From A Smokeless Flame
Her boots squelched as they sank into the muck of the forest floor, carpeted by soggy leaves. Bare branches clicked at her from above like impatient skeletal fingers. Squirrels scrabbled up and down wet foamy bark, fat bodies tensed and black eyes staring. Grey clouds gnarled the bland white sky.
Ihne’s foot sank into a pit. She planted her hands on the ground and yanked her leg free, walking on. Her sodden cloak dragged at the ground behind her. The bronze-hilted sword at her hip bounced listlessly with each step.
Her husband’s heart throbbed in the silver amulet nestled against her chest.
She glanced over her shoulder. The muddy-cloaked figure of a man slunk at the edge of vision. When she stopped, he stopped, body feigning the stillness of the surrounding forest. Ihne wondered how long he was going to wait.
Night came with total darkness and inhuman cold. Ihne managed to wring a fire from some half soggy chunks of wood while rain misted her pale face. She sat on a downed log and waited.
The man appeared between two leaning trees, his dark eyes alight with the small campfire. A puffy diagonal scar lined his face. A knotty wooden club hung limp from his hands. “Are you alone?” he said, in a dull mutter.
“Yes,” she said.
He shuffled closer. “Start by giving me the sword.”
Ihne unsheathed the rusty blade and tossed it to his feet. The man took it and sheathed it clumsily in his belt. “Now your purse.”
She threw him her leather pouch. Silver clinked as it touched the ground. “Please,” she said.
He bent down and grunted. “Save your breath.”
“Please kill me.”
The man blinked and his eyes squinted. “What did you say?”
He laughed nervously, glancing around. “Sorry, I’m not falling for it.” Something clicked in his eyes as he looked at her. “Sweet Onaza, you’re a woman.”
She stared at him over the fizzling fire’s acrid smoke.
He sucked on his teeth, rubbing the coarse growth across his jaw. “Mmm. You’re young. And you’re not ugly. But you’re so damned filthy. And you look like a corpse.” The man shrugged, grinned and walked over. “Ah well. The night’s cold.” He suddenly stopped, eyes locking on her chest. He drew the sword, pointed. “What is that? Show it to me.”
She leapt to her feet. “No! You can’t take it. He won’t let you.”
“Don’t tempt me hag! Show me!”
Hands trembling, Ihne pulled the apple-sized silver amulet from under her shirt. She saw the man’s eyes widen and her heart twisted. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I can’t give this to you. I’ll give you my body willingly, but if you try to take this he’ll kill you.”
The man tittered and glanced around. “There’s no one here but us, crazy whore.” He reached for it.
Her husband’s heart pulsed. Ihne screamed and watched herself rush forward, knock the sword from the man’s hand and smash his elbow in with a jerk of her palm. The man fell with a surprised shriek, bones punctured through the skin of his arm.
“No, please!” Ihne screamed. “Don’t kill him, he didn’t do anything. He didn’t hurt me!”
I must defend my bride, her husband’s voice said.
Ihne leapt onto the man and sank her teeth into the corded muscles of his throat, tearing bloody strips. His shouts became choked gurgles. Soon those stopped.
The amulet around her neck throbbed with laughter and her body became her own again. She retched and wept, the salt of her tears mingling with acidic bile and the sickly taste of blood. She lapsed into a thrashing sleep on the wet forest floor as the darkness snuffed her tiny flame.
She woke sometime in the morning, burned numb by the unending cold. She wrapped herself in her mud-stained cloak and tried to rekindle her fire with trembling hands, smacking her flint against her sword and casting tiny sparks onto wet wood.
The outlaw’s corpse lay near, face and skin chalk-white. Blood stained his throat and chest like buckets of spilled paint. She memorized his face, wondering what his name was as she gathered her purse and clothing.
No one’s crimes warranted her husband’s malice.
Ihne resumed her trek, heaving herself along one jarring step at a time, her only company the merry thump of the heart encased in the amulet. She swallowed countless screams.
Soon the grey above cleared, revealing a pristine blue sky blistered by white clouds. Warmth encompassed the back of her neck like strong hands but couldn’t pierce the armor of her wet clothes.
A small stream cut through a clearing in the forest ahead. She stopped and peeled off her clothing one filthy garment at a time, rinsing them of mud and blood in the clear water and hanging them on branches. Heat slowly returned to her body, creeping through her toes and fingers. No warmth reached her chest. Her husband’s heart thumped.
She knelt beside the water, filling her leather waterskin.
Her face shimmered back at her on the surface of the water. Blood crusted her lips and chin in a huge red smile.
Ihne cupped water in her palms and scrubbed at her face furiously. Red water dribbled down her fingers. “Let me die,” she shrieked. “Just let me die.”
You are my bride, said her husband’s voice. Take me to Chukizen shrine and I will end your suffering.
“How many people will you kill before we get there?” she said, balling her muddy fists.
As many as I please. Amusement in his voice.
“And after I bring you there?!” she shouted. “How many will you kill then?!”
The threads of her mind parted as though sliced by a steel blade. She ran naked into the forest, branches raking her body.
You cannot flee your Lord Husband.
Her vision changed. The forest vanished, replaced by stone corridors and hanging embroidered tapestries, all sundered by whipping red and yellow flame.
Ihne ran past her brother’s chamber. A boy’s shape flailed drunkenly inside, slags of skin melting from his flesh.
Tears erupted from her eyes. She ran on, to her parents’ bedchamber. Two rigid black things cuddled on a molten bed, human hunks of charcoal. Gibbering screams laughed from her lips.
A dark shape stood at the end of the burning hall, his heavy black cloak defying the flames. Two amethyst eyes watched her impassively. He lifted his arm and pointed outside. “Observe,” he said, his tone cavernous. Merriment was etched on the sleepy lines of his face.
