The four boys hadn’t slowed or stopped since the morning.
“I need to pee.”
Everyone finally halted at Beïka’s pressing demand.
The sky was at its highest pitch of light when it came time to rest and drink from the stream running swiftly beside their feet.
Not a fish in sight, yet the water was clear, every single pebble coating its bed visible through the undulating swirl. Mora collected some in the palm of his hands and brought them up to his little brother’s mouth. Domino drank, water dripping down his round chin. Several sips in, his attention veered back to the human who, curled up against an old stump, hadn’t made a sound since they’d rescued him two days and two nights earlier.
Mora sighed. “Domino, drink some more.”
“I have,” said the little boy, his black eyes searching for answers in the prostrated posture of the other child.
Who was he? Where had he come from? Was he in pain? That upset pout on the lines of his mouth most definitely meant pain.
The human didn’t speak, barely drank, only let himself be approached when it was time to get back on the road. Whenever his orange eyes landed on Domino, they were cold as ice—like the rest of his person—and hard as steel. His body vibrated without interruption, even when he lay close to the campfire Mora had lit for the night, making a good use of their newly acquired matches.
“Humans are more sensitive to the cold than we are,” Mora had explained as he’d led the way, the child half asleep in his arms, jumping intermittently, hiding his face behind his hands.
Originally from the northern territories, nichans, whose lively blood was infused with the Gods’ Lights, proved to be more resistant than humans during the winter. And their thick skin protected them from many other threats.
“We have to drink more than that,” Mora insisted, forcing his little brother to face him with an inflexible, wet hand. “Hey, are you listening?”
Food was running out. Apart from the supplies collected from the belongings of the men they’d killed, the four boys had nothing to eat. There wasn’t a beast around, and hunting required time and celerity. Moving forward and reaching their destination would be quicker. They had to save food and strength and fill their bellies in any way possible. Drinking was the key. Without it, they would quickly weaken, and Mora didn’t have the strength to carry his brothers in addition to the human, he said. They had to hold on.
Domino bowed over the stream and sucked up small sips, his lips and nose grazing the wavy surface of the water. Not far away, having finished urinating against a tree, Beïka turned around and laid his eyes on the human. Domino immediately recognized disgust in his brother’s expression.
He stood up, his face wet. “Stop.”
The human was as still as the stump supporting his back, eyes lowered, his blond eyelashes brushing against his cheeks. Beïka approached anyway, wiping his tacky hands against his pants.
Domino leaped to his feet. “Stop!” he shouted again in a high-pitched voice.
Beïka only obeyed when their older brother ordered him to leave their protégé alone.
After several minutes of tense rest, they set off again. Domino kept casting suspicious glances at Beïka.
The human’s face remained concealed behind his hands.
Blood lined the road leading to their destination.
Mora stopped as he discovered their route—and the surrounding half-naked trees—splashed with dark trails carrying a stench of carrion.
Beïka stepped closer to the stains, sniffed the air, mouth partly open to taste every note of the smell on his tongue. “That’s blood? Look, it won’t stop.”
“Where do you think you’re going?” Mora caught him by his collar with the hand not busy holding the human.
“What? It’s not that way? You said to follow the water.”
“You stay close to me,” Mora ordered. “Domino, be careful. Don’t step in the blood.”
The tracks were thick and bright on the surface of the flattened grass. They stretched on and on, their density diminishing little by little, even though the stench remained.
Following his brother closely, Domino kept watchful eyes on the ground, mouth dry. Concentrating on his every step, darkness casting a shadow over the forest, he ran into Mora. The teenager had just stopped.
Before them, the stream continued straight on and disappeared under a high bamboo wall. The group came to a halt. Voices came to them along sounds of a nearby presence. Many heartbeats vibrated against Domino’s eardrums. The little boy sniffed the air. All he could detect was a faint smell of smoke and burnt fat, similar to the one coming from the lamps they used at home.
“I think it’s there,” Mora said.
Following the blood as if this path had been left for them, they found themselves face-to-face with a massive double door decorated with grease lanterns swinging in the nocturnal breeze with a slight squeaking noise. The sound of metal against wood reached them from the other side of the ramparts. Domino was far too small to see what was beyond. He looked down and clutched his brother’s tunic. The hemorrhagic thing that had left its stench for miles had passed through the gate they now faced.
