Science Fiction Alien Culture aliens Linguistics nonbinary battles Women poetry Monsters Art

This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers

By Carlie St. George
Aug 29, 2019 · 4,880 words · 18 minutes

Photo by Garrett Patz via Unsplash.

From the author: Four different alien species, recently at war, meet at a culture conference in an effort to find unity through art. When monsters attack, a small group of female and non-binary artist-warriors must band together to prove they can peacefully coexist and defeat said monsters.


It is apparently inappropriate to ask an Earthling child for their teeth, even if they have more than enough to spare and the ability to grow replacements. Poetry, Choakyut is told, is an insufficient reason to make such a request, or as the child’s mother had put it: “What the fuck kind of poetry do you write?”

The good kind, Choakyut is told, is also an inappropriate response.

“You,” O’ey says now, claws digging into her palms, “are the thin, worthless scraps of shit that come from eating too much water-fruit. You are the worst kind of feces, Choa. You are paltry shit. You are a shitstring.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You come from a long lineage of shitstrings. Your first mother was a shitstring. Your second mother, also a shitstring. Your grandfather? A shitstring covered in pus.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How long have we been on this godsforsaken fire rock of a moon, shitstring?”

“Two solar days, ma’am.”

One solar day. One day, 26 hours, before you caused an intergalactic incident at a nut-sucking art conference. Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”

Choakyut wants to say the conference is doomed to fail anyway, that no matter how long the peace holds, four disparate species will never find meaning in one another’s art. There will never be enough context.

Instead, she says, “I’ll endeavor to stop smearing my family lineage over the good name of the Yuo people, ma’am.”

O’ey snorts and flings her palm-blood at Choakyut’s bare, blue feet. “Get out of here, Choa. Try to wait three days before restarting the Century War, would you?”

Choakyut claps. If she works very hard, she might make it to two before breaking her promise.

She’s never given the opportunity.

Night falls.

Choakyut leans into the cave mouth and stares at the horizon. It’s not properly dark; the fire clouds prevent that, beautiful orange, red, and gold shapes that drift across the sky, releasing slow spirals of flame into the desert below. Fire storms are rare, the Whistlers say, and the storm-wraiths that ride them never fly so far north. The conference should have been safe, they say.

Choakyut is still wearing O’ey’s life-blood on her hands and face and belly. “Should” is a worthless, alien concept, meaningless as human poetry.

“Hello, female-and-male soldier. You need clothes?”

Choakyut turns. A Whistler stands nearby; she’s tall, if only by Whistler standards, maybe four feet high.

“No. And you’re using the wrong pronoun: I’m female, not female-and-male, and soldier-poet, not soldier. My name is Choakyut. You may call me that.”

The woman apologizes, pink scalp feathers fluttering in embarrassment. Choakyut isn’t offended; neither of them is wearing translator-wraps, and the shape of her own tongue makes any Whistler language anatomically impossible. She can’t even refer to the species by their true name. Same with the Chosen, but that’s due to their religious preference, not her inability.

Choakyut starts to reassure her before noticing the woman’s eyes, gold as the spotting across her magenta cheeks and hands.

I asked Fate what would come of our conference. And this is what She replied.

Choakyut’s claws curl into her palms.

“I met you. You’re the fortune teller.”

The woman’s feathers flutter slowly now. “Your world not have the art.”

“Superstition is not an art,” Choakyut says.

This time, Choakyut has no idea what the fortune teller’s hair-plumes are saying. The Whistlers are the only species who don’t emote through their faces; tone, desire, and feelings are all communicated through voice and feathers. She doesn’t seem angry as she steps up beside Choakyut, a pity. Choakyut could use a good fight, new blood to wash old blood away.

I can save you, too. I’ll save you both.

The Whistler’s hand lingers at her left side. “Talking with . . .” An irritated rustle, followed by a finger pointed at the inferno sky.

Choakyut claps. “Are they coming?”

“No.” The woman points again. Too much interference from the storm, probably. “Five days. They will rescue we.”

