Late in the afternoon, after classes were out, Trissiny found Teal on the big open lawn by the gazebo where their fighting course was held. She was returning from a jog down the mountain and back up—midday wasn’t the ideal time for such exercise, but she needed to clear her head, and running tended to attract less attention than sword drills, even if it was on the University’s abominable staircase. It had been a cool day, though, and she hadn’t pushed herself. As such, she was barely sweating.
She paused in the shadow of the gazebo, watching Teal clumsily try to practice a few things Professor Ezzaniel had laboriously tried to teach her that day. Even having taken off her tailored coat, Teal really wasn’t dressed for exercise; those flapping sandals alone would be sure to trip her if she put the necessary amount of effort into her motions. That, however, didn’t happen. Trissiny cringed, watching the girl make clumsy, disinterested parodies of punches without paying the slightest attention to proper form or stance. At least nobody else was around to see her.
Apparently, Teal had about the same opinion of her performance. She stopped in what she was doing and just stood there for several long minutes. Just as Trissiny was about to turn and be on her way, Teal sighed so deeply that the paladin could see her chest rise and fall even from this distance, and trudged over to the gazebo. She plunked herself down on the steps and rested her face in her hands.
Trissiny was on her way over to join her before she’d decided to move.
She sat down beside the other girl. Teal didn’t look up, though Trissiny’s approach hadn’t been quiet; nobody else at the University seemed to wear armor as a matter of habit. She wasn’t sure what to say, how to begin, and so let the silence stretch. It was not an uncomfortable silence, though; sometimes, having a person nearby was all you needed. She’d been there herself.
“I can’t do this,” Teal said at last.
Trissiny bit back her knee-jerk reaction, which would have been very unhelpful. Back at the Abbey, novices who expressed unwillingness or inability in their combat practice were landed on hard by their drill sergeant; those blocks were mental, and helping girls work through them sometimes required a rough hand. By the time she’d left, Trissiny was advanced enough in the ranks that she’d been the sergeant for several of the younger squads, and had an automated response to whining from a student. Here, she had to remind herself that not everyone had grown up in a barracks. Most people hadn’t.
Fortunately, Teal continued without Trissiny needing to say anything. “I hate violence. I can’t stand it. Even play fighting, like what we do in class, it makes my guts clench up and…” She drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “…and that’s not even the worst of it. I’ve got a…that is, inside me, there’s…” Teal scrubbed a hand across her face. “Well. Suffice it to say that me getting used to aggression is a very, very bad idea. Sometimes I think my pacifism is the only thing keeping me from being an authentic menace to the world. I went to talk to Professor Tellwyrn about getting excused from that class as a conscientious objector or something.”
“How did that go?”
“She laughed at me,” Teal said sourly. “Then griped at me for wasting her time, and called me…some names.”
“She did what?” Trissiny straightened up, frowning. Just who had put that woman in charge of a school?
“To be fair, that last part was as I was leaving,” Teal said hastily, “and I don’t think she knew I understand elvish. It’s just… Even putting my own problems aside, that attitude terrifies me. Why does everyone in the world think it’s so damn crazy not to want to hurt other thinking, feeling people?” She glanced sidelong at Trissiny. “Oh, forget it. Look who I’m talking to.”
“Excuse me?” Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “You do realize that the Sisters of Avei, among other things, protect the pilgrims and shrines of gods who don’t allow violence in their followers? We prepare for war because someone needs to. I guarantee you have never heard an Avenist condemn you for being a pacifist.”
Teal flushed. “I’m sorry. You’re right, that was a stupid thing to say. I’m just frustrated and stressed, and taking it out on the wrong person. Sorry.”
Trissiny studied her thoughtfully for a long moment, then stood. “C’mon, get up. I want to show you something.” Teal hesitantly followed suit as Trissiny stepped away, giving them some room to move, then turned to face her. “Okay, throw a punch at me.”
Teal got a long-suffering look on her face. “Triss, what was I literally just talking—”
“Slowly, if it helps you. Don’t actually try to hit me, just demonstrate how the action would look.”
She pursed her lips mulishly for a moment, then shook her head and stepped forward, pushing out her fist in an exaggeratedly slow motion.
