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art by Eleanor Bennett

Ichor

Jess Hyslop is a writer and sometime blogger living in the UK, where she spends the majority of her time avoiding the realities of life after university. She studied English at the University of Cambridge, and was there awarded the Quiller-Couch prize for creative writing in 2010. Her winning story, "Augury" is now available via Shortfire Press. Her short fiction has also appeared in Bewildering Stories, Abandoned Towers, and Cast of Wonders, and is forthcoming in Interzone. She tweets @JinxedJester. This is her second story to appear in Daily Science Fiction.
***Editor's Note: Disturbing. For adults.***
Now
"Peter Whitt, you have been sentenced to death by the order of the High Priesthood. Your crime is that of the grossest treason: the attempted assassination of our most treasured Angel Ikrael, upon whom this nation's spiritual health depends. In payment for this abhorrent crime, you are to be hanged by the neck until you are dead. May the Lord have mercy on your soul."
The man on the scaffold is grubby, battered, and barefoot. Bruises mar his once pleasant face and his exposed torso shows evidence of prolonged torture. Yet Peter Whitt does not so much as blink as his doom is announced to the waiting crowd. Nor does he spare a glance for the Priest as the white-robed official rolls up his scroll and gestures the executioner forward. Peter does not even react as the masked man strides to his side, slips the noose around his neck, and grasps the lever that will open the trapdoor beneath his feet. He makes no response to the jeers of the crowd, not even when a clod of dirt, thrown by an enthusiastic spectator, flies past his ear.
But as the executioner yanks on the lever and Peter plummets down--in that instant between the trapdoor opening and the rope tautening--the convict's expression finally changes.
He grins.
Before
The Angel Ikrael writhed in the heart of the Sanctum, its eyes straining wide with pain and shock, its fingers scrabbling at the marble floor of its enclosure. Its wings thrashed open and closed, convulsing with the Angel's panic. It tried to speak, but all that issued from its throat were incoherent chokes--and blood.
The Angel's severed tongue lay beside it.
Peter Whitt knelt just outside the Angel's cage, his head cocked slightly to one side as he watched the victim's suffering.
Silver blood gushed from the Angel's mouth like a perverse fountain. It spattered Angel and Peter both, pooling on the floor and dribbling through the bars of the cage. Peter inspected the fluid as it collected between his knees, admiring the way it shimmered in the lamplight.
A strange, subtle gleam lurked in Peter's eyes. It looked like joy. It looked like satisfaction.
When the guards burst into the Sanctum, he offered no resistance.
Before
The Angel gasped, staring at Peter. "What did you do?"
Peter met its golden eyes, a smile tugging at his bleeding lip. "Something you couldn't."
Then Peter reached into the enclosure and grasped the Angel's head in his hands. He possessed only mortal strength, but the Angel--weakened by its long captivity--was the feebler. Peter forced his thumbs into the Angel's mouth, pressing its jaw down and its mouth open. Then he maneuvered one hand to grab its tongue between his fingers.
The Angel tried to scream, but Peter only tightened his grip.
"Too late for that," he said.
Then he leant in and bit off the Angel's tongue.
Before
"Come closer then," said the Angel. Carefully, it bit down on its bottom lip, so that a small spot of silver blood welled up. "Taste."
"Truly?" Peter's brow wrinkled. "I thought... A fingertip, perhaps..."
The Angel shook its head. "This is the best way. I thought you wanted--"
"I do," said Peter hastily. "Oh, I do."
Overcoming his reluctance, Peter shuffled in close to the Angel, stopping just short of the bars of its cage. One last, furtive glance towards the Sanctum's door, and then he leaned forward and licked the blood off the Angel's lip.
As Peter did so, he felt the Angel's teeth dig into his own lower lip, giving it a delicate nip. Then the Angel jerked away, as though surprised at its own action.
Peter rocked back on his haunches and watched the Angel expectantly. A new light had entered his eyes.
"Well?" he asked.
Before
The Angel's voice was faint with fatigue. "Do you know what it feels like, to drink of an Angel's blood?" it asked.
Peter paused. The Angel had never spoken to him this way before. It had cursed him often, wept and screamed, begged for release, but never had it addressed him in such a rational tone. He inched towards the cage, intrigued.
"For a mortal to taste the blood of a Celestial," the Angel continued, "is the highest pleasure--and the highest honor--imaginable. You have seen it in the Priests' faces, have you not? During the ritual, they partake in pure ecstasy. You should see how they behave in here before they have composed themselves."
Peter's eyes widened. He couldn't imagine the Priests caught in the midst of blissful throes; they always appeared so aloof.
