When Lilia was four years old, her mother filled a shallow dish with Lilia’s blood and fed it to the boars that patrolled the thorn fence.
“Nothing can cross the thorn fence,” Lilia’s mother said as she poured the blood onto the hungry, gnarled fence. The boars on the other side licked up the blood. Lilia liked the boars’ yellow eyes and wrinkled, mucus-crusted snouts. They reminded her of hungry babies. The thorn fence kept out the semi-sentient walking trees and conscription gangs who sometimes climbed up from the churning bay that clung to the base of the cliffs. The cliffs and the fence should have protected them forever. Her mother was a blood witch and never doubted her power. If you fed enough blood to a thing, her mother said, it would do all you asked.
Lilia traced the scars on her mother’s arms and her own, and she believed her.
Until the day something crossed the fence.
It was high autumn, and the leaves were falling. Lilia sat on a shallow, chalky outcrop overlooking the toxic mix of lavender poppies and bulrus ivy that cloaked the heath between her village and the thorn fence. A sea of colorful leaves swirled through the air. She had dressed herself in tattered white bone-tree leaves, pretending to be the Dhai hero Faith Ahya. She played alone, rubbing her face with dandelion heads and pretending she could fly. Her mother hated it when she played that game, because it meant climbing up onto the outcrop and launching herself off it, arms outspread, hoping with each leap that some great wind would take her into the sky.
The pale green light of the satellite Tira bathed the world in a burnished emerald glow. The broader sky was a brilliant amber wash. It was the only color Lilia knew the sky to be. Tira, the life-giver, had been ascendant as long as she could remember.
Lilia scrambled to the top of the outcrop once again and spread her arms. This time, surely, the wind would carry her. As she prepared to jump, she saw the trees on the other side of the heath tremble. She froze. The thorn fence stood between her and the trees. Whatever stirred there, she resolved to face it bravely.
A wave of fuzzy gray treegliders leapt from the forest canopy. They spread their webbed limbs and glided down into the field of poppies – dozens and dozens of them. The big-eyed creatures bounded toward her, hurling themselves onto the thorn fence. First one, then two, then six, eight, twelve. Impaled on the hungry thorns.
Lilia shrieked and slid down from the outcrop. The barrier’s tendrils wound about the treegliders’ trembling bodies. She scrambled forward, desperate to free them.
“Take me, take me!” she cried at the fence, holding out her scarred arms. “Let them go.” She tripped and fell in the field of poppies.
A great snuffling, crackling sound came from the forest. She poked her head above the poppies. Immense white bears with jagged black manes broke through the trees. Forked tongues lolled from their massive, fanged mouths. Their riders wore chitinous red-and-amber armor and carried green-glowing everpine branches as weapons, the sort imbued with Tira’s power. Lilia knew those weapons well – her mother used them to kill wolverines and walking trees.
Conscription gangs sent by the Dhai in the valley to gather people for their great war carried those weapons, too. Lilia had heard dark stories of children bundled away in the night. Fear of being hauled off to join a terrible army overwhelmed her compassion, and she choked on a sob. She clawed her way back into the shadow of the stone outcrop. I am a terrible coward, she thought. Now everyone will know.
The riders barreled toward the thorn fence, trampling the dying treegliders. When they reached the fence, they raised their weapons and cut it down as easily as cutting a fresh tulip. Lilia willed herself to be still. If these people could cross the fence, they could do anything, and that scared her more than being thought a coward.
They galloped past Lilia’s stone outcrop and away – toward the towering mass of webbing that cocooned the trees around her village, protecting it from the seething, semi-sentient plants that roamed the woodland.
Lilia grabbed a loose stone at her feet and ran after them. Maybe she couldn’t face them directly, but they would not expect her to come up behind them.
She wasn’t certain when she first noticed the smoke, but by the time she came to the creek that marked the boundary of the village, gasping for breath, the smoke choked her. Great gouts of flame ate the cocoon sheathing above her, exposing the village to the dangers of the woodland.
She stumbled into the circle of the village. Found screaming chaos. The taste of smoke was bitter. She ran toward her mother’s holding, an immense banded cocoon that hung from the birch tree at the far end of the village.
From the folds of the smoke, a bear emerged.
