From the author: Placing second in the British Fantasy Society's Short Story Competition 2017, Sacrament is the story of two unusual soldiers and the difficult choices they make upon finding a horrific scene.
The army had begun enlisting all the fighters they could find after the influx of magical refugees. No one had really known what to do with the beings who appeared that day, floods of them on the shores of beaches and banks of rivers. They were close to humanoid, all sleek edges and large, powerful limbs paired with ever blinking eyes. Some were pale as salt, chubby from the chill of their homes, others brightly coloured and patterned. It seemed to depend where they had arrived from. They were connected to water, an innate fluidity to them and to their knowledge. They told humanity of a war.
Humans were the people of earth, not just the planet but the element, solid and hefty and determined as the mountains. There were also the fire people, the Djinn, who avoided humans generally and lived in isolated peace in the desert and bare spaces. Then there were the beings of air, who tumbled through storm clouds and streaked along lightning. They were impossibly fast and brutal, creative in their cruelty and unstoppable for the water creatures. The water creatures had fled, seeking their safety on the solid ground of humanity.
They had eventually being named Thales, after the philosopher, and resettled as much as possible. Once communication was established between humans and Thales they had explained their fear – the air creatures, now known as the Aether, had always fought with the Thales but something had made them increasingly more powerful, their attacks more sustained and their strength building.
Scientists of both species had discussed the phenomenon and an uncomfortable realisation had been reached: global warming had caused not only the strengthening of the Aether but the weakening of the Thale. The stripping of the ozone layer had increased the Aethers exposure to sunlight, their main source of energy. The rising ocean temperature was killing off a variety of the food sources for the Thales. Humans had been unwittingly helping the destruction of the Thales for nearly two hundred years and eventually the Thales had no choice but to seek help.
The responses had been mixed. Some countries had treated them as brothers, welcoming Thales and building semi aquatic villages along their rivers and beaches. Some had ensured representation for Thales in local administration, with elected representatives vouching for their communities and bringing praise and problems.
Other places had not been as welcoming. Thales in some places had been rounded up and placed in rough refugee camps, ramshackle places that were held together by the charity organisations that visited daily. Others had simply been killed, the humans they approached for help too superstitious or afraid to do anything other than lash out.
That had been what started the army response, a UN initiative to protect Thales all over the world. The UN viewed humanity having a duty, not just because of the global warming but because of the basic principle that the Thales deserved protection from war and discrimination. There had been a festering resentment over that viewpoint from certain humans, one which turned to hate and violence in places. The army was sent where necessary, peacekeeping by another name. The Thales had enough to deal with from the Aether attacks without humans marring their lives further.
None of the humans had seen an actual Aether. Some people suggested they couldn't, unless the Aether chose to reveal itself, some kind of camouflage like the Djinn used to hide from travellers. Others said that the Aether simply killed any human that saw them, a view the Thales did nothing to dissuade them from. A handful of professionals began to piece together what was known of the Aethers and agreed that it was camouflage, unlikely to be breached in any recent times. And so the placement of soldiers around camps and on missions of hearts and minds became the new way of being.
Marc and Simon had found the village by mistake. They were posted in Chechnya, at a base a mile or so away from the Valerik River. It had seemed ghoulish to put the Thales there, but each country had made their own decisions. The Thales had been poorly treated here, shoved into temporary accommodation and ignored. The place was a ramshackle of emergency tents and basic stilted housing, things that could be knocked up or down in an evening.
They weren't meant to be out scouting the area: they'd just done it out of habit when they’d sensed emotions there. They were trained soldiers as well as empaths, an unusual hybrid in the army. They’d been late bloomers, their emotional and psychological talents showing in their early twenties rather than the usual pubescent boost. It had thrown them together in training and it had been easy to keep it that way: they were strong and fast and fought well together. They could feel someone else's pain and use it either to solve the problem or end it, depending. It was useful to have at least one empath in a unit but Marc and Simon came as a set and were the better for it.
The village was a blood bath. The killing had been indiscriminate: the dead were of all ages and positions. Mothers had been cut through to kill their children, the elderly killed in their beds. The few men and the older boys were taken into the bare square of the village and decapitated. General consensus said decapitation was the best way to kill Thales: they healed quickly but you couldn't grow back a head. Guns had been used too, bullets that Marc and Simon both recognised as local. They moved house to house, met by bodies and the echoes of screams in the blood soaking into the floors. It was an efficient massacre.
