Rosa had grown old.
Or perhaps she had been old for a long time.
She leaned back in her chair, the wooden bones of the porch creaking beneath her. The setting sun flared against her eyes in a brilliant starburst, but Rosa did not close them, only squinted and let the tears wash through.
Perhaps she would be a more whole person if she cried. For what she had lost, and for what she had been.
“Flower, why so philosophical tonight?” Hou Yi came out onto the porch, her boots stomping loudly against the boards. Hou Yi did everything loudly, until she was on the hunt, when her footfalls became as quiet as the swish of one of her arrows. As quiet, and just as sure.
“What’s wrong with philosophy?” Rosa said.
“It’s a bad look for you.” Hou Yi thumped herself down in the other chair. Like Rosa, she was a large woman, solid and muscle-bound. “You live too much in your own head. Like a tortoise squeezed up into its shell. It makes your face constipated.”
The old wince ghosted through Rosa’s head at the comparison to an animal. She’d struggled so hard over the years to excise that prejudice, papering over her discomfiture with firm assertions, walling even the whisper of her own intolerance away from allies or family. She’d so proudly taught her own child right, all those years ago—grundwirgen might have animal forms, but they are the same as humans, just the same, no difference—but no matter how she tried to pry her soul free, the same visceral disgust still curled inside her like an ugly, wizened friend: You know what you are.
Her bigotry had destroyed everything good in her life, and still she couldn’t twist free of it.
Rosa turned her mind from the past and instead worked through Hou Yi’s final phrase to unearth the meaning. She wasn’t fully fluent in this tongue yet. And “constipated” wasn’t a term she used regularly, fortune favor her.
“You’re the one who’s constipated,” she said when she got it, mangling the pronunciation.
Weak comeback, but Hou Yi roared with laughter. Rosa wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of asking what she’d said by accident.
“Someday you’ll learn from me and let it all push out of you. See how relaxed and open I am?” Hou Yi leaned back and fished a clay pipe out of her pocket, tipping in the tobacco in a practiced motion.
“Open, ha,” said Rosa. “And where is your wife again?”
“In the moon. See? Open!”
Rosa snorted. Maybe it was an idiom, but Hou Yi had always blithely refused to explain, only laughing when Rosa asked. She’d stopped trying.
Hou Yi’s striker sparked in her fingers as if she were a witch conjuring fire. She puffed at the pipe, then took a long pull and blew a perfect ring of smoke at the sunset-washed sky. “And where is your wife, Flower?”
“I don’t have a wife,” said Rosa.
“Liar,” Hou Yi said amiably, and held out the pipe.
Rosa took it and closed her lips around the stem, breathing in the black tang of the tobacco smoke and refusing to think about Mei. The searing warmth unfurled inside her like she had kissed a dragon.
I kiss them and then I kill them. Another memory from which she could not escape.
A pebble hit her arm.
“Stop brooding,” Hou Yi said. “I didn’t scrape you off the side of the road for you to brood on my front stoop.”
Rosa pulled in another deep breath from the pipe. “No, as I recall, you begged for my help.”
“Begged? Hardly. It was an act of charity.”
Too much truth to both sides. Rosa, an exiled stranger in this land, her family stripped away, and with no purpose left, nothing but her rifle; Hou Yi, who had too much purpose, cheerfully throwing herself and her bow in the path of every ravening monster or magical scourge until Rosa had begun to suspect she had a death wish. They fit together—tagging on to Hou Yi’s obsession gave Rosa’s life borrowed meaning, and Hou Yi was growing too old to succeed in such recklessness alone.
Besides, battling terrors with Hou Yi was worth something. Worth dying for, if it came to that; a small token Rosa could offer against the person she had been.
Well. As long as they only hunted dumb beasts.
The sun had dipped below the mountains now. Rosa closed her eyes, losing herself in the cooling air and the scent of tobacco.
She felt Hou Yi sit up beside her.
Rosa stiffened to alertness, her hand reaching for the smoothness of her rifle, propped within reach against her chair.
