When Jean was ten years old, the gods came to Sarajevo and brought the darkness down with them.
A darkness that swallowed the dawn, devoured almost half of Sarajevo,and the Bastards came sweeping in on the edge and plunged the city into chaos.
It took Jean and Luka both, dragged them into a shadow land of war.
Dark and brutally cold and shifting day to day so they huddled together for what felt like two weeks in the trenches of the German front lines, and watched a prisoner babble poetry and then blow his brains out and wake to do it all over again. Jean retreating far away inside herself, trying to block the stench and the screaming of horses and the flaring brightness of phosphorous, the shimmering half-formed monsters prowling around her, watching from cold pewter eyes. Without hunger or thirst, though she felt the cold and the muck.
Luka growing wild and bedraggled, vanishing into the mists to wander no man’s land, strange noised echoing back where Jean crouched under a lean-to. Savage howling, and screaming, Luka returning bloodied and frenzied so Jean drew away from him.
Then they woke one day to an empty field of mist and moors, and found a slaughtered village full of nothing but rats and flies in great black clouds.
They saw others too, wandering this land of the dead, but none came near.
There was no sun, no stars, no moon, and Jean was suddenly desperately thirsty, so hungry she found her mouth watered at the smell of burning human flesh.
And the world changed again, blending from gray to hellish orange-red under a shifting black sky.
They saw Freetown fall, and crumble into an empty hole that swallowed everything and spat Jean out in an echoing vastness empty of anything but a single tree, sickly and spindly, and she wept and called for Luka, crying into the silence as the fabric of the world seemed to bulge and shift under the weight of waxen bodies she glimpsed from the corners of her eyes. It was dark as well, and the ground soft and formless under her feet. The tree stood at the very heart of the world, because she walked circles and always came back to it.
Another shift, and they were together again, except Luka was thin and starved and seemed not to know her at first. He had carved things into his skin, wounds cut with a knife and filled full of pen ink, and he stared at her from where they stood in the ruins of Sarajevo—except here all was silent—his eyes sunken deep and feverishly bright.
“Luka?” she said, and he stared, unblinking. Her voice trembled. “It’s me.”
“Jean,” he said, and it was not a question. He raised a hand then, and jabbed a finger at his chest. “And me?”
“You’re…you’re Luka.” Jean shivered, wishing he’d blink, wishing he wouldn’t look at her like that. His eyes frightened her, the feral emptiness there.
“Oh,” he said. “I forgot.”
Then he sat down, and when at last Jean got up the courage to join him, he put an arm around her shoulders.
The Spider found them then, not long after, and because she was chaos, she changed something inside them both.
It was there in Luka’s eyes, gleaming sharp and savage and hungry.
It was there inside Jean too, and she could think of no way to describe it but a sickness that didn’t make her feel sick. The sort of vertigo like dropping over a steep hill, coalesced and bouncing and rippling. Cold most times, but other times burning bright and fierce.
Deep down where savage things lived, it was there.
It was there in Jean’s wasted little face, in her eyes blank and staring.
In Luka’s strength, in the hunger that drove him to lick his hand clean of the blood of a dead soldier, shame-faced and refusing to meet her eyes.
And it was there when the veil lifted, and suddenly they were back in the world, the real world, and all went to hell once more.
They were the Bastards of Sarajevo, and they found Jean and Luka in the ruins after the darkness fell.
Harsh and cold and brutal, dregs of uniforms stripped from the bodies of government troops or assembled from closets, their weapons passed down secondhand or lifted off the dead and dying. The mark of their own god branded into every cheek, some scars still raw and festering.
Children too, the sappers with vocal cords cut so they wouldn’t scream if they died in the wire, the others either branded in or inducted from the ruins of their old lives. Orphans, most of them, though some had joined up of their own accord.
The worst of them was Vago, pimply-faced and full of swagger, the priest of the company. A reedy boy, just a few years older than Jean, and he hated her because she was Spider-marked and so that made her worth more than him. A lucky charm—Luka too, though he was too old, and big, and savage, so they feared him and kept him bound—he couldn’t hurt her outright.
His hurts were small, furtive little things; a pinch on the sensitive skin of her upper arm, hard and violent; a boot on her bare toes; a knife prick when no one was looking; a sharp elbow to her ribs.
All of that she could bear—even the battles, the gunfights against government troops who broke and scattered when the Bastard’s god came down on them, even the screaming of children, the howling of wounded soldiers, the blood and brutality of Vago’s sacrifices—but then Vago turned his cruelty on Luka.
