Zhota stood in a shaft of light that cascaded through the forest canopy, embracing the cleansing dawn sun. He rose to the tips of his toes, his arms raised high and his head held down so that his chin touched his chest. He maintained the pose, eyes closed, for more than ten minutes, silently chanting mantras to clear his mind.
His morning meditations were the closest thing to rest that he allowed himself. He had scarcely slept in the past few weeks, traveling by day and keeping watch at night.
Five days had elapsed, and the child was still alive. As the monk had feared, the villages he had visited had been empty. With each passing day, Zhota had made some excuse as to why he had not given the boy to the gods yet. Today, he tried to justify his hesitation by convincing himself that another village lay not far ahead.
"Mishka... that is my name," the child said, interrupting Zhota's peaceful state.
"Zhota," he grunted in reply, and he refocused on his mantras.
After a moment, he heard an alien sound—something oddly sweet that did not belong in the Gorgorra. When he opened his eyes, he saw Mishka playing a few tremulous notes on the flute.
The boy brought the instrument down. "Do you know 'The Trickster of the Moss Barrows'?"
"No," Zhota said in irritation, although in truth he knew it. It was children's music, full of outlandish heroics—exactly the type of song that he himself would have played in his youth.
"That was Mother's favorite song, the one she would play when things were safe." Mishka smiled bittersweetly. "I can teach it to you."
"That is not nec—" Zhota began, but the boy started the music anyway.
Zhota sighed and broke out of his meditative pose.
Let the youth have this if it will make him content. It will all end soon, he told himself.
When he and Mishka set out for the day, Zhota hefted the boy onto his back. Two nights before, the child had stumbled over a fallen tree and nearly broken his arm. Since then the monk had taken to carrying Mishka from time to time to quicken their pace and keep the boy out of trouble.
As Zhota trudged through the dense mountain woods, the child continued his song. Zhota tried ignoring the tune, thinking that the boy would tire of it, but before long the sun was setting and Mishka was still blaring with the instrument.
It wasn't until that night, after Zhota had made a new camp, that the music really hit him. In a distant corner of his mind, he heard the sound of laughter and saw bare-footed children racing through a village of thatch-roofed hovels without a care, innocent and ignorant of the precarious balance between order and chaos in the world. It took him a moment to realize that it was his own childhood.
"When the ill wind blows, the tree that bends will break." The words rang in his head.
"Enough!" Zhota yanked away Mishka's flute and tucked it into his sashes.
"I only wanted you to hear the song," the boy said, furrowing his brows.
"Once would have sufficed, not a thousand times," Zhota growled before reining in his irritation. When he saw Mishka lower his head in guilt, the monk put in, "It is dark, and you draw unwanted attention."
He had meant the words as an excuse, but not half an hour later they proved to be true.
Two sharp whistles pierced the night. Zhota opened his mind to the woods in search of movement, but the gods were as reluctant as ever to guide him. Before long, two men emerged from the forest, clad in a motley array of battle-worn armor.
Zhota knew from the first glance what they were. Brigands... mercenaries... godless men.
They hesitated at the edge of the camp and exchanged looks. One of them, a brute with thick sinewy arms and a glistening scar that stretched from his left ear to his chin, glared at Zhota and then turned to leave. The other stopped him. He had a clean-shaven, handsome face framed by shoulder-length jet-black hair. His emerald eyes glimmered hungrily in the firelight, staring intently at Mishka.
"The night is dark, holy one," the handsome man said, finally breaking his gaze.
"Then let the light of my fire ease you," Zhota replied, finishing the ancient greeting. Even with these men, he couldn't find it in himself to ignore Akyev's command to observe travelers.
"What brings you this deep into the woods?" Zhota asked as the two brigands settled near the fire. He kept his breath measured and his face calm, but behind his still mask he judged both of the newcomers' movements, finding their weaknesses. The travelers were armed: the brute with a monstrous battle axe, and his companion with a bastard sword slung on his back.
"Same as you." The handsome man warmed his hands by the fire. "The monks are spread thin, it seems, and your order has called on those with steel to lend aid."
Lies, Zhota wanted to spit back, but he held his tongue. The thought of the Patriarchs using brigands to uphold their divine will was sacrilege. Godless men only revered one thing in life: gold.
"When did the Patriarchs issue such a decree?"
"Not them directly. It was one of your brothers patrolling these parts. He told of a demon loose in the woods. A devious little whelp that wears the face of a blind child, with skin and hair as white as snow." He was smiling at Mishka as he spoke. "Looks like you've already caught the wretch yourself."
Mishka stirred. "I'm not a demon!"
"Then why are you bound?" The scarred man chuckled.
"The one chasing me is the demon. It killed Mother and the rest of them." Blood began pooling under Mishka's eyes.
