The Bronzed Beasts Page 1


Kahina sang to the boy as he slept.

She sat at the edge of his bed, smoothing away the nightmares that crinkled his brow. Séverin sighed a little, turning against her hand, and Kahina felt her heart tighten. It was only here, thieved from the moments when night slowly melted into day and all the world lay sleeping, that she could call him her son.

“Ya omri,” she said softly.

My life.

“Habib albi,” she said, a little louder this time.

Love of my heart.

Séverin blinked, then gazed up at her. He smiled sleepily and held out his arms. “Ummi.”

Kahina folded him to her, holding still as he fell back asleep. She touched his hair, dark as a crow’s wing and curled just at the ends. She smelled the faint menthol on his skin from the branches of eucalyptus she insisted on putting into his evening baths. Sometimes, she hated how little of her showed up on her son’s features. With his eyes closed, he was a miniature of his father, and already Kahina could see how it would mold his future. Her son’s smiling mouth would soon hold the shape of a smirk too well. His rosy, full cheeks would sharpen like a blade. Even his demeanor would change. For now, he was shy and observant, but Kahina had noticed him copying his father’s elegant cruelty. It frightened her sometimes, but perhaps that was merely her son’s instinct for survival. There was power in knowing not just how to move through the world, but how to make the world move around you.

Kahina ran her fingers over his eyelashes, weighing whether she should wake him. It was selfish, she knew, but she could not help herself. Only in her son’s eyes did Kahina find the one part of herself that had not been erased. Séverin’s eyes were the color of secrets—a shade of dusk shot through with silver. They were the same color as her own eyes, and her mother’s eyes, and her grandfather’s eyes before them.

It was the eye color of all the Blessed, those marked by the Unworshipped Sisters: Al-Lat, Al-‘Uzza, Manat. Ancient goddesses whose broken temples now paved roads of industry. Their myths had been scrubbed clean. Their faces all but lost. Only one commandment had slipped unnoticed through time, held close by the lineage once blessed by the goddesses.

In your hands lies the gate of godhood—let none pass.

As a child, when her mother had told her of their duty to uphold this commandment, Kahina had not believed it. She had laughed, thinking it was nothing more than her mother’s fanciful imagination. But on her thirteenth birthday, her mother brought her to an abandoned courtyard in the desert long since left to the goats and vagrants. At the center of the courtyard lay the remains of what looked to be a well, but it held no water. Instead, it overflowed with dusty palm fronds and sand.

“Give it your blood,” demanded her mother.

Kahina had refused. This fancy had gone too far. But her mother was determined. She yanked Kahina’s arm to her, drawing a sharp stone across the inside of her elbow. Kahina remembered screaming from the hot sear of pain until her blood hit the old stones.

The world trembled. Blue light—like the sky twisted into a single rope—shot from the stones, then split into glowing strands that caged in the old courtyard.

“Look into the well,” said her mother.

She no longer sounded like herself. Kahina, overcome, peered over the stone lip. Gone was the sand and the dusty palm fronds, replaced instead with a story that poured through her. Her eyes fluttered shut. Her mouth filled with the weight of a hundred languages, her tongue loosened, her teeth ached in her skull. For a second—no longer than a blink—a different consciousness stretched within her, a consciousness that whispered for roots to uncurl and birds to take wing, a consciousness sharp enough to slice intention out of chaos, carve reason from randomness, set stars spinning through the worlds.

Kahina fell to her knees.

As she fell, she felt her perspective jolt skywards so that the world beneath her seemed like something she might cup in her palms. She saw a mere sliver of that uncanny consciousness burning bright and shattering across a young world. She saw power denting the land, saw clusters of people raise their hands to their eyes, as if new colors had exploded into their vision. She saw these slivers of power folded into the earth, each spot blooming with vines of light, so the world looked scrawled over in a poetic language only angels could pronounce. The earth bloomed above that network of light. Plants sprouted. Animals grazed. Communities—small at first, then, ever growing—began to create. A man waved his hand above the grass, and the blades slowly twisted into a flute. A woman draped in beads pressed her fingers to a child’s temples, and the people around her cowered in wonder. Later, Kahina would learn that the Western world called this Forging, both of matter and mind, but the art had more than one name.

Suspended in that eerie consciousness, Kahina felt her perspective shifting again.

In a temple with high walls, threads of the strange light that had spread through the land hovered in the air like hardened sunshine. A group of women gathered the threads. Kahina could see that their eyes had drunk the light and now glowed silver. One by one, the threads were set into an instrument no larger than a child’s head. One woman, curious, strummed the instrument. Time shuddered to a halt, and for a terrible moment, the slivers of power within the earth creaked, that calligraphy of light flashing in warning. The woman flattened her hand, killing the sound instantly.

But the damage was done.

Across the world, Kahina saw fires erupting, newborn cities crumbling, people crushed beneath them. Kahina could no longer see her own body, but she felt her soul shuddering in horror. That instrument was not to be played.

In the visions, Time spun forward.

Kahina saw the women’s descendants spread across the world. She could always recognize them by the unearthly hue to their eyes, which was just uncanny enough to draw attention, but not enough to arouse suspicion. The strange instrument passed between them, smuggled through portals that pinched time and space, whirling through the ages while empires fought their wars and hungry gods demanded blood and hungrier priests demanded sacrifice, and all the while, the sun fell and the moon rose, and the instrument lay wondrously silent.

Abruptly, the visions released her.

Kahina fell, and it was a fall that seemed to pass through lifetimes. She felt the scrape of ancient ziggurats against her cheeks, tasted cold coins on her tongue, felt the pelt of extinct animals ripple beneath her feet. Abruptly, she found herself on the ground and staring up at her mother. The vastness that once stretched her soul had fled, and she had never felt so small or cold.

“I know,” said her mother, not unkindly.

When Kahina could trust herself to speak—and it took longer than she thought, for it seemed the Arabic she knew kept slipping off her tongue—she croaked: “What was that?”

“A vision granted to the Blessed, so that we might understand our sacred duty,” said her mother. “We have other names, I am told, for our family scattered long ago. We are the Lost Muses, the Norns, the Daughters of Bathala, the Silent Apsaras. That instrument you saw holds many names in many tongues, but its function is always the same … when played, it disrupts the divine.”

“The divine,” repeated Kahina.

It felt too small a word given what she had seen.

“My mother spoke of a place built from the ruins of a land whose sacred group misused its power. Played outside the confines of that stained temple, the instrument will unleash a destruction that levels the world,” said Kahina’s mother. “Played within the temple, it is said to join together all those slivers of divinity you glimpsed. Some say that it can be raised into a tower, which one may scale like a building and claim godhood for themselves. It is not for us to know. Our duty is laid out in one command…”