"Christina, one day I'm gonna make you fuckin walk home." he promised, slapping her rump.
The woman lowered her dress without shifting her gaze from the back seat. A stranger watched them from the rear, female, bereft of clothing, her pallid torso glistening with rain. Her filthy black hair was matted with leaves and needles and clung to her cheeks and shoulders, following her arms and pooling with the water on the vinyl. She dropped her chin and looked from the woman’s face toward the man with eyes of slanting nephrite green, like some satanic merrow awaiting the souls of the drowned. Beside her the door hung ajar.
“Do you wanna get the fuck outta my car?” the man sputtered, offloading his companion into the driver's seat. He kicked open his door. “Junkie bag-brides all the way out here now? What the fuck’s wrong with this shithole of a town?” The woman in the print dress shuddered under her orange backcomb at the intruder. A glossy substance flowed from the latter's stare and coursed over her cheeks, down her throat and between her high, pale breasts, meeting the dark line of tattoo that began at the base of her neck and ran almost to her navel.
“Don’t be an asshole, Jonah.” the woman called softly.
"You wanna come do this?” he snapped, leaning down to glare at the intruder. “Bitch, get out.”
A moment of perfect inertia passed them by as he stood at the door. In her own time and without warning the nameless female began to slide toward him, white chin drawing level with his forehead as she emerged. Her mouth held the faint, spoiled colours of dying spring blossom.
“Jonah, get in the car...” his partner hissed; he stumbled backwards, teeth bared as she advanced on him; the stranger brushed away the blow he swung at her and snatched at his neck, the fingers of both hands working deeply into the stubbled flesh and closing until they met, while the woman's screams blasted white mist onto the car window. The stranger crushed his cartilage and vertebrae together, the tissues collapsing as they might have done in the jaws of a carnivore; oblivious to his icthyoid struggles and the nails that gouged the cold skin of her arms, she watched the spittle splutter from his swollen lips while in his throat the great vessels ruptured in unison, their blood escaping his nose in pulsing concert with the shuddering of his dying limbs. Claws as clear as the scales over a snake's eyes slid from the ends of her fingers into the throttled flesh.
The corpse fell heavily when she let it go, rolling twice over the needles. The woman had screamed herself silent by the time the stranger bent at the window and opened her mouth into something between a lizard's gape and a lunatic's rictus. Remembering the keys, she worked them desperately, sobbing as the mechanism refused her and the creature found an unlocked door.
Buried stones and arching tree roots tore at her muddied legs as she was dragged over them, though having hauled her so far from the vehicle the looming creature released her hair and let her lie against the ground. The woman gasped beside a blue-grey trunk, thunder rolling slowly down the hill like something that could crush her, slowly regaining her wits; hearing nothing, she lifted her head from the ground and reached for a hooped root. Only when she had climbed onto all fours and begun to crawl away was she flattened again by a foot stamped on her back, cold hands lifting and tossing her stiffly against the tree. Her head cracked hard on the fissured trunk, harder still a second and then third time, and at first she lolled amid the circling sparks and bubbling black fade of failing consciousness while the tang of cushioning fluids leaked into her throat. She hacked a mouthful into the stranger's face and was flung back again in retribution, her assailant succumbing to the shrill delights of battery, the woman's head leaving a soft confusion of torn hair and slick, dim colours on the snagging bark.
Sachiin tried to dismiss the memory of his brother's banishment as he sat amongst the insects that danced in a shade scented by ice and broken stone. Two thirds of the day had already passed while behind him the Tien Shan lay in awesome, shimmering repose, veiled in dusty white heat that lofted under their scant banner of cloud. Waiting alone at the edge of their attending plain, he burnt out his gaze in the fata morganas of its restive horizon. Though the altitude was too great for human comfort, it was to him of such sunken weight and density that it oppressed with the insistence of a grave; bored, he weighed the rumour that had solicited him, finding little to assure him that his brother was not as far away as the world allowed.
A lammergier circled in the haze, its shadow flashing over him. Sachiin knew the cool taste of the air that it enjoyed, his eyes following its pale shape until they were drawn landward by a visual disturbance of the horizon. An animal came at speed toward the mountains, into the burnished rays laid down by the sun's descent, trailing a long tail of dust. Closer still, and it was more substantially revealed, a four-legged beast devouring the distance remaining between them like windblown flame, a long, self-coloured plume tracing the arch of its neck, the blasting of its breath sounding even as it threw its weight onto its haunches and slid to a halt, circling tightly before the boulders.