Trissiny grabbed her wrist, hooked her other hand behind Teal’s elbow, and spun, tossing the other girl to the grass.
Lying face-up on the ground, Teal heaved a sigh. “Great. Thanks. Thank you. I don’t get nearly enough of this in class.”
“Stop complaining for a moment and think about what just happened,” Trissiny said, a smile tugging at her lips. Amusement and irritation struggled inside her. She was no stranger to training girls, but Teal’s obstinate attitude would have long since gotten her either kicked out of the Sisters or worked to the bone till she had no energy left for grousing. Yet, something about the girl was just impossible not to like; she was funny even when being difficult. “I didn’t strike you, didn’t lay a hand on you at all. You landed quite gently; you’re not even winded. I only had to put any muscle into it because you were throwing a pantomime of a punch; if you’d actually been trying to hit me, I would have simply used your own energy to move you out of my way.” She bent over the fallen bard, extending her hand. “Self-defense doesn’t have to be about inflicting violence. It can be about deflecting violence, turning it back on its user. Or, potentially, about taking all the violence out of a situation.”
Teal allowed herself too be pulled upright, her forehead creasing in a thoughtful frown. “Then…you’re saying Ezzaniel’s full of it when it goes on about nonviolent self-defense being a crock.”
“No,” Trissiny said firmly. “He’s never said it’s not possible: he said it’s prohibitively hard, and he was dead on. It is always easier to inflict damage, that’s why most schools of fighting start by teaching that, and then move on to the subtler, more complicated approaches. Different martial arts are more than just different sets of movements, Teal, they’re built on different philosophies. The Eagle Style I learned is based on the idea that the goal of a fight is to eliminate your opponent’s capacity to fight. You’ll be defeated if you do any less; you become a monster if you do more. However, the fact is the most efficient way to neutralize a foe is almost always to kill or maim them. We eschew both cruelty and hesitation.”
“You get a kind of cadence in your voice when you talk about it,” Teal said with a smile, “like you’re reciting something.”
Trissiny shrugged ruefully. “That happens when you’ve heard the exact words enough times. Look, there are elder Sisters of Avei who can disarm and incapacitate a soldier without so much as ruffling his hair, but that is true mastery. It builds upon a lot of very violent technique, and I personally am nowhere near that level yet. I do, however, know enough that I would rarely need to kill someone unless they were trying very hard to kill me. I think Ezzaniel is encouraging you not to think along those lines because, honestly, the only athleticism you have is in those harp-strumming fingers.”
“No offense taken,” she grinned.
“The point being, starting you off on the hardest possible approach isn’t going to be any decent teacher’s first choice. But… If you are serious about this, if you acknowledge up front that you’re setting yourself up to have to work harder than anyone else in the class, and you’re willing to bust your butt to do it… I think we can persuade the Professor to back down and let you. I’ll help you as best I can. Plus, you have another classmate who’s in a position to help you out even better than I ever could.”
Teal perked up. “Shaeine?”
“Really?” Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “Have you ever heard of drow hesitating to use force?”
“Well…I just thought, Tar’naris being pretty peaceful…”
“The Narisians are civilized, not soft. Before the Treaty, they used to raid the surface for slaves.” Trissiny shook her head. “I was talking about Toby. After our fight in that first class, I did some reading on the Omnist monks, and their fighting style is pretty much exactly what you’re looking for. They use it mostly as an exercise form, and only occasionally for self-defense. That’s why he was having such a hard time beating through my guard; the staff form Toby learned is all about deflection and wearing down an opponent; the unarmed forms of Sun Style have no offensive moves. The whole point is to neutralize an opponent without doing them any harm. It’s going to be a very difficult thing to learn from the ground up…” She smiled. “…but I can’t imagine that Toby would be unwilling to teach you. Anything that brings a little less violence into the world will make an Omnist happy.”
Teal was already looking a lot more chipper. “I’ll talk to him next chance I get. And…you were serious? You’ll help me too? I don’t know if I can ever really thank you properly…”
Trissiny held up a warning finger. “I meant what I said, Teal: this is going to be hard. You’ll have to work outside of class, a lot, and work harder in class. Ezzaniel is likely to hold you to a higher standard if you commit to this, assuming he’s willing to allow it. My time is yours, if you make the commitment, but I will expect you to hold to it. I will not waste my time on a disinterested pupil.”
