In celebration – and anticipation – of the third and final book in the Chronicles of Ghadid series, I’m sharing an in-world novella that takes place sometime during the events of the second book, The Impossible Contract.
That said, if you haven’t read The Impossible Contract: stop. Do not pass go. Do not progress forward. Warning warning, danger danger. Turn back. Read book two first. Then come back. You will thank me.
There are four parts to this novella and I will be sharing them in the days leading up to The Unconquered City’s release (June 16th!!).
Part one went up last week.
Today, I present:
The Second Wave
The scream cut the air like a whip, sharp and sudden and gone in the same instant. Amastan startled, snapping the weed he’d been trying to extract whole at its base. The broken stem glared bright against the black soil as the plant’s blood oozed up, milky white. First casualty, he thought distantly, even as the panic of the moment seized him.
It was happening.
Amastan tossed the broken weed into the bucket half full of them, then brushed the dirt from his hands, adjusted his tagel, and left the glasshouse. Beyond the walls of glass, the commotion of voices and shouts in the streets below became more than a dull background noise he could ignore. Now he could tease out the rising notes of concern, of confusion, of panic. Another scream and this time it lingered, caught, and spread.
This was what he’d been waiting for.
This was what he’d been dreading.
It had been a week. No time at all and yet long enough for him to plan and organize, to set the family into motion. Long enough for hope: that Salid was wrong; that Thana would be back soon, another contract completed and the en-marabi no longer a threat; that he’d overreacted to one dead slave.
Amastan followed the edge of the roof to the back and the street below. The few people walking didn’t seem concerned or in a hurry. But then, they might not have heard the screams; sound carried further across the open roofs than the narrow streets. He squinted at the next platform and its bridge, trying to see through the mid-afternoon haze to the blurred figures beyond. Were some moving strangely? Were some running and stumbling while others were slower, more steady and sure? Despite the heat, a cold finger of fear traced the length of his chest.
Thud. Someone landed on the roof behind him.
Amastan spun, his cane already up – as if he could fight anything in his state – but it was only his cousin Menna. She wore her gray marabi wrap, a stripe of purple edging her sleeves and neck to indicate her master status. That normally pristine gray was flecked with black and red: dirt and blood. The cold tightened around Amastan’s chest.
“They’re up, they’re out, all of them – all of them – just climbed right out of their tombs and went through the marab that were there like they were nothing.” Menna’s words were a rush as she approached, her hands tangling together like string in a child’s hands. “They made it to the streets before we could stop them – not that I tried, I remembered what you’d said – which, by the way, how did you know that was going to happen – but others did despite our warnings and now we have more than just the dead dead walking around, we have the just-now and very stupid dead too and–”
“–not all of the marab even listened to me, those nits, but I came right here because you told me to get you if something like this happened and I don’t know what else to do and again, how in all of G-d’s holy names did you know that this–”
“–was going to happen, it’s impossible, I have seen some shit but these corpses don’t even have organs–”
Amastan closed the distance between them and put a hand on Menna’s shoulder. Her gaze met his and the words stopped abruptly like a door slamming shut. She was breathing in quick, shallow gasps, pale cheeks flushed and pupils dilated from the sun. This close, Amastan could see that some of the stains on her wrap were actually smears of blood and gore. Perhaps she hadn’t left as immediately as she claimed. He tightened his grip.
“Breathe,” he instructed.
Menna nodded, but a few more heartbeats passed before she took a deep, shuddering breath. Then she took another, and another. Finally she sagged, as if she were filled with sand instead of flesh. When she spoke this time, her voice was much clearer.
“What do we do, ‘Stan? There’s so many.”
“Just one crypt so far, right?” When Menna nodded, the ground stabilized beneath Amastan’s feet – just a little. Just enough. “Then the plan hasn’t changed. Find Tamella. She’ll send a runner to alert the others. Then grab as many watchmen who will listen and bring them to this platform. If they don’t listen, tell them to at least barricade their crypts.”
“Just one crypt? You don’t actually think–”
“We should be prepared for the worst.”
