Cascata rotated the blade as she inspected it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen something so marvelous. The edge was curved and razor-sharp, with a hilt of ivory wrapped in pristine leather. It was lighter than any weapon she’d ever held, as light as the knives they used at meals. The hunter matron could appreciate this object, but not as a weapon. It seemed too fine for the battlefield, too fragile for that purpose.
Curious, she knelt and ran the blade against her leg. The edge made a crisp sound as it shaved the hairs from her skin.
“I’ve never met an enemy half as rude as you.” Nabhi’s voice was filled with agony.
Cascata flinched and stood back up. “Was that rude? Ah’m sorry, lad, I di’n’t mean it that way.”
Her enemy was crouched nearby. His right arm was broken at the elbow and his left leg at the ankle, so he had to divide his weight between his remaining arm and leg. Cascata was confused about this posture; he was harmless now, so she wouldn’t hurt him anymore. He may as well find a more comfortable position.
He didn’t respond for several labored breaths. “You don’t have much tradition when it comes to battle, do you?”
“War?” Cascata asked. “Nah, we don’t do that often, ‘specially not against people.”
“It shows,” Nabhi grunted. “There needs to be etiquette. Protocol. War is a terrible thing, and it benefits everyone to make it less-so.”
“Aye,” Cascata supposed that made sense, but she didn’t understand how her behavior could be violating his rules. She decided to change the subject. “Why’s this curved?”
For a moment, Cascata thought her question made Nabhi even angrier. He sighed. “It cuts better and sticks less. We can strike while remaining mobile.”
“Ahh, okay.” Cascata nodded. Svara had explained that the Breathers would aim for veins, and such delicate targets wouldn’t need much force. Hunters were used to much more brutal methods, and that made their methods more thorough. The Breathers’ insistence on finesse seemed like a weakness, but she supposed it had its advantages. “Makes ya wonder who first thought ta try making it curved, don’t it?”
“Finish me.” Nabhi ignored the question.
“Why?” Cascata furrowed her brow. “I didn’t think ya’d be in that much pain.”
“It’s not that,” Nabhi said, exasperated. “Mercy only shames me. You won. In a fight to the death, the loser must die. There’s no honor in surviving the loss.”
“What’s an honor?” Cascata asked, but quickly changed her mind. “Look, I dunno what ya mean, but you and ya friends’re crazy. Look at ‘em.”
She turned to watch the massacre again. Breather after Breather was falling, yet her kin stood as strong as ever. The attackers were breaking against the hunters like water on rocks. “Svara’s a sweet lass and we ain’t gonna let ya hurt her. Why would ya rather die than accept that?”
“This has nothing to do with the girl!” Nabhi snapped. “I didn’t come for her!”
“Ya didn’t?” Cascata was taken aback. “Why ya’ll here then?”
“Well, the unit was ordered to kill the girl, but I wasn’t going to be the one to do it. I only came for the glory.”
“Wha’s that?” Cascata asked. “Some kinda food?”
Nabhi grunted like he’d been hit. “This is why people call you ‘savages.’”
Cascata shrugged. “Our lives are savage. We like ta learn things, but we gotta focus on survivin’ first. Can honors or glories help us live easier?”
There was a sigh, and Cascata thought she saw him glance towards the monster. “I suppose not. I cannot fault you for savagery. But you need to finish me. I need you to finish me.”
“Why? Ya not int’rested in hurtin’ Svara, right?” Cascata gave him a dismissive wave. “Heal up. Go on home an’ be wit yer family. Stay wit’ us and be part of our family. If we got glories or honors ta share with ya, ya just need ta ask. They can’t be worth dyin’ fer...”
“They are!” Nabhi roared. “You should understand! You do understand, you just don’t realize it.” He shuddered and coughed. “If your life were more important than honor, you would have given us the girl. You may call it something else, but you value honor as much as I do. You must take my life.”
The sounds of battle seemed to dim as she considered. “Explain more. By fightin’ back, we made honors?”
“Honor made you fight.” Nabhi nodded. “Guarang was a vengeful moron, so he didn’t approach peacefully. After those first kills, though, he gave you the opportunity to prevent more death. If you’d surrendered the girl, he’d have killed her and we’d have left in peace. You fought because there was something more important than your lives. That something was honor.”
“Guarang was yer leader?” Cascata asked. “He was wrong ta wanna kill Svara. We woulda been just as wrong to let ‘im.”
“To risk your life fighting against wrong is honorable. I understand why you did it, woman, because I understand honor. You said glory and honor couldn’t be worth dying for, remember? Yet you refused to make the wrong choice, even if it cost you your life. You value honor more than your own life.”
“Alrigh’, I getcha.” Cascata stroked her chin. “Fer that part, at least. Why’s that mean I gotta kill ya, though? What makes killin’ ya right?”
“I attacked you intending to either kill or die. There could be no other outcome.”