This time, Choakyut doesn’t correct the pronoun. She looks down at her bloody clothes.

Five solar days. 150 hours, that’s how long she’ll hide in this godsforsaken cave while the bodies of alien children rot, while O’ey’sbody--

No.

She turns and marches back to the other survivors. There are so very few left. They must survive. They must, because she might not.

“No,” she says, as they stare at her. “I’m going back. I’m going tonight.”

 #

It takes hours before the survivors agree to let Choakyut do what she was going to do anyway. Before that, they waste precious time bickering: can they make it without more supplies, is Choakyut the right person to obtain them, who else should go with her, what resources can they spare, on and on until her pupils spin.

Finally, it’s decided that four will go, all formidable fighters: Choakyut herself, the Whistler fortune teller, Val Castillo of the Earthlings, and Reverend Zetzi of the Chosen. They will each wear a translator-wrap and a weapon. They will each gather food and medicine. And they will not under any circumstances engage with the enemy unless they have no choice.

Five minutes outside the cave, Val links their wraps and speaks a question that Choakyut hears in her own tongue, mostly:

“So. We’re going to fucking murder these overgrown fire peacocks, right?”

 An hour into their trek back, one of the storm-wraiths appears.

Winged and feathered, they’re the size of tiny churches, with magnificent, spanning tails that somehow carry fire without causing injury to themselves. This morning, they’d attacked at breakfast. Maybe the casualties wouldn’t have been so high--but with the communal dining tent burning down, people ran outside, straight into beaks and claws.

This one isn’t on fire, at least. Doesn’t stop it from biting off one of the Reverend’s four arms, though.

Zetzi screams and staggers back. Val runs to her side, while the fortune teller throws her spear. Negligible damage until the spear suddenly rips backward, tearing a hole through the beast’s wing and traveling back to the Whistler’s hand.

The creature stumbles. Choakyut leaps before it can try to fly away, bringing her lightning-axe down on its head, splitting its skull and electrocuting what spills out for good measure. It slumps over, very dead.

Choakyut falls to her knees, inhaling deeply--but loud, frustrated gibberish ruins the moment of sweet, vengeful victory. She turns.

Zetzi’s pale face is still twisted in pain, but she’s already standing, while Val, three feet shorter, is apparently trying to ankle-kick the reverend into submission. They’re both talking too fast for Choakyut’s wrap to keep up, but she’s pretty sure the words “die,” “blood loss,” and “asshole” are all coming from Val.

Finally, Zetzi pushes Val back with her lower, right arm--her only right arm, now. “Enough. It’ll be fine.”

The fortune teller whistles something, which the wrap translates as “Back arm?” Zetzi stares at her, and then looks to Val. Val lifts their shoulders and lets them drop back down. Choakyut stares at them, and turns to the fortune teller, whose feathers shake in agitation. “Will grow again?”

It takes another 27 rounds of this before Choakyut learns that, no, Zetzi’s arm won’t grow back; the Chosen have a unique circulatory system that doesn’t allow them to bleed out from any wound to their extremities, even severe ones. Choakyut also apparently didn’t fully understand the concept of “milk teeth,” although she still feels the Earthling mother overreacted about the whole thing. Val, anyway, seems to think it’s hilarious.

“Poetry? You use teeth to write poetry?”

Choakyut sighs.

Introductions are made. The fortune teller seems determined to learn everything about them, which Val insists is normal; evidently, killing a carnivorous beast together is some kind of bonding activity.

Choakyut doesn’t care about bonding; she wants to salvage what she can of O’ey’s meat and bones, and then she wants to go home. At least, the discussion allows the Whistler to find a nickname she likes: “Fyoo” is the closest anyone can come to pronouncing the first syllable of her name.