Lilia shrieked and clutched the stone like a talisman against evil. The bear rider’s weapon was extended, glowing green and bloody, the hilt protruding from a dark seed implanted in her wrist. The rider wore no helm, so Lilia saw her face. She was indeed one of the Dhai from the valley, the ones her mother told her to stay far, far away from, even if times were lean.
Lilia held her ground. Raised her stone. Her mother had taught her how to heal a hundred types of wounds and illnesses, and shake loose a bone-tree’s prey, but no one ever taught her how to fight. She did not want to join the army.
The bear snarled at her. The rider laughed.
“Li!” Her mother’s voice.
Lilia threw the stone and missed. The air felt heavy. She tasted copper. Glanced back. Her mother stood behind her, arms raised.
A great blinding-tree burst from the bare ground between Lilia and the rider, taking Lilia again off her feet. The blinding-tree sprouted brambled arms and sprayed a great rain of acid, a dew that ate at skin, hair, and armor alike. It coated the rider and her mount – and splashed across Lilia’s right foot.
Lilia screamed and tried to wipe it away as the rider squealed and thrashed.
Her mother caught her hands. “Don’t touch it!”
The flesh sloughed off Lilia’s foot, revealing bloody tendons and bubbling, melting bone. The acid numbed her flesh as effectively as it disfigured it. The hem of bone-tree leaves on her makeshift dress hissed and smoked.
As Lilia wailed, her mother ripped the dress from her body, leaving her in a thin slip of linen. Lilia thrashed. Her vision swam. She was suddenly light-headed. I’m going to die, she thought. We are going to waste so much blood.
Her mother dragged her along, swift and silent as the world burned around them. Lilia was struck dumb, too horrified to speak. Within the sticky drapes of the trees, the immense cocoons where her people lived were burning. Great charred hunks of the cocoons fell, a rain of fire and flesh so mortifying that it took on the surreal aura of a dream. Women fled through the undergrowth, dressed in their twisted green regalia for the Festival of Tira’s Descent. There was to be feasting tonight. Blood soup. Stuffed moths. Dancing. But it was all gone now, all in ruin.
When they came to the other side of the blazing village, her mother kicked open a discarded immature cocoon.
“Hide here,” her mother said. “Like a snapping violet.”
Lilia climbed inside. Her mother’s skin was slick with sweat and blood, though Lilia did not know where the blood had come from. When Lilia looked back from inside the cocoon, her mother pressed something into the soft flesh of Lilia’s wrist and murmured a prayer to Tira. Lilia saw a red tendril marked into her own flesh: a trefoil with a curled tail.
“It will bring you back to me,” her mother said. “Come back to me.”
“I’ll come back,” Lilia said. “I promise I’ll come back. Please don’t leave!”
“You’ll find me,” her mother said, and clapped her hands. The broken flesh of the cocoon reknit itself.
“I promise, Mam. Don’t leave me.”
Lilia pressed her face against the edge of the cocoon, where some insect had worried open a hole. She saw her mother standing before a dozen riders wearing chitinous crimson armor. They sat rigid on their massive bears. The bears’ yellow eyes glinted. The lead rider menaced forward, a severe-looking woman with a tawny face and broad jaw.
Lilia went still, like a snake. She put her hands to her mouth, fearful she would cry out and give her mother away.
“Where is she?” the rider asked.
“Gone, Kai,” Lilia’s mother said.
“You’re a liar.” The Kai’s weapon snarled out from her wrist, a lashing length of everpine that hummed with a pale green light. “You don’t have enough blood to kindle a gate.”
“I do now,” Lilia’s mother said.
Lilia felt the air condense, as if the weight of the world pressed down on her. She closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears. Heavy air meant someone was drawing on the power of Tira to reshape things. But covering her ears did not cut out the screaming.
The ground trembled. When Lilia opened her eyes, her mother stood above her, covered from head to toe in blood. She ripped open the cocoon and pulled Lilia into her arms.
“I knew you wouldn’t leave me,” Lilia said.
But Lilia could see something over her mother’s shoulder. Four paces behind her, a dark, tattered shadow rippled across the fabric of the woodland, as if some great beast had rent a hole in the stuff that made up the sky. Between the black tatters Lilia saw hints of another woodland, a field of black poppies, and some hulking structure in the distance. The double hourglass of the suns’ light was reflected from a massive glass dome there. The light hurt Lilia’s eyes. Beyond it, Lilia saw the faint red blot of the third sun in a lavender-tinged blue sky, suffused with the green light of Tira in the distance.
