Arc Three: Into the Ring
The day, Jen felt, was far too bright and sunny. The last vestiges of autumn held on, golden sunbeams cascading to the ground amid ragged buildings, homes and markets and halls left to stand empty. Their windows were smashed open like empty eye sockets, allowing Jen glimpses of what lay within - here a few broken chairs, there a few carvings and statues not practical enough to take along.
"I wonder why I put up with you," commented Dhaymin as he walked alongside Jen, tracing the tip of his cane over the ground.
"I wonder why I put up with you," replied Jen. "It's not as if you never had stupid ideas in the past."
"Yes, but mine worked."
"You don't know mine won't! I haven't done it yet!"
"We haven't found it yet. And I can't find one hidden trap door around here. It's disgraceful!"
"Shut up and let me work it out!" Jen paused. They'd reached a central square, the open space still littered with old carts. Jen brushed a finger against the nearest one, letting a slab of faded, dusty paint peel away to reveal the dry wood underneath. He didn't need to ask what happened. People like towns with good strong walls, a resident beast-hunter, or, preferably, both. Those that couldn't deliver ended up like this, people leaving one by one or all at once, until nothing remained but shells.
It shouldn't be such a lovely day.
But Jen wasn't here to find out why the town was deserted, especially not when he knew it wasn't.
Since leaving Raketi, he and Dhaymin had picked up rumours of people capturing monsters to pit against each other. That in itself wasn't unusual. He'd tagged along on occasion with his father to clear out a few such rings. Not to rescue the people involved, so much as to track them down before their inevitable fates caught up with others. Grapple with monsters long enough, and there was bound to be blood spilled in the wrong place, especially when you didn't know what you were doing and wanted to look tough alongside your prized pet beast. This time, he had a slightly different reason - a good amount of those rumours had spoken about captive wolves.
Dhaymin hadn't taken it seriously. "Someone probably keeps dogs," he'd said. Jen had to admit it was the most likely answer, but his scar still itched under that heavy wrap, and he recalled the words his father had told him, long ago. You find them out with sea water, and you staunch the tarnish with hot stones and the blood of your emblem. He remembered shivering as salt water dripped down his back, and he was declared to be one of the tarnished. He remembered the hot stones, and the scar always itched when that happened. It was supposed to seal the wound and draw away the bad blood, but he knew of nobody who'd been saved that way. Not in the end. All that was left was to replace the blood, balance the beast's with the symbol of your family. And if you were a Dhalsiv, and your family's emblem was a wolf� Well, they'd finished with sea water, and they'd used hot stones...
Besides, Dhaymin had been in a low mood ever since leaving Raketi and Vesin. Jen had learnt a lot about love in the past few days, in particular the frustrating fact that it always happened to everyone else. Perhaps a bit of good old fashioned monster hunting was what he needed. After all... monster hunting and being tough had to be good for you, right? It must be. And it was Jen's chance to not be dragged around all day for once by his brother. "What do you think?" he went on. "Looks like an old market."
"Any signs? Anything like 'Meet Here For Secret Monster Fighting Ring'?"
"Shut up. Again."
"You can't just expect someone to show up because you did," said Dhaymin. "Anyway, that's the argument about what we're going to do sorted out. What's next?"
"Well," Jen said, "it's not going to be the part where you drag me off to your next stupid plan, because I have a better-"
There was a crunch of dried weeds crushed underfoot. Jen whirled around, only to feel a sharp blow to his chest, knocking his breath away. He spun and fell to the ground, letting out a quiet "oof..." as he spat out dust. The weight of a boot pressed against his spine, and, as he craned his neck, he could see Dhaymin, pinned the same way.
"Never mind," Dhaymin said. "I think I just worked it out."
Jen leaned further over the bar, winced, and rubbed his back. Picking up the glass before him, he studied the contents, swirling them around the bottom. He gave them an experimental sniff, and vowed that when he made it home again, he'd never let anyone claim the Toxiliviti knew nothing about drink.
Dhaymin, meanwhile, was on his second glass.
Jen pushed himself into a more upright position and winced again, before collecting himself. This wasn't time to sit around moaning in pain, even if someone had knocked him over and pushed their foot into his back. He'd come here for a reason.
Unfortunately, Dhaymin had already heard. "Drink up," he said, pushing the rest of his drink over. "It'll feel better."
"You're not my mother!"
"I may as well have been."
