- Days of Blood & Starlight
Karou distracted herself with work, a new urgency in the building of bodies. She tried not to think as if she were starting from scratch, but it was hard, with such grim odds.
It could be days before they knew anything. It was an epic long way to the Hintermost, with all the free holdings and the vast southern continent between here and there. Without wings, it would have been several weeks’ overland trudging, but overland trudging was a thing of the past, and thank goodness for that. Karou remembered, when she was Madrigal, chafing at the unbearable pace of her battalions. But with wings, depending on what happened, the patrols could be back in days.
The possibility that no one would come back at all was very real, and the strain of knowing that, and waiting, waiting to know something by never actually knowing, it was as old as war itself and it was the worst kind of dragged-out, miserable, gradual understanding she could think of.
So she was startled to hear the sentry’s call just after dawn—too soon—and she was out the window in a stride, a string of teeth still clasped in her hands. She leapt up the parapet on tiptoe and kept going, up and into the sky. It was barely thirty-six hours and there were shapes on the horizon, a full patrol. It seemed like a miracle.
Another minute and they were near enough that she could make out Amzallag’s bulk. It was Amzallag’s team.
No Ziri then.
Yet. She ignored her disappointment, glad at least to see Amzallag, and just marveled that a team—any team, if not the one she was most hoping for—had returned intact from such a fight, and so quickly! She settled to perch on the green palace roof tiles and watch them land. Thiago came out to meet them as he always did, clasping arms and not seeming out-of-the-usual pleased or surprised. She couldn’t hear what they said, but she could see that the soldiers’ sleeves were stiff with blood.
Another patrol returned, and another.
The sun climbed, the squadrons came home to roost one by one, and the miracle of it began to feel suspect. How was it possible that they had lost no one? By midmorning every team was accounted for but Balieros’s, and Karou could barely swallow around the lump in her throat.
“Where did they go?” she asked Ten back in her room, making a fidgeting effort at work.
“What do you mean? They went to the Hintermost,” said the she-wolf, but Karou knew it was a lie. Aside from the fact that they were back too soon, too alive, and the mood was wrong. It was heavy.
From her vantage point she saw the soldier Virko, who with his spiraling ram’s horns reminded her a little of Brimstone, go behind the piss-rampart and fall to his knees to vomit. The sound of his retching rose and fell, traveling in waves across the court where the rest of the company, milling in a queerly quiet way, fell even quieter, and seemed to avoid looking at one another.
Amzallag sat under the arcade cleaning his sword, and when Karou looked down an hour later or even longer, he was still cleaning it, his movements jerky, angry.
The sight, though, that made Karou’s mouth fill with the sweet saliva that precedes gagging, was Razor. Whatever the teams had been doing for the past day and a half—which was not by any calculation enough time to reach the Hintermost and return—had added a swagger to his whisper-smooth reptilian stride, and… he carried a sack. It was a brown cloth sack, heavy and full, and… stained with some fluid seepage, its color indeterminate, thanks to the brown of the sack. Fighting back the gag, Karou knew what the seepage was, and its color, and no matter how she had berated herself for her willful ignorance just a couple of days earlier, she did not want to know any more than that.
She found the antelope teeth again in her hand and put them down. She kept going to the window. Ten snapped at her for aimlessness, but she couldn’t focus. This was wrong.
And then, finally, at the slow waning of the day’s hottest hour, the sentry called again. Ziri. Karou was out the window and into the air. The sky was pure cobalt, cloudless and depthless, hiding nothing.
It was also empty. She turned to the sentry tower, confused. Oora was standing duty, and she wasn’t even looking in the direction of the portal. The Wolf appeared beside her, and Oora pointed downhill, into the distance. Karou had to squint to see what they were looking at, and when she did, she breathed, “No. No no. No.”
Humans, two of them, slipping as they climbed the scree.
They were headed straight for the kasbah.
This time, when angels came upon them, Sveva searched their eyes, and none were fire, and she swept their armor, and saw no lilies. Different angels. Bad luck.
