those who, like him, had become sinners unforgivable. His great guilt pulled him in, and into the depths he disappeared.

Within the watery tomb Uriah heard weeping, and a Voice came to him.

"My child, why do you doubt me? Why do you blame the Lord, your God?"

"Lord," Uriah cried out. "I am hurt and afraid, branded by my naked sin, expelled from Your Grace. In my mind's eye I have seen the misery of those around me, the truth my sin spoke of. Why have You allowed this? Why must we bleed for Your love?"

"I am that I am," the Lord's Voice responded. "I deliver My children from evil. Who among you is mighty that he may challenge Me? Who among you is righteous that he may question Me? I am Truth and I am Salvation and I am the Way. I am that I am."

"You weep, Lord?" Uriah asked in shame.

"I weep for My children, who scorn My peace and covet My gifts in selfishness. Into My Holy Tears you have dived, that in My sorrow you may be cleansed and made pure of mind and soul. This is My final gift, My final mercy."

"What is it I must do, Lord, that I may be worthy of You?" Uriah begged.

Take My Tears to My children. Say unto them, "He sends His mercy, His crystaline path, that the righteous may be separated from the Unclean, that the world may be cleansed and born anew. I am the Lord your God." Go and speak My Truth, Uriah. I will be with you."

And so Uriah awoke from his dream and, weeping prayers of gratitude and guilt, carried with him His Holy Tears into the lands of man, so His Will be done unto the sinful, so that, in His image, the Earth may be made pure.

Nahum finished his story and bowed his head to pray, this time louder than before. The fire had died down; its crackling could drown his supplications no more.

"So that is the way it is, huh?" Aníbal said in acrid tone. "Self-denial. Blind, idiot faith."

"My world has ended, Aníbal. I know now why I still believe: this faith, this covenant, it is all we have left. We can choose to believe, to hope for the paradise we were promised, or sink into despair. Who knows? Perhaps it was His will that you came to our aid, to bring us to a new haven of peace and prosperity."

"So you've chosen to regress, like a scared child. You have chosen to be a beggar, to depend on the mercy of others, be they god or Empire!" Without taking his eyes off Nahum, he threw more wood into the dimming pyre, feeding the flames as the wind outside blew cold and long.

"I do not expect you to understand," Nahum whispered. "I, like Uriah, find solace in the promise of my God. If this is our trial, His great test of our faith, so be it."

"I understand!" the necromancer planted himself before the believer, his hands clasped into fists. "I understand that you lie to yourself, that you accept the evil of your god and still grovel before Him! And you do this because you're afraid to question His designs, to face uncertainty on your own! You are pathetic!"

"No more pathetic than a man who seeks to break others' faiths for fear of facing his own!" Nahum accused.

A thunderous crackle resonated within the tent as Aníbal's left arm began lighting up threateningly.

"Careful, Nahum," Aníbal murmured. "I may just show you how merciful the gods can really be."

"Boys, enough!" Miriam shouted, pushing both men away from each other. "Keep your fists — and your magic — to yourselves!"

"You are no different from him, Miriam," Aníbal growled while retreating to his own corner.

"Is that right? How so?" the old woman asked.

"You are in denial too. You believe that he is justified in drowning in his own lies, in crawling into his own mind and shutting the world out. Such is the temple you have both built for yourselves, the one in which you hide together, your faith for bricks, your tears for mortar. Tell me, old woman, why do you choose to live a lie when you have so little time remaining?"

"Are you threatening me?" Miriam's tone betrayed no anger, but her hands clenched and unclenched as if she were readying herself for a fight.

"No," Aníbal motioned dismissively. "I am only curious if it's fear that pushes you on, like it does him. Do you know what awaits after death, Miriam?"

"Oh, I bet you know all about that, Mister Reanimator," she scowled, sitting down without taking her eyes off the necromancer.

"I do not," he responded. "Back home, sure. People in my reality live long, content lives, knowing that once dead they will be received by dark halls and sunny pastures. Certainty brings peace of mind. But here, in this world… does it not scare you not to know at whose mercy you will be after you've crossed over to the other side? Perhaps for you there is no other side…"

"Pettiness is an ugly look for you, boy," Miriam said through gritted teeth.

"If it so bothers you, woman, why stay?"

"We are not letting you off that easily," she said. "Do you think you can just spit all your poison and not tell us?"

"Tell you what?" the necromancer hissed.

"Your story," Nahum said. "The story of your faith."

A tense silence followed, interrupted solely by the howling wind.

