by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
They had been seven, in the beginning, who had come to the desert to battle Fire.
Now she was the only one. The rest were dead. Seven was a number of power, a number that looped around and swallowed its own tail, but so, she supposed, was one. The last two to fall had been the twins: tall brothers, albino and born hairless as well as pale and crystal-eyed, smooth of head and cheek and even eye. They had been like white blades, going arm-in-arm in the city, always keeping their own counsel. They had been brave and noble to the utmost, and fought like demons, and she had not been surprised that they had lasted longest of all but her. Fire had slain one, battening on him like a hawk and tearing his cooking guts from his body with a single red stroke, and the other had died of the pain. She had honored them to the gods, but not buried them. The desert would do that.
She had walked for days since, and her mouth was parch-cracked and silvered with the sandy dust, her skin rubbed with it so she glittered in the sun as though shot with mica. The desert was scrubby, bone-white, everything from sand to soil to plants to rock stripped to bone and bleached by the unrelenting sun. In places the ground fell away to porous rock, caves like mouths or wombs opening to drifts of white sand and white sun; in other places the rock rose above it, making cliff faces so scoured by the windstorms that they looked like the shapes of great half-buried dragons. Even the little water that stood in some of these caves, some small oases, could not make this place any kinder. It was Fire’s land.
Some of the others had begun wearing full armor, helmets and breastplates and greaves, but she had dressed only in her tunic, her sandals, her bag of water, her pilum in her hand, the other hand with its crisscross of scars empty at her side. She had not regretted her decision, and now alone had stripped to only a cloth for her loins and the bag thrown over her back, and unbound her hair to protect the back of her neck and her shoulders. Her breasts jounced lightly on her upper ribs as she walked. The sun had burned her darker every day, and in the vast expanse of white she was a moving spot of black and bronze. Her sandals were nearly shredded; soon she would be scorching her bare feet on the powdered dust. But the pilum was always the same.
It had been weeks since she had even caught sight of her quarry, except at night when it stood clear against the sky for endless miles; Fire was fleeing her now, and that was good, but agonizing all the same. Her hands ached for blood. There had been seven, but now was one, and she was the one, and so she walked.
They had come to the temple in the spring. They were seven, herself and the old soldier and the aristocrat and the slave and the young soldier and the twins, and people had spoken approvingly of the number. The oracle had anointed them, and they had sacrificed and spent the day in prayer, and feasted until morning in the light of torches, with girls who dripped jewels and myrrh refilling their goblets of wine and dancing in the temple courtyard to drums and singing and the duduk. The old soldier’s wife and children were gathered around him, and they were grave and pale; he did not speak to them during the meal, nor they at all. The young soldier drank to the point of lunacy, danced with the girls like a stumbling fool, and eventually wound up snoring on the shoulders of his comrades, who bore him back to barracks. (He died first in the desert, screaming out his last dumb surprise when a scorpion struck at his heel, before Fire had even shown its face.) The slave sat on the ground at his master’s feet and ate what he was given with evident composure, and the aristocrat dined briefly and then strode out from the firelight, pulling his outer cloak about his shoulders as he disappeared. The twins ate together, smiled at others, spoke only to each other, in low, excited tones.
She sat apart on the temple steps, her goblet at her feet and her meal balanced on her knees, and watched them all. No one had come for her, and she had not expected them to. She had always brought only troubled blessings to her house, and she was not easy to love.
She had lain awake through the festival, until dawn light had chased even the most dedicated celebrants home, and then gone to rest through the heat of the day in her room above the market. When evening cooled the sky again she returned to the temple, mounting the stone steps with one hand up against the last of the sun. One of the temple’s virgins, whose virginity was preserved through all by their service to the goddess, sat on the cool stone within the shrine, and looked up when her shadow fell into the hall. Dark eyes ringed with kohl peered up at her over the girl’s veil, and the corners tilted with what could only have been a tiny smile. She stood for long moments, looking at the virgin, strands of her hair pulling loose from their sculpting wire in the wind that soughed at her back. Then she went to where the girl sat, and dropped a coin before her folded knees. It rang on the stone floor with a chime of startling sweetness.
The sun boiled to nothing in the cliffs to the west. She had been traveling north, the sunset making her squint her left eye shut, and she supposed if she walked long enough the ground would coarsen again and become rocky soil, and then even begin to grow low shrubs and tough bone-land grasses. She would come to the lands where the nomads rode, and she would see cities again. But on foot that would take months more, perhaps even years; and if she lasted long enough to come there without Fire’s head, she would double back.
