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Amaunet
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#1


like having your throat cut,
just that fast
It has been almost a year since Amaunet stepped into the canyon hallways for a reason other than a night fighting in the pits. The sun is almost a strange feeling on her wings as she walks instead of flies through the tangled shadows and the leering mouths of overhangs. And she discovers, as she drags a wing through the redstone and covers in her body in dust and dirt, that she missed the thrill of hunting in the daylight. 

There is a game the Davke children played. The prize had always been a spear stolen from a warrior in the dead of night or a lash by which the other children would bow and play. It was a savage game, she remembers, and sometimes they did not all come back in one piece. But Amaunet always did. 

In her mouth she always held the treasure between her teeth like a lion instead of a girl. 

By the time the canyon opens up and the trail slants upwards the noon-sun is ripe in the sky (all blinding and hot enough to coat her skin in sweat). She pauses there, on the curl of her hunting trail, and drags her nose against the stone to follow the smell of wing and fury where an Elder Teryr has flown too closely to the canyon walls.

 It is the mistake of a thing statied from a kill but it is the single mistake of the beast that will grant her something other than death this day. And if she dies it will be with a feather between her teeth and glory a ember in her belly until it cools. 

She sticks closely to the wall as the trail spirals dangerously up to the cave of the slumbering Teryr (or at least she hopes it is sleeping off its kill). Each step is lighter than the last, an ode to the gracefulness of a pegasus raised on the eve of violence. Her warpaint shines like blood: the only adornment she allowed herself when stealth was the only skill that mattered. 

There are miles of curving pathways to go but she is not foolish enough to waste her energy or magic on flight. She does not try to speed up or move faster than a crawl when the sun starts to make her skin feel too tight on her skin. Every movement is a study in patience and the preservation of every ounce of her skill. 

Because eventually she will have to be faster than a Teryr enraged that a feather has been plucked and stolen from his wing. 



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Ipomoea
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#2







in the garden
i will die

A
memory leads him to the canyon. It sits there like a seed caught fast between his teeth, waiting to root or rot. And for the first time, Ipomoea is not sure which it will do.

He can hear the echo of it when he presses his shoulder to the canyon wall and feels the red dust beginning to tremble beneath his skin. And it’s there in the cry of the elder teryr as it passes overhead, reaching out with one wing to trace the canyon it passes through. 



Ipomoea only stands taller when its shadow passes overhead, and lifts his face to the sand that rains down over him. And with each grain of sand that peppers his face, he remembers —

he remembers the burn of the desert against his cheek, when trial after trial saw him knocked into the sand. And he remembers the feral faces of the other Davke children, smiling as they returned from their hunts (hunts he was not permitted on, not anymore, not after he was branded as weak.) His brother had brought him back a knife once, the jawbone of a coyote carved into a blade. He had pretended to not see the teeth adorning its handle.

But most of all, he remembers the sand.

And it is because of this that he recognizes her when the desert lavender shivers and tells him she is here — it is the way things borne of the desert will always recognize others who come from it. Ipomoea does not need to pretend anymore that there is anything besides teeth waiting for him when he turns to climb the paths cutting through the canyons. For a moment he just looks at her hoofprints, for a moment he knows it is not too late to turn back. What does he know, after-all, about these feral games?



But he knows how to burn now, and there is that new-magic rich in his veins begging him to find the depths of it. And he has learned how to be as thin as a the shadows stretching between each blood-red wall, and just as unyielding. Once, he had known the sound a coyote makes when it joins its pack in the hunt and today he will relearn it.

It is what the desert, and the magic, and the rage that still crashes like thunder against his ribs demands of him.

Maybe that is why when he sees her and steps onto the narrow path with her, all he does is nod and look ahead to the place the elder teryr had made its roost. And his heart settles into the song the desert had never sung for him —

not until now.

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Amaunet
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#3


like having your throat cut,
just that fast
She recognizes him only as all mortals who know the faces of those sitting on a throne do. Somewhere she knows the name behind the feathers at his hooves, the whisper of a once Davke who found glory outside the desert. Now she does not bother to remember them.

