/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: The Tainted Realm

Tribute to Hell

Ian Irvine


Ian Irvine

Tribute to Hell

Greave was sliding between the thighs of his god’s forthcoming month-bride, exulting at the conquest, when an icy finger went where no finger had gone before and a wintry voice said, Have you heard the one about the definition of savoir-faire?

Greave had often told the joke, smugly implying that he was that very master. An inveterate seducer, he prided himself on his self-possession, but it eluded him now. The irony did not.

Go on, then. Complete the deed.

Not for anything could Greave continue, and now he felt the young woman grow cool beneath him. Then cold. Then freezing; the god had frozen her solid.

Her fate will be echoed by every woman you touch, said his god, K’nacka, until you have paid for your crime and redeemed yourself. To ensure you do, I hold hostage your little sister, the one person you care about more than yourself.

‘What must I do?’ said Greave, fighting to remain calm despite the absurdity of his position. He glanced over his shoulder. The god had the form of a round-bellied man, a plump, jolly little fellow, save for the agate in his eyes.

In the High Temple, on the Altar of the Seven Gods, there is a Graven Casket.

Spikes closed around Greave’s fluttering heart. ‘The most precious treasure of the temple. You want me to steal it.’

No mortal may approach the casket and live. However, there is one tiny instant of time when this spell fades and a man at the end of his rope may draw near. The day after tomorrow, at precisely the fifth hour after midday, you will open the casket and take out what lies inside.

‘The casket is sealed,’ said Greave. ‘It can only be opened, and then but once, by the touch of a god-’

The touch of a god — but not a god, K’nacka corrected. He tossed down a pair of small bones held together by a silver wire. These come from the little finger of a dead god. Touch the casket with a god-bone, it will spring open, and you may safely remove the contents.

K’nacka vanished, leaving Greave frozen in place and knowing that the task was a trap. He had to do it, but he was not going to survive, and neither was his little sister.

Novice Astatine was lying awake, scratching some itchy specks on her stomach, when Abbess Hildy slipped into her cell.

‘The gods are weakening,’ intoned Hildy, ‘while the power of the dark princes swells. Our lost souls wail so loudly that I sometimes recognise their voices — and they all lived good lives.’

Astatine shuddered. The abbess’s ecstatic visions were always disturbing, but this was the worst yet.

‘The more sainted they were in life, the louder they shriek,’ Hildy said. ‘Something is dreadfully wrong with the world.’

Ice was advancing from all sides on the island of Hightspall, the last surviving outpost of the empire, but that was not what Hildy was talking about. ‘What did you see this time?’ whispered Astatine.

‘The wicked Margrave Greave is planning to open the Graven Casket. You must stop him.’

‘Me?’ Astatine choked.

‘You will journey to the High Temple and prevent this dreadful insult to the gods. Our beloved K’nacka must be weeping at the insult.’

‘But I’ve taken binding vows,’ said Astatine, wringing her fingers under the covers. ‘The corruption inside me must be cleansed.’

‘You take too much upon yourself,’ Hildy snapped. ‘Your sins are insignificant.’

Astatine bowed her head. The abbess was wise, while she was a foolish, worthless novice. ‘Abbess, I’ve left the wicked world for good; I can’t go back.’

‘You feel that the world abandoned you,’ said Hildy, ‘so you seek to escape it, and yourself, in closeted obedience.’

Astatine bit the tip of her tongue to prevent an angry retort. The other novices called her ‘the mouse’ because she was so timid; they did not realise that she was constantly suppressing the urge to bite. ‘I merely serve my god’s will.’

‘I see a wilful arrogance in your subservience,’ said Hildy. ‘You seize on every duty, no matter how painful or demeaning, and never rest until it is done to perfection. You take pride in your suffering.’

‘I offer it to my god. I merely serve my god — ’

‘You seek to eliminate your self, because the world is so painful to you that you can only think of escaping it.’

‘I don’t belong there,’ Astatine said plaintively. ‘Even here, I feel as though I’m living in the wrong body. The sickness I carry inside me has infected all Hightspall.’

Hildy slapped her face. ‘Curb your presumptuous tongue, Novice.’

Astatine clutched the abbess’s wrist. ‘Tell me that our land is not sick and the common folk despairing. Tell me that the nobility aren’t wasting their lives in debauchery because they no longer have hope. Tell me that our gods are strong, and love us.’

After a long pause, Hildy said gently, ‘I cannot tell you any of those things. Hightspall is sick, the people despairing, our gods dwindling — but it has nothing to do with you.’

‘Please, Abbess. If I go outside, I will surely break my vows.’

‘Your first vow, and the greatest, is obedience,’ said Hildy inexorably.

Astatine lowered her eyes. ‘And I obey. But — ’

‘The vision I saw may also have gone to the Carnal Cardinal, Fistus.’

‘He is a holy man of god,’ said Astatine. ‘He will protect the Graven Casket.’

‘If the casket is opened, our beloved K’nacka will be in peril; he may fall.’

Fall?’ whispered Astatine. ‘But the gods are almighty and everlasting.’

‘Then fly! Stop this obscenity before it is too late.’

‘Abbess … The Margrave Greave is a powerful man, a warrior who has never lost a fight. How can I stop him?’

The abbess thought for a while, then said, ‘At the fifth hour after midday, on the day after tomorrow, you must duel with him and win.’

‘He would kill me at the first blow.’

The abbess’s eyes rested on Astatine’s creamy, almost unblemished skin, her curvaceous form outlined against the bed bindings designed to prevent sins of the night. ‘You will duel him with your weapons, not his.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Surely you can’t be that unworldly …’

A flush crept up Astatine’s throat and blossomed into crimson. ‘But my second vow — ’

‘Your vow of obedience comes first. If it is the only way to stop this dreadful sacrilege, you will break your second vow.’

‘But … if I were unchaste, how could I come back?’

‘Break that vow and you cannot come back.’

‘And if I refuse?’

‘Those who will not obey have no place here.’

‘I’m doomed, either way.’

‘You will be serving your god; what more can you ask?’

Astatine was silent.

‘Swear that you will stop the margrave,’ said Hildy.

‘I’ll try to stop him.’

‘Swear that you will stop him, no matter what.’

The task was impossible, but Astatine had no choice. ‘I swear that I will stop him. I will serve my god, no matter what it costs me. My life has no other worth.’

‘Take this gown, and go at once,’ said the abbess.

After Astatine had ridden out on one of the abbey’s mules, Hildy said, ‘And I pray you do break your vows for, devout though you are, you do carry corruption with you. You never belonged in this House of God.’

Roget came back from the bar with a flagon and poured a hefty slug into a glass. ‘Get this down, before you fall down.’

Greave clutched his groin, wincing.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Frostbite.’

Roget chuckled. ‘Even for you, that’s a new one.’

Greave’s chattering teeth broke a wedge of glass from the rim. He spat it out, gulped the liquor and wiped his bloody mouth. ‘More!’

Roget cantilevered a wire-thin eyebrow but poured another large measure. After drinking it from the whole side of the glass, Greave’s eyes met his friend’s.

‘I don’t think I’ll ever be warm again.’

‘Take your time. Was it Satima?’

Greave nodded stiffly.

‘I warned you,’ said Roget. ‘What insane folly sent you after a god’s month-bride? And K’nacka is the most jealous of all the gods. But that’s why you seduced her, isn’t it?’

Greave did not reply.

‘You’ve had the most beautiful women in the land yet you’re never satisfied. I hate to say this, but it’s time you settled down.’

‘What for? The ice advances across land and sea. Soon it will crush Hightspall out of existence.’

‘Not in our lifetime.’

‘And our gods are declining; they’ve abandoned us.’

‘Don’t speak heresy,’ said Roget, uneasily. ‘Greave, you live for pleasure, but do you ever find it?’

‘Life is empty,’ Greave muttered. ‘The harder I go after anything, the quicker it turns into a mirage.’

‘Like I say-’

‘All I have left is the hunt. I can’t give it up.’