In the last of the failing light she found one of those smooth rock pores into the ground, and slipped into it; it was a gradual decline, with a drift of white sand blown down into it that she was able to skate and skip down on what was left of her sandals, her pilum held up carefully to the height of her shoulders. Inside it was cool and dark, an organic estate of connecting jointed caves with thin fragments of red sunset coming through holes to the surface here and there, and better yet, with the distant sound of running water humming through the rock. She went deep to find the stream — it was little more than a trickle, really, but the sound carried and grew — and refilled her bag, drinking only a little at a time to keep from being sick. Back at the mouth of the cave there were snakes burrowed into the warm sand, trying to cling to the heat of the day, and she killed one and ate it without bothering to try to cook the meat. There was nothing for tinder here anyway. The only fire was Fire, she thought, and flashed teeth that reflected starlight in her grin. She wanted food or water very little anyway; the desert called her to transform, to become its twin, and then to stay forever with her bones bleached as white as its own. For the time being, however, she resisted.
She bedded down in the cave, on soft drifts of sand fallen on rock. At some time in the night she thought she saw a shape smouldering red and white at the mouth of the cave, a burning form that left a blue-black ghost on her eyes when it was gone, but thought in the morning it must have been a dream. It would be no surprise. She had dreamed of Fire often.
In the curtained depths of the temple the virgin had unveiled her face and uncovered her hair, showing herself young and sweet, though her features remained dominated by those wide eyes that had first beckoned. The girl uncinched the belt below her breasts and pushed the wide neck of her chiton from her shoulders, and let it fall to the floor, then stood naked but for an armband and a layered necklace, her hands at her sides. The nipples of her small breasts stood out like dark berries, the wide swell of her hips holding a perfect cup of dark curls at their center. Although the girl was certain and unafraid, the wideness of her eyes appeared curious. Considering.
She tugged her own tunic over her head, folded it neatly on the stone beside her sandals and the bag she had carried, hesitated, and then also unstrapped the leather band that held her knife in its sheath from around her upper thigh, placing it on top of the pile. She hated to be disarmed, but there was no room in this ceremony for trust to fail. The virgin smiled at her again, drew her to the cushions and guided her down on her stomach, knelt over her back and rubbed her with perfumed oils. The heat of the day continued to fade, the sun disappearing behind the desert; light shifted across the room, disappearing as it went, like a water-drop evaporating even as it rolled. Beyond the oil she could smell smoke, charcoal and charred meat, could hear distant music from the marketplace and rustling sounds from the corridor. Then at last the virgin stopped and lay down beside her, with their foreheads touching, looking into her eyes. After a moment she had sat up, and nodded to the small pile of her things.
“Bring me that bag,” she said. She’d had a sweet, clear voice then, before the desert had stolen its water and turned it to an insect’s buzz. The virgin had got up, her bare bottom smooth and brown and full like some mysterious ripe fruit, gleaming with the light of the lamps, and brought back the bag before lying back down on one side. She had taken from the bag what she wanted; a short, blunted, rounded spike of milky-green jade, carved shallowly with smooth and undulating designs in relief, tied at the base with rawhide and a ring of metal into a rig of soft leather straps. The jade was the width of two finger-joints, and about the length of her knife, but a far sweeter weapon. The leather rigging she fastened around her hips and around under her backside, so that the jade thrust up from her pubis like a man’s member, and at the same time like none that had ever been. The virgin touched it with her fingers, and then smiled and rolled onto her back, spreading her thighs to show where her brown skin and black curls unfolded to a cleft of dusty pink. Her hand spread its lips as well, turning a cleft to a rare blooming flower, and then rubbed its fingers along the delicate folds, warming them, drawing wetness from between. Her eyelids drifted toward closing, that tiny smile still curling her lips.
When the tip of the jade column touched those slick folds, the virgin gasped, and then laughed softly, beneath her breath. “Ahh — ” she murmured, and smiled up around her parted panting lips, her eyelids fluttering. “Cold.” It was the first the girl had spoken, and her voice was low and dusky, all perfume and smoke. Beneath the base of the jade her own cleft swelled even wider apart than it had already been, dripping the first drop of warm moisture that the air outside made cool. She pushed from her groin, and the rod of jade nudged inside the girl, pressing apart soft flesh to make way for itself; she couldn’t feel what it felt, but could feel the resistance of flesh it met, and its slick surpassing. The virgin bit her lip, her head straining back, and then was still. When she stopped pushing the girl reached and grasped the rod, pulling it in again, canting up her hips to bring it along. She shuddered with the girl’s moan when it was fully inside, fully gripped, but didn’t move, and the girl made a stuttering shove with her hips against it, trying to fuck herself on it from her uncertain leverage. She was still, though, only holding the girl pinned where she was, hot and dripping on the cushions all the more with the keening of longing and frustration from that smoke-sounding voice, her whimpering, cold, are you so cold, won’t you —
At last she would. She rocked away and into the virgin, who cried out and gripped her bracing arms in small, damp hands. They moved together again, and again, the jade making wet slipping sounds from inside the girl, not quite buried under the harsh music of their breath, and of the girl’s soft birdlike cries. The room stank of perfume, sweat, sex. The virgin’s hand tucked between her own thighs again, working madly on the tiny nub there with her fingers, her hips grinding a hungry circle into the piercing jade, and she watched through slitted eyes, staring, her thighs wet with her own want and the girl’s hot begging voice, and behind her eyes somewhere there was a figure burning, a coal against the desert sky —
The virgin’s whole body arched like an athlete’s with her climax, legs digging and stretching in the cushions, free hand clawing at the skin of her arm. The girl’s limbs shook with strain, the jade suddenly moving in double slickness as she spilled wet over the rough silk, giving up woman’s seed to the goddess if not man’s, and wouldn’t a goddess prefer that anyway?