"I... you... fine, I'll drink it!" Jen lifted the glass and gave its contents one last sniff before gulping it all down in one go. "Gnnkk..." He gasped for air as the heavy taste spread down his throat, as though his insides were on fire, and realised several eyes were now on him. "That's good," he said. "Different." That seemed to be enough to satisfy most of the audience, even if they turned away muttering a few words about Rhusavi he couldn't make out and wasn't sure he wanted to.
It couldn't be worse than anything else down here in this lantern-lit, smoky hole, full of scavenged, splintery furniture. He'd managed to bluff his way here after explaining to his captors he and Dhaymin had come for the show, but whether this was an improvement remained to be seen, He only wished the singing would stop - loud, rowdy songs, their lyrics blurred in translation, but their intent obvious to anyone. He rubbed his forehead, and wondered when the drink would kick in and make it all bearable.
"Did anyone tell you what to do?" said Dhaymin.
"Not a word." Sit and wait, that was all he knew. He turned to the exit. "Maybe I should-" As he spoke, a familiar face - more familiar than anyone else, at least - appeared in the doorway, watching him. "Crap." He nudged Dhaymin. "Now she shows up. What was her name again?"
"Amilin? Am... how should I know? Am-something. I'd just been knocked to the ground, remember?"
"Jen?" The alleged Am-something was beside him, dusting off the surface of the bar before sitting down. "Waiting for...." She paused, and looked back at the singers. "You! Quiet! I'm trying to talk with the goldmen!" There was a series of grumbles, but the noise died down all the same. "There. Much better. You really shouldn't mind them, you'll get used to it." She leaned over, so her shoulder brushed against Jen's. "Long way to come for a show, isn't it?"
"Oh, you know people," Jen said. "Always saying the world's ending."
"How long have they been saying that for?" Dhaymin put in, laughing.
"You know what they say," she said, "if the world ends, make noise. Never know who might hear. You don't have monster rings in Rhusav? Must be even more glum than I thought."
"My father took me to a few," Jen said, picking up the second glass in the sudden realisation he could use a little more drink in him. So far, no lies...
"Family tradition, then?"
"Something like that." Jen braced himself, and took another gulp. "It's been a while, since."
"Rhusav's a wasteland, anyway," added Dhaymin. Jen wondered how much of that was acting, and decided not to dwell on it. The girl leaning on his shoulder and looking into his eyes was a far more pressing concern, but Dhaymin went on regardless. "There's not so much to do with yourself."
"Besides fight," their host agreed. "Or become a beast-hunter."
Jen gripped the glass so hard he felt it might break, a sudden knot clutching his stomach. "Exactly!" he said, not sure if his tongue or his mind were moving faster. "They're all madmen." Mad. Just like he was to come here. She suspected, and the payback was only a matter of time. Oh yes, he'd been to monster rings with his father. Just like the time they'd suspected him, and thrown him into the ring, while someone had held Jen and Dhaymin by the side so they had no choice but to watch.
"And then there was the time someone told me I should be a beast-hunter." She took his hand in his, and stood up. "But why would you want to keep playing that old losing game? We're all going to die. Does it matter how many people barge in and save you when the monsters only come back?" She gave him a quick tug. "Come on. We don't have all night."
Her name was Amtika, and she let the creature rub against her hand like a favourite cat, its long body coiling and stretching, pressed against the bars. "Lovely, isn't it?" she said.
"Taxrak again?" Jen crouched beside the cage. "Must be a third species. I take an interest in these things." Certainly the thing had the hallmarks of a taxrak, lean bodied and sleek, as though a lizard had mated with a dog, and bearing the distinctive long tendril-ears - one of which, he noticed, Amtika had a firm grip on. But this was not one of the stilt-legged fishers he'd seen wading the shallows of the Rhusavi lakes, nor was it the finned, luminescent creature Koiski had commanded. Rather, it moved in coils and twists, its long flexible body serpentine in form. If a snake had legs, Jen thought, it would move like that.
And it was watching them, eyes focused on his with animal interest. He gave Dhaymin a nudge. "Definitely a taxrax. So." He turned back to Amtika. "What do you want me to do? Fight it?"
"You're eager to be in the ring." She stood back up, letting go of the tendril. The creature yawned, gaping wide, but did not move. "Would you like to?"
Jen said nothing, and stepped forward. The creature shifted, standing and turning like a dog ready to rest, and settled facing him, its body elegantly folded. "I'd like to know how well those bars hold." He looked back over his shoulder - three, perhaps four steps to the door, if need be, and edged closer to Dhaymin so that their shoulders brushed against each other, hoping he knew the same, and suddenly feeling very isolated indeed. He'd barely spoken a word since the bar.
