Set in a world of dark gods and dangerous magic, The Shadow Saint is the gripping, darkly inventive sequel to Gareth Hanrahan’s acclaimed debut The Gutter Prayer.
The spy climbs a stair of fire to get to heaven. The foot of the stair is in a battlefield, where the honoured dead lie mingled with the bodies of their foes. Below, tiny black dots move across the field. Bone- picker priests sort the corpses, matching disembodied limbs and heads to torsos before sending them for the funerary rites. The bodies of the enemy dead will be divided among the pantheon of the victorious – these days, all gods are carrion eaters. Old taboos no longer hold, not when every fragment of soul- stuff is needed for the war effort.
According to the tradition of the Sacred Realm of Ishmere, the souls of the honoured dead must struggle up this stair to get to heaven. Each step burns away some sin, some weakness, until they are pure enough to enter the sanctum of the goddess. This rule, too, no longer holds currency – the stair whirls across the battlefield, greedily sucking up every soul offered to the goddess.
Idly, the spy touches one step. The fires are cool as stone, and do not burn him.
Here, suspended in the sky, the spy can survey the whole battlefield. Over there is where the forces of Ishmere landed, bringing the sea with them, a fleet of mighty warships landing ten miles inland. And directly below is where the hosts of Mattaur made their stand, on the slopes of a sacred hill.
The hill offered a threefold advantage. It was a spiritual stronghold of the gods of Mattaur, where the eyeless priestesses gathered to venerate their Stygian deity. It was a high ground, safe from the miraclous floodwaters brought by the pantheon of Ishmere. And most important of all – the spy can make out the wreckage of an artillery emplacement. Alchemical cannons, bought at great expense from the foundries of Guerdon. During the battle, those guns nearly – well, turned the tide is the wrong metaphor to use in a battle where one side long ago conquered the sea, but the alchemical weapons inflicted terrible casualties on the armies of Ishmere. Saints dying in agony, their bones transmuted to lead, their lungs seared by poisonous gas. Phlogiston fires that cannot be quenched still burn on the battlefield.
The cannons might have won the battle, were it not for divine intervention. From this vantage, too, the spy sees three huge parallel rents in the hillside, furrows each half a mile long and fifty feet deep, devastation in the heart of Mattaur. That is where the lion-headed goddess reached down and slashed her enemies with her claws.
The spy reaches the top of the stairs, and steps into heaven.
Mortals and gods mingle here. The navy has set up a command post and pitched tents in the middle of the Courtyard of Heroes. Young, smartly uniformed officers rush to and fro, ignoring the fabled champions in their midst. Two armoured demigods – one with the head of a serpent, the other a bird – block the spy’s path. These are Sammeth and Cruel Urid, the guardians who watch the gates of heaven. Sammeth’s blade drips with poison so potent one drop can kill a hundred men; Urid’s spear can pierce a dozen elephants in one throw.
A young officer with a clipboard spots the spy and shoos the two demigods away. Confused, they wander back to a nearby tent and slump down.
“I’ve an appointment to see General Tala,” says the spy.
“General Tala is dead,” replies the young officer. “You’ll be meeting with Captain Isigi of the intelligence corps.” There’s an undertone of anger in the young man’s voice, a note of jealousy. The spy notes it, files it away.
“Follow me,” says the officer. “Stay close.” He leads the spy across the Courtyard of Heroes. They’ve painted lines on the ground, different coloured trails leading off in different directions. The officer keeps his eyes fixed on the paint, so he doesn’t get distracted by the glories around him. They follow a black line across the shining stones of heaven’s shore.
Glancing back, the spy sees Sammeth polishing his spear, even though the blade is already more brilliant than the sun. Cruel Urid sulks in his tent, trying to get his beak around the mouth of a scavenged hip flask.
The spy is brought to another, larger tent. The darkness inside is welcome, easier on the eye than the radiance outside. There, sitting behind a trestle table, is another young officer, a woman. In front of her is a file folder, and a wooden bowl piled high with human hearts, stacked like red apples.