He took his rations for days, food and water both; he struck him with his pistol butt; he cut his left ear nearly off before Jean snatched up a blade from a drunk young man and just missed stabbing Vago through the kidney, and only then because someone grabbed her from behind. After that, of course, they beat her, but the commander knocked Vago in the dust and kicked him soundly in the ribs.
It didn’t end. Vago made her stand close enough to smell the blood of the soldiers he gave to the god for their service. The Bastards had prisoners with them, always, and they used their deaths to call their god, but the sacrifices weren’t quick. Vago sliced off their ears. He burned them alive. He cut off hands and feet and he opened their bellies, and he slit their throats so they might bleed out slowly. The Spider, he said, liked such things, and she’d favor them for it.
Jean looked on, silent, and hated him. The first time, she wanted to weep, because the soldier was young and so frightened he pissed himself, and he screamed—god, how he screamed—when Vago cut into him. Eventually all he could do was whimper as he died, and Jean wanted to hold his hand, wishing he’d just die, wishing he’d give up.
Vago saw it in her face too, and so after that she tried not to show it. To go dead. Soon enough it wasn’t so hard, because if she didn’t, she’d have to wrestle down fits of sobbing that seemed to come from nowhere. Sometimes she wanted to scream, especially when Luka would reach out to her and pull her close, as he had those times her mother came home reeking of alcohol and incomprehensible, cursing monsters and withdrawing far away from everything. Jean understand what he meant by it, that he wanted to comfort, but it just made it all the harder.
And Vago watched her constantly, sharp and alert and waiting when he was not paying tribute. He painted himself with the blood of his payments, and he’d kneel for hours in the dirt at night, praying to his gods, offering his devotion. Once he approached the wall of churning black, and pressed himself against it. Bowed his head and clenched his fists, and when nothing happened he went to his knees and dashed angrily at his eyes.
Jean saw it all, and didn’t understand it. Why would anyone want to see what lay inside? It was hell—her mother had often spoken of it, in those whispered conversations with Luka, Jean lying with eyes squeezed shut—and it was horrific, and there was nothing there worth anything.
She lost track of time, and tried to think of nothing, to feel nothing except that churning in her belly, never gone away. She didn’t speak, and Luka didn’t try to coax her to. He simply sat there beside her, scarred and bleeding, and when Jean was cold he’d pull his coat around her, and when she was hungry he gave her what little leftovers he had left.
He doesn’t eat anyway, she thought, though he should have: he was growing thin, and when she curled up to him she felt the bones of his body like her mother’s knives in their harnesses.
He was bruised and sore and often bleeding, and some nights he simply vanished, and when he came back there was that feral look in his eyes.
There was nothing she could do to make it better.
But whatever was inside her had been building since the darkness spat her out. Building slowly and inexorably, building with the explosive steadiness of a volcano. Her insides roiling, the faintest of whispering voices that woke her at night sometimes, listening with bated breath because it sounded like the Spider’s voice carried on the wind. Like bile in her belly, a dark undercurrent coiling and unraveling and surging hot and twisting, especially near the darkness, or when the gods passed nearby.
Ready to burst.
They’d taken a portion of Novo Sarajevo that day, and found, of all things, a gym still intact. Running water that grew hot and soap abandoned in the exodus.
The locker room was filled with shouting, with soldiers clowning and wrestling and reveling in a luxury most of them had forgotten about. Usually they bathed in the Miljacka, and it was running foul with corpses.
Water splashed on tile, towels snapped, children shrieked in the high hysterical voices of terror trying desperately for light-heartedness.
Jean stood stolidly among the men and women of the Bastards, a scrawny waif amongst soldiers. She was scratched and cut in a dozen places from the razor wire, and there was a bruise blooming on her upper arm from Vago’s last pinch. Her hair was plastered to her face, hacked short with a knife to keep the lice at bay, and the filth ran in muddy rills down her pale skin as she stood with head slightly bent. Once or twice she combed her fingers through her hair, clinging with dispirited sogginess, and picked up the soap Luka handed to her.
He sat hunched on the benches behind the showers, eyes averted, his shirt hanging open over his chest to bare the wounds of the knife. His ribs curled like fingers ‘round his sides, and his hair was matted with blood and filth. Vago had struck him with the butt of a pistol when he refused to get up quicker that morning, and he dribbled blood from a split lip. One eye was swollen, but it no way did that diminish the wicked gleam there, the snarl twitching over his face, the way he bared his teeth.
Violence was rising in him, dark and savage, and never did he take his eyes from Vago.
Showers turning off, steam billowing, Jean dragging an abandoned towel that smelled of mildew off the floor and scrubbing herself listlessly dry. Vago was just a few feet away, watching her. Watching her with that curling of his lip, a promise of something in his eyes that made her want to gather the towel tightly around her though she was already dressed.
