Malajine would have been a jewel of a city, were it not the color of bone.
The white houses were carved from the breast of the coastal cliffs, layered and tiered like the ridges of sand left by an ebbing tide. The sunlight glittered in the water, and glowed on the rooftops. For the people of Malajine, every sculpted roof, every colored glass dish—every morsel of food—was a source of pride and lingering fear. Fear that Manaph the Divine would claim your art, or your talent to make it, or your very life, as payment for her blessings.
Rohnaq pushed through a collapsed wicker archway, tangled in its own flowers and banners. Reckless children must have knocked it over. She squinted into the light, and scratched the dust and sweat from her scalp. There had been no time to shave her grey hair during the past few weeks. The influx of hundreds of citizens from the surrounding countryside kept her and her soldiers busy. Every forty-eight years Manaph came, and every forty-eight years people filled the streets, the inns, the banks, and the halls of government to finish their deals and start afresh for the new cycle.
Keeping order had been a nightmare.
Rohnaq heard shouting. She found a knot of people in a too narrow street, arguing over the price of cakes. She glimpsed one customer bump the seller’s cart, and a length of sugar lace—a beautifully intricate confection—toppled into a basin of water, dissolving instantly.
Rohnaq barked orders for them to clear the street and make way for other foot traffic. They recognized her armor and backed down. Her segmented plate had been dented and repaired so much that the deep violet enamel had worn away to a dusky black. She was no foot soldier.
Seeing the sugar lace made her pause. Two cycles ago, Manaph took a baker’s ability to make sugar lace, his prize invention; she blessed the city with surplus food so they could create new works of culinary art. Officially he was a hero, but when he lost his talent, he lost his living and then his life.
Safer to be one of many.
Rohnaq tried to rejoin her unit but only shoved forward by inches, crushed by the crowd. They walked upward en masse, tier by tier, to the palace. One woman slipped a brown hand over her children’s shoulders to pull them out of Rohnaq’s way. Sweat-scent, sea salt, sour incense, and camphor dogged her all the way to the plaza. Wheat barons and merchant ship captains, cobblers, and beggars. All hoping to conclude old business and hear whether or not their prayers would be answered, and at what cost. Last cycle, Manaph ignored the new siege engine offered to her and took the engineer’s life. Malajine’s army conquered three of their neighbors in exchange. Rohnaq had been proud of those campaigns, once. Now, they only reminded her of dear friends, lost in the name of service. Rohnaq didn’t dare to ask for a blessing.
A city blessed, every cycle. One life destroyed, every cycle.
She couldn’t see her unit anywhere. They were supposed to be part of the procession for the priests. A hand from the crowd grabbed her arm and pulled.
Rohnaq whirled, but it was only an usher. He squeezed her arm, not wanting to lose her in the throng.
“Where is my unit?” she shouted over the din.
The usher looked terrified for a moment, gesturing that he couldn’t hear. He beckoned and she followed. The usher’s red robes flashed amidst the bright blues, yellows, and oranges of precious tunics only worn on festival days, but Rohnaq couldn’t see the violet armor of her soldiers anywhere. The usher dragged her away from the crowd to a smaller doorway, painted with the circle of day. The nacre-bead stars glowed white against the black stone lintel, and the blue fresco of the ocean’s depths cascaded down over the doors, where tiny nuggets of white quartz gleamed. It told a children’s story, where the one offered to Manaph would transform into light, scatter across the waves, and keep the stars from going out while they slept beneath the sea.
Maybe it had really happened once. Maybe it would again.
Rohnaq wasn’t sure why the usher had brought her here, after days of rehearsing the ceremony and procession. She tried to keep the panic from her voice before the star-door. “My unit, I’m supposed to meet with them. Where are they?”
“Your pardon, commander. The Zoya requested your presence here, along with Marklord Nouli and Brigadier Kejra.”
The slurred accent from four provinces away, conquered while Rohnaq herself was still in training. “Zoh-EE-yah,” she corrected him.