Menna stared at him, then she sucked in a tight breath. “Okay. Okay – that’s what we do, right? We prepare. But ‘Stan – those things, they’re worse than I thought. There’s a jaani in them, but there’s no thought. They’ve shattered all our understanding of the separation between jaani and body. I don’t know what they want – shards, I don’t even know if they want. Jaan and guul, they both want the body they no longer have. But these – they just attack whatever’s closest and keep going.” She grabbed his wrist. “Be careful.”
Then she was gone, sprinting across the roof like her life depended on it. For once, it probably did. Amastan watched as the leapt the gap between buildings, no hint of hesitation in her stride.
He pulled back the flat door that led into the building and his home below. He usually jumped into the relative darkness, but his still-healing ankle forced him to use the ladder. He stopped by his room to gather his sword and daggers, strapping on a variety of sheathes to hold them all. At the doorway he hesitated, then went back to pluck a skin of torch oil and his striker from a shelf.
In their family space, his sister Guraya had cracked open the front door and was peering through it. His father sat at the table, resolutely eating a bowl of porridge, his tagel only half on. Another bowl and cup of tea sat abandoned across from him, spoon balanced on its rim.
“Close the door, ‘Raya,” said Amastan.
Guraya turned toward him, but kept a finger between the door and its frame. “Did you see what’s going on? There was screaming.”
His father’s laugh started loud, but quickly turned to ash. He set his spoon down. “You’re not kidding.”
He reached the door and stared his younger sister down. When she didn’t move, he gently nudged her aside and pulled the door open wider. A scream cut into the room, loud and shrill and much, much too close. Guraya stepped back, eyes wide.
“Stay inside,” said Amastan. “No matter what, don’t go out until I come back.”
“What if you don’t?” asked Guraya, voice small.
Amastan patted her shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring way and offered a smile. “I will,” and he wasn’t sure if it was a promise or a prayer. He dropped his hand and added, “You’ve got a knife?”
Without breaking eye contact, Guraya tapped the curved dagger at her hip. For once, Amastan understood the family’s insistence on training all of its members to handle a blade, even if most of them would never find out why.
“Good. Don’t let anyone inside. Protect father.” He paused, fighting with how much he could share without frightening his sister. But when he lifted his gaze and looked at her – really looked at her – he didn’t see the young girl Guraya always was to him. Instead, he saw the woman she’d become while he’d been busy, the confidence that had filled out her frame and lifted her chin, sharpened her cheeks and brow, but left her round chin and playful eyes untouched. She was still his younger sister, but now that meant she deserved the truth.
“The dead in the crypts are awake and they’re attacking anyone who gets close. I’m going to help stop them and put them back where they belong. But until then, you need to keep father safe and inside. Our plan is to keep them from ever getting this far, but if they do: run. You can’t fight them; they don’t feel pain and they won’t die. Do you understand?”
Guraya held his gaze and nodded. Despite everything, Amastan couldn’t help but smile. It only lasted a heartbeat, though. He opened the door just wide enough for his wiry frame.
“Keep the door shut and you should be fine. I’ll be back.”
Guraya grabbed his hand before he could leave. “That’s a promise.”
Amastan put his other hand over hers. “Yes.”
She nodded and let him go. The door shut with a finality that both warmed and chilled him. He turned to the street, which wasn’t as empty as it should be. People clustered in doorways, talking in tense whispers and glancing up the street, in the direction of the screams. There were more of those now, and more consistent, but they sounded like screams of fear and panic, not pain. Not yet.
As Amastan neared the bridge, he met a rush of people coming the other direction. They had bottlenecked at the grounding poles on the other side, pushing and shoving against each other in their flight. A few glanced his way as they swarmed past and one even tried to grab him and pull him along, but Amastan ducked out of their grip. Amastan waited impatiently for the bridge to clear, envious of Menna and his other cousins who could take a different, higher, path. He traced the glass beads at his throat, counting them and hoping that the charms that kept away the madness of jaan might protect him from the bound.
The rush thinned and the bridge emptied. Amastan crossed, painfully aware of the sound of his cane against the wooden slates and how much he still relied on it. The next platform was empty at first, but the screams and yells and occasional, fleshy thud called him down the street toward its center, where he finally found the worst case scenario.
