Death and the Thunderbird, Pt. II

Issue #98

Concluded from Pt. I, in Issue #97

VII

Shoving the steward boy ahead into the brightness and roaring wind of the platform, Five Legs slammed the aft door to the passenger car, cutting off the sounds of rioting, the growl of flame and the skin-crawlingly appetizing scent of cooked flesh. The handle began to turn; he threw his weight against it. The snarled breath of a bay centaur fogged the window. Thin lips, creased by a ghastly scar, brushed the glass—he noted with relief it was reinforced with wire. The other pursuers turned back. They’d be looking for a ram.

The platform was narrow, with barely enough room to turn. Five Legs’s pulse beat high in his throat, matching the rhythm of the wheels, drumming thunderbird, thunderbird, thunderbird, thunderbird. The things he’d done to make it here—killed without thinking, without asking indulgence of the soul within the body, without giving thanks or caring for the blood or the meat—they hadn’t felt wrong. He didn’t regret them. If he thought it would make any difference, he would turn around, open the door, and go on slaughtering centaurs until someone awarded him a death of his own.

She had sent the thunderbird to spy on him. To ensure he didn’t stray so far from the humanity she’d never believed he possessed as to place himself beyond redemption. Had he? If he ever saw the elder again, would she destroy him?

He didn’t fear centaurs. Not anymore. But humans....

A hand groped inside Five Legs’s coat, and he jerked around to find the steward boy pointing the conductor’s revolver at his chest, one eye screwed closed, arms shaking with the effort.

“It’s empty!” shouted Five Legs over the wind, with a twinge of regret.

The boy pulled the trigger, kept pulling it until the cylinder had spun twice around and he could no longer hold the gun level. He let it fall, clattering. It struck the iron coupling that bound the cars, two fists clenched together, then disappeared in a flicker of blue sparks under the train. The boy scrambled across the gap and flattened himself against the rough wood of the slave car.

They stared at each other, smoke and wind rushing past, the door behind Five Legs thudding with blows.

He didn’t know what to say to this boy, the inverse of himself. But he was almost there, almost to the slaves. He’d done what Bienor wanted of him. Now there was a chance to thwart him, thwart Nessus, give them the train but not its cargo.

“We—we have to separate the cars.”

“What makes you think I’d help you?” the boy shouted back.

“There are people in those cars. Your people! Thousands of them. Look.” The Echidna curved along a hillcrest, climbing gently. Cattle cars filled the track as far back as they could see, coarse wood jaundiced in the sun, still more emerging from the gully as they watched. In the shadowed gaps between slats, Five Legs could imagine movement—bodies, faces. On the platform, there had been a waving hand.... “Where they’re going, they won’t get to dress in white linen and serve cocktails. They’ll be worked to death. If they’re lucky, they’ll be eaten.”

“They’re not my people—they belong to the centaurs. Like I do. They’re yours.” The boy began pounding on the slave car door.

“No... don’t you understand? I want to free them. You saw what I did back there—”

“What—kill centaurs?” the boy shouted. “That’s what centaurs do. I’m supposed to think that makes you different?”

The pressure on the door handle suddenly released; Five Legs ducked in time to avoid the bay centaur’s rear hooves as they smashed through the window. He caught hold of one shank before it was withdrawn and forced it downward through broken glass and torn wire, sawing. The bay screamed as glass cut past bone; tendons gave way with a sinewy pop and flesh tore free. He found himself laughing, holding a severed hoof.

The boy’s smooth flesh, undarkened by a life of mountain sun, blanched whiter.

Five Legs let the ghastly thing fall after the gun. “Just tell me how to separate the cars.”

The boy’s eyes flicked to a row of flywheels and levers blazoned with sorcerous symbols. He went on pounding on the cattle car door, shouting for help.

Frantically, Five Legs studied the levers. One of them must work the coupling. He wrenched one at random. Brakes squealed; the car lurched violently. He threw the lever hastily back the other way.

When he looked around, the steward boy was gone.

The slave car door slid open, unleashing a stench of sweat and stale breath, eloquently human; Five Legs’s belly clenched with shame. He couldn’t see them in the shadows, but they were there in his mind, faces pressed between the wires of their cages towards the light: human faces, wrinkled by laughter and sun, stoic, afraid or despairing. He didn’t want to see. He couldn’t save them. The wouldn’t know him. Not with the spiral brand naked on his hide, his hair cropped so close, his tailored clothes stained with hot blood not his own.

From within came the crackle of a prod, a moan. A hulking shape lurched out of the darkness, all upper body, horns and grasping hands, the breath from its snout an open furnace. A minotaur. Behind it in the shadows, the slave-driver brandished a smile.

The screaming, maimed bay was dragged from the passenger car window. Others took his place, wielding a service cart like a ram. The minotaur charged over the gap, swinging its horns low at Five Legs’s belly; Five Legs gripped them and was lifted off his fore-hooves by the power of its charge. A blow from the cart bent the door out of its frame. Another blow and the door flew into the gap between the cars. Centaurs spilled out onto the platform, screaming for blood.

Then, overhead, the thunderbird. Its vast wings beat ponderously, an eternity between each downstroke, climbing, the wind of its passage driving back smoke such that the sun fell full and blinding on its plumes. It wheeled, tucking in its wings to dive. Talons like threshing blades. The hooked beak, parted.

Five Legs understood. He had failed; his time had come.

He let go the minotaur’s horns, stepped into the open, and inclined his chin, exposing his throat to the sky.

A shot, its source indiscernible. An instant’s haze of vaporized blood before the sun, a screech torn from the spirit world’s throat. Then a great weight struck him, accompanied by shadow and a sharp, lung-crushing pressure over his shoulders and chest. The mass of his body was lifted from his hooves, and—for a moment—he was flying.

Bienor lowered the rifle. He tried to reload; dropped a shell through the catwalk, then another. He finally got the third to stick. He thought he’d hit it, though he didn’t know how, shaking like that. Now it was gone: no burst of feathers, no body. He’d gotten lucky. With his string already cut, the Fates had handed him a parting gift—a reprieve. The rooftop was empty, cleared by talons and a beak, not his own wild bullets. Corpses hung from the windows and lay scattered along the tracks for miles among indifferent dust and thorn.