“It’s General Tala’s eleven o’clock, ma’am,” announces the male officer.
“Thank you, lieutenant,” Isigi replies. Her face might once have been beautiful, but now it’s covered in fresh scars that zigzag across her skin. “I’ll be handling this briefing in the General’s place.” She starts to unbutton her shirt. “You may go, lieutenant.”
The spy notes the way the lieutenant’s hand clenches the fabric of the tent. There was definitely something between these two officers. So young to have attained such rank, too – the Godswar has made soldiers of children. The flap closes. The tent is almost completely dark, but the spy can still see Captain Isigi as she folds her shirt and lays it with the rest of her uniform on a stool. Then, shaking slightly with anticipation, she takes a heart from the bowl and bites into it.
And then they are no longer alone in the tent.
There is a timeless moment, when the spy isn’t conscious of anything other than the goddess’s overwhelming presence. He is with her on every battlefield, from the charnel field below to every other war across the world, and from the present all the way back to the first time someone picked up a rock and used it to bash an enemy’s brains out. He is with her across the world, wherever the fleets of Ishmere sail. He is with her across the heavens, as she gathers the honoured dead to her banner and consumes their power so she can work further miracles, win further victories. Conquest without end, every victory adding to her power and her hunger.
But it’s blind hunger, undirected power. The goddess knows nothing except endless destruction, conflict eternal. It takes a human element to lend purpose and structure to that holy wrath. In the tent, Captain Isigi is like a seed crystal, a framework around which the goddess can accrete.
Golden fur suddenly covers Isigi’s brown skin, fur that blazes with its own divine radiance. A jewelled breastplate appears on her chest; a skirt of leather straps manifests around her waist, a skull threaded through each strap. Her own skull cracks and reshapes. Huge fangs sprout from her jaws as her head becomes that of a lioness.
The goddess Pesh, Lion Queen, war-goddess of the Ishmeric pantheon – or rather her avatar, made from Captain Isigi – purrs in satisfaction and settles back onto her seat. The spy notes without alarm that the simple wooden chair is now a throne of skulls, that the trestle table has become a blood- soaked altar. The hearts begin to beat again, squirting jets of crimson across the floor.
The file folder, though, is still a file folder. Isigi – or is the overlapping entity in front of him more Pesh than Isigi now? – picks it up, extends a claw and slices through the metal seal holding it shut. The spy shudders at the grace of the movement, knowing that those selfsame claws recently tore a half- mile rent in the hillside below. Isigi removes the papers, reviews them in silence. The tent reverberates with her divine breath, which smells of meat and sandalwood.
Everything comes down to this.
To avoid thinking about what’s going to happen, the spy wonders how many times Isigi has channelled the goddess already. Not many, he guesses – the scars are too fresh. Gods are hard on their warsaints. One day, there won’t be enough of Isigi left to return to her mortal form. He feels almost sorry for the young officer who bought him here. The boy has lost his lover to the embrace of a goddess, and from that union there is no easy path back.
“X84?” says the saint. It’s his newly assigned code number in the files of the intelligence corps. It’s the first name that’s really his, and he finds himself unexpectedly fond of it. He nods.
“Sanhada Baradhin,” reads Isigi. That’s the name the Ishmere Intelligence Corps knows him by. “Of Severast. Profession: merchant.” She glances at him with glowing yellow eyes. “ ‘Merchant’,” she echoes, sarcastically.
“I bought and I sold,” offers X84. “What I bought wasn’t always legal and what I sold wasn’t always mine to sell.”
“A criminal,” she growls. The spy can tell that some balance has been tipped, that the gestalt entity he’s talking to is now a little more Lion Queen than Isigi.
“Tell you what,” says the spy to the goddess, “I’ll count up everyone I hurt in Severast, and you count up everyone you killed there, and we’ll see how the scales balance.”
“War is holy,” replies the goddess automatically. And here, in this heaven for warriors, that’s true.
He shrugs. “You knew who I was before you called me.”
