HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
How Bees Fly
This is how you defend yourself against the demons of old, should they cross your path: You grind down their bones with a millstone and burn them; the ash you bury under a Blackwillow tree and salt the whole field where you happened to find them. You seal off their artifacts and other possessions behind a grade-3 lock, and you melt the key in the fire of your community’s smithy. Their scriptures, should you really get your hands on them, you throw onto a cart driven by a sacred gearbeast and program it to walk into one of the acid lakes.
This is how it is sung. This is how it is done. This is how it is safe.
In my lifetime we only found one demon in our community, and it turned out to be the skeleton of a wild dog. But there were stories, reaching us via grease merchants and traveling codemongers, about outposts that had been poisoned by the dreadful emanations of a sole demon’s finger bone, about how the Society of Illiterate Enlightenment hunted down a single line of equations threatening to undermine the foundations of life.
So it was quite a surprise to me to encounter not one, but two demons on the track from the beehives to the rust pasture. At first they seemed like decent people to me, travelers seeking shelter from the oncoming chemstorm, refugees from the lowlands possibly. Ours was a thriving community, high up in the foothills above the vapors, and visitors were not that uncommon. I hailed them, even looking forward to the prospect of company in the evening and hearing some news and stories. But my steps faltered as they hailed me back, and I knew them for what they were. I was the midwife for our community, responsible for life, death, and bees. I had visited the dead places during my journeyman years and had seen the crumbling statues of the demons in their tombs of stone. There was remarkably little resemblance between the statues and the real thing, but I knew them by the way their broad tongues curled around the words of the Unified Speech, by their smooth skins, by the warmth of their bodies.
They uttered words of malice, but you can’t really listen when the poison is already seeping in through your skin, and you feel it constricting your lungs and turning your organs into pulp. That’s what the stories said, and that was the way I felt. I have years of experience regarding bodily functions, though, and I realized that even the fastest acting poison wouldn’t have such an immediate effect. Fear, on the other hand, would.
It would have been my duty to deal with the demon threat there and then. I am no stranger to killing, you see. I have to kill weak queen bees not apt to assemble a hive, and weak young ones not apt to survive their first storm season. But the demons were not weak, or that’s what I told myself, and I was not fit to slay them.
Something touched my elbow, then, burning through my stormskin, and I jerked back, cradling my arm close to my body. One of the demons had come up to me, and it looked at me with its eyes shining white, the smooth skin of its face crawling into so many folds.
“Are you alright?” it said.
I backed away, poised to run and ring the bells. We had to juice the gearbeasts and evacuate, we had to raise volunteers to contain the demons, we had to call the Society’s salters.
“Don’t run away, please.” It raised its empty hands and didn’t try to touch me this time.
I very nearly laughed. By all estimations I was dead already, and now this demon tried to be gentle with me? I looked at it for real, past the hideous first impression of its glaring features. Its hooded cloak was in tatters, nothing near offering protection from storms or even the rust brushes you might step into any time. It carried no weapons I could see. Just a small crate on its back, full of vile secrets, no doubt. And it had positioned itself between me and the other one.
Maybe its partner planned something heinous behind its back; their cunningness was a staple of the stories. So what under the leaden sky did they want with me?
Then I caught a glimpse of his partner, just standing there, panting, one hand on her back. Yes, he and her, I was sure of it. Because the female demon was pregnant.
Maybe I made a mistake, then; maybe I should have let them perish in the storm to burn their remains afterwards. But wouldn’t they have survived the onslaught, they who had poisoned the whole world with their evil contraptions? Anyway, I couldn’t risk them following me back home, so I showed them the way to the shack on the rust pasture before I ran.
Still bewildered that they had let me go, I made a small detour. There are only so many duties one can abandon on a given day, and I had to ground the beehives before the storm hit. Our community would need the collected juice even more now, to fuel the underground growlights, after the dust the demons’ feet had trodden upon was burned and salted, for—what, three years? Five? A living demon encounter was something unheard of. They might as well bring the whole mountainside down on us, just to make sure. The Society has no special love for the communities, you know, and they do not shy away from sacrificing what has been tainted.
I nearly stepped on a dead bee on the trail. The undersides of its black wings were plain as it lay on its back, its jeweled eyes no longer looking at the skies. Poor thing hadn’t made it back in time; always a bad choice, even with just the pre-storm tingling in the air. There was no time for a ritual, so I picked it up, wrapped it in a kerchief and put it in my pocket. I do not name them, but believe it or not, I can tell each and every one of them apart and had already been worrying about this one.