The Echidna’s wheels keened as it crested the ridge, going too fast, and the curve hardened westward. Bienor was thrown against the railing. His grasp on the Pyretus rifle slipped, and he hugged it clumsily to his chest as he clutched his way forward, heading for the brake. Deimos was making a sound halfway between screaming and laughter, and Bienor glanced back to see him mash the broken bottle into his latest foe’s fingers grasping the rail; the grizzled centaur’s grip came loose, one of his fingers flying free, and the acceleration of the curve sent him sliding, screaming, past the sheared-off edge of the catwalk into empty space. Blood bathed Deimos’s fore-hooves to the fetlock. His nose bent crazily in a different direction from his face, blood streamed from one nostril, and a shank of twisted metal protruded from his side. He panted, cheeks flush with absent, vicious joy. Catching Bienor’s gaze, he shouted over the wind, “Where you going?”

“Rooftop’s clear—coming up on the end of the line—have to slow her down or she’ll derail!”

“Let her derail. Kill us all—save yourself some time.”

Bienor edged along the steepening downward slant to the engine. Red rock surged up on either side, throwing the train into shadow. They were entering the canyons.

He vented the boiler and eased on the brake. The tracks swerved back in the other direction, hugging the canyon wall, supported by timbers that shuddered and creaked beneath the Echidna’s weight, meant for one carload of ore at a time, not an overloaded slave train. No time left for fighting. The remainder of the ride, everyone onboard—soldiers, thieves and slaves—would be more than occupied hanging on for dear life.

Bienor groped for the whistle-pull, leaned into it until the shrill note drowned the roar of the engine and all he could hear was the staggered pounding of his hearts. Nessus might as well know they were coming.

Five Legs picked himself up, wincing at bits of gravel embedded in his lacerations. Buzzards dove in the distance. Of the thunderbird, there was no sign—no mythic shape fading into sun, no monstrous body broken in the dirt. Had he imagined it?

In the flesh of his shoulders, underneath his torn, tailored coat, he found the marks of talons.

The Echidna took the curve too fast, wheels screeching, descending into the canyon car after car, an ouroboros’s endless tail still writhing long after the head has been severed. From one of the slave cars, a thin arm—Thin Crow’s—waved with incongruous grace.

Five Legs fought down sick laughter. The last car roared past, wheels clicking on the ties, and he was alone.

Not alone.

A bent pine clung to the dry slope, roots bare to the wind like skinless knuckles burrowing for something solid to keep from being blown away. Leaning heavily against the trunk, her strength or her sorcery drained, perched the elder. The mask showed no age, no fatigue, no humanity.

He was somehow unsurprised to see her here, at this lonely tree in the waste on the canyon’s rim. He was tired, and she’d warned him. Perhaps she waited at every such tree.

“It went as you said, elder. I became a centaur. I lusted for their deaths, achieved many. But when I needed to prove my humanity, to demonstrate compassion, I couldn’t. I couldn’t even look our people in the eye. The only one I could have saved—a boy—I let him die.”

She released her death-grasp on the tree and reached for him, faltering, brittle as the fragile old woman she ought to have been. “Come here to me.”

He remembered too vividly the hate in her eyes as she’d raked those claws across him. Her touch had driven him from the ruin of his tribe with no thought but those she’d planted in his head: guilt and revenge.

“Are you a centaur?” she said, impatient, her voice unsteady as the wind. “Where, then, is your endurance? Eurytus is unstoppable. Our enemies live. Come. Lend me your strength.”

He found himself supporting her, astonished at her lightness. Past the edge of the mask, tight hair, bone-white, curled behind a sagging ear. Blood matted the feathers of her cloak and trickled from her upper arm pressed tight against her side. A wound—not some sign of decay, of age, but a wound of battle, like his own. A sign of fallibility. She, the survivor; she who had evaded Eurytus’s attack when all her tribe had not, older than this gnarled tree, older than these stones, was mortal. “Elder,” said Five Legs, “Elder, let me see your face.”

The mask disdained him, laughing, looking down its long hooked nose as though at a cowed bit of prey.

He closed his hands around her waist, the cloak’s feathers coarse and broken, shifting against flesh loosened by years. He lifted her, placed her astride him. Then she was clutching him, sharp nails pushing through rips in his tailored coat, softening as they reached the tender marks of talons.

“I watched you,” came the elder’s voice soft at his ear. “I never believed you’d do as you said. I thought you’d run back to them—I thought you a traitor. I meant to hunt you—” She patted him, twice, at the nape of the neck. “—rip out your throat. It would not have brought them back. They’re not the first tribe I’ve lost. I watched you fight. Now I begin to see....”

Apology, forgiveness? No. She forgave him only insofar as she needed him to go on, needed his strength to fool herself she still could find the will to fight.

How could he argue? He needed to be fooled.

The mask’s sharp edges dug into his back. He flinched, glancing behind. Its glare was unceasing—but behind it, the elder had fallen asleep.

Now—what? The Echidna was gone, out of hearing and sight, though its passage still shivered the rails. Past the curve, the canyons dropped steeply away, stone writhing in the shapes of rivers long dead, colored in the ochre shades of Thin Crow’s body paint. From what he could recall of Bienor’s map, with its crusted brown ink, Epimethea must be close. What could they achieve there?

More than by wallowing here.

He took a few careful steps along the track. She clung painfully tight, even in sleep. He could barely feel her weight; only the slightest drag of the feathered cloak against the wind. But the mask burned its rage into him, hot and searing as a branding iron.

He broke into a gallop.

 

VIII

Bienor leaned back on the brake, slowing the train to an easy canter. The Echidna passed through a neck in the canyon, between yawning iron gates wrenched off their hinges, and entered a stretch where the absent river must once have pooled. Where human slaves by thousands had toiled, died, rebelled.

Deep gouges marred the red stone on both sides of the track, the tunnel-work of slaves long dead, interconnected by zigzagging scaffolds ascending level after level towards the light. Skeletons of blackened timber thrust out of scorched sand—slave barracks, torched to deprive striking miners of a place to conspire. Blood had spilled here, casks of it, barrels—enough to make this dead river flow again, if only for a moment. The sheltering canyon had preserved it so well it might have happened yesterday.

It was dark inside the canyon’s belly, cold. No movement anywhere, no glint of steel nor clack of hoof. But they were here. Nessus, and enough centaurs to accomplish whatever was coming. Bienor swept his gaze over gauges and dials, trying to guess.

Nessus’s eyes; irisless, obsidian-black. Dried flowers, sticking to the spittle on his lips and spilling down his beard. His head filled with what psychotic sorceries those tools of human prophecy could wreak. Even if Nessus had become the thunderbird, learned the secrets of the human gods, of the future, of fate, he remained himself. A liar. Nowhere did apotheosis rule out killing off his co-conspirators. Unless he needed them—and what good was a drunken sharpshooter who couldn’t shoot and knew more than was healthy?

