Sitting across the fire from her, he couldn’t keep his eyes from her
golden hair. The way the night touched it with smooth, soft fingers.
She was dreaming, he didn’t know of what, but the frown across her brow
was obvious. Perhaps a nightmare. In a place like the swamp, nightmares
were constant, even while one was awake. Not even her Cat’s Eye could
protect her against them.
Gray trees arched up around them. The night was dead silent other than
the snuffling of the horses. He looked down at the knife in his hand. A
longer blade, curved slightly towards the tip. The hilt was old, worn by
countless hands. Generations of assassins, thieves, servants of the
Shade, children of the Dark God.
In some ways, he felt as though he had failed. He had been carrying this blade for years now, since he was practically a child.
And the life of a Viper shouldn’t last this long.
His gaze turned to Burn and Dorian, the Wolfies across the fire. They
were sleeping, but Crash knew better than that. Wolfies could hear
everything, even when asleep. A wry smile curved on his lips as he
watched them. Crash,
they had called him. And the silly nickname had stuck. Something about
his true title, the Viper, made them uneasy. They had always avoided
saying it. But he knew why--because it reminded them of what he was.
watched Burn’s long, pointed ears twitch with each snap of the fire. He
wondered if they dreamed as well. Surely, Wolfies dreamed.
But what of himself? The Viper? No, not tonight.
Crash looked back to the knife. He could remember when he had first placed his hand on it. The way his fingers had trembled.
A name, he had once thought. Here is a name.
* * * * *
Born into the colony, they lived without names, without parents, without family -- without true identity.
without their own individuality, they became -- in all ways --
invisible. All were brothers and sisters. Servants of the Shadow. The
And the highest members of the Hive, those who went into the outside
world, who fought and killed and died by the hand of the Dark God --
only they were given names. Titles earned through combat at fragile
ages, when children shouldn’t have to spill blood.
There was no word for child in their tongue. Only the word for Unnamed -- savant -- the same word for silence and sand and stagnant pools of water.
By the timid age of fourteen, he had waited long enough. He was ready to take a Name.
was early, early morning. The shrine stood in a clearing of tall grass,
covered in dew. He had arrived hours before the Naming would begin;
hours before even the Elders were awake. The grass had a grayish hue, as
did the dawn; the sky was covered in clouds, drifting inland from the
nearby ocean, which he could still hear if he listened carefully. He was
surrounded by trees; long, narrow things with smooth trunks, which
branched into wide canopies behind him. He had grown up with the smell
of salt water; the rush and hiss of the waves.
teacher, Cerastes -- one of the Grandmasters, who had held the dagger
of the Viper long ago -- always trained him next to the sea.
“Look at it,” he had said, only the night before. “At
how it moves, coming and going. At all of the life that spills out of
it. The ocean regurgitates life like a drunken sailor.”
He had looked at the ocean with his teacher, a Grandmaster of the shadowed arts.
“If it weren’t for us,” Cerastes had said, “for
our kind, life would overtake the world. It would cram itself into
every corner. Multiply out of control. Do you understand the danger in
that? Just like the ocean waves, all things have a balance. The wave
rushes in, then rushes out. It cannot just come in and in and in -- then
the whole world would be an ocean.”
The nameless savant had nodded, watching the sea, poised in an alert sitting position.
“It is not beautiful or glorious, what we do,” his Master had continued, “but
it is necessary. We are the outgoing wave. The harvesters. Hands of the
Dark God. Tomorrow, you enter into our tradition. Are you ready to take
He had nodded slowly. In that moment, it had felt as though he had been waiting a lifetime, counting each passing minute. A Name, he had thought. What’s in a name? Will it change me?
they had meditated, looking out across the iron gray sea. He didn’t let
himself consider failure. Those who failed at the Naming became even
less than savants; scorned and shunned, they were often forced to leave
And now it was morning and he was ready.
entered the shrine of the Dark God, a long stone building that had
stood for countless generations. The stones were chipped and crumbling
and would crumple under one’s fingers like dust, but once inside, the
room was well-swept and maintained. The ceremonial offering of a dead
shark had been laid on the altar the night before. This morning, the
corpse had no stench. A sign that the Dark God had accepted.
the wall hung a row of ancient weapons. Swords and daggers and bows.
Each weapon held a Name, and when a warrior displayed the right skills,
he earned the weapon and its title.
hanging from the ancient stone wall, he picked the one he wanted. It
was forbidden to do so -- only the Elders could pick a Name -- but he
did it anyway.
It was a dagger, hanging from the end of the shelf, its handle worn from the countless assassins that had wielded it before him.
He couldn’t touch it, not yet. But it was the same dagger his Master had used, the one he had been trained for. The Viper. He who hides in the grass.
“Aye!” a voice sudden reached him. “I know you’re in there!”
The voice was immediately familiar. He turned, an eyebrow raised. He
walked out of the shrine, blinking in the growing light.
stood ankle deep in the dewy grass, a piece of oatbread in one hand. He
nodded to her, his eyes flickering over the girl’s plain black uniform.