She came unwillingly, the slaves of her legs pulling her forward to the window. Everything burned outside. Thatched roofs ignited like dry leaves. Wooden walls moaned as they toppled over. Flames slapped against stone towers, searing them black.
Silence, beyond that of the grave.
Fingers slid across her neck and hot breath fumed into her ear. “Even when the house of your soul burns I will not tire of your screams.”
The world melted in a torrent of belching fire.
Where am I?
“In my home. Thirty miles north of Kodeg.”
Ihne tried to open her eyes but couldn’t. She shifted, cringing. She’d never felt so warm in her life, sweat lathered every inch of her body. She opened her mouth to speak but only emitted a croaking sound.
“You’ll be up soon,” said a man’s voice, soft and strong, like water poured across smooth rocks.
“Who. . .” She coughed.
“Knern,” he said. “Drink.”
He pressed a ceramic cup to her lips and poured tea into her mouth. Ihne nearly gagged at the bitter earthen taste. She spat, shirking away. “What is that?”
“Tea,” he said.
Whatever it was, it opened her eyes and quickly cleared them. Knern sat beside her on a wooden stool. Black hair frosted white drooped down past his shoulders. Vivid blue eyes shone like an oasis in the desert of his aged, vigorous face.
The heart. She seized him by the collar of his wool vest. “Where is it?!”
He licked his teeth beneath his lips. “Don’t worry, I found all your things.”
Ihne winced at the man’s garlic breath, feeling dizzy. “Tell me what you did with it,” she said, trying to restrain her tone.
“Took it off you,” he said, digging in his ear.
“You touched it?”
Knern’s expression darkened, shadows pooling under the cliffs of his heavy brow. “Yeah,” he said, standing and walking from the cramped room.
Ihne touched her face with calloused hands. How could he touch it? Who was he? The last man to touch her husband’s heart had suddenly burst into flame. Had Knern somehow broken the curse?
The makeshift wooden walls strained under a strong wind then went silent.
Of course not.
What horrors awaited if she didn’t reclaim the heart quickly? She pulled herself from bed and began searching, emptying drawers and cabinets.
Knern entered with a bowl of steaming pottage and a mug of ale in hand. He looked at her, lips pulling into a frown. “You should eat,” he grumbled.
Ihne looked at the food and felt knives of hunger scrape the walls of her stomach. She sat down slowly and Knern placed the bowl on her lap.
Ihne ate as never before.
“Hungry,” said Knern, squinting, watching her.
She grunted in concentration. No guarantee existed on tomorrow’s meals.
Knern stood retrieved an armful of folded clothing. The silver amulet sat atop her cloak. “I imagine you want your things back.”
My bride, her husband spoke.
The bowl sank from her lap and crashed to the floor. Her hands gravitated towards the silver amulet. “Get it away from me!” she shrieked, scraping her throat raw.
Knern blinked and hurried from the room like a frightened child, shutting the door behind him.
You will not resist me. Chiding voice.
But I love you.
Ihne’s heart slammed her chest. “Come back,” she groaned, in a voice not quite her own. She wanted him back desperately, needed him.
The thrum of her heartbeat exploded through her ears.
Doom. Doom. Doom.
Ihne woke enveloped in the light of a half-dozen candles, dribbling like waxy fingers. A platter of bread, butter and lukewarm tea sat on a table beside the bed. Ravenous, she ate.
Outside, a dark shape sat hunched over a fire. She walked to the window and looked outside. Knern stared into the flame, occasionally kicking a log. Sparks flared and floated upwards like tiny burning insects. He sat enveloped in darkness, it appeared as though nothing else existed outside of the cabin but him.
Ihne draped herself in her cloak and a heavy wool blanket and walked outside.
“Feeling better?” he said without looking. Knern dabbed an impaled bird over the fire with a long stick.
“Yes,” she said, sitting on a log. Her eyes stared longingly at the greasy meat.
“You’re hungry,” he said, passing her the stick.
She snatched it, appalled by her greediness. Ihne took a breath before taking a careful bite.
Knern kicked at the fire. “So m’lady, why were you naked in the woods?”
She disliked that question. “I’m no lady,” she said, more tart than she’d intended.
Knern grinned, yellow kernels of his teeth glinting. “You sit and eat very proper for a common girl. And you sure sound accustomed to giving orders.” His smile vanished. “Who are you?”
Ihne bit her lip. “Cerna, from Zokyav.”
He nodded, picking his ear with his pinky. “I hear the Okagun shrine has beautiful arches,” he said.
She nodded. Her mouth was full so she made a yes noise and swallowed.
“There is no shrine to Okagun in Zokyav, he’s anathema there,” Knern said, voice flat.
What did he expect of her? She clenched her jaw, molars snapping together and beginning to ache. “And who are you? What do you intend to do with me? What did you. . .”
A heavy growl muttered from the darkness behind her. Ihne gasped and turned. Two eyes stared at her, glowing like burning coals.
“That’s just Bear,” said Knern, grumbling with laughter. “My dog, Bear. He just wants some bones. He caught the bird, after all.” He kicked the fire.
Ihne swallowed and tossed the bird to the dirt. She’d seen smaller bears than the shaggy, loping mass that lumbered towards the food. Bear lowered his nose, snorted like a warthog and collapsed down, cracking bones between rows of yellow fangs.
Knern belched. “Congratulations, you’ve just made a lifelong friend.”
Ihne smiled. Bear looked at her, a question in his dopy eyes and in the drooping folds of his face.
“So who are you really?” Knern wiped his hands on his vest and watched her.
She pretended to watch Bear eat. “I’m no one.”
“What’s in the silver amulet?”