Grating and hammering sounds greeted me at the settlement. The gate was already closed; the slabs of the enclosure, partly molten during a particularly heavy storm season a few years back, shone in the eerie light created by the dust already rising on the horizon. Nearly everybody would be tucked in safely by now, food and water at hand, and a good storyteller or singer, if you were lucky, or a heap of mending work, if you were not. I should have been with Eliss, Olmen, and Gashke in case their clutch emerged early. Instead I waved and yelled from a distance so that the headman was already awaiting me on top of the palisade.
I nearly didn’t find the words. Demon infestation, a curse as severe as they came, sounded too harmless for the things that prowled our pastures.
“Tell the people to shine the light and arm themselves! Demons! Two demons! Out in the shack!” I had to gasp for air and saw the headman’s tongue flicker in disbelief.
“You are sure.” Yet his tone suggested that he was not, that he begged me to deny it.
“I swear by the leaden sky—they live and breathe and talk, all soft skin and vicious eyes, like it is sung. They must have crept up from one of their old underground lairs.”
He stroked the aluminum rings dangling from his neck with a trembling hand and looked out beyond me, at the sky. “Our reflector is already covered. Calling the Society will have to wait. I’ll let everyone prepare to leave just in case. But we won’t say that the two demons are alive! We can’t have a panic during a storm.” He looked at me for a long while then, and I wished him to open the gate already so that I could grab my things and get to Gashke’s in time.
When he spoke again, he had to try twice until his voice carried. “You . . . Salpe, you know what I have to do, don’t you?” I shook my head in denial, because, no, not now! But his voice grew stronger, even as he tore at his collar-rings in pain. “I have to tell you that the Covenant of the Communities doesn’t extend to you anymore. You are considered tainted until proven otherwise.”
“I’m going to die in the storm! Open the gate! I’ll go to an outlying cellar and sit it out on my own. Please! I never talked to them and didn’t touch a thing.”
He couldn’t even look at me anymore. “You know the ritual. You are no longer welcome nor may you exercise your right to seek shelter behind our enclosure. I’m sorry.”
Yes, I knew. This was how it was done. This was how it was safe. There was nothing more to say, just my voice wouldn’t stop. “I . . . I grounded the hives for you.”
But his head had already disappeared behind the slabs.
You should not think of me as one who succumbs easily to death. I fight for every weakling brood, to get breath into failing lungs, to get movement into still limbs, to give them a spark of life that will demand its place in the community with a bold cry. Only if I see no way they could stand on their own limbs when I lower them to the floor do I tell the parents and carry out my duty.
The first gusts caught me up on the ridge: The neatly sealed hovels and roundhouses below me disappeared behind veils of dust, loose brushes and debris rapidly piling up at one side of the enclosure. Looking back was useless, though, wishing I was there, snuggled up in a blanket and talking in hushed tones while the wind rattled the roof. There was only one way for me. Because if anyone could handle the tainted, cure them or contain them until the taint shows or is proven void, it was the Society. I would climb up to their citadel, warn them about the demons, and see what they would do with the likes of me. Maybe I would prove the headman wrong and be allowed back into the settlement after all.
I knew this trail well enough, at least its first part. Bleached skeletons of stones lined the path, lichen and softer rock dissolved long ago. The citadel’s slender tower soared above me, overlooking the frontier communities. It didn’t seem any closer, although I had long climbed past the small crevasse where we left our quota in food for the brothers and sisters, and where I placed the occasional young one for them to raise and train.
Ridge upon ridge faded into dust, and a crackling sound haunted the sky. It had been mid-afternoon when I set out, but now I was struggling forever through the half-light filtered by the multitude of particles in the air. Chemstorms were the breath of corruption, chasing the lowland vapors to the higher ground in rapid gusts, each one laden with a new poison. The effects were manifold, corroding, blistering, gnawing away at any surface. My stormskin would only blunt the first tingling sensation, but we were far beyond that now. Cold fingers caressed the exposed areas of my skin and probed ever deeper. Soon it felt like I was breathing ice, and where I had made a hundred steps before, I made only fifty now, thirty, twenty.
Lightning ghosted through roiling clouds, sizzling down upon the upper ridge. As I craned my neck to look at the citadel, the chafing of my blisters against my collar made me whimper. The tower appeared to be gone, wiped from the earth by the storm. I felt my legs buckle. A small pause, then. I sank against a boulder and looked up at the strange beauty of the many-colored clouds. I wouldn’t close my tearing eyes, but the blackness crept in anyway. Just as I wasn’t sure of my failing senses any more, a specter strode out of the dust, a sleek figure with a beaked mask. Had they come to get me? How could the Society have known about me? When the figure bent down over me, I got a look through the clear visor of the mask. I looked into the shining eyes of the demon.