Rohnaq heard a click-drag, click-drag behind her, and turned.
“Manaph’s tits, boy, I can walk up a few steps on my own,” Kejra said to the red-robed usher beside her.
Ushers flanked two old soldiers as they approached. Kejra, short and broad, wore a silver-tipped fur cloak that made her look like a hunched troll with fine taste. Grey roots peeked through her blackened hair, further hidden by a slash of blue dye that tinted her scalp, matching the dusky blue of her armor. Each pained step she took drew Rohnaq’s gaze like a scab she couldn’t stop picking at. Kejra’s right boot, for all its plating, was a brace. Her spear, for all her strength throwing it, was a cane, and that was Rohnaq’s doing.
Nouli was Kejra’s opposite, tall and slender; her grey braids started at her brow and ended in a long sweep down her back. Nouli’s immaculate presentation and stiff bearing spoke more to her breeding and Marklord rank than words ever would. Her uniform, like all archers, was tinged with green. She looked the same as she had a decade ago.
Any words of reunion died in Rohnaq’s mouth. Thirty years of military campaigns, and another ten of silence, had atrophied the friendship they’d had during training.
Nouli spoke instead, gesturing to Rohnaq. “What is she doing here?”
In the shadows of the star door’s foyer, each uniform was as black as wet sand.
“Where are your guards?” asked Rohnaq.
Nouli’s soft response was almost a threat. “Where are yours?”
The end of the cycle. The goddess’s demands.
“Us?” Rohnaq whispered.
The doors opened, the ushers signaled, and they marched through the gate. That rhythm had been in their bones for forty years. Within it they hid their fear, their panic, and their old wounds.
The gathered bureaucrats on either side of the council hall trilled applause as Rohnaq, Kejra, and Nouli entered under the gold-veined stone arches. Each officer received a wreath of flowers—the only spray of color on against their dark uniforms, sun-browned complexions, and greying hair.
Manaph’s intercessors, Zoeeya, beckoned them to approach. They looked less human every year. The tincture that brought divine visions had long since yellowed their albino skin. Parts of their bodies had hardened into shell-like plates, mottled with color, as proof of their connection to Manaph. Each sat on a throne that had been formed by forty-eight years of stalactite and stalagmite growth. Once the offering had been accepted, the thrones would be destroyed to make way for the new formation.
Rohnaq found the tall steps between the Zoeeya and the rest of the hall mesmerizing, even though the city’s security matters had brought her here many times. Between her and the intercessors were three raised terraces. The first terrace flowed with salt water, the next with lush, aromatic herbs, and the third level just below the thrones was a row of tiny flames that hovered just above the herbs without wax nor wick—a gift from Manaph centuries ago when a new smelting technique had been offered. A marble spike with inlaid gold notches stood on the ground just to the right of these terraces, measuring the progression of the day. Manaph had gathered that inventor to her centuries ago, leaving no blessing but her notes and charts intact.
Rohnaq and Nouli dropped to one knee before the Zoeeya, and Kejra leaned on her spear.
The foremost spoke in a high, tinny voice. “Marklord, Commander, Brigadier. You have served Malajine with efficiency, excellence, and honor. It is our wish to reward Malajine’s finest children.”
“Malajine’s finest cuts of meat,” Kejra muttered. Rohnaq shared the sentiment.
Dust motes flickered around Kejra. In this light, Rohnaq saw her companions’ old nicks and scars, and their age. They had been called out and separated, to be culled.
“It is Manaph’s wish to provide succor in this difficult time of strife and expansion, as Malajine’s children spread across the land,” said the leftmost, who might have been male many years ago.
“Manaph wishes to bless our warriors, our soldiers, and our strength as a people,” said the rightmost. “It is this prayer she will answer. Manaph demands all three of you.”
One. Manaph only ever asked for one offering. Something was wrong. Rohnaq searched the crowd for their commanding officer, General Vesher. She was nowhere to be seen. It had to have been her who petitioned for this blessing.
