Victor, Vanquished, Son
The light burst toward her, filling Ceres, brimming through the channels of her body like water along freshly built aqueducts. It filled her, and it kept filling her, pouring in so that it seemed that there was more power resting within Ceres than there had ever been before. For the first time, she understood the true depths of the Ancient Ones’ powers.
She stood there, pulsing with power, and she knew the time had come.
It was time for war.
Jeva could feel the tension growing with every step as she made her way up toward the meeting hall. The people of the gathering place stared at her the way she would have expected people outside their lands to stare at one of their kind: as if she were something strange, different, even dangerous. It wasn’t a sensation Jeva liked.
Was it just that they didn’t see many with the markings of priestesses here, or was it something more? It wasn’t until the first insults and accusations came from the gathering crowd that Jeva started to understand.
“You took your tribe to the slaughter!”
A young man stepped out from the crowd with that swagger that only young men could manage. He strode as if he owned the path leading up to the house of the dead. When Jeva moved to step around him, he went to block her.
Jeva should have struck him just for that, but she was there for more important things.
“Step aside,” she said. “I’m not here for violence.”
“Have you forgotten the ways of our people that completely?” he demanded. “You dragged your tribe to die in Delos. How many came back?”
Jeva could hear the anger there. The kind of anger that even her people felt when they lost someone close to them. Telling him that they had gone to the ancestors and that he should be happy would do no good. In any case, Jeva wasn’t even sure that she believed that right then. She had seen the pointless deaths of the war.
“But you came back,” the young man said. “You destroyed one of our tribes, and you came back, you coward!”
On another day, Jeva would have killed him for that, but the truth was that the mewling of an idiot didn’t matter, not compared to everything else that was going on. She moved to step around him again.
Jeva paused as he drew a knife.
“You don’t want to do this, boy,” she said.
“Don’t tell me what I want!” he screamed, and lunged at her.
Jeva reacted on instinct, swaying out of the way of the blow, while she lashed out with her bladed chains. One wrapped around his neck, wrenching as she moved with the speed of long practice. Blood sprayed as the young man clutched at the wound, collapsing to his knees.
“Damn you,” Jeva said softly. “Why did you make me do it, you idiot?”
There was no answer, of course. There was never any answer. Jeva whispered the words of a prayer for the dead over the young man and then stood, lifting him. Other villagers followed her as she continued on her way, and Jeva could feel the tension there now where there had been jokes before. They followed her close as an honor guard, or the escort of a prisoner to her execution.
When she reached the House of the Dead, the elders of the village were already waiting for her. Jeva padded in on bare feet, kneeling before the endlessly burning pyre and tumbling her attacker’s body into it. She stood there as it started to burn, looking around at the people she had come to convince.
“You come here with blood on your hands,” a Speaker of the Dead said, stepping forward with his robes swirling. “The dead told us that someone would come, but not that it would happen like this.”
Jeva looked at him, wondering if it was true. There had been a time when she wouldn’t have questioned it.
“He struck at me,” Jeva said. “He was not as fast as he thought.”
The others there nodded. Such things could happen, in these harshest parts of the world. Jeva let none of the guilt she felt show on her face.
“You have come to ask us something,” the Speaker said.
Jeva nodded. “I have.”
Jeva stood there, collecting her thoughts. “I ask for aid for the island of Haylon. A great fleet attacks it, on the orders of the First Stone. I believe that our people can make a difference.”
Voices called out then, speaking at once. There were questions and demands, accusations and opinions, all seeming to blur together.
“She wants us to go to die for her.”
“We’ve heard this before!”
“Why fight for people we don’t know?”
Jeva stood there, letting all of it wash over her. If this went wrong, there was every chance that she wouldn’t be walking out of this room. Given who she was, she should have felt a sense of peace at that, but she also found herself thinking about Thanos, who had saved her at risk to himself, and about all the people who were stuck on Haylon. They needed her to succeed.
“We should give her to the dead for all she’s done!” one called.
The Speaker of the Dead stepped next to Jeva then, holding up his hands for quiet.
“We know what our sister is asking,” the Speaker said. “Now is not the time for talking. We are just the living. Now is the time to listen to the dead.”
He reached down to his belt, pulling out a pouch of the sacred powders mixed with the ashes of the ancestors. He threw it onto the pyre, and the flames leapt up.
“Breathe, sister,” the Speaker said. “Breathe and see.”
Jeva breathed in the smoke, taking it deep into her lungs. The flames danced in the pit below her, and for the first time in years, Jeva saw the dead.
It started with the spirit of the man she’d killed. It stood from his burning corpse, walking through the flames to her.
“You killed me,” he said in something like shock. “You killed me!”
He struck her then, and though the dead shouldn’t have been able to touch the living, Jeva still felt it as surely as if he’d slapped her while he was alive. He struck her, and then he stepped back, looking on expectantly.
The rest of the dead came to Jeva then, and they were no kinder than the young man she’d slain. They were all there: the people she’d killed by her own hand, the ones she’d led to their deaths on Haylon. They came to her one by one, and one by one, they struck out at Jeva, in blows that left her reeling, knocked her flat, reduced her to something holding herself on the ground.
It seemed to take forever before they stepped away from her, and Jeva was able to look up again. She found herself looking at Haylon, the island surrounded by ships, the battle raging.
She saw the ships of the Bone Folk slam into those attackers, punching a hole through, their warriors spilling out onto the shore. She saw them fighting, and killing, and dying. Jeva saw them dying in numbers that she had only seen once before, in Delos.
“If you take them to Haylon, they will die,” a voice said, and that voice sounded as though it was composed of the voices of a thousand ancestors at once. “They will die as we died.”
“Will they win?” Jeva asked.
There was a brief pause before the voice answered that. “It is possible that the island might be saved.”