I woke up in a blanket that smelled of grease. Gusts tore at the roof, rattling the tools on the wall and the walls themselves. Into the rattling, two voices weaved, not storm-hushed, but arguing.
“ . . . bring it in just like that? As soon as it’s twitching a limb, I’m throwing it out.”
“Shhh, all will be well.” This voice I knew: the demon. “We need help, and you know it.”
“To blazes with your shhh!” The hard voice again, with a strain to it that was more than frustration; the demoness. “We have always managed on our own. And how could these primitives help us anyway? They don’t know a thing. They reject the very act of knowing, in case you haven’t noticed. You’re lucky it didn’t tear your throat out while you carried it.”
There was some shuffling and panting; wood creaked.
“See? Come, sit now. This is a new place; it may be different. And besides, no one deserves to be left outside in this turmoil.”
The demoness only growled.
I opened my eyes to slits. I was in the shack, ropes and poles dangling in a slight draft above my head. They had sealed the door inexpertly with some of the cloth sacks stashed in here. On the remainder, they had placed me, next to a currently lifeless gearbeast we used for clearing the fields after storm season. In the far corner, huddled around a flickering grease lamp, the demons whispered their plans into each other’s ear. The male demon placed the palm of his hand on the forehead of the other one. He looked well for having been out in a chemstorm, his skin smooth as ever; his mate, not so much. Her breathing was shallow and pained, her whole posture rigid. Good.
She was still in a better shape than me, anyway. I felt the outer layer of my skin catch on the blanket and come off in places, and I’d have started to cough up bloody lumps, no doubt, but for my lack of strength. No pain, though, curiously.
They must have touched me, I realized. The very air seemed to congeal in my lungs, the same air they breathed in this confined space. A choked sound struggled up through my throat.
“You’re awake?” The demon got up immediately. “Take it easy. You got badly hurt out there. Allow me to renew your dressings, please, and you’ll feel better soon.”
I wanted to wriggle out of my whole corrupted skin in one piece. This gentleness was his ruse. Why not stand by and laugh while I succumbed to the poison?
Storm-times, they teach you about detachment. Worry too much about the howling winds and how they might destroy all that’s precious to you, and you go mad with it. Best to let them rage above your head until it’s over. Even so, I came close to shrieking as the demon lifted my blanket.
His vile concoctions felt nothing like my heated poultices. First, his hands were warm, not burning, but comfortable, the tainted part of me thought. But soon my skin turned cool and tingled. I shuddered.
“No need to eye me like that,” he said. “This is just a salve to repair damaged areas and avoid infection. It might feel a little bit fuzzy. That’s because it kills the pain.”
You’d have to be a demon to come up with the idea of killing something as useful as pain. I had to get this stuff off of me. Until then, I lay perfectly still and listened to the constant patter of particles against the sheet metal door, trying to get my mind to another place. I thought of the clutch. Stormborns, maybe. They say stormborns are as tough as old iron bars, but in my opinion the real unbreakables are the ones that emerge in the settling dust of a storm’s aftermath.
“For your inner burnings, we already fed you something while you were unconscious. So how about a small repast?” I watched the demon close the lid of his jar and stash it into an oilcloth satchel. Then he helped me sit, awkwardly, avoiding the areas he had treated. Immediately, I moved away from him, even though it made me dizzy.
“I guess we have to share the meal, then?” he asked. “Would you eat with us if we took the first bite?”
I wondered why it was that he wanted me strong. Why follow me through the storm in the first place? Life-saving was not a common pastime of demons.
He had already unwrapped a longish, ribbed brown object and placed it on the paper it had been in, then he helped his mate walk over to my resting place. But she shook off his hands and drew the blanket on her shoulders tight around her bloated frame. This one had a stronger face than her male counterpart, stark angles and a blade of a nose. She still was ugly, though, flat-faced and showing not a single vibrant color, just shades of dirt.
“We should introduce ourselves, don’t you think, before we share a meal? My name is Cirrus, and this is Haze.”
The ghost of laughter bubbled up from my lungs. Everybody knows that demons don’t have names, and then to think I’d fall for just two randomly chosen phenomena of the sky you could watch every other day?
“Our names sound funny to you, then?” he asked. “Tell me, how do you name yourselves? We never got the chance to learn any of your names.”
What a vile thing to do—to try and pry the names from those you poisoned, to keep them like a trophy. I said nothing.
The demoness snorted. “Such a waste of time. Can it even talk?”
Her mate looked at me. “I believe it’s a she.”
“It’s a monster.”
