- Days of Blood & Starlight
Now, though, with the chimaera hanging on to the frayed end of their existence, it seemed his father’s words had gotten through. When the patrols had gone out to Eretz, he’d stayed behind—with clear reluctance and even bad grace that put Ziri in mind of guardsmen who drew duty during the festival times. It was a heavy thing, to miss out. He had paced, wolf-restless, hungry, envious, and he came alive now at his soldiers’ return.
He clasped them by the arm one by one before coming to a halt before Balieros.
“I hope,” he said, with a grim smile to indicate he doubted it not, “that you have done grievous harm.”
The evidence of it painted them, splash and spatter. Blood: dried to a dull dark brown, black where it gathered in the creases of gauntlets and boot heels and hooves. Every edge and angle of Ziri’s crescent-moon blades was grimed with it; he couldn’t wait to clean them. Mutilating the dead. Perhaps it was a proud thing, these cut smiles that had been the Warlord’s message long ago. Ziri only knew that he felt foul, and wanted to go to the river and bathe. Even his horns were crusted with blood where they had impaled an angel who flew at him while he was grappling with another. The patrol had done grievous harm indeed.
It had also protected Caprine farmfolk from an enemy sweep, freed a caravan of slaves, armed them, and sent them wide to spread word of what was coming. But Thiago didn’t ask about that. To hear him, he might have forgotten there were folk in the world who weren’t soldiers—enemy or own—or any cause left but killing.
“Tell me,” he said, avid. “I want to know the looks on their faces. I want to hear how they screamed.”
GREAT WILD HEART
Some time around midday, the Dashnag boy, Rath, still carrying Sarazal, led Sveva down a steep wooded slope into a ravine. It was narrow enough that the forest canopy was unbroken overhead, and Sveva thought that the pale damsel boughs arching upward to meet in the middle looked like the arms of maidens joined in dance. Sunlight reached through them, sometimes in bright spears and sometimes dappled lacework, green and gold and ever shifting. Small winged things drifted and hummed from the depths to the heights of this little ravine that was their entire world, and, down below, a creek could be heard, spry as music.
All this will burn, thought Sveva, leaping a drift of vines and shying sideways down the slope behind Rath.
The fires were still behind them, and with the wind from the south carrying the smoke away, they couldn’t even smell it, but they had come several times to hillocks and glimpsed the sky roiling black behind them.
How could the angels do it? Was it so important to catch or kill a few chimaera that they would destroy the whole land? Why did they even want it, just to ravage it?
Why can’t they just leave us alone? she wanted to scream, but she didn’t. She knew it was a childish thought, that the wars and hates of the world were too big for her to understand, and that she was no more important in the scheme of things than these moths and adderflies drifting in their shafts of light.
I am important, though, she insisted to herself. And so was Sarazal, and so were the moths and the adderflies, and the slinking skotes, and the star tenzing blooms so small and perfect, and even the tiny biting skinwights, who, after all, were just trying to live.
And Rath was important, too, even if his breath smelled like a lifetime of blood meals and bitten bones.
He was helping them. When he had grabbed up Sarazal, Sveva hadn’t really believed he meant to drag her away and make a meal of her, but it was hard not to be afraid when her heartbeat skittered sideways at the mere sight of him. Dashnag ate flesh. It was what they were, same as skinwights were skinwights, but that didn’t mean she had to like them. Or him.
“We don’t eat Dama,” he’d said without looking at her, after she’d caught up to him—which was easy, she was so much faster than he was, and he was encumbered by carrying Sarazal. “Or any other higher beasts. As I’m sure you know.”
Sveva knew that this was supposedly the case, but it was a hard thing to take on faith. “Not even if you’re really hungry?” she had asked, skeptical and in some strange way wanting to believe the worst of him.
“I am really hungry, and you’re still alive,” he’d replied. That was all. He kept going, and Sveva had a hard time staying afraid, because Sarazal was asleep with her head on his shoulder and he stayed upright, holding her, when it would have been easier for him to leave her and throw himself forward into the long, loping run the Dashnag used to take down prey. He hadn’t, though.