Explosives, drilled into the walls in the right locations, could bury the Echidna, crush or suffocate its crew and cargo. That would make a fine insult to Eurytus—a colossal, brutal, petty annoyance of the kind at which Nessus had always excelled. But a threat to his power?

Round the next curve, a heap of broken stone came into view in the distance, piled as tall as the Echidna’s eye, blocking the track. Bienor pulled hard on both brakes, raising sparks. Still, he knew he couldn’t stop in time. He shoved his head out through the eye, looking back. The rush of air yanked off his hat and sent it spinning past Deimos, who was laid out on the tinder’s catwalk taking potshots as passengers leapt from the windows.

“You’ll get your crash,” Bienor shouted at him over the wind. “Get ready to jump—pray you’re luckier at it than your lover!”

He felt a chill as the words left his lips. Couldn’t keep from rubbing his own pain in the vicious runt’s face. Maybe Deimos deserved to suffer for his lover’s death, as Bienor had. That didn’t stop it sawing open his own wounds.

Straining at the brake, he let himself think what Gryneus would say about all this. Helping Nessus make a bid against Eurytus was killing the wolf to raise the coyote in his place. Expecting to get paid at the end of it was madness, pure and simple.

Kill ‘em both, Gryneus would say with a laugh, and pass the wine. No illusions. They had chosen to desert, to live as outlaws, because anything else amounted to a martyr’s death.

But Gryneus had never been old.

Like Phaeton had said: might as well die trying to accomplish something. Gryneus would have seen that in the end. But he’d never have just sat back and let death come. He’d have done whatever he could to hold Nessus to his word—and failing that, to make him pay for breaking it.

“Deimos!” roared Bienor, coming to a decision. “Quit wasting bullets—they’ll be dead anyway in a minute—and get up here, help me stoke.” If the stupid colt was too wrapped in his grief to listen, so be it. Call it fate.

But Deimos appeared in the doorway, shaking the ache of recoil from his palms. “What in Hades for? It’s the end of the line.”

“Starting to think you’re right—that we’ll be getting paid in lead.”

Deimos’s long look said he knew it and didn’t care.

“End of the line,” Bienor agreed, “for us and them. We need a way to load the dice.”

They packed the flagging boiler as full of coal as they could manage. Then the heap of rock loomed up, and Bienor threw down the ramp. It bounced and scraped against the canyon floor, kicked up a flying wake of sand and was ripped away. “Jump,” he told Deimos, who needed no prompting.

Rearing, Bienor kicked at emergency pressure release until the flywheel bent back against the threads. He closed the vents, released the pressure brake but left the manual engaged. Then he followed Deimos out.

Moments after his hooves caught hard ground, the leering, distorted iron face of Eurtyus plowed open-mawed into the rockpile. As the impact scattered the pieces, he recognized the broken fragments of a monumental sculpture. A chiseled hindquarter big as a centaur rolled away among old ash and blackened timber. A massive fist, clenched round a slender throat, spun and tumbled between the wheels, then was shattered. With a shriek and a shudder, the Echidna jumped its track. The cars that made its endless tail writhed like a rattler, kicking up waves of sand. The train accordioned to a halt. The overloaded boiler held, for the moment.

Along its flanks, a scattering of centaurs—those who’d leapt free before impact—picked themselves up out of the dirt. “All right, grandsire?” said Deimos a few lengths behind. “Didn’t twist a stifle?” When Bienor didn’t dignify this bitterness, Deimos turned for the nearest of the Echidna’s crew, reloading a repeater. Bienor gave chase, caught him by the shoulder. “Don’t. Just—stand still. Wait.”

The echoes of the crash, bouncing from the canyon walls, swelled in volume instead of diminishing. Then they turned to laughter—a voice amplified by sorcery, as at the Circus or upon the field of war. Nessus.

“Did you see it, Bienor—the monster of his folly, devouring his desecrated corpse?”

A rifle barrel glinted on the heights. Figures appeared on the canyon walls, emerging from dark tunnel mouths, peering over ledges.

“There, by your left hoof,” said the voice.

Bienor prodded a round lump of stone. It rolled: a face. The statue’s head. It, too, had been Eurytus: powerful, virile, in the full of youth. He ground that leer into the sand. “Was this your vision, Nessus? You claimed to have foreseen his defeat—was that a joke?”

Laughter—not from Nessus this time, but hundreds of voices, boisterous and prideful, distorted by the canyon’s curves. How many had he brought? Their appreciation of his humor felt just slightly forced.

“You know the tenor of my wit,” Nessus acknowledged, “but don’t think me so petty. I intend to bring about Eurytus’s fall. The statue had been desecrated long before we arrived—a Rape of the Sabines, I believe, featuring Eurytus as ravisher, and Ceres, Nature incarnate, as his victim. Worthy of him, don’t you agree? The rebels pulled it down, motivated by a compulsion to symbolism more simplistic than his own. And he repaid their gesture with a massacre, guaranteeing Epimethea’s abandonment for no better reason than to remedy a slight. For a symbol to command any power, it must be backed not just by strength but reverence.”

At some unseen signal, gunfire erupted from the canyon walls, strangely quiet after the gale of his voice. The Echidna’s surviving passengers and crew went down in waves. Some tried to run, seeking cover. They died regardless. The rest simply waited. Deimos stood stock-still, wild-eyed, the ridiculous silvered repeater dangling from his open hand, one finger through the trigger-well. Bienor saw the realization in his eyes. They would have lived like nomad kings, reclining on sumptuous carpets in tents deep in the desert, far from everything, sipping bourbon, feasting on roast meat and fucking.

A bullet cracked open Deimos’s skull, and a spear of blood skewered him into the sand.

When the roar died away, Bienor found himself whole.

“Now,” said the voice of doom, “at your pleasure, invite Eurytus’s prisoners to exit their cars.”

Five Legs galloped down the canyon with the elder on his back, the mask’s hate goading him to further speed as she who wore it drifted in and out of sleep. Sweat streamed from him, soaking through his clothes. But when he made to tear them from his back, regain at least what modicum of humanity nakedness could bring, the elder woke. “Not yet.”

She pointed, cackling, as they passed each body lying crumpled by the tracks. One more centaur dead. “Once,” she hissed through the mask into his ear, “I thought humans the only beings capable of killing our own kind.”

Five Legs had to struggle to muster breath. “I... thought the same of... centaurs.”

He was pounding past the torn-down iron gate, the painted wooden frieze, bent and trampled, that had once read “Epimethea”, when the elder dug her claws into the close-shorn remnants of his mane, sending sharp pain through his temples.

Heat rushed to his cheeks. No centaur would suffer such humiliation—he could snap her bones like kindling—but he forced the anger down. He checked his stride. She had restrained herself from tearing out his throat. He could suffer at her hands. “Elder, why do we stop?”

