Dying fires flickered red from the caved-in barn and blackened clock-tower. They cast long shadows over the corpses slumped throughout the commons. There was a mother, her shoulder torn open to the cracked bone. A child’s corpse lay beneath her, bloated and blue, smothered by the last act meant to save it.
Orha knew violence. It was a thing she wore. Cloaked in it she stood between her karwan and danger time and again, throwing back raider bands with her armor and sword. By it she provided the karwan its livelihood. Time and again she rode out at the head of the column to hunt the twisted beasts so valued for the virtues of their blood and bone, for the power in their skin.
There was sense in the violence she knew. Reason.
The mundanity of the fires sickened her, their light dimmed by the lenses of her mask. She knew there would be a smell of burnt flesh, of wood smoke and rot, though it did not reach her. Abel’s mount plodded behind, a muted ringing of hooves above the muted crackle of the flames.
Red flames, like campfires, lit by human hands.
Her fingers groped along the metal seam of her mask. There was sacrilege in witnessing such violence through a veil. Rank air hissed in through the open seam. The galvanic thrum of her armor faded, and with it the power it vested in muscle and bone. Good. Let me feel weak. Let me feel powerless.
Abel reined in beside her. She peeled the leathery facemask away. Her eyes, accustomed to the tint of the armor’s lenses, saw in shades of pink and red, as though all the world were a raw wound.
Seeing clearly did nothing to salve her. The hammering of her heart did not slow. The pain in her ribs, the feeling of emptiness, of impotent rage that boiled and boiled and the steam of it filled her skull. Seeing clearly accomplished nothing.
“Captain, some might still be lurking about.”
She clipped the mask to her belt and dismounted. “Tracks over there.” Orha pointed to the blackened tower at the center of the village. “See what you make of them.”
Abel hesitated for a moment. She felt his eyes, heard the halting steps of his horse.
“Do what I say, corporal.”
Orha knelt beside the mother. A faint odor of gun smoke lingered. The mother’s shoulder blade had been splintered by a gunshot at close range. Her child, it seemed, had survived the fall, but not the weight of her body. A gold band still wrapped her wrist. Why, then, the effort to ride her down? Orha wondered, grasping for a fragment of reason, a mote of sense to be made. Wasted effort.
She gritted her teeth against the mounting pressure in her skull, like steam rising from a kettle in her chest. Is that when the void breaks through? When the emptiness becomes too much? A brokenness of the soul and a wound in the body. So Brighteye had described the moment of awakening to sorcery. His voice, usually full of warmth, flattened when he spoke of it. There were people in the world who lusted for that terrible power. The same sort of people, Orha assumed, who would kill and leave the corpse its jewelry.
She stood, and breathed, and forced reason back into the world.
“What have you found?”
Abel squatted beside the tangled web of tracks. “Not much of a fight. Feet running off in all directions. They scattered, and were cut down one by one. Poor bastards.”
“Don’t be profane.”
Abel looked up at her. She could not see his face, only the bug-eyed mask of his armor, scaled hide and silver seams. He was young, and like many of the young he wore cynicism as a shield. How else to live in a world so broken?
“How many?” she said.
“At least ten horse, probably more, and a wagon.” Abel stood and pointed. “Though I think they came for more than pillage.”
There, between the ruts, a line of footprints, all different sizes, walking in the halting stutter-step of prisoners leashed to the saddle.
“Every karwan needs new blood, I suppose.”
His words were a bellows in her, heating the kettle in her chest, raising the steam. Orha forced herself to move, filled the emptiness with action, with purpose.
“Search for survivors,” she said, and studied those footprints. Bare feet made muddy with gore, some too small to be older than ten years. She counted seven sets of prints, at least, following their captors with a halting gait. There, one had resisted, had been pulled to the ground and dragged for two dozen paces, where they struggled back to their feet to stumble on.
