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Pride Children

The skychild fell to earth on a winter's morning. Its stiff, wide wings burned, with a stench like the forest touched by high summer, and it had crawled away from them in a muddy curl of snow and crushed grass to lie gasping and whimpering on one flank. The pride watched it curiously from a safe distance, with eldercreatures keeping the young from getting too close. The pride's Fathercreature stayed watchfully close, for all that it looked to be at rest, its great tawny mane tangling in the grass. Further away, on the lower boughs of the pride's Mother Tree, Matriarch Keeko held court with her favourite daughters to decide the intruder's fate.

"Leave it to die," said Eeyoona, flicking her luxuriously spotted long tail in disdain. Long-limbed and powerfully built, she licked her long-muzzled jaws and fingered the wyrmtooth dagger lashed to her hips.

"I say we kill it and eat it," offered Liis of the midnight pelt, her yellow eyes hard and narrowed, crouched a bough higher, closest to Keeko, her right as oldest daughter. "The skychildren kill and eat us."

"That's just a rumour," said Ijaya mildly, her flat muzzle turned towards the skychild and its ruined wings, her double-toothed spear strapped across her back with soft leather that she had tanned and stitched herself, her black-tipped ears flicking back and forth in her thick silver mane. "Earth Law does not permit the eating of any Children-Who-Speak. We may not speak the sky language, but the skychildren have a language. And clothes. And far-away-homes. They are not to be eaten."

"So we leave it to die," Eeyoona repeated, with a meaningful, lazy smile at Liis, who bared her canines in a silent response. Keeko closed her eyes, leaning back against the thick, sweet-smelling trunk of Mother Tree, her arms folded under her pendulous breasts, brushed with golden fur. Her tufted tail swung in absent time against the bark, the claws of her feet kneading the branch.

"What does Ruurii say?" Keeko asked finally, with a glance at Ijaya.

"To watch and wait. If the skychild dies, it dies. If it lives, we shall see. They are like ants," Ijaya said gently, when Liis bristled. "Kill one and more will come, more and more, with their strange magic. Ruurii is preparing the warding-prayers, just in case, but we all know how strong skychildren magic can be."

Liis spat to her right, and Ijaya tried not to bristle, even as Eeyoona chuckled and leaned closer towards Ijaya in an apparent gesture of solidarity. Ijaya wasn't fooled. The more white streaks that gathered every season around Keeko's muzzle, the more bitterly Eeyoona and Liis fought. Sometimes one would side with Ijaya over the other, but the gesture was never sentimental.

"So it shall be," Keeko said wearily. "Spread the word. We will keep watch on the skychild, no more. If it dies, it dies."

But the skychild did not die, not this day or the next. It had stripped itself of its burned, brown pelt and donned a new one, lighter brown and white. It made a spell of soft-singing that agitated Ruurii and made Ijaya's fur stand briefly on end, and after that it could walk, shaky at first on two legs, then more comfortably. It seemed wary of the watching pride, but it was not afraid. It was, Ijaya realized, old. Like Keeko, the skychild had white fur, although it was frayed and on its small moon-like head, tied messily at the back into a ball, and the rest of it under its pelt seemed to be an odd earth brown all over. As with all other skychildren, under its removable pelt it was furless, and this one was wrinkled all over, its face, the corners of its eyes, its hands and pale neck. It was also tiny, only as tall as a cub and nowhere as wide. It ate and drank from its pack, which hadn't burned under its wings.

On the fourth day, Keeko summoned her favourite daughters back to her, and Ruurii as well. Being sister to Keeko, not daughter, Ruurii stayed politely at the foot of the Mother Tree instead of climbing up to a bough. "It is not going to die," Keeko observed, and waited.

"It still could be made to," Liis pointed out, but mulishly.

"It must be told to leave," Ruurii said respectfully, from the base of the tree. "If it will not leave, then we may kill it. We must not be the ones to strike with no reason, but we cannot have skychildren here. Their magic untwists the threads of the world. Each casting digs open a wound. The longer that it stays here, the worse it will get."