‘And every time you take greater risks.’

‘I only feel alive when I risk everything. The pursuit is bliss, the act anti-climactic; the hangover, worse each time. I’m like a reluctant drunk — remorseful in the morning but back in the bar every night.’ Greave picked up the flagon of raw spirits and, his teeth chattering on the neck, drained it.

‘Hey!’ cried Roget. ‘That’s enough liquor to kill a stallion.’

‘Yet I’m stone-sober,’ said Greave. ‘And freezing inside.’

Now Roget was shivering. ‘What did the month-bride do to you?’

‘The moment I mounted her, she went cold.’

‘Probably afraid, poor girl. I hope you took pity and sent her-’

Dead cold. K’nacka froze her solid under me.’

Roget gaped. ‘He appeared in person?’

Greave dabbed at his bleeding lip. ‘And then-’

‘No, you’ve gone too far this time,’ Roget grated.

I didn’t kill her.’

‘The moment you seduced the month-bride of a god, you doomed her.’

‘The wench is dead; what does it matter?’ Greave said carelessly.

Roget shoved his chair back and stood up. ‘You were always reckless and self-centred, but you used to care, deep down. Who will you destroy next?’ he said disgustedly. ‘My sister? My mother?

A deep, inner pain jagged through Greave; he clutched at his friend’s coat. ‘Don’t go, please. I–I’m desperate.’

Roget sat down. ‘You must be, to admit to it. Is there more?’

Her fate will be echoed by every woman you touch, K’nacka said. On the way here, I glanced at a pretty girl in the street — just for a second, I swear — and frost appeared all over her clothes. If I lust after a woman, any woman, she’ll be frozen to death. And there’s worse.’ He told Roget the rest.

Roget paled, glancing over his shoulder. ‘The Graven Casket! Greave, I’m not a devout man; my sins are as numberless as the souls screaming in Perdition. But this is too much.’

‘What can I do?’ said Greave. ‘A god has ordered me to open the casket — ’

‘Which is sealed until the End of Days.’

‘Maybe these are the End of Days.’

‘He’s a trickster. It’s a trap.’

‘I know, but if I don’t do it, my little sister dies. Roget, help me! There has to be a way out.’

‘You think you can outwit a god? You’re far gone, my friend. I suggest you make amends for your wicked life, then prepare to meet your fate.’

Astatine plodded the dusty track, holding the reins of her mule.

‘I’m sorry, noble beast,’ she said, rubbing it behind the ears. ‘We’ve still a long way to go.’

Her feet were blistered but she made an offering of the pain, trying to divorce herself from it. Ever since becoming a novice she had attempted to eliminate her recalcitrant self, to become no more than a vessel and servant for her god, but self kept intervening.

A dust cloud appeared ahead and she headed for the trees. The mule resisted.

‘Come on. I don’t want to be seen.’

It turned its head, studying her with hazel eyes.

‘I want no part of the world’s temptations,’ she muttered. ‘My god is everything and I am nothing. I exist only to serve.’

The mule’s snort reminded Astatine of the abbess, who seemed to see right through her. She led the beast to a rivulet and bathed her aching feet. Pain is also nothing, she told herself. Yet as she probed her broken blisters, tears sprang to her eyes.

She dashed them away, cursing her weak flesh, and knelt to pray for strength. But, as so often lately, prayer would not come.

‘What am I to do?’ she said to the mule. ‘I can’t duel this wicked margrave; can’t stop him insulting the gods, even if I do break my second vow. He’ll use me and I’ll be cast out into the awful world, abandoned even by my god.’

She clutched her only possession, the silver prayer medal left in her hand when she had been given to the abbey. It was so worn that she had never been able to identify the god it represented, though she took it to be her beloved K’nacka.

Father, please help me find another way.

Lord, if no other way can be found, give me the strength to break my vow of chastity in your service.

Father, if my sacred vow must be broken, help me to endure the lustful margrave.

I am just your vessel, Lord. I have no worth other than to serve you. Whatever happens to me I will endure it joyfully, in your name.

But it was so very hard.

Greave bit down on a twig to prevent his teeth from chattering. It was a hot afternoon, yet thirty-four hours after the encounter with K’nacka he was still freezing inside.

‘Ready?’ said Roget. They were trying to look casual as they strolled through the maze of clipped shrubbery surrounding the High Temple.

‘No.’

‘It’s but thirty minutes until the fifth hour.’

‘I know. Go through it again.’

‘The plan is simple. We enter as the noble pilgrims we are and I’ll use my sorcerous arts to make a diversion. You’ll run up, open the casket and snatch the contents. Then we run for our lives — and pray my spell holds.’

‘There’s bound to be a trap.’

‘If so, we’ll have to deal with it. What are you to do with the contents?’

‘K’nacka didn’t say.’

‘Oh!’ Roget said. ‘What do you think that means?’

Greave did not answer. ‘Hello,’ he said, gazing at a small figure limping out from behind an arc of tea bushes. A hot gust blew back the cowl, tumbling her wavy black locks. ‘It’s a novice, and a pretty one.’

‘Ahem,’ said Roget.

‘What?’

‘Not even you would sink low enough to seduce a nun — would you?’

‘I seduced K’nacka’s month-bride. They don’t come any lower than me.’

A reckless urge swelled, a lust to possess her no matter the consequences, and even here, even now, Greave could not deny it. He checked the sun; there was just enough time, master seducer as he was, to do the business before five. He licked his lips, cast a furtive glance at his friend, then turned towards her, putting on the smile that few women had ever been able to resist.

‘Go for a walk,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘Fifteen minutes.’

‘Greave, no!’ hissed Roget.

The little novice stopped suddenly, raising one hand to her hair in astonishment, and Greave’s inner ice moved south. He ignored it, for lust was searing along his veins and he only felt truly alive when life or death rested on the toss of a coin. Now he felt like a superman and, no matter the consequences, he had to have her.

‘Her hair’s frosting over,’ hissed Roget, jerking Greave back by the collar. ‘Look away before you kill her too!’

Greave tried to pull free. ‘I don’t care. I’ve got to take her.’

‘Even if it costs you your little sister?’ Roget snapped.

It broke through the madness where nothing else could have and, with a wrench, Greave turned away. Now he could no longer see the novice, he was sickened by his depravity. ‘Let’s get on.’

After a day and a half away from her abbey, Astatine felt bruised. The world was strange and uncomfortable, the people unfriendly, the beasts of the forest savage. All she wanted was to fly home, close the great doors behind her and never look outwards again. But she had sworn to the Abbess.

Two noblemen stood in a gap in the maze not far ahead, talking. The tall one turned, staring at her, and her hair crackled — it was covered in frost. Astatine stopped, hand on her head, not understanding what had happened. But her time was running out; the fifth hour was almost upon her. She limped towards them, clutching the medal.

Lord, give me strength.

The dark-haired, wiry fellow was scarred like a duellist, though he did not look unkind. The other man — the Margrave Greave — was tall and broad-shouldered. Big feet, big hands. Not handsome; his mouth was too full, his nose a fleshy, sensuous monument …

Father, help me to do this dreadful thing.

Momentarily the medal warmed in Astatine’s hand, then cooled again. Her prayers would not be answered.

She rubbed her pale cheeks to redden them, which would, apparently, make her more enticing, then shrugged off the novice’s habit. The gown Hildy had given her was modest, yet Astatine’s gorge rose at the thought of what she must do, and her vow of chastity burned as if etched into her skin.

The noblemen turned abruptly and headed towards the temple. The hour was nearly upon her: if she could not stop them her god would be profaned, her oath broken, and she condemned to a world she wanted no part of.

‘Wait,’ she croaked, but her voice did not carry. ‘Lord Greave!’ Astatine jerked the front of her gown down as far as it would go and ran after them.

They stopped. Greave half turned, his eyes lowered, and Astatine felt frost settle on her hair again. He was a dangerous man.

His friend came down and blocked her path. ‘I’m Roget. Can I help you, sister?’