"They won't. They never did. Don't worry." Amtika raised a hand, and the creature laid its head down, though it never took its eyes from Jen. "It won't hurt you here. And if I lost my mind here and now, I've plenty of friends who'd be willing to put a knife to my throat. We learnt to make those agreements after the first time."
"Well," said Jen. "I can't say I'm entirely shocked..."
"You," said Dhaymin, "have really done it this time." He stepped forward, backing Jen up against the wall. It wasn't difficult - Jen supposed Amtika's taxrak might have been able to curl up on the floor, but anything else would have a hard time. He envisioned a cramped night on the floor - or not, depending on the battle ahead. Perhaps the only improvement on the taxrak's cage was that it didn't smell of dung.
"I can't back off now," he said. "You forgot why I'm here?"
"It's wolf's blood! It's not going to last forever! Worth risking your arse for?" He leaned forward, and, in the dim lamplight, his face twisted into an angry, eyeless glare. "She knows. She's trying to get you to slip up."
"Then keep your voice down!" hissed Jen.
"So," Dhaymin said, backing off, his voice lapsing into a more conversational tone, "planned what you're going to do when she finds out what you are?"
"Father managed well enough."
"Bring him up again, of course," Dhaymin sat down on a pile of blankets in the corner, the only attempt their hosts had made at a bed, and hunched himself over, one arm wrapped around his knees. "Do you have to do that? Every single time? You remember they found him out and flung him in there to die?"
"He won. I wouldn't be talking to you if he hadn't."
"Still don't make any of this right."
Jen sighed and sat down next to him. "I have to do this. Just trust me. It's nothing I've not done before." Gazing up at the lantern, its light dim behind grimy glass, he went on. "So, what's got you now?" Dhaymin's silence couldn't just be down to anger - and he'd have hoped he'd have put love out of his mind. Maybe he was being bitter, but Vesin should be the last of his worries right now.
Dhaymin didn't move. "You remember what she said in the bar? About the losing game? Doesn't matter how many people you save. The monsters are still there." He paused. "But... we're heroes. I'm a hero. It's fine."
"Forget saving people, didn't you hear what else she said?"
"What was that?"
"The part about knives."
She tapped him on the shoulder. He knew it was Amtika before he turned around.
"I'm never going to get out of this, am I?"
"You're here for a reason," she said. "What else would it be?"
The world pounded to the roar of voices, rising and falling with each successive chant of his name. Jen didn't know if they were cheering for his victory or his blood, or if they simply didn't care as long as they got a show. He stepped into the ring with a casual stride, no brash posing, no flourish of the knife, simply standing and waiting. He remembered how his father had looked when they'd thrown him into the ring. He'd stood much like this, but there'd been a glint in his eyes, and, when he'd looked over at his sons, it said everyone here is going to die for taking you.
But that was all after he'd been found out, and Jen was sure if he tried the same now, he'd only look ridiculous.
He watched and waited. The air smelled of sweat. The voices rang together like the heartbeat of the earth itself, only to fade away as the audience waited for any sign of movement. The chant died down to mumbles and whispers, and all attention turned from Jen, onto the aisle leading into the ring. As one the audience watched, and Jen caught the first glance of his opponent.
It was a taxrak, of the same serpentine form as Amtika's, but not hers. Hers had been calm and graceful. This one was held and dragged by two men, one to haul its body so that its feet only scrabbled at the ground, another holding its head firm and its jaws shut. The tail lashed out, neatly whipping a couple of spectators who'd gotten too close. Jen watched as they rubbed their faces, stunned, but stayed where they were. Lesson learnt - the tail was reasonably safe. The chants rose up again, his name repeated, as the handlers let go with a forceful shove, slamming the doors behind the thing before it had a chance to turn around.
It sprang for its nearest target without hesitation. Jen dodged and grappled with it as it leapt past, his arms wrapped around its slender body. Those handlers hadn't been for show - this was wild caught! No menacing poses, no roars, only a predatory leap. He had its still now, but he quickly realised it wasn't enough - he was still holding the knife, and the creature's long neck remained free, enough for it to lean over and glare down at him. It opened its mouth, teeth bright in the torchlight, but it did not strike. It was as if it was waiting for him to make another move.
Weak jaws, Jen thought. Doesn't kill with a bite.
Then what did it kill with?
Something soft brushed against his ankle. He moved to pull away, but before he could it tightened around him, jerking and pulling him to the ground. He collapsed into a cloud of sand, his face slamming into the floor to a chorus of roars from the crowd. He tried to pull his leg away, but the thing still had him tight - the tip of its tail wrapped tight around his ankle, muscles rippling under the thin coat as it squeezed harder. A clawed foot pressed onto his back, and yet again the creature stared down at him, jaws slightly parted, hot rotten-meat breath in his face.
