Sofija placed her hands on her thighs and let her hips relax. The movement of Arklys’ steps beneath her, subtle as they were, gently rocked her. It was best to put on a picture of ease, he’d told her.
A picture of ease. On the back of a razor-toothed devil horse. Meeting more razor-toothed creatures straight from the molten core of the planet.
If only her mother could see her now.
Arklys sent a soft feeling of comfort, but he was too distracted to really make it stick. She could feel the attention it was taking for him to remember the pathway through this place. A Labyrinthine, he called it. A gateway to a part of the world he came from. Each of his hooves had to be placed exactly right. Something about the ground needing to recognize him, and him having to plod out the correct sequence and placement of steps. There was only one path forward—but it led to nowhere if you traversed it incorrectly.
In Sofija’s home, a labyrinthine was a place of meditation and inner reflection. She didn’t know what to think about Arklys’ use of it … or which use had come first. She was still struggling to understand that humanity had made a pact with Gaia millennia ago, that daemon traditions existed in every civilization across the globe … and that they were now here to wipe out humanity for breaking their oath to take care of the earth.
The sky was starting to shift, the changing colors shining more vividly, the stars seeming to brighten until it hurt to look at them. The clouds were gone; constellations cut giant swaths across the sky, bringing an odd order to the black and green and blue.
Arklys’ sleek black hide made more sense here—an odd connection Sofija never would have guessed at had she not seen it. She stroked his back—almost a compulsion to prove he was still physical, despite the obvious reality that she sat upon him. Breaking his concentration, his head twisted towards her. He rubbed his nose along her shin once, twice, and then returned to his task.
They were meeting at a place halfway between. Whatever that meant.
She startled as Arklys answered the question in her head before she’d even asked it. yes, I’m sure they won’t kill us. at least not immediately.
“Why now?” she murmured. “We’ve been trying to avoid them for months, and now they want to talk peace?”
Arklys didn’t respond, which was typical. He hadn’t been answering similar questions since he’d announced yesterday that ‘they’ wanted to meet with them. And the knot in Sofija’s gut wouldn’t dissipate. He could be leading her to her death, sick of her whiny wanting to go home. Or meeting his kind so he could go back to them, fed up with her warped sense of humor.
He was the only thing Sofija knew she had left.
Arklys sent the feeling of warmth again. She was not comforted. All she wanted to do was go home. But she’d never make it there alive without him … and they couldn’t go back north without first being sure they weren’t followed. He had promised her he’d take her back home without leading his people to her doorstep.
That was, if her home wasn’t completely obliterated.
Suddenly Arklys’ ears pricked and he glided into a trot. She no longer flinched at how smoothly he moved, as if he were made of shadow instead of substance. She did still get dizzy if she watched him for too long, though, his joints and body moving in ways that were too different.
Now she looked down at the ground, which reflected her own image. Her features, the color of her hair … it all seemed flat and plain in this place.
Then shadows began to take form and the hair on her neck stood up. Burning-coal eyes appeared as creatures showed themselves along their path. Their shapes were too different to make sense of them, their sleek black coats a mirror of Arklys. Only none of them had Arklys’ grace and bizarre mix of equine and feline.
The creatures grew more numerous as the path straightened and then turned into a vast shallow bowl-shaped valley that seemed to encompass the sky and the earth all in one.
Within that bowl, half a dozen humanoid creatures stood watching Arklys and Sofija approach. She recognized two of them instantly—or maybe Arklys did—despite their uniform jagged-yet-sleek armor… which could have been armor or simply their bodies.
The daemons, humanity called them. Or the fae, if someone remembered the old stories. The last time she’d seen the one on the right, she’d driven a crappy, rusty sword through him and into the ground.
Shoulder is looking well, she thought, somewhere between sniggering and fleeing in terror.
Arklys came to a halt. He wanted her to get off him. Sofija hesitated, but listened. She remained close, though; close enough to feel the damp heat he radiated.
One of the daemons stepped forward, and she knew that one too. She was there the first time Sofija and Arklys had faced them. She began to speak, and for a second it was nothing but gibberish. Then it clicked, and Sofija felt like her brain was being twisted, pulled in ways it wasn’t supposed to go. She cringed, no less than the last time this had happened.
“… prince-ride… it is a pleasure to see you again… looking much better this time…”
Sofija knew that was a dig at her. Arklys had not looked good the last time they’d faced each other. It was right after she’d accidentally killed Arklys’ prince and gained his loyalty … and she hadn’t known what to feed him. They hadn’t been able to communicate yet, either; she hadn’t even known they could communicate. He’d been withering away.
“… though your familiar looks a little sick… She’s not dying is she?…”
Arklys snorted. mine is none of your concern
That seemed to make her ripple with amusement. “… She is not cut out for you…”
Arklys’ ears flipped back against his head.
“… it is time to come home… the next brood will be coming soon… It is your duty to create the next…”
Arklys seemed to relax. His head tilted in a decidedly non-equine movement, his lips pulling back from his wicked razor teeth in a grin. They gleamed like stars in this place.
is that what this is? The next brood is no longer my problem. As you can see—
The voice began to croon. “… You are the best of us… We will be lesser without you…”
Technically, daemon steeds, like Arklys, were subservient. Or more accurately, they were subservient when they were paired with the ‘princes.’ This leadership class apparently had no status without a steed. The power of the steed helped determine the status of the ‘prince.’ There was also something to do with bloodline, but Arklys was more evasive with that.