‘I must speak to Lord Greave,’ she said breathlessly. ‘It’s urgent.’

‘And so you shall,’ said Roget, ‘after he returns from worship.’

‘Now!’ cried Astatine desperately, ‘before five o’clock!’ She darted around him and was running towards Greave, her bosom bouncing, when her breath froze in her throat.

He was staring at her cleavage, lust a forest fire in his eyes, and the cold intensified. As he tore his shirt open, pains like growing needles of ice shot through her toes.

‘Greave! Remember your sister!’

Greave choked, spat out bile. ‘My soul is black, little novice; I must be shriven at once.’ He covered his face, turned and fell to his knees on the sharp rock.

Roget whipped off his cloak and wrapped it around Astatine so tightly that she could not move. The frost began to melt, sending icy trickles down the back of her neck, though she remained frozen inside. She had lost.

‘You said five o’clock,’ he hissed. ‘Who betrayed us?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Astatine tried to hold back tears of despair.

He touched his sword to her breastbone. ‘Who sent you?’

She had always believed that she would be glad to die serving her god, but she so wanted to live.

‘The abbess saw Lord Greave in an ecstatic vision. Please, you must stop him from committing this dreadful sacrilege.’

Roget sheathed the sword. ‘Who are you?’

‘I’m nobody. The Abbess ordered me to stop Lord Greave, and I swore I would …’

‘At the cost of your other vows?’

‘No matter the cost.’ Astatine blushed.

Roget sheathed his sword, cursing. ‘We’ll have to take her with us.’

Greave rose, looking the other way. His gashed knees were bloody. ‘Send her home, Roget. There’s a demon on my back, driving me to have her.’

‘If we leave her here, Fistus’s priests will torture the truth out of her. Come on.’

As Roget dragged Astatine along, she was frantically trying to think of a safe way to stop Greave. But there was only one way now.

‘It’s too easy,’ Greave muttered as they passed through the open doors. ‘Where are the guards?’

Apart from a scatter of kneeling worshippers, the candle-lit temple was empty. The altar was a slab of yellow travertine ten yards by six. The Graven Casket, a tarnished, dirty silver box, sat in the middle.

‘I don’t like it either,’ said Roget, who was a pace behind, keeping Astatine out of his friend’s sight. He held her arm. ‘You won’t make a sound, will you?’

‘No,’ she whispered.

‘Got the bone, Greave?’

He nodded stiffly.

Roget cast a minor spell, forming a billowing halo of mist around them. ‘Go!’

Greave ran, knowing that he’d entered a trap of K’nacka’s making. He was probably going to die unpleasantly and by the manner of his death ruin his family’s noble name, but there was no way out.

‘Look out! yelled Roget, drawing his sword. The worshippers had cast off their cloaks to reveal red tunics — warrior monks.

With a despairing cry, Astatine darted for the altar. She must be planning to throw herself upon the casket, Greave thought, sacrificing her life to prevent him opening it.

A pang of remorse struck him, an unfamiliar feeling he had no time to analyse. As she scrambled up the front of the altar he vaulted onto it from the side, landed on his bloody knees and skidded across the polished stone. The hour was five o’clock, so a man at the end of his rope could approach the casket, but if he touched it he would die.

Astatine crouched on the altar, her lips moving in prayer. She looked up suddenly and Greave did too, for the shadows below the high roof were thickening. Something was forming there.

Swords clashed below them; Roget was fighting three monks at once. Another half dozen were advancing on the altar, and from a door to his left a crimson-clad man appeared, the Carnal Cardinal. Fistus’s face was hungry, his eyes hooded, and the full-lipped, greedy mouth was as red as his gown.

Greave drew the god-bone from his pocket, but fumbled and dropped it. As he snatched it out of the air, several of the hairs on his arm passed through a milky nimbus surrounding the casket and the pain was like being impaled on a body-length spike. He screamed.

The novice rose, staring at him, but as he met her eyes, frost whitened her hair and gown. Her gaze slipped to the casket, she swallowed, then tensed. Even after witnessing his agony, she was going to do it.

‘Use the damn bone!’ bellowed Roget.

Under the roof, the shadows continued to thicken — K’nacka was coming. As Astatine tensed, Greave’s right arm jerked towards the casket. This is the trap, he thought. The god will get whatever is inside, and I’m going to die in agony.

He flinched and tried to draw back. Better the novice die than him; what did one nun matter, more or less? But his arm kept stretching, his fingers reaching out, and, as she moved, the god-bone touched the top of the casket.

As Astatine dived, K’nacka materialised high above. The temple shook; the ground rumbled and cracks jagged across the paved floor.

The lid of the casket sprang open, sending the god-bone soaring. She was too late. The nimbus went out, then her hands caught the casket and she tried to slam the lid.

She did not die; she felt no pain at all, but the lid would not close and now the casket was bouncing and tumbling beneath her as the altar shook ever more wildly. Astatine tried to hold it, sobbing with terror, but the outside was slippery with soot. She looked into the open casket and froze.

K’nacka arrested in mid-air, plump legs swinging ten feet above her. Where is the Covenant? he wailed, then vanished.

Astatine let go. The casket snapped shut and the deadly nimbus reappeared.

Fistus, whose eyes had not left the tumbling god-bone, caught it left-handed. ‘Abbess Hildy is behind this sacrilege,’ he said to his guards. ‘You know what to do.’

Roget raised his hand, the candle flames pinched out, and Astatine bolted. She had broken her oath and let down her god. After she told the abbess, she would be cast out.

Greave pounded through the maze into the forest beyond, running until the full horror of his defeat caught up with him, when he slumped onto the mouldy leaves. There was no way back this time.

‘Fistus knew we were coming,’ said Roget, panting. ‘He was waiting for the god-bone.’

‘I’ve been manipulated from the beginning,’ said Greave.

‘Don’t blame Providence for your own flaws! We’d better get moving,’

‘What’s the point? I’ve lost everything.’

Not yet. But you will if you let me down again.

Greave felt that icy finger again, though this time K’nacka was ten yards away, perched on a low branch. His belly was shrunken to a pot, his plump cheeks sagged and his eyes darted like rats pursued by a ferret. But he was still a god; he could snuff out Greave’s little sister with a snap of his pudgy fingers.

‘What must I do, Lord?’ said Greave.

The casket was empty. The novice must have stolen the contents for the abbess. She has insulted the Seven Gods and profaned our High Temple. Swear that you will recover the contents then burn the abbey, with everyone inside it, as a sacrifice to me.

Greave felt sick. He too had insulted a god; he too had profaned the temple, and whether he committed this terrible crime or not, he was also going to die.

Swear, on your sister’s life.

He hesitated no longer. His sister was all he had left. Besides, how could he oppose the will of a god? ‘I swear.’

When Greave reached the abbey he discovered Astatine in its chapel, kneeling before the icons of the Seven Gods in the semi-dark and praying, with quiet desperation, for forgiveness. Exhaustion had temporarily quieted his lust, so he half-shuttered his lantern and examined her sidelong. He could not allow the curse to freeze her until he learned the truth.

She looked young, innocent and afraid, and his heart went out to her, but he hardened it. Astatine had claimed that she wanted to prevent his sacrilege, then had committed a worse one. She was a liar and a thief, and the choice between her life and his little sister’s was no choice at all.

‘Where is it, Novice?’

She jumped. ‘Where’s what?’

‘Whatever was in the casket.’

She wrung her interlocked fingers. ‘It was empty save for some flakes of ash.’

‘Liar! It can only be opened with a god-bone.’

‘Someone must have opened it with a different god-bone.’

‘If they had, it would not have opened for mine.’

Greave searched her, roughly, knowing he was hurting her, though she maintained a stoic silence, her gaze fixed on the icons. He found nothing, though of course she was only a novice. The abbess would have the contents now.

He picked up the lantern but put it down again. He had sworn to torch the abbey, and could not defy his god, but neither could he bear to think of the little novice being burned alive. Far better that she die swiftly and painlessly here.