The centermost albino stood and spread his arms. A shaft of sunlight slashed across his features, making him blinding to behold. “You have all shaped Malajine’s destiny through victories nurtured by Manaph. Now, you may shape your own. Present the finest and best of yourselves—then Manaph shall select the greatest among you to become one with her. This is Manaph’s blessing, and our offering to her.”
Everyone cheered. For Manaph, for war, for relief it would not be them.
The centermost raised a pale hand and continued, “For your sacrifice—marklord, brigadier—your families shall be honored and elevated. For you, commander, who have foresworn family as the highest protector of our city, a statue shall be erected in your honor.”
Nouli inclined her head slightly. Whether she accepted her fate or was too shocked to do more, Rohnaq couldn’t tell.
The foremost albino raised his chin, and gestured to the marble spike. “Go and make your ascent. Two notches before sundown, on the highest cliffs above our city, the three of you will demonstrate your finest craft. Manaph will choose the gift we offer as her loyal and loving children.”
The three of them stood, bowed, and walked out, the roaring applause still humming in their ears.
Outside, Rohnaq squinted into the sunlight. The whitewashed houses and sparkling ocean left nowhere to look that didn’t hurt her eyes. Music and cheers deafened them. She wondered if the confectioner, the engineer, the inventor, or any of the others had gone to the offering ground feeling betrayed. Standing at the edge of the plaza, she glanced back at her once-friends. They were just as hurt and scared as she was. Angry, too. This wouldn’t stand. Manaph only ever asked for one, yet all three were walking into their doom. What they worked hardest for their whole lives condemned them to death—at Manaph’s hands, or each other’s. Rohnaq could just pick out their names and titles being shouted. Occasionally, their provinces. Perhaps the betting had already begun.
Rohnaq opened her mouth to speak, but Nouli cut her off before she began. “I cannot imagine what is left to discuss.”
“Did you know?” Rohnaq demanded.
“I knew it would be me this year,” said Kejra. “I had planned to present one of my wines. Not a bad death, to dissolve into starlight. I didn’t know you two would be involved.”
“The only craft soldiers have is killing other soldiers,” Nouli spat. “That’s all we have to demonstrate. In a few hours, two of us will be dead, and the third joined with Manaph as their body turns to starlight—or however the intercessors describe sacrifice to children these days.”
“You knew, but not me,” said Rohnaq, shaking her head, thinking of the old general, the only one who outranked the three of them. “I’m in the city, I could have stopped it.”
“Your conscience comes and goes with the tide,” Kejra spat. “And you, Nouli, you spent so much money solidifying your position. Do you plan to shoot us now or wait until we’re up the hill?”
Nouli glanced sidelong at Kejra. “Don’t cheapen this.”
“This shouldn’t have happened,” Rohnaq said.
“This is the way it must be, you said, when you maimed Kejra,” said Nouli. “You spoke the same words, slaughtering thousands of rebels in my province, after they had surrendered. In the midst of overwhelming destruction, you just go about the business of the day. You lost your humanity when you swore yourself to the city. True excellence, Rohnaq. You deserve to be kinless.”
Kejra pushed past the two of them and spread her arms to addressed the crowd, fearless and bold. “Bring me my carriage!” Kejra cried. “I will meet Manaph my way!”
Kejra hobbled down the steps and then hoisted herself inside, shaking her spear one final time to more cheering. Before Kejra could close the door, Rohnaq darted up to her. “I will do you no harm,” Rohnaq whispered. “Let Nouli and me ride with you, if it is to be my final day. The three of us were close, once. The cycle is ending, and so with it the old feuds. Let us close this book before we face Manaph. Please.”
Ushers rolled out four other carts for the priests and official witnesses to follow. The Zoeeya would not be in attendance.
Kejra narrowed her eyes, then made way. Rohnaq beckoned Nouli who shot her a suspicious look before hopping into the carriage as well.
“What indolence,” Nouli sneered. “It’s a mere two hours to the top of the cliffs.”