Salid had argued that they should be ready in case the more recently dead were affected by the affliction, but it was Amastan who realized what that meant for the crypts and the marab who tended them. The possibility that all of the dead might be affected, and all at once, had occurred to him, but only as an unlikely worst case situation. He’d still planned for the impossibility and now that impossibility greeted him like a nightmare.
Blood smeared the stones. Two people were prone, wraps torn and drenched with blood. The head of the one closer to him was turned too far, eyes staring at nothing. Half a dozen people drifted around the center without any aim or direction, while more stumbled out of an alley that led to a small courtyard. A courtyard that contained this neighborhood’s entire crypt.
Most wore gauzy white funeral shrouds, but some wore nothing at all. On these, two parallel dark lines ran up either side of their chest and a third cut low across their belly: sutures from where the marab had opened their bodies and removed organs. They were dead, all of them, and most long dead, their skin sunken and taut, ashy with desiccation. On one corpse, the sutures had loosened and split and now sand leaked from its slowly-deflating gut. The skull of another shown between patches of shriveled skin, shiny white in the sunlight.
A handful of marab were mixed in with the dead, their skin still fresh and their wraps and tagels in place. But their eyes were flat and unseeing, necks at odd angles or ripped out entirely. They were just as dead.
One marabi, however, was not dead. He entered the center at the same time as Amastan, shouting prayers and swinging a smoking censer on a long chain. A handful of bystanders flanked the marabi, brandishing improvised weapons. One had a chair, another a metal pole, and a third gripped a meat cleaver like it was the only thing keeping her from swooning. None of them looked as if they could win in a fair fight, let alone a fight against the dead.
“Get back!” shouted Amastan.
They ignored him. The marabi lunged at his nearest dead colleague, grabbing his arm and shoving the smoking censer under his nose. A living person would have breathed in the smoke and started coughing, recoiling from both. But the dead man reached through the white cloud and grabbed the prayer-sputtering marabi by his tagel, yanked his head down, and bit into his cheek.
The marabi screamed. The people around him yelled. Two dropped their weapons and fled. The third hit the bound repeatedly over the head with their chair. But the bound ignored them and snaked its hands around the marabi’s head. Twisted. The screaming cut off and the marabi went limp. The bound dropped the marabi and stared at the body, as if confused by its silence. The remaining living person dropped their chair, turned, and ran – smack into another bound.
This bound carried a knife, one that he drove into the person’s arm almost incidentally. The person yelled and tried to pull away, but a third bound reached them just as Amastan did and dug grime-encrusted fingernails into their shoulder. Amastan dropped his cane to draw his sword. Even gripping the hilt with both hands, his arms shook under the weight of the blade.
Shards. The healers had warned him. A blow to the head didn’t heal overnight, or even a week, and this was his body’s way of forcing him to rest. Well, he would rest later.
Amastan swung. His blade caught the third bound in the neck. He didn’t separate head from shoulders as he’d been planning, but it was still enough to let the living person slip free. A strike that would have killed a living man now had his sword stuck in the bound’s neck and did nothing to actually slow the monster.
The bound grabbed Amastan’s arm – or would have if it’s lunge hadn’t been thrown off by the force of a knife hitting its shoulder. The monster whirled with the blow and Amastan stumbled back, out of reach but swordless. He glanced to the rooftop behind, where the knife must have come from. Illi stood at its edge, sighting along a second knife. She threw again and Amastan heard the fleshy thunk as it hit something just behind him. She flashed him a tooth-filled grin, a third knife already in hand.
Then her eyes and mouth widened in alarm. Amastan whirled. The first bound missed him by a hair’s breadth, but as Amastan tried to avoid its grasping hands, his ankle gave out and he stumbled. Fell. The bound reached, face terrifyingly blank, but just as its fingers grazed his arm, someone slammed into its side and sent it tumbling to the stones. Before the bound could get back up, Dihya was there, bringing her ax down on the bound’s neck. The blade bit through skin and bone and muscle, only stopping once it hit the stone beneath.