Luka stood and stepped between them, not a hint he ached in every bone and could barely stand for the boot-shaped bruise in his belly.
There was pause, a sudden silence that drew turned heads and sent hands reaching for rifles and knives, and Jean suddenly wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Vago, naked and pimply and suddenly uneasy, the room full of steam and soldiers in various stages of undress and children with frightened eyes and raw scars across their throats. And outside were monsters, and the roar of artillery, and the thudding of shells so close they made the lockers tremble.
Perhaps that was the first warning. Some of the veterans were looking around, listening, reaching for clothing.
But Vago hadn’t moved, not an inch, and there was between him and Luka a pent breath waiting to burst. Luka, big and lean and starved, with canines curved by the Spider and eyes shining and strength no man should have. Vago, petty little sadist of a soldier barely out of childhood, scrawny and not half so threatening without his clothes on.
The world went dark.
The gym shivered, groaned under the weight of something outside, the lights flaring and snapping out. And it was harder to breathe, the air turned thick and bitingly cold. Sound gone like it had been sucked from the world, like Jean had stuffed cotton into her ears. A roaring outside, a howling of wind that built to a crescendo and screamed through the locker room, ripped the air from lungs and snapped towels from hands and whirled upward, and ceased as quickly as it had begun, the world popping back in an explosion of gunfire and roaring tanks and artillery that sounded right outside.
They scattered, stampeding each other in a burst of terror. Those who knew at least, bounding for the doors, screaming to move, run, it was over, their god was fallen.
Jean scrambled for cover under the bench, heedless of the towel now, heart in her throat. Boots smashing the tile, bare feet slapping, bare bodies rushing and bouncing past with water flying.
It was funny, really, seeing them all turned to panic. Pale buttocks and jiggling thighs, the children who could crying out and shrieking, and she was laughing, and gasping for breath, and sobbing because she didn’t know what else to do.
Luka dragged her up and out, swinging her up into his arms, and she grabbed his neck and buried his face in his chest and wept. Her eyes stung, and her head hurt from smacking his chin, and he was holding her too tight but that didn’t matter.
Almost to the door, gunfire chattering, when Luka cried out and staggered. Jean slipped from his grasp and went tumbling down, and it was wet and sticky and she was surrounded by bodies. Clawing hands, stark white faces, ground and sky gone all to hell.
“Luka!” Her voice cracked from long disuse and she couldn’t pull herself out of the pile, it was too slippery, there was a man grasping at her, choking, and his innards were hanging out his belly.
Jean wrenched free, sobbing, and crawled away, heedless of where she was going. The ground was shaking, seized by tremor, and her ears were deafened by the gunfire. The Bastards all around her, filling the shattered remnants of the gym lobby. A shell had fallen true, and above her head the sky churned black and there on the horizon, right there looking down from titanic height, was an Aidalan. Great yellow eye that seared across her skin, froze her there amongst the corpses and the screaming.
It looked at her, she was certain it did, and in its gaze she was nothing but a reflection of a corpse.
Then she was scrambling, running the rabbit, because there Bastards dying all around her and Luka wasn’t answering.
And Vago was there, grabbing her ankle, throwing her to the ground. One ear torn free, his face covered with blood. Jean screamed, clawed his eyes, bit his hand when it reached for her. She saw the look on his face, the mad eyes burning with fervent light. She heard his voice, sinking into the twisting words to call down the gods.
“No! No! Luka!”
She couldn’t fight him, he was too strong, and she knew it that second what he wanted, why there were others converging now, piling in on her. Under cover of the rubble, shielded from the bullets, a dozen of the Bastards all ringing her in.
His hands closed on her throat and hauled her up from the others kicking and screaming. Jean wet herself, she couldn’t help it. She was going to die like the prisoners, throat cut, or her entrails pulled out, and the Bastards would raise their god anew.
No no no no no, please please.
“Luka! Luka!” He couldn’t possibly hear her over the tumult, and Vago tightened his hold and smashed her to the ground anyway, the others clustering in, waiting open mouthed and bright-eyed, ready to raise their voices.
Her pants were wet and cold, and she couldn’t breathe, and she was crying, and wishing desperately that she could smash Vago’s head with the rock just out of reach.
A blink, that was how it seemed to happen. One blink, and Vago loomed above her, fumbling for his knife. The next and he was gone, ripped away from her, and there was a roaring in her ears that was not artillery.