Ihne paused. “Nothing,” she said, cursing herself for hesitating. “Why are you asking all these questions?”
“Because your answers are so interesting,” he said, spitting into the fire.
Ihne thought about that and frowned. “You’re no trapper,” she said quietly.
Knern raised his eyebrows. “Well?”
She noticed then just how observant his blue eyes were. “When can I leave?” she said abruptly.
He smiled patiently and leaned back, as though preparing for a long wait. They sat in silence for a time, the only sounds in the forest the hum of the fire, Bear glutting himself on the bones of their meal and branches cracking in the wind, a noise like distant thunder.
Could he help her? He’d already touched the heart several times and didn’t even seem aware of what it was. She stared at his face and thought he’s the answer.
“My name is Ihne,” she said, exhaling. “From Izon.”
Knern scratched his jaw. “You walked from Izon?”
“That’s the truth,” she said.
“So what are you doing all the way here?”
“I’m on my way to Chukizen shrine.”
He frowned. “Why? That’s a demon shrine.”
Her heart sank and she went silent.
“What’s in the amulet?” he said, then paused to belch.
She started, shaken by the sound of his voice. “Nothing,” she said, quickly enough to hope he’d believe her.
Knern clicked his fingers. Bear shuffled over to his side.
“I’m not going any more,” Ihne blurted. “I won’t go to Chukizen.”
Knern’s gaze was empty. “I’m glad,” he said.
“What about you?” she said. For some reason she didn’t want the conversation to end.
“I’m a trapper,” he said, standing. “You can leave whenever you like.”
She nodded and rubbed her arms together under her cloak.
“I’m planning a trip to Kodeg tomorrow,” Knern said suddenly. “You can come if you like. From there you can go. . . Wherever you’re going.”
“Thank you,” she said.
He nodded, before turning awkwardly and walking back into his cabin. Bear followed him, yawning.
Ihne smiled, then turned back to the fire.
Her husband sat on Knern’s log, staring at her.
Ihne screamed, falling from her seat. “No! No!”
He thrust his hand into the fire and his fingers ignited like little torches.
“How many will you kill with your selfishness?” he said, then lunged for her, gripping her face in his flaming hand. Blisters roiled across her face.
“This isn’t real!” she howled, feeling the flesh melt from her face.
He leaned in close. “Tonight I visit Kodeg.”
Knern shook her by her shoulders. “Wake up,” he said. “Come inside, it’s cold out here.”
“Nightmare,” she gasped, clutching her face. “Nightmare.”
That night she dreamt of pale smoke and distant screams. Her husband did not appear, and that troubled her most.
Knern woke her around daybreak, helping her onto an already loaded wagon drawn by a white-muzzled horse. Soon they were moving, wobbling dangerously on ancient wooden wheels. Pungent odors wafted from the piles of furs and skins in the cart’s bed. The cart itself wobbled noisily down the near nonexistent road, lurching on dangerously warped wooden wheels. Bear followed along, thick tail wagging.
Ihne shivered, huddling under her cloak. The predawn chill refused to relent and the endless plumes of grey mist made their journey seem endless.
Knern reached back and dragged out a large, musky smelling bearskin. “Here,” he said.
She nodded absently, wrapping herself. No warmth.
Knern cleared his throat. “Ohh. . .” he began.
Ihne looked at him, frowning.
“Down along the river Glyss is where I want to be,” he sang, voice monotone. “Mug of ale in hand, pretty lass at my knee. . .”
Ihne’s face broke under the force of her smile. She burst laughing when Bear stopped and stared up at him, ears perked and head tilted.
“One laugh cleanses a thousand tears,” he said.
“Profound for a trapper,” she replied.
Knern’s smile dwindled. Ihne frowned, again pretending to watch as Bear trampled back into the forest.
“You called to a man in your sleep,” he said. “Your husband?”
Ihne blinked and coughed on her own words.
“Are you running from him?”
“He’s dead,” she said.
Knern’s face was unreadable. “I gave everything to a woman once,” he said abruptly.
Ihne looked at him, let the obvious question go unsaid. Knern had looked away already, as though that appropriately ended their conversation. She owed him at least not to pry into his life. Not only had he sheltered her, clothed her and fed her, but was offering genuine sympathy. He seemed a saint amid the unending malice of her husband and the savagery of the wilderness.
Bear crouched at roadside, sniffing a pile of deer pellets intently. He barked and barged down the road, ears flopping.
Knern sniffed. “Smell that?”
Ihne pretended she didn’t. It felt like her heart leapt from the edge of a precipice.
“Smoke,” Knern grunted.
A body lay sprawled in the road. Knern hopped down from the wagon and knelt beside her. She’d nearly been cloven in two. Huge brown stains shrouded her mangled body.
Knern climbed back into the wagon and they continued. More bodies. More horrors. They found Bear sniffing through the wreckage of a pile of corpses.
Kodeg’s wooden gate was a smoldering pile of blackened beams and charred palisades. White flames giggled from the ruins.
“No, no, no,” Ihne cried under her fur.
Knern led the wagon slowly past. The charred spines and ribs of ruined buildings rotted everywhere. Ihne held her hands over her eyes, uncaring if he saw her.
They stopped beside what looked like the town’s center, a cobblestone plateau surrounding a large well. Gutted corpses lay splattered the sandy colored bricks. A flabby man in gray robes lay against the side of the well, three arrows protruding from his stomach and chest. His blue face shuddered with each breath.
Knern knelt beside him. “Lokna. What happened here?”
He opened his eyes. “Brother,” he said, choking on the word. “We needed you last night. The town went mad. I dreamt of a white man who was one with flame. When I woke. . . I have no words to describe the madness.”
Knern looked up at Ihne. “You know something.”