"You want to experience it for yourself," said the Angel. It wasn't a question.
Peter swallowed. "I cannot," he mumbled. "I am no Priest."
"How would they know?" said the Angel. "I won't tell them." It paused, regarding him. "I've watched you, you know. I've seen you work, day in and day out. You have done them good service. You clean up after their ritual, keep the Sanctum locked against intruders, make sure my cage is secure. And yet they offer you no words of congratulation, no kindness of any sort." It cocked its head slightly to one side. "In a way, you're a prisoner too, aren't you? They call you 'warder' but really, what freedoms do you enjoy? What's your reward?"
Peter ducked his head, confused. "I... I don't know."
"I do," the Angel said softly. "Come. Come to me, and take your payment."
Peter hesitated. Then he thought of all his years of service, and how the Angel was right: the Priests had never shown him any gratitude for his dedication. He drew a shaking breath.
"All right."
Before
Peter stepped aside to let the last of the Priests file out of the Sanctum. Dressed in their gold-trimmed robes, they looked like sleek, well-fed cats. A glow of contentment had settled into their features; a sheen of idyll veiled their eyes. Peter noted this, as he always did, and wondered at it.
Once the Priests' footsteps had echoed away down the passage, Peter entered the Sanctum and crossed to the gilded cage that stood at the center of the vaulted chamber. Inside, the Angel lay prone, one wing bent beneath its body and the other curled around it, as though the molting feathers could somehow defend it from harm. Its skin was so pale it was almost translucent, its chest barely rising as it breathed. It scarcely seemed alive.
Peter did not let the Angel's condition worry him; he knew from past experience that it was of no concern. No matter how close to death the Angel appeared, no matter how much of its blood the Priests had gorged on during their ritual, it would rejuvenate. Ready to repeat the cycle once more.
Peter busied himself with his task of tidying away the Priests' equipment--the porcelain bowls and the hollow, finger-length needles. The Priests always left the receptacles utterly clean, sucking every drop of blood from the needles and licking the bowls' interiors spotless. Peter wished that, just once, they would leave one drop--one measly drop--so that he might have a taste. It was a heretical thing to think--Peter was no Priest, and only the Priesthood were permitted to bolster themselves with the blood of the Angel Ikrael--but still, he thought it.
Peter was inspecting the last bowl (more in optimism than in hope) when he realized the Angel had raised its head from the shade of its wing and was watching him.
"Are you curious?" it asked.
Now
The Priests stand at the bars and inspect the Angel where it lies, wounded. They have saved as much of the spilt ichor as possible, scraping it into their ritual bowls and slurping the remnants from the marble floor.
They wait.
The Angel's screams become gradually more coherent as its tongue slowly regrows. When the reconstruction is complete, the Angel takes a long, shuddering breath.
"It's gone!" it croaks. "It's gone!" It lunges through the bars to grasp the hem of the nearest Priest's robe, but he steps hastily out of reach.
"Let me out of here!" the Angel cries. "It's gone, I tell you! It... It stole me! My body, it... When I tasted... It bit me! And then it... Dear God, it bit out my tongue!"
The Angel searches each face in turn, its gaze beseeching. "I'm the warder! I'm Peter, can't you see?" It clasps the bars, as though mere physical proximity will make them understand. "The Angel's escaped!"
The Priests' expressions do not betray their thoughts. They turn their neutral faces to one another, then step away to confer in murmurs. When they return to the caged being in the center of the chamber, their countenances are as serene as ever.
"This is a trick," the High Priest says. "You merely want us to release you." He shakes his head, ponderous, as though explaining the obvious to a misbehaving child. "That cannot be. You serve the Priesthood and the nation."
The Angel gapes. "No, no! It's no trick. And I... I can prove it!" It scrambles to its feet. "Ask me about Peter Whitt!" it cries. "Ask me anything! Ask me--"
The Priest holds up a fingertip stained with silver. "This proves it," he says. He licks the blood from his skin, and his eyes flare with a sudden jolt of euphoria. "Blood is blood."
"No!"
The Priests ignore the Angel's pleas. They leave the Sanctum and lock the door behind them. They will retain the only key from now on. No one else can be trusted with a thing so precious as an Angel.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 9th, 2013


"Ichor" came about because I wanted to try writing something backwards. Using a reverse chronology seemed an ideal way to play with readers' expectations, and to gradually unravel a secret as the story went on. Or, in fact, back.

- Jess Hyslop

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