I felt anger hiss up my throat and battered it down. That’s what they’d have liked me to be, a monster, tainted by their corruption, when they were the ones that had come to devastate one of the most prosperous settlements of the High East.
The demoness went on. “Each and every time, Cirrus. Each and every time they have attacked us, hunted us. Sent those masked lunatics with their half-rusted armory after us. And I can’t protect you, not anymore. I’m just stupid deadweight now.”
“It’s no dead weight, not yet! And that’s why we need help.” The demoness shook her head and wanted to get up, but the demon held her. “She . . . you helped us once,” he said, looking at me, then back at his mate. “We can’t run again, love. What if another storm hits? We only have one suit left. It’s too dangerous.”
“You made it dangerous enough in here.” The demoness pouted her grotesquely flexible lips. “I tell you what I’d do, if I were still able to perform my duties. I’d bind her up until the storm’s over. But you won’t do that, will you?”
Being barely able to sit, I didn’t feel like something those two had to be afraid of. It had to be the egg frenzy for sure, as the demoness was obviously nearing her term. But I felt a strange kind of pride suddenly to be a monster to demons.
For all her display of strength, the male demon treated her like any sensible adult would have, giving her a far bigger share of the food than the sliver left for himself, second only to the big chunk he offered to me.
We teach our young ones about the taste of poison from their very first day, as they begin to stick their tongue to everything they come upon. Only sometimes, it has no taste at all. For all it was worth, the food of the demons had a very distinctive flavor—in such a way actually that I couldn’t avoid a surprised sound, pleasantly surprised, as it was. I stuffed another piece into my mouth, its sweet stickiness crumbling between my teeth, and another, and another, licking off the last crumbs between my fingerpads. Only then did I realize that the demons were watching me. They looked at each other and started to laugh. I swallowed fast, just to make sure I wouldn’t spit it out again, in front of their feet, to show them how revolting their produce was to me. They laughed even harder, dabbing at those mostly white eyes with sleeves so threadbare they would have been used to wipe the floor in my house and nothing else. Almost like people who hadn’t had a good laugh in a very long time, and the more their bodies remembered how to do it, the deeper they sank into the laughter.
I didn’t know what to do. Normally, sitting out a storm, I would have chimed in, happy to have provided a chute for the tension to drain away. Here, with the laughter of two demons in my ears, my unease only grew.
You might think that I’d have taken courage from the lack of true evil these demons had managed to exhibit until now. But it was rather disturbing. How could these be the same demons whose legacy ravaged the land even as they laughed without a care?
I retreated to a corner and contented myself with watching them. They hid their true intentions well. The male demon went through his possessions, showing me this and that. They did not make sense to me at all, and whenever he began to explain, I closed my eyes and ears to his corruption. Their immaculate shine without the natural imperfections of the smithy told me enough about their evil nature. But one thing did capture my attention.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
And I knew. A merchant had scratched travel routes into the dirt for me once during my journey of the five founding settlements. But this, a map on paper, was something else. It showed the distant places no one had ever visited; the shores of the Quiescent Ocean harboring the vast ruins of the demons’ old haunts to the West, and to the East an endless stretch of plains lost under the vapors.
“See, this is your home—these mountains are the ones you can actually see outside. And this”—his finger went across a good portion of the paper—“is where we came from, our shelter. Our settlement.”
An underground lair full of demons, and two of them crawling up to the light, finding a route to our mountains, accurately marking each community and citadel on their way. Were they scouts, sent to investigate a place to attack? Or were they simply seeders of poison, laying their eggs near settlements so that their spawn had something to feast upon when hatching?
I didn’t as much as flicker my tongue, so he put his map away. But it had etched itself into my brain. The path from their lair was marked with a series of black scrawls. There could be dozens of them, more even; a settlement, he had said. This map would enable them to find us and enslave us easily. It is said that even to look at a piece of scripture can ruin your mind forever. And rightly so. I had to make sure the map never left this shack.
As long as I remember there haven’t been any chemstorms like those of the stories with their fortnights of cowering in the dark. The three to five days we usually got were all I needed, though. Sooner or later, my time had to come. Both demons went to sleep.
With the crackling storm for cover, I crawled over and rummaged through their possessions.
I had not yet given up returning to my community. I had withstood the demons’ poison so far. If I could only prove that there was still some part of me untainted, even after being exposed to them for days, then maybe my kin would take me back, or at least take a vote instead of obeying a rash decision by the headman alone. But if we were ever to be safe again, the map had to be destroyed.
As my fingers brushed a sleek device, I remembered how the demon had pushed a protruding knob on one of his objects and thus opened a secret compartment. Feeling a similar, barely perceptible knob, I pushed.
And out of nothing, out of the darkness, the demon’s voice came alive, booming and tinny.