Lilia blinked and gazed up into the sky above her, on her side of the rift. She saw the same hourglass suns, and the third red sun. But the sky on her side was amber, not lavender-blue. And as the suns sank in her sky, the horizon was a brilliant, blazing crimson, as if the suns bled. Why was the sky different on the other side?
“It’s time to be brave,” her mother said. “You remember what I said about being brave?” She set Lilia down and pushed her toward the tear in the world. “I’ve opened a gate. Hurry now. I’ll bring the other children and follow after.”
“No questions. Be brave. You remember what I said about the Dhai from the valley, and what would happen if they came here among the woodland Dhai? Go now, Li, before it’s too late and this was all for nothing.”
“I’m not a coward,” Lilia said. Her eyes filled. She wanted to throw herself at her mother’s feet. Instead, she rubbed the tears from her eyes and stumbled forward.
She fell through the waving tatters between the reflected worlds, tumbling into the field of black poppies under the new sky. She looked behind her.
Her mother had turned her back on the gate. The Kai stood before her, bloody everpine weapon in hand, a tangle of poisonous vines crawling up her opposite arm. Blood wet the vine. The Kai swung her weapon.
The weapon crushed Lilia’s mother’s collarbone. Her body crumpled, a mangled succulent.
The Kai stepped over her mother’s body, shiny crimson armor soaked in blood and shredded plant matter. The vine on her arm was shriveling now, turning to brown dust.
The Kai reached for Lilia–
But her fingers stopped short on the other side of the parting of the worlds, as if they met some invisible barrier. The Kai’s face twisted in anger.
“Motherless woodland fool,” the Kai said. “I have other cats to whip. Oma is rising, and we will rise with it.”
The air around Lilia contracted. The world pulled her down, as if she had gained three times her weight. She put her hands over her ears. Closed her eyes.
When Lilia opened her eyes, she stood alone in the field of poppies in the middle of a deep, wooded glen. The tear in the world was gone. She saw the emerald light of Tira high in the lavender-blue sky, and the hourglass of the twin suns. Her foot ached badly; the numbness was wearing off. She saw the bloody, melted flesh of her ruined foot covered in dirt and curious flies.
A plump woman stood at the edge of the clearing. She had a kind face and a thick mane of silver hair; swaths of it peeked out from beneath the broad hood of her coat. She held a large walking stick.
“Where is Nava, child? Your mother? Where are the others?”
Lilia held out her wrists. “Please cut me,” she said. “If you’re a blood witch too, you can bring her back.”
The woman recoiled. “Child, drop your hands. Don’t speak that way here, no, no. Things are very different here. I’m Kalinda Lasa. You’re to come with me, you understand? And no more talk of blood witches. Witches, of all things? Tira’s tears.”
Lilia kept her hands outstretched. “I made a promise.” Her voice caught. “I have to find my mother. I promised.”
“We all want a good many things, child, but it doesn’t mean we get them,” Kalinda said. “I’m sorry. The world – all worlds – are bigger than the both of us and your mother, too.” She glanced at Lilia’s foot. “If you want to keep that limb, we must go quickly.”
“My mother,” Lilia said, and finally dropped her hands. It was like grasping at air. Already the horrifying morning felt like a terrible story that had happened to someone else.
“Your mother is dead, likely,” Kalinda said. “You’ll meet her fate, too, unless you come with me.”
“But I have to–”
Kalinda gently took her arm. Lilia felt numb. Her attention grew hazy. The light here was so different, dazzling, as if she’d come from a place where she only saw things through a haze of smoke. It was the sky, she realized, staring up at the blue-lavender wash. The sky was so different.
“You can keep your promise,” Kalinda said softly, “but do so when you’re a woman, not a little girl. Your mother will forgive you for waiting awhile longer.”
Kalinda brought her to a small camp on the other side of the field and bound her foot. Then she loaded Lilia into the back of a bear-pulled cart. They traveled some time before halting at the steps of a grand temple. Lilia recognized it as the structure she had seen when she first peered through the tear in the world.
