The moon was dark the night our Prophet died.
Outside of his tent, Margot the healer wept, her hands clutching at the white stubble on her scalp. Black vines of withdrawn illness clung to her wrists, thick and steaming and insoluble. She hadn’t taken breaks to shave — nor to eat, nor to sleep — over the six days and nights she’d spent trying to hold back the strangling blisters that crept up the Prophet’s chest. It was obvious that she’d done all she could. We couldn’t hold this death against her. The illness was stronger than Margot’s magic. It was stronger than anyone’s magic.
It was an ordained death, and nothing less.
The Prophet said as much. He told me in his final hour, just before he banished me.
When the Prophet was a young man, he fled the hundred eyes of his city, and he found himself lost in a field. It was there that he discovered the bone tablets, which were half-buried in mud so thick he lost his shoes in it. He tripped over the tablets in his bare feet, and when he pried the strange slabs from the mud, he saw them to be bone, and he saw them to be etched with letters that no man could read. And when he looked upon the writing, his eyes were opened by the Gods, and he no longer feared the beating that awaited him at the Chancellor’s House, for he saw his purpose.
He was looking at me with eyes that were dark like the death-moon, black from edge to edge, stained by Gods Sight. They’d frightened me when I was a child, before I learned to look for the creases at the corners. “Take care of Margot,” he said.
“I’ll take care of all of them,” I said, and my voice didn’t tremble even though it should have. He snorted at me.
“You know what I mean. Be kind to her in the next few days,” he said. “She’s sensitive. She’ll blame herself. Counsel her to—”
“Trust in the Gods. I know,” I said. There I went, getting impatient with a man whose cheek was turned toward the sunlight of his own death. I studied his weather-beaten face, suddenly desperate. “Surely there’s more I need to know. Surely there’s more you have to tell me, I’m not ready for—”
He patted my wrist weakly, the sun-bruised brown of his hand two shades darker than mine, tanned from always pointing the way. He cleared his throat. “Ducky,” he said, and the first tears blurred my vision. “Listen. I know I haven’t always been the best father.”
It was the Gods’ own magic that worked through the young man who would become the Prophet. Everyone knew that the Gods had been cast out when the Chancellor came to power. Everyone knew that the Gods were illegal — the only thing worth worshipping in the Chancellor’s city was work. Everyone knew that. But none of them knew that the Gods were waiting for their children to follow them out of the City.
No one except the Prophet.
And when the young man touched the tablets, the Gods’ own magic opened his eyes, and he gathered his people to him, the children of the Gods. And they set out into the wastelands outside the city, and they began the journey.
“I’m sorry, Ducky. I know that leading these people has kept me from you. I wasn’t there for you after your mother died, and that— it wasn’t right. You shouldn’t have been alone then.” He stared at me with those dark eyes. “And I know I’ve been hard on you these past few years, trying to get you ready. But I hope you know how much I love you. How much I’ve always loved you.”
“I know, Dad,” I whispered, and my voice did tremble that time, because there was a lie there. I was never a good liar.
And then his breath rattled in his chest, and it was soon, and we both knew it. He laid a hand on my forehead, and his hand was cold, and I wasn’t ready.
“I hereby—” he paused for breath, and when he spoke again, his voice rang out louder than it’s possible for a man to speak. Loud enough for the two hundred ears in the camp to hear. I wanted to say don’t — wanted to tell him not to use the last of his strength for this, wanted to tell him to give me just thirty minutes more, I had so many questions, please, no, I’m not ready — but one mustn’t interrupt a Prophet when he’s Speaking.
So I closed my eyes and listened.
The Gods’ instructions, legible only to the Prophet, spoke of the journey. Come, they said, and arrive at the appointed hour, and we shall be awaiting you with open arms. The land is a land of plenty. Rich hunting and plentiful fish and good, clear waters await you, and your spawn shall be many, and no harm shall befall you from above or below. Come at the appointed hour, do not be late, and we shall welcome you.
And the Prophet and his people followed the...