Eeyoona grimaced, never one for immediate courage, and Liis sniffed again, her fingers flexing. Keeko closed her eyes, frowning to herself, but before the Matriarch decided to take matters into her own hands, Ijaya said, "I will speak to the skychild."

"You?" Liis demanded, her lip curling to bare one canine tooth.

"We'll watch your back," Eeyoona assured her, and the flicking tip of her tail was her only sign of relief. "If anything happens, Fathercreature can get you quickly to safety and we will spear the skychild from the ledges."

Ruurii's ears flattened back unhappily, but she said nothing, though she shot Ijaya a worried look. Keeko exhaled slowly. "So it will be. I will speak to Fathercreature. Ijaya, be ready."

The skychild looked up from where it sat upon its neat nest of bedding as Ijaya walked slowly closer, her hands palm up, trying to look unthreatening, even though she was fully armed with spear and dagger. Behind Ijaya, she could hear Fathercreature let out a plaintive, coughing growl, already anxious. Keeko's hands would be in its mane: she was on its back. The moment Ijaya seemed remotely in danger, she knew that her mother would kick her heels into Fathercreature's ribs, and the great beast would be with her in one, two bounds to spirit her away. Eeyoona and the spearcreatures were watching for the sign, from higher ground.

Ijaya stopped at what she hoped was a respectful distance, and the skychild stared at her with open curiosity. This close, it was even uglier than she had thought, but Ijaya forced herself to turn her cheek back and forth, briefly baring her neck in a polite gesture of neutral-respectful-greeting. "I have sight of you, skychild, and you of me." Ijaya tried to keep the nervousness from her tone. "I am called Ijaya. This is the Black Rock pride."

"Ijaya," the skychild said, and smiled, to Ijaya's surprise. "I am called Neesha y Aronna, of the Hundredfold City."

"You speak pride language?" Ijaya asked, shocked—but no, her fur was tingling again, and this magic was a small wound, like grazed scratches. "No. You are using skychildren magic to speak to me."

"You could tell?" Neesha looked pleased. "I've always told those fools at the Collegium that the Irriirii People were intelligent. It's obvious from your social structures."

"Try to speak very little," Ijaya grit out, trying to hang on to her calm. "Your magic hurts the world, even like this. Matriarch Keeko has sent me to speak on behalf of the pride. You must leave our lands. We will escort you to our borders. If you need food and water, we can provide some from our stores. Go and do not return."

"I would if I could," Neesha said glumly, "but positional geomancy was never my strong point. What do you mean, my magic hurts the world?" it added curiously.

"What do you mean, you can't leave?"

"I was on my way back to the Hundredfold City, but I crashed here. I don't know what hit me—must have been a delayed firetail curse from Orshan. But I must get back to the Hundredfold."

"These names mean nothing to me."

"I have a map. A picture of your lands." Neesha rooted around in its nest, and unscrolled a long piece of thin white bark from a strange tube. It was an intricate drawing, almost as intricate as one of Ruurii's warding-inscriptions, and it took Ijaya a moment to realize that it was indeed a part-picture of the world. The long river bisected little drawings of trees, and the great World-Spine was shown in little jagged lines, as was the Mother's Mouths, which the river eventually bisected into. Ijaya was amazed. Was the world so big? And the whole of the left corner, coloured in like the Mother's Mouths—was there truly that much water? Made dizzy by knowledge, Ijaya barely paid attention as the skychild started speaking again.

"Here." Neesha pointed at a strange, complicated drawing that sat on the slopes of the World-Spine. "I need to get here."

"The Mother's Mouths—this part—is there." Ijaya waved to the south, still unsteady. "And the World-Spine is there. So your 'Hundredfold' must be to the northeast. You will have to cross the lands of the Red Paw pride. Beyond that, I do not know."

"Are your people friendly with the Red Paw?"

"Some," Ijaya said warily. "We have no war between us. We can ask them to give you safe passage, but it will be up to their Matriarch."

"I don't want to cause any more disruption than I already have. What if I were to go around the Red Paw?"

"You would have to circle around here." Ijaya traced a winding path that hugged part of the river. "Where you will cross the Long Tooth pride, and they do not like strangers. Not even other Earth Children."