There were some murmurs that Thales could control water, could bring up a wave or summon down a storm, but no one had documented this happening. Simon now felt sure that it was a lie. This village was on the edge of deep river and if they could have used anything from the water to stop the killing they would have. No one willingly sat through watching their people get killed.
"I've called it into command," Marc's comments broke Simon out of his contemplation of the water. They were stood outside the village, back from the river and facing the forest their base sat in. Marc's narrow face was pinched, thick brows drawn together and thin lips turned down. He rolled his head along his shoulders, seeking to crack out the tension of his neck.
"And?" Simon asked eventually.
"Clean up detail will be here in an hour. They want us to go back to the camp and debrief. The implication was not to mention what we saw. "
"Don't make me say it again." Marc sighed, still rolling his neck as if he could swing his head off into the undergrowth. The forest they were stood by was humid and dark despite the sun high above them. They could both hear the flies starting to gather for feeding at the blood.
"They want us to cover this up?" Simon barked in outrage.
"Just our knowledge of it, it would appear, but yes."
"Undoubtedly," Marc nodded.
"And they expect us to do it anyway?" Simon laughed.
"What about burial rights?"
"No advice was given in relation to that." Marc sighed.
"But Thales wash their dead. The bodies aren't meant to be touched until after the washing. They worry that they won't reach their next life without that."
"Command did not have any view on that. They want us to clean ourselves up and go." Marc couldn't look at Simon, couldn't bear to see the righteous anger on his face. Simon was a tower of fury when his anger was brought out; all dark vengeance on those judged wrong. He was intimidating naturally, six foot five and spare change, coated in muscle and with his close crop of dark hair matching his eyes. Marc was the lighter of the two, blonde hair and freckles making most people forget he was trained. He used it to his advantage.
"And you think that's right?" Simon was staring at him now, lips set in a grim line and his brows down low.
"Not at all. But it's an order."
"That's what they count on Marc," railed Simon, rounding on his partner and shouting into his face, "They count on us being too young to see what they're sending us off into and that by the time we're aware of what is really going on that we'll be dead or as corrupt as they are!"
"Simon, you can't say that kind of thing, the locals might hear you," Marc growled, shoving Simon back from him. "We're here to be the good example." Simon stalked off a few paces and then span back around, glowering.
"So what if they do, don't you think they're going to start piecing it together after they see the fucking bodies out there? Do you think they don't already know? Look at those bullet casings and tell me they don't! Or are you going to say we should clean it up and pretend that there wasn't a massacre? Is that what you had in mind when you signed up?"
"You know damn well it's not, fuck off with that."
"Then what do you want me to do?" Simon bellowed back. "There are old people, and children, and flies on the dead eyes of mothers holding their children!"
"I don't know either," Marc hissed, a hand going to his temple and massaging the budding pain that was pressing in on him. "If we clean it up we'll be committing a sin against them."
"And Command made no comment at all about that."
"None," Marc confirmed quietly.
"So we have the options of damnation for the dead Thales or damnation for ourselves for disobeying an order."
"That would be about it," Marc agreed, rubbing his temple again. "You could always shoot me in the leg and carry me back to camp."
"Much as I love any excuse to shoot you, why are you telling me to do that?"
"Well I can't carry your gigantic ass back to camp but you could carry me. Say I got injured, you had to bring me back, confirm the area for hostile fire and it'll have to be reported."
"That's a terrible idea." Simon sighed, dropping his head any looking at his friend under his lashes. "They'll be able to tell you were shot with our ammo."
"Ok, stab me with a tree branch then. Or my knife."
"If I stab your thigh I could knick an artery."
"Miss it then."
"You know it's not quite that easy right?" Simon laughed bleakly.
"Sure it is, aim away from the important bits." Marc shrugged, unclipping his knife and handing to him handle first. "Make it believable and give me the knife back. I'll clean it off and then you give me a piggy back. I'll get to be tall."
"I can't stab you Marc. It's a terrible plan," Simon said again.
"Can you think of any other way to get us back to camp without having to fuck either ourselves or them?" Marc growled, nodding towards the edge of the village.
"Me neither. So stab my left thigh, get me back to camp before I bleed out, we can get it referred to base command and the local Thale representative."
"We have no guarantee that base command would do anything other than go straight up the ladder," Simon countered.
"But one of the charities is at the base, Deshi, that woman with the shaved head."
"She's the local rep?"