"Blood tears..." The handsome man cringed. "If you're not a demon, then you're cursed."
"I can't control it. It's been that way since I was born. Mother said only fools think it's a curse." Mishka outstretched his bound hands and groped for Zhota. "You believe me, don't you?"
"Quiet," Zhota replied as fear and uncertainty ripped through him.
Nothing in the Gorgorra is as it seems.
It was possible, he had to admit, that some foolish member of his order had enlisted the help of mercenaries. And if this monk considered the boy to be a demon... Had Zhota been deceived all this time?
No. He had watched him for days. Mishka was just a child, albeit one cursed by the gods. Surely tales had spread about a hideous boy traveling the forests, and the other monk had taken them as truth.
"Where is this monk? I must speak with him about the child."
"About the demon, you mean?" the handsome man said. "West of here, last we saw. He finds us, not the other way around."
"Give us the creature," the scarred man put in. "The monk promised us the thing's weight in gold if we delivered it. We need that coin. We've been living off roots and carrion for days."
Zhota ignored him. "West, you said. I will seek out this other monk."
"We'll join you," the brute stated. "The monk owes us something for our part."
"Your work is done." Zhota rose and pulled Mishka up.
"Do you have the coin to pay us, then?" the handsome man asked.
"Your reward is the gratitude of the Patriarchs."
The scarred man spat near Zhota's feet.
His comrade sighed. "See, that's where we run into a bit of a problem. Duty and honor are all fine and good for you and your bald brothers, but not so much for the likes of us."
Zhota took a few measured breaths to calm his anger. He had suffered the presence of these men for too long. "That is why your kind lives in filth and ignominy."
The scarred man bristled, but his companion only laughed, making a hoarse sound rife with contempt and condescension. He was still chuckling when he drew the bastard sword from his back.
"Stubborn, aren't you?" he said. "Your beard is much shorter than the other monk we met. Must not have been long ago that you were suckling from the Patriarchs' holy teats at your mountain hovel."
Zhota remained motionless, every muscle in his body coiled. "Long enough ago for me to deal with two godless men."
"Two? Perhaps. But three?" The handsome man whistled.
From the darkness behind Zhota came the shriek of steel-tipped wood soaring through the air. He whirled and swung his bo in a swift arc, snapping the arrow in half scarcely a foot from his chest.
When he turned back to see the camp, the handsome man was charging around the fire at Mishka. Zhota thrust his staff toward the flames. A wave of air surged off of his bo and crashed into the fire pit, hurling smoldering logs at the brigand. Most of the fiery debris ricocheted off his armor, but one ember sliced across his face and sank into his right eye. The man cried in agony as the blaze spread, setting his hair alight.
The brute leapt over the fire pit and lumbered toward Zhota, his battle axe raised overhead. Zhota held his ground as the brigand brought the immense weapon downward. At the last moment, the monk sidestepped the graceless attack, and his foe's axe cleaved into the forest floor. With his staff, Zhota cracked the man's forearms, and they shattered like wine-filled pottery in a gush of blood and splintered bone.
The barely discernible twang of a bowstring sounded behind Zhota. He dove to his side as the arrow sang past his shoulder and pierced the scarred man's chest. A curse echoed from the unseen assailant, followed by the patter of footfalls retreating deeper into the forest, away from the camp.
Zhota surveyed his surroundings. The handsome man was dead now as well, the skin on his neck and face a mass of blood and blisters. Mishka, however, was gone.
"Mishka?" he called. A sliver of fear crept through him.
"Here," the child said as he crawled out from beneath an overturned tree. "They lied. The demon sent—"
"Silence!" Zhota roared.
Thoughts were racing through his head. He could hear Akyev's voice berating him. "It has all been a ruse to put you off your guard. Were you so foolish that you did not see it?"
"Why don't you believe me?" Mishka asked. He reached out and clutched Zhota's hand.
There was something ironic about the child standing in front of him, so innocent, when days ago Zhota had decided to kill him. It was then that the monk became aware of how much Mishka reminded him of himself as a child, full of trust and hope and all those other things that the Unyielding had despised. They were the mires on the path of duty—the childish parts of himself that Zhota thought he had killed in training.
But they had never truly died. They revealed to him a truth that was difficult to believe: that Mishka was only a boy, alone and afraid and blind, searching for a hand to guide him through the shadows of the Gorgorra. There was a reason that the god of fate had led them to meet.
"The truth," Zhota said. "What is this demon? Why is it chasing you?"
The boy chewed his bottom lip, hesitant, but eventually spoke. "Father sent it."
"And what would make a man do that?"
"My father... he's not just a man," Mishka said timidly.
Then he recounted the story of his past.