Dihya kicked the head away, then nodded at Amastan. “You all right?”
Amastan nodded, then glanced around for his cane. Dihya found it first and plucked it from the ground like a flower. She helped Amastan up before pressing the cane back into his hand.
“Thanks,” said Amastan.
“Can’t have our leader without a weapon.”
The bound Amastan had attempted to behead rushed them both, Amastan’s sword still stuck in its neck. Before Amastan could even choke out a warning, Dihya had grabbed the sword hilt. She set her foot against the bound’s chest, then yanked and kicked at the same time, freeing the sword and sending the bound sprawling. The stitching across its chest broke and sand burst out, cascading down its front like so much sanitized blood. Despite that, the bound kept coming. Dihya casually kicked it back down again.
She considered the struggling bound for a moment, then held Amastan’s sword out to him, hilt-first. “So. These are the bound. They’re not as strong as I expected.”
Amastan took the sword and sheathed it. “It’s not their strength that makes them dangerous. They don’t feel pain. They don’t respond like we’ve been trained to expect. If you attack them, they won’t flinch or recoil or even stop. They just keep coming. The key to fighting them is remembering all of that. But we’re not here to fight them, not yet.”
“Yeah, yeah. Containment first.” Dihya kicked the bound down again, then followed through with an ax through its neck. This time, it didn’t get back up. “See: I was paying attention at the meeting.”
“At least one of you were.” Amastan glanced around. Illi had disappeared from the rooftop. “Where are the others?”
“Ziri’s just down the road on the opposite side of the platform, enlisting help in building a barricade like you’d said. Illi’s was on her way to find our watchmen, see if any of them will get their hands dirty for once. Tamella’s around here somewhere – she and Usaten were going to start another barricade, once I cleared out any survivors. I didn’t expect that to include you.”
“Thank you,” said Amastan, despite the dig.
Dihya wiped the gore from her ax as a fresh surge of bound approached the center from the alley. “Dust and sand, there sure are a lot of them, huh. I thought you said we’d only have a dozen to deal with.”
Amastan swallowed. “I’d hoped so. But there was always a slim possibility that all of the corpses would be affected.”
“All of them… what about the other neighborhoods, ‘Stan?”
“No reports so far.”
Dihya gave him a gentle push. “I’ll hold these little guys off. Go find Ziri and make sure he’s actually constructing a barricade and not a welcoming gate. You know him and fine details.”
Amastan didn’t, but Dihya and Ziri had been close long enough that he knew she did. Beyond Dihya, the bound were amassing, almost as if they did share a few grains of strategy between them. More were still pushing forward from the back of the alley. There were so many of them, and this was only one crypt’s worth.
Even staring forward at the sun-bleached walls, Amastan could see the rows and rows of dark tombs that lined the walls of the crypts. If all of the dead in the crypt for this neighborhood had been affected, that would easily mean over a hundred bound, plus the marab that had attended them and any bystanders.
The marab –
A shape moved on the ground near Dihya’s feet. Amastan shouted a warning as the marabi with the censer surged to his feet and rushed Dihya. The speed of the attack was captivatingly unnatural. A living, breathing person would have taken some time in getting to their feet, would have been briefly disoriented upon attaining it. Even a trained cousin would have paused long enough to get their bearing. But this bound simply went.
Dihya barely caught it with the flat of her ax. It forced her back one step, then another. This bound was too close for her to kick or otherwise force some distance, so she kept blocking. Amastan lifted his sword, willing his arms to stop shaking. But before he could commit, Tamella landed on the stones and swept her short sword through the neck of the marabi. His body fell like a dropped sack of grain.
Tamella faced the oncoming bound while standing shoulder to shoulder with Dihya. “Azulay’s got one of the roads blocked already, but he could use some direction. We will keep these creatures occupied until all the barricades are up.”
“You can’t fight them all,” warned Amastan.
Tamella swept out the feet of an oncoming bound, sending it toppling and throwing off the bound behind it. “Then you’d better get working on those barricades.”
