Was the sky stained this color red from the fires they had been forced to set or was it the just the sun setting? From inside her helm she couldn’t tell, the burning in her eyes from the noxious loads of smoking poison the Upsheer had dropped on the advancing lines of Boneblacked wasn’t helping.
Hilo Tamarand, squinted through the eye holes of the faceplate styled in the visage of a snarling, golden fox. It took a moment before it occurred to her that there was no call to wear it at the moment. She had lived, slept fitfully, fought for a five days in full armor, so many hours that she had forgotten this wasn’t her real skin.
She wrenched at the base of the helm until it finally gave way and she hurled it to the ground with what remained of her anger and strength. It hit the mud with a noise that gave only barest satisfaction before melting, congealing and rising in a thin ribbon of gold to wrap around her neck again as an ornate choker. The cuirass bled a little more easily back into the golden bands that wrapped around her upper arms. Hilo shook her hands absently and the gauntlets and arm guards slunk back to form the ten rings on her fingers and the thick heavy bracelets. The greaves confounded her a moment. She stamped her foot to reinforce her bitter thought. ‘Come on, damn it. Bloody work is done for now.’
It was always harder to shake off the full armor, golden but impossibly stronger than gold (Hilo hadn’t yet found out what this bellisfah damned shit was.) after so long in it but eventually the lower half obeyed her will and settled back into the bangles that ringed her ankles. Left finally in nothing but her thin, black undersuit, Hilo was annoyed but unsurprised to find the foul breeze of the battle field was scorching. She dropped to a exhausted crouch and looked out across the uneven ground.
She could see the hulking pieces of the ancient engine the Deep Wright has cloaked itself in collapsed some yards away. The flesh of the Wright oozed and dripped over the ancient steel, bleeding back into the rift it had crawled from to congeal back in the stinking well at the center of the earth. Somewhere near it would be Ahmia’s cold corpse, hands covered in the inky black tar from where she pulled it’s heart out, mouth twisted and likewise covered from eating it. Ahmia had managed to crawl from the monsters body only a little way before catching sight of Hilo and begging her to do what needed to be done. One kiss Hilo accepted but did not return before sliding the dagger, made by and named for Hilo’s lover, between Ahmia’s shuddering ribs. Her body a coffin for foulness.
Five years to come to this conclusion. Five years since she left Gosslet Ahn, mouth warm from Ellette’s kisses and heavy with promises that, ‘Big Girl, wait. Just wait until after this expedition. I’m going to come home with so many rare jewels to hang on your body you won’t be able to walk. You won’t be able to do anything except lay in the rich house I buy us -away from this piss soaked slum- on silk sheets from the Branchlands while I fuck you.’
Four years since she dug her way up to the surface again, starved, terrified and bound in these golden shackles that she was foolish enough to think were merely jewelry with no idea where on the map she was. A banner thrust into into her hands she’d never set eyes on before, declared one of a handful of prophesied hero’s for a war she never even knew was brewing.
Where were those heros now? The banner she could see, ragged but standing still on the calved rift lip. That image of two closed eyes had put a fire in Ahmia’s open ones but when Hilo looked at it she could feel nothing but abandoned. When Hilo turned from Ahmia’s body to move, just away, just somewhere away from where it had ended, she had passed the body of Boursen Ran. The burly Eidlemark lay crumpled, one powerful leg bent at a sick angle under his body. One of his sleek, sharp antlers broken off in the stomach of a twisted Couslet that had succumbed to Boneblack. As she passed, in her bewildered tiredness, Hilo congratulated him on his excellent kill. Spoke to him like a still living comrade she had drunk with in the Kef sanctuary.
“Good on you, goat man.” Hilo said, then tripped over the broken body of one of the Upsheer. She recognized the markings on the crumpled wing. One of the brave, who had held the brutal poison that could waste the flesh of Boneblacked to the core in their long beaks. Hilo had watched the legion of crane men dive from the sky into the ravaging hordes and to their deaths. That first devastating strike at the cost of so many of their people.
Some deaths she knew and others were a mystery she wasn’t ready to solve yet. Where was old Vespertine, and her great sword? Where were the Coustlet twins, hulking Veeta and Zouk? She had seen them back to back, swinging their war clubs before an arrow whizzing by her shoulder set her about more important business.
Where was Yamhill?