“ . . . settlement on day 326, hostile as all others, we guess. Food is running out, as the season yields almost no edible plants . . . ”
I dropped the thing with a squawk. The voice thundered on. Why had I not been able to feel his warm body, when he had lurked so close? And what was he talking about? I crept backwards, afraid of finally getting hurt, when the light came on. The demon sat up in the far corner, squinting at me. I looked at him, the voice booming on in blank air, and a hiss of incomprehension and fear escaped my lips.
Sluggishly, the demon padded over, picked up the device and pushed the knob again.
Save for the raging storm, all went quiet.
He looked down at me. I was crouched among their scattered possessions. I would die untainted, I told myself, if he killed me now. Even if no one would ever know about my noble death.
The demon knelt and bagged everything anew. Only the sleek device he kept. “This is for . . . well, for keeping the sound of the voice, the sound of anything, actually, to have access to it later. See?”
He fidgeted around with it and spoke. The knob was pushed again, and the device repeated his words: “We made a new friend from the settlement on day 327. She doesn’t talk much yet, but I can tell she is very interested in our research.”
I tried to look as uninterested as ever. But I guess I was not very convincing after being caught up to the elbows in their things.
As if to mock me further, the demon opened the secret compartment I hadn’t been able to find, and took out a tiny object. He placed it into a box, took a similar object out and slotted it into the secret compartment.
“We also use it to listen to sounds from long ago, from distant places.”
As he pushed the knob again, other voices came forth. Different voices, some together, some alone, some jubilant and full of hope, some tear-stricken. Old and young voices, with short words or long litanies. One or two even sang. The demoness joined us and put an arm around the chest of her mate and hugged him tight while they listened. Listened to a multitude of demons in their underground lair, wishing for these two’s safe return.
It was a thing of terror. And a thing of beauty: I wished my community would have been able to do such a ritual, so that I could have memorized their parting wishes and listened to them in my head at least. I wished it were the voices of my clutch brothers and sisters, my housemates, even the stupid headman, that spoke out of the device.
Oddly enough, the demons didn’t punish me at all. They just continued to act like normal people waiting out a storm. All this—and the fact that I was still alive, well fed, and healing nicely—terrified me. How could they behave like this, without a single lapse back into their true nature? All this acting couldn’t possibly be for my sake.
What really got me, though, were their small gestures. The way he made her hair into short braids, small shining carapaces and slag chips he must have collected for this task going into each strand; I was fairly sure that no one ever had trimmed and colored my collar-feathers with such affection. The covert, almost shy way he tried to talk to the demonspawn in her belly, and how she accepted it after digging her nails in her palm first, then stroking his head with a hand marked by red half-moons.
What is it like, I began to ask myself, to have this warm blood running under your paper-thin skin, its blue-green pulse visible for everyone? How could they look at each other with such love when their hearts were full of poison, as it is sung? They began to feel like a fabrication to me, not the true demons that had ravaged earth and sky.
I tried to banish these thoughts with a ritual. My fingers found the dead bee I had pocketed earlier. Its iridescent black wings were undamaged, its miniature joints greased and free from dirt. I placed it on the floor looking to the East for the Ritual of Reviving and began to sing the bee from its sleep, humming the long, calm tones and dance-stepping around it. At each new cadence of the chant, I moved the bee so it faced another cardinal point, all save North. Bees were never placed northward.
The demon had taken an interest in my actions and watched the whole ritual, waiting with me after it was finished. We waited a good long time. But the bee would not buzz to life. I took it up again, moved its wings tentatively—nothing.
Maybe the presence of the demons had damaged it after all, irrevocably. I let him take it from me and examine it. Only when he made moves to disassemble it did I take it back. Civilized people don’t break things just to gawk at their inner workings.
“You could be so much more, you know,” he said with regret in his voice, “if you just let go of this superstition. It’s not getting you anywhere.”
I, having revived many a bee in my life, chose to disagree. But this bee wouldn’t fly, so I stuffed it back into my pocket.
I had clearly triggered a new idea in the demon, though, because he took up his sleek device again, to put another object into its compartment. This time, he managed to startle not only me, but also the demoness. As a whole new kind of sound emerged from the thing, she jerked out of her light sleep with a bewildered look on her face that softened to delight even as she shook her head. I had long fled from the noise and pressed my back against the wall. But I felt something tugging at me. Yes, there was a distinct rhythm and a melody—no, many melodies—of sorts. My big claw tapped the floor despite myself. I was still trying to figure it out when the demoness got up and took the demon’s offered hand.
And the demons danced!