Amastan started to protest, but cut himself off. She was right. This was his plan, the one he’d pieced together in the confines of his bedroom before presenting it to a packed room of cousins. Despite all of that work, he couldn’t help but feel a bit useless when it came to a real fight; he’d only endanger those around him. But he could coddle his pride later. For now, he had a situation to control.
Azulay had just finished reinforcing his barricade with a spare table when Amastan arrived. He lazily pressed his fist to his heart before leading Amastan to the next road, where Ziri was dragging a metal chest through a doorway, tossing reassurances to someone inside.
“Yes, yes, I’ll return it as soon as we’re done here. Please – just stay inside.” He turned as they approached, the breadth of him blocking any light that filtered out of the building. “Az’, help me with this, will you?”
Together, Azulay and Ziri carried the chest to the mouth of the road and wedged it into a growing barricade already made up of a mad assortment of chairs and tables. Amastan stood and watched, too aware of the warm handle of his cane under one palm and the dull pain just under the surface of his ankle and arm, ready to flare up as soon as he put any weight on them. From the other side of the barrier came the thud and crack and occasional exhilarated laugh as Tamella and Dihya kept the bound from escaping before the barrier was finished.
Ziri brushed his hands off on his wrap and examined his work. “Yeah. Looks good.”
Azulay gave Amastan a lazy grin. “What’s next, chief?”
Amastan frowned. “Don’t call me that. I’m not a drum chief.” He glanced around. “We need to block all the roads out of the circle. We can’t risk any bound escaping. How many are left?”
“Az’ and me both got one,” said Ziri. “Hamma and Yaluz were on the east side. If they also got two, plus this one, then that leaves the alley to the crypt and the road south, the one with the bridge.”
“We don’t need to worry about the crypt just yet,” said Amastan. “Barricade the south road and then let’s get Dihya and Tamella out of there.”
“Got it, sa.” Azulay gave a mocking bow then laughed at Amastan’s frown. “Cheer up, ’Stan.
We’ve got this.”
Amastan wished he could share Azulay’s confidence. He trailed behind. The other two turned the corner just ahead before he did. He only caught a few phrases of an exchange before Illi stepped into view, a watchman on her heels.
“I brought you one,” said Illi brightly.
The watchman straightened, one hand on the hilt of her sword, even as her gaze lingered a moment too long on Amastan’s cane. “I hear you’re in charge of this operation, sa?”
“Ma.” Amastan pressed his fist to his chest. “How many watchmen do you have?”
“Five, sa. I can pull more from the neighboring stations if needed.”
Amastan glanced over his shoulder at the barricade. “That won’t be necessary. They might be needed in their own neighborhoods, if they aren’t being called on already. While this is the first crypt to exhibit signs of reanimation, it won’t be the last.”
“You’re saying there will be more, sa?”
Amastan sighed and itched at the salt crusting his elbow. “We need to be prepared, yes. In the meantime, I need three of your watchmen to stay here and help keep things calm while we clean up. Your other two can head north to alert the neighborhoods there. I’ll send a runner, too–” he glanced at Illi, who straightened, “–but the drum chiefs may not appreciate the gravity of our situation unless they hear it from a watchman.”
“I understand all too well, sa.”
“Good. After you send those two north, meet me at the southern bridge with the rest of your watchmen, ma. I want to tell them myself what must happen next.”
The watchman pressed her fist to her chest, then turned and left. Illi rocked up and down on her heels, expectant. Amastan flicked a hand in a dismissive gesture; that was all she needed. Illi was off and running, bare feet silent across worn stone, her braids a tightly-contained bundle that hardly moved.
Once alone, all Amastan wanted to do was sink to the ground and close his eyes until this all passed, like a scared child. But the faces pressed to windows and peeking around doors kept him upright, the weight of their expectations adding to the weight on his shoulders. Some were weary, others worn, but all were watching. Waiting.
Amastan tightened his grip on his cane and straightened. “Stay inside.”
Then he started walking. It didn’t matter where, not at first, but he realized he’d had a plan regardless when he reached another barricade. Moments later, Tamella and Dihya climbed over, sweaty and sticky with old blood, but grinning and unhurt. Amastan stood with both hands on his cane and waited. Their grins faded as they noticed him.