"My story… my faith…" Aníbal muttered. The arrogant scowl on his face gave in slightly. "Why? What do you hope to learn that I have not fully laid before you?"

"The reason why a man would sell his own flesh, his own body, to the very gods he despises," Miriam said. "What had you to gain from your faith, Aníbal?"

The necromancer stood and, gazing at his left arm, uttered a single word:


In the age when magic was hidden from the world, there was a god called Yahweh who ruled over a fertile land beyond the sands. His was the authority over the rains that nurtured crops, the dreadful power of the storms. His was the name invoked in battle, so that his warrior spirit may lead his people to victory.

Indeed, Yahweh, god of storms and war, was both beloved and feared, more so than his father El, more than his brothers and sisters. Amongst his people, some believed only he was worthy of worship, and this pleased him immensely.

But with the passing of time, Yahweh came to know the truth of all divinity: that a god's rule over the Earth is not eternal. As the world matured, as men grew bold and wise, it was the gods who must move on, leaving behind their chosen peoples to make life whatever they willed it. That had been an agreement as old as the Cosmos itself, respected by all gods, from the mightiest Titan to the smallest house spirit.

This Yahweh found unacceptable, and fear took hold of his heart. Who would he be once gone from the world, unrecognizable amidst countless other storm gods? His name would be forgotten, his idols lost to time. He would be nothing, nothing but the memory of a half-remembered dream, his sway over the universe forever diminished.

And in his fear, Yahweh grew jealous, and the seed of an idea grew into a gnarled, twisted tree: he, god of storms and war, would remain eternal for the world, no matter the cost.

When Chemosh, eldest of his brothers, paid him a visit, Yahweh sprung his trap. Chemosh, thrashing and cursing, was devoured whole, his crown laid low and his power absorbed. Yahweh, god of storms, war and treachery, grew mightier.

"I am that I am," he said, justifying his abomination. He was pleased.

In time, every god in Yahweh's pantheon was tricked and devoured, their might added to the glutton's own. None were spared, not even old and venerated El, who did not curse his son as he was eaten, but instead laid out a warning: "Beware what lies you sow, for it is perdition you will reap."

Yahweh, God, led his people to battle again and again. No other gods remained in his land to oppose him and, to his people, there never had been any others at all. Yahweh, god of storms, war, the sky, the stars and the afterlife, was alone, and alone he had made the world and man in his image.

"I am that I am," he proclaimed to his priests and prophets. "And I am the only one."

As his power had grown, so had his lust for domination, and Yahweh, Lord of Hosts, set his people to cleanse the land of those who would not yield to him. By sword and fire did Jericho and Amalek fall. By right of conquest did Yahweh order their children slaughtered and their women raped. He was the Lord, and his way was righteous.

More and more gods fell to Yahweh, bloating him, a grotesque thing that remembered not the god he had once been. But something else had been lost to Yahweh, something that had once been his, but had now been eclipsed by fear of his might: love. And so, Yahweh craved for this ultimate show of devotion, for this submission only the truly deserving could reap from the hearts of men.

"I am that I am," he whispered in the dreams of his followers. "I am a loving god."

But the people would not cease to fear him. They would not love him out of true devotion, but out of terror for the damnation he had promised should they fail to offer sacrifice and prayer unto him. Furious, incredulous, Yahweh sought to punish those who denied him the love he so deserved.

Babylon. Egypt. Rome. The armies and gods of a hundred empires came and conquered, crushing Yahweh's temples, enslaving his people, turning them against their god. All this Yahweh allowed, for he was content to make those unloving of him suffer. This was their punishment, to be dominated by strangers, by "false" gods.

Again and again did Yahweh intervene to lead his people out of slavery, only to lead them into it again when they faltered, when they failed to show their true love and devotion.

"I am that I am," he told himself. "I am fair."

Something, however, was amiss. Yahweh, god of men and empires, felt himself stretched thin. Strange contradictions plagued his mind, his spirit. He was a loving god, honorable and fair. He was a jealous god, wrathful and vengeful.

Strange. Contradictory.


And so did Yahweh birth a Son, a harbinger of his love, of his forgiveness, so that men whose only wrong had been not loving him would repent and bend the knee, grateful to be delivered from a doom long imposed upon them, from an original sin they knew nothing about. And the Son died and was reborn, and his blood paid the price of his father's wrath, his message spread to every corner of the empire.

"I am that I am!" he announced to the world. "I am almighty!"

"You have doomed yourself," warned the one called Jupiter. "See now how they venerate you, how they worship you, but in my image."

