Runo gasps, trying to push her knitting power of blood and bone through the distance that separates her from the raven. She tries, but to no avail. The miles are too many, and the arrow is still stuck in the raven’s wing. It tries to bend it, weakly, and to not avail as well.
The huntress, the Anthilian who just shot it out of the sky, leaves the group as it walks closer, setting her bow once more on her back and gripping her axe. Its ceramid edge glistens in the night like a necklace of pearls. It is so similar to the stone of the mysterious city.
Another of the hunters, the tall man who officed the ceremony, follows her.
“You caught an interloper,” he states, coming closer. The raven’s other wing flutters on the ground as it caws, its sharp beak clattering, impotent.
It tries to scuttle away, but what can it do? The two humans are faster on the ground than he can crawl, hooking itself with its grasping talons, but all it can do is make circles in the grass.
Runo keeps is blood from spilling from the wound, but it cannot close it. Not unless it breaks the wood, and right now the raven is too mad with pain and fear to be controlled, the instincts running through its veins like a stormy sea that’s pushing her vessel down into the depths.
“Or a messenger,” she corrects, crouching over the raven. Runo looks at her through the raven’s eyes, and she shudders as the huntress smiles. “I know you are there,” she murmurs, picking up the raven. Gently enough, but squeezing at the base of its neck and wings so as to hold it at bay. The bird struggles, but it can’t get rid of her – she’s Anthilian, and her grip is a vice. Her beautiful face shows a satisfied grin as she affixes her aquamarine gaze onto the raven’s black orbs – and rushing all the way to her own grey pair. Isn’t she safe and secure clad in her iron tower, protected by the miles of distance and the power of the Gloom Lords?
Then why does she feel like the axe’s bite is about to cleave right into her skin?
“A steelbeak as a spy?” The leader asks, leaning forward to check on the bird, to check on the two of them. “That is unheard of. Since when do Marrowers have the power to control an animal? Especially one that is still alive?”
“There is no end to their craftiness,” the huntress muses. “Just as there is not to their thirst for violence. And you, in there, you were looking for information. So curious, peeking from up on high. Did you perhaps believe I did not see you?”
Runo is tempted to leave. If she does so, she will not have to assist. She will not have to feel what is about to happen. But that would mean leaving the raven on its own.
What’s the matter, after all? It’s just a bird. It’s just a sack of blood and bone shaped like a servant, for her own gain.
That’s all those who lay downstream are to her – and that’s all she is to those who stand upstream.
There is no other spot in the great chain.
“Artumes, do you think she might suffer if you kill it slowly?” Ponders the leader. “You know Marrowers, no one better. A chance to let them pay some retribution for the all the killing and the pain they bring with each season?”
She still holds the bird in her choke, and it cannot even move by now.
“She might. If there is a bond between them, it would scatter part of the pain we’d inflict back to her, I reckon.” She puts the raven down, pinning it to the ground. It does not even struggle anymore. Perhaps it knows what is about to happen. “But the bird is not evil.” She picks up her axe, raising it above her head. The edge shines white like a piece of the crumbled Moon. “And it will not suffer an evil death.”
Runo shuts her eyes.
She will not leave it alone.
The axe falls down.
Runo falls back, away from the basin, throwing arcs of chilly water up in the air as she screams at the pain exploding from her chest.
She stumbles on the chair, holding her face and gnawing at her neck.
She has felt it.
The axe cutting through her very skin and flesh, snapping the bone in one clear cut.
She remains there, panting hard, her breaths echoed by the faint dripping of water onto the floor.
She has to get herself dried. She has to get herself cleaned. If Heleth, or worse yet, some of the others, show up and find her in that state, she will have to give them an explanation. The kind of reasoning that’s easier to extract through needles and hooks than through words.
Her trembling hands reach for the towel. She dabs it against her skin, trying to gather her bearings.
The raven is dead.
Her quest has come to an end.
She whimpers, holding her head between her hands.
But death is never an easy matter.
Runo keeps her duty as a Marrower, trying to push her hope to the dusty corners of her mind. When Heleth requires her, she complies.
When the Gloom Lords demand, she obeys.
When the slaves misbehave, she plays her part.
And far and away, the steelbeak raven keeps watching with glassy eyes the dance of the sun and the stars. Each day its feathers wither a little more. The growing tumor created by the Hearthwomb spreads out a little, but even something as resilient as it can do little against the relentless grind of Death. It turns more of its feathers into a molten mess of overgrown bone and misshapen flesh, but that’s all it can do before it calcifies.
The skin and flesh dries up. Bit by bit it shows off the bones and the feathers fall down one by one. The arrow takes a few days to detach from the skin it has pierced.
By then, it is far too late.
The raven’s head observes all this, a few paces away from the rest of its body, cut in two by something sharper than glass and sturdier than steel.
It does not move.
And yet, one night, something starts to happen, something new. The wind has scoured for weeks over the plains in front of the forgotten city, passing over the statues eternally reaching out for something only they could see.
The sinews extending out of its neck wriggle. They extend and hook themselves onto the ground, pulling the head closer to its body. Bit by bit, at snail’s pace, it reaches for its neck.
Closer and closer now.
The sinews knit back with the neck. Feathers shiver against each other – and then they pull back, attaching it back to the body.
The dead wings flutter. The dead talons grasp against the empty wind.
The raven shakes.
It opens its beak a sliver. No breath and no sound comes out as its lungs are all bust dust by now.
“She made it,” says a female voice, quite satisfied.
“Took her long enough,” says another woman, shortly behind.
“What matters is that she did.”
Runo turns the raven’s head, as much as she could. It has taken her weeks to push her power back into the dead body at this distance and… did they wait for them? The group of hunters?
But it’s not them. It’s three women in warm brown clothes, looking at each other and sharing a smile. They all look Anthilian, but there is something to their bodies… when Runo tries to push her senses against them, she feels no flesh and no skin.
Rather, a material harder than the ceramid that cut its neck off. “What do you think, Pulum?” Says the tallest of the trio, picking it up in her dark hands. “Should we give her a reward for coming back?”
Author’s Notes: Thanks for reading.