Teal nodded firmly. “You have my word, I’m in it for whatever it takes. And seriously, Triss…thank you.” She grinned again, shuffling her feet into a cringeworthy approximation of a fighting stance. “Now…show me how you did that.”
Night had almost fully fallen by the time they left the broad lawn, with only a reddish tinge lingering in the sky above the rooftops to the west. Most of the light was from the fairy lamps which lined the campus’s paths; the lawn had little illumination, and Trissiny had called a halt to practice due to darkness.
She was increasingly impressed with Teal. The girl was as winded and obviously sore as expected for someone in unimpressive physical shape who had just spent an afternoon exercising, not to mention that her expensive suit was now rumpled, stained by sweat and grass and actually torn in a couple of places, but she had stuck to it with a rugged determination that Trissiny found as surprising as impressive. There was a lot more to Teal than music and snark, apparently, which made her feel more optimistic about having committed to train her.
They met Shaeine and Gabriel at the nexus of paths leaving the lawn, to Trissiny’s surprise.
“Hey there,” Teal said brightly, waving and lengthening her stride to join them, despite the slight limp she’d picked up.
“Good evening, Teal,” the drow replied with one of her polite little smiles. “Are you quite all right?”
“Oof, yeah, I’m fine. This one’s quite the taskmaster,” she said with a grin, nodding at Trissiny. “Good at what she does, though! I feel almost ready to stand off an alley full of thugs.”
“Please don’t try that,” Trissiny said firmly. She was sweaty enough to need a bath once she got back to her room, but nowhere near as disheveled as Teal.
“I concur,” added Shaeine. “I would much prefer you uninjured.”
“It was a joke. I was joking. Calm down, guys, I’m not a complete idiot, usually.”
“What are you two doing together?” Trissiny asked curiously, glancing at Gabriel. He had remained silent through this whole exchange, staring flatly at her.
“We are returning from the library,” Shaeine replied. “Gabriel was kind enough to help me access the upper shelves. I fear I am not tall even by elvish standards.”
“Don’t they have a librarian to help with stuff like that?” asked Teal. “Or at least stools or ladders or something?”
“Yes, but I found the librarian to be…how shall I put this…”
“A fuckin’ creep,” Gabe supplied, scowling. “Ruda and Fross were with us earlier, but that was before she tried to flirt with him and he basically called her a whore. We barely talked her out of drawing steel on him. Now Ruda’s gone into the town to get good and drunk, and the pixie went along to keep an eye on her.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m sure nothing can possibly go wrong.”
“He said that?” Trissiny demanded. “To a student? That is intolerable!”
“I thought you didn’t like Ruda,” said Gabe flatly.
“That is completely beside the point. A man in a position of authority has no business treating female students like—”
“Gabriel may have exaggerated the exchange slightly,” Shaeine cut in soothingly. “It was a far more passive form of aggression. His exact words—”
“Don’t,” Gabe said quickly. “Nobody needs to hear it again, and there’s really no point in trying to reason with a cranky paladin.”
“What does that mean?” Trissiny demanded.
“Oh, don’t give me that wounded face,” he growled, “or at least save it for someone we don’t know you’d rather kill than talk to. ‘What are you doing together,’ my ass. Like you thought I was gonna drag her behind a bush and suck her blood out.”
“You are being needlessly aggressive, Gabriel,” Shaeine noted.
“No known demon species does that,” Trissiny said coldly, ignoring the drow. “And Shaiene is a cleric. I would actually like to see you try to harm her.”
“Well, Trissiny, I’ve misjudged you.” Gabriel gave her a grin that was all teeth and no humor. “Here I figured you were too craven to admit your murderous impulses in public. My apologies. I give you points for integrity, bitch.”
Teal and Shaeine both lunged into action, the bard wrapping her arms around Trissiny and the priestess grabbing Gabriel by the arm and hauling him backward a few steps. It barely averted disaster.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY TO ME?!” Trissiny roared, stepping forward despite Teal’s attempts to dig her heels in.