New blood. Every karwan, even these bastard raiders, needed new blood. People died on the waste, without walls and white-armored knights to defend them. Hunts went wrong. Plague broke out. Sometimes it was as simple a thing as a few fouled wells and not enough rain to fill the cistern wagon. They were free, without a white-armored boot on their necks, but they suffered for that freedom.
Children were born to Orha’s karwan. Brighteye made a point of that. Every young woman who was able gave three lives before she took up the gun and lance to join the column. Young men had to fight younger, but that was the way of the world, and women fought their own battles to bring new blood to the karwan.
Orha had tried, but never quickened. Some people were only born to fight.
New blood. Was that why? They came and killed and stole seven children, just for a drop of new blood.
There was, at least, a glimmer of reason there.
Not enough to quiet her anger, to fill the void.
Nothing would be.
“And what will you do, when you find them?” Brighteye said.
Orha watched three of the karwan’s children as they brushed and prepared bags of feed for her and Abel’s horses. They were orphans, rescued from a village dying the slow death of starvation so common to settlements on the waste. Brighteye made a point of welcoming such children into his karwan. Always they came willingly, with nowhere else to go. Orha had heard rumors of karwan that stole children to use as or bait for beasts, or worse. She had never believed such stories. Lives were too valuable to throw away.
Brighteye leaned heavily on his cane. His good eye searched Orha’s face. The other was hidden beneath a strip of blue cloth. Orha had seen it uncovered only once, when Brighteye had found cause to unleash sorcery. Black crystals of cacocite grew where his eye should have been. Black crystals just like those that sprouted from the ground where the world grew thin and the beasts came through.
“Sir,” Orha straightened, as though by standing tall and seeming resolute she might convince him. “We should know where this raiding band rides. They are not the sort we want to meet, and the karwan is weak, still recovering from the last hunt.”
“Do not lie, Captain.” Brighteye shook his head, and the wrinkles at the corner of his eye hardened. “I know you well. What do you seek? Justice? Vengeance? An answer? Justice and vengeance are fickle things, and no answer these raiders might give could satisfy.”
“Then are we to let them go?” She was surprised at the blade in her voice. It betrayed the black fire burning within her. It poisons me. It makes me crueler than I am.
“Whatever you want from these men, however you punish them, it will not be the end of evil. There will be horrors in your future. You must learn to live with them. To see them, and accept them, and weep, but to go on.”
His focus seemed to turn inward, and Orha felt that his words were as much for himself as for her.
“To go on.” His hands tightened around the head of his cane. “It is all we can do, and it is the greatest defiance.”
“I am not interested in defiance.” Orha backed away from him. “You speak as though the world is theirs, as though goodness and justice have no claim. You would let brutality rule without argument or answer.”
“Endurance is an answer.”
“It is an empty one.”
“To argue against violence with violence is empty.” Brighteye’s voice quavered. “I know this. What sort of wound do you think it was, that awakened me to sorcery?”
“I feel empty already.” She grasped his hand. “Please. Let me do this. I want to punish them, but more than that, they stole children. Children who will be raised by monsters.”
His frown deepened. Finally, with a heavy sigh, he said, “Take Abel with you. I can spare no one else.”
“Thank you.” She covered her heart in salute. He returned the gesture, shook his head, and went to help the children with the horses.
The raiders’ trail had led west, so the karwan turned south. Orha and Abel would meet them at Yezel Oas, where they would make camp and wait by the fresh water. It was a dangerous place to linger, for all manner of karwan filled their cisterns there. Brighteye would wait, but not long.
They sealed their armor, felt the galvanic rush of power, the surge of speed and strength to match the beasts that crawled out of the thinning places in the world. Orha had, in her younger days, often seen the irony in that. The karwan hunted those beasts for their skins, which went to make armor to make hunting easier.
What if we never hunted? We could throw away these stitched hides, find a place to scrabble in the dirt. Dig wells, raise corn, live in peace.