That was when he saw what Amtika had done.
Wild caught, hungry - it was looking for food and an escape, nothing more. No human mind merged with its animal instincts - and it had no idea what it was supposed to do. It was trying to subdue him like prey, but he was too big, too unfamiliar. Amtika had given him an easy enemy. Must be the entrance exam. Except there was that prickling in his foot as the blood drained away, his toes numb and immobile inside his boot, the tail gripping harder with every second until surely it could press no further, and he pictured that same tail wrapped around his chest and throat...
His knife had flown out of his hand when he'd fallen, but not far enough - he reached out and felt the welcome smoothness of the handle under his fingers, grasping it tight and rolling over just enough to reach out and snatch the thing's head in the crook of his free arm, pressing it to the floor. Claws scrabbled and flailed, sending sand and dust everywhere, catching his sides and stomach, but not strong enough to tear his clothes. The tail gripped even harder, so strong that he felt his bones would crack, but he gritted his teeth and held fast. "Been caught by worse..." he whispered to himself, but it was lost in the wall of sound from the audience.
It really was easy, to reach up and slice its throat open, hot wetness spilling out onto his hand with every beat of the creature's heart. He felt the tail release him, felt the rush of sensation returning to his foot. He tried to stand, but stumbled, ending up in a crouch as the thing lay before him, its life draining onto the sand, turning it dark. I'm sorry, he found himself thinking. It wasn't even your blood I wanted. He shook his head, clearing his ragged, sandy hair from his eyes. Father wouldn't have thought like that. And now he was covered in the stuff. It didn't matter. It hadn't drawn any of his.
The yells and roars from the crowd solidified as he got to his feet, another regular chant, and by now their intent was unmistakable. They called his name, over and over, each repetition thudding throughout the arena, the heartbeat of the earth returned, more powerful than ever before. He managed to stand as the blood flowed back into his foot, the joints painful, but bearable.
What did Father do after he'd won? Ah yes. Kill everyone.
Thank Rakaros he didn't have to do that yet.
Dhaymin heard a cheer rise up, muffled but distinct behind the wall. He leaned against it, head down, and tried to shut out the noise. Nearby he could hear Amtika pacing slowly up and down, and the swish of her taxrak's tail on the dirt floor. The exit, he reminded himself, was only a couple of paces to his left. Strictly speaking, at no point since she'd found them had Amtika told them they couldn't leave.
He wondered how fast a taxrak could move.
"I wouldn't worry too much about him," she said. "I only brought him a feral, he'll manage unless he's stupid. Are you sure you wouldn't mind having a go yourself?"
"Dance for your fun?" Dhaymin let out a quiet laugh. "You'd like that."
"I bet you would." He was smiling, but inside his head he could hear the words he'd have used if he were feeling braver. You'd like to watch me fend off something I can't see, wouldn't you? Probably have a good laugh while I'm at it.
Just a couple of paces to the left. Then go up the stairs. And then his sense of direction tailed off. Everywhere he turned, every time he reached out, there was nothing but walls of earth and stone. The very air smelled of dirt, warm, cloying, and thick, like a heavy blanket wrapped around his body. Was this what Jen wanted? Running off to chase after his cure and leaving him cornered underground? He had a nice little conversation about death and a knife at his throat and then walked off into the arena without a word.
Dhaymin would never have done that to Jen. Not even that time when - no, not at all. That didn't count. Never.
"This could be the best place you ever came to."
"The fuck are you talking about?"
Instantly he felt paws on his shoulders, pushing him back against the wall, hot, damp breath against his neck. A thick snake-tail coiled around his leg, not so tight that he couldn't pull free, but tight enough to let him know it could get worse if he tried. A long, wet tongue flicked across his cheek, in and out, over and over. The taxrak's slender body pressed against his, pinning him to the wall, and in the background he could hear Amtika - "You... you're not?" The pressure subsided, the creature backing down. Dhaymin rubbed at his face, wiping away trails of spit. "I'm sorry," Amtika said. "You surprised me."
"I surprised you?" Dhaymin kept a firm grip on his cane as though it were the last real thing in the world. Exit's a couple of paces to your left. Go up the stairs, then... fuck.
"So many of you are, aren't you? There, don't be afraid, I've called it off. It's with me now, you're quite safe." There was an appreciative growl from her feet, as though the creature wanted to confirm her words. "I could feel it when you came here, but I assumed it was you. Silly of me, isn't it?"