To come so close to safety…
She’d really thought they’d made it. The mountains were so big, they’d kept seeming nearer than they were, and within reach. And then at the top of a slope that just had to be the last one—the last hill before the land must feather into those great granite folds that were like the world’s own walls—another valley would yawn open at their feet. Another expanse to cross, another rise to climb. It was like a trick.
But this one, this really was the last. Sveva could see the very place where a row of huge bulged stones met a meadow.
“They look like toes on a big fat foot,” she’d just said, not two minutes ago, smiling with the others. And she’d spun Lell, and the babe had laughed. “The mountain’s toes,” she’d sung. “We’ve reached the mountain’s toes!” And she was prancing, hugging the little Caprine to her chest, still singing her happy nonsense—“I wonder if it’s stinky in between the mountain’s toes”—when Sarazal cried, “Svee!”
And she looked, and they were there. Angels. The wrong angels.
Still, Sveva tensed in a place between hate and hope that hadn’t even existed a few days earlier. They had met mercy once; why not twice? Mercy, she had discovered, made mad alchemy: a drop of it could dilute a lake of hate. Because of what had happened in the gully, seraphim were more than slavers and faceless winged killers to her.
And yet, when these seraphim came pressing down, swords already red and no mercy in their eyes, she had no trouble screaming, “Kill them!”
The angels hadn’t seen him. They were almost smirking, this pair in shining armor. They saw a flock of Caprine, a couple of Dama, some grizzled old Hartkind—easy kills all. And the Dashnag? He’d been last up the rise; they didn’t see him until he was on them, already inside the reach of their swords and dragging them down to the ground, grappling, tearing.
They were screaming.
Sveva didn’t want to watch, but she made herself, which is how she saw one of them free an arm and raise his sword, slamming it onto Rath’s back. She shoved Lell at Sarazal and darted in with her slaver’s knife and stuck it. She stuck it right in the gap the angel’s armor left bare. She stabbed him in the armpit, deep, and he dropped his sword.
So that’s what it feels like, she thought as her boldness gave way to trembling. It feels awful. Her knife was slippery and her gorge was rising. Sarazal grabbed her shoulder. “Svee, come on!” Urgent. And then they were swimming in shadows, all of them. Shadows wheeling, weaving. More angels overhead. Sveva threw back her head.
A lot more angels.
Rath roared. Sveva looked at her sister, at Lell, at Nur with her arms outstretched, trying to reach her child, at all the other Caprine and the old Hartkind couple, and she held on to her knife and pointed to the stone toes in the distance. “Run!” she screamed. They did.
She stood with Rath.
Look at me, she thought with weird, cold pride. Everything was sharp and sure. Stabbing was awful, and she’d never have believed she would stand when she could run. She loved to run. But standing felt good, too. She looked at Rath. He looked at her. She thought he might urge her to go, but he didn’t. Maybe he just knew it wouldn’t matter, that there was no safety, but maybe… maybe he liked not being alone. He was, after all, just a boy.
Sveva smiled at him, and there they stood, so near the end of their journey they could feel the mist of waterfalls from on high, but they were in the shadows of angels now, and not likely to ever come out again.
Unless of course there was another miracle.
When the figures crested the tree line, Sveva almost couldn’t believe it. If she hadn’t seen them before, she would have been as afraid of them as she was of the angels. They were much scarier than angels.
They were revenants. Chimaera.
Saviors. It was so much like the night at the slave caravan, but it was day now and she could see them clearly. She recognized some of them: there was the griffon who had unlocked her shackle, and the bull centaur who had untwisted the metal scrap that bound Sarazal. Sveva searched for the other—the handsome horned one who had put this knife in her hand—but him she didn’t see.
The rebels were five against thrice that number, but they tore through the seraphim like a calamity.