“Damn it, Gabe!” Teal yelled. “Do not throw gendered insults at a Sister of Avei! What kind of death wish do—” She cut off with a grunt as Trissiny effortlessly hooked a hand under her arm and threw her to the grass.
Gabriel yanked himself out of Shaeine’s grasp and stalked toward the seething paladin, baring his own teeth in a snarl. “You heard me. You know what, Trissiny? I have done nothing to you, or near you. I’ve done nothing to anybody. All I ever did was get born, which believe me, nobody asked me my fucking opinion about beforehand. I am sick of being spit on and treated like a rabid animal for no fucking reason.”
“No reason?” she snarled right back.
“Guys, that’s enough!” Teal tried to jump between them, but Trissiny just pushed her back out.
“You’re trying to pick a fight with me out of nowhere and you have the gall to act like the victim here?”
“Yeah, this is really coming right the hell out of nowhere,” he spat back. They were now inches from each other’s faces. “After you burned my hand, then went for your sword on me like I was the one who did something wrong, and now you’re acting like me walking a classmate home is some kind of…of crime against humanity!”
“You. Are. A. Demon!”
“I’m a person!” he screamed. “And if I wasn’t, I’d rather be a demon than a fucking hypocrite!”
“Oh, here’s the great and noble paladin, protector of the innocent,” he raged, waving his arms, “keeping us all safe by jumping up everybody’s ass when those of us who weren’t raised in a convent act like normal human beings. Thank the gods we have Trissiny here to let us all know how much better she is than the rest of us mere mortals!”
Teal’s continued attempts to calm them were not only ignored, but all but inaudible beneath the shouting match. Shaeine had stepped back, and was alternating between watching the combatants carefully and scanning the environs for help. They seemed to be alone, for now, but it was only a matter of time before the raised voices drew attention.
“I have never held myself above others,” Trissiny snarled at Gabriel, “which you would know if you’d paid any attention to me instead of the—the—the cartoon of me you have in your head. I have to wonder what you’re so guilty about that you have to cast the paladin as a villain in whatever drama you think you’re playing in!”
“My best friend is a paladin, you self-righteous asshole! He’s never threatened me, or overreacted to me, or acted like I’m less than human. He also doesn’t make a habit of burning me just to prove a point!”
“I was trying to help you!” she shrieked. “Excuse me for embracing the light of the gods that protects us on this realm! If the purest form of energy in our world is so painful to you, why don’t you just go somewhere you belong?”
“Damn you and your attitude, I belong here! I am not less than you, I’m not evil, and I don’t deserve to have to put up with this bullshit! If you don’t want to have a problem with me, why don’t you try not being such a cunt?!”
Teal clapped a hand over her face.
“That,” said Trissiny softly, “is too far.” She drew her sword.
Gabriel reflexively hopped backward from the blade, but then forced himself to a stop, sneering at her. “Well, there we see your true colors. You really can’t deal with anything except by killing it, can you?”
“This has indeed gone too far,” Shaeine said. She was serene as ever, but her voice held iron command that none of them had yet heard from her. “You two are behaving like errant children. This must stop before real damage is done.”
“I’m just standing here,” Gabe shot back, spreading his arms as if to embrace Trissiny, sword and all. “Just existing. We’re just now finding out how much of a problem she has with that.”
“You want to stand here?” Trissiny pointed the blade at him. “Then let’s see you stand here.”
A pure, golden glow sprang up around her, it intensity enough to illuminate the lawn. Gabriel screamed in pain and stumbled desperately backward, covering his face with both hands.
Teal leaped away from the light, looking frantic. “Trissiny, stop it!”
Trissiny stepped closer to Gabriel, forcing him backward. “He goes on, and on, and on about how he belongs here just like anyone, but show a bit of the divine to him, and we see the truth. What kind of thing can’t bear the light of the gods?”
Gabe let out a long, animalistic sound that started as a groan but morphed into a serpentine hiss halfway. He parted his fingers to glare at her. His eyes were totally black, with no whites or irises.
“And the real face emerges,” the paladin whispered.
