Sneak Peek: Your Cadaver

This is a bit of a preview for another novella I’m working doggedly on. TLDR: A cold-case detective teams up with Death to catch a serial killer. Death is pretty cute, but that doesn’t mean the detective wants to meet her sooner than he’s supposed to.

1.

“I was down to St. James’ infirmary…”

Jazz lilts through the old pub trying to seduce another lonely soul. Cigarette smoke hangs in the low light like broken spider webs. I aimlessly ponder the chipped Non-smoking sign at my seat.

“Saw my baby lyin’ there.”

I grimace. The pub is somber enough without a beat like this. It’s known only to the few locals who are old enough to be the owner’s friends. She sends a sly wink my way and smiles through tobacco-blackened teeth. At least she mixes a stiff whiskey sour. Its tang and sugar tingle in the back of my throat. There’s real citrus in this shot, none of the mix nonsense that so many bartenders compromise with.

“She was stretched out on a long white table,” the singer croons. It was probably new in her day. Like everything else here, she’s a warzone of age versus class. Her slinky black dress is too short for someone with arthritic knees and she boasts a bold, silvered pompadour. Between the dress and her lack of makeup aside from some wine-red lipstick, it’s hard to tell if she fears age or lavishes in it.

“So cold so sweet, so cool so fair.”

I drain the sour and let the large ice cube burn my lip. The bartender frowns when I put my empty glass in front of her.

“Bit early for the third one, honey.”

 “I’ve got no plans,” I mutter.

Her sympathetic glance at my coat, spread expectantly across the next chair, says everything I didn’t want to hear. As she pulls another glass from beneath the bar, I turn back to my back on the empty seat. Two drinks in and it’s a little harder not to feel sorry for myself.

“Let her go, let her go God bless her.” The singer’s voice cracks a bit, but the pianist covers with a brilliant break. Thinking wistfully about loyalty, I check my phone.

No new messages.

Onstage, the singer recovers. “Wherever she may be.”

Well, it was a blind date anyway.

“She may search this whole wide, wide world over.” Another audible break. The lady probably needs a drink that isn’t alcoholic. Instead, she takes a cigarette the bassist was smoking. I don’t need that third sour after all. Grimacing, I slide the full tab and tip over the bar.

“Oh honey,” the bartender said, her voice a hoarse but earnest croak, “there’re other fish in the sea.”

“But she’ll never find a man like me.” A cough, more rolling chords to cover. That pianist is an unsung hero.

I smile affably and shrug. “Whoever sits here next can have my drink,” I say. “Or you could treat yourself.”

As the bartender blows me a kiss, there’s a crash and the music stutters to a halt.

“Oh my god!” someone whispers. When I turn, the singer is crumpled on the stage. People are already crowding around her, shouting or gasping worries, questions, orders. The bartender is on her phone, babbling to emergency services. “—Made in Maven, 2nd floor of the green building at Second Street—Jack, is she breathing?”

I hover uselessly between the bar and the stage. There’s not much I can do without getting in the way. On the stage, one of the younger gray-headed men is giving chest compressions as another man counts aloud. “—thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three…”

Leaving right now feels indecent, but I don’t want to rubberneck. I throw back the third lemon sour. It goes down wrong. Hacking as citrus and whiskey scald my throat, I almost miss the music beside me.

“When I die, bury me in straight-laced shoes,
A box-backed suit and a Stetson hat.
Put a 20-dollar gold piece on my watch chain;
So the boys’ll know I died standin’ pat.”

The voice is much younger than before, mellower but still rich. It hangs in the air like honey, an agile, amber tone.

It’s coming from the empty seat.

“Sorry to keep you waiting.” She takes my whiskey sour and lifts it to her lips. I can’t stop staring at her fingers, pale and thin against the old, clouded glass. Her nails are pearl-white and studded with rhinestones. They glimmer in the lowlight like ghostly chandeliers.

I cough, eyes still stinging. “You’re—”

“Late, I know,” she interrupts. “And I’m so sorry, Milo. But you’ll have to wait just a minute longer.” I’m frozen by her familiarity, by those glittering fingers on my arm. “I’ll be right back,” she says firmly, and gets up. I turn to watch, realizing she’s approaching the stage only after everyone else has cleared it. There are tears, muffled swearing, and the dumbstruck silence of disbelief hanging over the previously panicked group of attendees. Red lights begin to dance through the windows, but I suspect help is too late.

The bartender is sitting on the step leading to the dingey stage, her wrinkled hand gripped tightly around the singer’s limp one. Her head is bent. She doesn’t look up when the chandelier-fingered woman approaches. In fact, no one else seems to be bothered by the fact that a young stranger is approaching their dead friend.

With fingers that suddenly seem quite predatory but a smile that is pure and sweet, the woman reaches into the singer’s chest and pulls her soul from her body.

It turns out I had a date with Death—but only because somebody else was about to die.

2.

“Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god…”

I’m pacing around so quickly my head is starting to spin. My apartment is small; the full perimeter isn’t enough space to catch my bearings before I’m around it again. Three drinks on an empty stomach aren’t helping. I should stop before I’m violently sick, but to be still would be to confront how small the space is between myself and the thing sitting on my couch.

My work brings me pretty close to the homicide department sometimes. I’ve seen shit. I’ve seen death. They usually go together, because the human body is disgusting. But during my twenty-one years spent in the force, I’ve never seen anything like what my would-be date is cupping between her hands. In a moment of panicked instinct, I know—I can feel—how utterly wrong it is. I shouldn’t be seeing this. No one should see another person like this, so utterly reduced to humanity at its basest and most vulnerable, to a form even the most celebrated scientists can’t begin to measure: a disembodied human soul.  

“Oh my god…

A dramatic sigh distracts me from the faintly glowing blob in the woman’s hands. “Could you mutter something else, please?” she requests. “That’s my boss, you know. I was trying to get away from work.”

“Aren’t we all?” The sarcasm is habit. I need the humor in my own job to keep the morbidity of it all from eating my heart out. The next joke, permission to swear by the devil, falls short when her words hit me. “So you’re telling me there is a god?”

A thin smile tugs at the corner of her lips. They’re glossed, a tone that reminds me of cherry blossoms or the palest pink rose.

“Sorry, trade secrets.” A delicate shrug. “Just humor me.”

“Come on, give me something. Is God male? Female? Neither? All of the above?”

“God is.” She leans forward. The light slips down her v-line top to the soft shadowed valley below her collar bone. “And so am I.”

I forget my curiosity about higher powers. “And you are…?”

Her laughter is music. “People call me so many things. But let’s see—you can call me Persephone.

“Bringer of death,” I recall, swallowing against the tightness in my chest.

“It’s also the name of a flower.” She pouts, falling back in the love seat. Lifting her hands filled with that strange condensed light that was once a woman named Annette, she whispers something I can’t quite hear. The light vanishes with a sigh. My apartment feels emptier.

Persephone looks up. Her lashes are wet and impossibly long, the same misty blond as her hair. Suddenly, she kicks off her white heels and pulls her knees up to her chin. The movement is paralyzing, both in its vulnerability and in the flash of lace it sneaks from beneath her skirt. It’s almost enough to distract me from the fact that she’s freaking Death.

“She was lonely,” she murmurs. “So many of them are lonely. I wish I could come earlier, keep them company a bit longer. But I don’t have a choice. I must always be punctual.”

Every question I was wanting to ask feels either useless or callous now. I slip quietly into the seat beside her. She leans into me immediately, her head on my shoulder more familiar than suggestive. This close, I can smell strawberry and vanilla in her hair.

“Why me?” I finally find the question that fits.

Persephone shifts to the other side of the loveseat. “I’d heard good things about your work.” Her legs pale and unnervingly weightless beneath her billowy sundress. They rest on top of my thighs. “Two of my recent—hm, clients, owe their next lives to you.”

“Next lives,” I echo. It’s a struggle to stay composed as I reach down to touch her bare shin. I half expect my fingers to slip through thin air, but Persephone’s skin is warm and soft. “I work on old, cold cases. I’ve never saved anyone’s life; they’ve all been dead for so long.” So long. The people who stole their lives too, long since gone. At that point, it’s more like scratching an itch than solving a crime: we do it to satisfy the gnawing in our minds.

“There is something after this,” Persephone insists gently. “You saw Annette’s moment. Do you really think the empty bodies and bones you pore over are the extent of the victims’ lives?”

Her moment. Persephone doesn’t seem to like calling death what it is. But what I saw happen at the pub had indeed been different from the many crime scenes and hospice halls I’ve walked through in my life. I remember the singer, lying crumpled on the floor. Persephone had reached in, her ornate fingers slipping Annette’s body like it was nothing. She’d whispered something, given a soft tug, and…pulled a woman out by the hand. Annette, but younger, rounder, and still wearing that slinky black dress.

Pale and vaguely transparent, she had laughed in voiceless wonder. Not a sound came from her as she stepped around the huddled circle of her shocked and grieving friends. A hug here, a ghostly kiss there. None seemed to see her, but the mood shifted notably. Heads raised, a few teary smiles made their way through as they toasted to Annette’s life.

“There’s more,” I guess.

“There’s more.” Persephone smiles, teeth even whiter than her skin. “Sending them on their way is more or less what my job entails. But fixing them up, mending the damage done by this life…that’s where your talent becomes life-saving work, Mile: among the dead.”

“My name is Milo,” I correct her for the third time. I want to add that it’s too early for a nickname, but Persephone doesn’t feel like a new acquaintance at all.

“Feels like you’ve known me your whole life, doesn’t it?” She sits up, pulling her feet away. “Technically, you’ve known me since your death. I get to know everyone backwards, you know. This was my first time meeting Annette, but I daresay that I shall see her again, depending on where and when my work takes me.” She pauses graciously, allowing my mind to melt at the new quantum factors in my life.

“When I first met you,” she continues fondly, “you asked me to call you Miles. But I like Mile better because your last name is Walker. Mile Walker. You were such an explorer when we first met!”

“Okay,” I cut her off. “Getting a bit personal here, in a morbid way.”

“You are such shy creatures.” She giggles. “The moment isn’t at all what you fear it will be. In fact, building up a lifetime’s worth of mental dread is the only thing that makes it unpleasant.”

I stand. “Death doesn’t bother me. I’ve seen my fair share of it in all sorts of ways. I just…I want to get to know you on my own time. No more spoilers, okay?”

Eying me slyly, she nods.

“Right.” Things are at a point where I’ve just settled into a mindset of blithe acceptance. “So, you have a case for me?”