Bonding isn’t easy. Four advanced species from four corners of the universe, and not one could create a communication device that doesn’t fuck up four times out of five. Every translation is too literal. Idioms do not exist. The wrap cannot translate pronouns that don’t exist in alien cultures. It can barely translate pronouns within species: Val is mostly-male-but-also-female (“genderqueer,” Val calls it, in their second tongue), yet uses different pronouns depending which language they’re speaking at the time: he/him for español and they/them for English. Choakyut struggles with it: there’s no singular they in her language, yet male is only telling part of the story. Val also rapidly alternates between their two languages, something the translator is predictably oblivious to.

Choakyut would like to rip the translator-wrap off her head, chop it in half, and dance upon its corpse; instead, she’s forced to listen to Val cheerfully recite the few poems they remember from school.

“No,” Choakyut says. “That means nothing.”

Val laughs. “Yeah,” they say, adjusting their corrective, yellow-tinted goggles. “So, the thing about Neruda is--"

“No,” Choakyut repeats. “It’s just words. In any language, it’s just words.”

Val frowns and looks to the others for help, but the word “poetry” doesn’t translate for Fyoo at all, and Zetzi hasn’t participated in much bonding since Val tried to cheer her up by obliviously suggesting she still had an “extra” arm to spare.

“Okay.” Val runs a hand through the dark, curly strip of hair they call a ‘frohawk’. “I’m a dancer, not a poet, but . . . isn’t that what poetry is?”

How can anyone think that?

Words alone are nothing. Simply spoken aloud or read on some flat, lifeless screen . . . grocery lists belong on screens, legal documents, wedding invitations. These can be understood without context, but poetry--

The bloodstains on her shirt are cold and stiff. Explain yourself, shitstring, O’ey says in her head. Do what you came to do or prove yourself a waste of your mother’s eggs.

“Yes, ma’am,” Choakyut murmurs.

Val frowns. “What?”

Choakyut ignores her. “Poetry needs context,” she says, after a long moment. “Words need objects. Structure. Ink-fluid. They must be seen together, or it’s just . . .”

“Like sculpture? Are you talking about sculpture?”

No. Sculpture is a fine art, but it has no stanzas, no rhythm. It doesn’t interact with words in the same way.

She tries again. “Close your eyes. Imagine this. You find a lover’s note tucked away in the space you both sleep. It says ‘thinking of you always.’ What do you see?”

Val describes white bedsheets and morning sunlight, red kisses pressed into folded paper. Fyoo describes an empty hammock and grief, last words from a lover never coming home. Zetzi struggles because having sex and sleeping together are mutually exclusive activities for the Chosen, but eventually describes a buildup of tension released by something called the Lover’s Battle of Eight Blades, which is presumably a sparring session that quickly turns into sex.

“Good,” Choakyut says. “Now imagine this sleep space again, only this time, you find these same words on a bloody knife next to your dead lover’s body.”

The others stare at her. She stares back, refusing to think any more of what O’ey might say; O’ey, who wasn’t her lover, sister, or even friend, simply the woman who found her angry and starving and lost, the woman who gave her a key to the barracks with the words “do better” written on it in tiny black letters.

“Words alone mean nothing,” Choakyut says, and walks faster because she’s afraid otherwise she might scream.

The second storm-wraith attacks.

Val fires their projectile and misses. Fyoo throws her boomerang-spear and misses. Zetzi draws blood with her blades but spends so much time needlessly brandishing them that Choakyut’s surprised she finds time to attack. All in all, it’s going poorly, and things don’t improve when the beast, swooping down at impossible speeds, hooks its talons into Val’s back and starts to fly away.

Choakyut lifts her lightning-axe--but Zetzi’s already there, swinging her sword and slicing off the monster’s foot. Shrieking, it drops Val and escapes.

Someone else might be grateful. Val, heavily bleeding from the back, is not.

“Okay, the fuck was that, Reverend? I get I screwed up with the whole extra arm thing; I was an insensitive asshole, and I own that, but are you actually trying to kill me?”

Zetzi frowns. “How is your wound?”

“Great! I love almost getting torn in half! Maybe if you hadn’t been so busy with all that--" Val flings their arms around, while Choakyut tries and fails to bandage their back.

