- Days of Blood & Starlight
There was one place besides Loramendi, Akiva told Hazael and Liraz, that he had thought Karou might go. He hadn’t really expected to find her there; he had convinced himself by then that she had fled back through the portal to her life—art and friends and cafes with coffin tables—and left this devastated world behind. Well, he had almost convinced himself, but something pulled him north.
“I think I would always find you,” he had told her just days ago, minutes before they snapped the wishbone. “No matter how you were hidden.”
But he hadn’t meant…
Not like this.
In the Adelphas Mountains, the ice-rimed peaks that had for centuries served as bastion between the Empire and the free holdings, lay the Kirin caves.
It was there that the child Madrigal had lived, and there that she had returned one long-ago afternoon in shafts of diamond light to find that her tribe had been slaughtered and stolen by angels while she was out at play. The sheaf of elemental skins she’d gripped in her small fist had fallen at the threshold and been swept inside by the wind. They would have been turned by time from silk to paper, translucent to blue, and then finally to dust, but other elemental skins littered the floors when Akiva entered. No flash and flitter of the creatures themselves, though, or of any other living thing.
He had been to the caves once before, and although it had been years and his recollections were dominated by grief, they seemed to him unchanged. A network of sculpted rooms and paths extending deep into the rock, all smooth and curving, they were half nature, half art, with clever channels carved throughout that acted as wind flutes, filling even the deepest chambers with ethereal music. Lonely relics of the Kirin remained: woven rugs, cloaks on hooks, chairs still lying where they’d scattered in the chaos of the tribe’s last moments.
On a table, in plain sight, he found the vessel.
It was lantern-like, of dark hammered silver, and he knew what it was. He’d seen enough of them in the war: chimaera soldiers carried them on long, curved staffs. Madrigal had been holding one when he first set eyes on her on the battlefield at Bullfinch, though he hadn’t understood then what it was, or what she was doing with it.
Or that it was the enemy’s great secret and the key to their undoing.
It was a thurible—a vessel for the capture of souls of the dead, to preserve them for resurrection—and it didn’t look to have been on the table for long. There was dust under it but none on it. Someone had placed it there recently; who, Akiva couldn’t guess, nor why.
Its existence was a mystery in every aspect but one.
Affixed to it with a twist of silver wire was a small square of paper on which was written a word. It was a chimaera word, and under the circumstances the cruelest taunt Akiva could fathom, because it meant hope, and it was the end of his, since it was also a name.
It was Karou.
From: Zuzana <[email protected]>Subject: Please noTo: Karou <[email protected]>Oh Jesus. You’re dead, aren’t you?
THE END OF AFTERMATH
And this was Akiva’s new hell: to have everything change and nothing change.
Here he was, back in Eretz, not dead and not imprisoned, still a soldier of the Misbegotten and hero of the Chimaera War: the celebrated Beast’s Bane. It was absurd that he should find himself back in his old life as if he were the same creature he had been before a blue-haired girl brushed past him in a narrow street in another world.
He wasn’t. He didn’t know what creature he was now. The vengeance that had sustained him all these years was gone, and in its place was an ash pit as vast as Loramendi: grief and shame, that gnawing wretchedness, and, at the edges, an unfixed sense of… imperative. Of purpose.
But what purpose?
He had never thought ahead to these times. “Peace,” it was being feted in the Empire, but Akiva could only think of it as aftermath. In his mind, the end had always been the fall of Loramendi and revenge on the monsters whose savage cheers had played accompaniment to Madrigal’s death. What would come next, he had barely thought of. He supposed he had assumed he would be dead, like so many other soldiers, but now he could see that it would be too easy to die.
Live in the world you’ve made, he thought to himself, rising each morning. You don’t deserve to rest.
