That’ll be the ziken.
They’re the reason we need to train the best warriors. With their paralyzing venom and ability to regenerate lost limbs, the ziken are formidable foes. The beasts love nothing more than the taste of human flesh, and they know exactly where to get it. That’s why we always have warriors scouting the perimeter of the village.
As soon as Torrin and I pass our trial tomorrow, we will join the ranks of warriors and be charged with the village’s safety. Our lives will be consumed with killing the beasts.
I wonder if any will come out to play tonight.
* * *
TORRIN AND I STAND in the shadows of the trees, waiting for the god to appear.
In the clearing ahead of us, seven wagons wait in a line, heaped with various goods: precious stones and gems, fine clothing sewn with metallic hems, preserved fruits and pickled vegetables, flasks of fresh water from the Sparkling Well, herbs and medicines, fresh and dried meat—and in the final wagon …
I cannot bear to look at that last wagon.
“What do you suppose the god looks like?” I whisper.
“They say he never shows his face,” Torrin whispers back.
“Maybe he doesn’t have a face.”
“Maybe his nose is embarrassingly large, and he doesn’t want anyone to know.”
My lips twitch, but I cannot manage a smile with the threat of danger surrounding us.
The light of the full moon makes it easy to spot my father standing next to our wagon. The nocerotis are harnessed to the front. They are restless, sensing the tension of all the men waiting. My father reaches out a hand, patting the rough hide of one of the beasts.
I wonder if the god isn’t watching them, relishing their discomfort. In making them wait.
“You don’t think he knows we’re hiding out here?” I ask.
I shake my head. “The god.”
Torrin doesn’t say anything for a moment. “Havard’s boasted of sneaking out before to witness the Payment, and he’s still alive.”
“Maybe we should turn back,” I say.
“Rasmira—” Before he can say anything else, the heads of all the nocerotis snap to attention, focusing in the same direction. The fidgeting of the leaders stills, and many of their faces go pale.
My father is the most skilled warrior I have ever seen. How terrible could the god be that even he would be afraid?
Tree branches on the opposite side of the clearing rustle, and it takes me a moment to notice the hooded figure in black furs and armor.
Because he isn’t on the ground.
He’s floating in the air.
A cape drapes across his shoulders and hangs just above his boots. He’s impossibly tall, yet slimmer than I imagined, even with the furs giving him extra bulk. Over his right shoulder, I spot the head of an ax.
The only uncovered parts of Peruxolo’s body are his hands, which are … surprisingly normal. He has, at least, the hands of a human, but what lies beneath that hood?
Every leader in the clearing drops to their knees. The god does not approach them, though his voice is not difficult to hear.
“The gems are few tonight,” he says, a deep and cruel rumble that I feel in my bones. A man stands from his kneeling position, presumably the village leader responsible for providing the gems.
“My god—” He is cut off by a raised hand.
“Come forward,” Peruxolo purrs, and just by the tone of it, I know something awful is about to happen.
The leader hesitates, and I can see him swallow from this distance.
Peruxolo cocks his head, and that is all it takes for the leader to obey.
“That’s enough,” Peruxolo says after a moment. And the man opposite bows his head to the ground.
I know already that he will not rise again.
With a single flick of Peruxolo’s wrist, the bowing leader topples over, blood pooling around him, choking gurgles coming from his lips.
We’ve been told stories since we were children of the god who can kill without touching his ax, but to see it …
Torrin trembles slightly beside me as the leader goes still and silent.
“I trust that someone will let the Restin village know I expect double payment on their gems by next month.”
The guards who accompanied their leader from Restin start to move toward the body.
“No,” Peruxolo drawls out lazily. “You will leave him for the ziken to feed on.”
It’s a shameful thing. Our people are buried under rock so thick that no animal can desecrate their bodies.
Almost without thinking, I grab Torrin’s hand. His fingers curve around mine, and I look down at the sight of our joined hands. A rope bracelet peeks out from beneath his sleeve, lengths of his little sister’s hair woven with the reeds—the child his mother lost at birth last winter.
Despite the danger, my racing heart calms somewhat at the sight.
“If I don’t receive double by next month,” Peruxolo says, “I’ll pay a visit to the village.”
Everyone in the clearing cringes at those words.
“Back up,” he continues. The leaders and guards do so, stepping away from the wagons. Only then does Peruxolo descend. He curves through the air in an arc before bending at the knees to catch himself on the ground. He rises, head held high, hood still firmly in place.
Peruxolo climbs into the last wagon in line.
He leans down to examine the drugged girl lying across the floor. He places a thumb and forefinger on either side of her chin, turning it from side to side as if she were a doll.
“She’s pretty. She will make a fine sacrifice. At least I can count on the Mallimer village to do their part each year.”
The Mallimer village leader nods. Actually nods. As though he’s done some great service.
My father turns away from the scene. Does he imagine how it would feel if one of his own daughters were taken? I know how much our people suffer, because I see the shrunken bodies and hollow cheeks that follow the Payment each year. But now I’m reminded how some villages have a heavier Payment than we do.
“Hitch the wagons together,” Peruxolo orders.
My father and the others remove the nocerotis from each wagon, yoking them all together in front of the first wagon. They connect the wagons in one long train. Peruxolo sits at the head of the reins and slaps them down on the hides of the wide beasts in front. So very slowly, all those goods, the wealth of seven different villages, roll away.
My whole life, I have heard whisperings about the god Peruxolo. He moves objects without touching them. Kills men who displease him with a look. Floats above us in the air. Sometimes the ground shakes when he walks. He has even been known to kill entire villages. Only twenty years ago, the Byomvar village was eradicated in the short span of a week when they failed to meet the requirements of their Payment for the second year in a row. They all grew sick until their bodies collapsed.
Peruxolo appeared hundreds of years ago in our lands and made it his home, demanding tribute every year in exchange for not slaughtering us all where we stand. His power is unlimited, he himself is immortal, and we have no choice but to abide by his wishes.
We’re taught to pray for Peruxolo’s mercy each night, but I do not. My prayers are only for Rexasena, the high goddess. She is an unseen deity who lives in the heavens. But I feel her all around me. In my sisters’ laughter. In the sun’s warm rays. In the peace I feel inside. She encourages goodness and kindness in this life so we may experience bliss in the life to come. But Peruxolo? He is a bane on the mortal realm, making us suffer unnecessarily for his own gain.
“Let’s go,” Torrin whispers. “Your father’s leaving. We should try to beat him home. We don’t want him to notice you’re missing.”
I nod and let Torrin lead me back the way we came. Despite the dangerous terrain, my thoughts circle around that girl in the last wagon. I wish I could help her. But to do so would be to doom the entire Mallimer village to a worse fate. We have no choice but to let her go.
That’ll be the ziken.