“Stop it!” Teal shouted desperately from a safe distance.
“Trissiny, you must end this,” Shaeine snapped. “You are torturing him. Is this how Avei commands her paladins to behave?”
“I’m beginning to think you’re right,” she replied. “This is foolish. I should end it.”
She slashed at Gabriel with the sword. He bounded backward, but screamed in pain as the weapon put off a fierce blaze of light that struck him in midair. It wasn’t a human scream. He stumbled as he landed, but regained his balance and snarled at her again. In the light of her aura, his face was twisted, fangs sprouting from his mouth, scaled ridges appearing along the backs of his hands, eyes fathomless pits. There was no reason or hesitation left in them.
The paladin and the demon lunged for each other simultaneously; sparks flew as they collided with a barrier of silver light that sprang up between them.
“This cannot happen!” Shaeine said firmly. “You’ve already pushed him too far, Trissiny. You must be the one to draw back and bring this to a stop!”
“That’s what I’m doing! Get out of my way!” She darted for the side of the barrier; it shifted, following Shaeine’s pointed finger, keeping her separated from her quarry. Gabriel, however, dashed the other way, whipping around its back edge with the agility of a jungle cat and lunging for her side. Trissiny barely got her shield up between them and threw him backward; she followed up with a thrust for his heart, but he flung himself back with the momentum of her throw and skidded out of range, before gathering himself to lunge again.
The silver wall of light darted between them again, and this time slammed into Trissiny’s face, shoving her backward. At the same time, Teal leaped onto Gabriel’s shoulders, trying to wrap her arms around him. He snarled and threw her roughly to the side.
“Teal!” Shaeine shouted desperately. “You need to get help! I can hold one of them, but not both, and whichever I incapacitate will be vulnerable!” As she spoke, she gesticulated, swatting first Gabriel and then Trissiny with the wall of light; it served to keep them apart for a few more precious seconds, but both were incredibly agile and singlemindedly fixated on getting to each other. It was as if they could no longer even see anything but the enemy ahead.
“It’ll take too long…” Teal grimaced, climbing back to her feet. “All right. Hold Trissiny back.”
Then she exploded.
The eruption of flames coalesced into a pair of immense, burning wings; a corona of fire wreathed her head. She stepped resolutely toward Gabriel, a creature of flame and scything talons, with eyes that blazed like portals into hell…and still wearing Teal’s dapper suit.
“Gabriel.” Vadrieny’s voice was music, as though an entire choir were speaking in flawless harmony. She did not immediately succeed in getting Gabe’s attention, however; just as he tried to lunge around Shaeine’s barrier, she reached out with one clawed hand and seized him by the collar. “Gabriel! I know you’re still inside there. You need to calm yourself. We are your friends. You don’t want to do this.”
He thrashed in her grip, unable to shake her; finally, he reached back to grab her hand and wrenched himself free by ripping the fabric of his coat where she held it, then spun and drove his fist directly into her nose.
Vadrieny didn’t move to dodge or block, taking the blow with a grimace of annoyance. “You didn’t want to do that, either,” she said, and backhanded him halfway across the lawn.
Trissiny charged for him while he was down, shrieking in frustration as Shaeine’s barrier zipped into her path again. Vadrieny gave one flap of her fiery wings and leaped over the lawn to stand beside the fallen half-demon, getting herself in position seconds before Trissiny, having feinted left and then pivoted around the shield when Shaeine moved to to respond, arrived.
She opened her mouth to speak, but didn’t have a chance before Trissiny drove her sword directly at her throat. Vadrieny swatted the blade away with one set of claws; it rang like a bell and emitted a blast of golden light where she touched it.
“Ow,” the demon complained, and punched Trissiny in the chest.
Her breastplate absorbed the worst of the impact, but she was flung backward and hit the ground in a skid, sliding a good fifteen feet away.
“This isn’t going to stop until at least one of them is out of the picture,” Vadrieny stated, turning to point at Shaeine. “Try to calm that one down. I’ll deal with him.”
So saying, she bent, grabbed Gabriel by both lapels, beat her wings once, and sent them both shooting into the sky. They were out of view in seconds.