Her expression becomes solemn. “Someone is killing a lot of people just to watch me work. You could say I have a stalker.”

A familiar shadow of ennui creeps into my heart. “In layman’s terms,” I said quietly, “we call that a serial killer.”

Excerpt: Touya and the World

This is a smidgen broken off of a story I’m struggling to write. I’ve smoothed some of the edges to make it stand better on its own. Touya and the World will eventually be a novella, perhaps even a fully-formed manuscript. We shall see. I hope you enjoy this preview.

“They’re calling for rain today.”

Father dries a grape carefully with his napkin before eating it. It’s a windless day, so the puddles littering the ground outside are still enough to perfectly trap bits of the morning sky. Touya stares at these azure visitors through the window, ignoring Father’s stare.

Mam pushes the remaining fruit onto Touya’s dish. “Surely he can make the first few lessons?” she prods her husband. “The school’s close; he would make it home before torrents pick up.”

Father scowls. “Way things are it could pour any hour now. A missed lesson can be learned later, but there’s no bringing back a spoilt crop.”

Mam nods, giving Touya’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze before taking the fruit bowl to wash. “You heard him. It’s the fields for you today, Touya.”

Touya chews his lip. What’s there to say? He skips most of his lessons as it is. What he will miss this morning is the Skin’s valleys; he was supposed to explore them with Olek.

“Don’t sulk, boy.” Father misinterprets his silence as he does most things that aren’t the earth and weather around it. His roughened fingers beat against the table. “Go find yourself some old clothes; today’s work will be mud-ridden.”

“Can Olek help?” Touya asks around the last mouthful of berries. They pop on his tongue, tart against the honey-sweet of the wheat cakes he’d eaten earlier.

Mam shoots Father a look before he can protest. “I’ll ring his family,” she says. “If you change quickly enough, maybe you can meet him in the fields.”

Replacing his plans for exploring valleys with a worm-hunting expedition, Touya grins and hops down from his stool. His bare feed slide on the old wooden floor as he makes for the stairs. There’s an old pair of dungarees he’s been hoping to dirty up and never wear again. Mam’s old galoshes are probably small enough to fit him, too. Changing shouldn’t take long, but his stomach is already flip-flopping with impatience. He has to get out before Father or he won’t be able to play in the puddles!

Earth and grass squelch beneath Mam’s old boots. Touya slides his feet back and forth inside them, giggling when the mud almost pulls his right galosh straight off. It’s hard to run, but Touya tries even if he falls twice. The mess doesn’t bother him; Father said today’d be mud-ridden anyway.

Father’s crops are all up on a hill. Touya wonders how much good that does against the rains. It’s probably better than the valleys, at least. Trudging up the slope, he pauses to look back at the flat yard. So many puddles are shining around the house. There aren’t any on the hillside with him. Father probably knows best after all.

At the top, Touya hunches down to dig in the mud and wait for Olek. The ground is bloated with water, every blade of grass heavy with the droplets. They look like little insects, too fat for legs and shiny all the way through. Enchanted, Touya pops a few with his fingers. He gets bored quickly. How long does it take to run to Olek’s house? Is Olek wearing his mam’s shoes too? Maybe he has to walk.

The Sea that Has no Sand floats above Touya’s head, blocking out the sun. Looking up at the wispy tendrils of trapped sky-water, Touya wonders if the cloud people still go to school on rain days. Are crops in trouble the way they are here on the Skin? When the sun hides at nighttime, Touya knows the air gets colder and the plants all grow dewdrops. They’re smaller than these see-through beads wetting his dungarees, and Father can pick them up with his machines and give them as a drink to the thirsty crop land. Everything needs water to grow, after all.

But what about the cloud people? The sun is always in the sky; it has nowhere to hide from the people living above the Sandless Sea. Do they get dew in the night times? Is there such a thing as night in the sky above the Skin?

“Touya!”

Olek is standing a little below the ridge, hands on his knees. He must have been running after all; he’s gasping and red-faced as he grins at Touya.

“Your pop’s coming, Touya! Better look at least a little ready.”

Father’s always frowning, so Touya isn’t really scared of his getting mad. But he stands, stretching his muddy fingers to the sky. He’s been watered too now; he can grow.

“Sorry we couldn’t visit the valley,” he says to Olek.

“What valley?” Olek pretends super well. Touya isn’t so good at it.

“The one we were going to instead of school—”

“Ssh!” Olek looks around. “We should be glad we get to miss school! C’mon, let’s get to working!”

“Why be thankful for the always things?” Touya mutters, but he listens to Olek. Olek’s always been more worried about getting in trouble. That’s probably because his father smiles more. Anger is scarier when you don’t see it all the time. Father can’t even hear them from the bottom of the hill where he’s turning on the whizzers, but Olek is clearly worried he might.

Olek and Touya always miss school. Their parents don’t know, of course. The principal sticks to writing notes about their empty seats. That’s something to be grateful for; if Rector Torrence actually tried ringing their homes, Olek and Touya would be in for it. A lazy teacher is so much better than dewdrops every night.

But Touya has always been taught to be grateful for the dew. Be grateful for the dew; be fearful of the rain. Dew is just enough. Rain is too much.

Father’s work isn’t easy. Touya and Olek tug the stubborn shoots that the whizzers leave behind. Clouds gather across the sky as they sweat and yank and fall backwards with large bulbs in their grimy hands. One bulb is bigger than Touya’s fist, but it takes two to make a full ration of stew. When he rubs the grime away, it looks like the clouds up above: round and the purest pearly white. It hasn’t rained in a while, so the clouds are stretched shiny. They probably don’t smell like the bulb in Touya’s hand, strong enough to sting his eyes but just the right amount of sweet to make his stomach growl. Rector Torrence recently said the clouds are made of minerals and gas the volcanoes are always making down here on The Skin. Even though the cloud people never come down, they couldn’t live in the sky without The Skin and its just-right conditions.

Everyone on The Skin is working crops today. But a good rain will mean rest for the cloud people. Mam’s grandmam lived in the clouds once. She used to tell Touya stories of the long droughts in the sky, the months between the rains. Dew isn’t enough for the clouds like it is down on The Skin. Dew means a drought in the sky. During drought times, cloud people have to go down to the Sandless Sea. Great-grandmam said it took two days just to get there and back, but at least the clouds stayed wet. At least they wouldn’t shrivel and burst, and everyone could keep breathing up there in the sky.

Touya used to think it was luckier to live here on The Skin, even if the rain can ruin everyone’s crops. But Mam says the cloud people have automated their cloud-dousing work now. Life up there would be easier, she complains. Father doesn’t listen. He’ll never leave his crops. Father belongs on The Skin where he can dig his hands into earth and pull them out with his food.

Touya and Olek both like The Skin better too. Maybe Olek wants to visit the cloud cities someday, but Touya knows he’d come back. Life in the sky is limited to the pearly, shining clouds where you can breathe. But The Skin is an endless adventure. It stretches and shifts and breathes. It never runs out of water, filled as it is with lakes and swamps and gushing steam cracks. Sure it doesn’t always feel good to walk on—Mam complains it feels like walking on flesh sometimes down near the valleys, that even the rocks aren’t truly solid. But Touya is in love with The Skin’s strange surface, with its scabby canyons and dark, smelly caves. He loves the mushrooms glowing in the night like stars stuck in the ground. How could flowers the cloud people have be prettier than a night full of fungi?

“Touya! You have to keep digging!”

Touya blinks as Olek jabs him with a dirty elbow. He’s still holding a bulb in each hand, but Olek has a mountain already. Father’s whizzers have stopped, too. Frantically, Touya starts to dig. But there’s nothing beneath the dirt, just bits of broken roots and a worm.

“Gross,” Olek sniggers as Touya pulls the worm out. “Think it was eating your bulbs?”

“Worms only eat dirt,” Touya replies. It’s one of the few lessons he really paid attention to in class. “Then they make dirt out the other end.”

“Super gross.” But Olek’s eyes are shining like the clouds as he takes the squirmy worm.

Touya shrugs. “It’s just like The Skin. Send water to the sky, then drink it back in.”

Before Olek can answer, Father’s bellowing Touya’s name. There are other words, but he’s too far across the fields. Touya only hears one other word:

Rain.

“Uh-oh,” Olek says. The worm wriggles back into the dirt, and Touya is alone. He knows he should go back too. The ground is rumbling too now, its voice only a little scarier than Father’s on an angry day.

Touya peers down the hill. Father’s in the shed behind the house, locking up his whizzers. He probably won’t look for Touya for another hour. The bulbs need to be washed and hung. Maybe even two hours. There’s so much time to dream and watch the rain fly.

A fat droplet splats on Touya’s elbow. He looks down at the puddle, heart wriggling like the earthworm. Everything is starting now. Thick drops are pulling away from the puddles, slow and sticky for now. Soon they’ll be rushing showers. Touya runs for cover, hopping up on a stone where the rain can’t fly. Just in time, too. The puddles turn to torrents and the muddy ground soon follows. It surrenders its water to the thirsty clouds and deep blue sky. Touya sits surrounded by walls of flying rain, safe on his stone. He pulls out a book, grimed up by an hour of work, and begins to read.

When the Fire Falls

The fire falls when the night is bright. Lightning paints the sky with angry orange and the air starts to hiss. Our nights are usually quiet enough to hear the neighbors snoring. The sky is always kind of purple whether it’s night or day. We don’t get sunshine; things just get a little less indigo. Indigo is my favorite word on the spelling homework sheet. Our sky is a grumpy one, hidden by big ugly clouds that have always been there. Momma says we’re the ones who put them there. Maybe that’s why the sky spits brimstone at us. We shut it out so very long ago.

The fire falls when the night turns orange and hisses like a cornered cat. We crouch and hide so we don’t get burned.

Keep your head down, and don’t touch the door. Those are old words for nights of fire. It wasn’t just the doors, but whole houses made of wood. There’s not a scrap of wood in my house. We learned to make homes of stone. It’s that same chalkboard-gray rock that we sit on and eat on, and even sleep on if our mattresses don’t finish airing. I don’t like it very much, but it’s better than wood. Teachers still make us learn the old words, though. Mommas and poppas are always saying it, too. Don’t touch the door. Then they make us say it back…when we’re in school at least. I had to write lines of it once because I bent Timothy Low’s last reed pen in half.