Such a life was harder, she knew, and the places where food still grew in abundance were scarce. Villages were shrinking everywhere as the sickness of the thinnings spread through the earth, as plows turned up as many shards of black crystal as stones. There were cities, like Capanilla where she had been born, but cities bred hardships of their own. The violence of such places had been more cleverly disguised, dressed in white armor and built on a foundation of law and tax and procedure. But violence, nonetheless.
Violence was a thing she wore.
I can choose its aim, she thought as she and Abel left the karwan behind. I can direct it, use it to protect and to provide.
They rode back to the butchered village, the silence a taut wire between them. Abel followed orders. He had saddled fresh horses and readied supplies at her command, but she felt his resentment. He must think me a fool, and this a fool’s errand.
She remembered when they found him. A boy and his grandfather, on foot, walking the waste after the thinning ruined the land beneath their village. The old man had died days later. Abel was strong, steady with a gun and dependable with a lance. In his sixteenth year Brighteye recognized that strength. Young men always saw armor as a gift, as an honor. Never as the burden it was.
He had two children. Both girls, from different mothers, as was the way in the karwan. Diversity of blood kept away mutation. Orha felt a pang of guilt at the thought of them, at the risk she forced upon their father. That they hardly knew him did little to assuage her. Neither did the thought that he would likely die on a hunt long before they came of age.
Perhaps they were why he had come without protest. He was a father, and by all accounts a good one, or as good a one as life in the karwan allowed. Does he feel the same burden that I do? The same emptiness? Does he ride forth in rage?
A backward glance told her nothing. His armor was sealed, and there was no truth to be found in those green, crystal eyes.
“What do you make of all this, Abel?”
He cocked his head.
“Do you think me a fool?”
He did not answer till they caught sight of the columns of smoke, thin now, that had first led them to the butchered village.
“No, Captain, not at all,” he said.
“This errand may end in our deaths.”
“Death and I made peace a long time ago, Captain.”
“You are too young for such sentiment.”
“Maybe,” he said. They were near the village now. The barn had collapsed completely, now nothing but smoldering rubble. Crows leapt from their meals in a flurry of wings.
“You put a spear in my hand, and Brighteye gave me armor,” Abel said. “The gifts I have are certainty and strength of will, and those weapons kill fear.”
“Would that I had your gifts, corporal.”
They returned to the hobnailed hoot prints, which led west, followed by the tread of shackled children.
They found the beast late on the fourth day, a mound of brutalized flesh that dwarfed the hills on which it lay. Muscle drained of life and color sagged in limp ropes. Without the power vested in its hide the beast was a formless thing, dragged apart by gravity and pressure and the laws of size and volume. The longbones of its sprawled limbs glistened in the sunlight. Carrion crows had plucked its eyes and picked at the tender flesh along its ribs. They circled overhead, a furious choir, as Orha and Abel approached.
“This was freshly done.” Abel reigned in his horse. “And by amateurs.”
Orha imagined him studying the deep punctures in the beast’s flank, the countless tunnels bored by gunshot, the bones splintered and ruined in the ease of the kill. He would be wondering, she was sure, why its killers—the butchers—had taken only the skin and teeth. The most valuable pieces for trading, yes, but a karwan took everything of use. Longbones to reinforce the wagons or for the shafts of spears. Meat for the stewpot. Organs—the ones that were not poison—for their medicinal qualities.
These things only flitted through Orha’s mind. She could spare no thoughts for them, no contemplation. Her mind was not her own, and shied from analysis, from anything but raw, screaming rage. For there, beside the beast, lay the body of a little girl.
“Profiteers,” Abel said, and even through the static of their helmets Orha heard the bile in his voice. “We were wrong, Captain. Not a karwan at all.”
Her dress was blue, beneath the mess that caked it. A length of rope around the girl’s wrists led to a shattered stake of wood, broken by the beast’s assault. The bones of her neck had twisted to snapping. A swift death, to end the dread, the panic of struggling without avail. There was a weal around her wrist to show that she had run until the rope refused her even that defiance.
