Six Years Ago
Kamala’s house was one of my favourite places on earth. It always smelled of cinnamon and clove, evidence of the treats her father baked that kept Kamala and I a bit pudgy in the cheeks. Herbs grew on the sills, all in pots made by Kamala as she grew up—wonky clay squashed by little fingers and haphazard splashes of clashing paints. In the summer, we’d hide from the sun by lying on bright rugs in her main room, the tall windows open to let the breeze through sheer curtains. Floor cushions surrounded a low round table where Kamala’s mother made coffee in a glossy earthenware set she’d brought with her from Mehrak. On the wall hung a beaten sitar that Kamala’s father tried to teach me to play. By the kitchen was a little door that their cat would shove himself through until he got too round to fit.
In that wonderful house, Kamala and I stood hand-in-hand before her parents. The night was waiting patiently for their reply, and so were we.
Her father crossed his arms. He was a hulking, imposing figure, his body thick and tough from years wielding a hammer. Beside him, Kamala’s mother was an equal force, her hair wrapped in long locs atop her head, her dark hands roughened by working the forge. Neither of them looked particularly pleased with us.
“And this is what you have chosen for yourself, Kamala?” said her father.
Kamala’s hand tightened in mine. She trembled in my grip. I let my stroking thumb say what I couldn’t in front of her parents. I’m here. I’ll always protect you. No matter what.
Her parents shared a look of concern. “You shall go to Lyn’s parents—”
“I won’t marry Lyn. Rozin and I already went to Ardila Vos—”
“Nuofa wonya, Kamala,” her mother swore. I recognized the Mehraki words Kamala had taught me before. Stupid ass. “You will go to Lyn’s parents and express your regret that you and Lyn won’t be wed. This is your mess. Your father and I won’t clean it up.”
Kamala gasped softly. “You mean you approve?”
Her father rolled his eyes. “I fail to see what we could do if we didn’t. We only want what’s best for you, darling. It was why your mother thought of Lyn in the first place.”
Kamala’s hand left me as she launched herself at her parents. They wrapped her in a tight embrace.
“I hope Rozin knows how much work a smithy is,” said her mother. She smiled warmly and waved me over, and so we all stood together as Kamala sobbed happy tears into her father’s stomach.
I memorized every little detail of this moment. I would keep it close, for a day when I felt too dark. For what could darkness hope to do, against so much light?
I left Kamala’s late that night, and quietly slid into the window of my house next door. I laid on my bed and stared at the ceiling with a delirious gin. None of it felt real. I felt like dancing, singing, knocking on every door and telling them Kamala was a gift from the Creators themselves.
I’d visit the town council tomorrow, I told myself, and warn them about the break in the ring ward. It could wait.
But then the next days were a blur of parties and traditions. Kamala and I visited Lyn’s manor, and then sprinted out their front door giggling as Lyn’s mother threatened to have us thrown in the lake with rocks in our pockets. We accepted betrothal gifts of candied fruits and homespun fabrics and held gatherings for friends and neighbours. One went so late into the night that Kamala fell asleep on my shoulder during a performance of flutes and drums.
On the fourth day, the entire town of Barje Vos gathered to wish us good fortune.
According to tradition, the main square was hung with hundreds of floral glass lanterns. Kamala and I stood on the centre stage, an embroidered shawl draped over our connected shoulders as our guests threw flower petals and held toasts in our honour. We drank spiced wine and sang in the old Azherbali tongue, took advice from the elders, listened to our parents tell stories of the Creators, and smiled through speeches of well-wishes.
As Kamala’s cousin toasted to our health, Kamala leaned in to whisper “Do you hear that?”
“No. What is it?”
“Rumbling. Drums, maybe.” She frowned. “Or riders.”
“How much wine did you have?”
She bumped my shoulder playfully, and her frown vanished. “Less than you. Watch out. I’m not strong enough to carry you home.”
Too full of wine, I leaned into her ear. “We don’t need to go home right away.”
“Yes, we do. My parents won’t like it if I’m back late.”
“No, I meant—”
“I know what you meant. And I don’t want to.”
“I never meant to upset you, Kamala, of course we don’t need to—”
“That’s enough. We won’t be discussing that tonight.”
I swallowed my apologies and tried to pay attention to the toast. But Kamala was angry with me, and so I couldn’t. I began writing my forgiveness speech in my head.