In Mora’s arms, the little human also stared at the dark, impenetrable walls. Biting his lip, Mora laid him down on the ground—Domino jumped at the occasion to approach the child, who rolled into a ball, his expression fierce—and took a step toward the door.
There was no soul in sight, only the flickering glow of the lamps through the veil of dusk.
“Hey! Anybody there? Hey, is that the Ueto Clan?” called Mora, standing before the door nearly twice his height.
No answer except the distant cry of a bird, for only birds dared to live near nichans.
Mora cupped his hands. “Please! We need help. Hey!”
Several seconds passed during which Domino doubted having found the right place, fearing the silence would become eternal.
“Maybe they’re dead,” Beïka said, his eyes still on the blood trail.
Mora ignored him.
A head appeared over the wall. In the darkness, it was impossible to discern its features.
“Hey! Ohay, is this the Ueto Clan?” Mora cried.
Voices rose up on the other side of the bamboo, unintelligible. Above the wall, the slightly disheveled figure turned around and said, “Kids. Four of them.”
“We are Ako’s sons. My brothers are with me,” Mora added.
He avoided talking about the human they brought with them. He’d told Domino that he was a Vestige, who were rumored to be dangerous. Would this reason deny them entry? They couldn’t hide the boy’s wings for very long, or even his eyes, unless he closed them.
A creaking shook the group, and Mora stepped to his left to stand before his brothers. The doors opened, revealing more lamps hanging along a path that had no end in sight. One massive individual appeared in the opening, shirtless, bearded, and bald. He was covered in blood, the same color that stained the road.
From the ramparts, the other silhouette disappeared.
Domino grabbed the human’s hand and squeezed it, and, as two days earlier, the human moved away, keeping his hands out of reach. Domino agreed not to touch him again when the newcomer stood in front of Mora, close enough to study his face.
“Ako is your mother? Are you Mora?” the man said in a deep voice. The blood had dried on his muscular hands, arms and chest, cracked where the skin was solicited, like a network of roots.
Mora let a long second pass before answering. “Yes.”
“By the Faces!” the man said with calm. “You look just like your mother.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“It’s me. Ero. You might not remember me,” the man said, and Mora remained quiet for a handful of seconds. “The last time we saw each other I was probably in a cleaner state.”
“Yes, I remember, of course.”
Domino couldn’t tell if his brother was a good liar or not.
“Mom left the clan when I was three. I was too young to remember Ero,” Mora had said a few days after being separated from their mother.
“She doesn’t like him,” Beïka had recalled. “We shouldn’t go there.”
But they were here now, because Mora had made it clear: “She wouldn’t send us to Uncle Ero’s if it was dangerous. Now stop it. You’ll scare Domino.”
Which Domino had been quick to deny.
Now that he had his uncle in front of him, the young boy repeated the same words to himself. I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid. Lying ran in the family tonight.
Even stuck in his human form, like all nichans had been since the dawn of the Corruption, Ero was an impressive beast. His broad shoulders were all muscles, just like his neck; the curves of his thick thighs were evident through the linen fabric of his pants. He was more than a head taller than Mora. His bald head and part of his face were marbled with long, deep scars, as if someone—or some creature—had tried to split his skull in slices.
Beïka, eyes wide open, was stunned.
Except for his black eyes and brown skin, their uncle didn’t look like their mother at all. Ako was of a smaller build—enough to pass as human—like Mora, and thin despite her powerful limbs.
But above all, she wasn’t there. Domino couldn’t resist looking back, as if his mother was about to emerge from the dark forest to finally join them, as she had promised.
“Where is your mother?” Ero asked, his eyes still on his nephew’s face.
Mora released a trembling breath and shook his head. “I don’t know. She sent us here. There were . . . problems at home.”
“The Blessers’ partisans.”
Their uncle’s expression adjusted to the news, casting deep shadows over his eyes. Mentioning the Blessers’ followers often had that effect on people’s faces. For Ako and her sons, the presence of the supporters of the eastern cult in the vicinity of their village had marked the beginning of an ongoing separation.
Ero nodded and placed one of his huge, bloody hands on Mora’s shoulder before withdrawing it, probably remembering that even dried blood was messy. “Your mother was right to send you here.”