It was impossible. Of all things, demons were not supposed to dance. They were not supposed to be harbingers of joy. And yet that was what I saw: Their movement was slow and solemn, no ritual at all, but pure affection and delight. I could see it in the way their faces relaxed, the way their bodies melted into each other. For that short moment, they were one with the music, one with one another. I almost longed to be one of them, to hold back the loneliness tearing at me.
When the music drained away, they stayed there in the middle of the room, and I did not so much as breathe.
So these were the mighty demons of old, their clothes torn and their hair matted, clutching each other to push away their weariness and struggles.
Some loose material smashed into the far wall of the shack, causing us all to flinch. Demon and demoness disengaged themselves.
As much as the dance had transported them to another place, another time, their return plunged them into a mood. The demoness began to pace, more agitated than ever. She kept her back to the demon, but I watched her wipe furiously at her eyes.
“There is no help here, Cirrus. Promise we’ll flee.”
“What about the child?” he said.
“There is no child.”
I could see his pain, and how he longed to go to her. “I was able to feel our child just moments ago. So don’t give up yet.”
You should think that her voice would match her tears, but it was flat and dead. “We made a deal not to talk about it. No child can be born under the leaden sky. It won’t live.”
“You don’t know that. It might.”
“Then it will die soon after. It was a mistake. Look at me, I’m useless like this.” She pointed at me, still against the wall, wishing I was invisible. “They’ll kill us as soon as they get the chance.”
It felt like she burned me to cinders when she turned her back on me, and their gazes locked, both stubborn, both broken. I didn’t want to be a monster to them anymore. Clearly, they were no threat to anyone, they had even saved my life. I pitied them and felt bad for their plight. If this was the taint, I’d have had to tear my heart out to avoid it.
After a few moments, the demon looked away. “Alright. As soon as the storm’s over, we flee.”
“No!” I blurted out.
They both turned around and looked at me.
“You speak!” the demon said, at the same time the demoness growled, “You won’t hold us. I may not be in my best fighting form, but you’ll not stand in my way.”
“No,” I said. “No. I mean, your demonspawn. Your child. It will live. I hatch young ones all the time under the leaden sky. I am Salpe, the midwife of my community. I will help you.”
Within a few more hours, the storm moved on. As soon as the crackling in the air subsided and the wind settled, we tore the cloth sacks from the door.
It was late afternoon. The clouds were up high and wind-swept, and we stood and watched the landscape reappear through the dust. Even the demoness was outside, helped along by her mate.
The demon came to stand beside me. “You know, I was the one who wanted to go exploring and dragged her out to this wretched place,” he said. “Still, every day I rejoice in the sight of the sky.” But he didn’t look up at the sky at all, he looked at her. “In the shelter . . . the underground lair, it is but a distant dream. Salpe, if you have to make a hard decision later on, save her, please.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. We had spoken a lot over the past hours, and I had promised to bring their young one into the world; my hard decision was already made.
In this moment, something blinked once in the direction of the settlement. Then, through the settling clouds of dust, a clear beam of light shot upwards, slanted and aimed for the slender tower that loomed over the mountaintops. They had uncovered the reflector. It was such a fast and efficient way to call the citadel—no courier needed, no delay or risk at all. And everyone who saw the beacon slicing the sky knew to keep away and stay safe.
At the demoness’ muffled cry, my first thought was that she, too, had seen it. But it was the demonspawn, ready to enter the world.
Suffice it to say that I had a great deal to learn on this day. It turned out that the sheen of sweat on the demoness’ brow I had attributed to her warm blood wasn’t the only bodily disadvantage she had to cope with. Viviparity is a bloody mess. As if it isn’t enough to shove an egg out of you, a living, breathing being took part in a process two women could otherwise manage without much fuss. The whole thing was a procedure you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. As it was, my worst-enemies-turned-friends were afflicted with it, and so I had to deal with it, too. But the headman hadn’t cried for the loss of his midwife for naught. I had seen many a creature to life before, and so, in the early morning hours, under the jewel eyes of the lifeless gearbeast, the demonspawn was born.
“Is it whole? Is it well?” the demoness asked shakily.
It was a little abomination, all soft and wrinkly. I should have killed it there and then; it would have been my duty. But I placed it into the arms of the demoness instead, all the while thinking: I can still do it. As long as I haven’t placed it on the floor on its tail and legs, it is not officially alive. Well, it had no tail to begin with, so who was I lying to?
I had to fend off the demons’ efforts to draw me into their warm hugs and left the three of them to their bliss.
I had to come to terms with what I had done and what I would do. So I went out to de-ground the hives. I still knew some of my duties.