“All right,” Natchua said reluctantly, “I forgive you for dragging me out of bed. That was…very interesting.”
“Woman, what you were doing in bed at this hour I shudder to think, since you were in it alone,” said Chase with his customary insouciant grin. He leaned against the pretentious battlements atop the music building, having turned his back on the scene below as soon as Vadrieny took off with Gabriel. His drow companion was crouched behind them, peeking far more carefully down at the freshmen. “Anyhow, you should know by now that I always have your best interests at heart.”
“You don’t have a heart,” she said dismissively. “So our new paladin has impulse control issues, and the thing inside the bard is strong enough to beat down both her and…whatever he is.”
“Looks like a hethelax,” he said. She turned to frown up at him.
“Hethelax. The kind of demon he is. Or, half is, I guess. But yeah, the eyes, the scales, the way he transforms, then goes crazy and can’t be reasoned with. Lower weight class berserker demons. What gets me is the full-blooded ones are a lot uglier than that. To think a human would screw one…I am both repulsed and strangely titillated.”
“How do you know so much about demons?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” His grin grew to maniacal proportions. “I’m taking a divinity class this semester with November.”
“November hates you.”
“November hates everybody. The kicker is, Trissiny’s in it, too, and Vember is not at all subtle about wanting to climb up her skirt. Triss was the only on in the room who managed not to pick up on it.”
“…very interesting,” Natchua repeated, a slow smile growing on her features. “Keep me informed.”
There was no thought, no motive, no hesitation. There was only the rage, and the enemy before him.
He clawed frantically at the massive talons holding him by the throat, to no avail; their strength was far beyond his. She stared up at him from an arm’s length away, those hateful orange eyes that were nothing but pits of flame in an otherwise human face. Her expression was implacable, cold. She didn’t hate him, didn’t fear him. It filled him with rage.
Striking her did nothing. She didn’t even close her eyes when he tried to jab at them with his fingers, but the hellfire within was so intense that he jerked away from it, feeling the burn in his hands even from the depths of a berserking state in which there was no Gabriel Arquin, only his unleashed rage and the infernal genetic memory that drove it. His skin was—should be—impervious to any damage, yet she burned him. That angered him, too.
Up they went, her massive wings of flame beating like a hummingbird’s, filling his view with fire and depriving him of any sense of context. He couldn’t have seen the context, anyway, not with an enemy before him on which to focus. Yet, he couldn’t do anything. She was just carrying him upward; she wouldn’t fight or flee, wouldn’t acknowledge his fury. He was helpless; he was ignored. That angered him most of all, constantly stoking his wrath until it seemed his very skin would rupture from the effort of containing such primal, savage rage.
But that didn’t happen, she didn’t relent, and they were alone with only each other and the whistling wind. Snarling and slashing at her, he did not even notice when the wind faded away; he noticed nothing until she let go.
His enemy released him, pushing off and shooting backward; he reached for her frantically, but she was instantly beyond his grasp. Even in the grip of his mindless fury, battle instinct told him what should happen: he would begin to fall. That was worth nothing unless she got below him, but he instinctively aligned his body anyway to control his descent anyway.
The descent never began.
The lack of air meant nothing to him, as he was running on pure infernal magic now; the cold was enough to hurt, but pain did not slow him either. However, as physics failed to act as they should, as he slowly rotated in place instead of falling properly, a tiny part of his awareness perked up to study his surroundings, and in the next moment, awe crept through the rage, finally beginning to diminish it.
Below, he could see the world.
It was round.
Stars blazed on all sides, more than there had ever been in the sky, in a sky that was bigger than the sky should be. The ground was distant, and he could see its circular edges, hazy with atmosphere. The land was green and gold, brown and gray, flanked by endless seas of blue, and between himself and all of that drifted titanic banks of cloud, looking positively flat from this height.
How long had she carried him?
He drifted, kicking and clawing at nothing and having no apparent effect on his momentum. Helplessly, he slowly pivoted to bring the world out of his view. Beyond him, against the jeweled sky, a reddish streak was circling about in the near distance, diving toward him. His rage sharpened back into focus at its approach. It was her. His enemy, the thing of fire and claws. Her speed was incredible. Hardly had he recognized her distant form before she slammed into him again from above, talons latching back around his throat and pushing him downward.
