Kreya always wore her coat with many pockets when she went out to steal bones. As she pulled it on, she inhaled the familiar dusty smell. The leather had faded from brilliant blue to indistinct gray, and the hems were frayed, but then, after all this time, she felt faded and frayed too. She checked the pockets: Empty. Empty. Empty. Bear claw, with knuckle bone. She drew it out and examined it. A fracture ran from the knuckle to the tip of the claw. Worse, the carving for strength was cracked and the inlaid gold had fallen out. “Useless,” she muttered at it. She tucked it back in its pocket anyway. In another pocket, she found a talisman carved from the femur of a mountain sheep, bearing the symbols for steadiness. The grooves were worn but intact. Can’t weather an avalanche with this, she thought, but okay for a climb.
“You’ll do,” she told it. She patted more pockets, stopping when she found a third talisman, marked for stealth, and a fourth for strength. She found a few others, mostly drained or damaged from overuse. She used to have hundreds of them—high-quality ones, not the cheap, ten-minutes-then-done variety—but over the years, her supplies had dwindled. She’d have to replace them soon. But that required gold she didn’t have. A problem for later, she told herself. Right now, she had a task. She’d heard whispers of a death in the village of Eren, a child who had slipped off the edge of a cliff while chasing a stray goat and fallen on her neck. The body would be burned at dusk, which meant Kreya had four hours to cross the mountain, sneak into Eren, and position herself to liberate the beautiful bones before they were destroyed.
She raised her voice. “Weather?” Gears whirred as one of her constructs—a birdlike part-metal-and-part-bone creation—hopped onto a windowsill. As wind whipped inside, it wobbled but didn’t fall. Papers on Kreya’s desk fluttered, and a quill was blown onto the floor. Reaching out a bony appendage, the construct snagged the weather monitor from the hook on the outside of the tower. As it turned to deliver its prize to Kreya, another burst of wind puffed into the room, and the skeletal bird tumbled off the sill. Kreya lunged forward to catch it, felt a muscle in her back twang, and missed. The construct crashed onto the stone, and a bone in its arm snapped. Squatting, Kreya scooped it up and cradled it. “You aren’t as spry as you used to be either, are you?” It whirred as it tried to right itself in her arms, but she cooed to it.
“Calm, little one. Let’s see what we can do to fix you up.” Ignoring the fresh ache in her back, she carried the unnatural bird to her workbench, cleared a space with a sweep of one arm, and laid the construct down. It twisted its skull head to look at her with its empty eye sockets. She’d forgotten how long ago she’d made this one, but it had served her well. It whirred at her, the gears within its rib cage rotating. She’d added them to help its mobility— when she’d first created this construct, it had tried so hard to fly, but without flesh and feathers, it couldn’t. Once she added the gears, though, it could propel itself around the tower as fast as it pleased. Deftly, Kreya wrapped the snapped bone in a strip of bark and secured it with resin, smearing it liberally. The resin would harden after a day or so.
“You be more careful.” It spun its gears as if it were agreeing with her. Kreya was never quite certain how much her constructs understood—not much, her old teachers would have said—but that didn’t stop her from talking to them. She set the skeleton bird back onto the floor, and it hopped over to the fallen quill. It pecked at the feather, while she examined the weather monitor it had retrieved. Moisture, normal. Wind speed, normal. Stability, high. There hadn’t been a tremor on the mountain in weeks, which boded well for her journey. She left the monitor on the workbench, picked up the fallen quill, and sidestepped around the bird construct.
It continued to peck at the carpet where the quill had been, adding yet another hole to the threadbare fabric. As she descended the spiral stairs, she paused on the third level to check on her husband. He lay, as always, carefully wrapped in white linens. “Tomorrow, we’ll watch the sun rise together,” she told him. “You’ll say something that will make me laugh, and I’ll make willow tea that you’ll ruin with too much honey. And then we can do whatever you want. Walk in the woods. Mend that step you’re forever tripping over. We’ll have time.” A construct made from a rag doll and animated with dog bones trotted over to his bed.
It patted the linen sheets, smoothing them with its floppy hands. “Keep an eye on him, please,” Kreya told it. She continued down the stairs, sidestepping another construct. She’d made this one to clean the tower, but it had malfunctioned months—was it years?—ago, and it scrubbed only a single step. Smooth and concave, that one stone gleamed like polished silver. Kreya hadn’t had the heart to remove the bones that animated the dutiful, broken creature, and it could be several more years before the last of its power finally wound down. “Beautiful work,” she told it. It made a noise like a purr. On the ground floor, she lifted the three iron bars that locked the door. She then stepped over the broken step that Jentt liked to complain about.