She rolled off at the end of it, unstrapping herself from the jade, and the girl lay breathing in whimpers, her legs splayed and arm thrown across her forehead. Those wide eyes slitted open when she moved, and the girl smiled faintly again, as her eyes tracked down to the wet place she had left beneath where she’d been kneeling. The girl reached for her, and held her to a smooth dark bosom rising and falling with breath as she stroked herself off, fast and rough, rubbing her clitoris with three tight fingers until she hissed in breath and bucked with the force of orgasm, darkness wheeling through her head. Then she fell still, and rested, lying atop the temple virgin with the lovely wide eyes. It was dark outside now, the first stars just pricking their way through the black drape of sky. The air smelled cool and alkaline. In time she got up, and dressed, and went her way, leaving the girl prettily asleep in her heap of cushions. It was a fine night, and she went walking, thinking of nothing at all. Only waiting. Wanting to be gone.
She had no way of knowing if any of the others had performed this ceremony, and supposed it made no difference. Gods protected some for loyalty, others out of caprice, still others not at all and for no reason. Still, she was left alive, and she had given all that she could afford. In the end, nothing was explained, and it was all as meaningless as the wet dash of the white twin’s guts on the desert dust.
Every day was as clear and as murderous as the last. She saw shimmering hazes on the horizon where the sun struck the white soil, seeming mists that lifted on approach as though with caprice all their own. Time seemed to stretch enormously, and her vision was strange. She supposed she would die, but she thought it would take a long time. Her intent had embalmed her with its strength.
She was coming closer, too; there were tracks, sometimes, that Fire had left. Long, looping black skids on the dust, fading in and out as they passed through places where there was enough sand in the soil to have scorched to glass. There were no individual footfalls in these marks, only trails like the negative images of those sometimes streaked by thin clouds across the merciless afternoon sky. Because it was so fast, she thought. Fire didn’t run but seemed somehow to fly on land, or perhaps to leap and consume its way along like its namesake. Either way, it was too fast to catch, at least before it decided to catch you instead. She had seen these, and followed them at some distance, and on this nameless endless day she tracked one to a larger sign of Fire’s passing: the skeleton of a low desert shrub, heated wholly black and crumbling where it stood, in the shadow of one of those sleeping cliffs. It couldn’t have happened long ago, or by now the wind would have blown what was left of it away. The air was so clear she first saw it from a distance of what must have been two miles, and walked to it over the course of the late morning, intrigued by its shape even at a distance. When she came close she could see the way its thin bark had crackled and become shiny, the way the pointed twigs that remained at its tips jutted starkly out into nothing, the finger-bones of a corpse. She broke a clutch of them off, and crumbled them in her hand, leaving it littered with black fragments that she smiled at and then wiped off on her thigh. She broke off another clutch of bush-twigs and nestled it in the cloth around her hips. It would break apart anyway, but it would be there. She had taken other sign with her for a while, as well: a white stone with a bristle of black scorches where it had been touched, a small jag of that volcanic black glass that Fire left in its wake. It was enough to have something she could keep, even if not forever. A whetstone for her appetite’s blade.
She had seen Fire now, but never well — it was just so fast! — and anyway it refused to be described. You could try, but all you would be left with were words that would crumble in your hands, like the blackened twigs. Its shape was vaguely human, even more vaguely female: the suggestion of swells like dunes at the breast and hip, a mass of flame depending from its head and back that could resemble a woman’s unbound hair when it licked and flickered out behind the running creature. It was molten, always shifting and escaping the eye. It was a mass of rolling color, black in the places that were coolest shading to red in those that were hot shading to white in those that were hottest, and too bright to look at directly. The eyes must be shielded from it, as though from the sun. There were no features, no face to speak of, or if there were they were indistinct and she had not seen them in its speed and brightness. Only more of those swimming burning colors, bright spots going in and out. To say any of this if she were asked would be true, she knew, but it would also fail to capture the essentials of Fire; it would succeed no more than if she, asked to describe the twins, had said that they breathed evenly and had fingernails that grew. It would only skirt the edges of the chasm in which the real Fire lay, predatory even when imprisoned in words.
Dark came, and night, and in twilight she saw it again, a streak of red-white racing the top of a cliff more miles distant than she could have counted. Although it burned her eyes she watched it for the few seconds until it was gone, and though she waited for it to reappear around the far looping slope of the bluffs, it never did.