“Barricades are all up,” said Dihya. “None of those monsters made it out of the center.”
“Well,” said Yaluz, sauntering around the corner with Hamma just behind. “One did. But we got it.” She patted the hilt of her short sword, then grinned up at Amastan, all teeth. “What now?”
Amastan didn’t move. “Let’s wait for the others.”
The others came a few minutes later, Azulay and Ziri just as light-hearted as the rest. That left just Menna and Usaten, but if they were following his plan, they were keeping watch from the roof. Amastan’s gut tightened with anticipation and unease at what came next. All at once he became aware of the silence in the alley, on the platform, across what felt like the whole of Ghadid. Six cousins and everyone waiting on him.
It was fine. It would be fine. Everything was going according to the plan.
“First,” he said, drawing a breath with the word, “we behead them.”
Azulay slapped the flat of his machete across his palm. “Easy.”
“Not without me.”
The weight of so many gazes lifted from Amastan to fix on the rooftop just beyond him instead. Menna slid elegantly over the side and shimmied down the wall like it had been made for her. She dropped the last few feet and touched her fist to her chest.
“Reporting for duty. Sa.” She dropped her fist, a mocking grin on her face. “Oh don’t look so glum, ’Stan. Usaten’s got the roofs. None of those monsters are going to get out. Not before we can get ‘em. Good work on the barricades, everyone.” She glanced around the circle of cousins. “There’re – what – several dozen of them and eight of us?”
“Make that several dozen, dozen,” corrected Azulay. “The whole crypt is coming out for the party.”
Menna bared her teeth in a wide grin. “Good.”
“I mean, there has to be over a hundred of those dead things,” Azulay said, this time more slowly.
“I understood that the first time, thanks.”
Azulay widened his eyes at Amastan and tapped his forehead in the Azali sign of are they sane? But Amastan ignored him.
“All right,” said Amastan. “Remember they don’t feel pain. Go for the head and stay out of reach. They’re strong and they’re fast and they don’t react if you hit them, so don’t bother trying to wear them down or distract them – go straight for the kill.” He pulled in a breath, feeling as useless as his ankle. “Be careful.”
“We got it, sa,” said Menna cheerfully.
Amastan watched his cousins – his friends, his family – climb over the barricade. Tamella was last. She paused long enough to meet Amastan’s gaze. Nodded. Then she, too, was gone.
With all his plans in motion and nothing left to do, Amastan leaned against the barrier, waited, and listened. At first, there was only the thud and thwack as his cousins did their job, broken up by the occasional verbal jab between them. Then all chatter died away completely, leaving only the rhythm of the cleanup and his imagination to fill in the rest.
He should be in there. He was a cousin. They needed every spare hand. But even as agitation set him to movement, the memory of his shaking arm, unable to even hold a sword, filled him with fresh shame. On the other side of that barrier, everyone was helping. Everyone but him.
His gaze fell on his cane, bearing the weight of his anger and frustration. Then he leaned the cane against a table and climbed up the barrier until he could see over. It took him a breathless moment to make sense of the chaos, to sort the living from the bound. A third of the bound were already headless, bodies like stones cast across the street. He counted and counted again just to be sure. His cousins were all there. They were still standing.
They were enjoying themselves, even as sweat made wrap and tagel stick to their bodies and weariness ate at their movements. They’d divided the bound into groups and were systematically hacking through them. As Amastan watched, Azulay kicked a head toward Ziri, who barely missed tripping over it. Ziri shot him a glare, but Azulay only laughed and blew a kiss.
One by one, they cut through the bound until the only things still moving were his cousins. The ground was littered with torsos and heads, like a child had upended an extremely morbid puzzle. Few bled. Most of the dead had been dry, old corpses months or years into their deaths. These dribbled sand from the burst bladders that had filled their empty chests. A few pools of blood had been left behind by the marab and the handful of citizens who hadn’t listened.
As his cousins circled the containment zone and checked their work, Menna broke away and climbed Amastan’s barricade, straddling the top so that her legs hung on either side, kicking freely.
