Lin entered her anthropology professor’s office like she owned the place. Being highborn, she practically did. “In your lecture the other day, you said King Atum gave a deathbed prophecy that we might dance on the bones of his people but that they would inherit Kemet III. You were afraid. Why?”
He wordlessly closed the door behind her and returned to his seat, gesturing she should take the other chair. “I don’t fear King Atum or the Meek,” he finally began. “It’s their god I worry about.”
Lin rolled her eyes—her father was right, academia was a waste of cannon fodder.
“The Meek called him the Firstborn because he was the first child of the Divine Parents, but also because he’d be the one who conquered death. His physical body and his… eternal essence would be reunited, never to part again. And many of their kings and queens taught that he would do the same to the Meek—make them immortal so they could forever dwell here, on this world we conquered five generations ago.”
“You believe this dross,” Lin suddenly realized.
He looked down at his hands, clasped together on his desk. “He also prophesied of a night and day and night without sunlight. I saw the Sunwyrm Anomaly with my own eyes, Lin. You weren’t there; you weren’t born yet. I could feel the eternal night of space sucking the warmth from the air around me. Without that light and warmth… we were all lost.” Looking up abruptly, he held her gaze. “We were close enough to the anomaly for it to swallow our sun, for it to illuminate the dark side of an unknown planet, and then miraculously, the Sunwyrm was gone. A generation and a half later, we still have no explanation for how it is that the sun shines in our sky. Taking both prophecies together, I can’t help but think it’s a warning.”
His description of the night with no day stirred something unpleasant within her. “A warning about what?”
He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. “The Meek were so docile because they believed vengeance belonged to the Firstborn, and he was very, very good at being angry when the occasion called for it.” He quirked a half-smile. “Can you imagine it, a god so fierce that he channeled the rage of an entire world? Of endless worlds? And we’ve slaughtered his people.”
The Bone Dance was Lin’s favorite festival. She strode among the revelers with a regal pride that was befitting both her costume and birthrank, her current suitor Dan in tow. She was dressed in scarlet as a ferocious firewyrm, and he strutted as a sumptuous gladiator with a mace. Around her swirled people in a multitude of colors and shapes, blazing eyes and sharp teeth, the legendary monsters of her people brought to life. She danced with them through the firelit darkness, shouting and laughing their way through the slaying songs.
Music ebbed and flowed around them, carried by the nonstop beating of one large drum. It was the heartdrum, its rhythm a reminder to the decaying bones beneath their feet that her people were the living conquerors of this world. Each year, it began beating at sunset and continued uninterrupted until dawn at every Meek grave site worldwide.
But not this year.
During the last watch of the night, the earth heaved beneath their feet, throwing down the revellers and quenching the torches. Even the heartdrum ceased.
Under the cold light of the autumn stars, Lin’s heart flew to her throat. The dirt beneath her hands started moving, writhing, breaking apart, and her heartbeat thundered in her ears. Something was coming up through the soil, something glowing.
Dan pulled her to her feet and she ran down the grave mound as fast as the slope allowed. Others at her left and right stumbled, tripping over bright holes that opened in the mound. At the bottom, she looked back. What she saw made her stumble and fall again, and this time she could only skitter back on all fours in horror.
Bones shining brighter than a full moon clawed their way through the turf of the grave mound. As they did, the light flickered pink when dirt became layers of flesh and coated the bones. Grey, shimmering sinews wove through muscle. Eyes glimmered in the sockets of the monstrous Meek. The earth that coated them became brilliant skin and white clothing as they broke free from their graves and leaped into the sky, apparently retreating.
One of them noticed Lin and stepped closer, smiling, and she screamed in shameful terror. Dan strode forward, swinging the mace that, though part of a costume, was still a weapon. The reanimated Meek man didn’t even try to defend himself as the mace struck him so hard on the side of the head that it sent him flying.
Lin felt a flash of fierce satisfaction when he lay there, crumpled on the grass. So these monsters could be killed. She clambered back to her feet.
Dan exchanged a look with Lin and then they cautiously inched closer to the motionless man. When they were close enough to touch him, Dan poked him with his mace.
The Meek man’s eyes flew wide and he shouted, “Boo!” Laughing, he rolled to his feet.
Dan screamed with Lin as they ran this time, and when she tripped and fell on her face again, he didn’t stop to help her up.
Lin lifted her head and froze, an icy prickle sweeping down her scalp and neck. She was in a circle of white light—the Meek man must be almost on top of her.
“Slow down,” he gently said. “Deep breaths now.” In her peripheral vision, she saw him sit cross-legged on the grass an arm’s length away from her.
Lin realized she was captured by the enemy now, and all her training kicked in. Give them nothing. Be fearless. If she wasn’t going to make it out alive, die with honor and make it count.
“There,” he almost cooed. “Better?”
“Who are you?”
His tone was probably supposed to sound kind, but the white light radiating from him made her feel cold. “If you know me, it’s probably as Atum. You’ve been disturbing my sleep for five generations.”
“You can’t be,” Lin said reflexively.
He chuckled. “Then tell me who I am.”
She snapped her mouth shut.
“You are Lin, and I understand you have a high… birthrank, yes?”
The icy prickle ran all the way down her legs that time.
“Breathe, Lin,” he said again, and she focused on not fainting in front of the enemy.
After a moment, he asked, “Do you know what happened tonight?”
“You were… reanimated.”
“No. Well, yes, but that’s a minor footnote, ultimately.” An excitement filled his tone, making it almost ring with joy. “Right now, on a distant world, the Firstborn has conquered death. He’s walking and talking with his disciples there, just like you and I are here. And in countless galaxies, on worlds without end, those who have loved and served him are awakening from their long sleep.”
She trembled in terror at the thought.
“Do you know what happens next?”
“Fire,” she whispered.
“Yes,” he said. “This world will be purified so that we, the Meek, can inherit it.”
Tears sprang to her eyes as Lin realized she, her parents, everyone she knew would soon be consumed by the flames of the Firstborn. Truly, the angry god of the Meek would get his vengeance.
In a soft voice, he asked, “Do you know when the purification will start?”
“When you are all gathered up to the Divine Parents.”
“And I’m still here.”
Confused, Lin finally lifted her gaze to look at his eyes. It hurt to focus, he was so bright.
“I’ve had time to think about it,” he said, giving her a rueful smile. “For a while I dreamed about watching you all burn, but I see how much better it is this way. This is my choice, and I’ll stay here long enough for your people to evacuate the planet. Take my message to your highborn parents. Let them know that I’ve given them this window of time.”
“You’re letting us go?” Lin stuttered out, not daring to hope.
“Yes. As long as you don’t play false with me, yes.”
Lin staggered to her feet. “Thank you?” she said, feeling completely out of her depth.
He solemnly nodded. “You’re welcome.”
She turned to leave and had made it a dozen paces before she felt compelled to turn and ask, “Why?”
“I doubt you’d understand.”
“This isn’t a trick?”
“It is a gift, Lin, to celebrate this brightest of dawns. Don’t squander it.”
Nodding, Lin turned and sprinted toward home.