The butchers’ tracks led to a nearby stand of jagged rocks, where they had hidden with their guns while the girl wailed and pulled against her tether. While the beast came, dragging itself on oversized limbs, snapping its dog’s jaw full of needle teeth. While the girl baited their trap, and died.
“Not for new blood, then.” Orha’s voice was soft.
Abel’s cough crackled into her ear, and he shifted suddenly in the saddle. His hands found the seal of his mask. It came away, and he retched.
Orha looked to the sky. The crows drew black circles against the clouds, eager for her to leave their meal.
You wish to feast on monsters? The black flames roared within her. The kettle boiled. This creature is but a crumb beside the meal I will make for you.
“We are not far behind.” Orha said, kicking her mount. Abel grimaced, spat, then replaced his mask. They left the carcass, and the girl. Soon the crows ceased their crying. Orha heard their wingbeats as they drifted down.
Pray, crows, leave room for more.
The next morning, they came upon a thinning. At first glance it looked the same as the terrain they had been crossing, an ordinary stretch of dusty earth. But to the waste-trained eye there were signs. The lingering smell of a thunderstorm and a shimmer in the air, like heat rising from sunbaked earth in the dry season. Black cacocite grew thick in the ground, cracking beneath their horses’ hooves. The crackling, static sound of it thrummed deep in their ears.
“Must be where the beast crawled out,” Abel said.
“They’ll try to lure another on the far side of the thinning,” Orha said. “Beasts won’t go near the corpses of their kin.”
An image of blue fabric and frayed rope, stained in blood, came to mind. Another beast, another child used as bait. No. Not if we hurry. Not if we stop them first.
The butcher’s trail curved southward, for even a profiteer knew better than to ride into a hole in the world. If they hurried, they might catch the butcher by end of day.
As they rode wide around the thinning, Orha recalled her first sight of such a place, when the karwan had come upon one and routed wide around it. She had shivered in fear and wonder, recalling whispered tales told with haunted eyes of the cousin of a cousin or the friend of a friend whose uncareful footsteps had led into a thinning. Their souls, it was said, fell out of the world like water through a sieve.
She had asked Brighteye if any of those stories told true.
“Yes, child,” he said, “in that they reflect our fears, which are born of uncertainty.”
“But you are a sorcerer,” she said, “and the stories all say how sorcerers broke the world and made the thinnings. That makes them evil, doesn’t it? How can you be something evil?”
A faint smile touched his lips. “If only the world were so neatly ordered. Child, not every good man is without brokenness. In fact, for some, it is brokenness that made them good. For others, those who cannot endure, their brokenness only lashes out against the world. Sorcery is that. It is lashing out.”
Orha frowned. Brighteye shook his head.
“I see that you do not understand. Perhaps someday you will, but I hope not.”
“What a cruel thing to say.”
“Oh no, child, no. I would not wish knowledge of sorcery upon my worst enemy.”
“What about the thinnings, then,” she said, “and the cacocite, and the beasts?”
“There are many accounts. Many words borrowed from ancient, half-forgotten traditions. The thinnings lead to hell, or the world behind, or primordial chaos. Who can say? We only know that we fear whatever lies beyond, that the thinnings breed a black crystal that poisons the soil, that those who wander in never return, and that only beasts crawl out.”
“But where did they come from?”
“If I knew the answer to that I would not be riding with the karwan, but called to council the kings in their cities, heralded as the greatest mind of our age.” He grinned at her, but she could not find the humor in his words.
“No one knows?”
“No one knows anything, my child.”
“Well.” Orha stared at the blue sky. “That’s bleak.”
Silence held between them. Brighteye shifted the reins in his hands and sighed.
“It doesn’t matter, does it?” he said. “Wherever they came from, whatever caused them, they are here, now, and they shape all our lives. Any explanation could do but one of two things. Either assign blame, and so justify cruelty in the name of revenge or punishment. Or, if it were discovered that no one is to blame, that the world simply is the way that it is and we are doomed by no fault of our own, we would be left with nothing but despair.”