A long breath rattled from Lokna’s throat and his body shuddered.
A shadow poured from the back of the wagon, enveloping her. He brought the amulet with him! She fell to her face and clutched her ears.
“He’s here! He’s here!”
The corpses around the well rose. Some had cut throats, others were missing limbs, some stumbled over their own entrails as they came.
Knern began chanting a growling song. He shimmered, heat whipping around his frame like the air above a brazier. Reaching, he pulled a glassy spear from the air overhead.
The dead villagers came. Knern seemed to float rather than move, to dance rather than fight. He rolled between them, leapt over them, cartwheeled past them. Everywhere his spear flashed, his attackers fell to pieces like wilted flowers.
Ihne watched, unable to do anything more than gape.
Two hands seized her ankles and yanked her to the ground. An old woman’s bleeding torso clambered on top of her, coming nearer. Yellow drool dribbled from her gummy mouth as she crawled to her face.
“Soon,” her husband’s voice whispered from the old woman’s lips.
Bear’s jaws locked around the old woman’s neck and dragged her off. The hound savaged her until the torso went still.
Ihne fought to her feet and clawed her rusty sword free, swinging wildly.
“Surrender, monk!” her husband’s voice bellowed.
An armored knight with a half-severed head strode forward, blade shining with dry blood. “She is mine,” he said, in a serpent’s hissing whisper.
Knern whipped the spear overhead, scattering blood from its pristine blade.
The knight coughed with half-throated laughter and charged, trampling the bodies of twice-dead villagers underfoot. Knern circled like a wary dog, spear leveled. Unearthly calm settled over his limbs. His movements were silk. Light spiraled down his spear like across the smooth surface of an icicle.
The knight charged, broadsword heaving in mad arcs before him.
Knern jerked aside like a serpent and stabbed. Sparks fluttered from the knight’s breastplate as the point deflected. He danced backwards, distancing himself.
The knight’s eyes fell on Ihne. She stumbled backwards and fell, raising her sword between them. “Stay away!”
A large, white smile shone on the knight’s face like light across the flat of a knife.
In a sudden rush, Knern thrust his spear between the knight’s legs and upended him, hurling him to the ground.
The knight rose, as though pulled up by invisible cords. Its head bobbed sickeningly as it heaved its body to the attack, sword raised.
The glassy spear cut and the knight’s head sailed away. But the body came on, plunging forward and tackling Knern to the ground.
“Do not come between me and my bride,” said her husband from somewhere. Gauntleted hands cinched around Knern’s neck, choking him.
Ihne rammed her rusty sword through the knight’s neck cavity, into its chest. She kicked the corpse free with a revolted scream, then helped pull Knern to his feet.
“Bride?!” Knern coughed, rubbing his red throat.
She grabbed the cart horse’s reins and slashed at the leather harness until it split. “We have to run,” she said, swinging up into the saddle.
The hacked bodies began to rise again, the swarming mass swallowing Bear. Knern dropped his spear and it dissolved into a whisk of black smoke as he threw himself up onto the horse. Ihne jabbed her heels into the horse’s side and they rode off, past grabbing hands and biting mouths.
Her husband’s voice boomed laughter, shaking mountains.
The sun never rose. They rode for hours through the mist as the darkness deepened. A voice tinged the wind, impregnating the forest with curses and promises. Her legs cramped in the stirrups and her hips ached from the horse’s motions.
Knern never spoke, and his silence was like a slap to the face. She studied his drawn face over her shoulder, pretending to search the road. Eventually she recognized his expression: fear.
When had she become so accustomed to terror?
Ihne dragged the reins to a halt. Four black marble obelisks rose from a grove of tall grass ahead.
“It’s okay,” Knern said, startling her. “It’s a sanctified grove. We’ll be safe here.”
Ihne doubted that but clicked her tongue, urging the horse forward. Faces of proud warriors mirrored in the obelisks’ surface watched them past.
Knern seemed to read her mind. “Langevierds,” he said. “Demon slayers of ancient days. The stones remember them.”
They dismounted. Ihne staggered on flimsy legs. Knern hunched over, holding his thighs and grimacing. Nothing about him seemed extraordinary in the least, yet the memory of the glassy spear and his inhuman chants remained. “Who are you?” she demanded, rising.
Knern sat and folded his legs. “I was a monk devoted to Onaza,” he said. “She is the spirit of the Yatsu forest. I drank her sacred blood and studied her eight hexagrams. I was cast out of my order for loving a woman.”
A hundred questions bubbled in Ihne’s throat, but she said, “You don’t have to tell me more.”
“What happened in Kodeg must not happen again. You and I will lay bare our secrets here.”
Ihne flinched and shuddered at the severity in his tone, reminded of her husband.
“My order is devoted to the study of the eight hexagrams. They were scribed by Onaza herself. Translating them is the difficulty. Only pieces of fragments remain of the original language, embedded deeply in our own. Thus, they are open to interpretations.”
“My order interprets their meaning as stressing the sacred holiness of life, but they are wrong. I spoke against the monks and was ignored. So I fled and took a wife. I could tell you that in our few weeks together we loved a lifetime, but that is a lie. I never memorized her every hair and freckle. No love exists that does not require an eternity. My brothers came. They killed her and I was cast out. But I retain Onaza’s gifts. Humans cannot rescind a gift given by a spirit.”
Ihne sat and folded her arms in her lap. “But don’t monks require lifelong study, endless meditation, prayer. . .”
“No,” said Knern. “The final hexagram states gokyunkageh-zatleh. The monks translate this to mean, “Endless thought is required.”
“What does it really mean then?”
“No more than a glance is necessary.”
As unaware as Ihne was of Onaza or her followers, the weight of difference struck her like a fist to the gut. “So the hexagrams tell you everything?”
