Summer sat on a rock.
It wasn’t terribly comfortable, as rocks tend not to be, but at least she wasn’t inside that terrible hot tent with Zultan Houndbreaker. She sat a little way outside of camp, in the minimal shade provided by the canyon wall, and stared at the rope around her wrists.
Because they would have forgiven me.
She did not understand, but she wasn’t sure if it was a grown-up thing, and she would understand when she was older, or if it was an evil thing, and she would never be able to wrap her head around it.
She wanted to go home so badly that she could nearly taste it. It gave her something to focus on beside her dry, parched throat. She was incredibly thirsty.
If she were at home, she would wake up in bed. She would lie there and stare at the popcorn ceiling, the little hills and valleys of an all-white landscape, and then push off the covers. She would go out into the kitchen and get a glass of water and say, “I had a bad dream,” and her mother would put down her coffee and say, “Oh, honey,” and put her arms around Summer’s shoulders.
If her mother was having a bad day, then, she would cry a little and say, “I wish I could have the dream for you, sweetie, you know I’d do anything for you.” It would end with Summer having to reassure her mother that it wasn’t that bad, that her mother did a good job, and that was never fun, but at least it would be familiar.
Her wrists were sweaty under the ropes, and when she tried to wiggle the rope around to cool the sweaty patches, they were red and sore.
The antelope woman came wandering through camp, saw her, and walked toward her, and suddenly Summer remembered.
Don’t worry about things you cannot fix. Antelope women are not to be trusted. You cannot change essential nature by magic.
The stained glass saint’s book had warned her about this woman.
But she didn’t take away my acorn…
“Do you want to escape, then?” asked the antelope woman without preamble. She sat down on the rock next to Summer. It was hard to tell, but Summer thought she was amused.
Summer licked her lips. Her mouth was so very dry and she would have done nearly anything for a drink of water—but somehow she didn’t want to tell this to the strange woman.
“Ah?” said the woman. “I’m offering you an escape, human child. Is this language strange to you?”
“I was told,” croaked Summer, “that antelope women were not to be trusted.”
The antelope woman threw her head back and laughed. She had a deep, throaty laugh, like a movie star. Her fingers moved on her collarbone as she laughed, tapping the delicate bones as if they were musical instruments.
“Who told you that, human child?”
“A—” Summer had to stop and lick her lips again. “A stained glass saint.”
“Very wise,” said the antelope woman. “Very wise. We are not to be trusted. We are daughters of chaos and mothers of mischief. The best of us are wicked and the worst of us would break mountains just to see them dance. Let me get you something to drink.”
She rose. Summer sat on the ground in an agony of indecision. Should she refuse the drink? What if it was something horrible, like the wight-liquor? How would she know?
What would Glorious do?
This was not as useful a question as it could have been. Glorious would have torn Zultan’s throat out, pinned Grub under one paw, run into the darkness swifter than the Sleipnerians. She could do none of these things, so she sat on the rocky hillside and wished she were a wolf.
The antelope woman came back, carrying a waterskin. She offered it to Summer.
Summer stared at it, then at the woman’s strange, alien face, then back at the water.
“I shan’t poison you,” said the antelope woman. “Here.” She opened her mouth and squeezed a thin stream of water into it.
“I thought it might be wight-liquor,” said Summer.
“No one would leave such a thing unguarded,” said the antelope woman, passing over the waterskin. “Not in this camp. Grub would be on it in an instant. He wouldn’t be able to help himself. And he’s too close to the edge already—a good sharp shock will knock him right over.” She grinned. It was a strange expression, her sly eyes and her herbivore’s teeth. “That’s true, incidentally. Not everything I say is, but that was.”
Summer fumbled with the waterskin and managed to direct the water into her mouth. It was delicious, but it tasted like water, not like anything else.
“Besides,” said the antelope woman, when Summer had finished drinking, “you’d have noticed. Wight-liquor pretends to taste good, at least until it’s got its hooks in you. Then it doesn’t bother any longer.”
“Why does Grub drink it, then?” asked Summer.
“He needs it. The more you drink, the more you want. He hates it, but he loves it slightly more than he hates it, so he must keep drinking.” She yawned. “He should have died of it long ago, but Zultan keeps giving it to him. When the change comes at last, it’ll be quite grotesque, I expect.” She sounded rather pleased by the prospect.
Summer huddled into herself, not sure how to respond to this.
“So, do you want to escape?” asked the antelope woman.
“Yes,” said Summer, then, rather doubtfully, “but I shouldn’t trust you. But…I suppose I don’t have anything to lose, do I? If you help me, then I escape, and if you don’t, then I’m not any worse off, am I? And why would you pretend to help me escape if you’ve already caught me?”
The antelope woman laughed. “Goodness, you are an innocent, aren’t you? I could pretend to help you with the intent of being seen stopping your escape, so as to curry favor with Zultan. Or I could let you escape and then you could lead us back to your little friends—the hoopoe, wasn’t it?—and we’d catch you all. And as for being worse off, once you try to escape, you might be killed, or we might decide to weigh you down with chains to keep you escaping again. Or cut off your foot. Grub would enjoy that, I expect. Perhaps you would have had an opportunity to escape otherwise, but because you trusted me, you’ll lose that chance. And that is all off the top of my head, you understand. There are deeper games that I could play.”
