They think I’m dead.
The heretics threw my body into the trash pit with the rest of the refuse — they should have burned me, but they didn’t know.
My legs and neck are broken, my torso slashed open. It itches as the wound knits, my bones ache as they heal, but I know from experience that this will pass. Though this is the worst death yet, by far.
Ever since I took my vows I’ve wondered how my ninth and final waking will feel. I expected panic, but despite the trash pit, despite the state of my body, my soul is strangely peaceful. True death still terrifies me, but I thank the Goddess this is the last time I’ll be revived.
I hear a chittering and open my good eye to see a spun sugar scorpion crouching over me, considering me for a meal. A drop of pure sucrose gleams opalescent on the tip of her barb, poised a hand’s breadth from my pupil.
For a moment I imagine that I could startle it, take the poison lance through my skull and finally be done with this for good — I won’t wake a tenth time.
But it would be a disgrace to die here on this trash heap with my Goddess unavenged.
“I’m not dead,” I whisper to the scorpion and she rears up, startled. She skitters back a safe distance then waits, watching me.
“I wondered,” she says finally. Her carapace shimmers in the dim light. “They should have burned your body.”
“They didn’t know.”
She clicks one candied pincer derisively. “They don’t know anything.”
“Did any of my sisters survive?”
That sway to the left and then the right, it could be a shrug.
The vertebrae in my neck seem to be healed enough that I can chance sitting up, so I do, watching in fascinated horror as my shattered right shinbone snaps back into place. A miracle, some might call it. I used to think so, too. I blink, but my bad eye stays shut. It happened three lives ago, when a fight against a monsoon leopard had taken my eye along with a life from both myself and Vallizha. I keep hoping it will heal with one of these wakings.
If it didn’t this final time, though, it never will.
Waking up is always the worst, but soon my bones are in place and the afterglow of rebirth begins to set in — it feels like warm gold, pooled sunshine, and I want to curl up and nap until the pain is over.
Intoxicating, yes. But beneath the glow, I’m laying in a putrid trash pit, my sisters are gone or dead, and my Goddess has been slain.
The spun sugar scorpion is still watching me.
I pull myself into a crouch; my recently-shattered shinbone holds my weight. “We must drive them out of the City,” I tell the scorpion. “Will you help me?”
She laughs, a cynical hiss. “Yeah, not a chance.” Her feet rattle against heaps of bone as she turns and skitters away. “Door’s to your left,” she calls.
I could tell her that the heretics’ arrival and the Goddess’ fall isn’t just a problem for the Sisterhood, it spells ruin for all the strange denizens of our City — even those living in its trash pits. But I am not spending my last life arguing with a spun sugar scorpion. I search the trash heap for any other survivors before I go, but find nothing but rot and filth. I know some of my sisters were on their last lives — I can’t think of watching Vallizha die her final time or I’ll collapse into grief. But surely not all. Surely I will find some of them in the City.
I finally crawl through the door the spun sugar scorpion pointed out, then unsheath my claws to scale the City wall and find my revenge.
The heretics came in with the first fall thunderstorm, sailing over the City’s walls with the lightning and splashing into the cobbled streets in gouts of rain. The storm was violent and impassible; the battle was the same.
The Sisterhood fought tooth and claw, but the heretics took us by surprise, slashes of lightning illuminating flashing swords. The temple doors had been battered down as much by the wind as the heretics’s clubs, shards of shattered stained glass and hails of barbed arrows falling over us one and the same. The black pools on the ancient mosaic floors were rainwater or blood or both.
The Goddess’ roar of agony as the heretics lassoed her with razorwire and pulled her to onto their forest of spears must have shaken the entire City. But if my sisters and I screamed as we died, no one could have heard us over the thunder and rain.
By daylight I can see that the heretics are only humans, and their numbers are less than impressive. Why have they come? Maybe they think our City is an abomination because it is a refuge for non-humans and those of us who chose to become something more than human to serve the Goddess. Maybe they serve a rival god. Maybe they are simply looking to loot the temple for treasure.
The heretics have set up camp in the temple. Taking prayer rugs for bedrolls, breaking apart the altar for their cookfires, pissing in the holy garden. They’re drinking wine out reliquaries which used to contain the eyeteeth and claws of sainted sisters who went before us — Vallizha will have her own if I can find her body once this is all over. The holy relics have been tossed down the same trash chute they’d thrown my body down, I can only suppose.
I sneak onto the rooftop of the market across the street to watch. They’re rounding up the locals, sorting them at the temple steps. Children herded into the courtyard, the men and women judged by some metric I don’t understand and loaded into carts. It’s not by species, it’s not by gender. It doesn’t seem to be by age. As I watch, a dulmo tries to resist, spikes flaring out along his forearms and whipcord tongue snaring one of the heretics by the throat and snapping his weak human neck.
The rebellion doesn’t last long. A pair of heretics release a volley of bolts from their crossbows and the dulmo’s blood joins the smears that already paint the temple steps.
As the crowd screams and wails in the aftermath of the dulmo’s death, I see the first flicker of hope. There. Lurking in the alley across the street is Izari. I’ll always know her by the way she walks, the ferocious set to her shoulders, and the geometric tattoos scrawled on the backs of her hands.
She looks like she’s about to pounce, and when she does, she’ll die once more. She’s lost fewer lives than me, but she can’t afford to be careless, even so.