He’d led them here, and now that they were well down in the ravine, Sveva could hear and smell what he had heard and smelled several miles back with his sharp predator’s senses: Caprine.
Caprine? This was why he had cut east, to catch the trail of these slow, bobbing herdfolk, who, to judge from the smell, still had all their livestock with them?
Rath stopped at the bottom of the slope, and when Sveva drew even with him, he said, “From the village, I think, the one by the aqueduct. You remember.”
As if she could forget the place where the seraph soldiers were strung up with their red Warlord smiles. She would never forget it as long as she lived, the horror mingled with the hope of salvation. The village had been empty; she had supposed its occupants must be dead, and was glad now to know they weren’t, but she didn’t know why Rath was following them.
“Caprine are slow,” she said.
“So they’ll need help,” Rath replied, and Sveva felt a flush of shame. She’d been thinking only of their own escape.
“They might have a healer, too,” Rath added, looking down at Sarazal, who rested against his chest, her eyes still closed, wounded leg curled gingerly in the crook of his arm. It was such an incongruous sight, the predator cradling the prey, that Sveva could only blink and feel that she’d hit the stony bottom of her own shallow depths.
Did she know anything at all?
This land was immense. It seemed to Akiva as though he could rise higher and higher into the air and it would keep unrolling in every direction, endless and green, forever. He knew that wasn’t the case. In the east the earth rose and stepped up a long, low crust of hills to become high desert for days, days into weeks of red clay and barbed plants, where venomous beetles as large as shields burrowed down and lay in wait for months, years, for prey to pass within reach. Some nomads were rumored to live around the sky islands, such as the jackal-headed Sab, but seraph patrols that went that way either reported no signs of life or vanished into the depths and never returned to report at all.
To the west lay the Coast Range, and beyond that the Secret Coast, home to tidal villages and folk who could live in the water or out of it, and who slipped away fish-fast at the sight of the enemy, retreating to deepwater refuges until the danger had passed.
And to the south: the formidable Hintermost, the highest mountains in Eretz as well as the broadest by triple the scope of any other mountain range in the world. They made an epic wall of gray ramparts and natural crenels, gorges riddled through with rivers that cut into the heart of the rock and out again, and slopes glinting with waterfalls by the thousands. There were said to be passes—mazy ravines and tunnels—leading to green lands on the far side, impassable but with the guidance of the frog-fleshed native tribes who dwelt mostly in darkness. And in the highest reaches, ice formations looked like crystal cities from a distance, but proved desolate wind mazes up close, unnavigable but by the stormhunters who nested there, sitting their huge eggs and riding gales that would dash anything else to death in half a wingbeat.
Such were the natural boundaries of this southern continent that the seraphim had long ago sought to tame, and the green earth that lay below Akiva now was its great wild heart, too huge to hold, even if every soldier in the Empire’s array of armies was sent to try. They could—and would—burn villages and fields, but more chimaera here were nomads than farmers, fleet and elusive, and the seraphim couldn’t burn it all, even if they were to try, which—contrary to these billows of black smoke—they were not.
The fires were only to corral the fugitives south and east, to where the forests thinned and creeks filtered down to join the great Kir River, and they might be able to flush them out. And if they succeeded?
Akiva hoped they wouldn’t. In truth he did more than hope: He put all his skills as a tracker to work at untracking. Wherever he gauged chimaera might be—where a crease in the canopy hinted at a creek, for example—he made efforts to lead the team a different way, and because he was Beast’s Bane, no one questioned him. Except maybe Hazael, and then only with his eyes.
Liraz wasn’t with them; their team was a dozen strong, and she’d been assigned to another. Akiva couldn’t help wondering, over the course of the day, with what zeal his sister was pursuing her orders.
“So what do you really think?” Hazael asked him out of the blue. It was getting on into evening, and they had yet turned up no fleeing slaves or villagers.
“About who’s behind these attacks.”
What did he think? He didn’t know. All day Akiva had been at war with hope—trying not to let himself hope, partly because it was so wrong a feeling to take away from a site of massacre, and partly out of simple fear that it might prove fruitless. Was there another resurrectionist? Was there not?