Kejra pulled one of her wines out from under the seat, and pushed the stopper from the bottle with a thumb, and took a swig. “Well then, officer’s table. You have the finest here, commander. The highest ranking soldiers at your disposal, before we dispose of each other.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Rohnaq.
“It’s been announced,” said Nouli. Kejra offered her the bottle and she shook her head to refuse it. “If we are not to fight each other for this honor, what shall it be instead? Poetry?”
“Oh we’ll fight,” said Rohnaq. “But… not each other.”
Kejra arched a brow at her. “If we don’t fight, our provinces will be fined into ruin. Our families will lose their holdings.”
Rohnaq’s hands balled into fists. “Do you really think Manaph wants all three of us? She only ever takes one skill, one treasure, one life. Think. The three of us run the military. General Vesher had her day when she united the peninsula fifteen years ago. The Zoeeya still pay her prettily but she’s left the day-to-day running of the city in my hands. It’s the same with you and the archers, isn’t it, Nouli? And you, Kejra? When was the last time you received more than perfunctory orders regarding the infantry? Problem in Lejine, take care of Tarjine, rebels in Affojine. That’s not leadership. We haven’t been chosen by Manaph, we’ve been offered up by a threatened general.”
“Blasphemy,” said Nouli. The word came quickly, automatically, but she folded her arms and looked out through the window slat with a look Rohnaq recognized. A questioning look.
Kejra held out the bottle to Rohnaq. “You’ll damn the city, you fool. You want them to drown? To starve?”
Rohnaq ripped the bottle from Kejra’s hand and threw it out the carriage door. It shattered against the jagged stones and bled over the cliffs. Kejra pursed her lips and fished under her seat for another.
“Listen to me. The Zoeeya were bribed by Vesher. Even if Manaph truly wants one of us, what she wants is our excellence. The three of us, together, could drive her back.”
Kejra’s barking laugh caused the other two to wince. “As death approaches, I find it easier to forgive your idiocy.”
Rohnaq’s eyes slid to Nouli’s. “Surely you are not eager to die. Not when you could best fulfill your duty by remaining where you are.”
“Wasteful,” Rohnaq said.
“We can’t abide waste in the service, can we?” Kejra snorted.
The carriage bumped along the road, and they shifted to balance themselves. This high up, the path wasn’t regularly maintained because the offered were usually expected to walk. The priests in the carts behind them raised their voices in sonorous prayer.
“All war is waste,” said Nouli. “Wasted lives, wasted lands, wasted silver in poorly managed supply chains.”
“Then stop the waste!” said Rohnaq.
“I will not have my husband and children threatened because you are afraid to die,” said Nouli. “Or have you forgotten what’s at stake for the rest of us? You foreswore family, property, and lineage when you became city commander. You have nothing else.”
“Then you see why I cannot allow you to die.” Rohnaq felt her eyes beginning to sting. They had been together through training, through campaigns. They had even encouraged each other, once. Then, one drunk lieutenant had killed one drunk civilian, and ran.
“But you can take my leg, can you?” Kejra asked. “For the sake of excellence.”
“You should not have protected him,” Rohnaq snapped.
The priests blew a chorus of conch shells, marking the first half of their ascent.
Kejra spoke again, softly. “I would have done the same for you.”
They looked anywhere but at each other.
Fear. Rohnaq had thought she had become inured to the anxiety that frayed her resolve on the eve of battle, but this was something more. The admission of need, of family, of something to lose felt like a blood-letting; and yet it was the truth. It was accurate, and accuracy had saved them before duty, honor, and the law tore them apart.
Raindrops pattered on the carriage roof, warning of a storm.
“The soldier’s path is death,” Rohnaq murmured, invoking the old creed.
“The soldier knows no peace,” Kejra added.
“And will never accept defeat,” the three of them whispered, together.
“Never,” Rohnaq said.