"Don't know what you're talking about."
"The other one. Your brother. It's him, isn't it? Oh, this is so stupid of me!" A cheer rose up from the distant crowd as Amtika paused, and Dhaymin tried not to think of who it was for. "I thought I was throwing him in for a bit of fun, too! I wonder who's winning? But never mind that, where's his beast? And don't tell me you don't know about that, unless he's lying to you."
Dhaymin's hand trembled, his grip loosening. "No. He's not. And I don't know where it is. You'll have to ask him." It never occurred to him to ask why she'd suspected him first. He kept his mind on the positives - she suspected tarnishing, not that they were beast-hunters. And maybe she was right. Here, at least, Jen could admit to who he was and not be killed on the spot, which was a step up from... well, everywhere else. As to why she thought he was the tarnished one, he knew that already. To Amtika, a monster at your command was strength and power.
She couldn't imagine any other way he'd managed to stay alive.
The forest stretches out below, the last glints of the setting sun catching the jagged treetops. Claws dig into loose scree as the creature looks down, picking a path downward. Little pebbles fall, tumbling into the air, while the creature descends. In the forest there is shelter, life, food, prey.
Far below lies a town so long deserted nobody recalls its name, taken over by those who have reason to hide. Amongst them, curled up in a too small, too thin, too ragged blanket, pressed up against Dhaymin for warmth in the cold pit, Jen turns over in his sleep.
"Tea?" Amtika stepped into the open, a broad tray in her hands, and set it down on the crumbling old bench. She poured a cup, steam curling upwards into the frigid air. "Perfectly safe," she went on, taking a long drink from it when she was done. Jen nodded, and she poured another, pressing it into his hands. He wrapped his fingers tight against the rough, warm surface, breathing in the steam. It smelled of pine, just like the tea in Vesin's schoolroom, a lifetime ago. Amtika stood by his side. "Is your ankle better?"
He nodded again. Practically the first thing she'd done after congratulate him on his victory was call for someone to check him over. The ankle the wild taxrak had crushed turned out to be bruised, forming a thick ring of ugly purple, but not damaged beyond that, though Jen kept his weight shifted to the other leg for now. There was no sense in feigning anything. Amtika knew everything.
Well, she thought she knew everything. She didn't know the real reason Sarn took his sons to monster fights, but she knew about what Dhaymin had once delicately termed his "little blood problem".
He took a long drink from the mug, the warmth spreading through his body, and leaned back. Though he wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, a dull ache still lingered in his head, and the bitter tea was a relief. She must have read his mind again, because she kept talking. "You must be from up there. You're standing."
There it was again, the drinks comparison. He could have gone the rest of his life never hearing that again. "I manage," he said. "Where is-"
"Your brother? Inside, and I think he has the right idea." She pulled her thick, heavy coat around her. "Listen. If anyone tried to harm him, or you, they'd find a tail around their throats. You didn't hurt me and I won't hurt you. I'm tarnished, I'm spending my life in a smashed up town even I don't know the name of, but I'm not a liar. Not when I know what I'm dealing with."
Jen let it all sink in as he downed the rest of the tea. He gazed out over the remains of Amtika's nameless town, smashed and torn up buildings all coated with a thin layer of frost, like white mold on a corpse. The wild wood lay beyond, open and unguarded. "What else can you do for me?"
"Shelter?" Amtika finished her own cup and leaned against the wall, staring at the sky. "From the cold, from the woods, from beast hunters who think they're doing everyone a favour by killing you. Oh, don't look at me like that." She looked up at him from the corner of her eye, a faint smile on her lips. "I suppose you think of yourself as sweet and kind and innocent, but the minute a beast-hunter finds out what you are, you're their enemy. I know. You think if you find somewhere far from the world they'll leave you alone, but they don't. Obsessed with keeping people thinking only they - oh. There I go again. Forgive me, it's a little pet point of mine."
Jen stared straight ahead, his face locked into stillness, hands gripping the empty cup as the last wisps of steam danced off into the frozen world beyond. "How did you-"
"Jen! You never ask that!" But there was a hint of a laugh in her voice, and despite himself he found himself smiling. It was the first time that day. Dhaymin was getting worse, brushing him off that morning before he'd even had a chance to mention that vivid dream, staring down over a frozen pine forest, claws digging in the dirt. He hadn't even bothered to berate him over the wolf's blood, but Jen could hear it in his head nevertheless. He'd given up on him. But Jen could picture it now, himself clasping a vial of the precious substance just as he held the teacup now, its warmth fading in his hands, that freshly slaughtered animal scent in his nostrils. It would hurt, carving open the burned flesh and rubbing it into the open wounds, but after it was over, there would be no more dreams of pine woods in the dark...