“Not ghosts, anyway,” he gave as a safe answer.
“No, probably not ghosts,” Hazael agreed. “It is curious, though. No blood on our soldiers’ blades, no tracks leading away save the fleeing folk, and five attacks in one night—so how many attackers in all? They have to be strong to do what they did, and probably winged, to come and vanish without tracks, and I’d guess they had hamsas, else our soldiers must have gotten in some strikes. This was just an opening act.” It was a studied assessment; Akiva had thought of all these things himself. Hazael gave him a long look. “What are we dealing with here, Akiva?”
He finally had to say it. “Revenants. It has to be.”
Akiva hesitated. “Maybe.” Did Hazael understand what it meant to him if there was another resurrectionist? Could he guess his hope—that Karou might live again? And what sympathy could he have for his hopes? Suppose his forgiveness hinged on Karou being dead, as if Akiva’s madness might be in the past, something to be gotten over so they could keep on as usual.
There could be no more “as usual” for Akiva. What could there be?
“There!” called the patrol leader, jarring him out of his thoughts. Kala was a lieutenant of the Second Legion, the largest by far of the Empire’s forces, sometimes called the common army. She was pointing down into a gully where the fringe of trees didn’t quite come together, and where, as Akiva watched, one flicker of movement begat another, and another, and then a rush of bodies. Herd movement. The Caprine. His gut seized, and his first impulse was anger: What fools, in all this great wild land, to let themselves be seen.
It was too late to divert attention from them; there was nothing he could do but follow as Kala led the team down toward the trees. She was alert for ambush, and motioned Akiva and Hazael to sweep wide to the gully’s far side, which they did, staring hard into the broken space between treetops, hoping for a clear view, which they did not get—only glimpses of fleece and ambling motion.
Akiva held his swords bitterly. His training was very clear. Take up a weapon and you become an instrument with as pure a purpose as the weapon itself: to find arteries and open them, limbs and sever them; to take what is alive and deliver it unto death. There was no other reason to hold a weapon, no other reason to be one.
He didn’t want to be that weapon anymore. Oh, he could desert, he could vanish right now. He didn’t have to be party to this. But it wasn’t enough that he cease to kill chimaera. He had dreamed so much bigger than that once.
The trees were a whisper of green as he and Hazael descended with the others, and the voice that filled his head was one he had heard only once. It is life that expands to fill worlds. Life is your master or death is. When Brimstone had spoken those words, they’d meant nothing to Akiva. Now he understood. But how could a soldier change masters?
How, with swords clenched in both hands, could one hope to keep blood from spilling?
THE WORST KIND OF SILENCE
So many different kinds of silence, Sveva thought, pressing her face into Rath’s shoulder and trying not to breathe. This was the worst kind. This was make-a-sound-and-die silence, which, though she had never experienced it before, she understood instinctively grew more fraught the more souls you shared it with. One might trust oneself to be quiet, but thirty-odd strangers?
They were huddled under a lip of earth carved out by the creek in fuller seasons; the water passed before them, flicking at their hooves—and Rath’s huge clawed paws—and its burble might at least cover some small sounds—whimpers or sniffs. Of which, Sveva noted, she heard none and nothing. With her eyes closed, she might have been alone, but for the heat of Rath on one side and Nur on the other. The Caprine mother held her baby tucked against her, and Sveva kept expecting Lell to cry, but she didn’t. This silence, she thought, was remarkable: a perfect, shimmering thing, and fragile. Like glass, if it shattered, it would never come back together again.
If Lell cried, or if someone’s hoof lost purchase and skidded on the bank, or if any sound rose over the innocent burble of the creek, they would all die.
And if the innermost frightened-child part of her wanted to blame Rath for them being here at all, she couldn’t. Oh, not for lacking of trying. It was good to have someone to blame, but the problem with Sveva and blame was that if she kept tracing it back, there was only her, racing down the valley ahead of Sarazal, wind in her hair and not heeding her sister’s call to turn back. This wasn’t Rath’s fault, and what’s more, she and her sister would probably be dead already if not for him. And the Caprine, well, they would be dying right now. Right this very moment.