I’m so sick of the old words, I almost want to touch our door when the fire comes. Yes, I want to just reach out and touch that stupid, craggy door. Especially tonight, with the sky hissing and growling so loudly. I wonder if I can feel the fire through our big stone door.  

My fingers skitter across the frame and I sigh. Cold, cold, cold. I guess it hasn’t started firing yet. I stretch my feet out until my toes complain. Then I stand and pull grandpop’s old slate cover from the window.

The sky looks like lava. Lightning splits the night all over, and the clouds swirl in purple darkness like they want to suck the world up into their bellies. The cloud edges are starting to glow. That means the fire’s coming. I should really put the slate back and get away from the door. But the sky is so beautiful. My breath is stuck somewhere between my ribs and my heart won’t stop shivering. I think I’m falling in love with the fire-night sky.

Then the first sparks begin to fall, and I realize I’m just scared.

The first firedrops could be a stamped-out cigarette. Our neighbor smokes, and I’ve seen the butt of his nasty -stick skip and spark across the ground just like that. The first drop I see smacks against the dirt ground with a chuff and a sigh. It pops into a thousand littler sparks. They dance and die just as fast, leaving dots behind my eyelids. The fire is falling faster now. Hissing and snapping, they eat the air and burst into flames. Those flames roar hungry and snap up anything they can touch. The Carlsie’s mattress is the first to go. I guess they didn’t take it in quick enough. When I see how ferociously fire can snap soft things up and spit them out black, my brain turns traitor with the awful what ifs.

What if fire learns to eat our homes of stone? What if it never stops falling this time? Will the air get too hot to breathe? What if the sky doesn’t forgive us this time? What if my friends didn’t make it inside? Nothing looks pretty burned black, and I’d miss them so much.

A clothing line shrieks as the bigger brimstones melt through its metal. I duck my head between my elbows and knees. My eyes and ears are squeezed shut, as tight as tight can be…but I don’t know how to shut my mind’s eye. It keeps going, showing the black and fire-bitten leftovers of the people and the things that I want to keep, want to keep, keep! Because—because I love them. I love them, and it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to love with a sky like ours.

Warm arms cover and squeeze me. Momma’s here, holding me tight. I guess the storm finally woke her up; she and Poppa sure know how to sleep through a firefall. I guess they’ve just had a longer time to get used to it.

“Baby,” Momma’s saying as she rocks me. “Baby, it’s okay. It’s just a firestorm. It won’t hurt you.”

But it can hurt me. Nobody’s stupid enough to stick around outside at night when the sky turns orange, but I’ve seen what a firefall did to Mary-Maree’s dog last year. It was horrible, and I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day because I felt so sick. Maybe I’m safe inside our house, but it’s just a wall and a bit of stupid rock that keep me that way. Right outside that, the sky is hissing and spitting; it wants to eat me. It just can’t right now. I turn my face into Momma’s robe. She smells like lavender.

Momma says, “Do you want to sleep with me and Poppa tonight?”

I nod.

Poppa hasn’t woken up at all. He stays asleep even when I crawl shakily over his legs to nestle between him and Momma. His rib bones poke against my back as he snores, and I grab one of Momma’s spare pillows to protect myself. Momma’s hair makes my nose itch, but I don’t mind too much. The tickly warmth and quiet start to settle into my mind’s eye, drowning out those pictures with a lack of loneliness. There’s no way I can sleep, but at least I feel better. I spend the night awake. Sometimes, I drift between a doze and a dream. When I drift, I see pictures of sunlight and mellow, blue sky with fat white clouds that look like rabbit tails. It’s all so beautiful that I cry myself awake.

Rain patters on our slate roof. That means the firefall is over.

It feels like morning, but probably not morning enough to be awake. I don’t care. Wriggling away from Momma and Poppa, I slip onto the floor. The dreams I saw dozing stick in my heart. I almost feel like if I go outside in the rain, I could see a bit of blue.

Mist and smoke burn my eyes as I step out the door. Mist because cold rain is hitting hot rock. Smoke because the fire is a sore loser and it doesn’t die easy. My throat is starting to hurt. I wrap my scarf three times around my chin and nose…not too tight, just right. That’s something else they taught us in school. It’s more useful than the old words about wooden doors.

The sky isn’t indigo now. It looks more like mauve. That’s another new word for purple that I learned; someday I’ll know them all. Mauve means morning, and the sky is growing softer with it. Sometimes the clouds glow with a bit of leftover lightning. This lightning is quiet and pale, like worm ghosts in the sky. The rain is falling slower. That’s a shame; fresh water isn’t something we get a lot of.

The falling water makes the air sweeter each minute. I lift my face and let it splash on my skin. Rainfall is the treasure chest that we get after surviving the dragon of firefall. It always feels like the sky decided to forgive us for clogging it up with clouds. Or maybe we made the fire, just like we made the grumpy, swollen clouds. Maybe the sky hurts even worse than we do.

I wish the fire would talk. If it could tell us where it came from, maybe we could fix things. The clouds have covered our sky for so long, and firefall is such a lasting part of our lives. We’re supposed to learn about what caused the clouds next year in school. Maybe I’ll steal my cousin’s book and read ahead. All I know is that the last blue sky disappeared when Grandpop’s poppa was my age. That’s like forever ago. How do you fix forever?

My brain is going in circles. I pick up my feet and run, pretending I’m a knight chasing firefall away. I run and run to the top of the hill standing over our town. The ground is still hot against my bare feet, but I can feel it getting cooler. If my toes start to burn, I can jump in a puddle. They’re not too deep and still make steam where the ground is rocky. My feet got tough enough to run barefoot when I was small. I had to run on them every day. Maybe I’ll toughen up too every time the fire falls.

At the top of the hill, I pull to a stop. There’s more rock than mud up here; it holds onto the heat of fire too well. I have to dance, one foot to the other, as I stare up at the sky. I’m looking for blue.

A blackened branch scrapes against my toes. I can feel myself smiling as I lift it up, up, up. “I’ll be less scared next time,” I whisper, but to me it’s a shout. I know the clouds can hear me because they rumble. I shake my ashy stick. “One day, I won’t be scared at all!” Then, I stick my tongue out, just in time to catch a raindrop on it. It’s so, so sweet. Sweeter than ice cream.

And that’s when I see it—just for a moment, quicker than the first sparks that dance and die on our broken, raw roads at night—I see a bit of blue. It’s the bluest blue I’ve seen, bluer than Timothy Low’s eyes when I make him cry. The clouds around it are puffy, rimming white.

I’m definitely falling in love with the sky. I cry and laugh at the same time until my cheeks and belly ache. But it’s the good kind of ache. I lift my stupid, wooden stick again and realize how small I am. I am small, but I want that blue sky.

Keep your head down, and don’t touch the door. I think the adults say that because they don’t know what else to do. Maybe they’re just as scared as I am when the fire falls. But there’s rain after a firefall, right? Every single time. Maybe there’s always this tiny patch of blue above us and we’ve just never seen it. We never will if we always keep our heads down.

“I’m going to find you!” This time, I really do shout. From now on, I’ll raise my head and lift my voice. I’ll look up, not down. When I grow up enough, I’ll look for the blue sky with more than just my bare feet and a burnt stick. Maybe the fire always falls because the sky can’t do anything to change it. Maybe it’s always been up to us. If we were the ones who put the clouds in the sky and brought the fire raining down, shouldn’t we be the ones who make things right?

“I’m going to fix you,” I say, whispering again. The blue sky is gone, fading back into a mix of indigo and mauve. So much purple and so many words for it. Are there just as many words for blue?

Not even adults know why the fire falls. I guess that means I’ll never learn the answer in school. Momma says we live in the end of everything, that this is just our world taking one last breath. Poppa tells her not to scare me. He says life has always been like this, that we made up blue skies and storms with just rain to give ourselves something to dream about.

Adults should learn to agree on things like this.       

I am Dusty Liesl Strathmore. I’m not an adult, not yet. But when you’re little, you know things adults have forgotten. I know it doesn’t really matter why the fire falls; what matters is when it does. When the fire falls, we need to watch the sky.

When the fire falls, we need to find out how to put it out. We need to learn how to live again.   

Beans

“If I count less than ten thousand and thirty-four beans in this capsule when you return it to me, I’ll spill them out again.”

Those are my rabse’s first words to me on the most important day of my life. They are muted by the cold patter of beans across the galley floor. As I watch them roll gently across the scuffed metal paneling, he throws a pair of chopsticks down with equal derision.

“Use these. I catch you using your fingers, I pull the nails off.” His bare feet strike naked, angry footsteps back to the door, and I jolt when he slams it. Through its window, my rabse is smaller but no less capable of making my heart shrink into an aching ball. Age has turned his skin more mold-colored than green, and the feathers of his mustache and twin-tailed beard are dried out and sparse. He has no hair on his head, only purpled age-spots.

But I am afraid of him.

“Rabse Aleem,” I struggle to keep the plea out of my voice. “Forgive me!”

Lips curled in disgust, my teacher turns off the artificial gravity and the lights. One sliver of yellow luminescence follows his voice into the galley: “Ten thousand and thirty-four, Ashak. Consider your failure and return when you have learned.”

The small ray disappears as he shuts the sliding window. I am alone.

My name means “Red Knuckle”. I was supposed to kill a man today.

I killed three.

I make a game of my punishment to ease the passing time, twisting my body to avoid touching as many airborne beans as possible. Rabse Aleem instructed me to stretch, after all. My heightened senses adjust quickly in the void-like darkness. Cradling the capsule under my right arm, I reach out with my left snatch a bean with Rabse’s old wooden eating sticks. It is a smooth, hard little thing, slipping twice from my grasp before I manage to capture it. My fingers buzz with the desire to use more strength, to crush the small bean. But then Rabse would find only ten thousand and thirty-three when I finished. He would force me to gather them again. I do not want to miss tonight’s hunt.

My rabse has used beans in our training since he selected me. I am his youngest recruit; my parents had wanted to be rid of me as quickly as possible. Apparently, I’d tried to smash my brother’s skull in as he slept. Rabse Aleem is an executioner, someone who only kills other killers. It is odd he would choose me. My instinct to destroy cannot decipher between the condemned and the just.

But Rabse Aleem is a persistent man. After I was injected with The Gift, he taught me patiently how I was to use it. Beans were his choice examples: I was only to break the rotted beans. Every good bean ground to dust with my Gift meant a week cleaning spilled beans in the galley. If I crushed a bean with my bare hands, my rabse would punish me cruelly. He would bind me to a chair and blindfold me, so that I could not use my Gift or my clever, strong fingers. Rabse Aleem himself would spend the day with me, singing to me and speaking such sweet words that I screamed and shook. He would bathe the bruises I created by beating against my chains and stitch the cuts I inflicted on myself. He would love me, and I would want to kill him for it.