He monitored the rest of the group. Ero’s gaze lingered a little longer on the human child, briefly deepening his frown. The child didn’t react, unlike Domino, who came closer to his pale body folded in on itself.
Ero was still a stranger to them, so it would have been difficult for Domino to judge him on this first impression. On the other hand, he’d heard bits of conversations between his mother and brothers about the man. One thing was certain: their mother had left her clan because of her complicated relationship with her older brother.
“He disappointed me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to forgive him,” Domino had heard during a meal, paying only half attention to the conversation keeping their small house lively.
Forgive what? He didn’t know, but it was enough to instill caution in him about his uncle.
Another man came out of the village gates and stood next to Ero. He was much younger, perhaps Mora’s age, and his face was peppered with freckles and curiosity.
“Need help?” the newcomer asked. His enthusiasm dissipated as soon as he discovered the Vestige. “What’s it doing here?”
Ero turned to the newcomer. “Javik, go back and tell your mother about our guests. Have someone get them something to eat. Something warm.”
But the teenager remained camped on his feet, unresponsive to orders. The human then noticed the attention that had just turned to him. He lowered his chin. In his back, one of his wings unfolded to wrap itself around his right shoulder, protecting him like a shell.
“Papa . . .” Javik turned pale, his black eyes ranging from Ero to the human.
“Don’t make me repeat myself, Javik.”
The man and his son stared at each other and words passed between them without the need to utter a single one. With his jaw clenched, the teenager finally obeyed Ero and returned to the village.
An owl hissed in the distance. By reflex, Domino had placed himself in front of the human.
“Come in,” their uncle said, once the uneasiness was partly over. “We’ve just come back from hunting, so don’t mind the mess. You’re going to eat and rest. I’ll pass by the baths. That’s no way to welcome family.”
“Thank you,” Mora said.
Inside, the village paved with stone slabs here and wooden planks there consisted of bamboo huts on stilts. They were black—flames kept vermin and humidity at bay—and their roofs were rounded, vaguely resembling the shell of a walnut. Unlike Kaemat, the village facing the sea in which the three brothers had grown up, Surhok was built around a small central square in the middle of which stood a large bronze bell suspended from a barked trunk carved with spirals. The enormous tooth of a beast hung under the skirt of the bell. At the end of the square, away from the houses, was a building with a pointed roof overlooking all the others. This building had no windows. Like the rest of the houses in the village, this huge structure rising to the sky had been burned black.
Surhok Sanctuary, Domino guessed. Most towns and villages where nichans lived had one.
Even at this late hour, the village was still bustling with life. Through the evening mist, many eyes cast curious glances at the numb and exhausted children arriving from the Gods only knew where. Most of them quickly noticed the small blond head carried by Mora, with his strange eyes and asymmetrical wings. But no one acted beyond those intrigued glances, as if Uncle Ero—Unaan of the Ueto Clan—at the head of the group was enough to legitimate their presence.
The newcomers understood moments after entering the village, where the blood trails they’d followed for so many leagues came from. In the central square, a group of men and women expertly peeled and dismembered a nohl. From up close, the giant centipede beetle reeked of iron and excrement. One of the women had her arm buried up to her elbow in the insect’s entrails. With a sharp jerk, she freed herself, her brown skin beaded with clotted blood. At the end of her arm hung a viscous sac streaked with green veins, of a yellowish color recalling a pus-soaked abscess.
Fat. Nohls used it to keep their newly killed food fresh in their nests. Nichans burned it for light.
Domino had never seen one of such size; at least sixteen feet. More than twice the height of an adult nichan. A thousand questions bubbling in his mind, he moved away from the specimen, whose scattered guts glowed under the lamps and torches.
Ero left his nephews there, abandoning them to the mercy of curious looks and the strong smell of blood. He returned a few minutes later, washed and dressed in a warm beige tunic. He invited the three brothers and their protégé into the village sanctuary.
They entered a large room filled with long tables and benches. It was lit by grease lamps placed everywhere or hung from hooks, projecting a dim light that struggled to reach the high, dark ceilings. A few nichans ate and chatted at one of the tables as they entered, but their attention quickly faded from the children.
Food was served to them. Mora sat down with Ero at a different table from his brothers. They were close enough for Domino to hear their conversation, though he already knew what his older brother soon told their uncle.