Aftermath was ugly. Every day he was forced to bear witness to it: the slave caravans on the move, the burned hulls of temples, squat and defiled, the crushed hamlets and wayside inns, always columns of smoke rising in the distance. Akiva had set this in motion, but if his own vengeance was long spent, the emperor’s wasn’t. The free holdings were crushed—an accomplishment made easier by the pitiful fact that untold thousands of chimaera had fled to Loramendi for safety, only to burn alive in its fall—and the Empire’s expansion was under way.
The populous north of the chimaera lands were but the cusp of a great wild continent, and though the main strength of Joram’s armies had come home, patrols continued on, moving like the shadow of death deeper south and deeper, razing villages, burning fields, making slaves, making corpses. It might have been the emperor’s work, but Akiva had made it possible, and he watched with bleak eyes, wondering how much Karou had seen before she died, and how acute had been her hate by the end.
If she were alive, he thought, he would never be able to look her in the eye.
If she were alive.
Her soul remained, but because of Akiva, the resurrectionist was dead. In one of his darker moments, the irony started him laughing and he couldn’t stop, and the sounds that came from him, before finally tapering into sobs, were so far from mirth they might have been the forced inversion of laughter—like a soul pulled inside out to reveal its rawest meat.
He was in the Kirin caves when that happened, no one to hear him. He went back to retrieve the thurible, which he had hidden there. It was a day’s journey, and he sat with the vessel and tried to believe it was Karou, but, laying his hand on the chill silver, he felt nothing, and such a depth of nothing overwhelmed him that he allowed himself the hope that it was not her soul within—it couldn’t be. He would feel it if it were; he would know. So he made the journey back through the portal to the human world, all the way to Prague, where he peered in her window as he had once before, and beheld… two sleeping figures entwined.
His hope was like an intake of icy air—it hurt—and just as sharp and sudden was his jealousy. In an instant he was hot and cold with it, his hands clenching into fists so tight they burned. A flare of adrenaline coursed through him and left him shaking, and it wasn’t her. It wasn’t her, and for the fleeting flash of an instant, he felt relief. Followed by crushing disappointment and self-loathing for what his reaction had been.
He waited for Karou’s friends to wake. That was who it was: the musician and the small girl whose eyes would give Liraz’s a run for ferocity. He watched them throughout the day, hoping at every turn that Karou would show up, but she never did. She wasn’t here, and there was a long moment when her friend stood stock-still, scanning the crowds on the bridge, the roofline, even the sky—such a searching look that it told Akiva she wasn’t accounted for, either.
There were no whispers or edges of rumor in Eretz that hinted at her; there was nothing but the thurible with its singular, terrible explanation.
For a month Akiva let his life carry him along. He did his duty, patrolling the northwestern corner of the former free holdings with its wild coastlines and low, sprawling mountains. Fortresses studded the cliffs and peaks. Most, like this one, were dug into vertical seams in the rock to protect them from aerial assault, but in the end it hadn’t mattered. Cape Armasin had seen one of the fiercest battles of the war—staggering loss of life on both sides—but it had fallen. Slaves now labored at rebuilding the garrison’s walls, whip-wielding masters never far off, and Akiva would find himself watching them, every muscle in his body as tight as wound wires.
He had done this.
Sometimes it was all he could do to stop the screaming in his head from finding its way out, to mask his despair in the presence of kindred and comrades. Other times he managed to distract himself: with sparring, his secret occupation of magic, and with simple companionship and striving to earn the forgiveness of Hazael and Liraz.
And he might have gone on in that way for some time had not the end of… aftermath… come to the Empire.
It happened overnight, and it drew from the emperor such howling wrath, such bloodcurdling unholy fury as to turn storms back to sea and blast the buds of the sycorax trees so they shed their mothwing blossoms unopened in the gardens of Astrae.
In the great wild heart of the land that day by day fell prey to the halting onslaught of slave caravans and carnage, someone started killing angels.
And whoever it was, they were very, very good at it.