Summer stared at the antelope with her mouth hanging open.
She had a feeling she hadn’t followed quite all of that, but she understood more than enough. More importantly, she understood that the antelope was actually arguing against herself, and that was…well, who did that?
“Why are you telling me all this?” she asked finally.
“Because I’m an antelope woman,” came the answer. “Because I enjoy it. I suppose you’re not from Orcus, are you? Do you not know the story, then?”
Summer shook her head.
“Ah!” The antelope woman tapped her blunt clawed finger on her collarbone again. “Well, mythology is a truth that isn’t true, and that’s as delightfully twisty as a lie in its own way. Very well.”
She sat down, cross-legged, and drew her back straight. There was an odd sing-song note to her voice, as if she were reciting poetry.
“I tell you this as it was told to me,” she said, “and if it is a lie, the gods told it first. Before the world of Orcus was another world, and in it were the animals and the birds and among them were hunters with the blood of the gods in them.”
Summer shifted, trying to get comfortable on the stone. The antelope woman’s eyes flickered to follow her, but her voice did not change.
“There was a hunter, the greatest of his tribe, and he had slain everything that walked or flew beneath the sky. The blood of gods was as thick in his veins as it is thin in the veins of mortals now.
“Came a time, in that other world, when the wise ones learned that the world was doomed. Great beasts had come, with teeth of stone, and they ate the world, grinding their teeth through the land and sky and water, taking away a little more with each bite. The stonetooth beasts could not be slain and they could not be turned and they could not be reasoned with. Their only purpose was to devour worlds that had outlived their usefulness, and they were determined to devour this one.”
Summer shivered. “What were they?” she asked. She wasn’t sure if she was allowed to interrupt, but it seemed important.
The antelope woman paused in her recitation. “No one knows,” she said, in a more normal voice. “I always pictured them like jackals, scavenging on the bones of dead worlds. But the story doesn’t say.”
The antelope woman picked up the thread again. “The wise ones knew that there was no more hope for their world, so they made a hole in the earth and their people went through it. And the great hunter vowed that he would bring through the beasts and the birds of the world, so that the people would not be lonely.”
“Was he an antelope?” asked Summer.
“He was not. No one knows what his people were. First, the bird that hunted with him went to all the tribes of birds and told them of the death of the world, and they came together in all their numbers and went through the hole in the earth. And because they were the first to follow the hunter’s call, the gods of Orcus gave to them the gift of speech, and they are the bird clans of Orcus today.
“Next came the wolves, for they had seen the stonetooth beasts devouring the world, and they had sung to one another that the world was doomed. They went into the hole in the earth and the gods gave them no gift, but vowed to leave them alone, as wolves have always wished to be left alone.”
That sounds like Glorious, thought Summer.
“The serpents went next, for the world was growing cold, and the gods gave to them the gift of prophecy, that they might see the future without blinking. And the elephants went through the hole in the earth, single-file, and the gods of Orcus gave them gifts, though the elephants will not tell anyone what it might have been.”
She paused then, and took the waterskin back from Summer, drinking. Summer wondered if every single species in the world was going to be listed, and if so, how long it was going to take.
But the antelope woman’s story changed then. “Those were the last of the ones who went willingly. All the rest had to be captured by the hunter. He caught as many beasts as he could, one by one, and took them to the hole in the earth, that they might be saved from the world’s devouring.”
She began to smile. It was not at all a nice smile. “And so he labored as the stonetooth beasts ate away at the land, until at last the only animal he had not yet caught was the antelope. For we were the swiftest beasts in all the world, and though we could be killed, we could not easily be caught. The hunter’s tribe went through the hole in the earth themselves, begging him to follow, but he would not come until he had captured at least one antelope for the new world of Orcus. And the stonetooth beasts ate and ate and ate, and at last the only thing left of the world was a sliver of land and the hole in the earth and the hunter and the hunted.”
Her voice dropped back into a normal cadence for a moment. “I imagine that he could look up and see the stonetooth beasts hanging over the world,” she said. “Like mountains or clouds, something huge and hungry. But the story doesn’t say for certain.”
“At the very last, when there was but one bite left of the world remaining, the hunter captured an antelope. She was female and pregnant with twins, and the fawns in her belly slowed her down. He caught her and flung her through the hole in the earth, and then the stonetooth beasts devoured him and all of the world that remained.
“So she came to Orcus and gave birth to twin daughters. And the gods of Orcus cursed them all, naming them daughters of Chaos, in punishment for the death of the hunter.”
“That doesn’t seem very fair,” said Summer. “She was just running away, wasn’t she? Why would they curse her because antelope run away from hunters?”
The antelope woman laughed. “Because, my innocent, the gods are arbitrary and cruel and it is in their nature to turn mortals as cruel as they are. With my people, they succeeded admirably.” She arched her neck and looked as proud as a warhorse. “You need not pity us. We have taken our curse and made a weapon from it. We sow madness wherever we go. We were the last to come from our dying world and we will be the last to walk this world, when all other things have passed away. Even the gods who cursed us will fall at last, and we will grind them beneath our hooves and dance together, and from our dance, who knows what new worlds may be born?”
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