Breath from a Stone
Jaguar kneels over the small sleeping form of her young brother. She strokes one finger gently over his golden brown cheek. His skin is as yet unmarked by the green tattoos her people painted across her own. She is fifteen. He is five.
The difference does not end there.
Jaguar glances out of the hut door into dim pre-dawn duskiness and shadow. Sun has not yet brightened through the thick jungle leaves. Returning to her brother, she speaks into the stone, “Monkey, wake.”
Monkey wakes and sits up, his dark eyes as dark as hers but empty of understanding.
She slides the stone inside the thin sheath of her shield garb near her heart—where she would carry a child if he were younger, smaller—and holds out her hand. “Monkey, come.”
Those five tiny fingers clench hers and he does.
It takes Jaguar the day to find a stone-breather’s trail. He is not alone, this one. Beast tracks dot the damp dust around his prints. His feet are shod, and she sniffs in contemptuousness. Monkey does not react at all. Nightbeasts, slender, dark-footed things with limpid eyes and baying jaws. She will not encounter the stone-breather before the sun dips behind the wide santhan leaves and vanishes for the night.
The tracks are easy enough to follow—for Jaguar. She was a smaller child than Monkey when first her people left her alone beneath those leaves and ordered her to bring home meat. A tiny thing, she was fearful of the dark, for her eyes were black and human, prey not predator.
Yellow eyes startled her out of the night. The jaguar shifted forward from the undergrowth and picked his way on great paws to breathe against her shoulder in a voice she should not have been able to understand. “What is this soul and skin you wear?”
That was when she knew she was Jaguar, when she lifted her small hands to his great shoulders and embraced the beast, breathing back, when she learned how the jaguar hunt.
Now, it is as easy as that breath. She follows the footprints of the nightbeasts, breathes in the jungle wind until her nose is filled with their stench, draws Monkey beside her when they are close.
Night falls swiftly. Moondark comes before her legs have time to cramp. She can smell the beasts, hear their panting in the silence. Even stonebound beasts hunt.
Nightbeasts coalesce like shadows out of the dark, their slender forms barely whispering among the leaves. One whines low in its throat. The rest are deathly silent. What life they have is captured in stones like the one she carries.
Jaguar unfolds from her crouch and whispers, “Monkey, stay.” She casts her aura over him in a golden glow. He stays still, breathless as stone. All she has to do is stay alive.
The beasts step forward. A tale swishes. She counts them. Seven or nine. She has a jaguar soul, not its eyes.
Jaguar raises her spear barely in time for the attack. Three leap at once, teeth bared and hissing in anger. She throws one off and takes a bite in her left arm from another. It’s block, thrust with her spear, duck into a crouch, throw, and block again. In her peripheral vision, she catches sight of the two beasts worrying at her aura, but there is nothing they can do to breach it.
She manages to plunge her spear into one of the nightbeasts, and the others snarl, but back out of range of her backswing.
“Beasts, hold!” a man’s cold tenor breaks the night.
Jaguar holds steady with them as she watches the man step out into the faint glow of her aura. He stares at Monkey, at the golden shield surrounding him.
“Moon,” she says, invoking old stories of the Forces and the Powers.
His head turns with a snap. His hair is white, but he is not old. He is a stone-breather, thin and dressed in the vest and tunic and leggings of his people. His eyes are cold like black stone, his skin pale. He nods at her. “Night. You have speared my beast.” He glances at the blood pooling on the animal at her feet, then at the steady line of the other nightbeasts growling and waiting for him to release them.
Jaguar keeps her spear aimed. “Name them and I’ll not kill them.”
The stone-breather’s gaze returns to Monkey. “Give me his stone.”
She expected as much and wonders if he knows what he should also expect. She lifts her spear and rests the staff against the jungle floor. “If you can speak my name, then I will give you his stone.”
The man raises his hand to his mouth, and she sees the drawstring bag he holds. “Beasts, come.” The nightbeasts return to him and lay at his feet at another soft command. He sets down kindling in a circle of stone and lights it, then sits by the fire. The bag of the nightbeast stones rattles as he sets it down beside him. “If I learn your name, I could breathe your soul into stone,” he warns.
She crouches before the fire on the other side and lays her spear over her bare knees. “You can breathe from the stone?” she asks.
The old man laughs. “Cannot all the breathers?”
Jaguar flashes him a smile, all sharp white teeth, then closes them as if she has bitten flesh. “Not the breather I slew.” Breathers could breathe souls into a stone by definition, but not all could take it out again.