As a child who was still an infant more than a child, perhaps two warm winters old, she had once put her chubby curious hand into the heart of a cooking-fire. This was not something she remembered but something she had been told, but still she fancied she remembered why: that she had been entranced by the lovely core of white light at its center, where the flame burned hottest, and sought to hold it in her hand. The slave who tended the kitchen had been occupied, salting and spicing fat-marbled slabs of lambs’ meat to keep them safe from the hot, but when she saw the child with her hand stretched to the oven flames she lunged to her, scattering the meat, knocking a tower of crockery to the stones where it shattered into splintery, uneven dragon’s teeth. She had caught the matron’s child back by the nape of her neck and the collar of her shift, the girl (the woman she had become had been told) screaming and wailing as much in cheated outrage as in pain, no more than a second after she had first started to be burned. In an instant the slave had dragged her at a run, around the broken dishes to save her feet, over to the water-pump. The child’s wrist thrust and held under the spout, she had hauled like a mad demon on the arm, bathing the hand in gushing cool water for moments as long as she could manage, until at last her breath ran short and she fell against the pipe, heaving, the little girl crying, the rest of the household coming on the run. That hand was still seamed with scars in her womanhood, but she had lost neither it nor even the skin that covered it, and for the slave woman’s quick and canny action she had only gone to her knees to be flogged the next day, at the block in the estate’s central courtyard, not there to have her head struck off. Things always could be worse, one had to suppose.
It was a story her mother, matron of the house, told often, and with a grim smile that told the tale’s unspoken moral: that her youngest daughter was, at last, as strange and inscrutable as the stone floor that had held the fire, and as apt to break what fell to her.
In the weeks that followed the temple ceremony, she had woken one cool, dim morning, and passed over her tunic for a proper chiton that had been gathering dust at the bottom of her clothing box. She had styled her hair around sculpting wire more finely than her ordinary twist, and put on what little jewelry she had. And when morning had fully broken, hot and dry and blinding white, she had gone home. It was something she did as seldom as she could avoid it, but the time for farewells had come. She might not be missed, but neither would she be forgotten.
The estate was lovely in the spring: a few amazing trickles of water finding their way through shaded rocks in the courtyard, bleached green dotted over the limbs of the zagging white desert trees that looked like lightning from the ground. She had come through the rough sandstone pillars that marked its entry and stood looking, drinking strange familiarity, until her sister’s son came out of the shrubs to her at a precarious, toddling run. She had pulled him up onto her hip and walked with him to the house, and she had answered his child’s questions with a grave seriousness that had him squirming away again, bored and puzzled, by the time they reached the colonnade. She had never been good with children, even when she had been one herself. She had set him down, and he run to play, his tiny sandals striking up dust around the house’s side into who knew where. Her mother must be glad there was a boy now, she had thought. Her father had died at war when she was very small, and her mother, despite her efforts to remarry, had to her shame birthed a troupe of daughters; no man would have her, and she had remained cursed with freedom. She had run the house and slaves herself for years, with weary determination, until her daughters were old enough to wed — or, in the case of the youngest, to vanish into the streets of the city, looking after her own strange counsels — and then had happily spread the burdens among them and their husbands, attending instead to the education of her grandchildren.
She found her mother in a graceful, sun-filled front room, reclining on her couch with a heap of sewing and another grandchild — this one a small, dark girl — cradled on her lap. Her mother looked up at her entrance, her eyes cool in the shadows of her hair and the creases that had begun to fold her skin, then jogged the child gently on her legs, murmuring to the cup of a small ear like a shell: “Look, darling, your aunt has come.”
The little girl giggled behind her hand, but her eyes as she looked up were wondering and solemn. She looked back at the child, steadily, and then at her mother. “I came to say my farewells,” she said. Her mother’s smile was tight and dry, a skin stretched over sticks and held to smoke.
“I thought you wouldn’t change your mind,” her mother said. She had tilted her head, standing framed in the doorway, where mid-day light must be circling her in gold.
Her mother’s tight smile had harshened, and she lifted the child off her lap, setting her on the ground and whispering to her again; the girl hesitated for only a moment before darting around the room’s corner and out of sight, still laughing out her nerves, nimble as a deer. “It’s a man’s foolishness,” her mother said, in tones of dismissal, taking up her sewing again. “To go and die in the desert, and for what? It does us no harm. It may even be some god, and we giving it offense.”
She could have smiled at the oddness of it, her mother’s saying such a thing, but she didn’t. “They may not die. You don’t know what happens.”
“They go. They don’t come back. If they don’t die they run away cowards, and might as well be dead.” She looked up from the stitching, with another cool, assessing glance. “But you will not run.”
Her mother sighed. “It is good to be brave, I suppose. But you don’t need to be. What good is a jewel with nowhere to pin it?”
She’d considered a moment. The sun boiled up into the sky, shaking heat out like a blanket over the manor house and the city that led beyond, in the navel cup of the hills. It was morning but in her head the sun had seemed to be going down all the same, the light always quitting the world, for all of those days between the decision made and the act begun. She had dwelt in a state of constant twilight. But it was she, of course, who had been leaving the world.