But Yahweh could not answer, for his form had grown too bloated, brought down by the countless gods he had devoured, misshapen by the lies he had told himself and his people. Who had Yahweh been, he who was now everyone's and nobody's god?

By sword and fire did the cross assert dominion over the Earth, the faith fractured and twisted into what people wished it, into whichever truth believers needed to convert and dominate others. Yahweh, his true name long forgotten, felt himself torn apart and put back again, ever more unrecognizable.

In his agony, he begged the other gods to help him, to take pity on him, but none would come to his aid. All they did was stare in shame in disgust, powerless to stop the slaughter of their followers in Yahweh's name, unwilling to grant sanctuary to the one who had thought himself supreme.

Ages passed. Yahweh was divided, torn apart. Within him, his brethren sought to break free, to exact their vengeance on their captor. And the wheel of destiny turned.

When the gods returned to again walk amongst men, to bask in the glory of a world at peace, Yahweh was not among them. Their god absent, the faith was lost, the prayers silenced, the temples claimed by dust.

"I am that I am," from a place lost to man, lost to time, an empty shell proclaimed. It had been drained of its power, diminished by its former prisoners, left to flounder on its own — powerless, frail, forgotten.

"I am that I am," the thing that had once been a god wept. "And I am alone."

Aníbal finished his story, and all was silence. The fire had again dimmed, but no one made an effort to feed it.

"Not quite the story you were expecting, was it?" the necromancer said at last.

"No… not at all," Miriam conceded, grasping sand again and again. "This god, this Yahweh, was he—"

"The same as yours?" Aníbal exhaled. "Does it matter? His is just an empty name. "Him" could have been just some random cosmic atrocity, a thing pretending to be a god. It would make no difference at all."

He walked towards his cushion and slumped down on it as if his legs could no longer support him.

"This story, the rise and fall of "God," is told in every temple of every god in my world," he continued. "It is a reminder of his impiety, of his corruption, and of the dangers of religious intolerance. At least that is how the priests and sorcerers frame it. But I have found a different meaning to it: the only things gods respect, the only things that can bind them, are each other and the rules they choose to set down. In the end, all that matters is power."

"Is that also the only thing you care about?" Nahum asked. His eyes remained wide open, as if he was still processing the tale Aníbal had told. "Is that why you sacrificed?"

"Why should I have not?" the necromancer shrugged. "An arm and two liters of blood are a price I'm happy to pay for independence."

"You think this is independence?" Miriam said. "Just how much of your person will you cut off and sell if it grants you power?"

"However much is required. This form, this flesh, it is weak," Aníbal said as his arm shifted and turned, revealing the magitech weapon within. "In the gods I saw an answer, the key to freeing myself from the limitations of our kind. I would gladly sacrifice more if it took me one step closer to my freedom."

"Freedom from yourself, perhaps, but not from them," Miriam quipped.

Aníbal frowned, his arm returning to its disguised state.

"Go on…"

"Aníbal, unto your gods you have offered a sacrifice of your own flesh and blood, seeking power in return," the old woman said. "Your might, your strength… it comes from them. Do you think you are not are their mercy, you whose greatest feats have been achieved through their blessing?"

"I owe the gods nothing," Aníbal responded. "Their own rules make our pact unbreakable. I cannot take back my offerings, and they cannot renege on their end of the deal."

"Their rules, indeed. Rules by which they abide because they have decided to. Rules you obey because you have no other choice."

Aníbal said nothing as Miriam moved towards him, unblinking and unabated. A spectral light seemed to emanate from the old woman, an eerie glint of threatening wisdom, the kind only age brings.

"You gave up a part of yourself, boy. It made you less of a man, less of a living thing; they, on the other hand, lost nothing. Do you really think you are on equal terms with the gods? You are bound to them, not the other way around."

The woman got up and gazed alternatively at Aníbal and Nahum, her voice stern, her eyes steely.

"You are both the same, bound by your beliefs, chained by your faith: one through fear and willful ignorance, the other through arrogance and lust for power."

Aníbal tried to protest, but something in his mind had shifted. Words died in his throat before they could be spoken, the chain around his neck tightening as he finally realized it was there. Nahum simply lowered his gaze, hands still clutching fistfuls of sand and salt.

"The fools have spoken their truths!" Miriam roared. "It is time I tell a story of my own."

Long ago there lived a woman by the sea. Her eyes were seeweed green, deep like the trenches. Her dark skin glistened under the sun, the sweat of her brow intermingling with the salt of the sea. Her hair was the color of a starless night, long and curly, cascading down her shoulders except for when she'd tie it, hiding it away from the mischievous maritime breeze.

