First appeared in ASM 93

Kissare thrusts her inflamed fingers, long as poles, inside the prisoner’s nose and mouth. He gurgles and his arms jerk. The palm of her hand throbs against his chin. The man belches through the small breaches between her fingers and his ruptured lips. Rustiness of blood, rancidity of rotten cheese. With her other hand, she wraps the back of his head, preventing it from rattling on the stone wall of the transept. Her wattled neck softens; the pressure on her throat eases as the diseases she has absorbed from the sick in Morkhar are funnelled into the man’s body.

“May he learn from his actions,” Werius says somewhere behind her, the deacon’s voice so guttural it seems to be sputtering from the basilica’s crevices. “May the diseases he will now carry to the Southlands instruct him on humility and truthfulness.”

The prisoner whines. Just a young man with a frayed beige woollen coat. The unlucky son of a farmer or a stray merchantman. Kissare pulls out her slim, overly long fingers, inadvertently ripping the man’s lower lip. Thick drops of blood, phlegm, and pus drip on the floor. The man widens his eyes and gapes, ruddiness spreading quickly across his neck and face. Beads of blood form on his nose, mouth, and eyes. Not like the throats she has cut in desert raids, a long time ago. Not like the bodies she has quartered to prove points. Lasting pain is worse because the eyes of the afflicted can stare back at you.

Kissare shudders all throughout, her teeth chattering, drops of the man’s fluids running down her fingers.

The sound of something scratching on the floor calls her back. Werius trudges to the prisoner, dragging his cane and scrawling marks on the film of sand across the basilica’s floor, blown in from the desert outside, the trail of a creeping snake. Other prisoners moan in the barred pulpits, their cries and shrieks all mingled in a cacophony of muddled echoes.

The deacon puts his wrinkled hand on the prisoner’s shoulder, who then tumbles and falls on his knees.

“You are free now, repudiated man. Walk back to your homeland bringing the good tidings of your liberation.”

He won’t last. None of them last with the diseases she brings from Morkhar. No time for atonement. The Great Bethel of the Repudiated is a place for punishment alone, not the liberation the deacon promises. She feels a lump in her throat as she tries to speak. She needs to get back to Orjiel and his lunatic utterances, his surges of poetry.

“What was his crime?” Kissare manages to say, walking over to Werius, her legs still shaking from the transmission.

Werius turns and catches her gaze. His protruding chin droops over his dalmatic. He grins and sighs, decayed bread and stale wine whiffing through his tarnished teeth. She should just cut his flaccid throat and be done with him, but they need each other. She is a vessel for his Epidemya, and the plaguesome goddess is the only way to ease Orjiel’s pain.

“He was a false curselifter, but his days of deception came to an end, thanks to you.” The prisoner spits wads of blood on the floor, retching. Werius slowly looks at him, not minding the drops that splatter on his boots.

The man’s eyes move back to Kissare, passing straight through the deacon. They are the only part of his body that seems unaffected by the months incarcerated in a pulpit, and the diseases she has made him bear. He knows who is to blame. People who understand she is not a real goddess, but instead carries one inside her, have eyes hard to stare at. Her wattle shivers and her hands tingle. Leave. Leave now, before meeting his eyes. Leave and never come back.

She turns her back and treads across the nave. The skeletons lying on the pews glare at her with hollow scrutiny. How many of those had been her doing? How many dead before they could even leave the Bethel back to their homes, liberated, free? She has never seen prisoners lapsing in front of her, but has heard their shrill cries, smelled their rottenness, felt their mucus, blood and muscle running down her fingers as she squirted infections through their systems.

“I will need you again, Epidemya.” Werius’s voice reverberates across the basilica. “Gravefishers, murderers, and war prisoners are coming from the Southlands to be liberated from their guilt. Go to your abode and come back shortly.” “Not enough pulpits for all of them,” she whispers.

“What did you say?”

She doesn’t turn back, her fingers leaving trails in the dust like the deacon’s cane.

“I will be waiting,” he says.

