Just want to remind y’all that these chapters I’m posting are first drafts. I’m not saying that because I’ve received feedback, I’m saying that because I am feeling nervous.
I just sent the first chapter for some harsh scrutiny. My stomach churns.
Hope everything is going satisfactory in your lives,
-Scott “El Chupacabra” Brown
Chapter 5: Complacency
Again death arrived. The black cloud, with burning eyes floated over her body. Fear fell away for a moment, and she longed for the eternal rest it seemed to promise to her. But her training kicked in. She realized her folly, grabbing at the waking world clutching hands.
Hajra snapped up, desperately pulling air into her lungs. Her hair flung foward in front of her face. Sweeping it aside, she saw the other Sirens were still asleep. Alone, jealous, exhausted, and depressed, Hajra rose from the tent and stepped into the now barren setting. The world was light. It was mid-day.
She walked up the hill to survey the battlefield. She breathed heavier than she should have. Her eyes drooped. At the top of the hill her hands went to her knees to rest.
In the valley were bodies. Blood coated the grass. The morning dew gave the small valley a shimmering red surface. A single figure emerged form the woods from her left.
Alik was there to survey as well.
“Hajra!” he called to her.
She swelled with pride but grew hot with anxiety. He came to her, and once he was closer, he spoke.
“How did the interrogation go?”
She struggled to remember the important notes from the conversation with Milo.
“He is a thief. I used a song of joy to uncover information about their melodies,” she answered, unsure of herself.
“Joy?” he pondered for a bit, “You showed this mongrel mercy?”
“You had said you wanted to try something different. I went up and down a different scale, and he told me of “gangs”. Criminals that join forces in their cities,” she informed.
“They must have many criminals, then. Their way is animalistic. Savage,” he said with fervor.
“But he also told me of his mother. Of her attempts to change Milo’s ways,” she said.
“You asked for his name?” Alik prodded.
She froze for a moment, wondering if she had broken an unspoken rule of interrogation. There was a general feeling that a Lenithan, especially a scout was to treated with contempt and malice. To show mercy was to show contempt for the Sowd. Hajra had thought this was exaggerated in the songs that found their way into the heartland. Alik’s reaction proved otherwise.
“He told me his name,” she lied.
“Aye. With a song of joy you could more easily gain his trust,” he said, nodding.
Hajra’s life-rhythm slowed.
“He asked for a quick death,” she said, “To get more information out of the dog I had promised to ask you. I…”
“He will get the same treatment as the other Lenithan dogs. He will serve his enemies after death. He will dance to your music, a glorious instrument of death,” Alik gestured to the battlefield.
They observed in silence. Hajra was not sure what to be looking for, and with this brief exchange she wondered about her commander. He was resolute in his ideas of the Lenithan, even when provided with evidence of the opposite.
“Do not make promises with enemies,” he said, “The soldiers will think you a traitor. I say this because I want to protect you. It is easy to become a traitor, our way is threatened from every corner.”
“Yes commander,” she said.
Her mouth tightened.
“Would you like to hear how this scar found itself upon my face?” Alik turned to her.
“I heard stories from the other sirens. They told of your father. Songs of gossip are always ill-will, to me,” she told him.
“True. True. But your eyes travel to it each chance. Wonder builds as curiosity and curiosity fosters mistrust.”
“If you think it best,” Hajra said.
“Before the scar, I was a troublesome lad. I gambled with coins that were not mine, and relished the opportunity to boast on things that were not earned. I was a fool, and spoiled. My mother died, and other lords doted on me. I used their pity like a tool,” he shook his head.
“Then, after I arrived home in the night, my father was waiting for me in the foyer. We argued, and in a fit of frustration and rage, he carved the symbol of the closed third eye in my forehead. I tried to fight back, but his cause was righteous. Although I did not know it at the time, he was curing me of the evils of luxury,” Alik told her.
“He was taken to the asylum, but I was trancended. I could see my ways had brought much anguish to my family. I saw that I was without purpose, direction, or poise. But the symbol was there each morning when I looked in the mirror. It served as a reminder to live a better life. A life of discipline. And so I choose to leave it exposed, embracing the raised skin.”
“That is…unfortunate, and also fortunate,” Hajra said
“Aye. Many parties went by without me saying a word. I considered myself in a prolonged state of punishment. I feel more confident now, that my good fortune is earned. With pain and embarrassment as my teachers, I found a path closer to the ways of the god of death.”
Hajra’s neck itched. The mark of the traitor burned under her high collar. Even a man with a visible scar on his forehead, who was known as a vicious brat, could still be allowed back into the folds of the military. But not her.