“They are only the Way. Throughout, one phrase is repeated in each inscription. The monks translate it as, “Truth is absolute.’ It truly means, ‘Truth is subjective’.”
That hung between them, deadening the air like smoke. The horse bent its neck to some grass and chewed dully. Grey clouds watched above.
“What happened in Kodeg?” Knern said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what he did, or why.”
“But you know who.”
“That isn’t enough.”
“He’s a demon,” she said. Suddenly her flesh was boiling. “Or a monster. I don’t know!”
Unspoken anger twisted Knern’s face. “Start from the beginning.”
Ihne paced her breaths. “A man came to our lands a year ago. His garb, his manner, his looks were all that of Kings.” She leaned against an obelisk. The shock of cool stone against the back of her neck felt good. “When he spoke. . . I can’t describe it. Have you ever been drunk and heard music?”
He nodded slowly.
“Imperfections in pitch disappear,” she said, voice deadening. “The melody improves, and you drink until it wraps around you like silk. Then the silk becomes iron.” She shook her head. “But that’s irrelevant. He was rich, rich enough to buy his way into my family by purchasing my hand.” The memory of the violence of their first night returned to her, but didn’t sting her near as much as her mother and father’s indifference the next morning.
“Everything deteriorated. There were brawls in the street every hour. Knights dueled to the death every day. Then my parents started fighting. Only I was immune! Then the fires started, burning everything. The village. Our castle. No one fled, they just – sat there.” She met his eyes and saw him flinch. “Men who joke of hell have never been through the fire.”
“As I ran from the castle, I saw him. A black shape with a white face, standing atop the battlements, laughing. Laughing, even as the walls crumbled around him and swallowed him!”
She dragged her fingernails across her arms and gripped her elbows, steadying her hands. “He called to me then and I came. I searched the rubble of the castle, scraping blackened rocks and charred flesh with my nails until I found the mangled limbs and shattered bones of his body. I took a knife and I cut out his heart.”
“Why?” Knern asked quietly.
“Such an easy word to say,” Ihne said, appalled and helpless against the bitterness in her tone. “I can say I was bewitched. But since you require I reveal my soul, I was terrified. I was alone for the first time, and the idea of running alone into the woods terrified me most. Perhaps I could have resisted him but I couldn’t. Didn’t. And I’ve carried his. . . its heart since then.”
Knern pulled the amulet from his pocket, frowning. Ihne staggered when she saw it, averting her gaze.
“What does it want from you?” he said, returning it.
“To go to Chukizen shrine. That’s where I’ve been going.” A choked noise fought its way through her lips. “I thought you could help me. You were the only one I’d ever seen touch it. He wants me. Everyone else who’s touched it has. . . has. . .”
Knern cupped her cheek in his palm. “Their faces aren’t your burden anymore.”
Of course they are. “But what do we do?”
Knern looked west, dark eyes reflecting clots of mist. “Onaza’s shrine isn’t far.”
They rested in the grove for a time, an island of sanctuary from the grey oblivion beyond the dark obelisks. Neither Ihne nor Knern spoke, yet she found their silence soothing after so many words. Occasionally they would glance at one another and quickly look away.
“Do you think Bear is okay?” Ihne asked.
Ihne felt her chest. Bear, an agonizing addition to the casualties she’d caused. “How did you find him?”
“Another runt in the wild,” he said. “First time I ever saw a dog chase a bear.”
Ihne was too sad to smile.
They mounted the horse together and were soon riding from the grove. The shining faces in the obelisks watched them pass, Ihne imagined they looked worried. Knern guided them through the dark forests. The woods deepened, clusters of innumerable tiny trees replaced broadly spaced oaks and pines. The road narrowed, becoming little more than a line of cobbled bricks on the forest floor.
Ihne tried to imagine away all the darkness, tried to imagine she were a simple woman with a simple life. She even imagined Knern as her husband. No fantasy resisted the sinking mire of her past.
Time ceased to exist. Moments sluiced past. They would stop and rest, eat dried meat from the saddlebag and slake their thirst in cold rivers, but day and night disappeared. They wondered aloud to one another how many days had passed before they would sleep on piles of dry leaves or under the looming canopy of trees.
Manicured hedges appeared, replacing the unmolested wild of Yatsu forest. An eight-tiered tower of white stucco bricks emerged from the darkness. Red tiles armored the curling roofs like snake scales. Tasseled bells floated from immense wooden beams, each painted with violent storms and mountainous waves.
White banners sewn with intricate black symbols wavered like candlelight across the primped lawn. Ihne confounded herself staring at indistinct scribbling and meaningless symbols. She noticed Knern didn’t so much as glance at them. They passed under a row of gold-painted arches to the shrine’s steps.
A blue and yellow robed figure descended them slowly. A wicker basket covered his head, completely concealing his face. Eight-colored beads hung from around his neck and coiled around his wrist and waist.
“An acolyte,” Knern muttered. “The tenaik mask was worn by warriors of Onaza long ago, as proof that kings and peasants were made equal by their faith. Now the monks use it to teach the principles of the hexagram. Living as one nearly blind teaches them to see.”
The acolyte stopped on the last step, the eighth. “What do you want here?” he demanded.
Knern slid over the horse’s back and walked over to him. Even a step below the acolyte, he stood over a foot taller. Ihne realized the acolyte must be just a boy.
“Tell Amoson that brother Knern is here.”
The acolyte turned tartly and walked up the steps. Ihne jumped from the saddle, ignoring the dull pain in her thighs and legs. She tied the reins of the horse to a nearby post.
When she turned, she saw Knern staring at her. His blue eyes did not shy from hers and Ihne found herself unable to tear hers away.