Calling over her shoulder, she said, “Lock!” It took an extra minute for the bars, powered by bones, to lock back in place. She’d have to examine the mechanism when she had more time. It’s always about time, Kreya thought. How much you use, how much you waste, and how much you waste regretting the time you already wasted. She’d eaten up precious minutes in preparation, but there was still plenty of time left before dusk. She estimated the hike would take her three and a half hours. If she left now, she should arrive exactly on time. The sun was high between the peaks, casting a golden light on the gray rocks. Picking up her walking stick from beside the door to her tower, Kreya started on the path. Made by mountain goats, the path wound its way across the rocky face of the mountain before plunging into the pine forest that clung to the slope.
Birds chirped cheerfully to one another, unconcerned with the lone hiker who was picking her way through their territory. They startled more when a cable car rattled across the open void between two of the nearest peaks. Kreya halted where she was, hidden within the pines, until the contraption was safely out of sight. Of course it wasn’t forbidden to walk at such an altitude, but it was unusual enough to be memorable, and it was safer if Kreya’s passage wasn’t memorable. She knew Jentt would have been surprised at how cautious she’d become, but she’d learned her lesson. A cautious bone worker was one who got to see another day. The last bits of fall were clinging to everything: the aspen leaves were as golden as candle flames, the fallen leaves crunched under her feet, and the berry bushes were heavy with the final fruit of the season. Squirrels and rock mice skittered everywhere, stocking up for winter. Up on the rock faces, wildflowers clung to the crevasses, not yet blanched by frost, and the wild goats nibbled at them, their legs splayed for balance. As she hiked, Kreya tried to enjoy all the beauty around her, but her thoughts kept drifting back to her goal: the village of Eren.
She hadn’t set foot in Eren in five years, and she hoped the villagers had forgotten her, or assumed she’d died in the wilderness. It would be best if she didn’t have to use the stealth talisman until absolutely necessary. She wasn’t certain how much power was left in it. Talismans always burned out far more quickly than her constructs did—the former powered living flesh, while the latter were made from inanimate objects, which made the difference. Exactly three and a half hours later, as the sun danced lower across the cliffs and crags, Kreya halted at the edge of the forest and looked down on her destination. Charmingly picturesque, the village was nestled on a meadowed slope, framed by pine forest. A mix of stone and wood, the buildings were brightly painted reds, blues, and yellows, with brilliant white trim—as if in defiance of the gray stone mountains all around them. Once, when she and Jentt had first talked about being together forever, they’d discussed living in a place like this. Jentt had liked how the neighbors all seemed to look out for one another, making sure even the weakest made it through the winter storms and the avalanches and the earthquakes, and Kreya had liked how even the vivid paint color seemed to be saying fuck you to the gray mountains. Later, though, after the war, Kreya couldn’t bear to live so close to other people.
It reminded her too much of everything she couldn’t have. She lurked within the pine trees now, watching the village for a few moments. All the inhabitants would be gathering by their Cliff of the Dead for the ceremony, but she saw no movement on the streets or between the houses. They must already be there. Am I too late? She didn’t smell or see smoke, and the sun had only just touched the edge of the western mountains. The ridgeline glowed orange. As she skirted around the village, she heard pipes playing: at least six or seven musicians of varying skill playing slow and sweet melodies that wove together in a gentle lament. Her fingers moved in the pattern of the notes. She hadn’t played since childhood, but she remembered the feel of it, or at least her fingers did. Her heart was beating as fast as the heart of a bird, and she tried to let the familiar music soothe her.
So far, no one had seen her, and she’d done nothing to alarm anyone even if they had. A flock of mountain sheep barely budged from their grazing as she passed them. Ahead she heard murmured voices, like a soft breath of wind beneath the music of the pipes. As she rounded the corner of a bright red barn, she saw the Cliff of the Dead before her: an exposed rock face stained by decades of smoke and ash, with the names of the dead carved into the rock. As she’d suspected, all the villagers were gathered at the base of the cliff, pressed tightly together. Kreya identified the relatives of the dead girl by their white scarves—the color of winter, the color of death. Seeing the white, Kreya wanted to flee. I shouldn’t be here. These people had lost a loved one. A child.
And she was about to intrude on their grief. Granted, if the stealth talisman worked as it should, they’d never even know. But that didn’t change the fact that what she was about to do was morally reprehensible. And illegal. Don’t forget that. There was a reason that the dead were always burned: so that no bone worker would ever be able to desecrate their legacy by using their bones for magic, as she planned to do. I can’t do this. Flattening against the barn, Kreya tried to calm her racing heart. She breathed in. Out.
Methodically, she seized each of her thoughts: It’s wrong. Yes, it was. Both by the laws of Vos and by basic decency. It’s unfair. A child died! So much life unlived, dreams unfulfilled! Yes, it was unfair. But so was what had happened to her and Jentt. It’s not what Jentt would want. That stopped her for a moment. “The child’s already dead,” Kreya whispered, as if Jentt could hear her. “I didn’t cause it, and I can’t change it.