"She works on food distribution, she'd get word to any other villages. They could get Thales here to do the necessary. And we get to say that we tried to do what we were ordered to do but couldn't because you wouldn't be able to explain letting me bleed to death."
"They would blame it on me, this is true," Simon said glumly.
"So get stabbing."
Simon weighed the knife in his palm, looking at the leg Marc offered. He was right in that this would let them get back to camp. Simon could make it a shallow slash, one that was for the blood rather than the injury. It would be healed before Command could make a fuss and they didn't have a medical pack with them so he had the excuse. He was just getting himself talked into it when they were interrupted by a howling shriek.
Both men whirled round, weapons up. A Thale man was stood at the far side of the village, half out of the river, screaming. Marc and Simon glanced to each other – they could feel the agony rolling off him, streaming from every part of his skin. This man hadn't known about the attack. This man probably had dead of his own among the bodies.
"Should we?" Marc asked whispered, watching the keening figure.
"Slowly, weapons down, hands up," Simon agreed, passing Marc his knife back and putting his arms high. Marc copied him, pacing through the village towards the man.
He was on the bank now, kneeling with his arms loosely to his sides. His skin was a mottle of green and white, some dark brown and black patches skimming the sides. It was like dappled shadows over him. Simon noticed he was missing his left hand, the flesh at his wrist smooth with old scar tissue.
Marc cleared his throat, standing fifty paces from the man and trying to catch his eye. He was looking through them, eyes on the blood seeping into the river from the village.
"Can you hear me?" Marc asked in what was probably very poor pronunciation of the Thale language. Both he and Simon knew it passably, a useful thing when trying to build bridges.
The Thale man blinked and looked over to them with his black, glossy eyes. Both men could see the tears tracking down his face as he pulled himself up to standing.
"You mean to kill me too?" he asked, his English quick and clear.
"No, we didn't do this. We found the village, we did not spill blood," Simon stated calmly, keeping his hands high and wide so the Thale could see he held no weapons.
"Who did then?"
"We don't know," Marc interrupted. "There was no life when we came here. Just the dead."
"All dead," the man echoed, his voice bubbling out amongst his tears.
"What do they call you?" Simon asked, trying to keep him for looking at the black blood surrounding them.
"You couldn't say it," the man spat, his face contorting into a sneer.
"What could I call you that wouldn't be insulting or murdering your language?" Simon tried, his voice gentle and low.
"Some of the charity women call me Matthew. They say it is a joke, but a good one, as I am named after a great fisherman and I am a great fish man. This is funny to them. I know it comes from love. I do not begrudge the joke. Are they here?" He stood properly now, taller than both Marc and Simon, the promise of threat in the tension of his body. They hadn't checked for human dead.
"Do you mind if we call you that?" Marc asked, letting his hands come down to his sides.
"It would be better than your attempts at my other name."
"No problem. Matthew, we have orders to ignore this. The humans we work for are going to pretend that it didn't happen and they will come and move the bodies. Soon," Simon said quickly, feeling the glare from Marc as he did. It was a better plan that stabbing each other.
"The local men then," Matthew said eventually.
"Excuse me?" Marc looked as lost as Simon when he said it.
"The local men did it. Humans lie for their own kind. They do not like us here."
"We don't know for sure, but you're probably right." Simon shrugged.
"And you plan to follow orders?"
"I want to check for the charity women first," Marc interjected.
"Why? Do their remains mean more than ours?"
"It's not that they matter more," Marc said, strained. "It's just that they matter. If this is covered up their families won't know: they'll have no closure. If we can tell them then they get something. Something has to be better than not knowing."
Matthew was silent for some time, watching the two men, the muscles in his throat working despite his silence. "You are right about that," he said lowly.
"I have a question," Simon said, looking over the village again. "I know there are stories about your abilities, your connection to the water. Is it true that you can call the rain and summon storms?"
"What does that matter?" Matthew asked, watching Simon with guarded eyes. "You think this is why we were killed, because they thought us witches and monsters? It is nothing so complicated, they just hate us for being different to them."
"I'm sure that's not what he meant," Marc said, glaring at Simon.
"I ask for the sake of washing your dead, Matthew. If you can bring the rain, if you can have the village soaked, is that close to enough? Could you pray while the rain washes them and that let them go on to the next life?"
Matthew looked at the carnage around them. Eventually he turned to Marc and said firmly, "The rain first, then you check for the human women."
"Why are you sure it will be women?"