As he drew his knife, Astatine turned towards him. Frost had formed all over her, yet her eyes were unflinching in the face of death and it shook him, for he could not have done the same. He cursed; though he was a heartless seducer and a blasphemous oath-breaker, he was not a murderer.

In a frenzy of despair he slashed his chest, spilling his blood before the icons. It was the best sacrifice he could make, though he knew it would not appease K’nacka. He was standing over Astatine, his blood dripping from the knife, when the abbess opened the door.

‘And I thought you’d already plumbed the depths.’

The Abbess’s voice dripped contempt; evidently she thought he had killed the novice. Hildy limped across and struck at him with her cane, but as he turned to protect himself she stumbled and his knife slid into her side.

Greave felt such a pain that the blade might have pierced his own flesh, but he fought it down. The god had given him an order and he had to obey. ‘Where are the contents of the casket?’

‘I swear by the Seven Gods that the casket was empty,’ said Hildy, holding a hand to the wound. ‘Now get out!’

As Greave stumbled away, his lantern shaking, Hildy pulled Astatine close. ‘Listen carefully. I’ve had another vision, a worse one.’

The smell of blood was overpowering; unless the bleeding was stopped, the abbess would die. ‘Please, Hildy, sit down. Let me bind the wound.’ Astatine tore a strip from her habit and pressed it against the gash.

‘Hush, little sister; it’s too late for me, but the fate of Hightspall lies in the balance and only you can save it.’

‘I’m just a novice. I don’t know anything.’

‘You’re the one person I can trust.’

And yet you’re throwing me out. ‘W-what did you see?’

In the gloom, Hildy’s old face was a crumpled rag, her eyes dying embers. ‘A dreadful Covenant between K’nacka and Behemoth, the Prince of Perdition — ’

Astatine cried out in disbelief, for Behemoth hated the gods and everything she believed in. But then she remembered K’nacka shouting, Where is the Covenant? ‘Abbess, K’nacka and Behemoth are the bitterest of enemies — aren’t they?’

‘Oh, yes. Eternal enemies.’

The pad was red with blood. Astatine dropped it and made another. ‘What does the Covenant say?’

‘I dare not speak the words. Only K’nacka and Behemoth know where it is hidden, but if it is ever revealed, it will be the end of the gods.’

That thought was unimaginable; abandonment multiplied a thousand times. ‘The gods are almighty and everlasting,’ Astatine chanted.

‘If only they were,’ Hildy whispered.

‘Abbess?’ said Astatine, alarmed now.

‘Why do you think Hightspall has grown so wicked and depraved these past twenty years; why no one cares any more?’

Because of the corruption I carry inside me, Astatine wanted to say, but that would only earn her another slap. ‘Hightspall is the last island left of the old Empire, and the ice is coming to end us.’

‘Stupid girl! It’s got nothing to do with the ice. The balance has been tilted — the gods are waning, while Perdition grows ever stronger and, if this Covenant is revealed, must soon topple Elyssian.’

Astatine could not come to terms with such talk. The gods had always dwelt in Elyssian, and they were eternal. ‘What can I do?’

‘You must find this wicked Covenant and, without reading it, destroy it. Swear that you will do so.’

‘Please don’t make me leave the abbey.’ Astatine felt as though she was being torn apart.

‘By the morning, there will be no abbey.’

The pain grew so bad that she struggled to think clearly. ‘But … what if I can’t find the Covenant?’

‘You must swear,’ said Hildy, becoming so agitated that blood surged through the pad.

‘I–I swear.’

Outside, people were shouting. Weapons clashed and Astatine heard the roar of fire. She ran to a window, then back to the abbess. ‘It’s the Red Monks. Fistus is burning the abbey.’

‘My time is up,’ said Hildy. ‘Astatine, when I took you in as a little girl — ’

At the far end of the chapel, a window was smashed and blazing sheaves of oil-soaked straw arced in, trailing brown billows. Astatine scrambled to her feet but Hildy pulled her down.

‘Abbess?’

‘You weren’t abandoned on the doorstep, newborn. The abbey was paid handsomely to take you in, and threatened with ruin if I revealed your origins. But now it is lost, you must know.’

Astatine could not take that in. ‘What will become of me?’ she cried. ‘I’ve nowhere to go.’

‘You must make your own way in the world, little sister.’

‘But I’ll infect it with the sickness I carry around with me.’

‘Don’t start that again,’ snapped Hildy. ‘It is a particularly offensive form of arrogance to assume that the world’s ills could come from one so innocent as yourself.’

Astatine bit her lip. ‘Where can I go? Hildy, who were my parents?’

‘I never knew your mother’s name, but she’s long dead.’ Hildy began to pant. Astatine, trying to staunch the ebbing blood, was afraid the abbess would never speak again, but then she whispered, ‘Your father brought you here. He was a demon out of Perdition.’

‘No!’ Astatine gasped. ‘Who?’

‘I’m afraid it was … Behemoth.’

Her god’s enemy. ‘It can’t be,’ whispered Astatine, choking with horror.

‘He brought you here,’ said Hildy. ‘And because of the link between you and him, if anyone can find the Covenant, you can. Stop whimpering! Before I die I must pass my gift to you. Lean forwards.’

Astatine did so, numbly. How could it be true? Demons were dark, yet she was pale. And she was petite, so how could the mighty Behemoth be her father?

Hildy gripped the sides of Astatine’s head, strained, and agony sheared through her skull. The abbess’s hands fell to her chest. ‘The stigmata — ’

Instinctively, Astatine inspected her own hands, though they were unmarked. When she looked up, Hildy was dead.

A hot wind shrieked through the broken window, swirling the smoke around her. Her head was throbbing so badly she could not see. Astatine crawled off, but did not get far before she was overcome by the smoke.

‘Once again, Greave, fortune has saved you from damnation,’ said Roget as he carried an unconscious Astatine away from the burning chapel. Behind them, a horde of red-gowned monks was torching the abbey outbuildings under Fistus’s direction. ‘Truly, you must be intended for great things.’

‘I swore a mighty oath,’ said Greave dully, ‘but I was too weak to hold to it.’

‘It was an evil oath, made under compulsion. Breaking it proves there is yet some good in you.’

‘I seduced K’nacka’s month-bride!’ cried Greave, sick with self-loathing. ‘Now I’ve let down my god, slain the sainted abbess and doomed my little sister. I’m worthless.’

‘Then redeem yourself!’ snapped his friend. ‘Here, carry the novice.’

‘I’ll destroy her too.’

‘Just don’t look at her,’ said Roget, enveloping Astatine in his cloak. ‘If you do, I swear I’ll run you through.’

Greave was thankful for the darkness, for the soft weight in his arms was temptation enough. Had he been able to look on Astatine’s lovely face, nothing could have saved her, or himself.

Hours later they hid among the tumbled boulders on a barren hilltop and he lay her down.

‘Sleep, little one,’ said Roget, putting a minor charm on her.

They sat watching the distant flames until, not long before a chill and windy dawn, the abbey had been reduced to cinders. As the sun rose, the cavalcade of red-clad monks rode away.

‘Fistus isn’t going back to the city,’ said Roget. ‘He’s heading into the drylands. I wonder why?’

‘I couldn’t give a damn.’ Greave stretched himself on the hard ground and closed his eyes, knowing there would be no sleep for him.

‘He’s going to work a miracle!’ Astatine sat up so abruptly that she whacked her head on the pebbly overhang.

The headache came shrieking back, then the smoke, the crackle of fire and the abbess dying beside her. Astatine groaned and opened her eyes to find herself alone on an arid hilltop scattered with boulders of conglomerate.

Boots grated on grit and Roget appeared, breathing heavily. Greave was close behind.

‘Did you call out?’ said Roget.

‘I saw the Carnal Cardinal,’ said Astatine.

‘What, here?’ Greave said sharply, eyes averted.