Neesha pursed its mouth. "I don't want any trouble," it repeated unhappily. "There are few enough of your kind left as it is."

"So you will go?" Ijaya pressed.

"Yes." Neesha sounded defeated. "I will go. Northeast, you say." It didn't sound hopeful.

"Northeast," Ijaya echoed. "The Matriarch says you may stay one more night, and leave in the morning."

"Please thank her for me. And your people. You have been..." Neesha hesitated. "Kind. You have all been very kind."

Kind. That was an odd word. 'Kind' was a word for mothers with daughters. Ijaya tilted her head, but Neesha was starting to pack up the scroll again, and in the end, Ijaya decided to retreat.

"It will leave in the morning," Ijaya told Keeko. "I will take it to the border of the Red Paw."

"Good. Well done." Keeko slid off Fathercreature's back, patting its shoulder as it huffed at them both, then snuffled Ijaya worriedly, nudging at her until she patted its translucent cheek absently, fingers sinking past her nails into shadow-made-flesh. Keeko stalked off, back towards the Mother Tree, Eeyoona padding after her, but Ruurii remained, her ears flicking forward.

"It was using magic all the time that you were talking to it." Ruurii said finally.

"Yes, to speak in our language."

Ruurii grunted. "I thought so. Did you tell it to stop?"

"It did not seem to care."

Ruurii eyed Ijaya carefully. "You will take it just to the border?"

"That is what I said."

"Ijaya," Ruurii sighed, and glanced briefly towards the direction that Keeko had gone. "It is the nature of us silvercreatures to wander," she said finally. "For we will never become Matriarch within our own prides. We were born too close to the bones of the Earth. So it is in our nature to be restless. That thing that the skychild showed you, what was it?"

Briefly, Ijaya contemplated lying, but in the end, she bowed her head, still restless. "The world, Ruurii. It showed me the world... and how small our own part of it was."

"I think you will not stop just at the border." Ruurii rubbed her cheek with slow affection against Ijaya's shoulder. "Be prepared."

The Red Paw border was normally only a full day's travel for Ijaya from the Mother Tree, but Neesha walked very slowly, and had to stop every few hours for a break. They were making poor time, but Ijaya tried not to be annoyed. Neesha seemed to be old, after all, and it was small and now wingless. Birds were slow on the ground.

"It's very kind of you to be accompanying me," Neesha said, when they had to make camp for the night.

That word again: kind. Ijaya grimaced. "It is not 'kind.' It is needed."

"Your people didn't send an honour guard... or did they think it wasn't necessary? That shakara followed us for a time. I've never seen one so big."

Ijaya had patiently shooed off Fathercreature, or it would've lingered on still, anxious and worried. "I have not seen another. They do not range close to the borders, and I have been told that they are rare."

"They aren't rare, not anymore," Neesha disagreed grimly. "But however your people managed to tame one that big... it's an achievement."

"Fathercreature is not 'tame,'" Ijaya corrected, annoyed. "It is as it is."

"'Father'?" Neesha echoed, surprised, then looked Ijaya over slowly, its face creasing. "Really? That's not a translation error? That shakara... is your sire?"

"Each pride has one." The skychild's ignorance was like a cub's, and Ijaya felt her annoyance fading. As a silvercreature, she was used to the teaching of cubs, at least.

"How does that even work?" Neesha asked, fascinated. "Those things are huge. And the ones I've seen are usually vicious."

"To the skychildren, maybe. Eventually, when Matriarch Keeko returns to the Great Mother, Fathercreature will call in another Fathercreature for the new Matriarch, while it returns to its endsleep against the bones of the world. There has not been an incident of the new Fathercreature being 'vicious'."

"... The Irriirii lead rather more complex lives than I thought." Neesha blinked. "Sorry, all of you are female? And the male of your species is the shakara?"

"What is 'female'?" Ijaya asked, puzzled. Skychildren magic had not been able to translate the word: it left an unsound word in its wake, from the skychild language.

Neesha laughed, wide-eyed. "Professor Crake would kill to be talking to you right now in my place. Your Matriarch is the one who bears children? Gives birth?"