These punishments are the worst form suffering; I don’t want my rabse to die.

My knuckles skim the metal table that is welded to our floor. Our abbey is beyond the 37th system ring, a place well-known for vagabonds. There is always a need for executioners, but we most only kill the guilty. I could not survive in this abbey without Rabse Aleem, for it is impossible to understand the difference between an innocent and the man who killed his wife with a table like this one. Bouncing off the tabletop, I manage to catch two beans with a single swipe. Now I have gathered 5,000. I should reflect on how I disappointed my rabse.

I did not fail with the execution method: the target’s heart is to be suffocated. It is supposed to be painless. This is simple; I do not desire to cause pain. Death is the temptation I wrestle with. It is so beautiful, and people are so ugly. When I see a living person, I imagine how pretty they would look if they were a little less alive. Usually this is only a daydream; if our eyes happen to meet, though, I become hungry.

A bean brushes my wrist. I hiss at the unexpected contact. It makes my skin crawl to imagine being surrounded by things that can touch me without permission. Beans are bad enough, but living people are worse. People can look at me. People can love me.

Rabse Aleem knows I cannot stand being loved. That is why his voice is always cold, why he throws things at me and spits on my feet. He is cruel to me for my sake, not for his.

For my sake?

I feel the chopsticks crack into the shell of bean number six thousand and two. Now I will be punished. Rabse Aleem will love me until I scream and writhe in the chair. He will do this because I have made him angry. But why does he punish me so? Which is his true face: the sneering one behind the door, or the gentle whisper to ease my tears? Does he prefer to beat me, or to bind my wounds?

No, no, no. I shake my head, but the insidious doubts are already gnawing at my nerves. They clatter against my heart like beans on the floor, a hissing roar that rises to drown me. I grab two fistfuls of beans and pulverize them with my fingers.

I don’t want my rabse to die. I don’t want him to love me.

The lights blare around me. When my eyes clear, I am sitting on the floor with a nearly full capsule of beans in one hand and a pile of meal in the other.

The servant does not even blink. He tells me that Rabse Aleem is waiting.

Barefoot, I glide down the hallway to his study. The walls are covered in portraits, all children like myself. But my picture is not among them; it is sitting on my rabse’s desk. How did I never notice?

His eyes are cold when he turns to me.

“Come, demon child.”

I want to run away, but I walk into his open arms. My cold, bloodied heart grows hungrier every second. Looking up, I meet my rabse’s gaze. His eyes are too soft, his arms are too warm, and there is not enough hatred in his smile.

“Let me go,” I hiss.

“I will never do that.”

The words are not a threat. He thinks they will make me feel safe. Liar, liar, liar! I am screaming inside, battling with my voice against the rush of falling beans.

“Ashak?” He holds me at arm’s length. I look at my picture on his desk. He is standing next to me, one arm around my shoulders. There is pride in his face, hope and kindness. If I could cry, my cheeks would be salt stained by now.

I swallow against sorrow I cannot feel.  

“Ashak,” he says again. “What did you learn today?”

I wrap my hands around his throat.

A Total Revamp

Not in the fanged, coffin-napping sense of the word.

It’s been five years since I touched this blog site. I was going to trash it, but decided that the Japanese phrase もったいない (mottai nai, or “waste not”) should come into play. I’ve been itching to create blog specifically for my writing, so…here we are. I know this was (ever so long ago) a kanji studying blog; now it is a place where you can read stories, articles, and anything else that makes its way up here. It is a literary space. For now, I’m the only one contributing. It would be lovely if that changes someday.

I hope you don’t mind the repossessing of a long-dead blog like this. If it suits your fancy, feel free to stick around and enjoy the read.

The Eyrie

They sat in the Eyrie until daybreak. The Red One smiled. The Black One wept. The Twins braided the dead soldier’s hair. The Red One stopped smiling at this, but the Black One refused to scold her children. They were only young, after all. Their wings were still soft with nestling down. Sorrow was still a stranger to them. They had never learned how to mourn.

Sorrow was not what drew her closer to the soldier now. The Black One knelt beside him and struggled to remember his name. So often she had forgotten, but he had always reminded her. No more. Holding her breath, the Black One reached to pull the soldier over. Perhaps a glimpse of his face would remind her of the name. Perhaps she could see his smile one last time. He had worn it for her, at the end. Unshaken and gentle his smile had been, a beam of heaven piercing through the cold starlight. And she had smiled back—

“Oh, stop,” the Red One sighed. “That isn’t something that the fledglings ought to see. I threw him well across the Eyrie. The rocks will have left little of his face.”

The Black One hesitated, fingers knotting around the blood-stained cloth of his shirt. “Children,” she said quietly, “wouldn’t those plaits look prettier with something to bind them? Go fetch some ribbon, and a fresh tunic as well. We will be saying goodbye to the soldier soon. Best to fit him well for his journey.”

Reluctantly, the girls stood and left. The Black One noted tears shimmering in their eyes. Perhaps they were not such strangers to sorrow after all.

“A pity they must see death so early in life.” There was no scorn for once in the Red One’s voice, but the Black One could not answer. She reached down and rolled the soldier over.

Nothing of his last smile remained. There was blood, too much of it. Redder than the Red One’s hair but lacking its beauty. The Red One was beautiful despite being terrible. This was just terrible. It was true that the rocks had ruined the soldier’s handsome face, but his eyes were visible through the mess of red. Vacant and open, they stared up beyond the dawn-broken sky. The Black One sobbed and covered them with her hands. “I’m sorry,” she moaned. Her words crooned into a mourning song as the sun continued to rise over the Eyrie.

The Red One watched her silently. Finally, she asked, “Do you hate me?”

“You weren’t yourself,” the Black One whispered. “It was a clear night, even though the moon was full…” She shivered, hunching over the corpse between them. “But—why, Seva?” Grief shook her voice. “Why?”

***

There was an army behind him. He ran, not for his life but for the small scroll hidden in his bag. He had long since abandoned his livery, and days of creeping through bogs and forests had given him more the appearance of a scoundrel than a soldier.

The ladder seemed more like a dream than hope. It hung in front of a sheer cliff wall and shot up into the low-lying clouds, a destination unknown. Still, he found the sturdy condition of the rope and wood comforting. After only a moment’s pause, the soldier lashed the bottom rung to his ankle and began to climb, taking the ladder up with him. The first threatening echo of footsteps was clattering through the valley. His exhausted muscles protested, but the soldier climbed madly not daring to look back. He would climb only as far as the clouds, he thought. There he would wait until the danger was past.

But the first cool kiss of the fog seemed to drive all strategy from the soldier’s mind. He did not stop climbing. He could not. Hand over hand he continued, untouched by pain or by fear of the immense height. His palms never blistered, and his lungs never starved for air. He might have climbed days and nights on end, or possibly for a single hour. The blanketing fog seemed to stifle time itself, creating light that was neither a clouded day nor a full-moon night.

The soldier did not remember when he reached the top. He only knew that the stone beneath him felt more welcome than the most royal cushions. Unable to move, he closed his eyes to the sunless sky. Surrounded by the echoing silence of great heights, the soldier slept.

When he woke again, there were voices.

“You cannot take it, Grisca! It isn’t yours. Mother will be angry.”

“Oh no, noooo Irne. I just want a piece. Don’t tell Mama! Just a piece…”

Remembering his scroll, the soldier sat up with a gasp. The same face swam twice before his eyes. He blinked and realized that the children were twins.

“Oh,” said one. The other sang, “Hello!”

The soldier tried to stand, his limbs traitorously leaden. He stumbled but managed to cover the scroll with his left hand.

One of the girls stood, dragging the other with her. “We didn’t mean to scare you,” she said.

The other shook her head vehemently. “I only w-wanted a b-bit of your hair.” She clasped her hands together. “It’s p-pretty.”

The two were unnervingly similar. Both had dark hair and eyes that seemed to pop from their thin, pale faces. Often even their expressions tended to mimic each other. But it was the identical pairs of wings that caught the soldier’s eye and held it. They were covered with gray adolescent down, still awkward and stunted like a fledgling crow’s. If it were not for these wings the girls would be quite normal. He would try his luck with them. The soldier cleared his throat.

“Am I still in Jirastraad?”

To his consternation, the girls fell into each other’s arms and shrieked with laughter. The soldier tried again to stand, but the stuttering twin leapt forward.

“Don’t! Irne says you haven’t eaten in d-d-days.” A hiccup followed by more giggles. “I’ll f-fetchh f-food. Irne’ll f-fetch M…M-m…” She screwed up her face. “Mother.

They ran away, winglets struggling to flap against their slender backs. The soldier allowed himself to fall backwards onto the stone. The sky above was gray but seemed to have shadow and light mixed in. The soldier closed his eyes. Maybe he had died. Perhaps angels were like mortals and needed time to grow up.

He had always imagined death would be more comfortable. As the fog lifted, the soldier could only see barren rock. His immeasurable climb had led him to a large, jagged plateau of stone. Bald granite shelves of rock climbed upwards to form walls all around. It was as if a giant had laid an egg and whatever hatched from it had long since crawled away. If this was the afterlife, it was drearier and less green than the land of the living.

By the time the twins returned with their mother, the soldier had come to weary terms with his circumstances. He still could not help but stare when he saw the woman. She wore a black gown that was too elegant to be mourning wear. Her hair was a floating cloud around her shoulders, blacker than sea stones on a cold beach. When the soldier met her eyes, he found them bruised with sleepless nights. But her gaze was depthless, a gray ocean without waves. He was swimming, sinking into deep places of peace.

The woman took his hand and he was awake.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Names mean nothing to me,” she replied. “Why are you here, soldier?”

“Ah, I am called—”

The woman shook her head. “Names mean nothing,” she repeated. “Even if you told me, I would forget by next sunrise.” She bowed her head and wept.

Speechless and stricken by her tears, the soldier dared not pull away. He studied the delicate hand holding his own. It was curiously black from her mid-knuckles to her fingertips, as though she had dipped her hands in twilight.

Uncomfortable with their mother’s sadness, Grisca and Irne soon crept away. The woman cried silently until her raven hair was wet with tears. The soldier yearned to tuck it behind her ear, but such familiarity seemed uncouth.