“A pity you have no magical talent yet,” Kalinda said, gazing up at Tira’s waning light. “But we all have our place. The Temple of Oma will look after you, child. Keep your head down. Don’t cause any trouble. And don’t tell any wild stories. You’ve been ill, and your mother is dead. That’s all they need to know. No blood witches. No armies. You understand?”
Lilia nodded, even though she didn’t understand at all.
“You’ll be safe here,” Kalinda said. “Until they come for you again. But we’ll be ready then, won’t we?”
It was only after Lilia woke the next morning in her simple bed in the Temple of Oma scullery and saw that the red tendril her mother had pressed into her flesh was gone, the skin red and blistered as if she’d been washed in poison ivy, that she wondered if she herself was just some shadow, another person’s memory from some other life.
It was in the Temple of Oma, many months later, that Lilia met the Kai a second time.
“You’re welcome here,” the Kai said to Lilia and the twelve other girls and boys admitted to the temple that season as they lined up in the great foyer to meet her, safe behind the crown of webbing that kept out the worst of the toxic plant life that still crawled across the valley. This Kai had the same severe, unwelcoming face that Lilia remembered from their first meeting. But she wore no armor, and her wrist bore no seed of a retracting weapon. If she knew Lilia at all, she did not show it.
“And what brings you here?” the Kai asked.
“My mother,” Lilia said. “Some people say she’s dead, but I’m going to find her.”
The Kai smiled, but it was a sad smile. “You’re a woodland Dhai,” the Kai said. “I can tell from your accent.”
“And you’re one of the Dhai from the valley,” Lilia said. “But where is your army?”
The Kai laughed. “Army? I’m not sure what the woodland Dhai tell their children, but there is no army here. We are a peaceful people, just like you.”
“But I saw you with a sword.”
“I’m sorry, child, I’ve never picked up a weapon in my life.” She hesitated, then said, “It must be very confusing to lose your family. Don’t fear. We’re your family now. Everything may seem very different for a time. But we’ll help you get through it.”
Lilia thought to ask her about the sky, too, but the Kai was already moving on to the next child.
The Dhai people in the valley were not at all what she thought they were. In truth, she wondered if these were really the same people who burned her village, or if she’d dreamed the whole thing after all.
For many years after, Lilia dreamed of treegliders. Some years, she even forgot about her promise to her mother. But when she was fifteen, well after Tira’s descent, when Para, the Breathmaker, bathed the world in blue light, she made a sketch on the back of a book in the temple library. She drew the trefoil with the tail her mother had pressed into her flesh. Then she handed the book over to her best friend Roh – a novice learning to draw the breath of Para – in the hope he’d find some record of it in the temple libraries she didn’t have access to. She wanted to know how much of her memory of her former life was the terrified fantasy of a young girl.
“What’s this for?” Roh asked as he pondered the paper, bouncing back on his heels.
“I’ve been a coward too long,” she said. “It’s time to be brave.”
He laughed. She didn’t.
That night, for the first time in over a decade, Lilia did not dream of a bloody Dhai army.
Because ruin so often came from the sky, borne by fickle satellites on erratic orbits, Shao Maralah Daonia did not think to look to the sea until it was too late. She expected the next wave of invaders to come in over land after falling from a tear in the sky, the way they had the last six years.
Instead, the invaders came in on the morning tide. They drove before them a boiling swarm of vegetal flesh – a massive black surge of death that slithered up the coast like ravenous snakes of acidic kelp, devouring all it touched. Six cities had fallen to the same onslaught in six weeks, driving Maralah and her army further south. Now they came for the seaside city of Aaraduan, last stronghold in Saiduan’s northernmost province.
Maralah expected they would take Aaraduan just as easily as the other cities, but not before she evacuated her Patron, burned the archives, and took a legion of them with her into death. She did not mind dying here. Her brother’s army was only half a day away, slowed by spongy tundra and permafrost made unpredictable by the summer’s heat. When he did finally sweep into the city, after it was taken, she relied on him to murder any stragglers she could not finish herself.
Maralah summoned an air-twisting parajista at the height of his power to secure Aaraduan’s inner and outer gates with shimmering skeins of air and soil. She gazed at the cracked face of the ascendant star, Para, glowing milky blue in the lavender sky. She cursed the invaders for not coming ashore fifteen years earlier, when her star, Sina, was ascendant, and she was the most deadly power in Saiduan. She felt only the most tenuous connection to her violet-burning satellite now, and could do little more to aid in the shoring up of the gates than give orders. Her days of calling lightning and fire from a clear sky were long behind her. If all here went as she foresaw, she would die before seeing Sina again.