“Runner,” Hou Yi said. A girl dashed through the grass toward them, her legs pumping wildly.
Rosa didn’t wait. Her sling fell across the shoulder of her scarlet cloak, the weight of the rifle landing comfortably on her back. Hou Yi had bow and quiver in hand as if they had appeared from nowhere.
Rosa dumped the remaining tobacco and stamped out the ash in one move as they stepped off the porch. Thin shadows spiked like knives behind them, and their boots ate the ground in a fast jog. Rosa felt the clarity of it—diving to place herself between innocents and danger, the relieving certainty that she’d die doing something clean and right.
The girl stumbled to a stop before they reached her, her face red in the twilight and her chest heaving. “You are the Great One?” she called to Hou Yi in a piping wheeze between gulps of air. Her eyes skittered to Rosa for a moment, then away. Rosa was used to it. She was a strangeness here.
How Mei must have felt, all those years. She pushed the thought away. “Where, child?”
The girl’s eyes flicked between them again, but she wasted no time in pointing behind her and toward the south.
“The farms outside Jie Shu Kai,” Hou Yi said.
“Please,” said the girl. “My father—”
Hou Yi took off at a run, her strides devouring distance. Rosa was only an instant behind her. She shouted at the girl to stay behind, where it was safe, but she wasn’t sure whether her words were lost in the wind.
Straight as one of Hou Yi’s arrows, the two women loped in the direction the girl had pointed. The land began to push up in low hills, gentle undulations beneath their pounding tread. The sky purpled above them like an aging bruise, and before it had quite deepened all the way to black they found the fires.
Flares burst over the hills in pops of orange and gold, terrifyingly brilliant against the night. From here it was almost beautiful.
“Two of them,” called Hou Yi.
Even after hunting by the woman’s side for more than a year now, Rosa was still not sure how she knew from this far away.
Rosa’s jaw clenched. Two. Last time, together they’d barely been able to put down one. And Hou Yi had been badly burned, a bubbling swath of blisters that had only just finished healing into a shiny scar. Another scar for the collection, Rosa had joked, once the danger was over and the bird dead and inert.
But it was no joke. This fight truly might be their last.
So be it.
Rosa lowered her head and pushed herself faster. Ahead, dark lumps scurried over the horizon, stumbling in waving lines, racing to prop each other up. They solidified into ash-coated people as they came closer, screaming and crying, some with no more than the ruined clothes hanging off them and soot streaking their terrified faces. One older man kept trying to turn back, wailing, but his children dragged him on, their expressions dead.
Interspersed with the humans ran the odd animal, all clearly more than dumb creatures—here a snake kept rapid pace with a woman; there a tusked deer galloped by with the fear of a man in its eyes, twisting its neck around to look behind. To the side a wild horse galloped with children clinging to its back and a baby clenched carefully in its teeth by the swaddling clothes. Rosa resolutely looked past them—The grundwirgen are fleeing just as the humans are, ignore them, ignore, focus on your purpose …
Some of the escapees cried out to Hou Yi and Rosa. For help? In warning? Their cries were left behind too fast for Rosa to unravel the meaning in the words. Hou Yi didn’t slow and so neither did Rosa; nothing they could do for these villagers would make any difference if they could not stop the birds.
Rosa’s breath began clenching in her lungs, and her throat bucked in a spasm of coughing. Her feet stumbled, suddenly heavy, and she raised her head to find the air ahead clogged with smoke. The movement of fleeing humans, animals, and grundwirgen had become ghostly shadows. Rosa’s eyes stung.
Beside her, Hou Yi paused long enough to wrap a scarf around her nose and mouth. Rosa did the same, pushing up her red muffler and binding it tight. Then she looked to Hou Yi.
The other woman scanned the haze, searching for signs Rosa had not yet learned to see. Then she pointed in quick, sweeping motions: You, that way. I, this way.
Rosa gave a sharp nod she wasn’t sure Hou Yi could see and struck off toward where her fellow hunter had directed.