Breathe in, breathe out, let the clean air trespass through her newly healthy throat and lungs. Her wattle pulses, faintly, diminishing. Orjiel is waiting for her in their ruins. She needs his rhymes, his versifications.

The prisoner tumbles across the nave and out of the Bethel. Uneven, desperate steps. He coughs and spits blood. Winded, he stops just before the stairs leading down.

Cut his throat. Blood gurgling out is better than slow pain. Her hand fumbles to the dagger on her belt, but she doesn’t pull it out.

“Why?” The prisoner mumbles and gets on his knees. Weak. Moribund. His neck is already filled with a rash and blisters of pus. “Why do you do that?”

The hoarse voice of Orjiel echoes in the scorched air. O why, strongest of all ladies, do you walk through these gloomy paths?

Kissare descends the stairs, ignoring the dying man.

“Heal me, woman,” the man squeals. “I’ve done nothing.” She doesn’t look back. She has never glanced back during desert raids, never regretted leaving a dying person behind, even those of her band.

The prisoner’s voice turns to chokes and screams as the diseases rip through his body.

She crosses the wooden bridge over the sand-filled canal. Bones stick out of it, white dead plants on a garden of death. It was where the deacon buried the Bethel’s dead prisoners before deciding they should rest on the pews.

She takes a turn to follow the road back to the underground veins of Morkhar and the ruins beyond. Her sight is attracted to the top of the stairs. The sun shines over the Bethel’s charred front. Beheaded stone birds lean down from broken buttresses. The prisoner has fallen, cheeks plastered to the floor.

Her last one, she promises. The loop of pestilence and death must stop, even if she has to sacrifice Orjiel, slit his throat to prevent his disease from consuming him.

The sandy wind punctures her wrinkled, ruptured cheeks. Vultures arrive from the towers’ domes to feast. She hurries to leave the place behind.

“Brittle bones on bowls of bronze, ravaged remainders of rowdy raiders.”

Orjiel puts a hand inside the bowl on the stone table and raises a bone. The lone mushroom growing on its edge catches the sunlight crossing the shattered archway behind him. A femur, most likely found in the wrecked galleries underneath the ruins.

“You should leave the dead where they belong,” Kissare says, and cups Orjiel’s chin, her fingers curling around his neck. Swollen eyes, purple stains all over his cheekbones and forehead. Forty-two days away from him, crossing Morkhar to the Great Bethel of the Repudiated and back. It has been enough for his disease to proliferate. Ever faster.

“The dead do not disturb, do not walk, only reek and rot.” He sneezes, shirking away from her fingers.

“You are feeling my stench…” Kissare twists her nose. She comes back from the Bethel impregnated, not only a carrier of diseases, but of scents, breaths, infective smells that disgorge from the decaying. “I am sorry.”

He acquiesces under the caress of her fingers. She softly pulls the few threads of hair he still has behind his neck. Moistened crusts hide underneath the grey fluffs of his nape. She puts the tip of her thumb on his lips and rubs them. Orjiel closes his eyes and grunts. She pushes her fingers into his mouth, sluggishly, carefully, raising two more through his nostrils.

“You know it will hurt, so be quiet.”

“Where are your nails?” he stutters, an unpoetic, frightened lapse with a muffled voice.

“You forget.” The tips of her fingers are only dwindled thorns, crooked and purplish. The body of Epidemya. “Ease now, poet.”

She thrusts a bit more. His tongue is rough, his teeth mushy.

Perhaps it is the last time she will relieve him from his disease. Once the deacon learns she won’t come back to the Bethel, he will deprive her of Epidemya, for whom she has given her body and soul in order to bring comfort to Orjiel. She has never prayed for the goddess, knowing hers is a word of corruption. Instead, she went to the deacon to be Epidemya’s vessel, knowing even the darkest of corruptions brings relief.

Orjiel pries open his eyes and pulls his head back, his hands gripping the table’s edge. It jangles. The bones clatter on the bowl.