An old man with an ashen face and a fleecy beard appeared at the top of the steps. Fleshy pink and blue robes creased by age doddered from his skeletal shoulders. A white paper hat crested his spotted head. He walked unsteadily, using a long staff tacked with hundreds of small prayer scrolls as a crutch as he teetered down the stairs. He stopped and smiled the most kindly smile Ihne had ever seen. “Hello, Knern,” he said.
Knern’s jaw set and his left eye wriggled.
Amoson’s smile wavered briefly. “Why are you here? To preach your fraudulent doctrine?” Malice haunted Amoson’s rheumy gaze as he turned to her. “Who are you?”
“Ihne. I’m…. Ihne.”
“I’ve fantasized about this moment,” said Knern, lifting a seemingly leaden finger. “About how that ugly head would look on my mantle.”
If Amoson was surprised, perturbed, insulted or angered by Knern’s promise, he didn’t show it. He didn’t even react. Ihne wondered he’d heard Knern.
“You have much to learn,” Amoson said after a ponderous pause.
Ihne stared at him, trying to remember a more feeble verbal riposte.
“We’re here because we have no choice,” said Knern.
Amoson bobbed his head. “Begone. Our order has two purposes. To worship and study the word and memory of divine Onaza and to slay the demons of this world, her sworn enemies.” He arched a wispy eyebrow. “Have you brought us a demon?”
“Yes,” she said. “My husband.”
A dozen voices droned , their grating tones echoing through the shrine. Smoke boils from red hot pans and gongs rumbled from hidden enclaves. Basket-wearing acolytes walked in slow spiraling circles, tall candles clutched in hand.
Ihne stood to the side with Knern, feeling as though she was witnessing something obscene.
Amoson’s heavy robes lay flat against his spindly frame. He was wearing that same overwrought smile, making him look like a street mural done by some grinning vagrant.
Ihne’s silver amulet pulsed on the plateau of the monk’s veined palms.
Rising in pitch, the monks ululated and pressed their foreheads to the floor before the bronze statue of Onaza. She’d been molded in a cross-legged sitting position, knees conjoined to the opposite foot. Heavy iron bangles hung from huge wrists and curls of gold-plated hair curled over her frame like waterfalls exploding against a huge stone. Benevolent, barely opened eyes watched drowsily.
Amoson’s insect-like fingers opened the silver amulet and removed the heart. It was a pink, shriveled thing, corded with blue and white veins. He knelt and slid the organ onto a copper platter below the statue.
“It doesn’t affect him,” Ihne mumbled.
“Onaza protects him,” Knern grunted, lips curled.
Eight monks carrying eight banners painted with the hexagrams converged before the shrine. The droning bass of their amorphous voices sheared through the acolytes’ song, joining in one nonsensical chorus.
Amoson reared his head, raised his arms and began singing. His voice pierced the others, recasting them to the force of his foreign words. The monks’ voices were no longer many, but one, focusing to a point like a lance’s tip.
Ihne felt hope, like unclouded sunshine pouring across her breast. Her husband’s heart and cruelty seemed a tiny thing compared to Onaza’s majesty and the power of her followers. Demons tormented humans, but Gods destroyed demons.
The ceremony abruptly ended. The banner monks left the hexagram scrolls beneath the statue and withdrew into the catacombs. Basket-headed acolytes bumbled into one another before retiring. Only Amoson remained. He turned, still smiling.
“We have identified the spirit in question,” he said, folding his arms behind his back.
Ihne tried to swallow but couldn’t.
“Well?” said Knern, sounding impatient.
“Your husband is a rakshen,” said Amoson. “It is a shape-changing demon with evil powers.” He began stroking his beard, a gesture that made him look grasping rather than wise.
“A . . . rakshen?”
“One of Chukiek’s creations,” said Amoson, bobbing his head. “They desire to dominate humanity, as a lion does the jungle. They never cease growing, not until they die. One as old as your husband has glutted himself on souls for thousands of years.” He dragged his gaze to Knern. “We have prayed and Onaza will surely destroy it. Good of you to bring such an evil to our attention.”
Knern made a noise in the back of his throat.
Amoson’s eyes lit like twin spats of flame. “Such anger! Is it not misplaced? Did you not know what our duty was, as your sworn brothers, once you had violated the tenets? Our hands slew your bride, Knern, but does no blame belong to you as well?”
Ihne looked at him. Of course he’d thought that, it was written in every jagged line in his tired face.
“And there’s no fault in your willful deception?” Knern said, shifting on his feet. “Of your blindness to the hexagrams’ true meaning?”
“If we are blind, then our lack of sight is miniscule compared to yours when you penetrated that girl’s womb.” Amoson paused. “Return to us. Leave your life behind and return here where you belong, brother.”
“I’m done spreading your lies.”
Amoson shrugged easily. “You may do as you will. Your interpretations coupled with ours will inspire scholarly and meaningful debates. I only ask that you do not take another woman again.” He paused, eyes glinting shrewdly. “But I do not think that will be difficult for you.”
“No,” said Knern, sounding like a petulant child.
Ihne winced, feeling as though some creature was clawing at the walls of her stomach to be free.
“I can’t forgive any of you,” said Knern.
“Twenty years have passed,” Amoson said, smile withering finally into a look of blank resentment. “It will take days to slay the rakshen. You are welcome here.”
An acolyte led them to two separate chambers. Knern and Ihne entered their rooms and spoke not a word.
Ihne stared at the cracked pages of a dusty yellow tome. Waxy yellow light hovered over her shoulder, illuminating the leather bound volume’s heavily scribed pages.
She wondered how many different monks had spent hours bent-necked over these images. Scrolling text wove through intricate illustrations of faces, mountains, stars, all contained within the six pointed symbol. Sutras lined the pages after each hexagram, divided into subsections: explanatory, divinations, ruminations.