‘In a dream.’ She rubbed her throbbing forehead, realising that she had not been dreaming, for the images remained clear in her mind. ‘No, it must have been Hildy’s gift.’

Greave swung around. ‘What are you talking about?’

Astatine jumped up and moved away, watching him warily. ‘Before the abbess died, she passed her gift to me …’ What gift, though? Her ecstatic vision? ‘She sees — saw things — bad things that might come true.’ Like the evil Covenant Astatine had to find and destroy. ‘And I just saw Fistus, clear as a raindrop.’

‘When he caught the god-bone, he looked triumphant,’ said Roget. ‘Getting it mattered more to him than our sacrilege. What kind of a priest would act that way?’

‘Perhaps one who seeks power for himself,’ said Greave. ‘What else did you see, Novice?’

‘He was on a barren hill.’ She looked around. ‘A bit like this one — ’

‘There are a thousand barren hills in these badlands.’

‘There was a huge, ruined shrine on top. It looked as though it had been hacked in two by a monstrous axe … one that had cut halfway through the hill itself.’

Greave and Roget exchanged glances. ‘The Cloven Shrine,’ said Roget, his fingers curling.

‘I’ve never heard of it,’ said Astatine.

‘The truth was too shocking to be told. Few people know the story.’

‘Fistus does!’ Greave said darkly.

‘The shrine was destroyed when the Great God, the original ruler of Elyssian, was defeated and cast down in the Second Coup. He crashed through the shrine, nearly splitting the hill in twain.’

‘And died there?’ Worms were dancing along Astatine’s backbone.

‘The Great God could not be killed,’ said Roget. ‘He could only die at his own hand and, in despair at being cast out of Elyssian, that’s what he did.’

Astatine trembled. She knew about the First Coup, when Behemoth had rebelled, yet, inexplicably and at the moment of victory, turned his back on Elyssian and set up his own rival kingdom, Perdition. Was he behind the Second Coup? Were the gods passing away? Was that why the world was so sick?

‘What “miracle” is Fistus planning?’ said Greave.

‘I don’t know,’ said Astatine. ‘But I don’t think he means to honour our gods.’

Assuming, of course, that they were still her gods. If she was half demon, maybe she had no gods. Astatine could not bear to think about that. The destruction of the abbey had left her empty and belonging nowhere. If her beloved gods had also been taken away, how could she exist?

She had to find the Covenant.

Dawn was breaking as they crept up the chasm cutting across the cloven hill. Greave kept his eyes fixed above him, for his curse had not abated. Twice the previous day he’d frozen Astatine’s hair, and the second time he had only come to his senses when Roget put a sword blade to his throat. At times, Greave wished his friend had used it.

‘How dare Fistus pretend to perform a miracle?’ cried Astatine. ‘Why don’t the gods punish him for this insolence?’

Her child-like faith was an insult to his intelligence but Greave kept silent, not daring to further provoke the gods.

‘They must be afraid,’ said Roget uneasily.

‘How can the gods be afraid of a mere man?’ said Astatine.

‘I don’t know.’

‘The way up isn’t guarded. Do you think Fistus sent the vision to me?’

‘If he’s not afraid of the gods, how could he have any fear of us?’ said Roget. ‘He probably wants us to see his miracle.’

Greave wondered if the cardinal could be a bigger monster than himself, though it hardly seemed possible.

They reached the top at sunrise, eased behind the mounds of shattered rock and peered over. Fistus, his priests and monk guards had gathered on the far side of the elongated hilltop, before the Cloven Shrine. A ragged arc of believers encircled it, witnesses to the coming miracle.

‘The priests are digging a trench,’ said Astatine. ‘What can they be doing?’

No one replied.

Astatine slipped away between the piled rocks, for Greave’s brooding presence disturbed her, and what if his increasingly desperate self-control snapped? She also needed to be alone, to think.

Her faith, already undermined by what the abbess had told her, had been shaken to its footings. How dare the Carnal Cardinal attempt a miracle! If he had set himself above the gods he had sworn to serve, it was no wonder Hightspall had lost hope.

Would things get better if she destroyed the Covenant? Unfortunately, she had no idea where to look for something that a god and a demon had hidden. It could be anywhere.

No, not anywhere. K’nacka and Behemoth, being eternal enemies, would not have trusted each other, so the Covenant must have been hidden somewhere that neither could gain access to. Perhaps in the keeping of a third party agreeable to both, such as Fistus?

K’nacka had expected it to be in the Graven Casket, though the casket had not been opened before Greave touched the god-bone to it, and it had been empty … save for those flakes of ash. Black flakes — the way paper burned when it did not have enough air! Yes, for the outside of the casket had been covered in soot; it had come off on her fingers.

The Covenant must have been destroyed from outside, by fire, but by whom? Not K’nacka — he had been shocked to discover that the casket was empty. And what would Fistus have to gain by destroying such a valuable document? That only left Behemoth.

Why would he destroy a Covenant that, evidently, gave him power over a god? He would not — unless he had another copy.

‘That’s it!’ she said, rubbing her silver medal furiously, though after Hildy’s revelation about her father it gave her no comfort. ‘It was Behemoth — Father — ’

The air went so cold that it crackled, then with a little pop a man appeared, sitting cross-legged on the rocks before her. He was an odd-shaped, awkward-looking fellow not much taller than she was, with thin, short legs and a heavy, muscular body. His skin was dark, his head bald, his nose hooked, and the point of his beard jutted towards her like a javelin.

‘You called me, Daughter?’ His voice was so deep it might have been formed inside the hill; it reverberated like the throb of an organ pipe.

‘You called me daughter,’ she whispered. ‘Are — are you really my father?’

Though she yearned for a father, a demon was the last father she could want. Besides, a mighty demon like Behemoth might have a thousand daughters; she might mean nothing to him. He was her god’s enemy and had undermined everything she believed in. Astatine was too overcome to speak.

‘You expected some great, hulking brute?’ Fire flickered in his raised eyebrow. ‘I prefer this form; both enemies and friends underestimate me. What do you want, Daughter?’

‘Th-the Graven Casket was empty. What happened to the Covenant?’

‘I gave Fistus the power he craved so desperately; in return, he allowed me to destroy it.’

He sounded convincing, but he was the Prince of Deceivers. ‘Why, Father?’

‘To make mischief.’

Astatine’s entire life had been submission and obedience, but neither would serve her now. Dare she challenge the Lord of Perdition? Sweat dripped from her palms at the thought, not to mention that she owed her father respect. Could she put that obligation aside? She must. ‘I–I don’t believe you. I know you made a copy of the Covenant. Why, Father?’

Behemoth swelled enormously; his black eyes flashed and his left hand shot out, encircling her wrist like an icy manacle. ‘How dare you question me? You are over-bold, Daughter.’

Astatine had never been bold; the other novices had mocked her as ‘the mouse’. She wanted to scream and run, but reminded herself of her oath, and it stiffened her. She would keep her word to the Abbess, whatever it cost. The mouse had to bite.

She caught Behemoth’s dark wrist with her pale hands, squeezed hard and, amazingly, he winced.

‘You are my daughter,’ he said, glowering at her. After shrinking to his former size, he resumed his seat.

‘Well?’ she said, pretending an imperiousness she could not feel.

‘Life in Elyssian becomes tedious, when one faces an eternity of it. That’s why I left and set up Perdition, though I was no more contented there.’

‘But Elyssian is the epitome of perfection,’ said Astatine, wide-eyed.

Behemoth rolled his eyes. ‘Even reaping the souls of the wicked begins to pall, when one is the wickedest of all. There’s no villainy I haven’t done, Daughter, and tempting mere mortals into sin lost its joy long ago. In short, I was bored witless. And so, I discovered, was my enemy, your precious god, K’nacka.

‘We took to meeting in Hightspall for a game of dice, each striving to best the other, and I won more often than I lost. But without something precious to lose, even gaming’s charm fades, and the stakes grew ever higher until, finally, K’nacka had nothing left to put on the table. Nothing save a pound of his own flesh.’