“If I could’ve prevented this--"

 “You what? You’d have--"

Val continues, but Choakyut’s wrap, racing to keep up, provides seven simultaneously incoherent translations and promptly dies. Cursing, she reboots it, as Val keeps waving their arms about, shredded brown skin oozing too much red juice. Choakyut holds them down by the wrists.

“Stop,” she says in Val’s tongue, “or die of blood loss.”

“You just said blood loss,” Val says--or probably doesn’t, based on their goading eyebrow. But they relent all the same.

Fyoo sits nearby, feathers twitching continuously. She speaks to Zetzi, high-pitched sounds that barely register as words until Choakyut’s wrap starts functioning again. “--Maybe you don’t want to hurt them? Perhaps there’s a bond?”

Zetzi scoffs. “God cares nothing for alien beasts. I’m happy to kill such creatures. But these--” She extends three swords of various lengths and curves. “--Are not merely instruments of execution. These are narrative tools.”

“Narrative?”

“Battle narratives,” Zetzi says. “This is my art.”

“I don’t understand,” Choakyut says. “You tell stories about battle or during battle?”

“Yes,” Zetzi says.

Choakyut resists the urge to call the reverend a giant, purple-flushed shitstring. She probably wouldn’t understand, anyway. “Explain.”

Zetzi doesn’t, not immediately. Her eyes wander: to what isn’t at her right side, to a fourth sword still strapped across her back. “Every battle is a story,” she says finally. “Some are old ones simply retold: The Prophesized Orphan versus The Monster, The Chosen versus God’s Rejected Children. Others only have old beginnings before changing into something new. These battles here, they’re something new--I’m something new--so my telling must change as well.”

“But who are you telling?” Fyoo asks. Her eyes, Choakyut notices, are on the fire clouds above.

“Is it us?” Val asks sourly. “Cause let me tell you, buddy: I’m already living the dream.”

“I’m telling you the story. I’m telling the creature the story. I’m telling myself the story.” Zetzi looks at each of them. “Do none of you tell yourself stories?”

Choakyut supposes she does, if silently and without benefit of weapons; it’s one where she’s the center of all things. The universe didn’t exist until she opened her eyes to see it, and it won’t exist once she closes her eyes for the final time. Over and over, she tells herself this story: that she matters, that this mission matters, that it’s all forsomething.  

Fyoo touches her left side again, feathers fluttering rapidly. Choakyut wonders what she’s thinking.

Val, never shy to say what they’re thinking, says, “I don’t care, Reverend. I care I can trust the people at my back. Don’t gotta like me. Don’t gotta forgive me. But I need to know you’re trying to cover my ass. Cause I know I’m trying to cover yours.”

There’s a long, profound silence.

“My translator-wrap is failing,” Zetzi finally says, “or else the beast sliced open your butt as well as your shoulder.” She peers, frowning. “I don’t see any blood.”

Val, despite themselves, starts laughing and can’t stop.

Zetzi kneels, touching her lip with three fingers and extending them in Val’s direction. “I’d never let harm come to an ally, not if I could help it. But I must fight the way I know how. This--" and she points to all of them--"this is a momentous story. If I survive long enough to return home, I will retell it to my children, my parish’s children, my country’s children, and--if God sees fit--it’ll become a part of the Great Lexicon, so that in a hundred years a child might see it and know the first steps in her own wondrous tale.”

Val bites their lower lip. Fyoo’s feathers rustle softly. Choakyut finishes dressing the wound and waits.

“All right,” Val says finally. “Tell me a story.”

Zetzi tells two before Val is steady enough to walk again. She tries to set them up beforehand, but clearly, she’s never done so before, and the stories themselves are entirely kinetic: no words, no music. The movements are striking, but they’re also nearly impossible to understand without knowing the generations of anecdotes they’re built upon. Fyoo is either equally lost or else uninterested, while Val watches with their entire body, often tapping their foot. “I’m a dancer,” they explain. “There are similarities.”