“Mustn’t let them see us.” She dragged at his head, jerking his chin upward. On a high curve of the canyon wall ahead, where the stone faded sharply in color from burnt gold to bone, there was movement: centaurs, heavily armed, descending single-file along a narrow trail—a full hundred or more. “Not until we’re among them.”

She’d known they would be there. “Elder, how—”

“They’ll emerge on this track before long. You must be close enough to make it seem you were among them. You must appear like them—a soldier, restless, trained to shallow self-importance, inflamed with the spirit of rebellion, blind to the nature of the world.” Her hands ran over the fabric of his coat, smoothing it, straightening, brushing away dirt, folding together the edges of tears. “It won’t be hard.”

He wasn’t forgiven, wouldn’t be until he gave his life in trade for all those she had lost. Not even then. She gripped his equine ribs between her bony knees and slapped his haunch too close to the spiral brand. “Quietly now, if you can, with those hammers of feet.”

 

IX

Bienor took a ring of keys, heavy as butcher’s cleavers, from a centaur jailor’s corpse. But his hands shook, he couldn’t make them work the locks. So at each car, expecting every moment the bullet from above, he reared and kicked at the planks until they splintered.

He was tired after ten cars, hurting by twenty. After that he stopped counting. As he rolled open the doors, the press of humans within shrank from the light—from him. How could so many fit inside so small a space? Bodies lay underfoot, crushed beneath each other in the crash. He moved on, letting the survivors emerge in their own time, not caring to engage what he encountered in their faces. The eyes frightened him—the glaring ones less than those that canted away. In Eurytus’s service, he’d killed humans, eaten them, sucked marrow from their bones. What use would guilt or apology serve them in the moments before their slaughter?

The daring or stupid ventured forth, then more and more, squinting, climbing soft-footed down into the dust and gravel. Humans streamed across the canyon floor. Swarms gathered like carrion-flies around the corpses of their jailors. Maybe they’d never seen a centaur dead. Perhaps it reassured them. “Get back,” Bienor said as he passed among them, first mumbling, then louder. “Leave the poor bastards be. Keep away from the front of the train. You’ll be killed if you don’t.” When it blows.

Stupid old horse, making a time bomb of a boiler. Who would it harm? Not the centaurs on the walls. When would it go? Outwardly, the foundered Echidna showed no change. Its armor was thick; it had been built to take abuse. But the pressure was there in his own stomach, building.

He reached the last car, broke it open, then limped as far from the flanks of the train as the canyon would allow. Turning, looking to the walls for Nessus, he realized a stream of the humans had followed him.

He didn’t know how to read those hollow faces, dark and milky-eyed, trembling with hunger. They were thousands, and he was alone. What else could they be thinking?

He unslung the Pyretus rifle.

A bullet exploded into the wall by his head. Flecks of sharp stone stung his neck. The humans shrank back. “Put that away,” Nessus’s booming voice reproached, “or I’ll be forced to take it from you. These humans were Eurytus’s slaves. They are our guests.”

Bienor did as he was told. Not that it mattered. With his nerves in this state, he couldn’t have shot a hole in the sky. “If you didn’t bring them here to kill them, why? Surely not to free them?”

He couldn’t fathom why he wasn’t dead.

“There is no freedom anymore,” came Nessus’s voice, a gale without source, “only death and what must be. The poison flower showed me that.”

Hoofbeats, from the neck of the canyon. Centaurs filled the gap three ranks deep, weapons drawn, blocking the only escape. No outlaws or deserters these. Hoplites, career soldiers, not a tremor in any hand.

In the century’s last rank, one face stood out from the rest, handsome, young, haunted as any human’s. Seeing him there, in the canyon’s shadow, whole, made Bienor fear he was already dreaming at the Stygian shore. A glance at his tremoring fists assured him he was wrong.

It seemed years, not hours, since Five Legs had seen Bienor last. He was shrunken, gray, his bare scalp pale, age-spotted, his bulk hanging loose from his bones. He was no longer in control. And yet the look he gave Five Legs betrayed an impossible hope. The humans behind him—a sea of them, hemmed in by stone and iron—made Five Legs wonder what there was to hope for. Thin Crow. Where was Thin Crow? He wanted to go to them, to fight his way through, show them at least one centaur was with them. But the elder’s nails burrowed into his spine and Bienor’s eyes into his head, rooting him in place.

The hoplites were turning, staring. Bienor had given him away. “A spy—look—he wears the spiral!”

Yes, it was still there on his hide. It still stung, faint now among the chorus of his wounds, where the elder had ripped away the paint. She clung now in the small of his back, huddled so behind the mask that it almost swallowed her. Not even Bienor seemed to see her, despite the hate that radiated from her like a furnace’s heat. Any moment she would hurl herself upon them—frail as she was, she’d rip a few of them to shreds before they killed her. Yet she resisted. The vengeance she wanted was fuller than that. And somehow she expected him to achieve it.

The broken spiral on his hide had fooled them, the old outlaw and sorceress both, into believing he could save them. That, and desperation. Five Legs opened his weaponless hands.

“A spy?” came the booming voice of Nessus. “Bring him here.”

Hoplites surrounded him. A conflicted memory resurged: sweat, equine musk, rough play. The hands at the Labyrinth Ranch had taught him to wrestle. Had he hated them then, as he came to hate them? Or had he still been innocent enough to mistake their animosity for anything but earnest? Innocence, among centaurs, was as much a myth as the gods of Olympus.

They shackled his wrists and hobbled him with chains too short for his stride, designed for humans in a simpler time. They stripped him of his tailored clothes, ripping buttons away, tearing cloth. They collared him with leather. Somewhere in the midst of it, the elder’s claws pulled free, the weight of her lifted, and a feathered shape, stooped low, slipped between the legs of the distracted soldiers. She was back among her people.

Humans watched as he was led away, looking between him and his captors—attempting, no doubt, to distinguish between them.

“He’s one of mine,” shouted Bienor, finding his voice too late. “My plant aboard the train. No spy.”

One of yours?” Nessus demanded. “Where are the rest?”

Five Legs was alive. For how long? Bienor’s throat was as ragged and pocked as this desert landscape, tight with sand and dread. “Dead.”

“Why should that make this one any less a spy? Where did you find him? Did it occur to you to ask how he came by that spiral?”

He tried to recall it: standing drunk by the tracks in Prometheus Gulch, head swollen full of his own lies—Artemis, the Old World, and Gryneus, always Gryneus—watching this strange, beautiful colt stumble down out of the hills and stoop to listen at the rails.