“But if we knew, maybe we could fix it. Or stop it from getting worse, at least.”
Brighteye’s eyes widened, and he laughed. “Your optimism is boundless, child. That it has survived your short life full of hardship is nothing but a miracle. Yes, perhaps we could fix it. I have no notion of how such an effort should begin.”
Orha remembered the questions, and the want for answers, the fog of uncertainty descending with Brighteye’s words. It clung to her, and never lifted.
She no longer wanted to fix the world. Where she found goodness, she would protect it. Where she found cruelty, she would resist. And perhaps, if she had the strength, she might leave the world better in her wake.
She thought of these things, and followed the butcher’s trail.
Campfire smoke rose in a pillar that cut across the moon. Five hard days of riding, and they had caught their quarry at last. Orha tied their mounts to a gnarled tree. They checked the seals of their armor and took their swords. Orha and Abel had no need for guns. Violence was a thing they wore.
From atop the low hill Orha studied the butcher’s camp. She saw two covered wagons laden with supplies brought from the city and trade goods ripped from the slaughtered beast. Tents were scattered haphazardly. Only two men stood watch, one facing north and the other south. The rest had gathered around a campfire. She looked for the children, and saw them huddled beside one of the wagons, far from the fire, near the hobbled horses.
Night settled. The men went to their tents. One of the sentries, perhaps disgruntled at having been left out of a night of drinking, walked to the fire and took a bottle back to his post. One of the children cried out in hunger. The sentry spat a curse and threw a stone. The child yelped and then was silent.
Orha crawled back to their horses at the bottom of the slope. Abel followed. He drew his sword, a wide blade of hammered iron, too heavy for a hand without armor.
“I hope you will not need that,” Orha said. “You lead the children away while I hold their attention.”
She could not see his face, and the bug-eyed mask betrayed no frown, but Abel stiffened at her words.
“We are not here only for vengeance, Abel.”
He studied her, his hands tightening around the bone handle of his weapon.
“Let me fight,” he said. “You lead the children away. The karwan needs you more than it needs me, should something go wrong.”
“No, Abel,” she said. The black fire roiled, built pressure in her skull. She was so near to release, and not about to back away. Do you feel the same way, corporal? Do I deny you catharsis? Well, you are young, and still far from breaking. You can endure.
Finally, he sheathed his sword.
“Meet me at Tullis Well, when it is over,” she said. “Three days. No longer. If I do not appear, hurry on to the karwan and speak well of my death.”
“I will,” he said. “And then I will ride out again to avenge you.”
She shook her head, but did not scold him. Perhaps that would be the best course, if she died. She found herself thinking little of the future, beyond the bloody hour to come.
The butchers were not expecting an attack. Orha carved the first sentry from throat to navel. The second managed a single cry of alarm before his head spun from his shoulders. Power surged through her, and her blade wailed a keening song as it split the air and wicked flesh. They came crawling from their tents, half asleep with pistols and knives to hand. Too slow. Too weak. She left them sprawled and shattered.
Not one of them had armor. Not one of them could rival her. The few blows they managed to strike rebounded from her carapace. Their bullets flew wide, for their aim could never match the speed of her fury.
Violence was hers that night, and she made sure they knew it, that they understood cruelty and fear before they died. Their blood and their screams splashed against her. These wicked, deserving men. And still the black fire raged, and the pressure only grew.
She whirled, brought her sword high to strike, and froze.
A man stood at the mouth of his tent and held a girl before him. A scar seamed the left side of his face, and another furrowed his burly arm from elbow to wrist. That arm held the girl close. He pressed the barrel of his pistol to her throat.
“Drop the sword.” The butcher’s scar rippled as he spoke.
The girl searched Orha’s face with eyes wide and terrified. The butcher’s finger twitched on the trigger.
“I said drop it!”
Orha’s hands tightened around the bone handle of her sword. Breath came shallow. If she lunged she might stave in his head. Thirty paces, she counted. No distance at all, in armor.
“Lower it, I said!”
No distance at all.