Maralah marched into the hold to watch the burning of the archives. A half dozen sanisi – Saiduan assassins blessed to call on the stars, as she did – tossed ancient records of bamboo, human skin, carnivorous plant exoskeletons, finger bones, and the pounded carcasses of winged insects – most of them long since extinct – into the roaring hearth. On some other day, one not so mad, Maralah imagined the Patron of Saiduan himself sitting beside the hearth with a book of poetry, tracing the columns of text with his worn fingers as a sinajista conjured a flame for him to read by. But the Patron would never sit here again. The room itself would be eaten soon, and the sanisi with it.
What records they could not save, they destroyed. Maralah had heard the same reports from every city – the invaders went first to the libraries and archives, drawn there like spotted beetles to the nectar of claw-lilies. Whatever knowledge they searched for, she would rather see it burned than give them the satisfaction of having it.
Like the other sanisi, Maralah dressed in a long black coat of firegrass and fibrous bark that touched the heels of her boots. She wore a knee-length padded tunic and long trousers. The hilt of her infused sword stuck up through her coat, a twisted branch of willowthorn that glowed faintly violet. The weapon marked her as one of Sina’s soul stealers. Even in Sina’s decline, the weapon retained its power. She could still kiss a conjurer to death with it.
The youngest of the sanisi, Kadaan, looked up from the stacks. His dark hands were smeared darker with soot. As a boy, it was Maralah who put a Para-infused bonsa weapon in his hand, a gnarled yellow branch that burned blue when he drew it. She ensured he was apprenticed to the best parajista she knew, a man who taught him to channel Para’s breath to unmake the weather and push down walls of solid stone with a strong breeze. It was she who took responsibility for his fate now.
“We’re nearly done here,” Kadaan said. “Let me die on the wall with the others. I won’t become their slave.” Maralah saw the fire reflected in his bright eyes. Oh, to be twenty-odd years old again. And foolish.
The archivist who oversaw the purging of the archives, Bael, was already well gone with what he chose to save. Maralah wished she could have sent her youngest sanisi with him.
“The ones at the wall will be dead in an hour,” Maralah said. “Killing a single biting tendril achieves nothing. You must burn out the weed’s nest. Keep burning.”
Maralah stepped into the corridor outside the archive room, seeking relief from the oppressive heat. She heard a great yawning sigh move through the hold. Maralah let her fingers linger on one of her shorter blades and walked into the long mirrored hall that faced the coast. She gazed across the jagged black city still bundled in a husk of late summer snow, to the harbor where the invaders anchored their fantastic bone and sinew boats. She’d had to sneak the Patron, his broodguard, and the archivist out across the mosquito-filled tundra in the other direction, hoping her brother’s army found them before some group of foreign scouts.
She looked for the source of the sigh but saw no evidence of it. From this vantage, the sound of the slithering plant life devouring the walls was indistinguishable from the thrashing of the sea; they drowned out all else.
She rested her hands on the warm railing. The holds this far north were ancient things, grown and manipulated by long-dead tirajistas, back when they had been called something else, something far more fearsome. Those sorcerers had since become priests, torturers, and engineers, because their work still breathed and grew; it lasted. But something that was grown could be eaten. And the invaders knew it.
Maralah heard the low, keening sigh again. She pulled at the collar of her coat. Some may have thought it was just the wind blowing through empty corridors, creeping through wounds in ancient living walls, stirring paper lanterns whose flame flies had long since died. But she knew better.
Maralah drew the short blade at her hip, pivoted left, and thrust deep into the shadows of the curtained balcony behind her. The blade met resistance. Slid through flesh.
A figure hissed and yanked its body from her blade. As it stepped into the light she saw it was most likely a man – always hard to tell, with Taigan – but yes, she could see the snarled beard that clothed his face now. He was especially particular about which pronoun others used, depending on his latest manifestation.
“Taigan,” she said as he pulled out of the shadows, clutching at his bleeding side. She sheathed her blade. “You have gotten soft… and noisy.”