"Ah-h-h. You mean 'mother'."

"Not really. You can be female and not be a mother. A lot of mages and sellswords don't have children, for good reasons. But they have the, uh, bits that let them be a mother... or, hm, that's not quite right, some people aren't born into the right bodies, or aren't interested, or can't be mothers even if they have the parts, and..." Neesha trailed off, frowning. "This is more complicated to explain than I thought."

"You skychildren are strange," Ijaya decided diplomatically. "If being able to be a mother is not so important, then what is the point of this word, 'female'? Everyone is one and the same."

"It's not quite the same for us," Neesha said thoughtfully, though it was subdued now, and went to sleep quickly after a small dinner without a further word.

The skychildren were clearly not quite sane.

Four days into the Red Paw pridelands and it was finally clear to Ijaya that there was something wrong.

She had never been beyond the borders of the Black Rock, but the increasingly chalky soil under her feet was too strange, as were the trees, bleached white, stark without leaves, dead fingers in a forest where no birds sang, and even the cicadas were quiet. The air smelled acrid, like old deermusk, sour and unpleasant. Neesha was wary. "Ijaya, it's best that you turn around. I'll go on forward alone."

"What has happened here?"

"The Orshanese happened," Neesha said grimly. "See this?" It scratched at the bark of the closest tree, and the bark came away, crumbling in its fingers. "That's what their magic does to the world. It doesn't simply bend the fabric of Creation, like ours. It warps it. It is why we fought our war."

"How long has it been?"

"Two hundred years. Ah... what is the word... two hundred winters," Neesha elaborated, when Ijaya looked blank.

Two hundred winters. Ijaya could not conceive of so much time in her head, let alone time spent in bloodletting. Neesha did not seem to notice her amazement. "They were looking for me, I think," it muttered. "But they didn't come southwest, or we would've run straight into them."

Southwest into the Black Rock's lands. Ijaya stumbled, briefly nauseous as she thought of the lands of her birth turning chalky underfoot, the trees dying, and Neesha glanced at her in sharp concern. "Go," Neesha prompted. "Go home. I'll be fine."

She wanted to. Ijaya was afraid, and she had never been so afraid before, not even when she was a cub, on the night of her first summerstorm, when the lightning cracked open the sky. Her gut clenched within her, and her fur stood high on end, her ears flat on her skull. This was magic beyond even Ruurii's magic. No one would blame her for going home.

No one but Ijaya herself. She was a silvercreature after all, born closest to the bones of the world. And she had her mother's stubbornness. It seemed wrong to leave this frail old skychild to fend for itself. Or to leave the Red Paw's pridelands without checking on their welfare, or to do nothing, while the threat that turned the world to chalk came closer and closer to the Black Rock.

"First, we find the Red Paw pride," Ijaya said, trying to sound as calm as she wanted to be.

"They're probably dead. Can you imagine them standing aside as the Orshanese did this to their lands?"

Ijaya could not quite imagine what sort of great magic could have taken out an entire pride and its Fathercreature. "There may be survivors."

Neesha shook its head, but said nothing. The air felt more and more dry as they made their way deeper into the dead forest, Ijaya flinching whenever she felt something crumble underfoot. She found herself trying not to breathe too deeply, and she had unlimbered her spear, her hand clenched tight on the supple hide grip as they crested the hill.

The Mother Tree!

"Ijaya!" Neesha hissed. For something so small, it had a surprisingly strong grip, bearing Ijaya sharply down onto the chalky soil, clapping a hand tightly over Ijaya's mouth before she could cry out. Ijaya squirmed angrily against Neesha, but relaxed when she realized what Neesha had seen. Slowly, she tried to calm her quickened, wounded breaths, so sharply close to sobs. The Red Paw's Mother Tree had been uprooted. It lay on its great flank, its roots curled in empty claws in the air, shedding chunks of dead soil, its boughs shattered on the bone-white grass. Red Paw's Matriarch had died tangled in the branches, and her spearcreatures were curled like worms before her, their skins made colourless, desiccated down to their bones.