Of course, Fyoo has no concept of dancing--what do people even doon her planet, except fail to predict the future--but Choakyut refuses to stop again; at this rate, they’ll be lucky to reach the site by dawn. Besides, Val’s brown skin is beaded over with sweat; no doubt their weapon, a substantial projectile worn over their chest and held steady by thick straps, isn’t helping. A demonstration will have to wait; Choakyut’s concerned Val might pass out before the creatures even return.

It’s Fyoo who gets them talking again, as Val’s too exhausted to lead the conversation. Though has Val been leading the conversation? They’re loud enough, certainly, cheerfully aggressive and aggressively cheerful, but it’s tiny Fyoo who’s always subtly redirecting the exchange. Val asks about variations in grammatical language, how both profession and gender are equally intrinsic to Yuo pronouns--but it’s Fyoo who shifts the discussion towards the differences between soldiers and poets, which becomes a comparison of various militaries and how those militaries felt about this conference. Val mentions feeling conflicted between their mother’s atheism and their grandmother’s monotheistic worship--but it’s Fyoo who turns this into a debate about monotheism vs polytheism, and did Zetzi find the Chosen’s attitude towards God’s Rejected Children was one of magnanimity? Pity? Hostility? How did the Chosen treat those who wouldn’t or couldn’t convert?

It takes Choakyut an embarrassingly long time to figure out what Fyoo’s doing; then the accusation rolls off her tongue before she can think better of it: “You’re interrogating us.”

Val, in the middle of asking Choakyut about the Yuo’s invulnerability to blood infections, stops dead. “Was I being an asshole again? Shit, I’m sorry--"

“Not you,” Choakyut says. “You.”

Fyoo’s feathers freeze, then relax. “Yes,” she says, making no excuses. “I needed to know.”

“Know what?” Zetzi asks.

“Yeah, I’m confused. Is Fyoo suddenly evil? Cause you’re glaring at her like she’s evil.”

“No. She’s just a shitstring.”

“I’m a detective,” Fyoo says, ignoring this. “I’m investigating a traitor.”

“Well, when did we get a traitor in this narrative?” Val stupidly throws their arms up and hisses in pain. “Zetzi’s going to have to change her dance again.”

“This is a retreat moon,” Fyoo continues. “Sparsely populated, an ideal place to create and reflect on art. Everything was planned. We should have been--"

That word again. That fucking word.

Choakyut feels her palms are wet before she registers the pain. She flicks her blood straight at Fyoo’s face, and there’s no reason she should suddenly be this angry, except--“You’re not a detective. You’re just looking for an excuse.”

Fyoo lets the blood drip off her cheek, feathers rustling violently in the absence of wind. “You know the last time storm-wraiths attacked this far north?”

“Never,” Choakyut says. “So what? Things change. Plans fail. People die. That’s what life is, over and over, people die, and none of it means anything.”

“Choakyut,” Val says gently, reaching for her.

Choakyut pulls away. “There’s no conspiracy, Whistler. No one bonded with your monsters. No one’s trying to restart the Century War or wipe out the unworthy. No one changed your fortune; you were just wrong.”

Fyoo grips the boomerang-spear in her hands. Her face is blank, but her fingers show purpose.

“I’m not wrong,” she says.

And the ludicrousness of that statement, the pure desperation of that denial, pushes Choakyut over the edge.

She kicks Fyoo in the face.

“Oh, shit,” Val says. Then, “People.”

Fyoo strikes out with the blunt edge of her spear, slamming it into Choakyut’s knee. Choakyut stumbles and swings her fist--but Zetzi catches it, suddenly between them.

“Be still,” she says, holding them apart.

Choakyut ignores her. “Admit it. Just fucking admit it.”

“Seriously, people--"

“Something happened. I wasn’t wrong--"

“You don’t know anything--”

The shriek of the injured storm-wraith cuts Choakyut off.

It’s too close. It’s far too close. Choakyut reaches for her axe, knowing she’ll never make it--

Val shoots the storm-wraith so many times that its underbelly bursts in an explosion of bloody meat. Long, black guts splatter all over them. The beast crashes into the ground.