There’d been no such thing as thunderbirds. Five Legs had found one. Bienor had given him the worst of tasks, sent him to be slaughtered just to buy them all a little time. Yet of the three Bienor had bulled into his service, only Five Legs had survived. Did that make him a spy for Eurytus?

He scanned the tortured strip of sky above the canyon for the thunderbird.

Two hoplites stepped uneasily to flank him.

“Why don’t you climb up here to me? I owe you your reward. And you’ve wanted from the start to see my plans from on high.”

The hoplite led Five Legs like a leashed mule up the narrow trail along the canyonside. Naked, in chains—this was what he should have suffered when Eurytus took the River Crow. If he’d given up stalking deer, gone home empty-handed when the other hunters had—if he hadn’t still been struggling to prove himself after seven years—he might have met Nessus and Eurytus on the slopes of the sacred mountain. He knew the contours of that valley like the smooth skin between Thin Crow’s shoulder-blades. With surprise on his side, and the darkness....

One against hundreds, his arrows against their guns. But he and his tribe would have suffered together.

All along the cliffs, centaurs stretched prone among dry, thorny growth, the theta of Nessus gleaming in scarred skin on bicep, hock, or shoulder, the barrels of carbines reaching out into thin air. Some of them stirred as he passed, craning around to look on the spiral with contempt or dread. Were they as the elder saw them; petty, self-important, blindly following Nessus because Eurytus was the only alternative? Were they in it for the money, like Deimos? Or like Phaeton, desperate for change regardless of consequence?

Crescents of frost lined the switchbacks like sweat dried on creased skin. Where the trail was steepest, the hobbles made him stumble, cold ground cutting into his stifles. Blasted holes and intricate natural formations divided the canyon vistas into stark contrasts. Below, the human crowd shrank into anonymity.

Nessus stood high on a promontory ahead, his profile statuesque and dark against the sky, laying out their fate. He spoke in Greek. The humans, save an unlucky few, wouldn’t even understand.

“Hear me, human slaves. I, Nessus, have delivered you from bondage to Eurytus—but not from responsibility. Your homelands are lost. Could you return, you’d find them changed, no longer your own. That’s the nature of conquest—a truth your brethren of the valleys and plains have been forced to accept or die denying. One choice remains: learn the ways of the New World, the ways of your conquerors.

“You’ve lived too long in isolation, oblivious to the suffering of your race. Over the past days, you have only sampled that suffering. Had you reached New Ilium, Eurytus would have stripped you of that ignorance. There, like all the rest, you would have learned to seek oblivion in pain, to find pleasure in the only place you could: the pain of others.

“I release you from that fate, but I can’t do the same for your brethren. The onus lies with you, who cowered in the wilderness while Eurytus ground them low. By failing to arise, you have doomed them and shamed yourselves. It’s too late to defend your way of life, your homes, your people—that train has rolled on—but you can still fight to avenge them.

“I, Nessus, vow to make this possible. Here, where others of your race once found courage enough to rebel, I will train you, teach you to fight and to die. I will shelter and feed you. I will heal your sick. You won’t escape: I’ll kill you if you try. When the time comes, I will lead you in battle. I ask only this in return: that when Eurytus is overthrown and New Ilium in flames, you name me king.”

Wild cheers rose from the centaurs. Hooves pounded stone. Dust spilled in plumes from the canyonsides.

The crowd of humans rippled, their moans and murmurs like a wind.

 

X

Atop a ledge so high it emerged from the canyon’s shadow into light, Five Legs’s captor choked him to a halt. Nessus stood among his bodyguards, squinting in the last sun fading towards the peaks, a liquor bottle glinting golden in his hand.

“The spy.” The quiet of his voice was eerie after the roar of his sorcery. His steel-shaving beard, once coal-black, was thinning, ill-concealing heavy lines marking cheekbones and jowls. His chestnut body had been a solid ton of muscle, bone and steel, unstoppable, a locomotive unto itself. Now the outlines of ribs showed through flesh, and a sagging stomach pulled at the flaccid muscles of his chest. Surrounded by the bronzed young bodies of his guards, he seemed an old stud ready for pasture. He was huge—he had always been huge—but in his age, Five Legs saw a chance.

Bienor appeared around the last switchback, stooped and huffing with the exertion of the climb. The sharpshooters lining the trail straightened from their sights, touching hat brims as he passed. What was Bienor to them?

“Don’t trust his reputation, my revolutionaries,” Nessus said. “He defied Eurytus, true. But his courage, his resolve, I fear died with his lover. Or else he drowned it in the bottom of a bottle. Now he fights for no cause save his own. Keep him back. If he lays hand on that precious rifle, kill him.”

Reaching the ledge at last, Bienor leaned heavily against an outcrop, chest heaving. He wiped his lips with the back of a clenched fist and glanced over the edge at something Five Legs couldn’t see.

Five Legs was shoved forward, his shackles clattering on the sandstone. A bodyguard reared, struck with iron-shod hooves. He went down, tangled in the chains. Dust mingled with blood in his mouth.

“That brand... let him rise. Bienor, who is this you’ve brought me?” As Five Legs clumsily regained his hooves, Nessus stepped close, his huge bulk though diminished still dwarfing Five Legs as a sire beside his foal. With probing fingers, he reopened a clotted cut on Five Legs’s thigh, smeared crimson across the spiral. He pantomimed applying a burning poker to mimic the blur in the lines—a slow, unsteady thrust with a hitch in the middle. The recognition in his eyes was awful to behold.

That other name, Five Legs told himself; his name they had used at the Labyrinth Ranch, in whispers, grunts, or screams—it couldn’t make him that person again. It wouldn’t change why he was here. Still, at the sound of it on Nessus’s lips, it was all he could do to keep from retching.

“Patroclos.” Nessus’s fingertips smeared blood up Five Legs’s spine. “I remember that day—the day he made you his. You brought it on yourself. You resisted—you didn’t want to be owned. What else could you expect? It only stoked his desire to possess you.”

He thought of rearing up, lunging, ripping Nessus’s throat out with his teeth. How would that curling steel beard taste, the flesh beneath it? He could guess: like human flesh, old and tough, basted in bourbon and smoked. But he couldn’t—the hobbles bound him to the earth.

“What does it mean that you return now, not to him but to me? Where have you been? All these years we thought you dead, taken by wolves. Was it outlaws instead?”

Bienor gave a hoarse cough that might have been trying for laughter. “If I’d raised him, he’d be dead. You look surprised—did your visions not predict this?”