Washes of brightness came through the smoke, haze diffusing the fire into a deceitful softness. The size of the flares took her aback. Either she was near, or the bird was huge. But a glowing line against the ground had to be where the farms were set ablaze—too low, too dim for her to be near yet.
The bird was huge.
Rosa forced herself to stumble on, pushing through the smoke as if it were a physical barrier. Her hand went to her nose and mouth, clenching the muffler close. Her stinging eyes had filled with enough tears that she wasn’t sure if it was salt water or ash that so blurred her vision—she closed them and drove forward.
She broke out into hell.
Fire was everywhere, dancing through broken roofs, sweeping across fields; a devouring monster neither Rosa nor Hou Yi could kill. The odd form lay unmoving across the hellscape, human or animal or grundwirgen, impossible to tell between them. Nothing but the fire moved here. The fire, and what had brought it.
The bird screamed overhead. Rosa’s rifle came off her back and up out of reflex, its stock socking against her shoulder like a piece of her own body fitting into place. She brought her right hand over the top to swipe at her streaming eyes. The iron sights of the rifle snapped into focus, one behind the other, aligning with flames behind them.
Flames in the shape of a demon.
The bird spread its wings and screamed again. It towered over the scene, as big as a small cottage or bigger, its wingspan spreading twice as wide. The conflagration poured directly from its monstrous outline, engulfing the feathered silhouette and leaping to the heavens in a brilliant inferno. Half bird, and all fire.
Rosa’s world reduced to the tiny front sight of her rifle, her best rifle, the one Xiao Hong had pressed into her hands that last day. Before she lost her vision again in the haze, she squeezed her finger back.
The rifle kicked her in the shoulder, but its roar was muted behind the crackling thunder of the flames. The bird screeched and reared, beating its wings down and wheeling to the side. One wing crashed through the half-burnt thatch of a house, wild, no longer responding to its owner’s commands.
Rosa barely moved fast enough to save her life.
The bird reared up and pounced, its beak stabbing down exactly where she had been, fire pouring forth from its maw. Rosa dodged between burning timbers. The heat was all around, bearing down on her from every side, blistering her skin and making her heady and weak. Or was that the smoke … was she breathing? She couldn’t tell. Her lungs curdled inside her. She tried to cough and her throat seized.
The world wavered. If you pass out, you’ll die, she thought.
Isn’t that what I deserve?
Her boot hit something. She fell. The act of falling barely imprinted on her, as if her mind had checked out and was only waiting for the body to catch up.
Sharp grass stabbed her cheek. Eyes stared into hers, eyes blank of all life but frozen in a rictus of terror. She had tripped on a dead man.
This wasn’t what they had deserved.
Rosa’s knees wanted to bend back on themselves, but she pushed herself upright. Years of habit kept her from leaning on the rifle for help, the inane thought chasing after: What good is the rifle if you’re about to die?
The bird had stopped screaming. Rosa tried to quiet herself to a creep—the infernal beasts had the keenest of hearing—but it was too much of a job only to keep herself ambulatory. Even in this environment, though, her hunting instincts kicked in, tracking direction, leading her to the side, around to flank, yes, that’s where the wounded prey will turn.
She brought her rifle up again, so heavy now.
The bird burst forth from nowhere, from nothing, a tower of flame filling her vision. Rosa thought, the whites of its eyes, even though such a thing made no sense, even though the things had no eyes she’d ever been able to glimpse, and she stood strong and did not flinch as her finger squeezed back.
An avian scream, and Rosa thought, I wounded it, only wounded, it’s over. Her hand automatically swept back to work the bolt but no time, no time.
A dark flash of length against the fire. The arrow shaft disintegrated in immolation. Rosa did not see the arrowhead fly through.
But it must have, for this time the bird whirled in pain, its headlong charge arrested. Its wings beat at the air, the ground. The flames engulfing it dimmed and sputtered.
Rosa tried to move, but she was too slow.
The enormous, extinguishing wing came at her as if through molasses. Nowhere to duck. Nowhere to run.
The impact jarred her old bones. Then nothing.
Copyright © 2020 by S. L. Huang, LLC