Amaunet does not recall the stories of weakness, not when she looks back into his red gaze and sees only the determination there. She does not see the forest in his look, only the red, bloody shine of his skin in the sunlight.

In the way of their people, for they are theirs today, she lifts her chin and a single wing in a look that says (in the way of the coyotes), until the hare is caught. And when she smiles it is with the mouth of a coyote and the hunger of a pack.

Desert dust falls from her wings as she tucks them back to her side and turns from him back to the pathway leading up. She tries not to listen to the sound of a hawk crying overhead or the scuffle of a desert mouse running away from their shadows stretching out. Amaunet listens closely for her death and her death alone. Kings and stray members of the tribe are not her responsibility. Heroics, to her, have always been the straightest and fastest path to the underworld. And she enjoys being alive very, very much.

This high up the trail she can feel the faint vibrations of a thing bedding down to slumber a meal away. She can almost hear the soft hush, hush, hush of its breath that sound more like the sea than a rolling sand dune. That sea sound makes the idea of stealing a feather seem almost righteous instead of foolish. Nothing of the desert should sound so like the tide rolling in.

Amaunet knows she sounds like the desert at night and the wings of an owl swooping down between the cactus to catch a mouse. Even her breath is a soundless thing in her lungs as the yawning mouth of the cave opens up before them. To her the blackness seems almost welcoming when she looks back over her shoulder, just enough to determine if the stallion is brave enough to follow.

When she lifts her wings, and tastes the current that will carry to her safety home, she walks into the dark mouth that bodes death to all those foolish enough to enter like a prodigal daughter coming  home.



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Ipomoea
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#4







in the garden
i will die

H
e is never a king when he comes to the desert. The sand has a habit of eroding it all away like sandpaper erasing features that were not his own (not meant to be, not in the way his birth had dictated). Of grinding him back down to his sun-bleached bones as a reminder, or a lesson, or a return to the hunger he grew up with —

Hunger starts in the belly of all things, with a sharp curl eating away from the inside out — but it lives between the teeth of feral things. It clings to the backs of them and leaves the rest of the mouth hollow, and wanting, and waiting. And ready, always it is ready.

He can see that hunger in her smile.

And he can feel it in the way the red dust at their hooves spins itself into coyotes grinning back at her.

They press in silently against him as he follows Amaunet up the canyon path, a sandstorm beneath each step. And he follows the trail of feathers and blood racing along ahead of them like lions. He follows the sound of death, and of life, and survival, and the memories of teryrs screaming over him that night he was left in the desert. 



It is not Ipomoea the king who follows her into the almost-blackness of the cave (so much like a tomb.) It is a boy who had, in another life, fought his way back into the tribe instead of being consumed by the sands. To him it is not death he is walking into —

Somewhere his heart is breaking as much as it is being reformed in this moment. 



Once he might have left flowers blooming at the mouth of the cave. Today he only lets the shadows of it consume him. As they walk on, he does not look at the girl with violence gilding her wings. His focus has become a sharp thing, a hard thing living on the hush, hush, hush of the creature that does not yet realize it is waiting for them. The red dust muffles the sound of his footsteps as they creep deeper into the cave. Each step stirs a bit more of the gold weighing down in his soul.

There is a part of him that knows this cave, that knows the rhythmic sound of the creature’s breathing that guides him now through the labyrinth. He leans into it, lets it guide him like a wolf to a limping deer. And when he sees the cracked bones lying scattered about the floor, no graves or stones left to remember them by, he feels the stirring becoming a storm in his chest. Slowly, slowly, the beating of it begins to match the beating in the elder teryr’s chest.

In the darkness there is a shadow, deeper and larger than all the rest. Ipomoea can feel its breath warming his face as he edges along the wall of the cave; he can smell the rotten meat clinging between its teeth.

It would be easy enough to steal a white-and-brown barred feather from its back, or haunch, or rib, well enough away from the curved beak that is still stained with blood (even in the darkness, he knows it is there).

But near the head are where the feathers turn russet, almost bloody. And he cannot look away.