Luka, howling, screaming, smashing Vago’s head against the wall. Smashing him face-first until there was a sickening crunch and his skull cracked open. Hands tearing, seizing an arm and wrenching and ripping until it tore free, Vago’s bubbling shriek turned to a wail. He came apart like tissue paper, like a bursting hose.
The others sat stunned just long enough they lost two more before they shook themselves to action, and the first to fall on Luka disappeared in sprays of blood that splashed the rubble and sprayed Jean.
It didn’t matter. He was only one against nine, and he’d been starved and shattered and brutalized so long they pulled him down. Drawing knives that plunged down and came back red, falling together in a furious ball as the rest of the Bastards began to disintegrate under the gunfire.
“No!” Jean screamed, her throat ready to burst.
It came then, a blaze of rage so hot and violent her vision went black and she lunged to her feet. It burned like fever, drowned all else in the thundering pulse of her own heart smashing against her ribs. Nerves alight, burning, veins running battery acid, throat on fire.
Ripping the fear away from her, letting something else take its place.
Something born within her. A darkness vast and empty that opened somewhere inside her, and rising up through it a terrible aching hunger. Malevolence and rage and fury, not all of it her own—how could she possibly contain all that, it was enormous, it dwarfed her, it burned the cold from the abyss and filled the darkness with a light that flared incandescent—and through the hunger and all else she felt too a savage joy.
Never had she felt so clear-headed, never so strong. She could kill them all, she could wipe their stain from the earth. Ten years old, ready to kill. Starving for it.
There was no one here that could hurt her any more.
The darkness grew, and she could taste it. She could see it. In every cell, in every facet of her being, and she saw it was not simply a void but a body, sharp and glittering like obsidian and standing there before her ready and eager to work.
Fey golden eyes, and sharp little teeth: the Spider.
Jean had called a demon.
Men screamed and women howled. Jean heard pain in those voices, fear, and a noise of flesh tearing.
Her eyes were still closed, and when she opened them her body went cold.
Human bodies swelling and busting. Soldiers scrambling back from splashes of gore and shreds of dark red flesh. An eyeball, crushed underfoot. A molar that struck her lightly and bounced back to the ground, starkly gold against the gore-slick rubble.
One and two, then three at once, devoured by the void that she’d opened, pouring cold biting emptiness through her. Limbs gone numb, her lips frozen, her nose bursting vessels and gushing blood from a swell of pressure, her vision blackening. Devoured inside and out, watching the Bastards turn to pink spray, to bursts of striking gore. Screeching and sobbing, begging her to stop. One boy on his knees reaching a pleading hand to her and vanishing in an eyeblink whirlwind.
Her own voice so very small in her head, her knees giving out. Jean was gasping, because it felt as if a great hand had reached into her where no hand ought to be and wrenched and twisted and ripped away.
Flickering before her a vision of the Spider, dark and raging, and Jean opened her mouth to plead and found no words.
The Spider smiling, another Bastard down. Jean was falling, tumbling down toward the dark. She was a pinpoint of dying light, a blue dot on the face of nothing. Struggling to reach it, because that was her, and if she could just grab it, she could end this.
“Jean?” Luka’s voice, weak and ragged and so far away she almost didn’t hear it.
A last desperate scream, everything within Jean coiling, turning back toward the tiny spot of warmth that was still her and the ringing echoes of Luka’s call. If she had her eyes open, she didn’t know. If she was still alive, she couldn’t tell.
And it was done.
She was on her knees, slumped and shaking, her lips cracked and her mouth gone dry, her nose bleeding and her body wracked with shivers. Blood and ashes in her mouth, her nails torn from raking at the ruins, a stink of iron clogging her nose. Her ears rang, that high-pitched droning eeeeeee of artillery.
The gunfire had stopped, and there were screams and rumbling engines and shouted orders in its wake.
Jean sat up, slowly, her eyes welling with tears and her body desperately cold.
“Luka?” she said at last, and saw him staring at her from just five feet away.
Five feet of slaughter between them. Luka’s hair wild. His face splattered red. Wounds in his belly and chest, his skin turning pale and lips ashen. The Bastards nothing but smears of red against the rubble. Tufts of hair and wet scalp. Bits of shredded clothing and shoe leather.
“Luka?” she said again, and there was a sob in her throat.
Somehow he stood—staggering, though, barely able to hold his head up—and fell to his knees beside her. He pulled her close, and she clung to him, shaking. He smelled of slaughterhouse.
Jean began to cry.
“Sh,” Luka said, smoothing her hair. “Sh, Jean.”
The Vanguard discovered them there, Luka barely conscious and Jean crippled with weeping. Stood there in stunned silence, the wind whistling through the ruins and somewhere eastward the guns echoing, and eventually took them both away.