Red Paw's Fathercreature had crawled away towards the northeast for some distance, but now lay in unmoving on stained grass, its sweeping horns broken, its scaly flanks rent with great wounds. Ijaya twisted away from Neesha despite Neesha's urgent hiss, sliding down the cliff face, darting over the dead—Earth, so much dead—to the Fathercreature's side. It groaned wetly as it felt her coming, turning its translucent, seemingly eyeless muzzle towards her, snuffling uncertainly. It did not know her, and had it been hale, its pride whole, it would have attacked. Now it made a moaning, urgent sound, and snuffled again as she reached tentatively for its cheek. When it did not try to twist away, she petted it, gulping down sobs that heaved out of her in urgent gasps.

"They couldn't finish off a shakara with the tools they had," Neesha said softly, at a safe distance. "But they tried."

"The Matriarch is dead," Ijaya said stiffly. "Fathercreature will return to the bone world." As though it disagreed, the Fathercreature coughed, and tried to struggle to its feet, whining in distress. "Can you do anything?" Ijaya asked anxiously. "With your skychildren magic? I saw you heal yourself. Before."

"I'm no great healer." Neesha looked uncomfortable. "And I've never tried magic on a shakara before. The Orshanese contingent must have brought one of the Iron Glaives. Artillery pieces. See that?" It pointed at the Mother Tree, where there were huge gouges in the soil, like huge gopher holes.


For a moment, Neesha looked like it would refuse, but then it sighed. "All right. But if I make it angry, or worse, you'd better hold it back from eating us."

The Fathercreature growled, its opaque teeth bared, as Neesha murmured to itself, fingers twisting into asymmetrical, petal-like gestures. Ijaya spoke nonsense words to the Fathercreature, petting and soothing it, trying not hold down her own nausea as she felt the wounding come, the world-fabric bending, scratched thinner. The wounds on the shadow-flanks began to close, even as Fathercreature grunted in alarm and tried to drag itself away, tail lashing. It calmed down when Ijaya grabbed on to its muzzle, pressing her cheek above its lips, her arms thrown as far around its jaws as she could stretch. When Neesha finally let out a hollow gasp and stumbled back, rubbing at its eyes, Fathercreature's flanks were whole.

"That's... as far as I can manage," Neesha said weakly. "Any more and I'll need something to ground the signature."

"It's amazing," Ijaya said earnestly, as Fathercreature shook free of her grasp and inspected itself, sniffing. Then it rose shakily to its feet. "Wait!" Ijaya told it. "You need rest." It ignored her, loping painfully towards the dead trees, fading, growing more translucent as it went, and Ijaya gave up, watching it leave. Returning to the bones.

"Thanks," Ijaya told Neesha instead.

Neesha waved her thanks away. "I can't go any further today. Tomorrow, we need to be careful where we tread."

The Orshanese hadn't bothered to hide themselves. They left a wide muddy path like a brown scar through the chalky soil, bowling dead trees away in their wake. "Avoiding the main search party isn't the problem," Neesha whispered, as they angled away from the scar. "It's their scouts. Spellmekhs. They can be as small as a bug or as big as a tower. But they're powered by Orshanese magic, so if you can sense my magic, you can probably sense a scout coming."

"They seem to hate you very much," Ijaya whispered back.

Neesha patted the saddlebag that it had slung at its hip. "They're looking for something that I stole. A book from their Library-Eternal. It explains how their magic is woven—and more importantly, how it can be unwound."

"Two hundred years of war and your people choose to steal such a thing only now?"

Neesha let out a startled laugh that it hastily stifled. "You are as catlike as you look."

Ijaya frowned, unsure whether she was being teased, but before she could speak she felt it. A wound in the world, clawing closer. She dragged Neesha behind a tree, urging her to stay low, and climbed up the dead bark, careful of the boughs.