"It was always women sent to this camp. It was mostly our women that were here. Some older men, some like me who were sick, but mostly the women and children. No defences."
"Did the locals know that?" Simon asked.
"It was at their request. They didn't like the camps to get too big and they prefer the men together where they can be useful."
"Useful?" Simon echoed.
"They work boats, they help catch fish, they mend nets. Little jobs to keep them busy and tired."
"Why don't you do that?"
"I don't like boats," Matthew replied, holding up his stump.
"We're running out of time," Marc muttered.
"Can I ask something?" Simon blurted out, surprised at himself.
"If you can do this, if you can bring the water, why didn't they?" he nodded to the bodies.
"Not all of us use the connection in the same way. Not all of us are trained to use it aggressively. Some use it to heal, some to create, some to bring forth life. I know how to use it as a weapon, I was trained like you." He held up his left arm. "I had a false hand once, so I could continue to use it. That was taken from me here."
"They took your prosthetic?" Marc growled.
"Not only mine, the old people and the different bodied. The locals did not trust what we brought with us so they took them."
"That's against the law," Simon said flatly, a confused glower on his face.
"It's against dignity," spat Marc, livid.
"It was done," Mathew replied, still holding up his stump.
"I'm sorry for your troubles and I'm sorry for this. I'm sorry for what we have to ask you to do. But the men we spoke of will be here soon, so we need you to do whatever you do so we can make something less horrifying out of this." Marc's voice was low and precise, a tell of his absolute anger.
They had been training and working together for nearly fourteen years and Simon could only think of one previous instance, when they had found a superior sexually abusing a female recruit, when Marc had been like this. Simon had expected violence, Marc held no truck with that behaviour from any person. But instead he had seen his friend pin a knife between the superiors legs by sight alone, leaving the man sweating and barking at them about discipline. Marc had reminded the man that sins of the flesh were paid in flesh, and that a court martial wouldn't mean shit to them once his cock was sliced off. The superior had left at that, no further comment. He’d been a weak and stupid leader and they were both grateful when he was promoted away from the unit. No promotion for them, though.
"I need a knife," Matthew said, breaking into Simon's contemplation.
"A knife. I may in fact need one of you to cut my palm."
"Told you stabbing was a good plan," Marc chuckled, walking over to Matthew with his knife held out, handle first.
"You need blood for the rain?" Simon queried.
"Water is in our blood, it is a fair exchange."
"Alright," Simon said, moving to join them.
They stood in triangle, the two humans watching Matthew compose himself. He flexed his right hand, glancing between the water and the village.
"Where’s best to cut?" Marc asked, taking Matthews hand in his, palm up. Marc hadn't expected Matthew's skin to be warm, or the smooth ridges of the markings on his hands.
"Along the middle of the meat, where you have lines," Matthew replied.
"Do you need a lot of blood?" Marc asked hesitantly.
"It would be best to have an excess, yes."
"Alright. Simon, can you keep look out? I'm worried we'll have company soon."
"Right." Simon nodded, eyes on the tree line.
Marc cut into Matthew, trying to keep out the memories of gutting fish. He drew a long line along the centre of his palm, tailing down into the heel of his hand. Matthew hissed air but didn't complain, nodding to Marc when the soldier’s eyes met his.
Matthew took his hand and pressed it into his chest, just below where a human's collar bone would be. He circled the hand slowly, spreading blood out to his shoulders and then dipping back to the centre. He began to hum low in his throat, a rumbling sound that changed to a hooting cry and he turned from the humans, and calling directly to the river. He repeated this twice more, splashing into the water up to his ankles. Marc looked away, embarrassed to be watching something so intimate that he had no understanding of. He joined Simon, scanning the tree line for any sign of the promised squad. Behind them they could hear the water moving as Matthew continued his beseeching.
"Think we'll make it?"
"If not the clean up squad arrive. They'll just kill us." Marc shrugged.
"You're too calm about that."
"Too many dead humans lead to questions."
"So better we're dead and word of this getting out?" Simon asked with a raised brow.
"If needs be. I'd rather not die here, but there are worse causes to die for."
"You're daft," Simon muttered with a shake of his head.
"Often, but you know I'm right."
"It is done," they heard behind them, and turned to see Matthew back on the riverbank. There was a change in him, his black eyes glowing amber and the cut on his hand the same colour. The blood on his skin was gone. Marc and Simon exchanged a glance before moving back towards him.