Nessus snorted. “That’s what brought you this far, isn’t it, Bienor? Visions. You always were a sucker for a whiff of the sublime. But I never claimed to know the future. I dare say by now the flower has granted me more visions than it ever showed that human priest—or else he might have seen the bullet coming. But the way of seeing it imparts isn’t sorcery—not in the sense we use the word. I see the past, the present. The flower grants... insight. New perspective.”

“You told me it had shown you how to kill Eurytus.”

“And so it did—by showing me how he and the humans were different. Look at them—they’re frightened now, numbed by revelation, but they’ll resurge.” The crowd huddled quiet below, the elder and Thin Crow somewhere among them, as far from the centaurs and the train as they could get. “Centaurs have always considered them weak, but they’re as resilient as we—think what we’ve done to them. They’ve always been more capable of change. This has never occurred to Eurytus. That I, his only rival, might be capable of change has never crossed his mind.”

Five Legs had learned of the flower from the hunters of the River Crow. They talked like it was human, a member of their tribe. The flower could speak and play jokes, take offense when slighted. At first, he’d thought they must be speaking of the elder. She wouldn’t let him taste it—no more than she would let him see her face. But he’d heard the stories, seen the dance. Alone in the wild, cold and hungry, when a bird on a branch didn’t fly at your approach but sat staring—that was the flower. When you knew you’d pierced a deer’s heart yet it ran on for miles, spilling a river of blood, then disappeared—you hadn’t shot a deer at all. They called it Brother. They called it Death. They said you recovered from its poison, but the flower never truly left you.

Nessus had eaten of that flower, and it had told him to make of its people an army of slaves.

“It was humans,” Five Legs blurted, blood flying from his lips like spittle. “Not wolves, not mustangs. For seven years, I’ve lived with humans. I learned their tongue. I ate their food. I loved them. I would have spent my life with them. Then centaurs came and destroyed them.”

There was a silence, wind hissing indiscriminately over smooth contours shaped by time and jagged edges cut by hands.

“With... humans,” said Nessus at last. “You ran away from him... to live with savages.” His mouth opened slowly into a grin, cruel teeth blunted by erosion. “Amycus was the last centaur to fall in love with humankind. You knew him, didn’t you, Patroclos? Did you aspire to his fate? From Legate of the West to gelded cowboy in a single stride? There, Bienor, you see? Patroclos can be no spy—he hates his sire too much for that.”

Amycus, the old soldier at the Labyrinth Ranch. All those years ago, the colt Patroclos had never understood his grief. He understood it now.

Bienor was looking at him, wrinkles sagging with his jaw. “His... sire? Eurytus.”

His voice was bitter as wormwood. “Is it so hard to believe? He must have sired a thousand sons. I killed one myself aboard the Echidna—a black who wore the theta.”

At that Nessus burst into laughter. “I like the centaur you’ve become, Patroclos—whether he or humans made you thus. I find myself further in Bienor’s debt for bringing us together. Which reminds me, there’s the matter of a reward. You’ve given me the makings of my army. For that I owe you both more than I can repay.”

He waved a hand, warding away imagined objection. “You weren’t in this for gold, I know. None of us are. The death of Eurytus has been our rallying cry. Patroclos—let our common enemy unite us. Join us. Join our revolution. Say the word and I’ll strike off those chains. Bienor—I can’t return Gryneus to you, but I can give you justice. Throw that legendary rifle in with ours, and I’ll give you Eurytus.”

Bienor’s eyes darted to the bottle in Nessus’s hand, the cliff, then Five Legs. If he was looking for escape, he didn’t find it. Nessus’s assembled captains shifted, hooves pawing at the stone and dust. Five Legs, growing up on the Labyrinth Ranch, then among humans, had never heard of the outlaws Bienor and Gryneus. But Bienor’s presence seemed to mean something to these “revolutionaries”. They wanted him to acknowledge their belief in him—to justify it.

Nessus, Five Legs realized, needed Bienor’s blessing to cement their support. Or failing that, a passable excuse to kill him.

Nessus’s nostrils flared with impatience. “I don’t need the flower’s influence to see your hesitation. You know my plans. You can’t deny the justice of our goal. Do you doubt my revolutionaries’ will? Or is it cowardice that stays you?”

Five Legs decided, when the moment came, he would go for the wrist that held the liquor. The vein.

“I doubt,” Bienor said at last, “their leader.”

“Who would you suggest?” returned Nessus, indicating his captains with a sweep of the bottle. “Who knows better than I the mind of Eurytus? The other who might have made that claim is dead. Who else has tasted of the poison flower, learned its secrets? Who has the capacity to rule the New World in his place—you? I warned you of this, my revolutionaries. The outlaws Bienor and Gryneus deserved our respect. They were fearless, endlessly inventive, with a penchant for spectacle in any kidnapping or theft. The tall tales their victims told—the hours of pleasure I enjoyed at Eurytus’s irritation—they inspired all of us who chafed to throw off his yoke. But Gryneus is dead, and the Bienor who ranged with him is gone, replaced by the drunkard and weakling who cowers here before us.”

“It wasn’t me,” Bienor said quietly, looking at his hands. “It never was. Gryneus—it was always him.”

“It pains me,” said Nessus sharply, “but you force my hand. If you won’t join us, you’re against us.” He gestured, and the centaurs around him lifted rifles, laying the stocks against their cheeks.

Bienor swallowed, hard, and nodded at the bottle. “You promised a reward. Give me a drink before I die.”

Nessus smiled. He raised the bottle, golden liquor flashing. “The last of my stores. After this, I won’t taste it again until we’ve stormed the gates of the Labyrinth Ranch. I hoped we could share it in celebration. Still, despite the recalcitrant mule you’ve become, incapable of vision, you deserve for your past deeds our homage and respect.” He thumbed the stopper free, kicked it down over the cliffs, and drank. Then he offered the bottle to Bienor.

As Bienor reached to take it, his right hand quaking like a branch in winter wind, his left fell to his side, brushing the pocket of his coat.

It was clumsy attempt, visible to everyone.

Nessus twisted away from the blow. The bottle slipped from his hand to strike the stone. It didn’t break but rolled towards the cliff, wobbling, spilling its contents and their overpowering aroma into the cold air. A rifle discharged, the bullet whooshing between them, the report echoing. “Hold your fire,” Nessus snarled. Five Legs flung himself forward, but the guards were on top of him in half a stride.

Bienor swung again, and Nessus caught the wrist that held the knife. He half-reared but Nessus leaned in, using his huge bulk to force Bienor down.

When Nessus stepped away, the knife’s handle—elkhorn, scrimshawed in the likeness of a sheaf of rods—protruded from Bienor’s ribs at the top of a crescent-shaped gash long as his forearm.