The Spellmekh flit closer, in an even line, its wings humming at its back. It looked like a nectarbird, but without the iridescent feathers, and it had cruel spikes for a beak and feet. Ijaya crouched lower in the tree as the Spellmekh passed slowly by, then she climbed hastily back down when she could no longer hear its wings. It made for slow going. The Orshanese had peppered the dead wood with spies, all in different shapes: spike-beaked nectarbirds and podlike beetles, knife-like lizards and squat, noisy boars. Once Ijaya had to haul Neesha up a tree, holding it against a bough as a fist-sized beetle droned by beneath their feet.

Neesha smelled of fear, all rank sweat. With Ijaya, however, fear had long seemed burned away into some sort of anticipatory calm, like the mind-sense at the cusp of a hunt. She could do this. Surely there was not much more of the Red Paw lands to go. Ijaya could see the World-Spine, a distant green-gray smudge, banked against the empty sky like the jagged rim of a vast bowl. Beyond that, there would be still more sky. Ijaya was elated. She had never come so far before.

It made her careless: or maybe they had been herded all along. Once the trees thinned out into stepped plains, they found the Orshanese waiting. The scar that they had gouged out from the Red Paw's lands ended in the first lowland steppe, under the belly of what looked like some gigantic storm-gray slug, its thick metallic, segmented flanks gleaming wetly under the weak afternoon sun. Its back was spined with great orange pennants that snapped in the wind, and skychildren swarmed atop it, encased beetle-like in scaled armour and metal shells. It was winched to some sort of sleigh that held something that looked like a huge metal bough on its back, upon which was notched a gigantic spear.

Neesha's hand clasped tightly on Ijaya's wrist. "If we run-"

"There is nowhere to run." Away from fear, only calm. Was this what Ruurii felt all the time, in perfect step with the weave of the world? When the Fathercreature slunk out of the dead forest behind them, Ijaya was not even surprised that it had followed them without her knowledge.

"I thought it was leaving to go beyond the Veil." Neesha flinched away.

"It has unfinished business." Ijaya pulled herself up onto the Fathercreature's back as it bowed its head, then she stretched out a hand for Neesha. "Come."

Neesha balked. "You can't be serious."

"They'll kill us if we run. And even if we escape, they will raze the rest of the pridelands. Come. Help me, please."

"I..." Neesha's hands clutched at its saddlebag, torn between its people and Ijaya's, then it trembled and grabbed Ijaya's wrist, allowing itself to be hauled up onto the Fathercreature's smooth back. "Ayeshavana preserve me, I'm going crazy," Neesha moaned, pressing its cheek to translucent flesh as the Fathercreature rose to its feet. "Riding a shakara—at my age!"

Ijaya hunched low against the nape of the Fathercreature's neck, protecting it as it began to barrel forward, lurching at first before it gained momentum, letting out a teeth-rattling roar. The huge bow flickered, and the giant spear arched up in the air, but at a touch the Fathercreature obligingly swerved away, angling to the right. To Ijaya's astonished horror, the spear twisted in the air like a fish, turning, darting straight towards them, until Neesha screamed something into the wind, and Ijaya felt the world warping, behind her, above her.

The spear shot into the ground but a hand's breadth behind them, whistling as it went, shuddering angrily in the grip of Neesha's binding. Ijaya let out an ululating cry, exultant, crouched to spring, she could see the bow getting loaded up again, the giant slug turning slowly towards them. They were so close, getting closer, the Fathercreature gathering to leap-

Steel keened as the Iron Glaive fired. Neesha's warning cry was drowned out in the Fathercreature's snarl, too close for the skychild's magic to turn away the spear, Ijaya grabbing for one of the Fathercreature's horns as the spear slammed into its shoulder. It was already there, already crashing into the Glaive, crushing one of the beetle-skychildren, jaws snapping shut over the next. Ijaya didn't wait to see if Neesha had stayed mounted. She was leaping free, onto one of the curved boughs of the Glaive, the tongue of her spear fishing for gaps in beetle armour.

Something gashed a bright line of pain across her ribs and Ijaya glanced sharply up towards the back of the iron slug: one of the Orshanese was fiddling with a small version of the Glaive, bracing its spine against a foot. She raced across the Glaive's arm, bounding forward to land feet first, cracking the skychild heavily against a pennant-spine, pivoting to face the next. This skychild held a large, curved blade with two hands, and with its first blow it sundered the shaft of Ijaya's spear. She dropped it, palming her dagger from her hip, darting past its second heavy blow to sweep her blade home through the gash of its helm's visor. As the skychild collapsed on its knees, gurgling and clawing, the rest seemed the freeze in shock.