Black fire raged. Steam built behind her eyes. The bones of her arms shuddered, enraged, ready to kill.
No distance, but all the distance in the world.
Her hands opened. Gunshots ripped the air. Two bullets hammered her armor. It cracked and she fell, screaming. No distance! But he had been crueler. More willing.
Violence, in the end, had been his.
She remembered something else. Something that Brighteye had said. There had been a long pause, while they passed the thinning, but as they left it behind he had turned to her.
“We may not be able to fix the world, Orha,” he had said, “but this is what we can do. Protect compassion where it is found. Resist cruelty when it rears its head. To go on, in spite of the brokenness, is the greatest defiance. Do that, and perhaps the world will be a better place, if only where you tread.”
She remembered, as she lay sprawled in her broken armor, while the butcher with his scar stood over her and, grinning, shot her in the forehead.
It did not kill her, she realized when she woke to the pounding in her head and the burning ache in all her bones. She sat on hard ground, her wrists bound and wrenched to one side. Her back pressed against something rough, hard, and thin as a rail. A phantom ringing dulled all sound, and the pain behind her eyes glued them shut.
Not only the pain. Blood. Her armor had deflected the bullet, but it had scored a furrow in her scalp.
She gasped as frigid water splashed her face. Her eyes fluttered open of their own accord. She saw the world in spinning color. The butcher grinned at her, with his scar and his pistol, which he tapped against the side of his head as he watched her sputter.
“Not much time left, and I’ve some questions before you die.”
He squatted. His eyes drifted down to the smallclothes Orha wore beneath her armor. The only things she wore, now, which clung to her, damp as they were. When he had satisfied the urge to leer, the butcher again met her gaze.
She ignored him. The rage that had burned within her had been dampened to a fading ember. Had Abel managed to save the other children? She saw only the butcher’s hostage, the girl, there behind him. The others, then, must have escaped. Perhaps Orha’s death would not be meaningless. There was some comfort in that.
The butcher drew his mouth into a line, shook his head, and drove his fist into her belly.
She retched, then slumped, held up only by the thin rope that bit her wrists. He reached into the pocket of his vest and withdrew a brass pocket watch, checked the time, then clicked it shut.
“You haven’t got time to waste on lip, woman,” he said. “You forget that I broke your armor. You’re weak and pink like the rest of us. No more carapace. Now, to my questions.”
He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at the girl, who stood beside a thick stand of shrubs where Orha saw seven men hiding, their guns in hand. She stood like a dead thing stuffed with cotton and felt. Motionless. Empty-eyed.
“We thought for sure no one would come looking for those waste-urchins. Then there you were, and that coward who never showed her face, come to murder the better half of my boys and steal our hard-won bait. And I’m asking, first, who in the hell you are, and second, why in the hell you care.”
Orha had been nothing but coals inside, but his words were a bellows on her heart.
“Who are you, butcher?”
“Who am I?” He rolled back on his heels with a quizzical expression. “A hunter, and that’s all. A man out to make his living and rid the world of a few monstrosities.” He grinned. “Just trying to do my part.”
“You’re worse than any beast.” Orha sputtered.
“Oh, that’s not true.” He flipped open the pocket watch again, then clicked it shut. He drew his brows together, as though returning to some oft-contemplated thought. “At worst I’m of the same caliber as a beast. These villages out here, they can’t survive. It’s only a matter of time before something gets them, either the cacocite or a rampaging beast. I’m no crueler than nature itself.”
He opened the pocket watch again, turned its face toward her. A picture had been pasted to the inside of the cover. Three children, dressed in finer clothes than Orha had ever seen.
“I’ve got a family to feed back home. Children with bright futures to provide for, unlike these waste-urchins. Might as well get use out of them—”
“Use?” Orha said through her teeth. The black fires rumbled back to life. “You don’t know anything. You speak as though these children are doomed, but they aren’t. The waste—the world—is cruel, but we survive. Yet you rob them of even that chance, and for what? A fresh shirt for your son?”