His own smile vanishes at this word. He studies her with obsidian eyes, so much more lifeless than the night eyes of her people. “An aura-caster.” That brief glance toward Monkey. She does not deny it.
“You are unafraid,” the man observes, and with his breath, she tastes power woven through the air to catch at her.
“You are not blind,” she returns.
When the breath reaches him, he frowns. It is just a taste, sweet taste, so incomplete he could never capture her name thereby. “You are fierce.”
“You are not a fool.”
The fire crackles between them. Black obsidian eyes gaze into black night ones. The moon begins to rise and brighten. It is night.
There is a story told among the tattooed men and women that crowd the nighttime fires. Just as there is a story told among the young of the stone breathers, before they separate from their families and wander to their own territories. They are one. They are the same. They are two and nothing alike.
In the words of the children of Night:
Once in the forest nights upon the dark lower mountains, the force of the moon and the power of night came and sat across from each other beside a burning fire.
In the words of the children of Moon:
When the world was young, the powers gathered and spoke to each other often, kindly then, for all the world was kinder then when it was young.
Night was beautiful and raised her dark brows at Moon, for he was also beautiful. “A wager,” she said and shook her dark hair so it swirled.
And the powers took on the forms of men and walked about among us, claiming each people for this one or this other.
Moon laughed and his laughter was brightness, for he was as white and brilliant as Night was black and dark. You know how they tell these stories, my daughter, how those unalike tend to gather.
Now Moon granted gifts to his children, the gifts of breath to harness souls, and Night gave dark power to her daughters, the gifts of souls to steal and cast.
“A wager then,” Moon agreed. “And what shall we wager?”
So Night’s daughters cast their souls over the souls of Moon’s sons and stole the breath of Moon’s daughters, and Moon’s people cried out, so Moon hushed them and comforted them and spoke kindly to them. “I will speak kindness to Night and make peace between our people once more.”
Night smiled darkly and offered, “Our souls.”
So Moon sought out Night within her forests on the dark lower mountains and lit a fire to draw her, for he knew how dearly she loved to wager.
Moon laughed at her again, for he was the trickster, was he not? And he dearly loved to wager.
“Come, sit by my fire. We must wager for the souls of men.”
“And why would I wager that?” Moon asked. “You have the souls of your people, as I have the souls of mine.”
“Perhaps it is not your soul I desire,” said Night, for surely you know how these stories are told, my daughter. She desired his heart.
“And why would I wager that?” asked Night. “I have the souls of my people, and also the souls of your own.”
“The souls of my people are mine,” he said, “so I must claim yours for my own or receive my own again.”
And so they wagered. And who names the life claims the soul.
“Name the souls we have taken,” Night said, dark eyes snapping with the darkness, “and we shall return them again.”
Jaguar knows that stories are made truth each time they are lived.
And so you must never tell a man or a woman your name or the name of your life, for in so doing you have lost your soul.
And so you must whisper your name to the Moon, that he may safeguard your soul from the Night.
“And is your name Huntress?” he asks, almost playfully. Moon, you should know I know your tricks.
She flicks a brow upward and says nothing.
He studies her darkly, and she knows he has known her well and better than even her own to first call her Night. And yet, the name does not match what he has tasted of her.
Silence hovers over the flickering flames, and the man holds out his hands to warm them. “Do you tell stories among your people?” he asks, lips curling into a thin smile.
Jaguar runs a finger down the intricately carved shaft of her spear. She nods, unspeaking, just breathing. She can take nothing from him without a trick, and isn’t Moon the trickster? But he needs her to speak, needs to taste her soul on her breath across the fire, needs to find her name from the flavor. Beneath her skin lies the urge to shed this game, this myth she plays and hunt. She glances at Monkey standing within the glow of her aura.
“Tell me a story I have not heard,” the man asks gently, and his voice has lost the harshness of the moon. She thinks he could be beautiful were he to leave the stones.
Jaguar’s fingers dance along the spear. She leans forward into the fire to let it warm her face, draw out the breath from her that she may more quickly end the wager. “We are a people of the dark lower mountains, and we rest in safety beneath the santhan leaves—so long as the Souls are pleased.”
Obsidian eyes glitter as he listens. He has heard of Forces and Powers if he has ever heard a story told, but Jaguar knows she has sparked his interest, for he has heard not of the lore of souls.
“Once in the forest nights on our mountains, Night rose up and looked over her people, but her raven tresses were not long enough to comfort them, for where she looked a great cat stood and roared with his displeasure.”
His mouth is just slightly open. She lets him taste her, pours what of herself there is beneath this skin into her voice. What is this soul and skin you wear?