Alik claimed to have suffered for his current status as lieutenant.
Hajra could not help but think that this man did not know what suffering was.
He endured the loss of his mother, and he seemed unaffected. Then the loss of his father, and viewed it as a blessing. The man sang melodies of a small bubble around him. No doubt he had suffered more than his comrades, but the people that made his food, that drove his horses, that tailored his clothes. They suffered, and he did not mention them in his tale.
He only saw his melody. He did not see the harmonies, the percussion, or the bass tones. All this talk of his recovery only made it seem like he did not recover from the true evil of lordship: ignorance.
“Tell me, Hajra, of your mother. She must have been an amazing Siren for you to glean so much skill,” Alik pressed.
She breathed hard, readying her body to omit certain notes of untruth.
“Her time on the frontlines was a short song. Her fortitude was strong. Her voice was as close to her life-rhythm as any had seen.”
“I see that in you,” Alik praised.
She could feel her cheeks redden, nodded and continued.
“Her voice was taken from her, by the ravages of the diseases on the eastern front. Her songs turned sour, and the commanders feared that she was too risky to keep around. She came back from the front, and died a month later.”
“I am sorry to hear that, Hajra.”
He tapped his throat three times. It was an action of sympathy. The spoken section was only uttered in formal settings, but it meant “Three songs of sadness for your kin.”
She nodded, unsure of how to continue the conversation.
“I have something to offer you for your services. And as a symbol of my faith in your service.”
He cleared his throat. Hajra looked around her for anyone to validate the situation.
“You are without a doubt the finest Siren I have heard,” Alik said, “Your life-rhythm passed the closest to death, and it is filled with the ideals of The Sowd. Here.”
He handed her a gold square. Carved into it was a straight-lined closed eye. A chevron with lines for lashes. Being given such a status was one of the highest honors in the military. She was being granted the “All-Key”.
The “All-Key” was as it sounded. It was as if it was every key of every song. It granted access to privileged informaiton, allowed her to requisition personell, and get away with infractions that might have an alchemist hanged.
“Commander,” she flinched, “Should you not wait? I have only just performed my first awakening!”
“You took over for a failed Siren, and awakened more than I have seen. My trusted adviser and friend, War-Son, told me that he had never seen a more deserving soul to receive the honor,” Alik said.
She was overcome with a confusing array of emotions.
War-son had given her the highest praise a soldier could give. She was flattered beyond anything she had felt.
Hajra took the All-Key, with her neck itching as if her traitorous mark were covered in bedbugs.
“Commander, Alik, for this I am in your debt. I will be a harmony to the melodies of the armies of The Sowd. May any discord take my songs away from me,” she bowed low.
“Congratulations, Hajra,” he responded in kind.
When they straightened, the horizon between them and the camp filled with alchemists getting ready for their duties. They milled about, taking orders and preparing the bodies on sleds.
A large man, carrying a cup, with a sword at his side, smiled at the two of them. He made his way through the busy alchemists.
“War-son, you are awake!” Alik shouted.
“Aye. I wanted to survey the battleground before the alchemists moved too many.”
“War-son. I heard what you said. Thank you for your melodies of praise,” Hajra bowed.
“Rise,” he signaled with his free hand, “I meant every word. I am sorry I doubted you. Even through harsh scrutiny you prevailed.”
He rubbed one of his eyes, removing the bits of sleep. Seeing this, Hajra yawned.
War-Son offered some of his drink without words.
She could tell it was Krofa from the slightly black wisps of steam. The drink would give a mild stimulant effect. It was made with leaves from a southern plant. If the leaves were eaten bare, the stimulant would find its way to your life-rhythm, upping the tempo until death found you. But as a drink, it was far less potent.
Hajra was not interested in the stimulant effect, for when the effect ceased, your body slowed to catch up. She was tired already.
She snapped her fingers and tapped her chest in a solemn motion. It was a polite way of turning down an offer.
War-son nodded in recognition.
“With your songs, we can spread farther along the front-lines,” Alik said.
He pointed to either end of the horizon.
“The Lenithans will be driven back. We made progress last night. They were forced to pull their camps farther back into their land. Perhaps we will see their camps again tonight,” he smiled.
“I have no doubt,” War-Son patted Hajra’s shoulder.
Even with the small gesture, she staggered at the power. His arms were massive. His hands were like the paws of a bear, rough with calluses.
“See to it that you get everything you desire, within reason,” Alik gestured to Hajra.
“You have the All-Key now, yes?” War-son asked.
“I do. Although I am not sure how to use it,” Hajra said.