True, I had failed my community in many ways, but what was the harm? Nobody needed to know. The demons had promised to leave as soon as possible. They posed no threat to anyone. I’d even point the brothers and sisters of the Society in the wrong direction, if need be. Because they would come, soon, and in full strength after they’d heard what was afoot. Two living demons. They were going to hunt them forever.
Two demons with a young one, one weak with afterpains, the other weak from hunger, with nowhere to go. And it was me who had given the warning. Me who had sealed their fate.
It is never a good idea to care for bees when agitated, as they are susceptible to troubled minds. When I took off the metal netting, I was greeted by an angry hum, and a host of bees swarmed up. One of the hives was damaged, the bees lost, but the rest of them began to settle on me, always drawn to the buzz, and when there was no more room, they circled me. Very carefully, I took out all the juicecombs. They would have to be integrated into new hives.
The guilt I felt drove me back, bees all over and around me. Still I thought: let them be gone, please, let them be gone when I reach the shack. The sooner they ran, the better their chances.
But I wasn’t so lucky.
Long coats billowed behind them, bulky over all kinds of forbidden contraptions; hosed masks looked like vicious beaks from afar. I myself delivered the herbs that went into those hoses to cleanse corruption from the air the scouts of the Society of Illiterate Enlightenment breathed.
There were two of them, and they had already marked the shack as contaminated, the skull symbol designating the forbidden and the poisoned a wet green splotch on the door. It was a demon’s skull, with its hole for a nose, no snout at all, actually. Just that flat, caved-in mask of a face.
The door was barred from the outside.
I heard the demon yell within the shack, holding back the demoness and trying to plead with the scouts at the same time. I was surprised she could even lift her head from the pallet after the madness of birthing, but she snarled that she would destroy them all.
The scouts clearly believed her. Their collar-feathers raised, they stood their ground, claws dug into the dirt.
“Brother Assel, quick!” The female scout pulled at the unwieldy pack attached to the back of the other one. “Do the Ritual of Incineration as long as they are confined!”
He began chanting immediately, raising a hose attached to his artifact, moving his arms in complicated patterns. I saw the whole structure of the shack shudder as someone within threw himself at the entrance. And I stood there on the track again, back at the side of my people, the monsters snarling behind the locked door. Or were they?
“Stop!” I cried. The sister turned around, but the brother was far too disciplined as to interrupt a ritual. “They are harmless! There’s no need to incinerate anything!”
“You’re the tainted one! They warned us about you. You, too, shall be cleansed!” At a slight touch of the sister’s hand, the male scout turned on me, still chanting.
I had died hundreds of deaths in my mind those last days, and none had come to pass. To die now at the hands of my own was simply not conceivable.
I flung my arms wide. The bees were as ever drawn to the buzz, and descended in a glittering cloud upon the scouts.
My bees, you see, have a sting. They’re able to deplete all their juices at once, nothing held back. One of them teaches you respect, five give you a burn for a week, but a whole swarm rends you to a shivering puddle. The scouts lashed about, fled a few steps, but went to their knees fast. It smelled of burned scales, and when they spoke, their voices were slurred.
“You . . . you won’t esc-c-cape. We’re but the v-v-vanguard! The host . . . will d-d-destroy you!”
I watched them crawl away, barely able to carry their artifacts. As soon as they had vanished from sight, I opened the door. This time, I allowed myself to sink into the warm embrace of the demon. I felt depleted as if my sting, too, had been spent on the scouts.
My gaze fell to the bees, hundreds of them, lying dead on the ground. That’s the price they pay for the sting. This was too much for me. I had just lost my community and my home, irrevocably, and now there was not a single bee left. They were all dead like the one in my pocket, lost forever. The Ritual of Reviving would take days for such a mass of bees, days we didn’t have. I went to my knees, scooped up a handful of the lifeless husks, and cried. Sobbed for dumb dead bees, of all things.
The demon, seeing what was wrong, took some of the bees from my hands, dusted them off and placed them on the floor, not for ritual, but randomly, iridescent wings up.
“Look, Salpe. You don’t have to do the ritual. It’s just superstition. They need the light, that’s all. The daylight on their wings makes them fly.”
He explained a lot more about the bees and the rituals. About juice made from light and other things I had never known. And this time, I listened, while one after another, the bees buzzed up around us. That they were not living jewels but an ancient artisan’s constructs fueled by light made them all the more precious to me. Soon we laughed as they glittered and zipped about, newborns in the calm air.
“They won’t help against this host.” The demon said it casually, but I knew the lines on his face meant sorrow.
“No,” I answered. “They won’t.”
“So we run.” His eyes searched the horizon, not believing he would ever reach it.