“What’s next, ’Stan? Are the watchmen going to help move the corpses back into the crypt? If not, you might want to give us a few hours to rest. Wholesale slaughter is one thing, clean up another.”
Amastan shook his head. “They’re not going back into the crypt.”
Menna turned her whole gaze on him, lips pursed into a tight frown. “Where the shards else are we gonna put them? I don’t think the drum chiefs will like it if you shove the corpses into the glasshouses. Plus, it’s not very healthy.”
“They’re not going in the glasshouses. They’re not going anywhere.”
Menna’s frown deepened. “They’re a bunch of headless corpses. They’re not going to hurt anyone any time soon.”
“We can’t be sure.”
“They aren’t going to get more dead,” said Menna. “The only thing you could still do is burn them and, well, that would obviously be wrong, so you… wouldn’t…” Menna narrowed her eyes. “You wouldn’t.”
Amastan started pulling himself up the side of the barrier. “I’m going to take a look.”
But he was already climbing the barricade. Amastan carefully lowered himself down, then picked his way through the puddles of fresh blood and thickened ichor. According to Salid, whatever was creating the bound wasn’t transmitted through blood or saliva, like most diseases, but Amastan wasn’t prepared to test that theory. Still, that left them with little understanding of how it was transmitted. No one had touched the slave and the marab who had died and reanimated certainly couldn’t have been affected by the en-marabi, at least not directly.
Not unless they were all affected.
Amastan wasn’t ready to confront those implications, but he’d have to figure it out before this happened again.
Because it would happen again. There were eleven more crypts.
His cousins were scattered around the center, keeping an eye on the unmoving bodies while cleaning their weapons. A quick glance reassured him that none of them had been hurt. Risking their lives while you stayed safe on the other side of the barricade, a voice hissed in his head. He touched his charms, but they were no warmer than usual. It had no jaani, only his own voice.
He tightened his grip on his cane. “Pile the bodies in the center.”
Dihya finished wiping the blood from her ax with a black cloth, which she shoved through her belt before considering the nearest corpse. With a huff and a nod, she wrapped her arms beneath its, bent her knees, and heaved until the corpse was half off the ground. She began dragging it to the center of the barricaded area.
Amastan heard Menna’s feet hit the ground behind him but he didn’t turn. “What would you do?”
“Their jaan are still tethered,” said Menna, her voice low enough to stay between them, but every word carefully pronounced with concern. “If you burn the bodies, you’re going to release their jaan. All of their jaan. You know what happened the last time there were wild jaan in the city, and that was only three. Doing this – you’ll release hundreds.”
Amastan swallowed; he knew too well. He and Menna both had watched a wild jaani burn a man alive from the inside out. But that had been almost a decade ago and he knew Menna had been searching for a better way to contain wild jaan.
“What would you do?” repeated Amastan.
“They’re already headless. What do you think they’re going to do? We just put them back in their tombs.”
“Then what?” pressed Amastan.
Between all the other preparations, he’d spent much of the past week trying to trace this thread to a different end, but the conclusion was always the same – a head ultimately didn’t matter when the body was bound to its jaan. He could be missing something vital about the way jaan worked, though. If anyone knew another way, it would be Menna.
“What about their jaan?”
“The marab will continue to quiet them.” Menna frowned. “You can’t possibly think they’re still dangerous.”
“They left the crypts once. What will stop them from leaving again?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, ’Stan, they’re headless.”
“Before that, they were dead.”
Menna opened her mouth, but nothing came out. After a moment, she closed her mouth and glared instead. The small thread of hope Amastan hadn’t even realized he’d been clinging to slipped from his grasp with a sickening wrench.
“We don’t know enough about what’s happening,” said Amastan. “We don’t yet understand how it started. But now we know at least one thing: the dead in our city are being bound to their jaan and forced awake again. It happened to the recently dead first and now it’s happening to all our dead. It started in this crypt and we have no reason to think it will stop here. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but it’s safest to assume that losing a limb – even if it’s their head – won’t stop them for long.”