He tried to scream his rage at her, but there was no air in his lungs to express, no air through which sound could move. He flailed, punched, scratched, helpless as before. It was intolerable. It was maddening.
But this time, it was different. This time, he began to burn.
The old lizardfolk shaman sat atop his rock as the third day faded to darkness. He was too old for this; he knew it in the gray creeping around the edges of his scales, in the stiffness of his bones, the way his body rebelled at this effort. Yet, there was no other. His apprentice was not yet ready to undertake a vision quest. The People needed guidance; he had to seek the gods’ will.
So here he had sat, as the cycles of sun burned into him, filling his body and spirit with energy, to be cooled and bled away during the desert’s harsh night. Several times, rattlesnakes had come to bask with him, but had not bothered his motionless form. Coyotes had sniffed about, but left, choosing to respect the sanctity of his quest. The creatures of nature understood… Yet this time, there were vultures. First a lone specimen, then a second. Now, at the end of the third day, a third joined them. Scavengers had never circled on his previous quests.
They knew. He was too old for this.
The hunting had worsened; this year’s rains had been pitiful, not enough to store enough water in their caverns to last the dry season. Even the cacti held less water, and almost no fruit, for which they had to compete with every other starving thing in this desert. The People could go to the mountains, where others of their kind dwelt…but it was a journey across the wet lands of the humans, filled with perils that would surely claim lives. And what if the folk in the mountains suffered similarly? What if it was not the desert rising up to buck them off, but the world? He could not advise the chief without knowing the gods’ will. So here he sat, seeking it.
The world turned, nature cycled around him, driving weakness from his body, seeking to pluck loose his spirit into the realm where lay all wisdom. He had done this before, but his body was weak, now. He only sought to survive to give the People the answers they desperately needed. If the pursuit of this vision claimed his life after that, it was a cost he would embrace. The shaman only needed to cling until the vision came…
A star fell.
He knew all about shooting stars. They were important omens. This one, however, was different. The stars that fell slashed across the sky, covering only a tiny span before burning out, lasting a bare second if that. This one continued to fall, as if driven downward by some greater force than gravity. He blinked both sets of eyelids to clear his vision, then focused upon the star as it plummeted. It did not burn up. This was no simple act of nature’s cycles, but something from beyond. Something sent.
His eyes tracked it steadily until the star struck the desert, miles toward the horizon. Though its fall had been silent to him, now he heard the thunder of its landing. An immense wall of dust was thrown up by the impact, rushing outward with a sound like the rage of a storm.
He stood, slowly. His muscles wailed in agony at their stiffness, but he had no time for complaints and ignored them. The wall of dirt and debris was rushing toward him, across the expanse of the desert. For the first moment, he thought he might be overtaken, but it dissipated too quickly, the heavier particles falling to earth, the sound and movement trailing off. Two full minutes after the impact, the last edges of the shockwave reached him, as a hot wind and a rush of dirty air. He shut his inner lids to protect his eyes.
The horizon was still fogged with dirt and sand where the star had fallen, but he did not stay to study that; his duty here was over. Stiffly, slowly, he turned and limped away, eager to return to the tribe with what he had learned. Despite his body’s failures and complaints, he forced it to hasten.
Never had the gods sent so clear or so dire an omen.
A great doom was coming. The People must go.
Vadrieny beat her wings slowly, driving away the airborne dust and dirt. Soon enough, she had created a clear space in the base of the crater they had just made.
Gabriel lay at her taloned feet, limp and unconscious, and fully human. Every scrap of clothing he wore had been incinerated by the reentry, but his demonic heritage had protected his body from the heat and impact. That, at least, had been enough to beat back the demon in him. Though his eyes were closed in exhausted sleep, she could see from the lack of scales and subtler skeletal distortions that his demon blood slept again.
“So much trouble,” she said, the loveliness of her layered voice echoing across the desert. “Lucky for you, I have a soft spot for kids with demon issues.”
Kneeling, she gathered him into her arms. Then, with a great pump of her wings, she took off, carrying him back toward Last Rock.