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Amaunet
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#5


like having your throat cut,
just that fast
Life has always turned as vibrant as the sunset after a sand-storm in moments like this. It sparks in her chest like a newborn star, all molten hot and bright enough to hurt. She can feel it with every step, with every quickening in the darkness, racing through her blood and organs like lighting spider-weaving just below her skin.

Each second feels like an hour. Each whispering roar of a teryr’s breath has her heart stumbling near-silent in her chest with the thrilling feel of free-falling. Amaunet is fearful enough of death, of feeling that spark of a star in her chest burn too hot that it must die out too quickly, that it steadies the monster is her chest begging her to scream and wake up the monster.

She wonders, even as the roaring slumber of the monster rattles her bones, which of them would be more agile through the dangerous channels of the canyons. A hawk is faster than an eagle after all, and there is something to be said for spending a childhood racing hawks, and lions, and spears flying through the air. But even with the dangerous wondering, she moves slow enough to be a shadow at twilight as she traces the teryr’s body for a feather ripe for plucking.

It’s been so long since she last played this game that she lingers over the choice now that she’s (slightly) outgrown a child’s arrogance.

Amaunet has almost forgotten the lost desert king behind her until she angles her head back towards the path-way out. When she sees him, with his white-markings glowing in the fading light of the outside, she only smiles a warning (as feral as a wolf snarling a smile at a coyote).

There is only that warning for the stallion in her wake as she reaches forward, still as the hawk on a branch waiting for the vole to shift its weight. And when she pulls the feather from the side of the creature’s neck she is just as quick as that, just as almost-silent, when she steps back into the darkness with the feather caught between her teeth like a bone.

But when the teryr lifts his eyelid in the slow way of a monster waking from the slumber of a feast, she moves back, back, back, towards the glimmer entrance to the cave.

Amaunet smiles again, that wolf to the coyote look, to the king as she spreads her wings and prepares to run. And she glows with all the brightness, and all the hunger, of a hawk out flying an eagle across a crystal clear lake.

And had she been less fearful of burning out like a star she might have laughed, and laughed, and laughed.




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Ipomoea
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#6







in the garden
i will die

W
hatever spark is smoldering in the desert woman’s chest, it struggles to live in his own.

Once, the feeling of something as hungry as a fire living between his lungs had scared him; once, when he was only a boy who had known nothing but the sand and the sun burning him, had been afraid it might consume him. So he had again and again and again thrown fistfuls of sand onto that last ember, had drowned it with the waters from the Rapax, had broken it apart (or so he’d thought) into pieces to be carried away in the waves.

But still it burns.

And it burns.

And the hole it leaves in his chest burns with it as it sinks down into his marrow. Until he can no longer deny that it is there, it has always been there, waiting for a breath to fan it into a flame. He stares at the closed eye of the elder teryr and wonders now, is this it?

But in the darkness of the cave the pit fighter is creeping forward like a wildcat about to attack. So Ipomoea watches her like he watches the teryr, and when she steps forward to pluck the feather from its side, he steps forward in kind.

He is not sure which feather it is that he grasps between his teeth. Only that he can feel the spine of it coming free when he pulls, and can taste the desert sand on his tongue from when it had scraped lazily against the canyon walls. And it is the dust that sinks now like embers down his throat when he turns and steps light as a coyote into the darkness of the caverns.

He does not turn back to see the eyelid lifting as slowly as the sun lifts over the horizon. And when he hears the rustling of wings (both before and behind him) he only quickens his steps. The sand in his blood begins to tremble when the dust beneath his hooves rises, and rises, and rises. Until a flock of mourning doves are stirring in his wake on wings of whispering sand, turning back to stand guard against the creature struggling to wake behind them.

Like a lion snapping at sparrows while the hyena sneaks off with its kill, he thinks as he retraces his steps through the cavern.

Somewhere in the darkness that lies behind him he can hear the beast’s growl of frustration; but ahead of him there is the whisper of footsteps and wings and the gradual lightening of the corridor. So he runs (the way he never got to run when he was growing up in the tribe). And when he reaches the light at the entrance of the cave he does not stop to see that the feather between his teeth is barred with a russet color that is nearly bright as blood.