“Hmm?” Zuzana was on the floor with a mirror set up on a chair before her, painting pink dots onto her cheeks, and it was a moment before she could look up. When she did, she saw Mik watching her with that small concern-crease he got between his eyebrows sometimes. Adorable wrinkle. “What’s up?” she asked.
He looked back at the television in front of him. They were at the flat he shared with two other musicians; there was no TV at Karou’s place, where Zuzana mostly lived now—the media circus having finally died down a little—and where they usually spent their nights. Mik was eating a bowl of cereal and catching up on the news while Zuzana got ready for the day’s performance.
Though it was making them a bundle of money, Zuzana was getting restless with the whole thing. The problem with puppet shows is that you have to keep doing them over and over, which requires a temperament she didn’t have. She got bored too easily. Not of Mik, though.
“What is it about you?” she had asked him recently. “I almost never like people, even in tiny doses. But I never get tired of being with you.”
“It’s my superpower,” he had said. “Extreme be-with-able-ness.”
Now he looked back from the TV screen, his concern-crease deepening. “Karou used to collect teeth, right?”
“Um, yeah,” Zuzana said, distracted. She rooted around for her false eyelashes. “For Brimstone.”
“What kind of teeth?”
“All kinds. Why?”
Huh? Mik turned back to the TV, and Zuzana was suddenly very alert. “Why?” she asked again, rising from the floor.
Pointing the remote to click up the volume, Mik said, “You need to see this.”
“They knew we were coming.”
Eight seraphim stood in an empty village. Evidence of sudden departure was everywhere: doors standing open, chimney smoke, a sack lying where it had tumbled off the back of some wagon and spilled out grain. The angel Bethena found herself turning again to the cradle that lay by the stile. It was carved and polished, so smooth, and she could see finger-divots worn into its sides from generations of rocking. And singing, she thought, as if she could see that, too, and she felt, just for an instant, the agonized pause of the beast mother who had admitted to herself, in that precise spot, that it was too heavy to take as they fled their home.
“Of course they knew,” said another soldier. “We’re coming for them all.” He pronounced it like justice, like the edges of his words might catch the sunlight and glint.
Bethena cast him a glance, weary, weary. How could he muster vehemence for this? War was one thing, but this… These chimaera were simple creatures who grew food and ate it, rocked their children in polished cradles, and probably never spilled a single drop of blood. They were nothing like the revenant soldiers the angels had fought all their lives—all their history—the bruising, brutal monsters that could cut them in half with a blow, send them reeling with the force of their inked devils’ eyes, tear out their throats with their teeth. This was different. The war had never penetrated here; the Warlord had kept it locked at the land’s edges. Half the time, these scattered farm hamlets didn’t even have militias, and when they did, their resistance was pathetic.
The chimaera were broken—Loramendi marked the end. The Warlord was dead, and the resurrectionist, too. The revenants were no more.
“What if we just let them get away?” Bethena said, looking out over the sweet green land, its hazy hills as soft as brush-strokes. Several of her comrades laughed as if she’d made a joke. She let them think she had, though her effort at smiling was not a success. Her face felt wooden, her blood sluggish in her veins. Of course they couldn’t let them go. It was the emperor’s edict that the land be cleared of beasts. Hives, he called their villages. Infestations.
A poor sort of hive, she thought. Village after farm and the conquerors had not once been stung. It was easy, this work. So terribly easy.
“Then let’s get it over with,” she said. Wooden face, wooden heart. “They can’t have gone far.”
The villagers were easy to trace, their livestock having dropped fresh dung along the south road. Of course they would be fleeing for the Hintermost, but they hadn’t gotten far. Not three miles down, the path cut under the arch of an aqueduct. It was a triple-tiered structure, monumental and partially collapsed, so that fallen stones obscured the underpassage. From the sky, the road beyond looked clear, twisting away down a narrow valley that was like a part in green hair, the forest dense on either side. The beasts’ trail—dung and dust and footprints—did not continue.