Blood seeped from a small cut between Nessus’s fingers; he made a fist to staunch it.

Bienor fell headfirst towards the bottle, stopping it an arm’s length from the edge. He lay on his flank at the brink of the cliff and tipped it to his mouth, his larynx contracting as he swallowed. Slick cords of intestine bulged from the wound, mingling ichor with spilled whiskey on the ground. He let out a sigh that, though ragged and gurgling, still sounded to Five Legs like relief.

“You were wrong about him,” Five Legs said. “The cowardly thing would have been to obey.”

“Pity,” said Nessus. Stooping, he plucked the knife from Bienor’s chest.

Bienor grunted; he pressed a palm ineffectually against the gap where the knife had been; bile and blood bubbled up between his fingers. Eyes closed, he kept on drinking, his breaths shallow. The carved stock of the Pyretus rifle rose over his shoulder on its battered sling.

He could have led us, Five Legs realized. He hadn’t asked for command, never wanted it—but they would have followed him. And Nessus knew it. That’s why he wanted Bienor dead.

But it wasn’t Nessus who needed convincing.

“He could have led us,” said Five Legs aloud, his eyes on the captains, former soldiers of Eurytus now so desperate for change. None of these were branded with theta or spiral; they wore their own marks. Could they be swayed?

“He was old,” Five Legs said. “His hands shook. He’d never eaten of the poison flower. But centaurs would have followed him. And in time, humans might have come to trust him. With Nessus, there is never going to be that chance.” Humans would never follow him in battle. They might die for him, the way they’d died for years—but they would never fight.

This was where he rose to Bienor’s expectation, and the elder’s. Where he’d earn her forgiveness, if she had any to give.

“Unchain me,” he said to the centaurs who held him. “Let me test him. If I can stand against Nessus, I’ll have a chance against Eurytus too. And the humans would follow me willingly, not by coercion. They know me. They trust me—some of them.”

“Raised by humans,” Nessus said, cruel mirth in his tone. “Does their love support you, Patroclos? Does it make you invincible, as your sire’s love would have crushed you?” His hoof struck the bedrock with a clap. When he spoke again, his voice was deafening. “Hear me, human recruits. Here is a centaur, Patroclos, who claims to serve the human cause in challenging my right to lead. Will any of you speak on his behalf?”

Among the voiceless crowd below, faces made featureless by distance, he recognized the elder’s mask: tilted upward as though seeking the sun, its exaggerated eyes and beak standing out clearly from the rest.

Nessus laughed. “Listen well, centaur and human. I am your champion, I who have tasted of your poison, seen your visions and your fate. Take a lesson from what follows: though we rebel against Eurytus, dissent among our own ranks will be met with death. Watch his corpse doesn’t crush you as it falls.”

He turned to Five Legs, the fasces knife balanced on his finger at the hilt, like a scales. “Do you challenge me, Patroclos, in the Old World style, might against might? I’ll allow you that privilege, if you choose it—but be warned. I won’t restrain myself as I did when we play-wrestled on the ranch in simpler times. Remember who you face. I’m not human. My sorcery extends beyond mere inner sight.” By way of demonstration, he traced his symbol on the blade, then held it forth as it began to spark and smolder with his power.

A wind blew up out of the canyon, raising goose-pimples along Five Legs’s spine. Or was that the poison flower, Death, taking form on the ledge beside him to warm its human toes in a centaur’s blood?

He had climbed to this knife’s edge of his own volition; now he must dive.

Bienor let the bottle drop from his lips. A few fingers of liquid remained in the depths, but he’d had enough to serve his purpose and to spare. His head buzzed gloriously with alcohol and loss of blood; a warm, tingling precursor to numbness crept up from his extremities; his lips were swollen with the last flavor he ever wanted to grace them. The end was coming. He thought he could see it already in the cloudy haze above the cliffs. It looked like snow.

Gryneus had never hijacked a train nor dared take a swing at Nessus, but Bienor wasn’t even with him yet. When they met on the far shore at last, he wanted to be able to step high. Besides, he owed a debt here.

Five Legs tore the loose shackles from the hands of the soldier who had freed him. The fasces knife, red-hot and smoking, seemed to leap between Nessus’s hands of its own volition. The bodyguards leaned in, fingertips tense on their guns, tails twitching. Nobody looked at Bienor. Why should they? He was dead.

His hands were empty; he must have dropped the bottle already. No matter. He didn’t need it anymore. It made him smile to think how badly he’d wanted it, and for so long, now that it meant so little.

The Pyretus rifle lay heavy across his shoulder-blades, inert, ignored. He couldn’t reach it without further ripping open his gut, but what did that matter? He raised his hand from the wound, reaching. He drew its smooth stock into his tingling hands, pulled it to him like a lover.

He’d only have one shot. The guards would be on him by then, even if he could still work his fingers well enough to find a second cartridge.

He came upright on three hooves, one rear leg dangling out over the cliff. He slid his finger through the trigger-well, pressed the stock to his shoulder, and swiveled at the waist, feeling organs that had once been inside him burst and splatter against his hide.

But he’d been too slow—far too slow. Now Five Legs and Nessus were grappling, the fasces tangled in the shackles, the chain-links hissing and spitting before the heat of Nessus’s power. He didn’t have a shot.

A gun went off, then another. Not his own: he could tell by the noise, the high-pitched barks, and by the sudden new pinches in his chest, his flank, the corresponding blackness swarming from the edges of his vision. Time running out. Had to make these last moments count for something. No shakes now, no doubts—he was steady as stone. With this one last bullet, he could shoot out the eye of a needle.

He swiveled back, hunching, and looked down the barrel’s smooth finger, past the sight pin, past the prone sharpshooters lining the switchbacks and the empty nests of cliff birds abandoned to the cold. There below was the crowd, the burned stumps of slave barracks, the prone body of Deimos, the line of hoplites blocking escape. At the least, he could take out their captain, give the humans a last hope to break through—if they could find the backbone for it.

The human crowd—something had gotten them riled. They were moving, the crowd’s surface rippling outward from center like intricately-patterned cloth. Unless it was the stars in his vision.

No. In the center of the crowd, something had taken shape. He knew that nightmare figure. He’d feared it—but it couldn’t scare him anymore. It reared its golden head, parted that razor beak, spread immense scarred wings. It screamed. And in answer, a cry rose from the crowd—high-pitched, ululating and eerie, building in intensity—a war cry.

It sent a shiver through him. Bienor hadn’t heard that sound since the campaign outside Acoma, when Gryenus still lived, when desertion was only a whisper shared across bedrolls in the dark. Humans had been vicious once. They’d been warriors, killers in the name of a cause; their war cry alone was enough to let Eurytus spin them into a threat centaurs could be proud to fight.