His tongue trailed over his bottom lip, tingling with cold in the wintery air. "I like it. What do you want from me?"
She walked away, pacing back and forth in front of him, her eyes taking everything in. Jen froze in place, picturing himself as a wild monster she wanted to assess for the ring. Whatever you throw at me, I can take it, he thought. Throw it all. Someday she'd have to bring on the wolf, and he'd be ready for it. Until then he could wait, fight, take on any challenge she liked...
She stopped, looking him in the eye. "Carpentry."
"Carpentry. You know what carpentry is, don't you? Hammers, saws, wood, nails, yes? I've got a cellar that's starting to collapse in on itself and I think it could use a bit of reinforcement. It would possibly be a good storehouse, we need another one this winter." Her coat brushed against his arm as she walked back into the relative warmth of the house. "What?" she went on, from inside. "You didn't think underground lairs built themselves, did you?"
"Dhaymin? Hey, Dhaymin?" Jen's eyes, unadjusted to the dark, saw only a dark shape curled up on the floor, a shape that stirred and groaned. Jen barely dared to breathe. To wake Dhaymin, or not? Jen had drifted into a half awake state an uncountable age ago, lingering in a half remembered realm of claws, pine, and frost before waking proper, lying in the dark with another endless age until dawn.
Dhaymin had no such problems. He'd been asleep when Jen finished his work, he'd not woken since, and he obviously wasn't about to start now. He was curled up and motionless, a dark shape in the gloom. In a way it was a relief, as though outside forces had decided Jen's path already. Yes, it would be useful to have someone else along. But Dhaymin would only argue and bring everyone else running. Better to go alone and prove he could do this, then Dhaymin couldn't complain. He'd sleep right through it, if Jen was quick.
His only other choice was another day's work, and his arms ached enough from that already. They felt tense and strained, long strands of pain running down the muscles as though they'd been stretched beyond their limits. Amtika was certainly right in that underground lairs did not build themselves, but it had been useful, still. There'd been digging, sawing, hammering, and more than a few people dropping in on him and joking he must be the new one, because Amtika did that to all the new people - but there'd been fetching and carrying, and enough of that to build up a rough mental map of the town. There'd been a passage underground where things paced and growled behind closed doors...
It was the work of only a few moments to take up knife and lantern and make his way to the outside.
Another clear night greeted him, a strong reminder that winter had slipped in through the door, gently at first, like tonight, only just freezing over, with the promise of worse yet to come. The lamplight revealed the same scene as earlier, the world coated in a delicate layer of crystalline frost, in sharp contrast to the smoky lantern flame. His breath caught the air, forming a billowing cloud that hung for a moment before dissipating in the faint breeze. For a moment he was frozen as the world around him, still in case anyone spotted him. There'd been no rule about going outside - and there were always rules. Be back before sunset. Don't go in that room. Don't touch that handle. Don't say those words. There was always a condition to fulfil, a belief that if you obeyed it, you'd be safe. Nobody ever put you down in a strange world and told you what they wanted you to do, but not what not to do.
If he looked hard enough, he could see the distant mountains, though they were more a shape than a form, jagged areas of darkness picked out by the absence of stars. He felt rather than saw, imagined chilled blasts of air over bare rock, a long empty stomach, and the lowlands opening up before him in a vast promise of shelter and prey all fattened up for winter. A few more seconds, just to make sure he was really alone, and he set off again. The images stayed at the back of his mind, intense but ignored.
There'd been a stairwell in a ruined house, the one where the upper floor had been stripped away long ago for wood, and the moonlight shone through empty windows, their glass long since shattered. Jen wondered what had happened to it - wood was easy enough to find, but glass was beyond precious, and that elevated it to near magic in some people's minds. The more superstitious of beast-hunters wore little shards and beads of it around their person ("all very well and good until you cut yourself," Aunt Bala said). One of his own earliest memories was of the light reflecting and shattering into colour through glass beads in his window, beautiful little patches of rainbow light scattered over the floor for his protection.
Not a shard lay on this floor. The light breeze outside, funneled through empty window frames, ruffled his hair. He stepped further into the ruin, into what might have once been a kitchen, though it was impossible to tell now. Amtika's lot had stripped it bare, and the dancing flame revealed only scuffed old floorboards, and marks that might have been normal wear, or might have been claws.