After the first clash, and the first thuds of fallen bodies—enemies all—Rath did turn to Sveva and urge her to go. His eyes were alight. “I knew they’d come back,” he said fervently. “I knew they wouldn’t abandon us. Sveva, go. Catch the others. Take care of them, and tell them I said good-bye.” He put a big clawed hand on her shoulder. “Good luck.”
“But what about you?”
“I told you before, I was looking for the rebels.” He was happy; she saw that this was what he had wanted all along. “I’m going to join them,” he said.
And he did. When Sveva fled, Rath stayed and fought with the rebels.
And died with them, right there at the toes of the mountains.
And was dragged with them into a big pile.
“Come on,” said Hazael. “There’s nothing more we can do.”
More? That would imply they had done something. They had found no opportunity. Too many Dominion, too much open ground. Akiva shook his head and said nothing. Maybe his night flight had spurred folk from their resting places, maybe chased them near enough that some had made the ravines and tunnels ahead of the angels. He would never know. All he would know was this before him.
The sky was spring blue and mountain-clean. Pristine. The smoke was still contained to thin columns, here and there. From this high rock perch the world became a lace of treetop and meadow, and the runoff rivers in the sun were like veins of pure light curving through the contours of hills. Mountains and sky, tree and stream, and the spark of wings as Dominion squadrons moved from site to site, setting their fires. This place was damp, ferny: mist veils and waterfalls. It wouldn’t burn easily.
In such a place, with such a vista, it was almost impossible to accept what had happened here today. The blood daubs gave it away, though.
There were so many. The carrion birds could scent blood in the air from miles away. Judging from their numbers—and from the jerking eagerness of their usually languid spirals—there was plenty of it in the air today.
“And there are our birds,” Akiva said, defeated.
Hazael took his meaning. “I’m sure some got to safety,” he said. It was a moment before Akiva realized he’d said it with Liraz right there. She was looking at them. He waited for her to say something, but she just turned away, looked up into the peaks.
“They say you can’t fly over them,” she said. “The wind is too strong. Only stormhunters can survive it.”
“I wonder what’s on the other side,” said Hazael.
“Maybe it’s a mirror of this side, and seraphim there have chased their chimaera into tunnels, too, and they meet in the middle, in the dark, and find out there’s no safe place in all the world, and no happy ending.”
“Or,” said Hazael, overbright, “maybe there are no seraphim on that side, and there’s the happy ending. No us.”
She turned from the peaks, abrupt. Her tone, which had been curiously remote, turned hard. “You don’t want to be us anymore, do you?” Her gaze shuttled back and forth between them. “You think I can’t see it?”
Hazael pursed his lips, glanced at Akiva. “I still want to be us,” he said.
“So do I,” said Akiva. “Always.” He thought back to the sky of the other world, when he had stopped the pair of them in their pursuit of Karou and made himself tell them—finally—the truth. That he had loved a chimaera, and dreamed of a different life. He’d gambled then that his sister was more than the emperor’s weapon, and if she had shunned the idea of harmony, at least she hadn’t turned on him. Did he think he was the only one who was sick of death? Look at Hazael. How many others? “But a better us,” he said.
“A better us?” Liraz asked. “Look at us, Akiva.” She held up her hands to show her ink. “We can’t pretend. We wear what we’ve done.”
“Only the killing. There are no marks for mercy.”
“Even if there were, I would bear none,” she said. Akiva met her eyes, and he saw a kind of torment in her.
“You have only to begin, Lir. Mercy breeds mercy as slaughter breeds slaughter. We can’t expect the world to be better than we make it.”
“No,” she said, faint, and for a moment he thought she was going to say more, go deeper, demand his secrets. Confess hers? But when she turned away, it was only to say, “Let’s get out of here. They’re burning bodies, and I don’t want to smell the char.”
Ziri watched the blaze. He was upslope on a ridge, in the safety of the trees.
Safety. The word felt absurd. There was no safety. The angels might as well light the whole world on fire and be done with it. The things he had seen burn in these last months. Farms, entire rivers slick with oil. Children running, fleet and screaming—aflame—until they could run and scream no more. And now, friends.