“I told Jaro that I wanted to run away, that I wanted another life for myself.
The truth is… I don’t even know what that life would look like.”
At long last, we arrive in Horta—our last stop before we hit the Steppe—and it’s unlike any other town we’ve seen so far. Like the guardian of truth, Pravinok, it wears many faces and as you travel from one part to the other, it changes right before your eyes, so fast, you can barely register it. There is a classy part with tidy houses surrounded by low hedges and immaculate flowerbeds, and then there is an old part, where the houses are worn and shabby and poor. There is an exotic part where the foreign influence is palpable and merchants from all over the western territories built their outlandish-looking houses and opened their shops full of outlandish-looking products. And then there is a traditional market place, where people from all over the Empire sell the local goods—gingerbreads made by special formulae that have been passed down in secret for generations or weaved baskets that are sturdier than any foreign-made ones.
And then there is Grubby. A wild part, where Steppe-folk live. Those are mostly small merchants, all packed under the leaking roofs of two-three story buildings. And unlike all the other parts of town, even on Mid-Fall, it’s empty, save for some craftsmen selling trinkets in makeshift wooden stalls, an old street sweeper, some coachmen watching for prospective clients at the corner, and a few infrequent passersby.
As we step on the street, Grubby welcomes us with slippery mud and hordes of buzzing insects. I am spared from these nuisances, but Jaro suffers through them to the full extent. He slips on the mud and barely recovers in time, escaping the embarrassment of sprawling down in the middle of the street. He tries to wave off the insects, but they are too many and soon his face is swollen with their vicious bites.
“Damned flies,” he whispers, scratching at the red marks.
“I guess being a ghost has its benefits,” I murmur.
But truthfully I get my share of troubles, too. The smell alone is enough to knock me off my feet–figuratively speaking. I feel like I’m being suffocated. The air stinks. It’s a foul mixture of stale rainwater and horses and decomposing wastes and whatnot, and I wish I could hold my nose and stop all these smells from harassing my senses. Alas. When you’re a ghost every smell and every sound pretty much jams into you and there is little you can do about it.
I have seen many Steppe-people when I lived in Little Wonderer. They brought some of their products—milk and cheese—to the seasonal markets. They made amulets for children and pretty ornaments out of birds’ feathers to put on your clothes or your hat. They also made honey milk, which was something like sweet cream, and Nora and I loved it.
Seeing these stalls, filled with colorful trinkets, is like peeking into my childhood, sweet and sad at once. And looking at them I realize something I haven’t even considered before—that I’m not a child anymore. That somehow I haven’t stayed a child even though I died a child. Shouldn’t I have frozen in time like a fly caught in amber? Shouldn’t I have stayed the same twelve-year-old girl for all eternity?
Grime doesn’t even seem to notice the holiday spirit that has engulfed the rest of the Empire. There are no decorations on the streets, no colorful lanterns or paper leaf garlands in the windows. It’s like we crossed an invisible border and turned up in a completely different dimension, in a place where glee is forbidden to tread.
The wind carries a few strands of shiny tinsels and the street sweeper brushes them away carelessly.
We arrive in town at night and are both left disappointed. Its name has been haunting us for days now, and what do we see? Some stinking hole.
But the dawn changes it. We spend the night in a small inn. In the morning Jaro buys a tiny roll of bread and some milk and considers it a good enough breakfast. He soaks the bread in milk and then eats it, sitting cross-legged on the roof.
The dawn is burning in the east, coloring the sky into a variety of shades of orange and yellow and red. There was a legend among Steppe people. They said the flame of the dawn is the fire of the Mother Goddess. She builds it to chase the chill of the night away from her house, like a wife rekindling the fire pit in the first blue-grey hours of the morning.
And that’s when I feel it--the Steppe, its fiery breath inside of me. Hot breath, even this late in the year, it is still burning and full of strange unknown power.
“We’re close, Kara,” he whispers, and I nod, excited and scared at the same time.
Later that day we meet the remaining members of our merry company. It’s only six people, including the three of us. There’s a woman named Jade, who is dark and grim, and a man named Vas, who is blond and cheerful. They are both around Steel’s age or maybe just a little younger and they both bare scars—on their faces, on their necks, on their hands. Their skin is darkened by the hours spent under the hot Steppe sun and those markings stand out on it, stark pale pink on golden brown.
There’s another guy who is only a couple of years older than Jaro, and as much out of place in the company. Fair-haired and pale-skinned, with naïve blue eyes, he is lanky and so awkward I wouldn’t trust him with a gun. I don’t understand why Steel hired him at all.
We depart with the earliest light and walk without stopping till the sun rises high above our heads. They took no horses. The only animal is a docile donkey, pulling a cart to be loaded with the kill.