” All she could change was whether the child’s end was merely an end, or whether it led to someone else’s beginning. It was an undeniable tragedy. But if she could create good from it, wrestle joy out of sorrow, then that was forgivable, wasn’t it? Or at least understandable? Kreya pulled on her fire-resistant gloves, and then, reaching into two of her pockets, she withdrew the talismans for stealth and strength. She held one in each gloved hand. She felt calmer now. Ready. The pipe music stopped. A murmured voice, loud enough for the mourners to hear, but not loud enough to carry to where she hid, began to speak. She peeked around the corner of the barn. They were unwrapping the linen sheets from the body— it would be burned without the wrappings so all would see that the body was whole and intact.
Until this moment, it would have stayed wrapped tightly and been guarded as if it were a treasure, which meant that this was her only opportunity. Smoke curled through the air. She tasted it as she inhaled, and she swallowed back a cough. Through the gaps between the villagers, she glimpsed the fire, growing at the base of the cliff. She’d have to time it right: strike after the body had begun to burn, when it was dry to the point of being fragile, but before the bones had time to succumb to the heat. She’d use stealth to slip through the crowd and then use strength to remove the limbs. If all went well, the family would never even know what she’d done. They’d see a blur that they’d mistake for smoke, and then it would be over. She’d steal as much as she could, and the flames would devour what remained, eliminating all evidence that she was ever there. Her death will give life, Kreya thought, trying to convince herself.
One pipe began to play again, a mournful melody. She saw the flames leap higher and sparks fly up against the rock face as the body was placed on the pyre. The mourners embraced one another, and Kreya counted silently. One minute, two, three . She kept counting, the pipes kept playing, the mourners cried, and the body burned. Now. Breathing a word onto the stealth talisman, Kreya shot out of her hiding place, no more visible than a shadow. Her coat flapped around her, but she weaved through the crowd, moving with them as they spoke softly, words of sympathy and words of comfort—all words that Kreya had heard before, the kind of words that didn’t help anyone but had to be said because the silence was worse. A few mourners startled, feeling an unexpected breeze as she passed them, but their eyes darted all around, unable to see her. Zera always did make the best talismans, Kreya thought.
She wished she could thank her old friend, but that would have required explaining what she’d been doing with the power. Also, it meant actually speaking with Zera, which she hadn’t done in twenty-five years. At the pyre, Kreya didn’t look at the girl’s face. She tried not to think of the corpse as a person at all. Just a collection of ingredients she needed to obtain. Whispering to the strength talisman to activate it as well, she shoved both into her pockets and then grasped the limbs she needed. The strength of a bear flooded through her, allowing her to yank. Snap! One arm bone broke, and she pulled a knife from one of her pockets— And the magic failed. She felt it sap out of her, the strength and the stealth simultaneously abandoning her. Around her, she heard the cries of the villagers: “Thief!” “Desecrator!” “Bone worker!” “Stop her!” “Grab her!” “Burn her!” She hacked at the shoulder, but without the bear strength, she didn’t have the force to slice through the burnt flesh.
A hand grabbed her arm, and she pulled away, kicking behind her. She felt her foot make impact. She thought she heard Jentt shouting at her, inside her head: “Run, Kreya! Run!” Not without you! she cried back. Abandoning the shoulder, she hacked at the fingers. One snapped off under her blade. She shoved it in a pocket, and then she ran—not into the crowd, but instead around the pyre toward the Cliff of the Dead. As she ran, she yanked out the talisman for steadiness. Please, work! She whispered its word. Kreya didn’t slow as she ran straight toward the rock face. Fueled by the talisman, her feet stuck into the crags and nooks.
She climbed as fast as she could. Glancing down, she saw the villagers below her. It was sacrilege to climb a Cliff of the Dead—none would risk angering their beloved lost ones. But that did not stop them from throwing rocks. The first hit the stone beside her and shattered. She felt her grip slip. Don’t fail me! Continuing to climb, she pushed herself up higher and higher. Her arms began to shake, and her palms were sweating within the gloves. She didn’t know how long the talisman would last. It had been weak to begin with, and she was draining it fast.
Another rock hit. Even closer. She kept climbing. She could see the top— The third rock hit between her shoulder blades. She cried out, but she made herself keep climbing. Another rock hit beside her. One grazed her ankle. Her fingers reached up and touched grass. Clawing at the soil, she kept pushing until she heaved herself over the edge. Panting, she lay there.
Her arm muscles were screaming. Cheek pressed into the dirt and grass, she felt the ground vibrate. Quake? Or people—running up a path, toward the top of the cliff, toward her. She scrambled shakily to her feet. Reaching into her pockets, she felt for another talisman. Strength. Speed. Anything. Her fingers closed over the carved bear knuckle and claw, and she activated it with a whispered word. She felt cool relief flood through her body, and she had the strength to run