Ihne closed the book and rubbed her cheeks. Wax tears dribbled down the tall candle’s shaft and pooled at its metal base. Floorboards strained under the slightest weight, and the room’s silence made each crack as loud as splitting bones. The earthy scent of sandalwood couldn’t mask the overpowering smell of dust and rotted wood.
She thought of Knern. Of all things missing from her chamber, she felt his absence the most. Ihne knew he’d accept Amoson’s offer of peace and was glad. But a sense of end filled her, like the last straining grains of sand trickling through an hourglass.
Steam roiled from a wooden tub of hot water in the corner. She knelt beside it, scrubbing the dirt from her skin with her fingernails. The water’s feel could only be described as cleansing. She soon found herself pouring water over already clean skin.
An acolyte’s simplistic robe lay folded in the dank closet. She dressed, tying the flesh colored garment at the waist with a yellow sash. The silk fabric reduced her strides to a shuffling gait. Ihne drew her sword and cut it down the sides.
She walked from her room, slippers squeaking against over-polished hardwood floors as she passed lush gardens, onyx statues, and everywhere huge scrolls painted with the hexagrams.
A man appeared at the end of the hall. Black robes embroidered with white leaves fell from his shoulders. Knern saw her and stopped.
The floor suddenly seemed frozen in a thin layer of ice. Ihne lowered her head.
Knern grunted, raising his hands. “No, don’t.” He turned and sat on the edge of the veranda. “Shit on everything,” he said, sounding drunk. “Monks. Their asses itch. They burp when they drink and fart after they eat.”
Ihne bit her bottom lip.
Knern sighed deeply, and then looked back up at her. “You’re beautiful,” he said.
“I’m tired,” she said, sitting beside him.
Knern nodded. “You should sleep,” he said, and she smelled the wine on his breath.
“I mean I’m exhausted.” She looked down at her palm and traced the lines with her fingertip. “What do the hexagrams say about death?”
“Death is the eighth hexagram,” said Knern. “It is empty.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s devoid of words or poetry or images.” Knern scratched at the stubble on his jaw.
“I don’t understand.”
“Death is the end of life. How you died, why, where, when. . . That’s all meaningless to you when you die. Death washes the soul clean of pain and sorrow and joy. It’s incorruptible.” He shrugged. “That’s what’s meant.”
She thought about that. “But there’s always someone who remembers. Maybe my family and the villagers from Kodeg and all the others are free, but I’m not. Not until I die, is that the way of it?”
“Onaza will dispel the rakshen soon,” Knern said quietly.
“Dispel,” she said, “but not kill. Then where do I go?”
“You could stay here.”
Ihne yanked on her fingers and cracked them methodically. “Women aren’t permitted here, I know that much.”
They sat in silence.
She stood. “You’ve enough suffering. Take the peace that’s been offered.”
“No,” he said suddenly. “I haven’t suffered enough. Amoson is right that I killed her. It doesn’t matter how anyone translates the hexagrams. I should have known what they would do.”
He stood and their eyes met. “But I have a chance to change that. I can fix a thousand years of lies, if I have a little time. When Amoson dies, I’ll succeed him as grand master here, and then I can change everything.”
Ihne forced herself to nod and smile.
Screams of laughter howled through the shrine’s halls.
Pale flames burned in iron braziers, emanating darkness. Dozens of monks undulated in shrill voices, creating a chaos of unintelligible words. Hexagram banners lay toppled and trampled at Onaza’s feet.
A pink and white heart throbbed in Amoson’s hands.
Ihne fell to her knees. Knern bellowed, but was one voice in hundreds.
“Ang-bachzusumiya!” Amoson screeched, silencing the cacophony of sounds.
The monks of Onaza drew iron daggers. Some cut their wrists. Others plunged the blades through their hearts and slumped over at once. A few embraced others tightly, stabbing frantically. One carved open his abdomen, moaning as his entrails spilled free. Ihne had never felt so powerless before.
The heart shuddered in Amoson’s hands, pulsing as the corded muscles and sticky viscera expanded. A look of reverence fixed itself upon the old monk’s face as he approached the statue of Onaza. He climbed onto her lap and pressed the organ between her bronze breasts.
The heart sank into the statue.
Knern muttered words too quiet to hear. He reached above and plucked a shimmering glass blade from nothingness, as though picking a leaf from a branch. “Stop, Amoson!”
Amoson turned. “Have you come to renew your vows? You are too late to join the others.” He swept his hand over the bloody crops of mangled bodies.
“What are you trying to do?” Knern said.
“What the rakshen has asked of me.”
Ihne stood, rusty sword appearing in her hand. “Don’t you understand he’s using you!”
“I know this well,” he said, tone admonishing. “I am ninety years old, child. Eighty-four of those years were spent in this shrine. I passed my time staring at scrolls and bowing to a piece of metal. Imitating enlightenment. Quoting the lies of my mentors.”
“The hexagrams!” Amoson spat. “They are not answers. They are not the Way. They are ink scratching on scraps of paper. They reveal to us only our own stupidity in preserving their myth.”
“The rakshen told you this?” said Knern.
Amoson smiled down on him. “Yes. He showed me my blindness. But I cannot deny that I long contemplated the purpose of our order. Misgivings are a holy man’s only mate.”
“I’m going to kill you,” said Knern, dropping into a crouch.
Amoson’s smile wavered. “Cruel and cold! You would kill me on the eve of my reward? The rakshen will enlighten me!” Amoson leapt down, moving nimbler than Ihne believed possible.
Knern raised his sword and slashed. Amoson blocked the sword with his sleeve, wrapping the blade in the drooping silk and wrenching it aside. With a snap of his other wrist, his left sleeve looped over Knern’s neck and twisted tight, choking him.
