Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Thrax, it turns out, had not come inside. The door was still open, with Thrax leaning against the wall of the hut. Polishing his axe by rote, he stared off into the distance.
“Everything okay?” I crossed his line of sight and leaned against the wall next to him.
The burly man smiled and shook his head. “Forgiveness, eminent god. Merely seeing ghosts.”
I grunted. “I know a thing or two about that. Any in particular?”
“For a moment, I thought that girl was the same as one I’d lost years ago.” He switched from parallel strokes to a circular motion on the axe head. “One of the few excursions that darken my mind and blemish my reputation as a reliable guide and guard.” Falling silent, he lost himself in the gleam of the celestial steel. A shake, and he began polishing anew. “I was young, but vigilant of the wrong things. While looking for raiders in expected places, I misjudged the ingenuity of the bandits. The family in my care was lost to me. I still hear their daughter’s screams.”
I nodded. “Mistakes which befall during our best efforts are often the heaviest burdens to bear. They can shape us, or destroy us.”
Thrax gave me a sad smile. “Such have certainly sculpted my character.” His polishing slowed as he watched the villagers hoisting a handful of undead corpses over the wall. “In my culture, death is a monument to life. The meaning of one’s work is only fully realized when it has ended. But building such a conclusion weighs upon those whose hands are dusted with laying its foundation.”
“And how many of these monuments have you constructed?”
He paused to glance at the sheen on his celestial steel, then went back to polishing. “Many, and yet not so many.”
He nodded. “It was much the same when I spoke with the majestic goddess Malia. We Nsalians do not have an ‘afterlife,’ as you would call it. Those whose lives you’ve touched in life become the pallbearers of the fragments of your soul, a foundation in truth for your monument to life.”
I frowned. “When are these souls you carry laid to rest? If you are the pallbearers, then there must be a grave.”
“It is a metaphor, great one.” Thrax shook his head. “When we die, those fragments become a seed basket for the Bird Who Dwells Amongst the Stars. Holding that offering shatters our own soul, to be gathered and borne by those we have touched in our own lives.”
“What of your gods? You have no God of Death?”
He smiled and shrugged. “The Bird Who Dwells Amongst the Stars—Tazzanin a Ukan d’Ignwa Ydad, in my native tongue—is all: our father, mother, and guardian. It is not a god like you would understand it, marvelous one, but we honor and serve it nevertheless. Your favored Malia called it a ‘celestial beast,’ a crude term but perhaps the most apt analogy in your language.”
I would have to visit Nsalia and see this celestial beast sometime, if it existed at all. Mortals had worshiped divine beasts before, but calling the Bird celestial implied a higher plane. I’d never heard of the titans having divine beasts—titanic beasts?—on their level before. Not even Seppo’s mother had had such a thing: all of her menagerie had been strictly divine, no matter how powerful they’d been.
Knowing Malia, she’d have already seen and assessed this celestial beast, assuming it was real. Many mythologies of smaller or more isolated peoples had made such outrageous claims before but, when investigated, crumbled into empty fables. It was probable that Thrax’s people served a god, or titan, who hid behind the avian symbolism for their own personal reason.
What concerned me more was that, if such a transcendent creature truly existed, it would likely offer little comfort to those under its wings. Divine beasts were unbothered by the concerns of mortals. How much more so would a celestial beast be? Unless it was an exception, like the Kydonian tiger that had taken to tailing Hasda, and had turned its eyes earthwards, the Bird was unlikely to pay them mind beyond its soul feasting.
Leaving Thrax to bear his burdens alone.
It made sense, then, that Nsalian belief would blossom around an ideal whose central tenet was carrying one’s cares by themselves.
“If you wish, I could provide some comfort by laying a few of the souls to rest.” I nodded at his confused look. “Both Malia and I deal with the realm of death. It’s not good to leave such to fester unattended for long periods. Maybe you’ve seen the destruction it causes. I certainly have.”
“The god is most gracious.” Thrax bowed his head. “But, I must humbly decline. These are my burden to bear, and they are not so whole as to be wholly laid to rest, should you try. Each shard goes to fashion the whole of the seed that the Bird forms. It is a weight, to be sure, but not one so fearsome as you suggest.”
“Well, I’m here if you ever need to talk. Even a manageable burden can become imbalanced and capsize you.”
He bowed his head again. “You are a generous and benevolent god.”
When he raised his head, his eyes still looked troubled. Not at the villagers, who’d nearly cleared the undead bodies in this section, but at what I wasn’t sure.
“It is the dogs,” he said when I asked. “Or, that there are no dogs, excellent one.”
I frowned. Now that he’d pointed it out, I hadn’t seen a single pet in the village. With the presence of the undead, it made sense the villagers would have scant animals, but not none. Dogs and geese would both warn against the approach of the Sleepless when eyes failed, or before an advance could be seen, so to forgo the animals entirely was unusual.
“Were there dogs here before?” I shifted as I felt something tickle my bond. Maybe Malia was finishing up with the girl.
Thrax nodded. “On my last visit, leading a Tarsic convoy of mineral traders, I saw them everywhere. Almost every family had one, if not two.”
Crossing my arms, I scowled at the empty huts around us. “And you’ve seen no sign of them since we arrived?”
He shrugged. “If the great god has not, how would I have caught what you missed? If I had not come before, I would not have known they had such beasts before, such is the absence of their presence.”
As if there wasn’t enough chaos and uncertainty in the region. I sighed. “If you see so much as a buried bone, let me know. Something’s awry when the animals flee, if that’s what they’ve done.”
“It is as you say.” The muscles of his shoulders bunched and relaxed as he worked the steel.
Feathers rustled as Malia dipped through the door. Eyes hard, she snarled curses under her breath.
I caught her arm and tugged her towards me. “That well?”
“I would take a thousand of you, when we first met, than question that insufferable git again.” She flared her wings, her snakes bobbing and hissing.
“But you learned something.”
“Confirmed what I already suspected,” she snapped. Thrax redoubled his efforts on his axe, keeping his head down. Malia didn’t notice his discomfort. “What was already plainly written on her face, though she denied it.As if she were the god, and I the mortal.”
“Which was?” I asked, soothing.
She huffed. “That they serve the Weeping Queen’s son, Vythar, and that they prepare for war against the Sleepless. That they seek to avenge Balphur, or die trying. And that that intolerable little brat has snuck off with her bird, something expressly forbidden or thereabouts, and she thinks to outsmart me.”
“Did Kydon kick you out?” I pulled her closer, gently.
This time she settled against me. “I actually left before he suggested it, though I could see it in his eyes. And I suspect, though of course that hellion won’t admit it, that she’s been followed by a guardian or caretaker. How far behind they are, I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they arrived before day’s end, given the significance of the bird she’s taken.”
I nodded. “The kavak are special. Seppo wanted one before.”
Malia shook her head. “Not just that. Apparently there are two kinds, the greater and lesser kavak. Of the two, the lesser are the more precious, because they can seek or far more successfully than their betters. The lesser find the ore, and the greater bond it, since the greater are the fighters. And that is the secret that should have remained within her village.”
“But if hers is the rarer and more valuable breed, how did she get out of her village with it?” I let go as Malia pulled away to pace.
“She’s likely either extremely skilled, or related to someone of enough significance to get away with—”
The door slammed open, and Kydon carried Nika out by her shirt, the biggest grin on his face that I’d ever seen. His robe had a giant hole in the front, exposing a fresh scar on his tan skin.
“I think,” the ogre said, “that I shall keep this one.”