A heavy thud beat the ground, rolled through the earth. Then another, louder, and another. She knew the tread of beasts like she knew her own voice. Her heart began to pound.
The butcher stood. “Time’s up. Guess I’ll track your friend down. Have to get my property back anyway. Maybe she’ll be more forthcoming.”
He shook his head, stuffed the watch into his pocket, then ran to take cover with his men. The girl shuddered at his passing.
Another footfall shook the earth. Orha strained against her bonds and craned her neck. The beast lumbered toward her on twisted, many-jointed limbs. Its head swung back and forth. Seven eyes, terribly human in shape but black as the eyes of carrion crows, fixed on her.
She had faced down beasts before, but always either wearing armor or at a distance with a gun in her hand. Her bonds cut into her wrists. The rope was too strong, and the stake driven too deep.
This will not be how I die! She ground her teeth. Bound and powerless. The black fire raged. The beast’s next footfall was near enough to shake her bones. She heard its ragged breathing, slow and rasping like a broken bellows. A musk like rotting flowers filled her nose. She had never smelled it so clearly. She had never been so near without her helmet.
It loomed over her, its seven eyes narrowing.
This will not be how I die!
But it would be.
And so many died in just the same way. Not gored by beasts, but staring down death inevitable just the same. Slow sicknesses that stole life in bits and pieces. Sudden traumas predicated only by a rush of fear and burst of pain. They were a lucky few who died happily in their sleep after a long life fully lived. Most people died badly. Why should she be any different?
In the end, even the vengeance she longed for had escaped her. And if it had been hers, what would it have mattered? A few cruel men slain, a few brutalized children saved, but only for a moment. Brutality would come again. Cruelty would always rear its head, and compassion was so vulnerable, so impossible to protect.
The beast lowered its head, seven eyes blinking, and breathed the scent of her. She met its gaze. Her body shuddered. Her bones ached. The pressure built and pressed within her, and her body was a weak vessel, too thin, too powerless.
She would not shut her eyes. She would not go quietly. Blood trickled from her hairline, stung her eye. Pain pulsed where bullets had broken her armor and bruised her. Her hands quivered and clutched the air.
The world was broken. It could not be made right. And Orha would die, badly, finally knowing this.
A scream, empty of fear and full of fury, tore itself from her throat. And with it the dam that held back the pressure of her rage gave way. So let it burn.
The pressure that filled her skull poured through the furrow in her scalp. Where the pressure had fled, power rushed in, like the first sweet breath after drowning. Black fire followed behind.
With a grunt of surprise, the beast was gone. Where it had stood, there burned a black wall of flame. Flames she recognized. Brighteye had used them, only once, to save the karwan from certain destruction.
A sob broke from Orha, and she staggered to her feet. The rope was gone, and the stake. The things she hated, one by one, ripped from the fabric of the world.
She turned her eyes on the butcher, who aimed his pistol, and then was gone.
Never enough. He was not the only butcher in the world. The world bred them, the cruel. White-armored in the cities. Raiders on the waste. These hideous profiteers. Symptoms. Consequences of a greater brokenness. Something unfixable. Something worthless.
The world is not for me and my kind, Orha thought, as the fires poured out from her, directionless, a lashing out at every cruelty suffered and imagined and yet to come.
She raised her hand, put it to the seam of the world, ready for the final unraveling.
A sob reached through the flames. A fog lifted. Orha saw the girl, on her knees, tear-streaked and pleading.
“Please, please stop!”
A moment passed, and the fires went out.
It took them a while to calm one of the butcher’s horses. The creatures were skittish around Orha, in much the same way they were skittish around the beasts and thinnings. She felt a pang of guilt while the girl, Saelle, stroked the creature’s neck and whispered calming words.
Her fingers drifted up to the furrow along her scalp. It no longer bled. Its surface felt smooth, hard, and cold. She imagined a line of black glass glimmering there, and shivered.
