Victor, Vanquished, Son
“Do you think I’m scared of you?” Ceres demanded. “I’ve fought in pits before. Come on, all of you.”
This wouldn’t work unless they all came at her. Even so, it was terrifying as they dropped in silence, landing on the hard stone of the pit and hurrying forward to attack her.
Ceres cut and moved. There was so little room in the pit to fight that the danger was that she would be swarmed. She cut off a hand that grabbed at her, ducked under the swipe of claws aimed at her throat. She felt the scrape of a hand on her side and kicked out, knocking one of the sorcerers back.
They weren’t as strong as they had been. Ceres guessed that they’d used more power than they wanted, throwing magic after her. She kept cutting, kept dodging within the pit while she waited for the moment when some of them would line up the way she wanted.
Ceres saw it, and she didn’t hesitate. She might not have the superior strength and speed that came from her blood, but she was still fast and strong enough for this. She cut one down to its knees in front of her, threw her swords out of the pit, and then used the sorcerer’s back as a springboard as it was still recovering. She leapt up onto the shoulders of the next enemy and then jumped with all she had for the lip of the pit. If she got this wrong, she had just thrown away the only weapons she had to protect herself.
She slammed against the rock of the pit’s wall, her hands catching on the lip as she struggled to pull herself up. Ceres felt something grabbing at her leg, and kicked back on instinct, feeling the crunch of bone as she connected with a sorcerer’s skull. That push was all she needed to set her climbing, and quickly, Ceres pulled herself up over the rim of the pit she’d fallen into.
She snatched up her blades and stood as the sorcerers shrieked their anger.
“We will follow!” they promised.
One roared in anger then, throwing magic her way. Ceres dodged aside, but it was as if that was the signal for the others to strike as well. Flames and lightning followed her as she ran from the room that contained the pit, and around her, Ceres heard the walls rumbling. Small rocks started to fall, then bigger ones.
Ceres ran on desperately, while rocks fell around her, ricocheting as they struck the floor and rolling in the case of the bigger pieces. She flung herself forward, and stood to find that the tunnel behind her was now blocked.
Would it stop the former sorcerers? Probably not forever. If they couldn’t die, then they would eventually be able to break through, but that wasn’t the same thing as being able to chase after Ceres now. For now, at least, she was safe.
She continued through the tunnels, not knowing which way to go, but trusting to instinct in the soft glow of the cave light. Ahead, Ceres could see it opening out into a broader cavern with stalactites hanging down from the ceiling. There was also the sound of water there, and Ceres was surprised to see a broad stream running through the middle of it.
More than that, there was a small landing post with a flat-bottomed boat tied to it. Ceres guessed that the boat had been there for more years than she wanted to think about, but somehow it still looked strong. Downstream, Ceres could see a light that wasn’t present in the rest of the caves, and somehow she knew it would be what she needed to head toward.
She got in the boat, untying it and letting the current carry it along. The water lapped at the side of the small vessel, and Ceres could feel anticipation building in her as it went forward. On another occasion, she might have been worried by a current such as this one, thinking that it might lead to a weir, or worse, to a waterfall. Now, however, it felt as though the current was a deliberate thing, designed to carry her to her goal.
The boat passed through a tunnel narrow enough that Ceres could have touched the walls on either side. There was light ahead, bright after the half-light of the caves. The tunnel gave way to a space that was not rock, not stone. Instead, in a space where there should have been just another cavern, Ceres found herself floating through a patch of idyllic countryside.
Ceres recognized the work of the Ancient Ones instantly. Only they might have done something like this. Perhaps the sorcerers might have found the power for an illusion, but this felt real; it even smelled of fresh grass and dew drops. The boat bumped against the bank and Ceres saw a wide meadow ahead, filled with wildflowers whose scent was sweet and delicate. Some of them seemed to move with her as she passed, and Ceres felt the brush of thorns against her leg, drawing blood in a sharp sting of pain.
They pulled back after that, though. Apparently, whatever defenses were there, they weren’t meant to keep her out.
It took Ceres a moment to realize that there were two strange things about the place she was walking through. Well, stranger than a patch of countryside in the middle of a cavern complex was in the first place.
One strange thing was the way the visions of the past seemed to have stopped. In the caverns above, they had flickered in and out of existence, showing the final attack by the Ancient Ones on the sorcerers’ home. Here, the world didn’t seem to be caught halfway between two points. Here, it was as peaceful as it was fixed, without the constant shifts that the rest of the place experienced.
The second strange thing was the dome of light that rose up in the heart of it all, shining golden against the greenery of the rest of it. It was the size of a large house, or the tent of some nomad lord, yet it seemed to be composed almost entirely of energy. Looking at it, she thought at first the dome might have been a shield or a wall, but somehow Ceres knew it was more than that. It was a living place, a home.
It was also, she guessed, the place where whatever she sought might be found. For almost the first time since she’d set foot in the sorcerers’ home, Ceres dared to feel a flicker of hope. Perhaps this was the place where she would recover her powers.
Perhaps she would be able to help save Haylon after all.
As she sailed in the direction of Felldust’s Bone Coast, Jeva suffered the strangest sensation of her life: she worried that she was going to die.