Izari crouches, knife in hand.
I’m not sure it will work. In the ritual that made me part of the Sisterhood, drops of the Goddess’s fiery blood burned my tongue, mingled with the blood on my sliced-open palms and kindled fire throughout every vein.
Now am I in you eternally, the Goddess had told me, as I am in your sisters.
It’s her power that grants us the blessing and curse of our many deaths, that brings light to our eyes in the dark, that lengthens our eyeteeth, that slashes claws through our palms to be weapons and tools.
And which links all of us in the Sisterhood together.
There is no precedent for the murder of the Goddess, so I have no idea if I can still call on her powers. But I revived one last time, didn’t I? Maybe, just maybe, there’s hope.
Across the street, Izari stiffens. She felt my presence, and now she turns to scan the rooftops. When she spots me, she smiles, fangs bared.
Then her smile widens, and I feel it, too. Brixha’s flare, from behind the temple. Ooli answering from closer to the City’s walls. Nazhiimi’s call, distantly faint but ready to fight.
Cloak yourselves, I whisper through our bloodlink. And meet me on the temple steps.
Seven of my sisters are still silent. I know for a fact that four passed the threshold the final time in the attack last night — I cannot think about Vallizha — but that leaves eight of us to fight.
First, though, we must get close enough.
I drape a scarf over my head, but my good eye still burns yellow, an unworthy shadow of the Goddess’s own crimson flames. Once the heretics look me or any of my sisters in the eye they’ll know who we are.
A weeping venaia does a double take when she glimpses under my hood. Her doe’s face goes bright with fear, then hope. Ooli grabs her arm from the other side and the venaia stifles a yelp. “Don’t give us away,” I hiss. “And when the fighting starts, tell the others to run.” The venaia nods fiercely and clacks her hooves together beneath her robes.
They spot Brixha first, I feel her flare of fury as one of the heretics throws off her hood. She whirls with knives in hands and blood sprays from the heretic’s throat. I roar and leap at a heretic who’s shoving the gentle venaia toward a cart, burying my blade in his back. The venaia throws back her head and lets fly her ululating call. The heretics — and the few human citizens in the crowd — throw their hands over their ears.
The Goddess protects my formerly human ears, and I charge the temple gate after Ooli.
Two heretics go down under Ooli’s blade before the first crossbow bolt takes her through the throat. A second buries itself in her thigh.
I don’t have time to mourn her final death, because a third crossbow bolt shatters against the temple steps beyond me; I felt the wind of its passing on my cheek.
I grab one of the heretics who’s charging at me and spin; the fourth bolt buries itself in his back and I plunge into the temple to find safety from the archers.
The sight that greets me through the temple doors makes me stumble.
They’ve slain the Goddess, but they haven’t been able to move her from the sanctuary. She lays on her side, fur matted with blood that has stopped flowing, though rivulets of it ran molten through the tile floor, scoring deep channels. Her ember eyes are wide open and glossy black as dead coals.
Someone screams my name, and I realize I’m gaping. I tear my gaze away from the horror of my fallen Goddess and duck the sword that whistles past where my head had just been. The swordsman swings again as I jump back, knives in my hands.
He’s grinning at me, his blade black with the blood of my fellow City denizens, and of my sisters. “Die, abomination,” he growls as he thrusts, and I block the blade of his sword in my crossed knives and force him back. I draw blood on his shoulder but the tip of my knife blade only sparks along the metal of his breastplate as I spin.
He swings again, and I may be faster but he has strength and a longer reach. Still, I dive in close and bury a knife in his thigh — he roars in pain and forces me back, and just as I’m about to finish him off, searing pain carves through my back. I fall, my legs useless because of the throwing axe buried deep in my spine. Ice washes through my lower back.
The swordsman grins and advances. “We’ll wipe this City from the face of the earth,” he says. I pull myself away until my back is against the soft fur of my Goddess. My hand presses into seeping cold gash in her side.
Now am I in you eternally.
The swordsman advances. “I thought I killed you before,” he says with a bemused smile. “How many times does it take for you all to die?”
All I have left is the utility blade on my belt, and I can’t move my legs. I can’t fight. But I can die with a purpose. I snatch the blade free and he laughs, but his expression turns to confusion as I slash the length of my arm and press it to the gash in the Goddess’s side.
“Crazy fanatics,” he growls, and he plunges his sword through my chest and into the Goddess, mingling even more of my blood with hers.
I’m growing cold.
Behind me, I feel my Goddess begin to stir.
I open my eyes — both my eyes — and they burn like flames.
I’m not alone.
We roar as we get to our feet, razorwire snapping like threads, tearing spears from the healing wounds in our chest and pinning heretics to the ground with them, claws slicing through ribcages and splaying them open like butterflies on display.
I’m not alone.
Ooli is here. Vapar and Lida and other old mentors are here. Presences I know only as venerable saints from epic historical tales are here.
Vallizha is here — her presence floods through me and we embrace in joy, though in the consciousness of the Goddess it is wholly inadequate to think in concepts like me, her, us.
The Goddess is all. We are all — and we burn.
And we howl in vengeance as the heretics burn, too.
This story was written as an offering to the Queen of Burning Cat, a convention coming to Portland in 2020. #burningcat