His father had told Yesh that the ruins were an accursed place, haunted by the ghosts of those who had died there. He’d told him that the Tetragrammaton, far from being a sign of sanctity or familiarity, was a warning. It was no temple, no home of God, but a place forsaken by Him. It was only a matter of time, he said, before the sands swallowed the evil place once and for all – and if the sands didn’t, then the townsfolk would take up hammers and stones and do the job themselves.
Hammers and stones.
His mother had been a little more original, although the bottom line had still been don’t go out there. She’d told him the ruins were safe enough, but that he was not to go near the strange whispering blue-black fire that burned on the edge of the desert where the half-buried array of shattered walls ended. It had been larger, once. Now it was barely three paces across, a low and guttering thing. Soon enough, it would burn itself out – but it was like no fire Yesh had ever seen, and his mother had told him again and again that it was dangerous.
Some younger village children had gone to the ruins when Yesh was just a babe, his mother had told him. They’d roasted meat and fruits in the dancing flames. Two of the three boys had died of a strange and terrible sickness after that, and the third had been struck mad. Of the two girls who had spent that fateful night in the ruins, Yesh’s mother had sworn, one had been burned from the inside until her bones had twisted and cracked and her skin had given off flakes of ash; the other had seemed unharmed, but when she was married and gave forth her first child some three years later, the thing that she had birthed was a spidery monstrosity that gasped and belched blue-black fire in an attempt to speak before the townsfolk battered it to pieces with their precious hammers and stones.
Yesh had always maintained a prudent distance from the fire although it was a captivating sight, particularly in the gathering twilight. He’d never been able to discern its whisperings, although he was sure there were words among the hisses and crackles. It was, he fancied, the same sort of nonsense-jabbering fire as the ancients had been forced to listen to, once upon a time. After which they had arrived at “I am, just because” as the life-affirming and significance-laden Name of Our Lord.
On this particular occasion, as he sat with his back against one of the leaning fragments of wall and listened to the sibilant sounds on the wind, he became aware of a shape huddled against the dark flames. Its shadow lengthened with the setting sun, and as darkness fell the fire cast more of its paradoxical dark purple light, and Yesh saw that the shape was a human figure. He rose, disgruntled at having his solitude disturbed and wondering in embarrassment if the figure had been there all afternoon, and crossed to the edge of the glassy patch of stone that had once marked the full extent of the fire.
“You shouldn’t be so close to that,” he said, “it’s not safe.”
The figure jerked, then raised its head and shook off a ragged cowl and a considerable build-up of sand. Yesh wondered just how long it had been lying out there.
“Stay away from me, Angel,” the figure warned, its voice wet and slurred.
Yesh rolled his eyes. That was a new one. So, a madman then. “I’m not an Angel.”
“Smell like Angel.”
“Beats smelling like you,” Yesh replied reflexively, although to be honest he couldn’t smell anything much from the figure. The fire had always smelled very faintly of hot metal, like a forge, but Yesh suspected that was the smell of the sand and stone underneath it burning. It wasn’t unpleasant. “What are you doing out here?”
“I came out here to die,” the madman gurgled. “Kindly fuck off, and let me be getting on with it.”
This, of course, was exactly the wrong thing to say to Yesh.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, crunching out across the burned stone. “Did you cook something in the fire and now you’re turning to ash from the inside?”
The madman gave a rough cackle. “You’re pretty macabre, for an Angel.”
“I told you, I’m not an Angel.”
“Oh really? Then you won’t be afraid to shake my hand.”
“That all depends what you’re dying of, idiot,” Yesh replied reasonably.
“That’s no way to speak to your elders.”
Yesh didn’t quite know what to say to that. It was precisely the way he spoke to his elders a lot of the time. It was one of the reasons he spent so many evenings brooding out in the ruins. “If you want to die, just jump into the flames,” he suggested.
The madman laughed again. “That would probably paralyse me, and it would certainly hurt, but it’s unlikely to kill me any quicker. By the time the cellular regen pile burned down in another five or six years, there I would be. But no,” he went on, “even if I jumped into the flames, as you so endearingly call them, I would die sooner than that. I would rather not spend my remaining days in too much discomfort, though, if I can help it.”
“If you’d like me to bash your head in with a rock-”
“What did I just say about spending my remaining days in discomfort?” the madman said waspishly. “Also about you fucking off? Wait,” he went on, as though Yesh was actually about to obey him. “Did you say one of you fools used this as a cookfire?”
“Years ago,” Yesh replied. “They died. Or went mad. Or had disfigured babies.”
“I imagine they did,” the madman said quietly, then laughed. “And I thought I’d seen the best the collapse of civilisation had to offer. Nice to know there’s still water in that well,” he lurched to his feet, and Yesh saw that under the tattered desert garb the madman was wearing the threadbare remains of some kind of uniform. Roman? He’d heard that some of them ended up with some pretty deep-seated crazy from the campaigns they fought. “Very well then,” he went on, took a shambling step forward and held out his hand. “Take my arm, you glorious feathered fuckwit. Let’s make this quick.”
“Do you see feathers-” Yesh started, then the words dried up in his mouth.
The madman’s clothing was dark, his skin darker. But it wasn’t just ordinary skin. There was something under it. Something like the tattoos Yesh had sometimes seen on men and women passing through the village. But darker still, and thicker, and moving. It bulged out like a growth and then sank back again. It was as though there was something inside him, some great writhing mass of things, striving to escape.
“What’s the matter, boy?” the madman grinned. His face swelled, sagged down like some horrible overripe fruit, and then retracted to relative normality. “Never seen a Demon before?”