Steel looks ridiculous. He’s all covered in weird shaman talismans—feathery necklaces and bone bracelets around his wrists and ankles. I mean I know he sells all that, but I’ve never thought he believed in all that nonsense himself. He doesn’t seem the type.
“Oh yeah, he believes in all that shit, all right,” Anya chuckles seeing Jaro’s astonished face. “If people weren’t paying that much money for all that Steppe stuff rubbish he wouldn’t even set foot there. He thinks that the Lady of the Wild Beasts is mad at him because of what he does and she might curse him or something worse. Thus all this mascaraed.”
“But you don’t believe in such things?”
“I believe that the Lady has other things on her mind, and doesn’t care about stupid merchants,” she pauses, looking at Jaro askew. “What about you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course, not. You’re but a city boy, after all.”
“Not entirely. My mother is from these lands, you know.”
“No. My family was one of the settlers. My grandfather was a great huntsman who killed many beasts.”
“Oh?” Anya raises her eyebrow. She isn’t wearing her uniform veil—she can’t see properly through that thing, and in the Steppe, she needs her eyes.
“Do tell. What awful beasts did your grandfather slay so bravely? A wolf? A bear?”
“He killed a Copper Claw if you must know.”
“A Copper Claw!” she laughed. “Of course! What else? A Belter? Maybe even a Sorel?”
“It’s true! He even took a memento from the beast’s corpse. Look,” Jaro pulls his copper pendant from under his shirt and shows it to her.
For a few moments, she is quiet, not believing, a smile still lingering on her lips, as she glances at the jewelry. Then realization starts to slowly spread across her face. And then—fear fills up her eyes, making them darker.
“You bloody idiot!” she exclaims suddenly, stepping away as if to put distance between herself and the pendant. “Where did you get this? Is it real? Tell me it’s fake!”
“I… yes, of course, it’s real. It belonged to my great-grandfather.”
“You have no idea, do you? A Copper Claw! Do you have any idea what that creature is?”
“I…” Jaro stumbles upon his own words. “I don’t… I only know what my grandfather told everyone.”
“And what did he tell everyone, pray tell?” she hisses, her fear turning quickly into a rage.
“That… that…” he seems to desperately try and remember what Nora told him about the famous monster hunter. “That he challenged the beast and slain it and took this claw as a memento of the victory. That’s all.”
Anya steps forward and grabs Jaro by the front of his shirt.
“Listen to me!” she spits. “Hide that thing, so none sees it. Especially my uncle! If he catches even the glimpse of that thing, he’ll kick you out of the expedition!”
The shock imprinted on Jaro’s face can only be compared to mine. He is speechless. We both are.
“Why? What is it?” Jaro manages finally.
She covers her face with her palms and lets out a loud groan.
“What kind of idiot are you? Going to the Steppe, without having even the slightest idea… Alright, listen then. I do not know if Copper Claws are real or not, I have never seen those creatures and I pray to never cross paths with any of them, but the folk in the Steppe believe they exist. And if they see that you’re wearing this pendant of yours… they will chase you away and they won’t talk to you and they might even turn hostile. So make sure no one sees you wearing it. Better yet, throw it away!”
“It belonged to my grandfather, I can’t throw it away!”
“You don’t get it. Everyone in the Steppe is afraid of Copper Claws. They say that taking a memento, it… it marks you.”
“Marks you? In what way?”
Her eyes lose their angry sheen and become worried instead.
“I…” she shakes her head. “I’m not in any way a specialist on the matter. But from what I’ve heard of Copper Claws, they are vicious creatures, and they never ever forget and they never forgive. They have endless memory and they would hunt down the wrongdoers for all eternity if need be.”
She bites into her lower lip, trying to find the right words to explain what is worrying her so much.
“They hold grudges, these creatures. And they aren’t going to rest until they give you what they think you deserve. It is said that the Steppe binds them to their vengeance, and they can’t rest until they kill the person, who did them wrong.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Listen to me very carefully. I don’t know if these superstitions are all true. I don’t quite believe them myself. But whether I believe in magic or not, whether there is magic there or not, one thing I’m certain of. There is something there. Something dangerous and powerful, and you are taunting it wearing that thing around your neck.”
Jaro hides the claw in his shirt and looks at her.
“I won’t show it to anyone. Although, truthfully, I don’t believe that some magic wolf will come after me because of a bobble.”
“Wolf?” she shakes her head. “Jaromir, you don’t know anything, do you?”
“Well, that’s what my great-grandfather said it looked like. A giant wolf!”
“I don’t know what your great-grandfather killed and where he got that thing, but a Copper Claw is no wolf.”
“What is it then?”
Anya shakes her head, and now she looks a little sad as if she is about to tell a very sad story.
“Copper Claw is a girl, Jaro,” she says. “A beautiful girl.”