“How did you know I was a soldier?” he asked at length. “I lost me blade some days back. Hope it’s not the face what told you. My sister always said I’ve got a peaceful man’s eyes.”

Though the woman did not look up, her sobs quieted. The soldier continued. “She didn’t want me bearin’ a sword at all. Lost ‘er husband to fever three harvests back and her eldest boy hasn’t his wits about him. ‘Twould lose her a hand around the home, she says, if I was to die in some fool lord’s war.”

This time the woman did look up at him. “‘Course she was the first to see me off and the last to stop wavin’ the banner.” He smiled ruefully. “I guess she was proud of me, in her way.”

“Did you want to be a soldier?” the woman asked.

The soldier shrugged. “I wanted to live a long life in me father’s home. Wanted to keep Eila’s boy from accidentally killin’ the chickens, to bounce her littlest girl on my knee ‘till she got too big. Maybe I wanted to be a fightin’ man and protect my home, but I ne’er wanted to leave.” He looked down at his scarred and roughened hands, so different from her stained smooth ones. “War steals you away from life, even if you survive it.”

“I have never seen a war.” The woman pushed her sodden locks back. Her hair was deeper than black, like the many layers of a night sky. The soldier folded his arms, wanting again to touch it.

“You’re lucky,” he said.

“No.” She returned the gesture, looking up at the sky. “I am alone. There must be people for there to be war…or peace.” The soldier could not answer; she was right. “My name is Reme,” his companion said at length. “Will you remember it?”

“Reme,” he repeated, the syllables foreign but pleasant to his lips. “Aye, I’ll not forget it.”

“Thank you,” she whispered. Wiping her eyes, she added, “Your tale is a sad one.”

“Life never promised to be kind.” The soldier rubbed an aching brow. “I s’pose the gods have their own way in the end. You’d know better than I though.”

“Wouldn’t I?” Reme asked, bemused.

“I mean—” He cleared his throat and gestured widely at her. “You and your bairnes seem—you look like…”

“Oh.” Reme shook her wings out, a glorious expanse of midnight. “I am no angel.”

“Then this is hell?”

She shrugged. “It is not dissimilar, and there is no path to lead you back.”

“What?!” True enough, the ladder was gone. The soldier cursed bitterly and began to search frantically for another way down.

“You waste your strength, soldier.” Another woman had arrived, walking to join them with a tray of food. Her fine hair was the color of dying roses, and the plunging gown she wore of heavy crimson. When the soldier looked at Reme, he imagined a dream-filled night sky. This woman was like an open wound.

“I waste nothing!” the soldier retorted. This woman stirred fear in his heart, the type to be covered with anger.

She lifted her chin. “You cannot fly, and the Eyrie is tall.”

The soldier balked at this but threw himself at her feet. “Then carry me!” he begged. “I am bound to a cause of urgency.”

Reme pressed her hands to her mouth, but the red woman was unmoved. “Reme and I are trapped as well.”

“But your wings—!”

We cannot use them!” she spat. “These wings are a curse, and this Eyrie is the cage that holds them inside. You were foolish enough to stumble into it.”

Indignant, he replied, “There was a ladder!”

“It is a trap,” Reme said quietly. “The people of this land know the Eyrie and teach their children to fear that ladder. There are those who climb it as an attempt for glory, others out of curiosity. None return to the ground.” She took his hand. “I’m sorry.”

“What’s done cannot be undone,” the red woman said. “Here, soldier.” She placed the tray on a stone in front of him. “I’ve brought meat to return your strength. There is bread as well, albeit a few days old. You may want to keep it for tonight’s stew.”

The savory smell summoned a wave of hunger. “Thank you,” the soldier mumbled. The meat was gamey, seasoned heavily with bitter herbs. It caught in his throat, but Reme was already holding out a tankard of water when he began to cough. The red woman knelt to join her on the ground and they watched him. The soldier finished the meat, but took the red woman’s advice on the stubborn hunk of bread. To break the silence, he asked, “Are there only women then, in this ‘Eyrie?’”

“We cook the men,” the red woman replied. “He was well into his twilight years.”

Aghast, the soldier kicked his empty tray back.

“Seva!” Reme scolded. The red woman smirked, a humorless expression. “Seva loves her jokes,” Reme said apologetically. “We four are here alone. Some have survived the climb and stayed, but I do not remember them. It must have been decades since we last had a guest.”

Seva added nothing, staring off beyond the cliff’s edge. Relieved, the soldier mulled over this new information. The children made it clear that he was not the first man to enter this place, but it seemed uncouth to ask Reme about their father.

A cooling wind swept away the clouds to reveal a sunset. Brilliant orange light adorned the walls around them, bringing color and heart to the landscape. Settling his back against a boulder, the soldier looked at the sky with fresh hope. Come morn he would look again for some way down.

Seva and Reme were becoming restless. Their wings rustled, their eyes shifting between the soldier and the sunset. The soldier did not ask what worried them; he wanted to enjoy this briefly found beauty. However, Reme stood and said that it was not permitted to be outside after nightfall. She would lead him to the hollow.

The hollow was Reme’s humble title for the caverns that pockmarked the Eyrie’s western half. They were deep and damp, toothed with great stone columns on the ceilings and floors. Water dripped constantly from above, echoing throughout the caves. Some rooms had even collected shallow pools. With no breeze to move them, they became mirror-like, reflective illusions of vast underwater cities.

Reme led the soldier to a wide room. It was warmer than the rest of the caverns, with a ceiling so low he had to bend double to enter. Four nests encircled a dark bubbling stream, each filled with moss, feathers, and blankets. The twin girls, Irne and Grisca, were already curled around each other in the far most nest. They did not wake when their mother bent to kiss them.

“This will be yours now,” she said, pointing to another nest. “I built it should the girls need time apart, but they are inseparable.”

The soldier sat gingerly on his new bed. “Goodnight to you, then.”

“Goodnight…soldier.” Her voice broke in the darkness.

“You are quick to weep,” the soldier said softly.

Reme sighed. “Seva is always telling me so.” The soldier felt satiny feathers brush against his knuckles as she sat next to him.

“I am so sorry that you are here,” Reme whispered. Her breath on his cheek was warm, but it smelled like raw meat. Shocked, the soldier pulled back.

“Your instinct serves you well.” Her voice was sad. “I am not of your kind. Many have called me a beast. You might even have hunted me for sport under different circumstances.”

“Nae,” the soldier denied. “I never took to huntin’. There’s no thrill in it for me, spillin’ blood for sport.” Perhaps this had been of little comfort “I am an outsider,” he continued, “an extra mouth to feed in this barren land—but you have been kind to me. I do not mind your strangeness.”

“Thank you,” she whispered. Her feathers were still tickling his skin. The soldier dared to take one gently between his fingers.

Reme asked, “What is your name?” He told her. “I’ll have forgotten it by tomorrow,” she said unhappily.

“I’ll remind you,” the soldier promised. Spurred by the darkness and the secrets it kept, he took her hand and kissed it. Her fingers smelled better than her breath, the skin well-worked with soap and scalding. “Every morrow I’ll remind you.”

Reme did not answer, but as she took the shuttered lantern the soldier could briefly see her smile. The warmth of it wrapped around the soldier’s heart as he slept, whispering dreams of hope.

Much later in the night, he awoke to the gentlest footsteps and a presence at his side. He stretched out his hand, hoping Reme might catch it.

“It is I.” Seva’s voice was thin. Remembering her distasteful joke, the soldier turned his back. Unbothered by this, Seva spoke:

“You are beautiful, strange soldier. You enchant the Eyrie with your kind heart and your gentle eyes. Be so very careful, soldier. Do not make Reme smile too much.”

Her footsteps began to fade towards the entrance.

“Do not make the Eyrie love you too much.”

****

Two summers passed in the Eyrie, and the soldier learned many things. No food could be grown or bred here, and no birds flew near enough to be hunted. Despite this, there was never a danger of starving. Every fortnight, offerings appeared where the ladder ought to have been. A good portion seemed to have been prepared by hand: the dishes were ample, served on fine platters. Stews, cheeses, savory pies and sweet breads that could melt one’s mouth. Everything else was the work of harvest or hunting, tied neatly into bundles and set apart from the meals. Beans and grains were left in giant kegs, fresh and salted meats lying nearby in abundance. It was a bounty indeed, but as a man under the service of powerful lords, the soldier knew a tax when he saw one. What prompted the givers to offer so much, so often? He could never fill his belly without a sense of unease.

Seasons did not make an exception of the Eyrie, and the soldier was grateful for the sense passing time. He busied himself making a forge. Retrieving ore from the deeper caverns was good, heavy work. Building tools and crafting weapons, although neither would be useful, provided a sense of purpose. Many mysteries surrounded him, but he sensed they were not questions meant to be answered.

For the first year, the soldier ignored them. He still had his own cause. The sealed scroll buried under his moss nest could yet meet its purpose. Time had not run past him yet.

Then the dreams had begun.

On the night of winter solstice, the soldier had woken thinking he heard shouts. They were hoarse—the unmistakable cries of a man. The significance of the voice had torn him from his bed: he was not alone. Enemy or friend, this man could have brought the ladder back into the Eyrie.

Frantically, the soldier raced through the caverns. Then he heard Reme wailing, her cries full of fear and pain. The soldier forgot all else and ran desperately to the nearest entrance.

Seva was barring his path, her magnificent wings spread to their full length. She was naked, and the strange red skin that usually only covered her fingers had spread all the way up to her neck. When the soldier looked at her face, she smiled. Her teeth were dagger-sharp.

Then the soldier had woken in his nest. It was high noon, and his body ached fitfully. Reme was at his side, offering him a gentle warm broth. She had heard him crying out in his sleep…perhaps he had seen nightmares? Settled by how well she seemed, the soldier had rested throughout the day and slept well the next night under a draught of dusk wort.

Without that draught, the nightmares began to plague him nightly. Voices of women and children joined the men, screaming pleas. Always Seva waited at the hollow’s mouth to stop him from going to their aid. If he looked behind her, the soldier would sometimes dream of Reme, free to fly at last beneath the stars. Despite her beauty, the sight always turned the soldier’s veins to water. He would wake covered in sweat, calling her name. Dusk wort was his only reprieve from these sweat-sodden nights, but Seva forbade him from using it too often.

Just when the soldier had thought he would go mad, the dreams began to fade. By mid-spring, they had stopped entirely. But he could not forget them, nor ignore what they implied. Something terrible happened in the dark cover of the night; the soldier refused to ignore it any longer.