It was a new sensation for her. It wasn’t something that her people were used to experiencing. It certainly wasn’t something that she’d ever wanted. It probably amounted to a kind of heresy, floating along, seeing the possibility of joining with the waiting dead and actually worrying about it. Her kind embraced death, even welcomed it as a chance to finally be one with the great wash of their ancestors. They did not fear the risk of it.
Yet that was exactly what Jeva was feeling now, as she saw the faint line of Felldust’s shore appearing on the horizon. She feared the thought of being cut down for what she had to say. She feared being sent to join those ancestors, rather than being able to help on Haylon. She wondered what had changed.
The answer to that was easy enough: Thanos.
Jeva found herself thinking of him as she sailed toward land, watching the seabirds that gathered in floating flocks as they waited for their next chance at food. Before she had met him, she had been… well, perhaps not the same as all her people, because most of them didn’t feel the need to wander all the way to Port Leeward and beyond. Even so, she had felt the same as them, been the same as them. She certainly didn’t feel fear.
It wasn’t fear for herself, exactly, although she knew perfectly well that her own life was at stake. She was more worried about what would happen to those left on Haylon if she didn’t make it back; to Thanos.
That was another kind of heresy. The living didn’t matter except as far as they were useful to fulfill the wishes of the dead. If a whole island of people died at the hands of an invader, that was a glorious honor for them, not something to treat as an impending disaster. All that mattered in life was fulfilling the wishes of the dead and achieving an end for oneself that was suitably glorious. The speakers of the dead had made that clear. Jeva had even heard the whispers of the dead herself, when the smoke rose from the seeing pyres.
She sailed on, ignoring that, feeling the pull of the waves against the tiller as she kept her small boat on course for her home. Now she found herself hearing other voices, arguing for compassion, for saving Haylon, for helping Thanos.
She had seen him risk his own life to help others for no good reason that Jeva could see. When she had been tied to a Felldust ship like a figurehead, waiting to be flayed, he had come to rescue her. When they had fought side by side, his shield had been her shield in a way never seen with her people.
She had seen in Thanos something to admire. Maybe more than admire. She had seen someone who was in the world to do the best that they could there, not just to find the most perfect way of exiting it. The new voices Jeva was hearing told her that this was the way she ought to live, and that going to help Haylon was a part of it.
The trouble was that Jeva knew these only came from within herself. She shouldn’t have been listening to them so strongly. Her people certainly wouldn’t.
“What’s left of them,” Jeva said, the wind carrying her words away.
Her tribe’s village was gone. Now she was going to go to another gathering place and ask another clutch of her people for their lives. Jeva looked up at the way the wind billowed the small sail of her boat, out at the play of foam over the ocean; anything to keep from thinking about what she would have to do to make that happen. Even so, the words came up, as inescapable as the end of life.
She would have to claim to speak for the dead.
It had taken the words of the dead to get them to Delos, although Jeva and Thanos had not claimed to speak for them with that. But Jeva couldn’t just leave this to the speakers with this. There was too much of a chance that they would say no, and then what would happen?
The death of her friend. She couldn’t allow that. Even if it meant doing the unthinkable.
Jeva guided her boat closer to shore, working her way in between the rocks and the wrecks that had foundered on them. This wasn’t the beach nearest her old home, but a place a little further along the coast, in another of the great gathering places. They had still managed to pick the wrecks clean, though. Jeva smiled at that, taking a little pride in it.
Boats came out onto the water to meet her. Mostly, these were light things, canoes with outriggers, designed to intercept what was obviously not one of the Bone Folk’s craft. If Jeva had not obviously been one of them, she might have found herself fighting for her life then. Instead, they crowded around, laughing and joking the way they never did around strangers.
“A beautiful boat, sister. How many men did you kill for it?”
“Kill?” another said. “They probably went to the dead at the sight of her from fear!”
“They’d go to the dead at the sight of your ugliness,” Jeva shot back, and the men laughed with her. It was how things were done here.
How things were done mattered. Her people might seem strange to outsiders, but they had their own rules, their own standards of behavior. Now, Jeva was going to go to them, and if she claimed to speak for the dead, then she would be breaking the most fundamental of those rules. She could be cut off from the communion of the dead for breaking it, slain without her ashes being mingled with the pyres to be consumed.
She brought her boat in to the shoreline, jumping from it and pulling it up onto the beach. There were more of her folk waiting there. A girl ran to her with a funerary urn, offering her a pinch of the village’s ashes. Jeva took it, tasting it. Symbolically, she was one of the village now, a part of their communion with their ancestors.
“Welcome, priestess,” one of the men on the beach said. He was an old man with papery skin, but he still deferred to Jeva because of the markings that proclaimed she had undergone the rites. “What brings a speaker of the dead to our shores?”
Jeva stood there, considering her answer. It would have been so easy then to claim that she spoke for those who were gone. She had seen her share of visions; when she’d been a girl, there were those who had thought that she would be a great speaker for the dead. One of the older speakers had proclaimed as much, saying that she would speak words that would shake her whole people.
If she claimed that the dead had called her there, and required her people to fight for Haylon, they might believe it without argument. They might obey her borrowed authority as they obeyed so little else.
If she did, she might actually be able to save Haylon. There might be a chance that her people would be enough to break the attack by Felldust’s fleet. They might be able to buy the defenders time, at least. If she lied.