When he found the trapdoor he gave it an experimental tug, just to test the lock strength - and then nearly fell backwards as the door gave no resistance, swinging open into his face. He scrambled upright, the light wavering and jerking about as he tried to keep the lantern steady. Getting back to his feet he descended, lantern held high, into what had once been a food cellar, but had been dug out and reinforced and built into over the years. First door on the left is useless, he remembered. That's just a stockpile. That left six others, spaced around the rectangular hollow.
Jen circled the room, each step carefully placed, conscious of every little stone and crack under his feet. In his mind he saw heads raised and eyes opening, and, in another hole, someone shifting in their sleep... Just pick one, he insisted to himself. Just open the door and look! Or smell - it was clear to anyone with a nose that someone kept animals down here. He touched the handle of the nearest door and pushed, more gently this time - and yet again it swung open with barely any resistance. He caught a glimpse of chains in the orange light, and a shape hunched up in the corner, rising and falling with each breath it took. Made bolder by the silence, Jen pushed the door further open to let the light in, but stopped when he saw the shape's true form - a blue taxrak, like the one that took Koiski. He pushed the door closed, took a deep breath, and then, bolder even still from his demonstrated stealth, pushed another door.
It opened with a gentle swing. Jen froze, feeling the blood course through his body with the steady thump of his heart, his hand reaching for the smooth reassurance of his knife handle. He pushed the door wider, and let the light flood inside.
Jen had never seen a wolf in his life.
He'd seen plenty of pictures and banners and sculptures, of course. And he'd read stories, the sort people told when it was dark and cold, and there was a fire to sit around, and then the wolves were monsters, savage beasts ready to leap at any unwary passer-by in the woods. They'd been monsters, when those stories were first told. They'd been terrible things in the snowy night.
But this was just another storeroom, full of shadows and furs and old tools, but no wolf. He sighed, and relaxed.
Wait - you didn't relax. That was the last thing you did, because the second you relaxed it would turn out something had been watching all along. No, you stayed alert and careful, and you didn't dare relax, not even to take in more of that glorious clean air, until you knew for certain you were safe, and even then you checked twice. So he walked on, guessing from the sky there was plenty of darkness left to give himself and Dhaymin time to run, and kept a close eye for anyone watching as he made his way back to the main building.
Anyone watching, like that figure leaning in the doorway.
"Hello, Jen," said Amtika.
"I-" he said
"No, don't talk," She held up her hand, stepping inside the room while her taxrak barred the door. "I know what you are, beast-hunter. I tried to help you. And you surprised me. What beast-hunter is stupid enough to walk through an open door and not wonder who left it open?"
"What made you-"
"Don't play stupid. You want this. Everyone does." She crossed the floor, and unhooked something from the shadows. For a moment Jen couldn't see, and then she stepped back into the light and he saw the wolf pelt in her hands. "There are no more wolves, Jen. Give up."
The taxrak shifted, its tail scraping along the floor in a dusty swish, and the world behind them exploded into sound.
It started with a crack of wood striking flesh and Amtika, unbalanced, fell flat to the floor beside him. Looking over his shoulder, Jen saw the taxrak hiss and coil into the corner, and beyond, a figure stood in the doorway, a long cane gripped in one hand. Beside him, Amtika pushed herself upright, turning to face her attacker.
"I thought I said that wasn't a weapon," Jen said, unable to think of anything better.
"Strange," said Dhaymin. "That's not how I heard it."
Amtika was the first on her feet, springing back up from Dhaymin's blow as fast as he'd delivered it. Jen snapped to attention, the fears and doubts pushed back to the dark places. "She's back!"
"With you!" called out Dhaymin. Jen barely needed to move. For all her advantages, Amtika was smaller than Dhaymin, lighter too. She'd fallen once, and Dhaymin needed only to reach out and snatch the front of her coat to stop her. In a second he pinned her against the wall, slamming her back against the stones, and raised the cane to her throat, a thick bar pressed against the hollow of her chin. "Very stupid thing you just did, there," he said. "Not as stupid as hurting Jen, though."
Behind the little scene, something shifted. Jen saw the taxrak's tail draw over the dusty floor, saw shoulders tensed and ready to spring. He opened his mouth to speak, but Dhaymin couldn't move now, and so he rushed forward, one hand outstretched as the taxrak crouched like a cat. The world slowed, and he lost track of Dhaymin, of Amtika, of anything but the creature before him, and all he had to do was take hold of a tendril ear to subdue it..