“Soldier, watch me! M-my f-f-falling is slower today!”

The soldier had watched Grisca practice her fall many times already, but he smiled and endured once more. His heart never failed to seize up when she and her sister hurled themselves off a tall-standing stone or ledge. Their wings were less scrawny now, but the wispy feathers blanketing them still did not seem up to task.

Hands intertwined, the twins leapt, taking the soldier’s heart with them. The girls’ wings stretched and strained at their full length, still only half the span of Reme’s or Seva’s. Gradually the girls began to glide. Irne landed gracefully on one knee, while Grisca toppled over her own feet. She jumped up instantly, squealing with mirth. Irne fixed a reproving stare on the soldier.

“You were worried for us,” she accused him.

The soldier grunted, not to be shamed. “I’ll ne’er know what it’s like to have wings. You will not know what it’s like to worry about someone fallin’ off a cliff.”

Irne’s eyes lit up. “Perhaps I could.” She seized the soldier’s hand, but her fingers were too strong for a normal child. “I could throw you off next. It would be so funny to watch you fall.”

The soldier smiled tolerantly as Grisca intervened. He had long since learned that there was no venom behind the bairnes’ threats. Like the blood on Reme’s breath, they were merely symptoms of the Eyrie.

As with any sickness, the soldier did not know why or how the Eyrie had come to be. He knew only that it was wrong. It was a thing that came out in the darkness of night, its evil masked for a time by the sun. Like the sweats and bloodied coughs from his sister’s otherwise hearty husband, like the quiet sleep of her youngest bairne that replaced healthy wailing. The Eyrie was a disease that killed. The soldier did not know why. He did not know when.

***

“Are you sleeping? It’s barely midday.” The soldier started, almost falling into the shallow pool he was sitting beside. Irne and Grisca were surely still looking for him, but he had wanted to think in quiet. He had not noticed Reme enter the nesting room.

“Nae,” he replied, “but I was dreaming.”

“Dreaming without sleep,” Reme mused, sitting on the slim ledge beside him. “What do you dream of during the daylit hours, soldier?”

True to her word, Reme had forgotten the soldier’s name every morning. He tried teaching her once to spell it, but the Eyrie’s strange witchcraft made writing impossible. Ink slipped off paper and bled into cloth; no metal or rock could make a scratch on the Eyrie’s stone. Still, reminding Reme had become a fond habit, and hearing her repeat his name with fresh delight stirred a thrill in him each time.

“I dream about the Eyrie,” the soldier said.

Reme froze. “You should not.”

“Now you’re soundin’ like Seva.” He dipped his fingers into the small black pool. “It feels like we never really wake up here, do you understand? You, me, Seva—your little ones. We’re all dreamin’ in this Eyrie, no matter where the sun stands in the sky.”

“Or when the moon comes to blind the stars’ shine,” Reme added softly. “Perhaps that is why I forget. Memory fails in the land of dreams.”

“There now.” The soldier took Reme’s hand. This was his solution whenever she began to cry. He would hold her hand and wait. The tears would pass and she would soon be smiling again.

“There now,” the soldier said again. “You’ve never once forgotten Irne and Grisca.”

Reme tangled her fingers with his. “No,” she murmured. “I know my children.” She looked up at him. “And I know your face. When we break our fast, it does not feel like I am eating with a stranger.”

“See?” The soldier pressed her hand. Reme smile, an expression so sudden in its radiance that he felt breathless. “You know me,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her knuckles.

She laughed. “Do you know me?

Remembering his nightmares, the soldier sighed. “I don’t forget anything.”

Reme lifted his face gently. “Forgetting can be better.”

Her palms were rough but her touch was feather-light. The soldier closed his eyes. “I wish I could.”

“You can.” Her words were warm against his skin. She was so close. He could see each of her lashes, how they clung to each other with leftover teardrops. “We can forget together,” Reme whispered as she kissed him.

They swayed in the uncertain lowlight. Lanterns flickered as Reme’s wings broke free from her dress. She pressed the soldier down into the nest, her feathers covering them in soft warm darkness. “No dreaming,” she whispered in his ear.

The soldier knew Reme there, knew her sorrows and her fears. He knew the wishes she couldn’t bear to voice, the hopes she awoke with every morning and forgot as the night grew cold. These secrets, blossoming moonflowers in the darkness clung precariously between his skin and hers. They quivered like a heartbeat, begging the soldier in a language he couldn’t understand.

***

“Who fathered the bairnes?”

Seva did not turn. “Why not ask their mother?”

The soldier frowned. “I’ve done that once.”

She looked up from the forge. “And?”

“The despair on her face wounded me.” He returned to hammering his iron.

Seva spat into the fire. “Reme must forget every night she spends in the Eyrie, be it terrible or pleasurable. It is a small price to pay.”

“You sound almost jealous.” Anger curled in his belly. “Reme mourns every forgotten moment. She yearns to remember as you do.”

Seva took the hammer from him. “She is a fool,” she said, smashing a dent into the metal. “Night is a curse to those who can’t sleep.”

It was true that Seva the same dark circles that Reme had beneath her eyes. They only seemed to sharpen her constant expression of fury.

“You do not sleep?” the soldier asked.

Seva ignored him. “Irne and Grisca’s father died.” She plunged the hot iron into water. Steam snarled around her bare arms. Seva did not flinch. “He climbed up to the Eyrie years before. He was smitten by Reme, took her every evening and was forgotten every morn. When he passed, she had nothing to remind her. She even forgot that she carried his children…until the day they were born.”

The iron was long-since cooled, but Seva did not bring it up from the water. “Reme came to me one morning in the throes of childbirth. She was covered in her own blood and trapped in pain she could not understand.” She closed her eyes. “Twins are a difficult birth. I almost lost her.”

When he tried to approach her, Seva drew the sword on him. “I have only known Reme once,” the soldier said softly. “I would have her leave this cursed place.”

“Would you?” Seva advanced, her bare arms deathly pale against the red gown. She pressed the sword to the soldier’s throat. It burned against his skin, but he refused to step back.

“Always you threaten and follow me.” His voice was tight against the steel. “If you would have me dead to defend your sister, best do the deed now. Do it! Or leave us be.”

“You think I am protecting her?” Seva turned the sword, thrusting the handle at him. “Plunge this blade into your belly. You must not die too soon, soldier. Crawl across the Eyrie. Leave plenty of blood, or its appetite will remain. That is the price you would pay to have your dream secured.”

“My life would buy Reme’s freedom?” The soldier examined his new sword. He ought to have made it shorter.

“Your life given willfully. Your death…delivered mercilessly.” Seva pressed her lips thin and turned away. “But what of your precious message, soldier? You cannot deliver it if you die here.”

Startled, the soldier looked at her with new eyes. When had Seva noticed or cared about his mission’s silent desperation? But her face remained the same: a smile made of hate more than humor and eyes colder than steel.

“Seva,” he said, “Why do you not use your wings? You could easily fly away from here.”

Unflinchingly, she reached to her right wing and tore a quill from its glorious expanse. Her eyes shone in the firelight as she burned it, but her teeth were bared and bitter.

“They do not belong to me.”

***

Spring arrived early one day, bringing unseasonal warmth into the Eyrie. It’s five denizens rested in the shadow of the western wall to watch the sunset. The soldier sat with Reme, holding her hand. Her air of abstract distress was stronger than usual this evening. She gripped his fingers tightly enough to bruise.

Stars were beginning to peer into the pastel sky, preceded by Mindras, the southern star. She was the brightest star in the night. When the soldier had been running from his enemies, Mindras had been his guiding compass. Now when he looked at her, he felt lost. Dread wrapped its arms around his heart and with it a yearning to escape into sleep. He stood, knowing that they would be ushered into the hollow quite soon anyways.

Grisca and Irne made to join him but Seva took them by the shoulders. “No.” Her fingers looked like claws around their small arms. “Tonight you will watch Mindras dance.”

Uncomfortable, the soldier turned to Reme tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “Goodnight, my summer night sky.”

Usually this would be enough to tempt even a small smile from her. Tonight, Reme only pressed her cheek against his open palm. Her skin was wet with silent tears.

Insides writhing against the urge to stay, the soldier reluctantly headed toward the hollow. It felt suddenly as though he were turning his back on an execution.

“Soldier!” Grisca’s voice was shrill with fear. “I do not want to watch the stars,” she whimpered as the soldier went to her. “Seva has always says they are too b-bright, that m-my eyes will b-b-burn!” Beside her, Irne’s quivered as she stared at the soldier.

Desperate to comfort them, the soldier took Grisca’s hands. “’Tis a warm spring’s eve. I’ve snuck out to see the stars in warmer nights. The warmth softens that night sky; the stars’ light will be weak.”

Grisca threw her arms around the soldier’s neck, and Irne took his hand. Seva nodded, her expression vaguely grateful.

“The soldier speaks wisely,” she told the children. “It is because the stars are weakened that you will watch them. You are ready for this night.”

Grisca lifted her chin, and Irne balled her hands into fists. They looked like small warriors. As he walked away once more, the soldier’s heart wound tightly with worry.

How the slumber took him he could not fathom. Perhaps it was the brook, the alluring bits of light that danced and dazzled across it. Maybe the soldier had forgotten to put new wick into the lantern. More likely it was a more malicious force. The soldier woke with a start and spat a curse against all magic.

Grisca and Irne must have returned without his notice. They were already awake and sitting up in their nest, wings folded around each other. Their feathers more lustrous than usual. The wingtips were sharper, more mature—but as the twins raised their faces to look at the soldier, their eyes were shrouded in dark circles. It was as though their hearts had been stolen from their eyes along with a sweet night of rest.

They looked like their mother.

The soldier ran from the room. He found Reme in her kitchen. She was cheerily baking, as was her tendency in the mornings.

“Reme!” the soldier burst urgently.

She turned to face him, her smile radiant. “Good morning, soldier.”

Many days the soldier woke early simply to see Reme’s morning smile sooner. She was lighter than a spring breeze, joyful and new in a way that he yearned for at dusk. But today the price of her smile was too steep.

“Something’s amiss with the girls.” Her hands powdered white with flour as he took them. “Your daughters have the eyes of the dead!”

Reme frowned. “Seva told me they were out with her after stars’ rise. Perhaps they’ve taken chill.” She reached up absently to caress the soldier’s cheek. “I cannot remember last night any more than I can my dear soldier’s name,” she murmured.