“I’ll come back,” she said, at last.
Her mother had sniffed. “No one comes back.”
Had she meant it? Even now she couldn’t say. It had seemed a kind thing to say, a generous thing, and she had said it because kindness between her mother and sisters and herself had been a thin stream, like those trickles between the stones in the front yard: more a mockery of the thing than the thing itself. It was not precisely that she cared so much what impression of herself she left her mother with, or on what terms, as it was that she wanted to give her something that she could not otherwise have given, for the very reason that she was leaving and this was how to leave, how to leave well for battle as well as fight well once the battle was met. Because both were equally important, and because this was another ritual, another favor spilled to the gods. Seed, water, heart’s blood. Liquid in the desert.
Drain it all away, that was the key; and go to her desire dry and hollow. Go thirsty. Drink it up.
Maybe she had even been so arrogant as to believe what she said was true. But her mother had only looked into her with the caustic, half-cocked eyes of cynicism bred unbearably with love.
“Then why say farewell?” she had asked. And her daughter had almost smiled, as much as she ever did.
“Because I wish you to, mother. However I may fare.”
They had touched hands, and then her mother had caught hers, pulling it to her breast. Pressing it to her heart with her own palm.
“Stay,” she had said, and at last the feeling in her eyes had seemed true; her worldly-wise woman’s drama mask had been set aside, and she was a mother with her child again. Not pleading, not quite, but laying as wide open as she could the last door. “You can marry. You can live long. Just stay here. You can still choose that.”
“No,” she’d said. “I can’t.”
The dreams were vivid, half hallucinations, bright as brass and bone-harsh as the rock. She lay in the sandy dust at the bottom of soft womblike caves, shadows on her skin, red light burning through her eyelids. Fire was with her. She dared not look, not move, but its presence was written onto every inch of her, scrawling heat into her blood. She could feel its closeness, low and sly as the creeping approach of death itself. But even that could not chill her.
Sometimes she only sensed it lingering there, hovering, in long timeless moments that spun like glass on a string; she floated, and felt it, and wanted to reach for it, but if ever her control broke and she did stretch out with her hand or even with the force of the towering colossus that was her wanting, her desire, it slipped away in gossamer strands into a cool darkness, bitterly disappointing in its relief. Sometimes Fire was closer, and bottled her breath into her lungs, afraid to smell the acrid sear of smoke like ozone as it made glass of sand at her side. Knowing if she opened her eyes it would be gone, and she would see only a shape burned into the ground beside her, the shape of where something like a woman had lain on its side and destroyed everything it touched. The molten curves of false hip, false shoulder, false breast, false feet. And the thought of that shape beside her coaxed one last offering of water from between her thighs: a dew and then a drip, darkening the sand beneath in her own way.
In her dreams, it sometimes even touched.
The first contact was a soft brush against her wrist: tentative, questioning, demanding, like a cat’s batting paw, and her cut-loose dreaming mind distantly anticipated pain. But there was none. Fire did not burn her now, and only as she realized this did it occur to her, in a twisted riddle-answer of dream logic, that this was because while it was made of flame, she herself was carved of jade. It could not burn her, not now. The worst it could do was leave patterns of soot, splintery black crystals on her cool stone skin, to mark behind it where it had been. She wanted to open her eyes, to see this miracle — to lift a hand and see its pale, green-tinged translucency — but still she could not. Even if Fire’s flesh would no longer burn, the sight of it might yet blind.
The touch skimmed up her arm, light and strange. She could feel all of its heat without the pain it should have caused; the resulting sensation was almost incomprehensible, like touching light, or taking the sun under her skin. Her stone flesh pricked up in goosebumps like bas-relief along its path, and she heard a sound: a shifting, boiling sound that was nonetheless like breath. Like a voice, sighing. Or perhaps chuckling, low under its breath.
Shifting of air. Heat rising, moving over her, like a storm front passing through. And she not reaching, but lying still, and letting it come.
It came. It was soft and smooth and pliable, hotter than heat itself, hotter than the core of a world. It pinned her to the ground like the weight of a tiny burning star. A swell like dunes pressed into her breasts, its heat against her nipples pricking them up hard and wanting. Her thighs spread out, helpless, and hot strange legs surged at once between them, pushing them farther. She moaned nakedly, and molten digits that cleaved one to the other squeezed between her hard jade lips. The tumbling, spilling flames that were like its hair licked at her shoulders and her neck. She had always been cool, never quite cold, could always be stirred to some degree of warmth, but now she was made of coldness and she could never remember wanting so badly, needing so much. And yet she made no move to grasp it: fearing, perhaps, even so lost, that to reach would be for it to slip away again, leaving her with burning empty hands. It was Fire and it was fire and it was smoke, and it was not for capture.
