"What is the meaning of this, Akiva?"
"We didn't come here to pledge our allegiance to devils!"
Akiva was surprisingly calm for someone who was surrounded by a cave full of furious seraphim soldiers. Only Liraz knew him well enough to see the calmness was a ruse. He was worried. Their Misbeggoten brethren had not reacted well after seeing their new leader arrive at the Kirin caves accompanied by an army of chimaera soldiers.
Akiva stood his ground against their angry protests. "Our deadliest enemy, for the time being, is the Emperor. Jael is the chimaera's enemy as well. Neither we nor they are strong enough to overpower him alone, but together, we may stand a chance." Akiva took a deep breath, trying to put as much confidence into his voice as he could muster. "That makes us allies."
"Allies?" a soldier spat, as though the very word was a curse. "With monsters?"
"Temporarily, yes." Akiva's voice was firm.
"Ha! Look at them! They want nothing more than to slit our throats!"
"They've been blasting us with their dark magic hands since the moment they arrived!"
"Probably planning to weaken us enough to kill us in our sleep."
"Better we strike before they do," muttered one soldier - Liraz didn't seen who it was. Mutters of agreement echoed from the crowd.
Liraz rose to her feet, a flicker of her old ferocity gleaming in her eyes. "Anyone who touches them, answers to me."
The soldiers, many of whom knew of her reputation, grew uneasy, and the muttering died down.
"You pledged to follow my brother," she continued. "But already, after less than one day under his leadership, you want to betray him? Pathetic." Her fierce gaze swept the room, locking eyes with her comrades one by one, daring them to challenge her. No one did. "Like it or not, no one here can deny that working with these revenants is the only hope we have of defeating the Emperor. Akiva's plan is our only chance of freeing ourselves – and our brothers and sisters and mothers - from the Empire's tyranny. Anyone here who isn't a childish, selfish, coward should be glad to help."
Liraz waited a moment to see if anyone dared to question her, before heading back to her seat against the wall of a cavern to resume polishing her sword. It didn't need cleaning, really, but her hands itched for something to do.
A moment later, she felt her brother sink down beside her. "That was quite a speech. Thank you."
"How long will this last, Akiva? They're practically at each other's throats."
He sighed. "I don't know. I keep wishing Hazael were here."
Liraz felt a lump form in throat. "So do I."
"He'd know what to say." Akiva shook his head. "How do you convince enemies to trust each other? How can you overcome so much hate?"
Before Liraz could formulate a reply, she heard footsteps coming from the direction of the chimaera's cave. She looked up, and saw a blue-haired human girl heading towards them.
"Akiva." Karou said urgently. "We need to talk."
"Fine." Akiva stood up. "But my sister's coming too. If she wants." Akiva locked eyes with Liraz. He offered her his hand, and she accepted. "No more secrets."
They meet in no man's land, a middle sized cavern between the larger ones where the two armies were encamped. Liraz stood uneasily beside Akiva. The chimaera leaders – Karou and Thiago – sat a few paces away.
"That's quite an army, Akiva." Karou sounded impressed. "How many are there?"
"Roughly 300," he replied, not quite meeting her eyes. "But they're growing restless, Karou. This won't last."
"I know. The chimaera are no better." Karou sighed, resting her head on her hands. "This is not a good beginning."
Beginning of what, Liraz wondered. An alliance? A new understanding, a bond between chimaera revenants and Misbeggoten soldiers? Karou and Akiva were delusional if they thought there was any chance of achieving that. It would be a miracle if the two armies could make it through the night without slaughtering each other.
"So what's our plan?" the Wolf asked. Liraz was surprised he didn't know. Wasn't he the one in charge?
"We sent out scouts this morning," Karou explained. "They'll tell us where the bulk of the Dominion are currently located. Once we know that, we should attack."
Karou looked to Akiva, and he nodded his approval. "The sooner our soldiers have someone other than each other to fight, the better."
The discussion that followed centered on tactics – how, where, and when to best hamstring the Empire – as well as more immediate concerns – how to keep the two armies from hamstringing each other in the meantime. Liraz noticed the White Wolf staring at her. She glared at him in response, and he quickly looked elsewhere.
"Karou?" a high-pitched voice echoed down the cavern. "Karou!"
Karou turned. "Zuzana? We're over here, Zuze!"
The tiny human girl found them, and burst into rapid fire Czech, completely unintelligible to everyone but Karou, who looked like she was trying not to smile.
"I've got to go," Karou told them. "There's been a misunderstanding… something about a snake and Mik's backpack. They need a translator."
Karou followed Zuzana back to the main cavern, the tiny girl tugging urgently at her wrist. Akiva stood up, said something about not wanting to leave his troops alone for too long, and headed down the opposite tunnel, back to the seraphim camp.
Liraz started after him, but stopped to look behind her. The Wolf was still there, watching her.
"They're furious, aren't they?" he asked. "The angels had no idea Akiva would be bringing them chimaera allies."
Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Make no mistake. We may fight by your side, Wolf. That does not make us allies."
Liraz remembered far too clearly the last time she'd spoken directly with Thiago.
"Did you come to pay a call on our resurrectionist?" The Wolf had laughed at them. "I'm sorry, but we don't service your kind."
Her blood boiled at the memory. She wanted so badly to antagonize him further, but how would that look to her brethren – picking a fight with the chimaera leader less than an hour after she had forbidden them from doing just that? With a great effort of will, she turned to go.