“The people hid within their huts in fear. They had no meat, no song, no harvest drawn from their lands around them.”
“And what lands are those?” he murmurs so softly, she may ignore him.
“They were afraid.” And here she cannot hide her fierceness but sniffs in contemptuousness, for she is not afraid. “They were afraid of the Soul who stole a great cat’s skin and of the claws it stretched out toward their young and of its fierceness.”
The man frowns, torn between listening, between tasting, never knowing the story is more answer than her breath.
“They were afraid and so they took the vessel of one of their daughters,”—a skin; perhaps, he will think the child dead—”and gave her up to the great cat upon the mountains to be consumed.”
“Aurelia,” he whispers, naming her. Aurelia. What is this soul and skin you wear?
She stared at him, let her voice stutter into silence, let that softer name wash against her and strum a place of recognition within her soul.
“Aurelia,” he says, voice stronger, now that he knows he has her, black eyes brightening and hard.
She stares at him and prays the powers he does not look at Monkey, the faintest flickering of the light. She draws his gaze as she lays down her spear from off her knees, as she straightens her back and draws Monkey’s stone from inside the shield garb near her heart.
He stands slowly, comes to stand before her, and lowers his head just so as he grasps it with startlingly warm fingers. His other hand holds the rattling bag of nightbeast stones and he opens his mouth to speak.
Her golden aura winks out and wraps around his vessel, holding him stiff and immobile.
His eyes narrow. “You promised me the stone.”
“Not his life.” She holds the aura tenuously, but she only has to stay alive. It will remain as long as she does.
The stone-breather nods, genuine understanding lighting his gaze. If all goes as he expects, she will be unable to protect him when this is concluded. “He is your brother,” the stone-breather says.
“He is a child,” she answers bluntly. A child’s soul taken by a stone-breather. And they call Night’s children the thieves of souls.
“I will bargain with you,” he offers. “Your soul in my stone and I will deliver his from this.”
They both look at the shiny black pebble. She lowers her eyes just briefly, an acceptance, for you know how these stories are told, my daughter. Night dearly loves to wager. “My soul for my brother’s.”
“You have not finished your story,” he comments.
She flicks her eyes downward, acknowledgment. “I will.”
He nods and she releases him, drawing her aura back beneath her skin. She watches as the stone-breather raises Monkey’s stone to his mouth and inhales deeply. He whispers into the stone and Monkey walks woodenly, unseeingly to the man, who exhales into Monkey’s mouth.
Jaguar waits motionless. It seems she can hear every leaf that rustles overhead, the soft rush of wind through undergrowth, the still, shallow breaths of the nightbeasts underlying their acrid scent. The stone-breather smells cold and warm at once, and Monkey—who has had no scent or sound or life since she found him, since she slew the breather who would have enslaved him—Monkey, who is a child… His eyes light up with the dark depths of the night and burn with sudden fear. His limbs spark up suddenly and jerk as he throws his body away from the stone-breather and his sister standing over him. He closes his mouth tightly, an instinct unnatural to any whose breath has not been taken. It saves them both, for though his gaze flies to his sister, he does not say her name. Her real name.
She leans across the gap and breathes the stone-breather’s breath. It is a battle.
At first she tastes the expectation that this is fulfillment of her promise, but then the jaguar within her roars to life, and he realizes his own mistake.
Life. Breather of life she is, as breather of souls he has always been. She will finish the story of the jaguar’s hunt.
Her human soul rushes into his mouth, but she holds on tighter and breathes into herself his life. His hands struggle to claw at her, but her aura holds him back. Only an aura-caster can use her soul when it is not within her, but she has always been that, since before she knew that a jaguar can kill with a single kiss. Since before she hunted as the jaguar hunts.
She pulls her own soul back and throws her aura over his, shoving away with the spear between them, grateful when she gulps in deep, ragged breaths of night air, and the stone-breather stares at her, alive, as he does the same. He will be weak, but he will recover. She has left more than one quarry when her supplies were full.
Jaguar steps away and says softly, “But Night hated the sacrifice. Souls may be bartered but never human flesh. And so, she entered into the daughter and consumed the great cat instead. The souls were satisfied and the roaring silenced.”
“Your name is Aurelia,” the stone-breather whispers. He has more than tasted her human soul; she gave it to him as promised before she took it back.
“I will not leave you dead,” she replies. The price for her betrayal.
Then, she takes Monkey’s small hand in hers and guides him back under the santhan leaves. Monkey looks back over his shoulder, but Jaguar does not. She holds her aura still until they pass from the territory of the stone breathers and into that of the jaguar.0