The cloth at her hips was no stone shell, and it scorched to crumbled nothing in seconds, leaving her bare and grinding up for friction. It pinned her after a moment with the press of something like a knee, drawing out a muffled cry — answering her plea but also keeping her still, preventing her from seizing more. Hand-paws made of flame slid down her body, stopping at the peaks of her breasts where hardness was softness turned hard, teasing searingly until she shook. Her arms splayed out, fingers buried in the coarse white sand, taking deep clenching fistfuls and crushing them with the force of tectonic plates. Its breathing strange and loud near her ear, the sound of air rushing to feed a burning forest.
When its hand finally settled its exquisite apocalypse of heat at the fork of her thighs, Fire leaned closer to her ear, and spoke.
They had come to the edge of the city before dawn, as the last of spring bleached into dead, bloodless summer. They were seven, and everyone agreed that the number was good, good to start, even if in the end any good number was reduced to none. The crazed stone walls of the city, the market, the warrens of dwellings cut into the neighboring cliffs, jutted up above and behind them, in colors that in the unborn rose light made them seem like planes of flesh. The wind was low and constant, sweeping dreams out of heads and leaving eyes awake and watchful, in the alleys and the low places where poor families slept in mazes of swinging cloth.
A pale ghost of the moon had still ridden the sky, not far above the spire of the temple, which the goddess had decreed should be set in that spot for just such a purpose. She had watched it as she whetted her pilum’s tip, as the others tightened straps and hoisted bags and checked on weapons’ keenness. A choir of mourner-women ululated prematurely along the cliff wall, off and on, their faces gauzed with thin black cloth and mouths trembling dens of noise. Their families — of those of them that had families — stood weeping, or holding each other, or even a few simply silent and calm. The slave’s master stood in a pose of grief, with head on hand and elbow braced, and she found this curiously touching. None of the seven paid their attendant any mind, however.
Her mother had not come, but one of her sisters had; she stood pale and colorless in the strange light, her son asleep in a sling of cloth across her chest. But this one did not weep; only watched, her hands clenched against themselves, her feet planted and skimmed with dust. She supposed all her sisters had finished weeping for her long since.
They had collected themselves at last, and stood, and faced the desert. It was cool before the sun, and she remembered later feeling ready and strong, snapping her teeth like a wild dog after bone and blood, before the desert sun had taken from her her strength and the memory of all hunger but the deepest and truest kind. She had thought of Fire out there, somewhere, awaiting her, and her limbs had stiffened with the tension of desire. As though preparing to stretch out her hand, and touch, and take.
She tried to imagine returning: Fire’s cooling head slung on her back, tanned and hardened by the sun, meeting wild crowds and triumph and joy overflowing out into the city streets. The sun bright, the sky clear, the world full of color and song, her family with arms newly outstretched, welcoming her back into love that had never been. She could not seem to do it — could not even seem to want to — but she found nothing especially strange in that. Did one go hunting for the sake of hunt’s end?
They went into the desert, they seven, to where the young soldier would be scorpion-struck, where the old soldier would fall in grim stoic terror, his sword still in his burning hand, where the slave would lose his arm and leg and die in horrible fever-slowness and the aristocrat beheaded and the white twins go to death together as in life. They went with heads high, the sun coming to meet them, those who loved them watching and made helpless by their love. They were proud, they seven, and strong, and in the end, mortal, always mortal. Not once did they look back.
Must you kill what you love? was what Fire murmured in her ear, its voice the soaring crackling of thick, burning wood, in her dreams and on the sand at the bottom of the world. Its hand cupped her, then digits took their more delicate place, finding carved swollen lips of the most secret kind. Does it bring you all such terror, to find passion in your hearts, that you must cut them out and cast them from you, and find satisfaction only in the flowing of your blood? You can deny it if you like, but I know. I look in the eyes, you understand. Every single one. I see very well.
She did not speak. She didn’t know if stone could.
I have lived very long, Fire said. Its fingers were fingers of flame, licking at the tiny moveless nub of stone cradled in folds that had once been flesh between her legs. It couldn’t burn and couldn’t melt, not when she was like this, not now; but its heat branded her, and teased at her. She had no water to give up, but she was slick enough. I know this desert and the one in which you dwell. You stand at such curious distance, you who come, before you come. You care for few things, and then only one, after you have heard my name.
You have come the furthest, Fire said in her ear. Will you end like the rest?
She had to end somehow. Her legs were splayed and shaking, knees lifted to form towers to either side; her voice broke on the force of nameless breaths. Her stone hands reached, found sand, opened straining and spread as the rest of her, trembled. Its heat flickered across her clitoris, across her lips, only ever grazing her solid surface, unable to change or move her.
In her ear, Fire whispered, You may kill what you love; but what you will kill is yourself. A part of you knows this, I think, and welcomes it with arms apart, and yet you come as though you truly thought that war was what you dreamed of. So I put it to you: Is this the ending you seek? A splash of brain and guts on the rocks, for the buzzards to pick? Must you become a shade, and go altogether out of a world you never quite lived in, and thereby settle the question your life has raised? Your love is so dry, so distant… Must you stay at the length of an arm, for fear of what an embrace might be?
Must you throw yourself to Fire, my love?