The woman owned a small boat: a skiff on which she'd venture out to shallow waters. There, she'd catch small fish and crabs, and dive for conchs and oysters. These she sold at the local market to make a living, her life a humble but happy one, surrounded by caring neighbors and friends.

At the center of the woman's life was a church that stood on a cliff by the sea. It was a venerable old thing, its wooden walls reeking of humidity, its paint scraped by salt and wind. On the outside, it was just another building. Within, however, gathered the great family that was the woman's community, smiling and laughing, giving thanks for the home they had found in each other, singing praises to the Lord who in His magnanimity had brought them together in peace and prosperity.

The woman was happy, and her life was good.

But it was not just the community the woman loved, not just the people who had shown her friendship and camaraderie. No. They were not the only reason she went to church, not the only reason she gave thanks unto the Lord. For the woman loved another with a passion that could have turned even the mightiest waves to steam: every Sunday, as the people gathered to sing and pray, the woman would look at the one leading the choir in worship, the one whose short, golden hair became a fiery halo as sunlight cast its warmth on her. Her name was Aranza, kindest amongst her people.

Years of singing together, of loving together, had bound both of them in secret, for the Lord had declared such unions to be forbidden, and both women wished not to lose the goodwill of their friends and neighbors. Thus they met by dark of night, when the tide was high and the kindly sea wiped clean their tracks on the sand.

Night after night both women would meet and embrace and kiss and dance together, and when their bodies could dance no more, they'd sit and gaze at the starry sky, their hearts full and content. In her joy, Aranza would sing for her lover: songs of hope and happiness, of adventure and danger, of growing old together and facing the world hand in hand. For though their love could never be made known, still they were thankful for the chance they had been granted to spend their lives with each other. Thus was their faith in the Lord's love and in each other's.

Years went on and the singing continued. Every day the woman went out to sea, she'd think of the love who awaited her at shore, whose laughter made even the prettiest of pearls pale. And every other day she'd bring back home a small gift, a tiny conch or coral that Aranza would wear discreetly at church, their truth made known only to those who knew where to look.

One night, a storm struck the small village, and Aranza was dragged out to sea. The woman blindly went out on her boat to look for her, praying to the Lord that her love be saved, life of one be spared by the raging ocean. For three nights and mornings the woman screamed her lungs out calling out for Aranza, futilely hoping for an answer. As the sun rose the third morning however, as the clouds finally dispelled over the beach, light was cast over the cold body washed ashore, her voice forever drowned.

The woman buried her at sea, in the very waves that had claimed her, and wept.

In her grief, Miriam was alone. Who could understand the true loss that was Aranza's death like she did? Their love forbidden, they would take the secret with them to the grave, to the watery depths that had already claimed one of them. Sorrow stood in Aranza's stead, the sea gray like stone, cold and hard, no more the woman's home, but her bane. And so the seashells were picked up no more, the old skiff left to rust.

And so it went. People mourned twice: for Aranza, whose voice was forever silenced— and for the woman, whose faith had gone with her love. She no longer went to church, her days spent seated at the edge of the pier, dangling her feet in silent courtship of death, tempting the waters to swallow her as well. She had not prayed in months, not even to ask the Lord to reunite her with Aranza at the bottom of the sea. In her heart, despair thrashed unchained, the question burning white hot: why?

Perhaps, the thought bore into her mind, this was divine punishment. The Lord had finally passed His judgement over those who went against Him. What punishment befitted forbidden love more than this one, to be torn from one another by the very place they embraced in? What was worse than mourning alone, forever barred from confiding in her on people? This weight, this burden, would be hers for as long as she breathed, until her eyes closed for the last time, gazing over the cruel sea in sad remembrance of the joy that was.

On the aniversary of Aranza's death, the woman stepped into church at last. She was not there to pray; what faith could remain when He had taken it all away? No. She was there to visit the place where they had first met, where her eyes had first become enamored with the gallant singer of heavenly fire. It had been their first time, and it would be her last before she headed out to sea to drown. If this be His punishment, she'd take it all at once, not wait and waste away.

Inside the church, the prayers stopped as she walked in, her steps echoing in the silent room. None of those presents dared speak. The woman reached the altar, the pulpit from where Aranza had once sang her praises and led her choir in worship of the Lord.

"I have come to say goodbye," the woman tried saying. "I have come to proclaim my love — my lost, forbidden love — before I too am taken by the waves."