Nouli had hated basic training, and the first few years of deployment. Rohnaq had kept her going. Her faith in herself never seemed to waver. Manaph only showed up once or twice in anyone’s lifetime, but Rohnaq was constant. Once she had an objective, she never accepted defeat. When Nouli spoke again, she said the same thing she always said in these situations.
“You’re insane,” Nouli said. “So we’ll need a plan.”
“She’s as big as a house,” said Kejra. “And covered in armor.”
“She had joints, and she had a face. Those sound like weaknesses to me,” said Rohnaq. Then she gestured to Kejra, suddenly animated. “Remember the siege when Forlinnet came through the tunnel under the southwestern wall? Nouli, you weren’t there for this.”
Kejra straightened and knitted her brow to remember. “In Tarjine or…?”
“No, this was earlier. Remember? They filed in just between the two archers’ towers at the second wall?”
Kejra glanced at Nouli. “We don’t have enough archers to put Manaph in a pincer.”
Rohnaq shook her head. “We don’t need to. There’s only one Manaph. The point is, we’ll direct her toward one path, Nouli shoots her from above, and then you run in sideways and open her up to stab her heart. Surprise flank.”
“It won’t work,” said Nouli. “Manaph’s cave drops into the sea and she’s armored like a crushclaw, solid on top so that the sea birds can’t attack them directly. My arrows would bounce right off—if her form is as monstrous as it was the last time she appeared.”
“Then you’ll need to be in front of her. Especially if she rears. Her underside is probably protected also.”
“There’s no cover!” Nouli objected.
“How far can you shoot, a hundred strides?” asked Rohnaq. “Or has age taken your sight and strength from you?”
Nouli scoffed. “Neither. I could hit Manaph with thumbnail accuracy at two-hundred while she thrashes, but I doubt the bow I have now can even harm her,” her voice became shrill, “or if killing her would condemn Malajine’s army!”
“If she hungers, she can be killed,” said Rohnaq, grimly. “If she can be killed, she does not control who wins and who dies. We are not brawlers, fighting for applause. We are not assassins, killing for politics. We are soldiers. We fight together. If Manaph wants one of us, then she must fight all of us. Our way. That is excellence worthy of her.”
“Wait,” Nouli said. “If she can speak to the Zoeeya from afar, hear their prayers, and answer… Can she get into our minds, also? Could that be a weapon?”
Rohnaq shrugged. “If you can stand still with a quad of sergeants screaming at you, you can ignore anything.”
Kejra peered out the slat. “We’re almost to the top.”
Nouli met Rohnaq’s eyes and then Kejra’s.
“The soldier’s path is death…” Rohnaq began. “The soldier knows no peace…”
They whispered the creed together once more. Rohnaq couldn’t bring herself to take their hands in hers. An offered hand would be as empty as words of comfort or hope. The silence stretched around them, thick with everything there was no time to say.
The night Rohnaq took Kejra’s leg, she had simply been faster. She had acted on the side of the law. What she had done was cruel but not wrong.
Rohnaq guessed it was the only reason Kejra hadn’t thrown a spear through her.
When Rohnaq put down the rebellion in Nouli’s province, no other uprisings followed. She had been cruel; but not wrong.
When Rohnaq had taken an oath to protect the city, she meant every word. She would not let her superior officers, or the intercessors, or even Manaph take more lives than her due. That was wrong. That was cruel.
That was not the oath she swore.
There was no telling what would happen to Manaph, or their city if they won—but at least they would be there to help shape the future. If Rohnaq was wrong, then their deaths would sate Manaph until the next cycle.
Family and politics dissolved like sugar lace within that truth. Each understood and agreed: they were a unit now, and the battle had begun.
Kejra chuckled. “I hope age has taught you more grace. The face you made, trying to free your sword from Forlinnet’s spine—messiest beheading I’ve ever seen.”
Nouli and Rohnaq smirked.
The carriage stopped, rain drumming on the roof. The horses bounced their heads, jingling the reins. The driver’s footsteps squelched in the mud as he came around to open the door.