With her left hand, she props up his head. Her right-hand fingers penetrate Orjiel’s mouth and nostrils. He maunders on some poetry, his teeth grating against her skin, hurting it, biting with nervousness, but not hard enough. She flinches and pushes more. His head shudders and his disease flows. Her wattle pumps, her throat dries, and all the hairs on her body bristle as his maladies find their way inside her. She sucks it all, the most she can without hurting him too much.

His moans convert to a whimper. She yanks out her fingers. They come out swift, sodden, dripping Orjiel’s fluids on his lap and over the bone bowl. Tears form in her eyes as her wattle beats, a heart hanging from her neck, oozing sweat, stocking misery and suffering.

Orjiel glances around, blinking the tears in his eyes as if trying to remember where he is, who he is.

“You are very sick, poet.” Kissare straightens his hair behind his ears and wipes the drool that runs down his chin. “Not even the goddess can relieve your burden forever.” A quick death would spare him—them. Her hands fumble to her belt. It’s the same dagger that touched his neck once. A stripe of blood had run over his shirt when he awakened on his mattress, frightened and confused. But the pinkish scar isn’t there anymore.

“Wail not, woe comes to all,” Orjiel says, “all comes to bones.” He waggles his hand inside the bowl. His eyes are whitening again, his cheeks gaining back their colour. But the disease is taking its toll faster than usual.

“I know well enough, woe comes to all.” The Bethel prisoner’s cheek must be scalding now, pressed on the blazing surface of the stairs. She should tell Orjiel she won’t venture back through Morkhar.

She licks her lips and tries to catch his abstracted gaze. “I have killed.”

“You always do.” Another lapse. No rhyme, no musicality. Chaotic truth alone. 

Kissare’s wattle throbs. Her heart beats fast.

“I had no option, but now—” The words catch in her throat.

Orjiel chuckles, his fingers clumsily stirring the bones. A breeze whistles through the ruins and dishevels his hair. Kissare brushes it back into place.

She still has no options. She cannot abandon Epidemya.

“I have to go back. I came just to see—”

“Let me go with you.” A spasm of lucidity. He leans over the table, bumping into the bowl and dropping two phalanxes. His eyes broaden, his eyelids twitch.

“Never.” He shall never see the other way of transmission, never walk among the ogling skeletons, never stare into the deacon’s disciplinary eyes. “Stay here and take care of—”

She wraps his two trembling hands with her left-hand fingers. What do they have besides stones, bones, and strange love?

“Take care of our home,” she says.

“Our…home.” He repeats, regaining his composure, fingers softening amid hers. Words always make him soothe. “Our…oasis.”

The sunlight shifts and streaks through the desert willows. Orjiel grimaces when the light brightens his face. The scar is still on his neck. “Our oasis,” she repeats.

Kissare’s fingers scrape the ground. Her wattle weighs with accumulated diseases, falling over her breasts and pulling her head down. The pathways of Morkhar wind up in a cobweb of streets through canyons carved in the desert. Orjiel likes to recite that it’s an old basin bored by water in days gone by. The deacon says it’s a sanctuary, chiselled by the gods to protect their chosen ones from the evildoers of the Southlands. For her, it’s just a footpath of diseases, dust, and exhaustion.

“Bless me, Epidemya.” A woman kneels before her, dirty hands beseeching, smacked against the earth.

Kissare places a finger over her head and says nothing. There is no true blessing. She is not a goddess as the deacon makes Morkhar’s people believe. Epidemya has been in their mouths for ages as a deity of healing, love, and endearment, though the stained glass of the Bethel depicts her as a clawed, wattled, serpent-like monster.

“Send my prayers to the deacon, Lady of the Weakly,” the woman begs, standing up. “I’m honoured to be among his chosen ones.” Kissare nods and walks away.

“Here, Lady.” A boy calls her from a burrow on the canyon’s wall, an oil lamp in his hands, its flame quavering and casting an amber halo on his face. “It’s my aunt.” Kissare follows the boy inside. Tallow and sweat hang in the air as her eyes adjust.