“But that’s impossible. This is all impossible. Once the body dies, it can’t be brought back to life. That’s why wild jaan attack the living, not corpses.”
“But guul do.”
Menna grimaced. “These aren’t guul. They can’t be. They’re not strong enough. Most should be too weak to even possess a body, let alone move it.”
“But they do,” said Amastan. “They are. The en-marabi is using a technique that allows the jaan to possess their own bodies. Salid thinks that’s why they’re so strong.”
“And… that’s why they don’t burn up.” Menna rubbed her forehead. “It’s the same reason why our jaan don’t destroy us when we’re alive; they’re ours. There’s no mismatch. If the body were alive and bound like this, they wouldn’t go insane. They wouldn’t die, either. They’d be immortal.” She dropped her hand and stared at Amastan. “That’s what this en-marabi wants, isn’t it?”
“Salid said there’d been experiments,” said Amastan slowly. “It started with marks written on the skin of the dead. That’s what we saw, before…” But he couldn’t finish his sentence. Before Thana left, before he’d broken his ankle, before they’d failed. He swallowed his rising guilt. It’d only get in his way. “The en-marabi has gone beyond that. There’s some other way he must be controlling them now, making them. Something that doesn’t leave a mark and can affect a lot more people.”
“Like a disease. Or a poison.”
“Maybe.” Amastan shook his head. “But how could he have reached all of the corpses in the crypts? I only planned for this because we had to prepare for the worst, but I don’t know how he’s doing any of it. How would he distribute a poison to all of them? It’s not like they eat or drink. They…” he trailed off as all the color left Menna’s face. “Menna?”
She covered her mouth with one hand as if she were fighting back the urge to retch. “Oh. Oh G-d.”
“What? What is it?” Amastan glanced around, bringing up his cane as if he could even fight, but none of the corpses were moving.
Menna’s smile was bright and sudden and exactly as if she’d just swallowed a mouthful of bile. “Nothing. I just… it was a thought. But it’s nothing. There’s something we could do about the jaan though. Maybe. It’s too early for them to cross over. They’re just too strong and there’s too many of them and none of our rituals can safely account for either of those. But… they haven’t untethered yet. There’s a ritual we can perform. But – G-d, we’re talking over a hundred jaan here. Over a hundred people. If I do this, we’ll lose them to the Wastes and they’ll never be able to cross over. It’s blasphemy.”
“What would you do?” repeated Amastan for a third time, his voice as sharp as his blade.
Menna was silent. Together, they watched Ziri drag the last corpse to the top of the pile. They’d worked together once, Ziri and Menna. It’d been Menna’s last contract.
“It’s too late for these people,” said Amastan. “The least we can do is make certain it doesn’t happen again.” He caught and held Menna’s gaze. “Please. I’m going to need your help.” He reached out, palm up and waiting. “Just like old times?”
She didn’t take his hand, but she met his gaze and her shoulders softened. “We don’t have enough water to do what we did last time.” She sighed and glanced at the cloudless sky. “No convenient storm in sight.” She gave an odd, hitched laugh. “Doing this… they’ll take my marabi wrap away. You would ask me to give that up, too?”
“You’re saving the city. You’re doing your job. They can’t fault you for that.”
“Yeah? Which job?”
Menna shook her head. “I haven’t had a contract in years. But you know that.”
“Once a cousin, always a cousin.”
“Right.” But she didn’t sound convinced.
Menna traced her hand along her belt, pausing over each pouch. Even though Menna wasn’t technically an assassin any more, her belt wasn’t that different from Amastan’s. They both had knives, waterskins, oil, and sand.
Menna sighed, but when she took Amastan’s hand, it was with surprising strength. “This ritual will be simpler. For one, we don’t need to create a seal because these jaan are still tethered. For another, they’re not wild, so we don’t need a storm’s worth of water.” She squeezed his hand. “I’ll need more marab, oil, charcoal, and several sheets of vellum.”
She let go and stepped back, but when Amastan didn’t move, she clapped loudly. “Well, what are you waiting for? If we’re going to commit blasphemy, let’s do it right.”
(On to: Third Wave)