There were too many drums. The ground trembled. The guests began to notice, murmuring in confusion, looking around for the source of the disturbance. Wine glasses clinked on the tables, some shattering as they tumbled to the ground.
A distant light caught my eye. It grew closer, arcing over the town like a falling star.
“What is that?” Kamala mumbled, her hand taking mine nervously.
The star didn’t stop growing. The air felt warm. I took a step back.
My older sister rushed for the stage and grabbed us, tossing us off of it. Kamala and I stumbled between two small houses just as the star hit.
Heat blasted over us in a gust of searing wind, kicking up dust that stung our eyes and skin. My sister leaned over us, shielding us from the brunt of it. Splinters rained down on us, shards of glass pelting my hair.
The blast fizzled out. Coughing, we struggled to see through the clouds of dust and smoke. Outlines of nearby figures hacked and cried out for each other in panic.
“Are you both all right?” my sister asked.
“Yeah,” I managed to reply, my throat dry. “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” my sister said, “but we shouldn’t linger. It might not be safe.”
We followed her back to the square. The dust was clearing, and with the new clarity, we saw blurred silhouettes of the destruction left in the star’s wake. Several houses on the other side of the square had been reduced to rubble, the only evidence of their existence a gnarled pile of shattered tiles and supports. Behind us, someone screamed—only for the scream to cut off in a sharp, bloody gurgle.
They came in a wave.
Riders charged through the dust, blowing through the square. They were a blur of smoke and limbs. The first thing I saw of them was a curved blade of black obsidian, cutting through the air beside me. I heard the next scream from nearby, heard the blood-chilling sound of a knife through flesh and bone.
“Get to Town Hall, now!” my sister bellowed. Town Hall was warded and fortified. We’d be safer there than anywhere else in Barje Vos. “I’ll find Mom and Dad!” When I tried to follow her, my sister pushed me away. A rider charged between us, and I fell to the floor. Metal tore flesh. Blood hit my delicate slippers.
I stumbled as I stood, my foot catching on something. Kamala helped me up. With ice in my veins, I saw what I had tripped on: a severed arm. It still wore my sister’s embroidered sleeve of irises and sunbeams. My feet wouldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. It wasn’t—couldn’t be—real.
“Rozin,” Kamala rasped. “Rozin, I’m so sorry, we can’t help her, we need to go …”
Her voice pulled my gaze up. I saw Kamala’s terrified, wide eyes, saw the ash crusted in her hair. Then I saw what came behind her. With the dust blown away, I came face-to-face with a daemon horde.
The riders were too numerous to count. They were daemons of all orders—some looked to be made of ice, some of stone, others of flames trapped below paper skin. Some were beasts, and some mounted on beasts: emaciated horses with fiery feathering, griffons with hooked beaks, massive lizards with snapping frills and long serpentine tongues, drooling red creatures like skinned bears with finger-long teeth. Hulking, shaggy monsters three times as tall as a man lumbered among the horde, their backs hunched and horns twisted like a ram. I watched one of them snag the baker with a curled talon and gut him with one lazy wrench.
The people of Barje Vos fled in a panic. All around me, I saw friends and family falling. Houses crumbled into ash. Glass lanterns fell from their hooks and shattered on the cobbles. The tavern was a skeleton. Kamala’s smithy belched choking smoke into the sky. There would be no Barje Vos after this. There would be nothing left.
A snarl erupted beside me. A daemon dropped from the sky, landing on all fours. I recognized it from a book I’d once read—it was a hasra, a winged direwolf with reptilian orange eyes. It took a step closer, its lips pulled back to reveal obsidian teeth. I pushed Kamala behind me and backed away. We hit a wall, and Kamala shrunk down, her cheek pressed between my shoulder blades. I wanted a weapon. I wanted the strength to fight. But I knew nothing of war, of battle, and I was just so, so scared, and so all I could do was whisper a prayer to the heavens.
A hammer slammed into the hasra’s ribcage, and it bellowed in anger. Kamala’s father charged the white hasra, his hammer raised to hit it again. The second the hasra’s eyes left me, I grabbed Kamala’s hand and we broke into a dead sprint.
We hit the mouth of an alley and slipped through it. At the other side, a grey lizard blew past us. Its spiked tail lashed out, striking me square across the face. Blood spurted from my lip as it split. I hit the alley wall and fell.