The sickened woman is sprawled on a mattress on her back, wheezing, naked breasts sagging. The woman’s belly, arms, legs, and chest are swollen and pulsing with russet warts. Her eyes bulge out from their sockets and a gossamer of red tissue peels off her eyelids: sand plague, the slowest and wickedest disease of the desert.

“I can’t help her,” Kissare says, halting a few metres from the woman. She has always pierced the heart and burned the body of those in her band who contracted sand plague.

The boy gawks at her, clutching the lamp.

“You are Epidemya. The deacon says you heal all wounds.”

“The deacon is wrong.” She turns to leave. “I can’t help your aunt.” The boy will probably snitch on her to Werius, but she can’t suck the sand plague out of that woman just to transmit it to some young fated soul in the Bethel.

She turns away, her mind spanning back to her last victim. By now the vultures must have flown from their perches to rip apart the dead man’s cheeks. Yank out his eyes, slash his neck. Worms wriggle inside him, their ways wrought in wreckage.

Her pace is unsteady but decisive through the bazaar and its loud haggling. She jostles her way through the throng as fast as she can, ignoring the pleas for cures and blessings. O why, strongest of all ladies, do you walk through these gloomy paths? Her wattle sags against her breasts, her fingers slap on people’s legs. Just find a way through the canyon and up to the desert, southward, away. Leave. She’ll be Kissare again, a voracious marauder without a band. Orjiel is nothing but a mad poet, the last of a group she had slaughtered herself in that camp wedged between the walls of a ravine. A dying old man on a mattress who had talked about eyes and dimples, and the strongest of all ladies. Somehow, he has been the last grain of sanity in the desert. His words made her stop shuddering, crying, wanting to die. She had put him on her camel and brought him with her, a joyful sickened traveller, the only one who could have made her sell her body to the deacon’s goddess.

But now she must learn to live without poetry.

People encircle her. They kneel, they cry, they rasp their hands on the ground, but their pleas are just voices in discord. The boy followed her too. He approaches with a bowl of water and passes it over. His hands shiver, no more than hers. “Please, Epidemya, take my gift and bring me back my aunt.”

Kissare glares at her reflection in the bowl. It ripples with the soft breeze coursing through the sandstone corridors. Behind her fluttering face, sunlight filters through wrecked archways of bygone times. Desert willow leaves float by with the sand, whooshed by the wind. Her oasis. Their oasis.

She flinches and blinks the tears that blur her eyes.

The crowd is still around her, staring and waiting for her to be who she really is. “Take me to your aunt,” she mumbles, and puts her fingers on the boy’s shoulder.

The sand plague heaves on Kissare’s wattle. Sweat breaks on her brow and prickles her eyes as she lugs herself towards the Bethel, a lump of a woman, the husk of a goddess. The desert wind picks up. It’s hard to discern the Bethel’s front amidst the sand, but shades yap and glide around the towers: vultures waiting for Epidemya, for the food and death she brings.

She supports herself on the ground before the Bethel’s stairs, her fingers splaying like spiders on the sandstone road. Her legs tremble, her knees spasm. She has to clamber, her wattle thumping against the stone, a giant limb of plague and infection. The vultures’ yaps yield to moans. Hundreds of them, a discordant symphony of despair leaking out from the Bethel’s giant marble door. A stench of sweat and rancid vomit lingers in the air. She stands on the top of the stairs, steadying her legs. Her time away hasn’t been enough for the prisoner’s flesh to rot. She tries to avert her gaze, but the corpse has a punitive grip on her. His thin shirt and the skin below it are torn. Worms fester on his freed bowels. No vultures. Even they have abandoned their food, perhaps afraid of the wails of the afflicted.

“You’re here.” Werius is gruff. “I thought you wouldn’t come.” He stands by the Bethel’s door, clutching the cane with his two hands.

Werius marches inside, expecting her to follow. She does. His boots clank on the floor, his cane scratching it, her fingers not far behind, streaking the dust. The skeletons gawk, their bones and skulls swivelled to face her, some of them sitting, others laid on the floor, a few praying in crooked positions. All of them glaring, accusing.