‘Father?’ said Astatine, not understanding, though a chilly wave of horror surged through her. This was terribly wrong; she did not want to hear it.

‘Having nothing else, he wagered one of his balls — and lost.’

‘Balls?’ Her cheeks grew hot.

‘He should have known that my dice were loaded.’ Behemoth’s thick lip curled. ‘K’nacka begged for another chance, double or nothing, and I was happy to dice again — as long as he signed a binding Covenant promising to pay tribute to Perdition if he lost the other ball.’

‘A tribute of what?’

‘A tithe of souls, the most perfect and saintly of all those who enter Elyssian. You can imagine how delightful I found that irony, Daughter. The harder that mortals strove to live good lives, the more likely they’d attract the attention of K’nacka and become part of his tribute to me. Good or bad, I’d reap their souls.’ Behemoth grinned savagely. ‘And I won. Suddenly, my life had meaning again.’

And this monster was her father? No wonder she felt that she had been carrying a sickness around inside her, infecting the world.

‘Hildy said she could hear the shrieks of the saintly,’ Astatine whispered. ‘Oh, Father, how could you?’

‘It’s what I’m for. Hightspall needs me, and so do the gods. Without evil, where is the good?’

‘But Hightspall is falling apart, and it’s your fault. You’ve got to put things right.’

‘I don’t do right,’ he snapped.

‘Then why did you burn the Covenant?’

‘So K’nacka could not.’

‘Where did you hide the copy?’

His smile faded; he seemed to be reassessing her. ‘In a place where you can never see it.’ Behemoth faded away.

Did he mean that the Covenant was hidden in Perdition? Could she only destroy it, and keep her oath, by dying?

‘Fistus looks ready to work his “miracle”,’ said Roget as they watched the preparations in front of the Cloven Shrine. A hundred red-robed monks stood guard to either side.

Greave ached for a drink. Stone sober, he lacked the courage to do what must be done. ‘Can you tell what spell it is?’

Roget focused his spyglass. ‘No, but it’s no ordinary magic.’

Think of this as another seduction, Greave told himself, the riskiest and most glorious of your life. It got him to his feet, but he felt no thrill — this task was all risk and no reward. ‘We’d better move.’

‘Taking him on is suicide.’

‘I’m dead either way.’ Greave headed across the rock-littered hillside. Roget and Astatine followed.

The Carnal Cardinal turned to meet them, his mouth as red as a feeding vampire’s. ‘You think to challenge me?’ Fistus pounded his chest. ‘I’ve done a deal with Behemoth himself.’

‘And betrayed the gods you swore to serve,’ said Greave, only now realising his own hypocrisy.

‘They’ve forsaken us and must be cast down.’

A white object in Fistus’s hand reflected the light; something small, pointed and familiar. Ants scurried across Greave’s scalp.

‘The god-bone,’ he said hoarsely. ‘That’s what you were after all along.’

‘I used sorcery to whisper into your mind,’ sneered Fistus. ‘It was surprisingly easy to heighten your despair and encourage excesses your dull wits could never have imagined.’

‘You wanted me to seduce K’nacka’s month-bride?’ whispered Greave.

‘I knew he held the god-bone in Elyssian, though there it was beyond my reach. The only one way to get it was by giving K’nacka the means to destroy the Covenant — via a man at the end of his rope.’

‘But you’d already allowed Behemoth to burn it.’

Fistus smirked. ‘Poor, deluded K’nacka didn’t know that.’

‘How dare you set yourself up as a rival to the gods you swore to serve!’ cried Astatine.

The hooded eyes fixed on her, but dismissed her as insignificant. ‘My spells are greater than theirs,’ said Fistus, ‘yet are they recognised? The gods treat me like a churl.’

‘They recognise your true nature,’ Greave said recklessly.

Fistus’s gory lips thinned. ‘Get rid of them,’ he said over his shoulder, then turned to a crude bench his priests had constructed from slabs of shrine stone. A large stone chalice stood on top, empty save for a small amount of grey powder. The trench they had excavated was half full of it.

The monks drove Roget, Greave and Astatine back, but did not attempt to harm them. Fistus wanted them to see his might, and despair.

‘At least you know that his magic was behind some of the terrible things you’ve done,’ said Roget.

‘Is that supposed to make me feel better?’ Greave said in a dead voice. ‘To discover that I’ve been manipulated like a mindless fool? Besides, he didn’t corrupt me — he only fed the sickness that was already there.’

‘Without him, you might have come to your senses.’

‘I don’t think so,’ Greave rasped. ‘The hook had already bitten too deep, and there’s only one way off it now.’

Fistus dropped the god-bone into the chalice, raised his hands and began the spell.

‘Is the grey stuff the dead god’s ashes?’ said Astatine, peeping through her fingers.

‘Gods, have mercy!’ cried Roget. ‘It’s a Resurrection spell. But surely not even Fistus would dare — ’

A whistling sound arose from all parts of the horizon and raced towards the hill, rising to a series of ear-rending screeches that collided, collapsed, then an utter silence, more unnerving yet, enveloped all.

The chalice quivered and burst, its contents billowing upwards in a grey plume which slowly pulled together to the form of a man, a giant almost the height of the Cloven Shrine, though the skin hung on him and his granite face was fissured with despair. A wound between his ribs ebbed red; the bloody blade dangled from his right hand.

Astatine gasped and fell to her knees. ‘The Great God,’ she whispered.

‘Oh, this is monstrous,’ said Roget. ‘The Seven Gods must strike Fistus dead.’

As the Great God shambled forwards they saw chains linking his wrists and ankles, yet even shackled and weak from centuries of death he was a forbidding figure. Fistus cried out involuntarily and backed away, eyes darting.

‘He’s overreached himself!’ said Roget. ‘The Great God will splatter him like a gnat.’

‘Either way, we’re done,’ said Greave.

Fistus stopped and his lips moved as if exhorting himself to stand firm, then he raised his hands for another spell.

‘It’s a two-part spell, resurrection and control,’ said Roget. ‘Now comes the control part. If he’s quick, he might just do it.’

‘No man can control a god,’ said Astatine. Just speaking the words was blasphemous.

She took out her medal and began to rub it furiously but then, recognising the worn image on it as Behemoth, hurled it away. She began to twist her fingers together, then abruptly thrust them down by her sides, but she could not keep them still.

As the Great God attempted to turn aside the spell, he stumbled and it struck him on the right cheek. Howling in rage, he broke his wrist shackles and reached up into the low clouds. Thunder rumbled and the cloud boiled up into a thunderhead, incandescent with lightning. The sky went black. Astatine could not see. Lightning stabbed down at the Cloven Shrine, collapsing half of it; another bolt struck three of the priests dead. The remainder ran for their lives, though the red-gowned monks remained.

Fistus stood firm and cast the spell again.

‘This is the end of the world,’ said Roget. ‘Whoever wins, priest or god, there’ll be nothing left.’

‘It’s my punishment for seducing the month-bride,’ said Greave, head bowed. ‘And for a lifetime of depravity.’

Suddenly Astatine saw him from the other, tormented side. ‘Not a lifetime, Lord,’ she said gently. ‘Just a time, and it’s over now.’

‘Too late. No one can undo this.’

There had to be a way but could Astatine, the little mouse, find it? She must — her gods needed help and she could not deny them.

I can’t be a timid novice any longer, she thought. Demon’s blood runs in my veins; my father is Behemoth, the Prince of Devilry, who once beat the Great God himself, then turned his back on Elyssian. I’ve got to do this!

‘Yes, someone can.’ Astatine backed away between the rocks. ‘Father?’ she called, her voice ringing out between the thunderclaps. ‘Help us. If Fistus’s spells can control a god, neither Hightspall, Elyssian nor even Perdition is safe.’

Behemoth appeared in the air before her, cross-legged as before. ‘Daughter, I cannot interfere.’

‘Why not?’

‘A sacred compact forbids us. We can cajole, persuade, seduce, even threaten, but neither gods nor demons may act directly in the world.’