“Try not to get in each other’s way,” said Rohnaq.
They hopped out of the carriage and the rain poured down in earnest. Manaph’s offering ground stood on a high pillar that jutted up from the ocean like a fishbone needle. The bridge from the tallest part of the cliffs above the city had all but worn away. Rohnaq, Nouli and Kejra scooted carefully across the rickety bridge, each carrying a length of rope, leaving the priests behind on the cliffs to observe. Once they were across, they tied their rope to the anchorage to make a new bridge for the next cycle.
If there would be a next cycle.
Kejra went left, using her spear as walking stick. Nouli slid to the right and circled the perimeter, arrow nocked but lowered. A conch horn blew a long, resonant note. Another horn joined it, and then a third. Manaph would know there were three waiting for her on the offering ground. From that moment on, it was between the offered and the goddess.
The pillar rumbled.
A huge wave rose and splashed against the cliffs. The three soldiers wobbled. The assembled priests gasped. Spray flew up in dingy swaths like uncut gems and the rain fell harder.
The mud sucked at Rohnaq’s boots and the sea mist stung her eyes. It was a wonder this pillar of rock hadn’t sloughed off into the sea. Thousands of years of salt wind and hungry waves and it still managed to stand. Praise Manaph.
Thousands of years sliced into wedges of forty eight, when Malajinites offered the best of themselves and their achievements. Sliced right off the top. Praise Manaph.
All that work and study, snapped up and gone. Praise Manaph.
Back into the sea with her, as punishment for their excellence.
Nouli’s bowstring creaked as she set the string in place. The rope bridge between the pillar and the cliffs twisted and bounced.
“Praise Manaph!” chanted the priests.
Rohnaq hoped they’d choke.
Nouli darted across the muddy span and up onto the roof of the cave entrance. The plateau shook again, and an ear-splitting, bone-rattling shriek erupted from the cave itself.
“Praise Manaph!” shouted the priests. “Our strength for your blessing!”
Rohnaq rolled to her feet and fought to stay standing as Manaph emerged from her cave. Water rushed out of it, thick and rank, like an obscene birth. She was huge. Her body was covered in long, multi-jointed arms; some taut with muscle, some chitinous and ending in pincers. She reared up like a millipede, revealing her face. Manaph’s eyes were wide and frenzied, her mouth gaped and stretched back revealing row after row of teeth. Her nostrils were far apart like a shark’s, and she had long black hair that looked like a net of black seaweed.
Rohnaq had been offered up, to join with Manaph. In that moment Rohnaq realized what that meant, feeling Manaph’s mind tearing into her own.
Manaph knew that Rohnaq had betrayed her.
Pain rocked Rohnaq nearly to her knees as Manaph wrenched out and consumed memory after memory. The last time the three of them had laughed together as friends. A traitor’s plea to spare his family that Rohnaq had ignored. The night Rohnaq had crippled Kejra. This was her excellence and highest achievement. She would sacrifice everything she loved in order to carry out justice. She was a destroyer, and Manaph would consume her to bless her people. Rohnaq screamed.
Manaph screamed too, when an arrow shot through one of her raised hands.
The plateau wobbled again, as towering waves battered the coastline. Thunder shook the air.
Manaph swiped at the cave entrance, knocking a chunk of rock away. Nouli dropped down and ran to the edge of the plateau, nocking and shooting arrow after arrow. They were strong enough, they were well-aimed, but Manaph kept slapping them away as she advanced. Then Manaph shrieked again, and Nouli staggered, the sound and force of Manaph’s will making her eyes water.
Rohnaq couldn’t see Kejra—didn’t know if she were alive or crushed under Manaph’s advance. Manaph turned her slavering face up toward the cliff where the priests were chanting her name. She shrieked again, and the crowd screamed. Some fell off the cliff.
Manaph’s chest expanded and she opened her jaw wide, howling. The wordless cacophony sliced through the minds of everyone gathered with perfect clarity. How dare they send these three. These confused and undecided three; these unreconciled, unfinished three. This is not what was demanded. This is not an offering.