“Modified Gatling gun,” Val says, breaking the long silence. “Making it rain all day, all night.”

They pass out.

Zetzi carries Val. They leave the projectile behind. There’s barely any ammunition left, and Val, still unconscious, can’t lift it.

Fyoo’s hand hovers over her left side. She hesitates, then unzips her jacket, pulling out a folded piece of parchment. Hands it to Choakyut without meeting her eyes.

The fortune makes no more sense now than it did yesterday. So many bold colors. So many abstract shapes. Something that might be a stick or bone; something else that might be blood or feathers. And a face, too, behind everything: skin like the blue moss that Choakyut camouflages with back home, hair a cloud of tight black curls growing four long, white arms. Its neck is twisted too far to the right, broken for anyone but a Whistler. There’s only one, gold eye, and it looks directly at Choakyut.

“Painting’s only half the art. The rest is interpretation.”

“And your interpretation?” Choakyut asks, looking skeptically at the fortune.

Fyoo’s feathers shake with mirth. “Connection. Unity. Don’t worry, friend: this conference will be a success.”

Zetzi leans over. “This is your prophecy art?”

“Yes.” Fyoo’s feathers rustle softly--guilt, Choakyut realizes. It’s guilt she keeps seeing in the feathers. “The art is beautiful, Choakyut. The art is full of purpose. But . . . you’re right. I’m not as skilled as I thought.”

Choakyut’s throat is full of sharp, hot things. No, Fyoo. I was wrong. was.

“Jesus. If this is what your happy fortunes look like, I’d hate to see a bad one. Is that a skeleton?”

Choakyut snorts as Zetzi carefully sets Val, blinking heavily, down on the sand. “How are you feeling?”

“Lighter,” Val says. “Literally. My gun?”

“Sorry.”

“Well, shit.”

“Here,” Zetzi says, drawing her fourth sword. “You may defend yourself with this.”

Zetzi’s eyes are wet.

“It’s my shortest and third favorite blade,” she adds hastily. “Better for your little arms.”

Val takes it, reverentially. Their eyes are wet, too.

“And to think Mama said my Zorro obsession would never get me anywhere in life.”  

“I never understand anything you say,” Zetzi complains.

Val grins as the sun rises.

They reach the conference site, and O’ey’s body is right where she left it.

The others spread out, give her some distance. She barely registers them as she kneels down, fingers hovering over her dead commander’s white-bark skin. Oey’s been split open, right down the center, pulled apart and feasted upon. Her ribcage is visible, already cracking. Yuo decomposition: the skeleton rapidly becomes brittle as the meat grows slick and pulls away from the bone. One of the arms has been dislocated. If she used the right pressure, Choakyut could snap it straight off.

“The child,” O’ey yells from across the burning tent, but . . . O’ey’s her home. O’ey has no weapon. O’ey needs her help--

“The child, Choa! Save him, or die as you lived, in shit!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Choakyut says, thinking, I can save you, too. I’ll save you both.

But by the time Choakyut reached her, just outside the tent--

“I was wrong,” Choakyut says, and screams her worthless, crushing grief into the sky.

Something in the sky screams back.

 #

It attacks Zetzi first.

Swooping down from the clouds, tail feathers ablaze, it tries to bite her in half. Zetzi throws herself out of the way, unsheathing and twirling a blade as she stands.

Fyoo immediately throws her boomerang-spear, but Choakyut doesn’t join her, not right away.

Zetzi walks towards the beast, slow and deliberate, fully pivoting her hips with each step. Her knees are bent. Her shoulders lift and fall, not the careless motion of Val’s shoulders but quick, intentional bumps: one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four.

Choakyut, she recognizes it.

“It’s about a warrior,” Zetzi tells them, hesitating. “Strong as ten women, but, but arrogant--"

“Got it,” Val says. “Pride before the fall.”