“Release your ward on me,” he said, “and you’ll see just how soft I am.” He took his bloody fingers away from his side. The blood around the wound began to bubble and hiss as he repaired himself. She smelled burnt meat.
Taigan dressed in oiled leather and a padded brown dog-hair coat. He carried no visible weapon. Tall and dark, he wore his hair shorn short, and he stooped awkwardly: wreckage from a wound she had inflicted on him, one he could not repair himself, not unless he persuaded another sanisi with her talents to assist him, and only when Sina was again ascendant. When the Patron stripped Taigan of his title four years before for betraying him, Maralah removed the ward that bound Taigan to the Patron. Maralah suspected the Patron would have killed him, if killing Taigan was possible, but his talents were too useful to see him waste away in exile in some fishing village.
“Was she the one?” Maralah asked.
Taigan shifted his weight as another cold wind curled in through the windows, bringing with it the smell of the sea and the acrid stink of the plants. “She died in the ruin of a ragged gate,” he said, “so let’s hope not. Perhaps all of those who can open gates are dead, and you can let me go in peace.”
Maralah went back to the rail and watched the invaders disembark from their bloated boats. The men’s chitinous armored forms rippled up the beach. All men. She had yet to see a woman among them. They rode no dogs or bears, brought with them no pack animals or siege engines, only the burbling plants and fungi and red algae tides, and those they tugged with them from coast to coast, like fish dragged along in great nets.
As she watched, a bit of the sky tore above the ships, like something from a fantastic nightmare. She had a glimpse of some… other place where the sky was a murky amber-orange, as if on fire. A rippling shadow crossed the sky there, a black mass that made her skin crawl and her breath catch. The sky shimmered again, and the seams between her world and… the other closed. She let out her breath. She pointed at the sky. “The world is ready to come apart on its own. There’s an omajista more skilled than you who can control it.”
They had started seeing those mad tears in the sky eight years before, in the far, far north. She had not believed the sightings at first, thought it was just some drunk tuber farmer enchanted by especially brilliant northern lights. But no. Oma, the dark star, was creeping back into orbit. The worlds were coming together again far sooner than anyone anticipated.
“There will be an omajista among the Dhai people who can open the way,” she said. “There always is, when Oma rises. You don’t have that many Dhai to pick through. We only need one.”
“The Dhai are weak-minded cannibals. Let the invaders take that maggoty country and their omajistas with it.”
Maralah had fought the invaders on every coast, in every province, at the height of every snowy peak. When she sought out her father’s house in Albaaric after the fighting, she found only a weeping ruin and the slimy remnants of red algae smearing the walls at knee height, where the highest tide had reached. She and her brother had not spoken to her father or sisters in twenty years, but she went to the house in search of living kin – a near-cousin, a second-mother, even a village brother – despite the silence. She found nothing but the taste of smoke. They never left the bodies, these invaders. What they did with them… Maralah did not care to guess. But rumor had it they had a taste for blood.
“The city is done, Taigan,” Maralah said. “Now you must decide if you’ll perish with it.”
“May your roads run long, then,” Taigan said, grimacing.
“And yours,” Maralah said. “Don’t come back without an omajista. A real one. You understand?”
“They’ve reached the walls,” he said.
Maralah looked. Black, slithering plant flesh swarmed the shimmering blue walls, even as the structure spat and hissed at them. The sanisi standing at the top of the walls raised their hands to call on the ascendant star Para, Lord of the Air, for protection.
When she looked back, Taigan had gone.
Maralah took the worn hilt of her weapon and pulled it from the sheath at her back. The room cooled. A soft violet light emanated from the length of the willowthorn branch. In response to her touch, the branch awakened; the hilt elongated and snapped around her wrist twice, binding her fate to the weapon’s. She watched blood weep from the branch, gather at its end, and fall to the stones. The weapon sang to her, the voices of hungry ghosts, all Saiduan, all collected in the living weapon when Sina was at its height. The invaders did not have ghosts, because their souls were not of this world. A pity, that. Her weapon was always so hungry.
Maralah swept the sword over her head and slammed it into the living flesh of the hold. Violet light burst across her vision. The weapon keened. The hold wailed as a massive wound appeared on its face. Thick, viscous green fluid gushed from the hold, pouring across her forearms, her boots. Her weapon licked greedily at the soul of the hold.
She prayed to Sina it would be enough to survive the night.