Was she to fall at the first obstacle? No; she summoned her demon blood, stood tall and curled her lip. ‘I thought you were supposed to be evil!’ she said, dripping scorn. ‘Break the damn bloody compact.’

‘I can,’ he said, smiling at the mildness of her oaths, ‘but would you call demons into Hightspall without the gods to balance us?’

Astatine paled. She had not thought of that. ‘Do it!’

As Behemoth faded, she ran back to Greave, who was hunched over as if in pain. ‘Lord Greave, you have a link to K’nacka. Call him down.’

Greave turned, his eyes unfocussed. ‘K’nacka?’

‘Yes, quickly.’

Greave rubbed his face with his hands, then called her god, who appeared at once. Had he been waiting for the summons?

Astatine’s heart began to pound so furiously she feared it would tear free of its arteries. Her god, her god! But she had to be calm; there were only seconds left.

‘Great K’nacka,’ she said, bowing low. ‘See what your servant Fistus has done? The Seven Gods must enter Hightspall and stop him before it’s too late.’

There is a compact, little nun, said K’nacka.

‘Break it!’

The gods do not break compacts. He glared at her as though she were a turd on his pillow.

‘Perdition is going to.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Besides, I know where the Covenant is.’

His head jerked up, wobbling his jowls like twin jellies. I’ve been told it was burned in the casket, long ago.

‘I have a perfect copy,’ she lied, ‘and if you’re afraid to break the compact, I’ll reveal the Covenant. The gods will become a laughing stock — and you will be cast down.’

K’nacka let out such a roar than she was blown tumbling backwards and, by the time she had recovered, he was gone.

‘Fistus is taking control,’ Roget said, peering over the rocks.

Astatine did not think Greave’s head could hang any lower. She pitied him now, but could do nothing for him either. Her efforts had been in vain. Who did she think she was, little mouse, to order immortals about?

‘Stamp them out!’ shouted the Carnal Cardinal, pointing in their direction.

The Great God stopped, one foot in the air, bundles of lightning bolts clutched in his upraised left fist. Now he swivelled away from Fistus, grinding stone to dust beneath his feet, and hurled a bolt at their refuge.

Astatine dived away as a ravine was blasted through the rock mound, sending fountains of shattered stone arching out to either side. The god swung back towards Fistus, flinging bolts at him, one after another. One shattered the remains of the Cloven Shrine; a second killed dozens of Red Monks. Most of the survivors fled, but Fistus remained where he was, deflecting the bolts with sweeps of his arms.

‘His magic is unbelievable,’ whispered Roget.

And Father gave it to him, thought Astatine. If he won’t put things right, I must. ‘Gods, please break the compact!’

Fistus cast the Control Spell again, but neither gods nor demons appeared. The Great God rotated like an automaton, took a step towards their hiding place, and Astatine prepared to die.

She huddled in the lightning-riven dark as smashed rock fell all around. The sky was lit by tremendous energies in black and white and red, then the Seven Gods appeared in the east. A host of demons came howling from the west, led by Behemoth, but both gods and demons stopped and hovered above the Cloven Temple.

The Great God squeezed a dozen bolts into one so brilliant that his flesh could be seen hanging transparently on his bones, then hurled it at his ancient enemy — Behemoth.

Astatine’s breath congealed in her throat. ‘Father!’ How could he survive such a blast?

The bolt hurled Behemoth backwards, lighting him up like a comet, but he wrung the lightning into a clot the size of a snowball and flung it at Fistus. The cardinal leapt to safety as the Cloven Shrine vapourised, its molten foundations cascading like lava down the cleft in the hill.

‘Fight!’ roared Fistus.

The Great God crushed more bolts together and Astatine knew that, this time, her father must die.

‘Together, you fools!’ she roared, then clapped her hands over her mouth in horror. Who was she, an insignificant novice, to order her gods about like servants?

The Seven Gods rotated in the air, the force of their combined glares singeing her garments, and Astatine quailed.

A ghostly smile appeared on Behemoth’s grim face. ‘As my beloved daughter said, together!’

Gods and demons, working together for the only time in eternity, attacked the Great God. He blasted a host of demons away, tumbling them like bats in a hurricane, then five blows struck him at once. He toppled; he fell; he slammed into the hilltop with the force of an earthquake.

‘Rise!’ commanded Fistus, and the Great God struggled to rise.

‘He can’t be beaten this way,’ said Roget quietly. ‘The Great God’s fate is that he can only die by his own hand.’

Fistus’s spell drove the Great God up onto his knees and he attacked anew but, after a titanic struggle, the gods and demons brought him down again.

‘He can’t take much more.’ Astatine was moved, despite everything, by the driven god’s suffering.

‘Neither can they,’ said Roget. The exhausted gods clung to the rocks like moths to twigs, while clusters of battered demons shrieked in the fuming cleft. Behemoth lay on his back, his barrel chest rising and falling, bellows-like.

‘The Great God’s new wounds are healing themselves,’ said Greave, who was standing upright now, jaw set as if he’d come to some terrible resolve. ‘If he can rise again, he’ll win.’

‘No, Fistus will win,’ said Astatine.

‘The Great God is sitting up,’ said Roget.

‘And we can’t stop him. He can’t be killed.’

‘There is a way.’ Greave exchanged glances with Roget. ‘We both know it.’

‘No,’ cried Roget. ‘One speck of a god’s blood will slay the strongest mortal.’

‘I gave Fistus the means. Only I can undo what he’s done.’

‘The price is too high.’

‘I’ve already paid the price,’ said Greave, ‘but redemption still eludes me.’

Greave shook his friend’s hand and, to Astatine’s surprise, her own. This time, as his eyes met hers, she felt no trace of frost. ‘I’m truly sorry,’ he said.

He strode off, head held high. As the Great God climbed to his knees, healed save for the self-inflicted wound between his ribs, Greave drew something from his pocket, thrust it arm’s length up into the gash, and twisted.

The Great God reared up, writhing with the pain. Greave, his arm trapped in the wound, now swung back and forth fifteen feet above the ground.

‘He’s failed,’ said Astatine. ‘He’s going to fall.’

Fistus cursed and fired a spell at Greave, who swung in under the god’s arm, pulled close, then thrust again. The god stumbled; Greave’s blood-covered arm slid free and he fell to the ground, convulsing.

The Great God staggered around, crushing shrubs and monks underfoot, then tripped and toppled head-first into the chasm, dead. Fistus clutched at his head and slumped, writhing.

‘What’s the matter with him?’ said Astatine, gathering her skirts and running to Greave.

‘The severing of a Resurrection Spell causes unending agony,’ said Roget. ‘Though less than Fistus deserves.’

The flesh of Greave’s arm was smoking and bubbling, the seething mess creeping towards his heart.

‘Roget?’ she cried. ‘What am I to do?’

‘There’s nothing anyone can do.’

Greave’s arm spasmed and a small white object slipped from his hand. ‘Burn this with the body,’ he said quietly, ‘then scatter the ashes.’

‘What is it?’ said Astatine, laying her hands on him. Her forgiveness seemed to ease his pain.

‘K’nacka gave me two finger bones, but I only used one to open the casket. This is the other.’

‘You thrust it into the Great God’s heart.’

‘He could only die by his own hand.’

‘And now you’re dying as well.’

‘Death feels a lot more comfortable than my empty life.’ His eyes closed. ‘Look after my little sister, won’t you, Roget?’

‘I will,’ said Roget, gripping his hand, and Greave died.

Fistus was bound and gagged, his staff and magical devices broken, then the gods and demons gathered.

‘There must be a reckoning,’ said K’nacka, his eyes glinting. ‘Behemoth has gone too far this time — seducing our cardinal, corrupting the temple, putting Elyssian, Hightspall and Perdition at risk. He must be curbed, forever.’

‘I can cause you more grief than you can me,’ said Behemoth.

‘Isn’t this how it all started?’ said Roget quietly.