“I have one prisoner this time,” Werius yells as they approach the transept. The wails convert to screams. “You’ll have other opportunities to teach the rest of them. You’ll be with me forever.”

She halts, her arms and legs stiffening. Not for the deacon’s ominous words. On the choir, the apse, and inside the pulpits, hundreds of people huddle in screaming masses, their hands and arms jutting out from the iron bars. Strips of blood, piss, and faeces pour out from the steps onto the transept, forming puddles. The prisoners heap upon each other, nails ripping their neighbours’ faces in a panic to come forward, as if their harrowing pleas can be distinguished.

Kissare grabs the deacon’s arm, but he pushes her hard with his cane. She stumbles back.

“Who are these people?” she shrieks. Her skin sizzles.

“The Southlands are at war,” the deacon says, his eyes filled with indifferent opacity. “Prisoners are being sent here for discipline. War prisoners, killers, the scourge. But today—today is different.”

He takes a left in the transept. The gods look down on them, behind bars themselves. Shattysh, the brass-horned, slender-bodied god of storms, a bludgeon of silver in his hands; Ina, the goddess of love, a wrenched chest shot through with silver threads; and the last one, at the far wall of the transept, right below the stained glass: Epidemya. She peers down at them with red-and-yellow fragmented eyes, hues that filter through the windows from above and from the opposing walls of the transept. Her fingers point downward, brazen strands, not as corroded as her own. The statue’s gilded wattle gleams behind the chains wrapped around it, shooting light down into the darkness below.

A shadow wriggles under the statue. The chains jangle.

She stops and bites her lip.

“Oasis left behind, stones unturned, untouched, bowls in the open.”

A shriek comes up her throat, but all that leaves her mouth is drool. Her teeth clink on one another.

The chains cross Orjiel’s wrists, ankles and neck, yet he smiles. A line of comfort in the shade.

He shifts his face to the right.

It catches the light of the flanking windows. Beads of blood pool on the wrinkles of his cheeks. His eyelids are torn and darkened, his forehead dewy with vitreous pustules about to burst.

“I don’t understand your disquiet, Epidemya.” Werius roars to make himself louder than the prisoners, his chin moving up and down as he curls his lips in disgust. “This man is a slaver. He has brought many men and women of good faith from the desert to the Southlands. He sold them to evil kings and queens, sometimes for as little as a single copper coin. He deserves all the diseases you bring forth.”

She stares at Orjiel’s eyes, her wattle throbbing at odds with her heart, but both fast, aching. The deacon’s words must be the truth, but she hadn’t been in his camp to kill slavers. She was there to kill and rob, an angry, desperate shade in the night, clinging to walls, lurking behind crates, thrashing and slashing with a dagger. No one to tell stories was her band’s only rule.

“Eyes so sincere, dimples so severe. O why, strongest of all ladies, do you walk through these gloomy paths?” the man had said, waking up with a blade on his throat. It was an old play, abandoned alongside the world, but one she remembered from listening with her head on someone’s chest, a forgotten father or mother—perhaps a long-dead sibling—with a tender voice reverberating in her ears, soothing, bringing protection from anything. She was exhausted when she found the old man, the blood of his companions warming her cheeks, lips, and hands. The ravine itself had crimped into the darkest of nights, and she was afraid of herself, of what she had become. No. Of what she had always been since she had no more chests to rest her head upon.

She recalls the old man resuming his mumblings. “A word and a warble, a lady and a liege—”

“Silence.” She had shooed him so the rest of her band couldn’t find them. “I’ll take you from here.”

That night she fled with the man to the blood-clean ruins crusted in Morkhar Oasis, away from her band and their incursions, away from the part of herself she was abandoning.

“Horseshoes hurt our oasis,” Orjiel says, stepping forward as if wanting to be closer. The chains hold him back. “Cantering, galloping, breaking bones, bowls. I’m sorry.” His lips flutter. A red patchwork reflects on his face and picks out a tear that crosses to join the blood on his cheeks. He weeps, but it quickly ruptures into a coughing fit.

Kissare hobbles to the poet and cups his face, forcing his chin up. His pupils stare right through her.