Sofija didn’t really know how it worked, and Arklys had not been the most patient about explaining. Really, all she knew was that the daemons were pissed that she’d killed Arklys’ first prince. Not necessarily because of his death, but because of the loss of Arklys’ loyalty. And somehow … because Sofija was not a daemon and not within their hierarchy, Arklys’ standing was as if he wasn’t paired, which meant that he had more status than most daemons, leadership class included. Sofija guessed he’d been powerful even before, but now he was even more.
She did wonder if that was part of the reason he stuck with her.
“… you cannot think to be Inure with her…” the voice said, soothing and condescending.
Sofija hadn’t heard that one before. She wracked her brain to even understand what the word meant. It was something having to do with becoming used to something, particularly violence. But that didn’t bring any clarity to what the daemon was saying.
Arklys shifted, and Sofija put her hand out automatically against his withers. It was a habit, this understanding what he wanted.
“… YOU ALREADY HAVE…” the daemon bellowed.
Sofija’s mouth filled with metal. She was suddenly back in the fort at the Green Isles, liquid black horrors flying at the walls and dragging screaming soldiers over the edge to never be seen from again—not even their bodies.
“… This is too far. THIS CANNOT STAND…”
and time to go.
Arklys crouched abruptly into an equine bow that was too fluid to be real and his air of calm slammed into Sofija’s chest, just as easily as all the other times he’d done it. She’d barely got a hold of his mane before he wheeled around, so quickly that the stars blurred into a circle of light above her head.
we must go before they bring my Nemesis.
He’d spoken of a Nemesis before. Each daemon had one; if one got too powerful, there was always another who knew their weakness, who was able to take them out. He’d mentioned once, in the dark of the woods weeks ago, that he’d been nervous the daemons would send his after him.
Now he lunged back the way they’d come. It was a bizarre few seconds as she realized he was laughing—a terrible, mocking laugh that echoed in her head like giant bells. And despite the complete and utter creepiness of the devil-horse, she wasn’t having the the flashbacks of living through hell every night at the Green Isles, like she did with the other daemons. It brought her back to the here and now, which, actually, was helpful.
you should know…
Arkyls’ voice in her head was still dripping with dark humor. He was thenleapingacross the spiral path instead of following it, his hooves striking directly in the center of each stone before he lunged to the next. Each connection sent up sparks, like pops of fire, and Sofija could feel the rippling physical power he was exuding. It was making her more nauseous than she already was.
what I’m doing with you isn’t exactly allowed…
“Having a human as your … pair?” Sofija gasped as a daemon went flying by her head, missing her by a hair when she ducked and Arklys swerved. “They didn’t seem so angry last time.”
I mean when you feel me… It’s—
Arklys suddenly wheeled and let out a howling scream, and Sofija was nearly flung off of him as he struck something that had been rocketing toward them. Metal tang hit her nose a second later. Her eyes shut tightly and she twisted her head away, her stomach churning. Inured to violence she was not, whatever the daemon had meant.
Her people never acted in violence. Only for defense, if necessary. It was probably why there were so few left. But it didn’t stop the wrongness she felt—despite the months of killing to survive.
Her eyes opened, and her stomach dropped. A great flood of daemons was burgeoning toward them, following the path of the labyrinthine. They were hazy, almost more mist than physical. But as they grew closer, they grew darker. And more real.
Was this the last thing my family saw, too?
Panic had her hitting Arklys in the neck with her closed fist. Arklys twisted, done with his victim, and surged into a gallop again. He wasn’t leaping over the paths anymore, but now racing through the circular pattern of the labyrinthine.
it would be dangerous to skip earth-paths at this point.
Again, he answered a question she hadn’t even asked. He was doing that more and more lately. As if he were always inside her head.
Suddenly something whizzed past her ear and Arklys stumbled, a black shiny arrow embedded in his shoulder. He immediately righted and was running again.
I am not hurt.
“’I am not hurt,’” Sofija mocked.
This reaction was a lot more extreme than last time. Previously, the daemons had challenged her for Arklys’ loyalty. When she’d won anyway—because of Arklys’ influence, mind you—they’d threatened that they’d challenge her again in the future.
She thought a question to Arklys—intentionally this time: The daemons challenged me for you before. Why are they attacking instead?
you don’t have to think so hard, and it is because if I truly Inure with you, you will have status as a daemon.
Sofija’s mind blanked.
yes, they’d rather kill us both than have that happen.
“That’s ridiculous! I don’t want status!” How is that possible? I just want to go home!
I know, Arklys soothed. I will take you home. I promised before, I’ll promise again.
The pressure of the air changed, then, Sofija’s ears popped, and she blinked as the colors of the world shifted. They were almost to the end of the labyrinthine … the daemons hot on their heels.
What is Inure?
not right now
“Yes, right now!”
And then, she just knew—whether it came from him or herself, it didn’t really matter. ‘Inure’ meant becoming accustomed to something—or something taking effect. It was what had been happening between them: the learning to communicate, the knowing what the other wanted without speaking, the bizarre urges Sofija’d had since she killed Arklys’ previous ‘prince.’
He’d accepted her as his ‘pair,’ devoting his life and soul to being her constant companion and protection. A spell—or more seemingly, a physiological change—was happening to both of them, conditioning them to each other. While a normal part of daemon adulthood, it was taking an extra step with Sofija, the human. Arklys saw it as normal; he saw it as pleasing.
Arklys was turning her into a daemon.