A figure sat astride its back amongst trappings of red, sweat-darkened wool and swarthy felt. Sachiin climbed down from the stones toward the surmounting stranger in visible anticipation of his identity, though only his breeches and the muffling cloth about his head were of bai'issātva homespun, a shocking display of perfunction beside the deep blue silk of his tunic. He spoke no word of greeting but looked first to the comfort of his red horse, taking a goat skin trimmed with sunbleached tassels of human hair from its neck and allowing the animal to slake its thirst from the bulging reservoir.
Passing his eyes over the alien array stowed in its harness, Sachiin wondered at the shape of a great knife in its tanned sheath, one half of a pair, at a dark coil of plaited rope, a black, furled blanket of piled wool and a felt bag enlivened with shamanic abstracts, secured to the rear of the saddle. He feasted on their strangeness until he became conscious of the survey to which he was himself subjected; satisfied or wearied by it, Kala'amātya spoke to his horse and left it to rest, sitting down on a length of slate cast by the hill above.
The face and hands revealed as he unwound the black cloth from his head were heavily scarred, new damage supplanting that earned previous to his expatriation. Sachiin set himself down on the other half of the broken stone, immediately regretting the confronting nature of their respective positions. If he had been distant before exile his brother had returned as something incalculably remote, vastly extending his knowledge of the concept; when he spoke, the sound of his voice had changed to conform to the shape of the plain itself, flat, arid and comfortless.
"What did you tell them?" asked Kala'amātya.
"That there were snow lotus on the hills, and I would return with them..." Sachiin's reply sounded too loud and eager but the visitor scanned the slopes as if his assurance counted for nothing.
"I rejoice that you can now lie on your own behalf." he murmured, sitting in his dispassion like a spectre humouring the living with a mortal shape. His companion’s dismay slid into shame.
"Kala'amātya... I am sorry, every day, and every day I have no brother." he vowed, the words leaving them in silence while the day went gladly to its death around them. The visitor leant back to rest his head against the slab, closing his eyes in a private moment of weary, melancholic concession, a gesture so unprecedented that Sachiin almost started at it. "Are you well?" he demanded impulsively.
His brother did not reply for a long time, speaking only slowly when he finally did.
"I would ask something of you, if you can swear on your own eyes that you will answer plainly, and not to please me, nor any other. You must speak only for yourself."
The respondent sat poised in grave anticipation.
"I swear it."
"Are you content, Sachiin? With life, as it is?"
The latter's confusion, so gradually realised, was as much an answer as anything he could have consciously supplied. In his heart he ran as though on tilting ice, gaining nothing, while his brother took something from the amulet bag strung around his neck and placed it in his upturned palm. Intensely cold and perfectly smooth, the object proved a polished disc on which the brightness of their skin reflected. Some noble species of stone, Sachiin guessed, like that which he had seen upon the priestesses, its extraordinary hues recalling ice calved from a glacier, its glassy whiteness clouded around fingers of dense pine green. Its beauty and alien artifice pressed him back into silence, leaving no words to question or give thanks for the inscrutable endowment. Together they became aware of an approach from the far side of the ridge, executed with more care than stealth.
"Sis'thle bai'in." said Kala'amātya briefly, and wound the cloth around his head, catching his horse and returning to the saddle while the beast spun, tail lashing. At his bidding it sprang away across the dusty ground, working hard to gain speed, and they were lost to the thickening dusk, the sound ushered away by the evening wind that began to sweep out over the plain.
High on the ridge, the arrival followed his retreat with her own eyes, knowing that her eldest child had likely blessed the fleetness of the animal bearing him away from her. The little she had seen of him gave her a moment of rueful gratitude; he had seemed as impervious as she could have privately desired, an able denizen of hell, if nothing more. With his brother lost to him again Sachiin concealed both the jade and his disappointment. She slipped her hands into her sleeves and spoke to him.
"When we were created, the Mother in her great wisdom gave to us this high place, so that all that lies beneath the clouds might trouble us not. This was the greatest of her gifts to us." she told him, as he began the climb toward her.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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