A Continuing Haibun Cycle
By Patrick M. Tracy
Hesitation is death. The killer stood at the periphery of the wood, weapons in hand, watching the place where the Dolgur and Haike had been. A pang wracked her being. She had never told Haike her real name. He knew her only as Namira, as many others had done. Just a ghost name, an evasion. She had been trained to do just that, trained to trust those dim instincts from the low parts of her brain. This day shook every minute of that training, growing doubt and regret where there had been only surety before.
The killer put her weapons away and let her shoulder blades rest against the rough bark of a tree nearby. What of her instincts now? What of this, a third road she had never anticipated? Tantalizing, Haike had been given over to her by the hands of fate. Now...she didn't know. She had hesitated. Just this once, she had been conflicted about a kill. Looking back into her own reaction, she didn't fully understand why.
“Why could you not strike, Valila?” she asked herself, almost flinching at the sound of her true name upon the air. It had been a long time since anyone uttered that sound. She had become unaccustomed to the way it felt upon her ear.
It had been a manageable kill. The angle had been good enough, the strategy sound. Valila shook her arm, feeling the tautness of the muscle, feeling the responsiveness of her nerves. Had she been afraid of missing her target, of hurting the boy?
She sighed, sinking down to her haunches, finally sitting on the rocky ground, in the lee of the wind and shaded by the pine boughs. No, she'd felt the target, known she could hit it true. Just the back of the front leg, piercing the muscle that bore the weight of the Dolgur's steps. She'd succeeded at much harder throws, flouted steeper odds. Hand empty, she pantomimed the act of throwing her Ka'Javiila. A simple throw, really...
Valila's mind created the rest. The Dolgur spinning about, one leg held clear of the ground because of the pain. She'd throw the piercing dart she'd coated with the most powerful poison known to the Ghost Society, targeting the soft tissue of the beast's chin. The Dolgur's mighty constitution would allow it to chase her, but she'd be slowed. Melting into the deeper woods, Valila could have waited for the poison to sink into the Dolgur's heart. Weakened and half blind with the venom's rigor, it wouldn't be able to fight when Valila returned. Her killing dagger, sharp enough to part silk with only its own weight, would have opened the big neck veins and put it to rest.
It would have worked. Just as she'd promised herself, she had let the Dolgur return to its home range. It would have been easy enough for her to shepherd the little ones the final few miles. She hadn't been contracted to kill them, after all. They were beyond her mandate, and she was not disposed to harm them. The world needed them, needed what they would furnish.
The folk of the cities and towns reviled the thought of the unknown, of the shadowed depth of the forest. They reviled fear and that which brought terror upon their dreams, but they yet required it. Without the giant steps of creatures greater than they, without some force, if only an idea, that would chasten them when the sun passed from the sky, they would become as their own monsters. Perhaps there would be a day when only the prosaic trudging of men's feet down a muddy track would remain, but the magic of the elder ages, of the Coryiat's Superbeings and their storied might, of the glory of the fallen Reptians...these remnants kept the world from tucking its hungry maw back upon its own breast and beginning to eat.
Valila and her kind knew that death was not the worst thing. Nay, it was a necessary thing, a beautiful thing. Only death and its purveyors kept sacred the beating of the uncounted hearts. Death and the fear of that ending blackness kept humanity churning forward, searching for some method by which to transcend a lifetime of years. Without creatures like the Dolgur, without the killers of the Ghost Society, there would be no one to remind the successive asinine generations that they were not forever, that they were not in possession of the great, dark wisdom of the end. Perhaps, Valila thought, there was no difference between the Dolgur and herself. She could not have killed it without symbolically killing herself.
Valila swallowed her spit and waited for the next thought. She touched her own face. Tears stood upon her cheeks. For the first time, she had elected to leave a mission incomplete. The fact that she was unconcerned with letting the Dolgur go free was only one revelation. The greater one, the awful fear for Haike, spiced with unreasoned pride for him, swirled within her like dust cyclones on the dry plains to the east. She was both more and less sure of everything.
What I didn't do
now defines me more than what
I have always done
The sharp edge of all
I planned, all this ordered death
now gives way to doubt
What darkened magic
shall remain after the last
monster is destroyed?