Easy prey.

Skychildren did not die quickly. Ijaya laid the bodies out on the grass after having carefully cut their throats to make doubly sure. The slug-mekh was dulled down, Neesha having dispelled whatever had been powering it. The Fathercreature was lying in the wreck of the Iron Glaive, nearly transparent now, its tail twitching as Neesha sat and stroked its muzzle. By the time Ijaya had wiped down her dagger, the Fathercreature was gone.

"The land will heal," Neesha said softly. "Eventually. It'd take a few winters."

Ijaya nodded. Her fur was growing stiff with blood: she would need to find the river. "Are there more out there, hunting you?"

"Probably." Neesha got stiffly to its feet. "But I can manage from here. Some luck at last, by the Sisters. The Orshanese motia had a cloud cradle. I can ride the winds home. But let me help you with your wounds."

"They are not so serious." Ijaya disagreed. "Save your strength."

"What will you do now? The Orshanese will be back. They can't ignore the loss of a motia."

"Your people can undo their magic now?"

"We can try, now that we have the book."

Ijaya nodded. "Try not to take another two hundred years."

Neesha didn't smile. "They'll be after you personally. I've deactivated the other Spellmekhs, but not in time: the Orshanese know that you helped me. Come with me to the Hundredfold City."

Ijaya shook her head. "My world may be small, but it is mine."

"Then let me give you something. To remember me by. Think of it as payment."

"What is 'payment'?"

"It is a thing that we give another in exchange for something else. Help, in this case. Without you, I would be dead."

"I see," Ijaya lied, puzzled. "Your people have strange lives. If you need something, you could but ask. Why must a token be given?"

"For us it is customary," Neesha said, though it smiled. "Please. I would feel better if you took a token from me."

"If it truly is customary," Ijaya said grudgingly, "Then. Your 'map', please."

"The map?" Neesha seemed surprised. "It's just a basic Imperial print. There's nothing very special about it. I've got other things that you'll prefer. A Harkonnell astrolabe-"

"The map," Ijaya repeated, for it had been the map that had opened her mind.

"All right," Neesha took the tube from its pack, handing it over. "Though, if you went with me to Hundredfold, I could get you one that was hand-drawn with proper inks, on fine vellum or skin."

"I like this one. Thank you." Ijaya hung the tube by its long ribbon carefully at her hip, against her dagger, and stood a little straighter. Neesha got shakily to its feet, and stumbled over, hugging Ijaya impulsively. Ijaya hummed low in her throat, patting Neesha's back. Then, together, they hauled out the 'cloud cradle' from the belly of the iron slug. It looked like the wings that had burned over the Black Rock, but darker and sleeker.

"Ijaya, it's been a pleasure," Neesha said thickly, its eyes oddly wet.

"May your days be warm, and your prey, easy," Ijaya bent to rub her cheek against Neesha's shoulder.

Farewells were never gentle, especially between easy strangers. Ijaya watched as Neesha darted back into the bowl of Heaven on newfound wings, and when it was out of sight, Ijaya settled down on the Glaive's arm, dangling her feet in the air, tail curling. Her wounds ached, but the bleeding had stopped.

The bodies were beginning to spoil by the time the new Fathercreature arrived, bleeding out of the first vermilion traces of dawn. It was not so large, not like her pride's, but it was built sleekly, and walked with hungry grace, something of the wolf, something of the fox, flanks spurred with narrow spikes. The Fathercreature sniffed at her and bared its teeth in silent amusement as she tickled under its jaw, then it allowed her to climb up onto its back. At a touch, it wheeled around, loping back towards the pridelands, ready for the hunt.

About the Author
Anya Ow was born in Singapore, studied law in Australia, and practiced as a lawyer for a few years before switching to advertising as a designer, copywriter and illustrator. In her free time, she writes. You can follow her tweets at @anyasy.