“No surviving family is listed here,” says the goddess, tapping a line in the file. “Do you have friends in the camps? Lovers?” All of Severast is an internment camp now, the survivors of the Ishmeric conquest held until they convert or are sacrificed to the victorious pantheon. Mattaur was the last of Severast’s neighbours to hold out.
“Why, then, do you wish to serve the Sacred Realm of Ishmere?” asks the goddess.
“You’re winning,” says the spy, “and you’ll pay.”
Imperceptibly, the balance falls back, and it’s Isigi who turns a page in the folder. “You imported weapons from Guerdon’s alchemists.”
“Do you still have contacts there?”
“I honestly don’t know. I did. I can make more. I know the city.”
“The city has changed,” warns the captain, “and may change again, very quickly. Do not think of it as a safe refuge from the war.”
“I was in Severast when your armies conquered it, captain. I know what safe means, these days.”
Isigi ignores him, and flips through the rest of the folder in silence. The only noises in the tent are the shuffling of paper, the bellows-breath of the goddess and the soft clinking of the skulls in her skirt as when she moves in her chair. X84 idly toys with one of the beating hearts in the bowl.
“Leave that alone,” growls the goddess.
She reviews the last page, then – faster than the eye can follow – grabs his hand and slashes it with her claw. Blood wells up from the wound. She inclines her lioness- head towards the spy’s palm to lap up the blood, but he snatches his hand back and cradles it in the crook of his other arm. “What the hell?”
Pesh growls. “We have no reason to trust you, Baradhin. So I will taste your blood and know you. If you serve us well, you will be rewarded. If you betray us, I will personally hunt you down and punish you. Give me your blood.”
The spy nods, then extends a shaking, blood-stained finger. She gives it a perfunctory lick, then signs the last page of the folder, seals it with a divine word of command, closes it. As she does so, she recites: “You will make the arrangements for passage to Guerdon. You will accompany another of our agents on the voyage, and ensure he is delivered safely.”
“Who’s this agent?”
“My brother’s saint. Chosen of the Fate Spider.”
He feigns irritation. Blusters professionally. “God-touched? It’llbe a hell of a lot harder to smuggle your spy into the city if he’s got eight legs or whatever.”
“The child is . . . ” Does the goddess pause there, almost imperceptibly? As if she’s tasted something bitter? “ . . . still human. After that, we may have further tasks for you.”
“Wait!” says the spy, “What about my payment?”
“Gold coins, one per—”
“Not gold. The price of gold has plummeted since your Blessed Bol started turning his enemies into big golden statues. No, I want to be paid in Guerdon silver.” The spy doesn’t give a damn about the money, but it keeps the goddess’s mind off the taste of the blood.
“You will be paid in gold,” she says. “Unless you prove especially useful to us.”
“What do you need?”
The goddess withdraws, and her final answer is strangely doubled. “You’ll be contacted when you arrive,” says Isigi, and in the same moment, with the same mouth:
“War,” says the goddess. “War is holy.”
And with that, Pesh departs, and only Isigi is left. The captain staggers as her body shrinks back to mortal proportions, as her face shatters and retakes human form. She reaches blindly for a bloodstained towel she keeps behind the desk and presses it to the open wounds on her face. “Get out of here, Baradhin,” she orders without looking at him. “The lieutenant will see you back down the stair.”
The tent flap opens, and the lieutenant sidles in. He gasps as he sees the wounds on Isigi’s face, the sweat and blood on her bare skin. He hurries to her side.
“It’s all right,” mutters the spy, “I’ll see myself out.”
Before either Ishmeric officer can argue, he slips out and hurries along the line of black paint, head bowed, dismissed from the camp of the conquerors. The line leads him back to the edge of heaven, and he descends the stair of fire that leads back to the mortal world.
Halfway down he takes the stolen heart he palmed from the bowl out from his shirt and drops it into the ocean, far below. He wipes his bloody hand clean, then uses a strip of his shirt as an impromptu bandage.
The goddess wounded him, but she did not taste his blood.
She doesn’t know him.