Hilo rocked precariously on her heels. She ran a hand through her dark, damp hair and listened to the cawing screams of the remaining Upsheer as they found the bodies of their loved ones. So many. It would take a long time for the smaller birds to pick apart the departeds flesh on the burial platforms, Hilo thought absently.
Because she didn’t want to look at death anymore she looked at her scarred, red brown hands and the gold rings, thought of Ellettes own calloused from working the forge braiding her hair into a que. The thick fingers swept over the stubbled sides of Hilo’s skull as Hilo drained the last of her weak ale and rose to tell the tavern that she would be joining the expedition into Mornay’s Rift.
When the braid came loose Hilo had mourned.
It was only the soothing chitter from over her shoulder that unmoored her from her absent thoughts. A considerate habit Yamhill and Hilo had developed over their years together to keep from startling the other. Thank Mother Sky, Yamhill did live.
“I was looking for you, Little Egg.” Yamhill said in the guttural chirps and whistles of the Upsheer.
She replied in the approximation of Sky Tongue her own mouth could form. The Upsheer could understand Trade Tongue but their beaks would never be able to shape it. Hilo considered it a courtesy to use his own speech as often as possible.
“I only needed to breath, Father Tall Neck.”
Yamhill slid his smooth beak across her neck, winding his own long feathered one around her. A supportive embrace as he understood her people gave each other when life became too much.
“No good breaths to be had out here.” He said. Hilo’s shoulders slumped in agreement. Yamhill unwound himself from her neck and she looked over her shoulder at him, frowning at the bandage on his wing. The crane man’s snowy feathers were stained with soot, the sticky tar of Boneblack blood, the more mundane red of their fellows. The emerald plumes of his tail were dulled with thrown dust.
Yamhill saw the wrinkle around her mouth and soothed.
“Very small scratch, Little Egg. I will fly again in a half moon.”
Hilo rose wearily to her feet. She twisted one of the golden cuffs absently, feeling the cold burn against her skin.
“Vespertine? The twins? Alive?” She asked dully.
Yamhill flicked his good wing outward and bobbed his head. “Old woman, we will see. A hole in her side that is very deep. The woman twin is dead. The man twin has a gone eye. One of my Wings found him clutching the woman twin and could not be moved. Until he wept to sleeping. A small mercy that sleep. He will recover.”
Hilo nodded. She twisted the cuff again. In the first weeks of taking the golden fox armor wearing it had been agony. She could barely bring herself to bathe, but now the feeling grounded her. She looked at the hulk of the Deep Wright, unseeing.
Yamill’s low squawk brought her back.
“We must continue, Little Egg. There are more of The Childrens machines buried d-”
“We go to Gosslet Ahn first.” Hilo said with finality and twisted the bracelet harder against the bones of her wrist. She felt the burn and thought of Ellettes mouth again.
“Little Egg,” Yamhill started.
Hilo had come a long way in her studies of Upsheer language but the dam in her heart broke at his quiet reproach and so the words she spat were in Trade.
“No! I’ve spent years sunk knee deep in blood for this! I am OWED, Yamhill!”
He opened his beak but Hilo wasn’t finished.
“I’ve burnt and buried more friends than ever in my life. I’ve been away from my woman for so long I’m praying she remembers my face let alone forgives it. I put my blade into Ahmia’s heart because none of the rest of you were around to do it! Do you know what that was like? I had to hold her while she died! I did that!”
Yamhill ducked his head under her words and stayed silent when she stepped forward, accusatory finger leveled at his shining black eye.
“So this organization will fucking wait for me while I go see what’s left of my life. I’ll keep my promises but I will have this one thing first.” Hilo shook. “If anyone understands this I would expect it to be you.”
Yamhill raised his graceful head at that, because he did. He understood coming home to his nest, finding the eggs shattered against the carefully woven branches. Small unfeathered bodies laying in a pool of wet and his mates neck broken. He had laid his head next to hers and keened as one of his older hatchlings twitched and took it’s last breath. The sticky tar handprints of Some Kef or Child corrupted by Boneblack all over the entryway his nestmate liked to perch at while waiting his return during laying moons.
Hilo turned her back on him in despair to leave. She paused at the noise he made, the closest he could come to her name.
“We go. To your old nest. For a time I follow you.” He said. “But Little Egg, we cannot forget what is to be done.”
Hilo shrugged, hitched up the crossed belts that held her daggers, Lady’s Kiss and Veldmark against the small of her back.
“As if it was possible to forget.” She said.