A cold morning brought news of her husband’s death, and she hit the road. Rage and revenge carried her every step.
Lydia showed no reaction when Endeni came that night, bearing the news with heavy solemnity. He would have urged her to be calm, if she’d betrayed a hint of what was next.
Her son was pretending to be asleep at the time, and she could not bear to push through his pretense, for once. She would bring back a Koton’s grisly head before bringing news that he was now fatherless. Any Koton would do.
Her bow and arrow in hand, her boots crunched on the dirt below. The sun was barely up, but in the mist it barely seemed to matter.
Her son would be behind her soon. The boy was stubborn, and there was no sense trying to stop him. Endeni would take Edsar under his wing now. For the best. Ai-dus would have wanted that. And what do I want? Lydia thought.
A road. A direction. A chance to fight back.
A future for her son.
She had brought her short sword and dirk as well as a full quiver of arrows. She was plenty strong–her late husband often said so admiringly, and it was true, she knew–but a long sword would slow her down. The Kotons were fast. There was no settling for fast enough when the shadow of a thirty-foot wingspan appeared. You had to move, and you had to go for the throat.
Two hundred thousand warriors were not fast enough on that dread day, when war had bled the Mountain of most of its best men and women. But not her.
The peace hard-won by those brave souls had now been breached by the filth. The reasons why didn’t matter. It wasn’t as though a peace treaty could be forged with unthinking mongrels.
Now was the time of war. And swords and arrows were the tools available now. There were other ways to wage war, ancient ways rife with riddle and superstition. And at the other end, ways modern and fierce, and for her, unknowable–well south of here, in the hands of more prosperous folk beyond her land.
North was the library city of Tcej, the repository of the local sages’ knowledge. It was almost certain her son was going that way. She would scout ahead for him, and if possible, clear the area of Koton hunting flights.
Kotons hunted in flights of four or five, with a very wide hunting ground chosen. Often there appeared to be only one because the others would cleverly cover their approach. They could walk, but more like apes than men. Stealthily, like the mountain lions she had read of in ancient lore. Villages kept watch out of fear that a hunting flight might engage in a nighttime incursion. Kotons were not nocturnal, but then Lydia had not met every variety. The sages recorded what they could spare time to record during the war, and there were enough varieties of Koton to fill a library–or a city of libraries.
Each step filled her with a growing dread. Times were changing. The Sleeping Mountain grew cold, a dread cold like the freshly dead. There had to be a reason.
She couldn’t allow herself to feel afraid, any more than she could allow herself to grieve. She had to act now, keep moving, or she would fall apart.
The barest echo of a scream. Beastly, hungry. A howl, a screech. A guttural roar. Five.
Too far away. Too far.
She would lose Edsar. She would lose her only son, the last of Ai-dus she had left.
Her boots were already crushing grass and pebble as she charged back the way she came. So they took the Hard Road. On a Koton ranging, that would have made sense, but even then, no fool would venture forth with one sword and a mere boy. My boy.
The Koton screams sounded closer. They had spotted their prey. Lydia stopped, aiming her arrow in a circle around herself.
Too close by. Too close.
She realized her mistake. The Kotons may have been animals, but they had an intelligence that was all too human.
One pretended to be far away, and the others played along. The Kotons weren’t hunting her son. They’re hunting me.
She had only time to fall to the ground, twisting her body and loosing an arrow at the Koton frighteningly close above her. It groaned, snatched the arrow from its midsection with a claw five feet wide, then soared into the air, hoisting the arrow as a primal warrior might a spear.
She got to her feet and kept running, not even sparing a look at the sky. The old training came back to her like a buried memory, unbidden and horrible to hold, yet familiar.
She was too far out in the open; a treeline was just ahead, a few more moments…
And they were before her, blocking her path, four of them grabbing the ground hard enough to make fat mounds of dirt and grass. They shook their heads at odd angles and fixed leathery gray eyes on her, another collective low rumble breathing mist into the air.
She was done. Four of them, and one still in the air, holding my arrow.
Lydia folded her bow and drew her short sword in one fluid motion. She lunged and dropped into a roll, her sword slashing as two Kotons leaped at where she once was. She opened one from throat to belly. Its bulk dropped before she could get clear, trapping her ankle beneath it.
Lydia drew her dirk and stabbed wildly, catching another Koton in the face. She sat up and barely avoided another set of snapping jaws, hacking at them with her sword.
Suddenly the fourth Koton gurgled disgustingly in front of her, and Lydia hurled her short sword, catching it square in the maw. The blade melted and hissed–and the Koton’s face did the same. She scrambled to her feet at last as it fell before her.
An arrow whizzed by, forcing her to lurch to her right, though not fast enough to avoid the massive wing that swooped down and slapped her. She flew several feet and rolled several more, then slammed into a tree hard enough to knock the wind out of her.
She groaned in agony. Still struggling to take a breath, she got both hands out in front of herself. She raised her head, watching as a Koton looped around quickly and hovered above her, its shadow interrupting the light.
A grotesque smirk did not help its gray, detestably misshapen head, its face a sick mockery of a man’s face, its eyes large, bloody, a sickly yellow-red.
It spoke with a rumbling sneer, a deep mockery. “A human female. Rare among the warriors. You must be strong indeed. The strong die more slowly. But the strong still die.” It paced around her as she got to her feet. “You show no fear, female warrior. Your valor has earned you your life today.”
“Filth,” Lydia groaned. Despite the pain she felt, her training took over, blending with rage and adrenaline. In a fast motion her bow shot open and she sent an arrow through its throat. She watched it gasp, then fall over. She watched its life leak away with a sense of both relief and revulsion.
“You do not know what is to come,” it said, taking a shuddering breath, its claws grasping weakly at the arrow that would prove fatal. “The plague that will fall upon all of your kind…it…will eclipse…your light…for all time…”
Hatred and doubt warred within her as its final gasps escaped into the air. There was nothing more to be done. Their presence made evident what the beast had uttered.
A new war was due to begin. And extinction awaited the losing side.