“Educate him, my Epidemya.” The deacon rattles his cane on the floor. All around, the screams and wails intensify as if beckoned by her presence. “Show him what you have gathered from innocent souls who do not deserve to suffer.” Kissare slips her right-hand fingers inside Orjiel’s mouth. All of them.

The corners of Orjiel’s mouth and lips tear apart, dripping blood on her hand and arm. She webs his head with her left hand. He can’t scream, can’t move, can’t recite. His disease flows through her fingers. Her entire body sizzles and aches. The billowing wattle pushes Orjiel away from her, but she pulls him back by the head, thrusting her fingers all the way down his throat. Orjiel gurgles and wheezes, losing his air.

When he is about to pass, she jerks out her fingers. Orjiel vomits and his body fails. The chains prevent his fall, hanging him like a wrecked pendulum.

Kissare kneels, unable to sustain herself on her feet. The giant wattle thumps on the ground, leaving a rounded trail in the dust. She crawls on it, swivelling to face the deacon.

Werius’s nails grapple with his cane. Fool is the man who doesn’t fear the gods, and he is no fool. He walks back but bumps on the bars surrounding Ina, the goddess of a love absent from the Bethel for generations. She is looking down, not a sliver of mercy in her pebbled eyes.

“You know Epidemya is only a visitor,” Werius stutters.

Kissare trudges forward, pushing back her feet, the wattle grazing on the floor and hurting. She extends her fingers and curls them on the skinny wrists of the deacon. He shrieks and jiggles but can’t untangle her grasp.

The wattle presses him against the bars.

She uncurls her fingers from his arms and thrusts all of them through his mouth, tearing skin and muscle. Blood warms her hand as Werius’s head clatters against the iron.

The wattle pulses violently as she splutters the diseases inside him, all at once, a frantic flow of filth. Unpoetic, unmerciful.

“Not the poet,” she whispers, her throat sore. “Never touch him.”

The wattle exhausts, turning into a flaccid skin that hangs from her neck and pulls down her chin. She props herself up on her knees and removes her fingers from inside Werius. His neck and cheeks are pierced, his eyes bulged out.

Kissare fumbles for the keys in Werius’s belt and staggers back to release Orjiel, her body shaking all along. Blood, putridity, and death fill up her nostrils quickly. It comes from herself, not from the dead man or the flocks of prisoners. Orjiel’s smiling lips are bloodied, some of his teeth broken, but he is still the man she brought home from the camp.

When she unlocks the chains, he stumbles and falls. Epidemya is glaring down at them from her elevated position, the chains swinging and chinking out of time.

Kissare cups his head.

“I should’ve let you come with me. You’d be safe.” “I am safe…” He tucks his head on her arm.

She pulls her wattle aside to prevent it from hitting his face. Epidemya is gone. The poet is doomed.

“I will carry you back home…” she says. “To our oasis.”

“You are a goddess now.” Orjiel coughs the words out. “You should leave the dead where they belong.” The man, not the poet, unearths lucidity from somewhere in his mind.

Orjiel’s torn mouth twitches into a smile.

She rests her head on his chest, waiting for the words throbbing from his skin to hers.

“Your eyes are always so true…” he blubbers, but can’t go on.

O why, strongest of all ladies, do you walk through these gloomy paths?

“For you, my poet…” she says, lifting her head. “For the love I seized from you.”

Orjiel’s arms and legs twitch. He turns his head, spits blood, and glances at her before falling into unconsciousness.

“Orjiel…” she whispers, pricking his cheeks and head with her fingers, as if trying to gouge out his uninvited, welcoming poetry.

She has been transporting death for long enough to know when someone should be gone.

Kissare rests her head on the poet’s chest. She grabs the knife from her belt, fumbling it with her long fingers, and lays it on Orjiel’s neck without looking, without lifting her head from his chest. Kissare slits.

Epidemya crossed the sands before vanishing into the desert, a dead man in her arms, an army of followers trailing behind her.

Book of Diseases – Chapter 3 – Wrecker of Maladies