“Get up!” Kamala gasped, and dragged me to a stand by my wrist. Dizzy, I wobbled back up and kept moving.
Heaving, we made it down the main road. The Town Hall was so close. People rushed desperately for the doors, but few made it across the open road. Hasra dove from the air and plucked children into the sky. Daemons dragged people away by their hair. Spikes of ice protruded from piles of bodies.
If we were fast enough, we might make it through. It was our only chance.
“Stay behind me,” I told Kamala. I would rather it be me than her. She nodded without hesitation. I took a single step forward and stopped.
A daemon was watching us: an elemental with hair of autumn leaves and skin like birch bark. It grinned at me from astride a rust-red hasra. I was paralyzed in terror. The daemon urged its hasra forward, stepping around mangled bodies with faces I recognized. The hasra pulled back its lips, its black fangs dripping with fresh human blood.
The daemon with the musical voice. I’d set it free. I’d opened the ring ward. And in all the excitement since, I’d forgotten to tell anyone to close it.
A group of riders approached the leaf-haired daemon. They asked a question in a harsh, guttural language, and the daemon barked orders, pointing them away. Who was this daemon? Was it leading this horde—this destruction?
The fire burned my eyes. The smell of bodies, blood, and smoke choked me.
All my fault.
Kamala gripped the back of my shirt, sobbing into it. I couldn’t move, but I didn’t want to die. Not yet.
Kamala’s father appeared from behind us. Claw-marks raked his body, covering him in blood. Limping, he charged the rust-red hasra.
“Run!” he roared, and we did.
The birch-bark daemon swiped the hammer away with its sword, and the hasra closed its teeth around Kamala’s father’s throat.
We hit the Town Hall. A line of sigils glowed as we crossed a ward. Kamala tripped on her dress on the stone steps, falling to her knees. I reached back for her just in time to see the hasra tear Kamala’s father’s tongue out through his neck.
Kamala screamed and she tried to run to her father. I grabbed her by the waist and hauled her into the Town Hall as she fought and bit and begged me to let her go. Kamala spat curses, flailed with all her might, dug her nails into my arm and left bloody dents. But I couldn’t let her die too.
The entrance of the Town Hall was filled with clustered groups of families—too few. Far too few. They clutched at each other, weeping, numb, staring a thousand miles away. An old woman eased the door closed. I released Kamala.
My body felt leagues away. I’d done this. I’d let them all in.
Kamala wheeled around to face me, fists curled. Tears streaked down her cheeks. I only stood silently, the truth held between us like a knife to my throat. She knew why the daemons were here, and who was to blame.
“Are you hurt?” she asked, her voice forced through her teeth.
My split lip throbbed fiercely. “No,” I mumbled.
Kamala took a long, steadying breath. “Good,” she spat, and punched me in the jaw with all her strength.
I took the blow. My ears rang.
“This is because of you!” Kamala shrieked. “I begged you. I begged you, Rozin, and now—” Tears dripped from her chin. Everyone watched us with lifeless expressions. “They’re dead. They’re dead and you’ve killed them all!”
I couldn’t say anything. She was right. I deserved her pain, her anger. There were no words I could present in my defence, no excuses that would bring Barje Vos back to life.
Kamala threw herself at me and shoved me back. I let her do it. She shoved again, gasping through a massive sob. Kamala kept shoving until I was backed against the wall. I felt empty, hollow. There was nothing of Rozin left. I watched from the heavens as Kamala collapsed, weeping.
Her crying echoed.
After a time, she looked up from her hands, wild with grief. She faced the families behind us, her eyes puffy and red. “Rozin let the daemons in. She freed their leader from the ring ward and left us all defenceless.”
I let her accuse me. The townspeople could do with me what they wanted. Whatever their decision, it would be justice.
“This is Rozin’s fault,” Kamala forced through her teeth. “And she must pay.”
Hello there! I'm Carlyn, an amateur writer currently publishing free-to-read fantasy stories. I write diverse worlds featuring LGBT+ characters and romances, because I believe that we need those stories too (even if they are about magic and demons and brave sword-lesbians). I want to create worlds that are free of homophobia and sexism, so that everyone can enjoy the ride without feeling like they don't belong.
Thanks for reading, and have a great day!