For a moment he was unable to wrest himself from her gaze so bright and unveiled by sorrow. Her eyes were so beautiful. He wanted to smile at her, to see them glow. Reme’s pain took her farther away the lower the sun fell in the sky. But now, in the forgetful morning…

Then he remembered the children’s eyes and pulled away. “Make them something hot,” he whispered.

Grisca was standing when the soldier returned. “What are you doing?” she asked softly.

The soldier settled into his own nest. “Going back to sleep.”

“You’ll be awake at n-night then.” She folded her arms, a ghost of her old nature breaking through. “The m-moon will laugh at you.”

He forced himself to smile. “I am tired, Grisca, and so are you. Come get some rest.”

She did not hesitate to curl up beside him. As she slept, her flickering lashes leaked tears. “Get some rest,” the soldier whispered, “for the night is a hungry beast, and you must be ready for it.”

As he stroked Grisca’s hair, the soldier became aware of her sister’s gaze piercing him from the other nest. Irne’s voice was hollow, a stranger’s whisper as she said:

“Be careful, soldier, or the hungry night will eat you too.”

***

Again the evening came. Again the Eyrie dwellers basked in the sun’s farewell show of coral pink and royal gold. A sweet breeze swept through the Eyrie, ruffling Irne and Grisca’s new feathers. Rest had revived the girls; they played in puddles leftover from a recent storm, splashing and laughing.

Reme and Seva were watching them, holding hands in a rare moment of familial bonds. They looked stronger than any army against the magnificent sunsetting glow. The soldier clutched his small, weathered scroll. Tonight he would leave it in the kitchen for Reme to find. Morning Reme. Hopeful Reme.

He hoped to leave before the stars’ rise, before anyone could notice his absence. But Reme saw him. “Why do you retire so early, my soldier?” she called.

Lying to Reme was distasteful. Her vacant memory left her with so much unbridled trust. The soldier struggled to remain truthful. “I would be alone with my thoughts tonight.”

Reme slipped from Seva’s grasp. “Save them for a different night. The sun is singing for us, soldier. Come and share in its song.” Then, more pleadingly, “Share your thoughts with me.”

He desperately wished to stay. The soldier took her outstretched hand and kissed it. “These thoughts might cause you pain,” he said gently. “No, Reme, you do’na deserve such a burden.”

Reme closed her eyes. Relieved, the soldier turned back towards the hollow.

“Yehil!” All breath was torn from his chest. He gasped, tasting salt on his lips.

“Yehil,” Reme said again. He could hear the smile in her voice, the surprise. “You are not my burden; you are my joy.”

He wept then, but there was no sorrow in his tears. Forgetting even to wipe them, he turned back briefly. “Goodnight, Reme.”

“Goodnight,” she said, but as the sunset’s chorus of orange, pink, and gold crowned her beautiful smile, the soldier heard, I love you.

Strength greater than any he had known rushed through his veins. He knew in his heart that this had been the last sunset he would ever see. Reme had made it perfect. She had remembered his name.

No matter what it cost him, the soldier would set her free.

Seva was waiting for him in the hollow. The soldier was only surprised at how quickly she’d gotten there. “Did you not tell me you couldn’t fly?” he mused.

Seva’s teeth glinted in the lowlight. As always, her smile was an inexplicable thing.

Undaunted, he said, “I’ve a favor to ask of you.”

“I’m listening.”

“Can I trust you?”

Her smile widened. “You have no choice, soldier.”

Spreading his hands, the soldier sighed. “Aye, I’d not be here otherwise. Damn it all, and you for that matter.” But the words were empty of resentment. He did not hate Seva—at the moment, she did not seem to hate him, either.

Reaching out her hand, she said, “I will keep it safe.”

He had to smile. “All this time you’ve watched me. ‘Course this was no secret to you.” He held out the scroll.

Seva took it. Were her hands trembling? “You are not my enemy, Yehil,” she said quietly. To hear his name from her lips was a shock, but she spoke again quickly before he could address it. “I must read it,” she said.

He froze. “The seal hasn’t been broken in…”

How long?

Seva said nothing, allowing the pause between what he knew and what he didn’t to sink into his heart. Unnerved, the soldier took a step back.

“You don’t know.” Sadness welled in Seva’s voice where he expected scorn. “Of course you don’t. Do you even remember who charged you with carrying it?”

The soldier swallowed. He could not answer.

“The Eyrie’s curse is strong,” Seva said softly.

“How long?” he whispered. His throat was too dry. How much time had slithered past him in this cursed place?

“It doesn’t matter,” Seva said. “I must read the scroll. You have no choice but to trust me, and I cannot be trusted without knowing what it says.”

The soldier gave in with a groan. Seva nodded. Her fingers trembled as she broke the scroll’s waxen seal.

Silence followed, threatening to strangle them. “I—actually don’t know meself what it says,” the soldier admitted at length. Seva’s expression quickly quenched his curiosity. Never had her eyes seemed so dark and empty. When she finally rolled the scroll up and tucked it away into her bodice, though, a grim flicker of triumph lit her face.

“The cost is high,” she stated. “The Eyrie’s curse, Reme’s soul, your message—all can be made right. But the cost is very high, soldier.”

Relief spread wings within him. “I will pay any price.”

“Of course you will.” Ever so briefly there was a hint of her old anger. Then Seva closed her eyes. “The price is your life.”

He had suspected this. “I was always ready to give it for her.”

“I know.” Seva turned away. Her next words came slowly, as though she were weighing each with painful care. “Your only part in this is to offer your life willingly.

“Reme must be the one to take it.”

***

The moon was new. The soldier could feel her absence. Stars’ rise brought unnatural chill to those who stayed awake too long in the Eyrie. The moon’s presence usually gave some warmth against it, but she had been full and glorious last night. There would be no moonlight to ease the stars’ harsh shine tonight.

The hollow was empty as the soldier passed through. No sounds or smells, no rustling of life could be found. Even the drippings into cavern pools seemed quieter. He quickened his pace.

Only starlight waited for him at the entrance, a curtain of cold silver across the bedrock. Mindras shone brightest in the midnight sky, undiminished by the moon. A prickle of dread rose on the back of the soldier’s neck. He drew his sword and prayed for hope.

A scream pierced the Eyrie, and the soldier forgot the moon, forgot hope and what was hoped for. It was Reme’s voice that bled through the night, raw and filled with an animal terror. Reme’s voice, that only hours ago had softly called his name.

The soldier ran into the Eyrie.

For a moment, Mindras blinded him. It seemed impossible that a single star could shine so brightly. Then the soldier saw the Eyrie’s children.

They were naked, but their skins were stained like those of plucked crows. The girls were gray, Seva was red. In place of feet they had grown cruel talons. Their wings gutted the night. Vast in span and wicked, they seemed to move of their own accord. Grisca and Irne were borne high into the air and dropped as though for sport. They would fall, tumbling through the air towards the rocky ground. Only at the last moment would their wings beat almost gleefully—only to bear them upwards and drop them again. The girls were wailing, their voices piteously small in the great Eyrie. Each time they fell closer to the ground, upon which a small figure was crumpled. The soldier’s heart froze. It was a child, a girl near their own age.

Several other people lay unmoving along the Eyrie floor. But the soldier could spare no further thought for them. He had found Reme.

She stood in the center of the Eyrie with her wings spread wide. In her arms was a naked man, his body beaten and torn. Blood covered Reme’s breasts, glistening against the unnatural blackness of her skin. She raised her face to the stars and wailed,

“No more, I beg you! Take my life, take my children—take my soul! But I beg you, no more!

As if in answer, her black wings lifted, feathers arching to the heavens. Reme sobbed as her head was forced forward by a force merciless and unseen.

She sank her teeth into the man’s throat.

The soldier understood Reme’s grief now, the elusive and ghostly shadow that had haunted her every morning. Her tears in the night, her smiles as she forgot them in the sunrise, her exhausted distress as the sun plodded inevitably towards star-filled nights. Day after day, night bled out into horrific night. How many times had she offered everything to the uncaring sky?

It was unbearable.

Driving his sword into the ground, the soldier let out a battle cry.

“Reme!!”

All wings ceased their movement and silence fell upon the Eyrie. The man tumbled from Reme’s grasp as her eyes latched on the soldier. Her gaze was rent, her mouth a gaping wound of terror.

The soldier smiled. He wanted only to calm her.

Reme’s wings, ferociously black and bristling with dagger-like feathers, were already poised at the soldier. A serpent ready to strike.

Instinct pounded in his veins, begging him to run. But the soldier left his sword in the ground and took a step forward.

“My summer night sky,” he said gently. “Come to me.”

“No,” she moaned.

The soldier raised his voice to the walls around them. “I am here!” he cried. “I am willing, you cursed an’ unnatural pit! Take me!”

The wings lifted her from the ground, rustling and humming a hungry chant. Hanging helpless between them, Reme covered her ears. “Please!” she howled. Then she surged towards him.

The soldier saw death. It did not frighten him, but he agonized over the thought of Reme’s guilt. He spoke, his voice growing ever urgent as the distance closed like a set of teeth.

“It isn’t your fault, Reme! The Eyrie has taken the father of your children and the memories of the time he loved you. It has taken tears from your eyes and sleep from your nights. It has taken the light from your heart. But it will not take me. I offer myself. Reme!”

The black wings were almost touching him. For a moment they paused, taken for the briefest moment by their host’s will. Straining, they reached and brushed malicious feathers against his cheek. The soldier did not move. He was frozen by the cold light of the stars, by the unveiled face of death—by Reme’s sad brown eyes. He wished to see them shine one last time, to warm away the starlight’s chill. He reached out, touched her pale, blood-stained cheek.

“Yehil,” Reme whispered.

Smiling, he opened his mouth to say her name.

Talons tore him up from the ground, puncturing his heart. Gasping on the dregs of life, the soldier saw crimson blotting out the night. Seva look down on him, her face empty and unsmiling. Bending down to wipe the blood from his lips, she whispered in his ear:

This is how it ends.

The soldier died.

Drawing herself up, the red woman called to the sky. “O Mindras, hear me! We, your helpless, your hopeless, offer you the blood of war and passion! It is given willingly and spilled without mercy.” Her wings, lustrous in the moonlight, howled around her. Seva was unmoved. “Feast,” she spat, and smote the soldier’s body upon the Eyrie floor.

Fierce winds wailed through the Eyrie. They carried clouds and covered the stars in blackness. Cut off from the silver light, the Eyrie dwellers’ wings withered. Their voices stilled. Their feathers became soft and blunt once more.