The cliff cracked and broke, dropping the priests like pebbles onto the rocks below.
The sea churned higher, clawing at the shore and bombarding the cliffs. The clouds roiled and pelted the earth with rain. Manaph howled as Kejra’s spear plunged deep into her side. Manaph jerked, hurling Kejra back into the rocks of the cave entrance. Manaph shrieked again, turning toward Kejra’s prone form. Rohnaq couldn’t let it happen again. Kejra was defenseless. Injured. Rohnaq ran at Manaph. Two more arrows hit the goddess in the face and neck. Manaph roared. Rohnaq leapt. A wave smashed into the spindle pillar, and it snapped.
The plateau rolled. Nouli dove for the cave mouth. Kejra clutched the ground for dear life. Rohnaq and Manaph reached for each other and clung. Manaph drew Rohnaq in toward her mouth. Rohnaq planted her legs on Manaph’s chest as though rappelling down a cliff, and swung her sword in wide circles. The first slice cut Manaph’s throat. Blood arced as they plummeted, and Manaph’s rank hair lashed at Rohnaq’s face. One of Manaph’s pincers squeezed Rohnaq’s abdomen and her armor buckled. Rohnaq swung the blade again, and removed Manaph’s head. Rohnaq’s triumphant howl was drowned out by the freezing wind and turned to terror as she looked up and saw the beach rushing up to meet her.
The pillar crashed down onto the sand.
The rest was water and noise.
The sea was still.
Rohnaq pried her way free of Manaph’s bulk, took two steps back, and buckled.
Kejra’s arm was broken, and the pain held her awake enough to see where Rohnaq landed. She roared back to her feet and hobbled to Rohnaq’s side, dragging Rohnaq face-up. Her abdomen was a black smear, slivers of metal wedged deep into her like a sucker fish’s teeth. Killed by her own armor. Rohnaq’s head lolled and her mouth gaped.
Kejra slipped her hand under her friend’s neck and cradled her, offering what small comfort she could between the sand and the blood.
Nouli came running. Sandy seawater splashed Kejra and Rohnaq as she slid to their side.
Nouli’s hand touched Rohnaq’s abdomen and came away coated. Nouli whipped her cloak from her shoulders and gently wrapped Rohnaq in it. Nouli put one arm around Kejra and pulled her close. They touched foreheads, forming a shelter over the city commander. The rain drummed on their armor, on the muddy puddles, and on the corpse of the great beast, deafening them.
The stories said that the one slain by Manaph would become light, and that light would scatter under the waves to feed sleeping stars. But there was no light. Only the three of them, the grey beach, and their ragged breath.
“Ah, my friend,” Kejra murmured. “It would take a goddess to kill you, wouldn’t it?”
Rohnaq convulsed, her arms thumping her friends. She choked and sputtered, spattering all three of them with black blood. Her eyes bulged. Kejra clutched her, and Nouli clutched Kejra.
Movement on the ocean caught Nouli’s eye. She tensed. A lifeless lump of debris, tangled in black seaweed, bobbed harmlessly on the waves. The rest of the beach was a disaster of rocks and corpses, the air heavy with salt-tang and the cold smell of lightning-burned air. She looked back toward the city, masked by mist and rubble. A tern keened in the distance. Parents shouted for their children.
Whether Rohnaq’s death had earned a blessing, or if it had ended Manaph altogether, there was no way to know. Not in their lifetime.
Nouli closed Rohnaq’s eyes and then helped Kejra to her feet. A sharp crack pierced the air, and Nouli peered through the grey to glimpse a ragged, barefoot girl. The girl squatted, rock in hand, next to an exposed cultch. She was soaked, but not shaking. Kinless, but not afraid. In the midst of overwhelming destruction, this little girl set about the business of the day. One by one, she broke open shellfish from the cultch and ate them.
Rohnaq would have liked that.