They’d left their mother at dawn about three weeks ago. Domino and Beïka had helped their brother count the days. What was meant to be a distraction had later turned into a source of worry. Their mother had promised that she’d eventually follow them, that if all went well, she’d even be able to catch up to them within a few days. Domino now assumed that nothing had gone well. After more than two weeks, Beïka had asked not to count the days anymore, getting angry when Mora insisted on him continuing.
“Do you know why she decided to leave you?” Ero asked.
“She said there were Blessers inland, close to our village. Or partisans, she wasn’t sure. Apparently they’d captured several nichans and humans. She’d heard they were closing in on us. She told us to leave, that she and other people in the area would try something to fend them off.”
At the other table, Domino looked down at his full plate. He dreamed of digging into the steaming, spicy meat and tasting the turnips that came with it. His stomach grumbled, hollow. But he didn’t like to eat without everyone at the table, so he didn’t touch anything. To his right, Beïka coughed and grabbed his clay cup to help swallow the food he choked on. He always ate too fast. To Domino’s left, the human stared at the grease lamps burning on the table.
He’s waiting for Mora to eat too, Domino thought.
“Know that your mother will be welcome when she arrives,” Ero said to Mora. “However, you are my responsibility for the moment. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand.”
“You’ll have to swear an oath to me. Only nichans who do so may stay. A matter of precaution. Do you know what it is?”
“The oath? Yes.”
“You boys don’t have a chief, do you?”
“No, of course you don’t. No need to worry about that. It won’t be a blood oath; you and your brothers are just passing through. Your vows will suffice for now. As I said, nothing to worry about. We’ll see about that when the time comes.”
Mora nodded and thanked Ero before getting up.
“One more thing.” His uncle stopped him, and Mora turned to him, tense from head to toe as Ero stared at the little human with a glance sharp enough to cut through flesh. “Can you explain that to me?”
That? Domino frowned, upset. This human child was no object or beast, even if his behavior . . . He was a person, not that.
Mora looked over his shoulder at the human and took some time to consider before answering. “About two days ago, we came across some humans. They were going to kill him. Purify him.”
The deep burn imprinted by the rope on the child’s throat was as noticeable as his inhuman eyes.
“So you saved him?” Ero asked, and tension moved from one body to the next, leaving Domino stiff on his bench.
How would he be punished when his uncle learned that he’d endangered his brothers by attacking these two humans? Beïka had slapped him that day. The punishment to come would probably leave a more noticeable mark.
“It just happened,” Mora said. “We didn’t think.” Even Beïka stopped eating at these words and gave his little brother an unpleasant look. “I know he’s a Vestige but . . . he’s just a child. I thought he might have a better chance of surviving if I took him. The Blessers have no hearts. We do.”
“You have a point,” Ero confirmed. “But humans aren’t meant to grow with nichans. Least of all Vestiges. We’re not in Netnin here. This isn’t a freakshow.”
“Anything strange happened since he’s been with you?”
“No. No, nothing at all. He doesn’t talk. He’s a bit of a wild thing. They had time to hang him,” he whispered. “I don’t think he speaks our language, though. We found this on the men we killed.”
Mora held out the leather satchel, which chimed as it landed in Ero’s palm. The man opened it and chuckled. Mora hadn’t let them look inside, but he’d told his brothers that the money in that purse could have bought their house ten times over, if not more.
“Sirlhain myrts,” Ero said. “Did you count them?”
“Two hundred silver heads and change. I don’t know much about Sirlhain money, but one of the humans mentioned five hundred myrts.”
“You understood what they’re saying?”
“They had an accent, but I’m pretty sure they were Torbs. I have the feeling someone hired them to kill the child.”
“Paying them in Sirlhain currency,” Ero whispered as he looked down at the Vestige. “The Sirlhain Blessers kill the Vestiges, and nichans they capture themselves. They have no reason to hire foreigners to do their dirty work. Somebody went through a lot of trouble to get rid of this kid.”
Mora cleared his throat. “You can keep the money.”
Ero smiled slightly, as if amused by this generosity. His expression seemed to say, You bet your ass I’m going to keep it.
“If the Vestige is Sirlhain, we have someone here who can talk to it,” Ero announced, awakening Domino’s attention. “I’ll send her when I have time. Maybe she’ll be able to find out exactly where it came from, and if it’s wise to keep it here.”