The taxrak turned, not jumping, its tail lashing out in front to smack into his thigh with a resounding meaty smack. He never had a chance to regain his footing, tumbling to the floor again, only narrowly managing to catch himself on his hands before his jaw cracked on the stone. Before he could pick himself up, he felt his arms pinned to his side, squeezed close to his body, his hands useless before him and his knife out of reach on the floor in front of him. It took a second for him to realise what had happened, just long enough for him to crane his neck up to meet Amtika's eyes, to see her face behind the curtain of hair that fell over his.
Her head was pressed upward, but her eyes fixed down. "That was stupid," she said.
Jen sucked in breath against the taxrak's binding tail. Not too tight now, enough to bind him in place, not enough to kill him. Not yet. Muscles flexed against his body, tightening ever so slightly, a warning of what was to come if he disobeyed again. Not enough to kill, only enough to render him useless.
"Jen?" He heard a crack behind him as Dhaymin yanked Amtika's neck upward. "You tell me what you did to him!"
"Dhaymin, no!" The tail squeezed a little harder, the muscles locking tighter. "I'm... I'm not fine. Just say I'm breathing. Don't fuck with her any more."
"He's a good boy, isn't he?"
The barriers broke. Jen closed his eyes, his body relaxing in the taxrak's grasp. "I'm sorry," he whispered, while all around him the world played out.
"Isn't this interesting?"
"What the fuck have you done with him?"
"You're his family. You tell me."
"Let him go, or I'll break that neck of yours proper." Dhaymin's voice deepened to a growl.
"I see, you don't have a proper answer but more violence. The more I see of you, beast-hunter, the more I'm thankful to be what I am. Do you remember the losing game?"
"Doesn't matter. I'm a hero."
"Who can't even save his own little brother. Do you know how the serpentine taxrak kills? Do you know what happens to souls who die without air?"
"Amtika?" Jen never opened his eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd heard me. I'm so sorry." Inside he struggled, the panic and fear pressing at his hastily built boundaries, while a child screamed, again and again, it's not fair it's not fair it's not FAIR. He pushed it away, ignoring its protests. Now was not a time to cry. Now was the time to atone for mistakes. "Dhaymin, let her go."
"Jen, you're shitting me." His voice shifted, and Jen realised he was talking to Amtika. "I'll let you go, if you let us go."
"And tell all your friends where I am?"
"No," Jen said. "Just... just give us a few hours. Nobody will know. Like we were never here." He opened his eyes. "There's not a beast-hunter around here we know by name."
"In the face of winter? Trying to keep yourself together with blood-magic?" She smiled again. "If you people have honour, you've more to lose than I do. Is that really what you want?"
yes but I can't tell you because it's not the right answer.
"It is," said Dhaymin.
The battle rush was gone.
Jen's pack weighed heavy on his back, a reminder of sleep cut short. He let Dhaymin walk alongside him, their arms linked as always, but right now he felt as though he were the one who should be leaning on his brother. He imagined he could still feel the coils around his chest, their touch lingering though they had long since left.
Amtika kept her word. She did not pursue them, and not even now, after what must have been hours, had either of them picked up any trace of her. They had departed in a mutual agreement, to leave one another alone, and Dhaymin hadn't let him hear the last of it. "I can't believe you just lay there and took it!" he'd shouted, as loud as he dared in the dark woods. Clearly he'd been raging, withholding some urge to snap Amtika in two. Jen sometimes wondered if he saved her life from him. But now the words had died down to nothing, and they fell silent in the face of new threats. The wolf pelt was tucked away deep inside his pack, unspoken of, the price Amtika paid to be free of them - or perhaps a reminder to him that he had no easy way out.
"We're back on the road," Jen said, raising his lantern. It cast nothing more than a tiny circle of light over the world, but enough to show open space. The ground under his feet, though frozen solid by night frosts, bore the unmistakable traces of wheel ruts, signs of human life. "I think it's safe now."
"Safe as we're going to get," Dhaymin said.
"How did you know where to find me?"
"I can track anything," he said, a smile visible in the lamplight. "That and you were making a right load of noise. You and that girl both. Hah. Sounds a bit filthy, when you put it that way."
"I know, that's not very you. Jen?"
He felt Dhaymin's hand in his, their fingers intertwining. "She's not family, you know. You want to follow family, you follow me. Not her."
"I know," Jen shifted the pack's weight, trying to relieve the deep ache in his bones. "Do we stop now?"
"Is there any light?"
Jen lowered the lantern and looked up at the sky, clear and star-scattered. "Not yet. We've got a few hours to go."
"You think you can go on until dawn?"
"If I have to."
"Come on, then," Dhaymin said, giving him a gentle tug. "Remember what I said? We're going to find you some help."