The humans Bienor had met since that campaign—since deserting, since Gryneus’s death—had been prostitutes, runaways, slaves; the conquered, forced into the habit of submitting, none of them capable of putting up a fight. These humans needed a champion, as Five Legs had said, but they needed more than that. A leader wasn’t worth shit if his people had nothing to believe in. More than a leader, they needed a myth.

The thunderbird’s pinions beat down, casting up a wind enough to knock the nearest humans to their knees as it took flight. But one of its wings was crippled, bent; black blood matted the feathers where Bienor’s shot had struck; it could barely hold itself aloft. This time its scream was anguished, piercing and long like a train whistle.

The train—the Echidna. The boiler, pumped all full of fire and force with no escape. He’d forgotten his ace in the hole. He shook his head, smiling. Liquor—it numbed the pain, killed the jitters, the doubts; it made bad memories warm again and drove the worst away. But it made you slip. It made you clumsy, made you take risks you didn’t need to and say things you shouldn’t. And it made you want to feel that way all the time. What a thing it was, what a joke, dreamed up by centaurs in a world without gods. What a tragedy.

Bienor took a bead, precise and perfect, unwavering, stone-steady, on a rivet above the iron ridge of the Echidna’s twisted brow, where just a hint of superheated steam displayed itself in winter white. His efforts at recruiting Deimos and Phaeton should have reminded him of the finest thing about drink: it allowed him to believe again. He felt the merciful fingertip of Artemis upon his spine, counterbalancing the pain—his own great myth; no matter that it was a lie, it worked—and what a fine thing for these humans that their own myth could be real. He couldn’t wait to tell Gryneus.

Under the slightest pressure from his finger, the trigger slid back, smooth as butter, and the Pyretus rifle boomed like a tympanum.

The flat of the fasces knife pressed into Five Legs’s collarbone, searing, twisted up in the chains that had bound him. The scent of sweat and Nessus’s acrid breath, mingled with that of his own flesh burning, sent him back to the Labyrinth Ranch. Patroclos remembered the taste of human flesh, though Five Legs had made himself forget.

His stomach clenched with shame, his skin crawled with revulsion, tears of rage perilously blurred his vision. The chain was growing hot from contact with the fiery knife; he wouldn’t be able to hold onto it much longer. Nessus was too big, too fast. It took all his concentration to anticipate the next twist or feint; his perception had narrowed to include nothing else but the dark hairs on Nessus’s knuckles, the tense and release of sagging flesh around tendons in his neck and arms, the pale reflections of the desert sky in his pupils.

When the booming rifle-shot came from beside him, it was no more than a clear peal near-forgotten behind mountains, and the answering scatter of lesser gunfire from the guards a fleeting memory of rain. Only when the shockwave struck, pushing Nessus back on his haunches and Five Legs to his knees, did he recover the presence of mind to look for its source.

Bienor was gone from the cliff’s edge, leaving only the rifle, smoking, in a smear of alcohol and gore.

Nessus launched himself again on the attack, now wielding both knife and chain, too fast for Five Legs to do any more than fall and roll, flailing wildly with his hooves in blind hope of warding off the blows.

Then the rushing wall of smoke and steam boiled up out of the canyon’s depths. And astride it came the thunderbird, screaming, beak and talons outstretched, brown and golden feathers filled with fading light, its eye the eye of hurricanes, calm in the face of pain.

Among Nessus’s deafening amplified screams and the thunderbird’s steam-whistle howl, among flying bullets, smoke, the frantic plunging motion of fasces knife and chain and beak and threshing claw, Five Legs heard Nessus speak a name, an accusation. “Eurytus.

They were so much the same, the lords of the centaurs. Eurytus would never have accepted that Nessus could change, and Nessus couldn’t believe defeat was possible at any other hand.

The Echidna’s explosion ignited rockslides. Old tunnels in the canyon walls collapsed. Centaurs fell in curtains from the cliffsides among cascades of earth and stone. Humans, like tenacious desert pines, resisted and were crushed.

When it was over, Five Legs struggled upright. A few centaurs who’d kept hooves beneath them and guns in hand aimed at him, but he ignored them.

Nessus, governor of the Northwest Plateaus, legate of the armies of the New World, controlling shareholder of the New Ilium and Acheron Railroad, was dead: his throat torn out, those terrifying black eyes pecked away, his steel beard shredded, slick bones exposed through gouges in his flesh. Dried flowers, spilled from a pouch at his withers, were scattered everywhere.

The thunderbird was gone, replaced by the body of a broken, frail old woman in an ugly mask and tattered cloak of feathers. Five Legs lifted her easily into his arms—she was lifeless, limp, her body soft in places where bullets had shattered bone. The fasces knife protruded from her heart. He left it there and pulled away the mask.

The eyes were familiar—haunted, proud, but less accusing now in a human face he’d never dared imagine; so old, so intensely fraught with lines it reminded him of a map of the world. He knew it had been made before the conquest, because none of its features were named.

He laid her down. Let her lie here, between the aeries and the sky.

He didn’t venture to raise the mask to his own face, nor even to look at the back of it. From the front, it was the face he knew. Gingerly gripping its edge, hesitant even to touch the smoothness of its inner side where it had pressed against the elder’s skin, he held it close against his side, lifted the Pyretus rifle slicked with Bienor’s blood and dust, and began to pick his way down the into the changed canyon. To pull survivors from the rubble. To look for Thin Crow.

As he went, centaurs followed.


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Michael J. DeLuca lives in the rapidly suburbifying post-industrial woodlands north of Detroit with his wife, kid, cats, worms, and microbes. He is the editor of Reckoning, a new journal of creative writing on environmental justice. His fiction has appeared most recently in Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Strangelet, and Middle Planet, and at BCS, where he also reads for the occasional podcast. Try him at @michaeljdeluca.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Of Thinking Being and Beast” by Michael J. DeLuca
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Comments & Scrivenings
3 Comments on “Death and the Thunderbird, Pt. II”

3 Responses to “Death and the Thunderbird, Pt. II”

  1. Jay Ridler says:

    HUZZAH! Great stuff, Mike! One of your very best and it’s sure to cause havoc with, ahem, those who do not care for gore porn or suffer from liberal guilt. Congratulations on a stunning achievement!

    JSR

  2. Ellen Denham says:

    Was looking forward to this and thoroughly enjoyed it!

  3. Erica Hildebrand says:

    The centaurs of New Ilium series remains one of my favorites in modern short fiction.

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