But none of these words left her mouth. Instead she let out a wail, sharp like the seagull's call, and broke down in tears.

There was a rustling of the crowd, and the woman felt a pair of hands placed upon her shoulders. Through tears her gaze met the priest's, and in his eyes she saw the impossible: understanding. Crying silent tears of his own, the old man embraced her, his warmth more comforting than the most hopeful of sermons.

The woman then saw the rest of her congregation, the rest of her people, and knew their truths: for though theirs was a secret well-kept, there could be no doubt of the love that had once blossomed at the heart of their church. Together, the people wept for a night and a morning, and then broke bread in memory and celebration of a love they could never fully understand, but still held holy and blessed.

And the woman found her faith anew in the people who loved her and Aranza, and the church was again full of light and warmth.

The world ended one day.

From the desert came the Unclean, sin made flesh, and in their wake the church was left abandonned, the people scattered to the edges of the world. Some were never seen again.

The woman remained by the sea, close by the ruined church, even as the waters receded and dried out, even as the church succumbed to wind and rot. Her hairs grew grey, her skin wrinkly. When only the church's foundations remained, when only salt marked the ocean's grave, she walked off into the scorched lands, aimless. But her faith had not waned, not as long as there were people out there, people whose hearts needed hope and comfort.

She found them anew, past a fence of iron and lightning, past two hellish gates that kept the evil outside. They were dust-bitten, lost and fearful. She was too. And in their loss, they joined hands and gave thanks, not knowing if there was anyone who cared for their gratitude, but thankful either way: they had found each other, and that was enough.

Thus was the woman's faith preserved— through the kindness of her people, through the strength of their hope for a better future. She made new friends, each a blessing in their own way: the former scholar eeking for sense in the mad world, and the faithless sorcerer from beyond who silenced his own convictions out of piety and duty.

They were so different, she and them. They were conflictive, opposite, sometimes being at each others' throats, but still she gave thanks for them.

They had found each other, and that was enough.

The fire had died at last, leaving the night dark and silent.

Aníbal and Nahum both gazed at Miriam, clasping their empty cups. No chocolate remained to ward them from the cold.

Something had changed; Miriam could see it in their eyes. Silently, they got up one by one, unsure of what to say, fearing not the dark world outside, but what each others' minds held. A wordless agreement was reached: it was time for all to go.

Still Miriam stopped right outside the tent, stopping as Nahum's steps reached her.

"Aníbal," she said to the necromancer, who stood with his back turned towards her, as if transfixed by the extinguished pyre. "She's still out there. This was meant to be her tomb, a watery grave for her to rest. But the waters are long gone, and I alone cannot give Aranza solace."

The necromancer said nothing, but he turned and looked at Miriam, understanding. He walked towards the pair, his feet leaving soft tracks in salt and sand. Over his head, the full moon cast down its pallor, dressing the sorcerer in ethereal light.

Without a trace of contempt, without protest, Aníbal extended his hands towards them. First he took Miriam's, who smiled in sad gratitude; then he took Nahum's, who nodded in quiet agreement. They held tight the necromancer's hands, and then took the other's, a triumvirate joined hand in hand in the midst of the camp, in the midst of the waste that had once been an ocean— the grave of dreams and illusions, of faiths and lovers.

"Let us pray," Aníbal said.

Heads bowed, eyes closed, the three lost ones cast into the void their supplication: to grant Aranza sanctuary, to grant her bones eternal rest. They cared not if there was someone listening, or if their prayers fell on deaf ears. On those moments, on those sacred instants, the fearful, the faithless and the faithful sang in unison.

Under the stars, three souls lay sleeping, three souls seeking peace.

One dreamt of salvation, of a world replenished, of a faith made whole anew. In his dreams he saw the brave new world that expected beyond the mirror, beyond the veil, beyond his fear. He was hopeful and, for the briefest instant, he felt no doubt.

Another dreamt of golden shores, of salt and seeweed, of the wind rustling her hair and sails. The soft rocking of waves greeted her as she stepped aboard, her cheering loved ones waving goodbye in joyful choir. Dressed with the sun, Aranza awaited, her arms open, her smile radiant. They embraced at last, faith rewarded. And with a kiss of last breath, they sailed away into eternity.

The last soul remained restless. His faith was strained, his certainty undermined. He could feel his peace being denied, the old woman's words echoing in the deepest recesses of his being: free from himself, but not from them. In the face of the unknown, his chains still unbroken, he dreamt dim dreams.

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