How could they prevent the terrible cycle from beginning again? Astatine had thought of a way, though it required her to sit in judgement on two immortals: the god who had been the mainstay of her wretched life, and the father to whom she owed, if nothing else, daughterly respect.

‘How can one so worthless as I presume to pass sentence on my god?’ she mused. ‘Surely that would put me in the same league of wickedness as Fistus?’

‘When our gods fall short,’ said Roget, ‘we can only rely on our own good sense — for good or ill.’

Astatine’s chest tightened until it was hard to breathe, and she felt her panic rising. A thousand times she had been slapped down as an arrogant, ignorant novice, told that she must not think or question, only obey. But unthinking obedience would serve her no longer; for the sake of Hightspall, and the gods, she must take control. If she did not, Greave’s noble sacrifice would be wasted.

Breathing became a little easier. She had to do this, no matter if it cost her life. Astatine raised her voice. ‘Worshipful K’nacka, beloved Father, would you come with me?’

Neither god nor demon looked pleased at the summons, yet they followed her down the hill and out of sight of the others.

Well, mortal? growled K’nacka, perching his plump buttocks on a pointed rock.

Her heart was galloping now. ‘My lord,’ she said, gulping, ‘Your wickedness led to this disgraceful Covenant, and to the torment of thousands of innocent souls you paid in tribute to Perdition. You are unworthy.’

You blasphemous little slut! cried K’nacka, rising into the air and raising a fist to smite her dead.

Behemoth cleared his throat and K’nacka subsided, muttering.

Her father was grinning. ‘Oh, yes, you’re definitely my daughter.’

‘You’re just as bad, Father! No, worse. How could you do this to me?’

The smile became predatory. ‘Make your petty point.’

‘Even when I was a little girl, I never felt I belonged, not even in my own body. And all my life I’ve believed that I carried corruption inside me — that I was responsible for the despair and wickedness in Hightspall.’ She met their eyes, trying not to flinch. ‘But it came from you, Father — you and him.’

‘So?’ said Behemoth.

Astatine stalled, unable to see the way ahead. She had thought to shame K’nacka and Behemoth by telling the gods and demons about the Covenant, but without proof they would ignore her. Besides, that would break her oath to Hildy. She sought for another way.

‘Lord K’nacka,’ she said, ‘you have debauched Elyssian and shamed the gods. Either you abdicate, or I’ll reveal the Covenant.’ She prayed that he would not call her double bluff.

Abdicate! K’nacka’s cry started an avalanche down the slope. Where to?

‘Perdition.’

Show me the Covenant.

Her bluff had been called, and she had lost. Her father was smiling grimly; no help there. The skin of her belly prickled, the dark specks that were always itchy, and Hildy’s dying words, ‘The stigmata — ’ resurfaced.

They struck her like one of the Great God’s thunderbolts — so that’s why she’d always felt that she was corrupting the world. Astatine took a deep breath, praying that her hunch was right, and held out her hand. ‘Father, your enchanted blade.’

He gave it to her. She opened her habit and made a careful scratch across her lower belly with the tip of the knife, then up, across below her breasts and down again.

‘It wasn’t my body I did not belong in, was it, Father?’ she said, feathering up her creamy skin to reveal a dark inner skin beneath. She peeled the pale rectangle off and held it out, displaying the damning words and signatures on the inside.

It was my skin! When I was a little girl you covered my dark skin with a second, pale skin onto which you’d copied the Covenant on the inside.’ She took a step towards Behemoth. ‘How could you do this to me? All the ills of the world come from this dreadful Covenant.’

‘Not all the ills,’ said Behemoth, somewhat abashed. ‘I don’t turn good to evil, Daughter. I merely improve on the evil which already flourishes in humanity.’

K’nacka eyed the Covenant, slowly extending his fingers.

‘It’s under my protection,’ hissed Behemoth.

K’nacka drew back, rubbing his chin. To give up Elyssian, he said shrewdly, I need more. What else are you proposing, demon’s daughter?

‘Father will give you back your — ’ Astatine flushed; no virtuous novice would name those body parts. ‘What you’ve lost.’

I lose Elyssian, and all he gives up are the balls he robbed me of with loaded dice, snapped K’nacka. It’s not enough.

‘Father will also abdicate,’ said Astatine, avoiding Behemoth’s furious eye. ‘Perdition must find a new lord.’

Me? breathed K’nacka.

‘Isn’t it better to reign in Perdition than endure eternal mockery in Elyssian?’

‘Damned if I’ll abdicate!’ said Behemoth.

‘Exactly,’ said Astatine, ‘and you will return all the unjustly reaped souls to Elyssian.’

‘Or?’ said her father.

She had not realised how sharp his teeth were, how black his eyes. Astatine swallowed, wavered, but knew she had to go on. ‘Or I’ll tell your fellow demons that you’ve been making deals with the gods.’

‘I could destroy the Covenant.’

It’s under my protection, said K’nacka, raising his fist.

Behemoth turned his way, putting on a patently false smile. ‘K’nacka, my old sparring partner, we don’t have to put up with this. She’s just a slip of a girl. We can take the Covenant off her in a second, and destroy it together.’

Astatine hadn’t thought of that, yet they had diced together; they had just fought side by side, and they both wanted the Covenant destroyed. Of course they would take it.

Do you seriously think I’ll deal with you again after you cheated me? said K’nacka.

‘It was worth a try,’ said Behemoth.

Besides, I can’t bear the tedium of Elyssian any longer.

‘Not even with all those month-brides to comfort you?’ Behemoth said slyly.

They were just for show; what use are brides to a codless god? But it’ll be different in Perdition. I’m looking forward to the challenge of toppling you. I feel quite alive again.

‘So do I, my old enemy,’ said Behemoth, his black eyes gleaming. ‘So do I.’

After K’nacka had returned to the other gods, Behemoth said, ‘You drive a devil of a bargain, Daughter.’

‘I learned from the master. Oh, and when you go, take Fistus with you.’

‘If he enters Perdition alive, he’ll suffer even more cruelly.’

Mercy, vengeance, or retribution? The abbey’s teachings, or Perdition’s? She had broken her vow and no abbey would take her in, but she would always be a demon’s daughter. Besides, mercy would only give Fistus the chance to begin again. ‘He has to pay his debts. Take him.’

Behemoth nodded, rose, but settled down again, staring at her.

‘What?’ Astatine said, afraid he was going to punish her.

‘Take off that ugly white skin. Let me see my beautiful daughter as she really is.’

She started, then went between the rocks, undressed and took hold of an edge of her white skin. It sloughed off easily, as if Behemoth had broken the bonds that held it in place. Astatine threw the ugly novice’s habit away, put her gown on over the cocoa skin that felt so right, and went back.

Behemoth sighed and, to her astonishment, an adamantine tear appeared in one eye.

‘Come back with me,’ he said. ‘In Perdition you will be a princess. You can have everything you ever wanted.’

Astatine was tempted, but she said, ‘Why would I want to be a princess of tormented souls?’

‘A nun is a slave to live souls.’

‘I can’t be a nun; I’ve broken my vows.’

‘No one need ever know. You can go back, if that’s what you really want.’

I would know. Besides, someone has to make up for what you and K’nacka have done to Hightspall. I’m going to help put it right.’

‘You won’t succeed. The world is too far gone.’ He grinned wickedly. ‘It’s mine.’

‘Not any more. I’m going to fight the influence of Perdition all the way.’

‘I’m sure you will,’ he said fondly. ‘But the gods are no better, you know.’

Astatine hesitated, now knowing how imperfect the gods were; how capricious. She wasn’t entirely sure she believed in them any more, as gods. And yet, perhaps they were needed.

‘People have to believe in something, Father. If they can’t, they’ll believe in anything. Besides, I believe that the gods reflect who we are. If we live better lives, they might, too.’

‘Blasphemy!’ he growled. ‘Well, don’t think you’re going to corrupt me into goodness.’

‘I’m my father’s daughter,’ she said, smiling sweetly. ‘I’ve already corrupted you.’