"So what happens next?" Simon asked, glancing over his shoulder.
"Wait a few moments."
Marc looked up; the sun was still high and he couldn't see a rush of clouds coming from anywhere. He glanced back to Matthew and saw a grin spreading across his face as he held both arms out, shoulder high in supplication. The first few drops caught Marc by surprise, freckling the back of his neck with cool water. He glanced back up and could see no clouds, but there was a definite spray of rain, growing heavier as he looked on. He nudged Simon, who was back to watching the tree line, and held his hand up. Simon did the same and was surprised to feel the water falling.
"How does it rain with no clouds?" Marc asked Matthew, ducking as the water came down heavier.
"We draw the water from all around. It comes to us in answer of our need, from wherever we ask. I asked the sky to bear witness."
"Do we need to say a prayer or anything? Should we step out of the rain?" Simon asked, aware their intrusion may delay things even further.
"There is no need, the rain will do what is necessary," Matthew replied, sitting down on the riverbank. "You can join me if you like. You will not see the same again." Simon and Marc shared a shrug and moved to join him. They were already soaked and you could only get so wet, so they made no move to cover themselves. They could both feel a bone deep contentment coming from Matthew, a side effect of whatever he had done to bring the rain.
The water was warm, matching the humid air, and they watched in detached fascination as the large puddles of blood started to thin and drain down into the river. They looked up to the village and Simon let out a strangled curse when he saw the bodies. Or lack of them. They had been surrounded by corpses and the thrum of insects brought by them, but now there was just a sea of blood, slowly rolling down the bank towards the river.
"They're gone," Marc said carefully.
"They are changed," Matthew corrected, the glow of his eyes dulling as the rain continued to fall.
"They're changed into blood?" Simon choked out.
"Into water. They will rejoin the river. We did not come from it but it leads back to where we are from. All water joins, eventually."
"Does this happen to all your dead?" Marc queried.
"All we have involvement in, yes."
"That's very beautiful," Simon said in a slightly strained voice, his stomach at war with his sensibilities. He'd seen plenty of death in his career but this was something that set his teeth on edge, pricking his nerves.
"It is what it is." Matthew shrugged. "But it is just and right that they should join that water again."
The rain began to ease off, the tide of blood moving past them and darkening the river as it slipped into the current.
"We should check for your bodies," Matthew said, standing and striding into the shell of the village. Marc and Simon followed him in muted curiosity, glancing at the ground as they walked. There were still the marks of the violence but the blood and bodies were gone, leaving it looking abandoned rather than exterminated.
"Clean up crew are going to be confused," Simon muttered. Marc glared at him, his nerves on fire and questions abound in his mind. The whole place felt different, still stifling hot but now lighter, clean.
"In here," Matthew called from one of the stilt houses. The men jogged over, taking the steps two at a time. They were greeted by the sight of a woman's corpse, her throat cut and eyes glassy. She was an older woman, silver streaking her auburn hair, and there was blood over her skirt as well. She was in what looked like a children's room, small beds and basic toys scattered over the floor.
"She was kind," Matthew said sofly, "She loved the little ones, felt all children deserved a chance to grow into the world."
"I'm sorry, Matthew." Simon sighed, looking the woman over. He didn't know her by sight but leaned down, checking for identifying marks. Her ID badge read Beliita. He found a necklace of rosary beads stuck into her wound by the force of the attack, so undid the clasp at the back and pocketed it.
"We can give this to a woman we know, who will make sure the death is reported," Marc supplied in response to the confusion on Matthew’s face. Matthew nodded, leaving the house.
"I see no others," Matthew said once the solders joined him. The silence of the empty place was creeping up on them now, the expectant absence of the life once there.
"Thank you for checking. We need to leave, the men we spoke about should be here by now and if they find us we won't be able to pass the necklace on."
"I understand. I am going to join the other camp. I will tell them what you did."
"Any of us would do it," Simon said offhandedly, knowing it was a lie.
"That is not true, but it is kind of you to say."
"If you get the camp to report your hand our medic will get you something. It might not be as good as your old one, but the locals can't take it off you," Marc supplied.
"Thank you for that."
The men shared a curt nod, Matthew walking off into the river while Marc and Simon shouldered their packs and jogged into the forest, blending into the trees as they heard the rumble of approaching vehicles. They would be able to make it back to the base before the confusion about the lack of bodies hit command, and if luck was with them the charity team would still be there.
This story originally appeared in British Fantasy Society .