Are you so cold?
She reached her peak, gasping, climbing, towering like flame herself in the darkness of caves at dusk. Her eyes, her dreaming eyes, cracked open at the end, in spite of her will, taking in only the tiniest slice of sight — of light, gold-red-white and glorious. Fire, burning into her body and mind, only a sliver of painful beauty, driving inside her and stealing her out of both life and death. Only bleached bone in the desert, forever; only shadow, only stone.
She woke with her eyes aching, her body parched dry, before dawn in the darkness with snakes burrowed up along her sides and sand grimed into her cheeks and fingers and gritting in her teeth. The sunless air was crisp and chill, the sand like a blue hidden lake. Her breath puffed up a plume of white silk. For long moments she only lay, gritty and half-alive, and stared at the wasp’s nest curves of white rock in endless hollows over her head.
It was closer now, she thought, eyes open in the desert dark. It had come so close.
She caught Fire at last at sunset, in a place where cliff walls looped a vast expanse of sand on either side, and a rock shelf as tall as these thrust up in the rough center, like a skeleton finger rising out of sand. Bloody evening light filled the canyon, and in its glow the land, already bitter, looked like a plain of hell.
She saw it from the mouth of where the cliff walls opened, perhaps a mile away: a brilliant spot of light, under the shadow of the white rock protrusion, that throbbed with a pulse like no other light in this twilit place. It was still, when she saw it, perhaps coiled under the rock like a snake, perhaps resting. Perhaps she had even tired it with her pursuit, and that thought, if no other, brought up her blood in the triumphant roaring crescendo of battle fever. What strength she had left was almost gone, her body wasted angles, her eyes sinking into skull-hollows, but she would find what she needed here, on this last battle-ground. This would be the end of it, one way or another. Weary or no, she had no doubt that it was she that Fire awaited.
Her heartbeat made a sound in her ears like the thrumming wings of a thousand birds. Her vision went dark, and in that darkness, she could see its light very well. Her pilum was ready. She hoisted it, and began to run.
In no more than seconds, Fire seemed to come aware: it unfurled itself to standing, rippling as it built up like true fire. She ran at it, her breath a thunder, the cliff walls streaming past. And then Fire was moving — running at her, growing like light into her eyes — streaking over the land like lightning gone sideways —
Steady — weapon up —
When it was almost on her she pulled up suddenly, skidding on her heels, bracing her pilum. She could see no expression in Fire — could barely see it at all, had to squint her eyes against it — but she sensed its recognition, that nonetheless it couldn’t stop its barreling speed. It swerved instead, sharp right at the last breath, for a fast circle to strike her from behind. Good, she thought, and yes; and the coldness of her mind was the wracking chill of her warrior’s fever.
She spun and lunged like a striking snake the second it was barely close enough, and she was not as fast as Fire, no mortal was, but she was fast enough for this. Fire’s own momentum carried it into the path of her weapon. She struck it in the side, a glancing hit but fair and true. It surged into and around her blade in licking flames, and then stumbled, falling to a crouch, when she withdrew it. When she brought the pilum’s point back to her gaze she found its metal fastenings and shaft melted and warped, letting the tip list away slightly, but it would serve, and she allowed herself a moment’s savage joy for her foresight in tipping it with onyx. No good against armor, prone to shatter; but otherwise, sharp enough to cut the air itself in two, and most of all, even fire could not best stone.
Fire was up from where it had fallen even before she could recover, however. It streaked away again, toward the rock shelf, and she took off running at once even knowing she could never catch it if it did decide to flee. But she did not think it would. They both wanted this done. She could see a trail of black dribbles of some stuff it had left in the sand, making smoke rise from the holes they ate. Not thinking, only skirting around to avoid touching them on her bare feet.
It did not flee. At the rock outcropping it swerved again, circling, then leaping, climbing up onto the rock itself without seeming to climb at all, only in one place and then the next with no pause between. She made no attempt to climb after it, just stood her ground with face upturned and weapon raised. Sure enough, when it had attained a height, it flickered, then jumped down at her. Changed its shape in mid-fall, spinning and changing and readying all its limbs to strike. She thrust up her pilum, aiming straight into its middle — and it caught itself on the metal shaft with both feet and hands, now like a monkey on a stick. The weight pushed her arms to a sagging half-mast, and then it had thrust off again, tumbling and airborne. The pilum’s shaft had now crumpled on itself near the top like cloth instead of iron, shortening it by inches. Two rivulets of molten metal rolled down it toward her hands, and she hissed at the sight of them, turning the weapon down so they streamed away — and now Fire was falling to her again, its hands stretched out like murder, and all she could do was fling herself aside and out of its path.
It landed where she had been, striking up sand in a billowing cloud with a sound for the contact that was again like striking lightning: crackling boom, sizzle and spit. It leapt for her again, in a leopard’s stretching pounce. There was no way she could move fast enough, but she found she could anticipate it now, knowing her own vitals and how it preferred to strike: knowing it like she knew herself, she thought, and it worked a thrill of a shudder through her shoulders and her back. She brought up her spear, and as Fire came, put its point straight through the center of Fire’s reaching hand.