The moon rose, defying nature and time. Its light caressed the wounded villagers who had been torn from their homes, and kissed tears from the cheeks of their reluctant kidnappers. Most tenderly did it rest upon the soldier, although he had fallen face-downward. His sword, embedded in the stone, reflected a pearl-white path across his broken body, as though to lead him home.

***

One by one, the villagers dragged themselves to the hollow. There they would find blankets, bandages, and the food that their villages had been sending every fortnight to ward off the women who had brought them here. Eventually they would dare to step once more into the Eyrie. A ladder would await them, offering escape down to the mortal world.

As for the Eyrie dwellers, they sat together in the Eyrie until daybreak. Seva smiled. Reme wept. Irne and Grisca braided the soldier’s hair. Seva stopped smiling when she saw this, but Reme did not attempt to scold her children. They were only young, after all.

Seva watched as Reme knelt by Yehil’s side. “Oh, stop,” she said when Reme made to roll him over. As always, scorn was her shield from the chill of heartbreak. “It’s not something that the fledglings ought to see.”

Reme sent Grisca and Irne away. Seva yearned to follow them. She did not want to see this face, this man who had only known her hatred and her claws. But she could not leave Reme now. He would not have wanted her to.

Yehil had died with his eyes open. Reme sobbed when she saw this. Every human who came to the Eyrie had died violently at her hands. Mindras was a demanding queen; her minions, the feathered beasts upon Reme’s back, always thirsted for blood. Every new moon night or wintery eve, Reme would wail when she woke to the sight of wide-eyed corpses. Now they were blind in the afterlife, she would sob. Their souls would never find the way to higher halls.

But Seva knew better. Yehil had seen Reme before he died, and Reme was his paradise.

As dawn broke, Reme mourned openly. It was only to be expected. Daylight had always been her escape from Mindras. A risen sun meant that memories dark enough to drive a normal person mad would be gone forever. But Yehil’s blood had broken this blessing of a curse. Reme saw Yehil. She knew his name. She remembered his love.

It was unbearable to watch. Seva tried, she did. “Don’t you hate me?” she demanded, preferring Reme’s anger to her pain.

Reme shook her head. “Why, Seva?” she whispered. “Why?”

Seva closed her eyes. Tears burned on her cheeks, crystalline salt after having been held away for so long.

Reme seemed baffled by Seva’s tears. An understandable reaction, but painful nonetheless. Seva knelt beside her and pointed to the soldier.

“Do you know this man’s name?” she asked.

Reme’s lips trembled. “Yehil,” she whispered.

“Yehil,” Seva repeated. The name was a strong one, her favorite. If she ever dared to have children, she would give it to her firstborn. Reaching into her satchel, Seva pulled out the scroll.

“The only thing Yehil cherished more than this,” she said, “was you.”

Reme flinched, but took the scroll.

“He left it to me,” Seva continued. “He had made up his mind to die for you, but he feared for this scroll’s fate. I have watched over him many nights while you were in Mindras’ grasp. Even in his dreams he would worry over it.”

Reme looked at the small thing with dread. “I cannot open it,” she admitted.

“You must,” Seva persisted. “So you can understand.”

Slowly, Reme unrolled the paper and smoothed it out. She gasped upon reading it, dropping the scroll as though it had burned her eyes.

“Who was he?” she demanded of Seva. “Who are you?

Seva understood her shock. She had felt the same when she first broke the seal and read those same words, penned inexplicably in her own hand:

To Yehil, son of man:
Stay far from the Eyrie.
And from the daughter of the stars.
Though you love her evermore.
For only by your death
Can I unlock the door.
I, born of Midras and of Earth
Only I can break this curse.

Seva

Kneeling to lift the paper, Seva answered, “I must have been no older than Irne and Grisca. The memory of writing the message is missing from my mind, and I have never been able to write on any paper, stone, or wood since. Mindras’ work, I imagine. I must have written it as a warning, but he never thought to read it. Like you, Yehil would forget.” She laid the scroll on Yehil’s chest, her touch lingering before she turned to Reme.

“Yehil was my father,” she said. Reme fell back, her face pale. “As for me—who am I, Reme?” Seva took Reme’s hand, cold and shaking as it was. “Did you never find my touch familiar?” she continued. “Who am I to you? The answer is in your heart, between your fingertips and mine.” Please, she added silently. If Reme couldn’t remember, it would all be too much.

For one awful moment longer, Reme’s face was blank and fearful. Then, the dawn that Seva had yearned for since childhood rose in her eyes. Recognition.

“You are…my child,” she whispered. “My firstborn.”

Unable to contain herself, Seva fell into her arms. “Yes,” she said softly. “I, born by the Eyrie’s child but not under the Eyrie’s curse. Like Grisca and Irne, I feel the stretch of time.” She drew back, wiping an answering tear from Reme’s cheek. “We grow and live, while you linger in forgetfulness.”

“How can it be?” Reme sank to Yehil’s side. “Neither of us have tasted the years you took to grow.”

Seva shook her head. “There’s no time.” She looked at Yehil. “We must move quickly if…if we are to take him with us.”

They burned him at midday. Glorious sunlight weakened the pyre, but the four Eyrie stood transfixed. No song or mourning wail escaped them. Theirs was a vigil of haste. When the fire dwindled, Reme and Seva poured what ashes they could into an old herb box. Dry sweetened vapors from the wood mellowed the acrid ash for a time. Irne and Grisca each took a bone from the soldier’s fingers, refusing to let go of the strong hands that had given them comfort and guidance.

The ladder waited at the Eyrie’s edge, but Reme shook her head. “We do not need it,” she said, and opened her wings. Hesitantly, the children followed her as she leaped into the air and dipped below the clouds. Seva remained, remembering the ravenous clutch of her own wings. Foolishness, she chided herself. The minute Yehil’s body had broken upon the Eyrie, she had felt their power over her wither. And yet…

Even when the sun reigned in the skies, Seva was afraid.

Yehil. His name was all Seva had. There were few fond memories between them. He had always raised her sisters and poured his love upon Reme. Seva’s role had been to protect him, to be harder, colder and sharper than the steel he used to live by.

Wind shifted through her feathers, and for the first time in her life she could feel it as she did on her skin. “Father,” Seva whispered, but that truth had long been twisted. Always she had called him soldier and acted as his foe. Perhaps she could never call Yehil what he was. She would still be a coward if she remained trapped despite his sacrifice.

All she had to do was jump.

Seva closed her eyes and fell forward. Layers of vapor and clouds buffeted her lids, stinging her cheeks. She was falling. With a gasp, she opened her wings and…

Her heart remained her own. Seva sobbed, opened her eyes, and flew.

Reme was waiting at the bottom, face drawn with anxiety. Seva’s sisters were rolling in the first grass they had ever experienced. Their cries of delight rang in Seva’s heart as she bent to touch the soft green. So sweet and fresh, more silken than the mosses of the hollow. The sky towered above them, too many distances away to make sense of. Seva shielded her eyes as she peered up, but the Eyrie was beyond sight and reach from them now.

She wanted to get even farther away.

Reme seemed to share this opinion. After ensuring that Seva was unhurt, she called Irne and Grisca. The four of them began walking towards the sun. Yehil had told Seva that he was running westwards. Whether or not there were any in his hometown who still knew him could not be said, but Reme was determined to bury him where he belonged.

“Perhaps we could even stay,” she said, eyes on the plains beyond them. Seva nodded but wondered how accepting a small village would be of women like themselves. Winged, broken-hearted, and fatherless. Still, it was better not to crush her mother’s small hopes. Reme would never sink into despair again if she could help it.

“I can tell you now,” she offered. “About your soldier, about your children…about you.”

As they travelled across the wild and strange land, Seva did just that. She explained the bitterness of Mindras’ curse, how the wings latched to their backs hungered for human flesh. Once a fortnight, the people from towns below would send up offerings to the southern star, hoping to be spared from the culling that came when the stars were brightest. Summer brought reprieve, both to the people and their unwilling oppressors, for the heat of the sky would mask Mindras’ light. Winter, though, was a harbinger of torment; Mindras’ light was brightest in the frozen clear nights.

Reme, the daughter of Mindras. Yehil, the soldier cursed into timelessness by his love for her. Seva shed tears long held at bay as she told how many times Yehil had died, always at Reme’s hands or his own, hoping to buy her freedom. But every morning after, his body would vanish from the rocks. Time would turn back and plod on. Yehil would come up the ladder once more.

“He could never remember the children he fathered,” Seva said as they held Grisca and Irne by the light of a small fire. Night had fallen, with Mindras nowhere in sight.

“Yehil always loved you ardently,” Seva said quietly. “He would die loving you, and return loving you. He loved the girls, too, although they always forgot him. Only I could remember—perhaps by the same curse that made you forget.” She shivered. “I feel so much older than you ever will. How unfitting for a daughter.”

Reme shifted Irne to her other arm, reaching out to take Seva’s hand. “You think it is impossible for anyone to love you,” she said. “But I loved you as my sister. I will love you as my daughter too, Seva.”

 Unable to look her in the eyes, Seva turned to the sky. “Mindras would taunt me in the night watches,” she whispered bitterly. “She promised our freedom with a willing sacrifice.” A tailed star streaked above their heads. “I took too long to realize that it was my sacrifice she spoke of. Yehil, the only person I ever wanted—the only person I could never keep. Ever since I was smaller than Grisca and Irne. I used to pray to the moon that he would climb that ladder and say my name. Even when he didn’t, I was still so happy to see him. He was—” No words were fitting. Grief bowed her over, but the tears would not come. They were long since spent.

“He was your father,” Reme finished. “If he had known, it would have brought him nothing but pride.” She took Seva’s hand. “I am proud, Seva. You do your father honor. You fulfilled his dearest wish.” Her voice was gentle, sad but free of tears. Leaning over, she laid her head on Seva’s shoulder. They stayed awake together through the night, marveling at its sounds and scents and secret beauties.

Reme remembered her daughters’ names as the sun rose.  She remembered their father, remembered why nothing remained of their father but scavenged ash and finger bones. She felt the warmth his final gifts to her: a final smile despite the starlight, and the timid flicker of life within her. Smiling through tears, Reme let her hand wander over the small swell of her belly. Then she roused her twin daughters and embraced her eldest. Though free at last to fly, the Eyrie’s children chose to walk. They walked with their backs to the sunrise, heading towards the horizon as they carried their soldier home.