“Bah!” War-Son huffed, “Use it to relax. Comfortable clothes, fine stew, warm tea. Anything to help your voice.”
“I worry,” Hajra swallowed, “That anything used to relax will bring me closer to death’s embrace.”
“Mmm,” War-Son nodded.
The two men shot glances at one another, with concerned faces.
“We do not ignore the plight of the Siren, Hajra. Being scrutinized by death is a terrible curse. We do not understand it, but let us know how we can ease your time on the front-lines,” Alik said.
Hajra could feel tears welling up. She was unsure if it was the lack of sleep, the gesture of good-will or the open ears of her comrades. They listened, and her songs found their songs. But they could not know the pain she felt, even with all the songs in all the world.
“Wake me anytime,” War-Son said, “For Kofe, or songs.”
He nodded. His eyes were glassy with moisture.
“Aye,” she said.
“I must survey, and report,” Alik informed them.
He gave a gesture and left them.
“We are siblings now, you and I,” War-Son said.
His large hand reached into a pocket on his uniform and emerged with a familiar gold square. An All-Key.
“What do you do with it?” Hajra asked.
“Bah!” he dismissed with his hand, “Mostly maintenance on my drums. Or sharpening of my sword. You saw how it comes in handy.”
His expertise with the blade had most likely saved her life when she had to take over for the vain siren that failed.
“Aye,” she chuckled, “Why are all soldiers not equipped with a blade?”
“They are conscripts. Nothing more. They seek only to do one task in the song of life, and no more. Learning more skills means more responsibility and more risk. They did not grow up like me. The military is not their purpose,” he grumbled.
“You were an orphan? Your name implies it,” Hajra said.
“You sing my song. Disease ravaged my family. I was a child when the military took me. It gave me purpose, lifted me up. Their tunes took away my discord and I owe them my life. I will drum and wield a blade until death takes me.”
All she could think to do was nod.
He pointed out to the field, with one hand around her shoulder. There was the idea that this was a romantic gesture, but the formality of his stance and contact suggested otherwise.
“What a glorious time! We fight with death on our side! I am alive to see you sing. I am alive to see the Lenithans break before our numbers,” he shook her shoulder and leaned in a bit, “What would you like to do, Hajra? We have the day before us! And you have been given an All-Key”
“I wish to rest,” Hajra looked up at him.
He smiled back, “I guessed at that. You get your rest. Tonight we will break through again! We will force them back!”
He shook her again, but this time more gentle.
“Thank you, War-Son. I am glad to count you as a friend,” she said.
“The same rhythm from me,” he said.
A moment passed with the two basking in their newfound friendship. War-Son interrupted it with a sound, not unlike a laugh. He moved on towards the battlefield, stepping over corpses on his way.
Hajra watched him go. Such a large, intimidating figure, full of child-like zeal.
But her exhaustion fell on her like a weighted dress. She trudged back to the Siren’s tent. Slipping inside, she found that Siveny was awake.
Where there was comradery between her Alik and War-Son. With Siveny there was now a form of pity.
Hajra was reminded that not all Sirens were as rewarded as she was.
Siveny’s face was sullen. Her shoulders hung low. Her hair was a mess.
“Did you see it?” she looked up without moving her head.
“Almost,” Hajra said, sitting down next to the girl.
“I felt it. You were right. It’s not good. I don’t want to be a Siren anymore,” Siveny said softly.
Hajra embraced her, and the girl made little effort to reciprocate.
“It’s alright. We all die. All of us. Our songs just get cut off before most.”
“I can’t sleep. The burning eyes follow me. I see no joy ahead! I see nothing but suffering in the coming measures!” Siveny’s voice elevated.
The elder, sitting in a chair to oversee the Sirens shushed the girl like a dove.
Siveny quieted. She winced in pain.
“It’s alright. You have friends,” Hajra said, trying to make direct eye contact.
She remembered the All-Key.
“Ah!” she took a hand off of Siveny’s shoulder and found the gold square in her pocket, “The commander gave me this. We will share it! What would you like to do?”
Siveny’s eyes lit up.
“An All-Key! We can do anything!”
“I want to be entertained. I want to see a story, I want to hear music, and not the music of death,” Siveny answered quickly.
Her idea was wonderful. Hajra had not yet thought of a way to use her All-Key in the context of entertainment.
“We shall get actors. We shall get instrument players. Lets go!” Hajra pulled her up by an arm.
Other Sirens spoke up about interest, and the elder told them about a troup of actors in a nearby town. They sent a messenger, and the troup showed up four hours later with the messenger.
Their carriage was covered in bright colors. Little triangular flags dotted every surface. Runes of happiness, joy, debouchery, were written in the colors. The players emerged one at a time.