The storm-wraith swipes again, but Zetzi’s ready for it, arches backwards so that its claws pass just over her face. As she dances away, her steps change, intentionally offbeat with how she swings her sword. One hand clutches her stump; another reaches toward the sky, fingers spread. A desperate prayer? Help me, God. Save me.

There are nuances she doesn’t understand, steps that echo heroes she’ll never know, but . . . Choakyut can see it; she can see the narrative taking shape.

Zetzi summersaults in the air, drawing a second sword when she lands, and then a third with slow, furious precision. From the creature’s perspective, it must seem as though Zetzi pulled it from her very heart.

“YEEAH, BITCH! That’s called slow your roll, God; I GOT THIS!”

And Val leaps into the fray.

Their movements are wholly different from Zetzi’s: sometimes dodging while low to the ground, hips spread, all gyration; other times up in the air, darting hops and fluttering legs. They swing their blade at the creature’s wing and quickly skitter away on tip-toes. But when Zetzi grabs Val’s hand, when they leap away together from the beast’s claws, that’s the moment the story shifts into something new.

I was wrong, Choakyut thinks, but this time the thought is liberating. This time, she was wrong in the best way.

She draws her axe and charges.

Fyoo, on the opposite side of the creature, throws her boomerang-spear again. It scrapes the monster’s head, ripping its cheek and leaving bloody muscle flapping against its face. The monster screams, long and hideous.

Then it strikes out with its tail, knocking Fyoo several feet away.

“Fyoo!” Val yells, rushing to her side. Fyoo coughs, weakly patting at her burning clothes.

The monster turns, but Zetzi’s already there, sliding under the creature and slicing into its belly as she goes. But she’s too close to dodge its claws, and purple bursts from her thigh as she staggers.

Val jumps up but immediately swoons, still weak from her shoulder injury. Fyoo continues to writhe on the ground, and Choakyut stops running. She won’t make it in time.

The beast lashes out, and Choakyut hurls her lightning-axe.

It lodges into the creature’s neck.

The beast collapses.

Choakyut breathes a sigh of relief and jogs forward. “All okay?” she asks, as she reaches the dead creature--

--the tail flicks again.

Choakyut flies backwards.

Something cracks when she lands. Her ribs, maybe, or the ribs underneath her--she’s landed on O’ey’s brittle corpse. Her shirt is on fire, her arm, her shoulder. She rolls the flames out. It’s so hard to breathe.

“Choakyut!”

She looks up. The creature, axe still lodged in its neck, is charging her, and it’s too close, far too close, and the others are too far away. She’s alone. She has no weapon.

She’s staring at the thing that will kill her.

For fuck’s sake, shitstring. Did you pay attention to the story or not?

“Yes, ma’am,” Choakyut says, and rolls backwards, reaching for O’ey’s arm.

Slow your roll, God. I got this.

She yanks the limb straight off the shoulder. Breaks the humerus over her knee. Rips the long shard of bone away from the slippery, rotting meat.

The creature dives forward, mouth opening--

Choakyut stabs right through its eye.

The sun is much higher in the sky now.

Choakyut’s still holding the bone in her hand. It’s wet with so much blood and eye juice. It’s all she has left of O’ey. She has to make it mean something.

Shuddering, Choakyut wipes the bone clean. Mostly, anyway. She needs some of the blood, but it can’t just be about the monster anymore. It has to be about so much more than that. She has to pick the right tools.

Behind her, Val takes a breath.

Choakyut turns. Fyoo’s yanking feathers out of her scalp, three long pink ones with blood-tipped quills.

“You can use these,” Fyoo asks. “Right?”

Choakyut, breathless, claps.

She takes one of the quills and holds it to the bone, as Zetzi muses, “I could melt down my second-best sword,” and Val says, “Yeah, I guess you can have some of this gorgeous fro, but only if you get some Neruda in there, deal?” And Fyoo, Fyoo pulls out her fortune again and says, crying, “Oh. Oh, I see.”

Choakyut breathes in and begins to write.

This story originally appeared in Sword and Sonnet.