This monster I am
the pale, altered reflection
of darker ages
Bereft now of pride,
I am yet proud of he who
walks into twilight
The fire had long since fallen to coals and dimmed. Above her, the stars made the shapes of the Superbeings of old and told the tale of what would come in the unseen ages of the future. Valila had slept briefly, but the image of Haike's small shoulders retreating into the forest, his little hand hooked underneath an armored plate on the Dolgur's cheek...this image kept coming to her. He hadn't looked back, not once. In her dream, though, he would, some deep wisdom in his eyes that frightened her.
The stars above her told both fools and wise men many things. For Valila, they told her only that it was a clear night and that the air atop the hills was clean of the smoke and filth of the cities. She would wait, of course. How long? She didn't know. How long does one wait for a boy who leads a Dolgur away into its forest realm?
If Haike returned, they would have to travel somewhere far from the warlord Kahlid's realm. She would not attempt to collect the second half of the killing fee, nor would she return to him and attempt to explain her actions. Neither was necessary. He would soon die, eaten up from the inside. If the female Dolgur chose to trot through his domain again, it would be years before she did. Kahlid would be busy in the dirt by then, and there would be no one to remember the secret deal he'd struck with the Ghost Society.
If Haike returned...she would teach him all she knew, all she'd hoped to know, even. It would take time. The teaching wouldn't be easy with a gifted, willful student, but every effort would be worth it. If she could only make him live up to his promise. For a moment, she wondered if, in the end, she would even have something to do with it. He was not like she had been—lost and broken, needing anything to hold onto, any code to make the turning of the world sensible. The awful, beautiful strength within him wasn't so needy. No, she was still the one who needed, who required another to complete some hoop of metal within her.
Her breath weighed heavily in her chest. Like as not, he wouldn't return as anything but a spectre in her dreams, haunting her with things not done, words left unsaid. Bereft, she would go on. Hollow, she would continue her work, though perhaps it would cease to mean anything in the absence of her one great opportunity. In sparing the Dolgur, her own soul, maybe, would be forfeit.
Valila's war camel grunted behind her. His long neck uncoiled and he peered into the darkness. She grasped her Ka'Javiila and rolled silently to her feet, putting her back against a tree. A scratching, scuffling noise came closer. Valila hoped hard for Haike's pale eyes to meet hers, but it was other eyes that did so, other little ones who came upon her camp in the night.
Unafraid of her fire, the Dolgur pups came into the light and watched. She could smell the blood on them, see their heavy bellies. They had taken their fill of the doomed caravan of town dwellers. They sniffed at the air, recognizing her scent. The boldest of them came and peered at her from just within hands-reach. The camel behind her bellowed, but they paid it no heed, looking only at her. They knew a predator on sight.
One by one, they sat down together, uttering a few gurgling hisses as they sorted out who would sit where. Valila put more wood on the coals. As the fire rekindled, they watched it, gurgling louder when a knot would pop and send little sparks into the night air. Soon, they had all fallen asleep save one. That one kept his eyes on her, inching closer and closer still. Slowly, she reached out, touching the cool, hard scales of his neck. He made an interrogative, but didn't pull back. Roughing at his neck, she touched him as she had touched a friendly dog in her youth.
Without warning, the Dolgur cub turned, taking her hand into its mouth. The breath caught in her throat. Even at that size, it could snap a hand off in a single impulse. The mouth closed, and she felt the jagged, ripping fangs, as well as the heavy, grinding teeth at the back of the jaw. The cub didn't bite down, though, only mouthing her for a moment before letting go. With a squelching grunt, he retreated a few paces, pushing the other cubs apart and nesting down in their midst.
Valila breathed out. Her heart beat hard in her chest, more afraid than she'd ever been of a chosen target. She watched them, these small ones upon whose imperative their mother had shed so much blood. She watched them until her eyes sagged shut. In the morning light, only the impressions of their bodies on the grass assured that it had not been a vivid dream.
What dreams await us
down the road of settled dust
and shadowed struggle?
What do we become
when surety gives way to
Harvesters of death;
yet absent a man's malice
these sacred children
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