There was a taller man with thin limbs. He gave a flourish in the form of an overdone bow. His hat was the colors of royalty, although the blue was worn with time. His mustache was finely trimmed, and his face was devoid of the tattoos of the military.
The next was a plump woman who made a show of being stuck in the doorway. It was clear she could move in and out with ease, but the show was already producing giggling among the onlookers. The woman’s hair was done up in a peculiar way, with small buns dotted all over her head. There was color put on her lips, which Hajra had only seen once before.
The gangly man pulled at her in exaggerated motions, and she stepped out of the way to reveal the next player: a woman of small stature.
She was muscular, and her clothes were tight. She grabbed onto the top of the doorway and then pulled her body upwards. She tumbled in the air, sailing over the plump woman. She landed on her feet as if the act were like walking on a flat surface.
There was applause from all around, and some of the Sirens thanked Hajra with signals or a touch.
The All-Key was persuasive.
Near the end of the night, the awakening ceremony began. After the men sang, Siveny and her parted ways to awake the dead.
Siveny bore a look of defeat, and Hajra wondered how long she would last. What was driving her, with no family? How far would their friendship take them?
Guilt swept up in Hajra. She pitied the girl more than liked her. During the wagon ride to the frontlines they had sang intricate songs that weaved into each others stories. Was that not enough?
No. It was not. She could feel the brand on her neck. It burned to be revealed. Could she use the All-Key to turn her family’s life around? If this were true they would never tell her. She would need a clever story, another lie. Someone she knew was marked and she wanted to help them.
“Here, Hajra,” Alik stated.
She had been following him without knowing after the opening of the ceremony. There were no other sirens in sight.
“The other Sirens?” she asked.
“I have faith,” Alik said.
He bowed and gave her space.
She positioned herself in between three organized piles of bodies. Sciv leaves were thrown around to handle the smell. She was being treated like royalty, now.
Even with her mother’s stories, Sirens were never given this amount of bodies to awaken in a single ceremony. There was an entire contingent.
“This is a lot of bodies,” Hajra called behind her.
“We’re with you!” War-Son responded.
The big man was standing next to Alik, both hands on his drumsticks. He made an X with them above his head.
She smiled, but the elder was nowhere to be seen. Her face dropped.
“The elder…” she started.
“…is needed elsewhere,” Alik finished
She turned away from the patient drummers, closed her eyes and then clapped her hands together.
Her humming turned into a melody, and she remembered the pain of the mark. It burned into her being, and death could not touch her while she pulled motion back into the bodies of the enemy.
Once again, she was exhausted. But she was successful, even more so than the previous night. If she was not widely know before, everyone would know her name now.
Alik and War-Son walked past her, keeping the corpses from succumbing to inaction. An army marched in front of them, and in a moment of clarity Hajra realized that she had awakened the spearhead of a aggressive force.
War-Son grinned as he went past, twirling his free hand with a drumstick. Hajra could only muster a half-smile in response.
She called an alchemist over to help her back to the Siren’s tent. Her feet dragged. Bits of mud found their way into her shoes. She yearned for rest, but knew she would find none. Death would stare her down, and pain would be her only ally.
Siveny arrived at nearly the same time. The two of them met eyes. Neither of them spoke. Hajra was too tired, and Siveny looked to be shaken by her second awakening. The two of them fell asleep side by side in the tent.
But only for a few moments.
Hajra woke up and then sat up. She groaned, only the second night and the stare of death was an unwanted drone note.
Other sirens were sitting up. Hajra could see outlines form the small amount of light getting in through the bottom of the entrance. It was still night. She had slept for a fraction of a full night’s rest. It was never enough.
There was a sound from next to her. Siveny was crying.
“Siveny,” she cooed.
Hajra felt at her pillow to find her head, but found her elbow. The girl was clutching her head with her hands. Her arms were rigid.
Siveny pulled away from the touch, whimpering.
Hajra retracted her hand. Her eyes drooped. She would be spending most of her time in this tent, she thought. She would be trying to sleep most hours of the day.
The elder lit a candle and Hajra could see at least four girls sitting up in a stupor.
The old woman got to her feet and then began looking.
Hajra pointed towards Siveny. There was no doubt the elder was looking for her. She was in dire need of attention.
The elder went to her, and with great effort, pulled her hands from her head. The girl wept, and the elder spoke praises.
Praises only went so far, Hajra thought. They did not stop death, and they did not stop exhaustion.
Hajra drifted to sleep, and stabbed herself awake a short time later. This went on for hours. She lost count of how many times death loomed over her body.