I have lost my armor, she thought, while Saelle held the horse and bade her mount. Violence is a thing inside me, now, held in only by this brittle seam.
A seam she could tear loose, at any moment, to let free again the black fires.
The fires she had loosed upon the world had died. Those she carried within still burned, fiercely as ever, and would never stop, she knew. This was what Brighteye had meant. She now understood why he had not been able to answer her questions. It was not a thing to speak of easily, and never with one who had not felt it. To go on, broken. The greatest defiance.
Orha took the reins with Saelle sitting behind her on the saddle. The girl wrapped her arms tight around Orha. She was so slight. So young to have already suffered so much.
A pang of deep sadness shook her and stirred the black fires. But the pang was good. It told her that she had not given in, that her heart still felt for the world. She could endure.
Is this what Brighteye feels, when he looks at me? I begin to understand him, more and more. He would be deeply saddened, she knew, when she told him, as she would be to learn that Saelle, or Abel, or any other person with a good and compassionate soul had reached that breaking point, that place where the world itself is the enemy, and irredeemable, and the only path left leads to obliteration.
Not the only path, she reminded herself. Saelle had led her back. She wondered who had been that person for Brighteye, and what had become of them.
Abel was there, after all, with three stolen mounts and the five children. At the sight of them Saelle gasped in happiness and scrambled out of the saddle. She raced over and caught up the two smallest in her arms. It was the first time Orha had seen her smile.
“I thought you were dead.” Abel’s voice was muffled by his mask.
“Then you should have moved on.”
He tilted his head quizzically. “But Captain, you said three days. If I’d disobeyed you’d have bitten my head off.”
“How long has it been?”
“Today is the third,” he said. “We should hurry on. Brighteye will be fearing for our lives.”
The karwan folded the children into the patterns of its life. Strays were common enough, and most strays carried trauma. The karwan could not take those hurts away, and Orha knew that the lives they should have lived would always haunt them. So it was for most in the karwan. So it was, Orha had come to realize, for most good people in the world.
When they returned to the karwan Orha felt eyes on her like she had never known before. Fearful eyes that traced the seam of glass along her scalp. Abel had suggested that she wrap her head in a scarf, till she had time to share her story with Brighteye, and he in turn had time to warn the others. She had refused. This was who she was, now. Let people make of it what they would.
Only Brighteye looked first in her eyes.
“Oh, child,” he said, and embraced her. “Welcome home.”
The tears came unbidden.
When the children had been settled and her wounds had begun to heal, she sat with Brighteye on the seat of his wagon as she had often done as a girl. Saelle rode behind Abel. They would not let her carry gun and spear for some time. But she would, eventually, and Orha had no doubt that she would earn armor in time.
“Brighteye,” she said.
“Could I have done it? I was ready to. Willing to. I hated the world. Often I have been angry, but this was deeper. This was loathing. And I had my finger on the seam of it all, ready to tear and leave it all in tatters.”
He slowly nodded.
“What if it happens again?” she said. “What if the karwan is attacked, or worse, and I lose myself in the hatred?”
A silence held between them.
“Are you asking whether or not it lies within the scope of your power? Or are you asking whether or not you, Orha of my karwan, could do such a thing?”
She thought for a moment. “Both.”
“To the second question, I say no.” He smiled at her. “For you did not.”
“I wanted to. If not for Saelle—”
“If not for Saelle, then for Abel, or for me,” he said. “I remember standing in that place. The hate. The emptiness. The temptation. But I endured. And so did you. It is the character of the person, Orha, and not circumstance. For endurance simply is the willingness to go on in spite of everything, in the face of any circumstance.”
Brighteye shifted his grip on the reins. The horses trudged along.
“To answer the first question,” Brighteye said at last, “I can say only this. In that moment, the world feels so thin, so fragile, and the hatred so potent. But the world is still here, Orha. Either it is more resilient than we know, or else every man and woman who has ever held the power to destroy it has decided to go on.”
Gently, he handed her the reins.
“I am not sure which would hearten me more.”