I swallowed. “I was the one . . . I was the one that made them aware of you. I’m so sorry.”
He nodded once. “It was your duty, wasn’t it?”
“Listen. You take the gearbeast in the shack,” I said, “so your mate and the young one can ride. I brought juicecombs.”
“Do I look to you like I could ride ten hours a day?” The demoness, who must have watched us from the entrance, limped over, the young one on her shoulder. “This host, they have gearbeasts of their own, and they’ll ride them twenty hours, without someone trailing along on foot.”
“Then . . . ” The demon closed his eyes. “Then I’ll go and lead them away from you.”
“Cirrus,” she said, and the weary warmth in her voice was chilling me. “You heard them. They search for both of us. We have to give them what they want. They want to kill two demons? Let them have two demons.”
We both looked up at her. She was pale, her eyes shining wild. But she meant it. All that it implied.
“We can’t . . . ” the demon began.
“We can. You said it yourself before. Running is not an option anymore.”
“But our child?” He made a move to take it from her. “I won’t bring it into . . . ”
I went between them. “Your young one,” I said. “Place it on the ground.”
They squinted at me, as if they saw a hint of the monster again.
“Hold it, if you must. But let it stand on its feet.”
Reluctantly, they did, supporting it. It looked around with its blue eyes and kicked its feet, unbelievably clumsy without a tail, but for a moment, it stood.
“Now it is accepted as a member of my kinfolk.” I flicked my tongue. “I brought this upon you. They’re hunting for two demons. They know nothing about your young one. I will take it.”
And so it was decided.
They gave me everything they had. Spare clothes, stormsuit, shining instruments. Their meager supplies and instructions on how to feed the young one. The map that would lead me to their lair. They would go to the citadel naked, with no weapon but the fear that preceded them. They walked like warriors nonetheless. I could not see them as the ugly, vile apparitions anymore, but I was sure they were a terrifying sight, eyes blazing and smooth skin burning.
I insisted they take their sleek sound device with them, for I knew it was precious to them, and meeting your fate was easier with something to make the heart soar. Even then, the demon gave me most of the flat objects that went into the device.
They hugged me one last time and kissed their young one, and when they turned their backs, I wanted to run after them and find another way.
“Wait!” I called. The demoness strode on, each step a little stronger than the last, but the demon turned around.
“You have to tell me how to name your young one, your child,” I said when he had come back.
He took my hand and gently placed my clawed fingers on the small chest. “No. We decided that you should do it. Choose a name you won’t laugh at, will you?”
And as I watched them set out across the pastures and disappear in the mellow post-storm light, the small creature warm and wriggling at my chest, a name came to my mind: Dawning.
I think her parents would have liked it.
I wasn’t there to witness what happened. I just saw what was to be seen from a distance, speeding west on the back of the old gearbeast, making the best of the diversion. And, oh, there was plenty to see.
This is how I imagine it. Up at the citadel, the host assembled, fully armed on their gearbeasts, equipped with every last contraption from their vaults. Approaching them, the demons walked confident, as if they could take on the whole host, the demoness shrieking poison down on them with her voice.
Probably they hadn’t danced. Probably it had been another sound from their clever device that had startled the brothers and sisters, terrified them with noises out of the air and malice yet to come. But even so, I like to think that they put their music on and danced, in their last moments, when some frantic brother, carrying a heretic weapon he only knew how to use with a shoddy ritual, hectically went through the required steps. The Society never understood what kind of forbidden, old, truly demonic powers they had at their disposal.
So, in their terror, they unleashed something, to wipe the threat of the two living demons from the earth forever. And with it, they obliterated themselves.
A blinding white light split the sky. I reined in the gearbeast, and moments later a boom shook the earth. Vast clouds of dust rose. When they cleared later on, I saw that the tower of the citadel was no more.
I am truly tainted now. I know how bees fly.
With all the juicecombs I have harvested, the gearbeast can go on for months, and even then I have the swarm with me. Nobody will follow me. The sacrifice of Cirrus and Haze made sure that no one who knew about my involvement or the young one lives on. And as long as I have to travel, as far as I have to go, I know one thing: I am not going to raise a demon. It is a child of explorers, a child of hope, a child born under the leaden sky.
This is how it was done. This is how it is taught. This is the story I will tell. We are all the monsters our society brings up and the monsters we choose to be—whether it be me from my community or you in your underground lairs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Simone Heller lives on an island in the river Danube in a town near Munich, Germany. As a literary translator, she lends her voice to writers in the sff field by day; by night she speculates on what-if questions in her own words. Obsessions include linguistics (in which she holds a master's degree) and cartography (in which she holds on to a collection of maps far more extensive than her wall space).
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