"Wait!" The Wolf called after her. "Please."
She knew she should keep going. Walk away, before she said or did something she would regret. But his footsteps followed her. She spun around to face him.
"What do you want?" she snarled.
"To offer my apologies."
This caught her by surprise, but she didn't show it. "For?"
"When you brought your comrade to our hideout I was… not sympathetic." He sighed. "I was cruel, in fact. So… I'm sorry. I'm sorry for my actions. And I'm sorry for your loss."
She snorted. "What do you care? You want all of us dead anyway. Men, women, and children."
The Wolf looked pained – had her accusations actually hurt him? He shook his head. "Maybe I used to. But your brother saved my… my friend's life. A Kirin soldier called Ziri. He was captured at the foothills of the Hintermost. Jael would have tortured him to death, if your brother hadn't intervened." He looked so… sincere. It shocked her to see it. "I owe my life to a seraph. I could never wish them dead."
"You have only to begin, Lir." Akiva's words echoed in her head. "Mercy breeds mercy, as slaughter breeds slaughter. We can't expect the world to be a better place than we make it."
But mercy for the White Wolf? This beast was a slaughterer of her people, she reminded herself, a murderer of innocents. He didn't deserve mercy. Some crimes were unpardonable, Liraz thought coldly. Some monsters should never be forgiven… herself included.
"You seemed happy enough to see Hazael dead." Her voice was ice.
"I had to keep up appearances. My soldiers would have been suspicious if I acted otherwise." He dropped his head, looking ashamed of himself. As he should. "Please believe me. I would gladly bring your brother back if I could."
He sounded so genuinely sorry. Yet his tone of sadness, of regret, only infuriated her. How dare Thiago, of all people, pretend to be sorry? He had no business trying to claim that moral high ground.
"Him, and how many others?" she demanded. "How many have you killed, Wolf? Do you even bother to keep count of them?" Liraz held up her tattooed hands. "Your people despise us for these. But you know something? At least we don't hide who we are. At least we don't pretend to regret what we've done."
"I don't regret what I've done." There was a steely edge to his voice now. "I never said that. And I don't try to hide it, either. All I've ever done is try to defend those I love. Which… is something we have in common, I guess. I don't regret my actions. But… I do wish the world had been different. I wish protecting my own people didn't have to involve killing yours."
Liraz felt her anger drain away as quickly as it had come, leaving her empty. A different world… a better world. Who didn't wish for that? For some reason, she found herself thinking of Hazael. How much he had belonged in, deserved to live in, a better world than the one he'd been born into. Imagine what a life he could have had… the person he could have become... She pushed the thoughts away – they were too painful.
"We can't expect the world to be better than we make it." Liraz's said softly, almost as though she were speaking to herself.
The Wolf said nothing in reply. For a long moment they stood, each lost in thought, neither quite ready to return to their respective camps. The silence was broken only by the eerie music of the wind flutes echoing through the cavern. The notes rang lovely yet ghostly, like a distant reminder of the long dead inhabitants of these caverns. Liraz found herself thinking of the last Kirin she had seen – the brave warrior in the Hintermost.
"Did he survive?" Liraz asked, abruptly breaking the silence. "The Kirin. Ziri. I haven't seen any Kirin in these caves." It suddenly seemed very important that she know the answer.
The Wolf's gaze fell to the ground. "He… no. Ziri is gone."
Liraz face fell. "I'm sorry to hear that. I… I hoped he would escape. He fought well, and bravely, against opponents who severely outnumbered him."
"Well, he did escape the Hintermost. Your brother saw to that." The Wolf was smiling slightly. He seemed… what exactly? Amused by the way she'd praised Ziri? Pleased?
"Yes. He did. My brother, Beast's Bane, betrayed his own people to save a chimaera warrior." And it wasn't the first time he'd betrayed his people to save one of theirs, she thought. It began with him loving Madrigal – loving Karou. At first she'd despised him for that treachery. She'd been so repulsed by it. And yet…
"It was a beginning." The Wolf said.
"If we want the world to change, we have to start somewhere. Maybe it begins with choices like that."
Liraz thought of her brothers. Akiva and Hazael had begun to see the chimaera as more than monsters long ago. Maybe it was time she tried to do the same.
"Thiago," she began uncertainly. "I never thought I'd say this. Especially not to you. But… I may have misjudged you."
He gave her a half-smile. "I'm guessing that's the closest you ever come to an apology?"
"Yeah. Pretty much." In spite of herself, Liraz felt herself smiling back.
"Then I'll take it," he replied. "It's a start, right?"
"It's a start," she agreed. "A beginning."
They each headed back to their own camps after that. Liraz sank down near the angel's fire, thinking about everything Thiago had said, as drowsiness slowly washed over her. Suddenly, the memory of one line jolted her wide awake.
"I owe my life to a seraph."
What? Thiago owed a seraph his life? It was a slip of the tongue. It must have been. He'd meant to say his friend's life. No angel had ever saved the Wolf.
And yet… she felt faint tendrils of suspicion tickling the back of her mind. He owed a seraph his life. Was it possible? Her eyes narrowed, as the shadows of a theory began to take shape. Maybe the Wolf really wasn't everything he appeared to be.
Author's Note: Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear what you think. Feedback makes me extremely happy.