Blood boiling, Ihne rushed to battle. Amoson saw her, yanked Knern down by the throat and kicked him at her. Ihne sprang aside, screamed and stabbed.
The old monk evaded the thrust and snapped his sleeves around her wrist, roping them together. He dragged her close, until the stray gray hairs of his face tickled her own.
“The rakshen has told me all about you,” he whispered, breath steaming across her face. “All about you,” said her husband’s voice.
Knern rolled to his feet and roared to the attack. Ihne locked Amoson’s sleeves in her elbows, holding him inanimate.
“No,” the old monk wailed.
Knern’s shining sword severed his neck like it was made of cotton. The paper-crowned head toppled to the ground, dribbling a trail of thick black blood.
Ihne shoved the weightless corpse off of her and rose.
Cracks thundered through the bronze statue’s hull. Chips rumbled loose and shattered against the ground. Huge hands ripped from within, shattering metal as though it were constructed of glued eggshells.
Two eyes blazed within.
Branches whipped past in the night. Ihne jabbed her heels into the horse’s flanks and cracked the reins. Knern sat behind, black robes waving in the wind.
Her husband followed. The rakshen’s steps rocked the earth like earthquakes. The hulk of his body followed, made black by distance, a silhouette framing the distant conflagration of Onaza’s shrine. Massive flames exploded from all eight tiers.
Knern muttered dark words. A glass stave appeared in his hand and a quiver of silvery arrows materialized across his back. He notched, drew, loosed, and his arrow briefly turned night into day.
An inhuman howl answered, following them as they raced through the forest. Trees shivered, scattering leaves to the ground, and Ihne’s hands instinctively covered her ears.
A massive boulder hurled past overhead, breaking the backs of a dozen trees, sending them toppling with splintered screams. A large pine lurched and crashed in their path. Ihne yanked back hard on the reins. Too hard. The old horse reared, spilling them both to the ground.
The rakshen came, a towering shape of rippling muscles and matted grey fur. Saliva boiled from quivering gums and an obscenely long tongue flicked across bone white fangs. Wrinkles creased its long snout as it snarled, and claws like broadswords raked the ground, scarring it.
“I have come for my bride,” the rakshen thundered, smashing aside hulking trees like brittle twigs.
A glass blade appeared in Knern’s hands. “Be gone, demon! Torture her no more!”
The rakshen’s jaw slackened and emitted a stuttering guffaw. “This world is infested by monks,” it said, dwarfing Knern in its shadow as it charged, bounding on all fours.
Knern rolled under a swiping claw, glass sword tracing a silver arc. Black blood spewed from a deep cut and pooled on the ground like tar. The rakshen lowered its knotty, hunched shoulder and bulled into Knern, smashing him to the ground.
Ihne found her courage, drew her sword and charged with a desperate shriek.
Worms of saliva flung from the rakshen’s gaping maw as it shrieked at her.
Her body froze and her sword fell from nerveless fingers.
“A thousand years of your suffering would not sate my thirst for you,” it said.
A fiery shape emerged from the forest and lunged at the rakshen’s heel. The massive demon yowled and reared and rolled off of Knern. Ihne rushed forward, dragging him back.
“Onaza has come!” Knern shouted, insane.
A whining yelp, and the bright shape disappeared. The rakshen howled, staggering, pressing its huge palm to the ruin of its left ankle. The beast’s body shriveled and changed, quivering into the shape of a naked man.
Her husband rose, godlike physique flexing like new steel. Blood sluiced from a gash across his arm and his left ankle was a mangled pulp.
His amethyst eyes struck her like twin hammer blows.
“Only you,” he said, voice oscillating into a serenading tone. “I love you, Ihne.”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. “No,” she said, resisting.
“I love you, Ihne,” he said again.
Guilt welled inside of her. None of this would have happened if she hadn’t fled. Her husband’s rage was borne out of passion, out of love. How could she be so selfish, so blind?
“I love you,” she breathed, even as her mind screamed.
When she opened her eyes, he stood before her, glistening with blood and sweat like some fabled hero. The scent of him intoxicated her. His eyes enchanted her, light undulating in his bottomless irises like light from deep pools of water.
“We belong together,” he said, arms drifting over her shoulders and pressing her close.
“Yes,” she gasped.
A silver arrow thudded into her husband’s chest. He staggered and turned.
Knern lay on the ground, light shimmering across his glass bow.
The rakshen dropped to one knee and howled a noise like the rush of a massive wave through a gaping tidal cavern. His arms crumpled into dust, his legs vanished, his face disappeared. Javelins of yellow lightning speared across the sky as his body vanished.
Leaving only a large pink and white heart in the grass. The organ pumped tersely, furiously.
“Not dead,” she said, suppressing a scream. At the rakshen or herself, she wasn’t sure.
Knern dragged himself up. His left leg seemed nearly twisted completely around. A bone jutted from shoulder and his ribs looked wrong. His left eye had swelled shut. “A rakshen cannot die,” he said, looking down at the heart.
Ihne held herself. “I can never escape. Can I?” She looked at him.
Knern turned away and stalked into the forest, kneeling beside the hulk of a dark, shaggy shape. “Did you see?” he said, eyes fervent as he looked up at her. “Onaza came. She saved me, she came through Bear!”
Ihne knelt beside him, running her fingers across the hound’s curling fur. Bear looked up at her and blinked. Tears limped from her eyes.
“We can’t kill it,” he said, rubbing Bear’s long ears between his fingers. “But together we can hide it. Until the world forgets it existed. Until our scars are gone.”
“Together,” she said, touching his hand.
Light blinked over the horizon, the first time in weeks.