“Mebbe, but I never thought nothin’ like that. I was ready for all sorts o’ ends.”
“We are warriors, woman! ‘Kill or die’ is our covenant, it is the etiquette of war. When you meet an enemy, and if they are worthy to be called warrior, you must meet them with those intentions!”
“Ya keep sayin’ tha’, but ‘til ya tell me why, ye’re gonna keep breathin’.”
“I killed my first enemy when I was twelve.”
The two were silent for several seconds as Nabhi contemplated how to continue.
“I wasn’t born a warrior…”
“Nobody is.” Cascata interrupted.
“They were.” Nabhi pointed at the few remaining Breathers. “Where I’m from, the children of warriors are born to become warriors. It’s supposed to be the only way.”
“Regardless; I was born to be nothing. I am the son of no one and therefore was bound to be nobody. I stole and begged and starved, surviving on the kindness and weakness of the real people in my city. Another nobody once tried to take my food, and we fought. I won, and a warrior saw it. He adopted me.”
“That made ya a warrior?”
“That’s right.” Nabhi looked her in the eye. “I was taught to Breathe and march and fight. I was taught to obey, even if I disagreed with the order. I confess, I’m not as obedient as I’m supposed to be, but I never violate my honor. After all, if I’m to reap the rewards of combat, I must obey the rules.”
“Rewards?” Cascata raised an eyebrow.
“Yes. Rewards. People make war, they always have and they always will. Land, population, riches, revenge - there are as many rewards as there are people. It’s as necessary as food or shelter, so we need people in the business of war. Warriors. Warriors will do the work, but they must be paid.”
“In glory, by fighting with honor. The payment is blood. The moment I killed that first boy, I knew: nothing else could compare. You’ve killed, you must know what I mean!” Nabhi’s eyes went wild, and Cascata thought she saw drool on his chin. “I won my own life! I took everything from someone who had nothing, someone who tried to take my nothing! I thought the reward would be more nothing, but it was something greater than I could have imagined!”
Nabhi trembled, and Cascata thought it wasn’t from pain anymore. “It was mine against his, we couldn’t both continue to exist; I emerged the victor! That rush, that sublime moment of supremacy… we march and die and obey, all on the promise we’ll feel it again. That is glory, and that’s the coin our commanders pay us with.”
The words cut more than Nabhi’s scimitar ever had. Cascata fell back a step. She’d felt what he referred to, felt it every time she killed. It was a thrill, but a guilty one, and far too fleeting to seek for its own sake. Besides…
“Tha’s glory?!” She spat. “Yeh make war an’ hunt children an’...” Cascata glanced at the camp. The clan was a family of exiles, a place for people who had no place to go. Every member had either been driven here by war or had been born to such a refugee. “Yeh take lives an’ ruin all th’ connected ones jus’ fer some dumb glory-thrill, and ya dare speak ta me about honors?!”
“War is a complex thing,” Nabhi growled. Cascata suspected he didn’t expect this reaction. “The commanders untangle the complexity. Warriors trust their commanders to justify the war, and in return for that trust, we are allowed our glory. There is honor in that, for if we fall, we become our enemy’s glory. War is terrible, but honor and glory make it less so.”
“Enough.” Resolve tightened her jaw. Death would be too easy for him. “All that be madness. Yeh can’t kill and trust it was right ‘cause yer leaders told ya so. Ye’ve killed and warred for all the wrong reasons, lad. Ya need ta start livin’ with it. Yer warrin’ days are over, but I ain’t killin’ ya. Get out my sight, and start fig’rin’ out how ya gonna make good on all the bad ya done.”
“No!” Nabhi strained to stand on his unbroken leg. “You can’t leave me like this! You’ve won this glory, now take it!”
“No. You take another look’t things.” Cascata turned away. “‘Cause ya saw it wrong th’ first time.”
Nabhi took a deep Breath and roared as he leapt after her. Even with only one leg, his art allowed him to close the distance in an instant. Without time to think, Cascata whirled around and slammed the sword’s pommel into Nabhi’s head.
She grimaced as she felt his skull collapse under the blow. He can’t hurt you without a weapon, and he’s so fragile while he Breaths. Call his bluff! Years of hunting in darkness had honed her reactions, and the mistake was made before sense could prevent it.
The life sparked out of his eyes as he was thrown aside. Cascata sighed and stared at his corpse. Now she was the one who’d done wrong. For several long seconds, she grimaced at him, hating his weakness. Then it occurred to her: was this really so bad?
Fine, broken warrior; former nobody. I’m taking your burden. I hope you’re watching, because I’m going to show you how it’s done.
Turning back to camp, she saw the monster begin to thrash and barrel towards the camp. She gulped; it was so far away, and so much faster than her! How had she strayed so far from the others?
Her dread worsened as two distant figures left the firelight to meet its charge. The hunter matron gritted her teeth and broke into a sprint.