It fell past her, only grazing her, singeing her here and there but leaving her without any real burns. Its other hand tried to reach for a second, and then fell away, and it jerked its impaled one away after. The pilum’s shaft jarred in her hands with the force of its retreat. It pulled the wounded hand to its chest, holding it there, hunkered, and though it had no eyes that she could see she could have sworn that it was staring at her in some emotion she could not name.
Then it was gone. A trail of whatever it had in place of blood led around behind the other side of the rock outcropping, out of sight.
She ran after, panting her breath, and her head sang emptily like a hornets’ nest abuzz. The trail led to something she had not been able to see from the far side: a cave entrance, leading into the outcropping itself. She did not so much as hesitate, plunging into the cool darkness, with a chill that almost — she could scarcely credit it — spoke to her what she had forgotten, barely ever known, of moisture. Almost… damp.
Outside the sun was nearly down. She left behind the first pricking lights of stars at the indigo edge of the sky, and plunged down the sharp slope the cave path took at once inside. The soles of her feet made rustling slaps on the stone floor.
Fire was at the bottom, where the tunnel opened out again, the only light in a vast stone cavern lined with stalactites and uneven planes. And there was moisture, she could see by the red glow it cast — a stunning miracle, a subterranean lake, only a few yards across but an ocean in her starving eyes. Fire was standing, at the cavern’s center, still, only waiting. Its light reflected off the lake’s uneasy surface, stirred by their arrival and the tiny trickles of underground water that fed it, painting the cave’s roof and floor and walls with ripples of red. They both seemed to swim in redness, twins of shocking difference nevertheless formed in the same womb.
She looked at Fire, no longer fearing for her eyes; at this point, she thought, blindness was the least of her cares. It burned into them, beautiful and unsteady, a woman made of the sun. It had bled its strange blood on the rocks.
She flew at it, crying like a bird. It fell to a defensive crouch, but did not use its unearthly speed to back away or circle around; perhaps it was weary, drained of its life, or perhaps it even feared going too near the water. She supposed it was possible. She felt small, strengthless, drained of all but the dregs of her desire and her hope here at the last; with the desert left behind outside, only the two of them left alone, she felt very loud, and very hollow.
She raised her pilum, drove it down. Fire deflected it, but at the cost of another shallow scratch along its shoulder and breastbone: she could actually see this one open, a momentary line of bright light that then went blacker than even its coolest places. And it lost its poise again, tumbling to its side. She had tired it more than she had thought, hurt it worse than she had thought. It had slain all the rest but she had offered herself as its true opponent, and it had accepted her, and she had proven herself worthy. It had fallen before her. She had all but won.
But how much had the other six tired it, even before her? How much had the years tired it before any of them? How old was it, and how deep wounded?
She stood over it, her breathing deep and harsh, struggling not to feel pity.
Fire did not get up. It seemed to know its own defeat. She thought, looking down on it, her bare and sun-scorched breast heaving with her pilum raised to her shoulder, that she could kill it now, if she wanted. Take its head as she had dreamed. Leave with it. Turn back. Go home.
Yes. Now she could.
They stayed like that for time that seemed like hours, she above, it sprawled below. Gazing at each other, each in their own ways. Hearing the strangeness of each other’s own breath.
The pilum made a clanging clattering when it fell to the floor. Her hand was as steady as it had ever been, as she reached it down toward where Fire lay. It was an offering, and an invitation, but it was more than only that. In the light of Fire’s skin its latticework of burn-scars could just barely be seen.
Fire turned its inscrutable, molten head up to her hand. And then it reached up, back to meet her, with its hand.
It reached. And touched. And she, at last, grasped.
She lifted it to its feet, letting it stand before her once more, her enemy and her equal. She still held its hand as they stood, facing each other down. Clasping it. Holding its lovely core cradled in her palm.
Closed her eyes in the rush of heat as it moved past her, like a storm front blowing in.
When it was gone, she went with no hurry to the lake, and plunged her hand into it. Blood and char spilled out into the water in soft billows like ink. She thought of a dancing girl with scarves in the marketplace, stripping away layers, down to nothingness. A slight, distant smile played across her lips.
It wasn’t much good this time, though; what she took out of the water was a ruined, crumpled stump in a crackling black carapace, the flaking charcoal lumps that had been its fingers curled into a dead seizure’s lock against its palm. She tried to flex it, heedless of the screaming red tower of pain, and could not: all the feeling and connections in the flesh must have been destroyed by the heat, perhaps even down to the very bone. That hand would never open again.
No matter. She had another.
She cleaned shreds of the fabric from around her waist as best she could in the water, and wrapped them, still soaked, around her hand. When she was done, she left her pilum where it lay, and went out again, into the clear, cooling desert night with its roof of stars.
And, when she had picked up Fire’s trail, followed.