He does not stop to ask her where she is going. But he takes to the narrow path that cuts into the side of the canyon walls, and he does not look back when he sees all of the sand doves flying out from the cave to follow him.

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Amaunet
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#7


like having your throat cut,
just that fast
Being alive is like being an ember in a dry forest. There is this hunger to consume, and consume, until that ember becomes a wildfire racing through the world. A forest that at the start had seemed like enough turns to a hollow feeling as the end of the treeline draws near. Life, being alive, is not a fragile or gentle feeling.

Amaunet is ablaze with the feeling of living. The song her blood is singing as the teryr stars to rouse, and find its sleepy fury, is as addicting has any opiate she has ever braved. On her tongue the feather tastes as wondrous as any thing that would carry her deep, deep, deep into the belly of the sun where only fire could travel. The softness of it between her lips is far better than any kiss they have ever given, or receives, or dreamed of when slumber made her almost-soft.

The sun feels hotter when she steps from the cave. It feels like a warning when the teryr grumbles and she can hear the quiet trill of sand taking shape into sparrows. When she looks at the stallion, really looks at him this time, she can see the promise of the desert in his stoic face and his dangerous magic. Beneath her skin her own magic starts to rouse, and purr to the desert in him, as her wings spread wide against the canyon wind.

Sand starts to quiver beneath her hooves and the rock moans like a landslide when the sparrows burst from the darkness to follow the stallion. Amaunet realizes she had lingered a little too long watching the desert tremble around the stallion. But she does not pause to give him thanks, not with the treasure of a feather held between her teeth.

Amaunet leaps off the cliff edge as he starts to spiral downward. The teryr bursts from his cavern and her aching magic rises in her chest from ember to a wildfire of life. She glows bright as the sun and her own glare is just as harsh as she streaks away from the cave.

It is maybe the kindest thing she has ever done when she cries out a dark challenge to the teryr so that he might chase her instead of the stallion walking down the pathway. A war-cry is the only thanks the stallion will get from her.

She has trained her whole life for this moment, this thrilling chase between life and death, and she does not feel an ounce of fear as she maneuvers through the canyon faster than a hawk and as agile as a swallow. No teryr will devour her, not today.

But someday, when she dies, it will be the desert that takes in her one way or another. 



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Ipomoea
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#8







in the garden
i will die

H
is heart is still pounding in his ears. It consumes him now; the beat of the sand, of the desert, of life that is coursing through him. And as he settles into the rhythm of it, he does not stop to think of the way that it moves differently here than it does in the forests (but oh, it does. It is more violent here, more reckless.)

The desert had always had a way of making him feel more alive.

In his teeth is the feather, and in his heart is the song he should have learned in his youth but is only now beginning to sing. And that is enough to make him forget that he is supposed to be a king of flowers, of a court a world away, of anything. He is no king here — and Ipomoea cannot find it in himself to mourn the death of a crown. It had never meant to him what it did to others.

But in the sound of her wings snapping open, and the air filling them with a sigh, there is that same song of life. He lifts his head over his shoulder as she takes to the air, and for the first time he smiles. He smiles around the feather in his teeth, and it is perhaps a wild smile; a smile that belongs not to the king of Delumine, but to an orphan of the desert.

That smile does not fade when the teryr comes rushing out of the cave with a war cry on its lips. That smile turns to knives in his chest when every bit of his magic rises to meet the challenge echoing over the canyon walls.

Ipomoea turns back to the canyon path at a reckless speed. But for every misstep the earth is there to forgive him; it fills in his path for him, widens the narrow cut in the sandstone, smooths the way. It cleaves a hollow into the wall to shelter him like a mother holding her child close.

When the adrenaline fades from his blood he will feel the fatigue setting in, on his long walk home. But for now he only feels the glorious rush of it as he races down the ever-widening path that leads him to the bottom.

But when he looks over his shoulder and sees the teryr throwing itself into the sky after the Davke woman, he only sends his mourning doves after her. And until his hold on his magic slips they swarm around its sides, before its eyes, between its teeth — and when at last they collapse, it is only to turn back to grains of sand that pepper the teryr’s eyes.

By the time they do he is at the bottom, sheltered by the earthen walls.

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