Although most in the colony were Unnamed, he always thought of the girl
as Bug. Both because she was small for her age, and because she often
trapped bugs, putting them in small boxes or jars around her hut.
for the Naming?” she asked, a slow smile spreading across her face. He
was surprised by it. It was not common in the Hive to smile. It was a
rare show of affection, and he felt something swell within him: a
“I am already prepared,” he said, and grinned slightly in return. “Will you be watching me?”
“I will be competing too.”
He stared at her in surprise. But she was too young! Only twelve. Far
too young to fight for a Name. Most of the boys competing would be older
than even him, sixteen or seventeen.
She nodded. “My Master says that I must. He says that he has no other students to compete in his Name.”
watched her with careful eyes. There was uncertainty on her face.
Adults knew how to mask their emotions, but she was still young.
fail at the Naming was to be expelled from the Hive. Everyone knew
that. He wondered why her Master would force her to fight.... Maybe he
wanted to get rid of her. It was not unheard of to get rid of weak
students, one way or another. Bug had always had it rough. She was small
for her age and showed too much kindness towards animals. He couldn’t
count how many times he had caught her leaving food out for woodcats and
“Come on,” he said, and held out his hand. “Let’s look at the weapons. Show me which one your Master used.”
nodded, apparently grateful. As they entered the long, cool stretch of
the shrine, she turned to glance at him, her green eyes still uncertain.
All members of the Hive had the same make and coloring: black hair and
green eyes. It was a trait of their people.
knew I would find you here early,” she said, perhaps shyly, he couldn’t
tell. “I watch you practice sometimes, you know. You are very good.
They say Cerastes sired you himself; that is why he wanted you as his
Savant only shook his head. “That’s rude,” he said. “We’re all brothers and sisters in the Hive.”
She shrugged, still grinning. “Perhaps. But not by blood. The humans say that you can only be related by blood.”
“We are different.”
“You think so?”
rolled his eyes. Of course he was certain. Biologically, the women of
the Hive did not bare more than one offspring. They were only able to
have one child each. The process was not easy.
“Which weapon?” he asked, turning to the wall, hoping to change the subject.
pointed at a short, curved sword. “The Adder,” she said. Then she
wrinkled her nose. “To be honest, I don’t want that one. I want the
whip, the Krait. Or the shortbow, the Asp. I’m much better at them.”
glanced at her, catching her eye. The Krait or the Asp? To be honest,
he couldn’t imagine her with either one. She was too small. Too skinny.
He felt his heart plummet at the thought, though he quickly quelled the
feeling. It was not the assassin’s way to show pity.
And yet, here they were. “Do you want to practice?” he asked slowly.
She blinked. “Practice? With the Named weapons?”
“But... it is forbidden!”
He shook his head. “Only if they catch us! Come on, I’ve been staring at the Viper for fourteen years now. Let’s try them out.”
watched him warily for a moment, her assassin’s mask slipping back in
place, then she grinned again. “Alright,” she said. “But only for a half
hour, and in the forest where they won’t find us!”
He nodded, looking up at the dagger of the Viper. What’s come over me?
he wondered, suddenly uncertain. He wasn’t one to break rules. It was
very, very forbidden to touch the weapons in the shrine... but something
about Bug made things different. Something about her large, wide,
slanting eyes. Their particular shade of green, like moss grown over a
And the fact that he truly did feel sorry for her. He doubted that she would win a Name. She might even be killed.
He grabbed the dagger before he could change his mind.
At first she went to grab the short sword, but then she hesitated. She took the whip instead.
They dashed into the forest, the dawn light ever brightening, leaving the gray meadow behind.
* * * * *
found a place about a half-mile away from the sacred ground. The forest
dipped down into a fern-shrouded stream. Large, mossy elm trees swayed
on each side.
loosened the whip from its coil, dangling it in front of her, not even
stopping to regain her breath. “Prepare yourself,” she said, eyes
leveled the Viper before him. It was long and thick, sharp enough to
peel the bark from a tree. He gripped it backwards from the handle and
went into a crouch, preparing for battle.
was difficult to tell who lunged first, but suddenly they were
fighting. Her whip lashed out, faster than one could see, but he could
hear it snapping through the air. He leapt to one side, the whip
striking the tree behind him, tearing off a strip of bark and moss.
he lunged at her. She tried to engage him in combat, but he quickly
slipping under her defenses, grabbed her under the arms. Within seconds,
he had her up against a tree, the knife against her throat. He was
skilled enough not to cut her.
Her eyes widened. Then she glared. “Again!”
ducked under his arms as soon as he released her, then spun, kicking
him behind the knee. She was fast! Faster than him. She caught his foot,
and he fell to the ground, but was up again within a second. They
circled each other, then she lunged again, the whip flying, catching him
on the cheek. A shallow cut. He could tell that she had avoided his
eyes on purpose.
He touched the blood on his cheek. Grinned slightly.
watched her approach, timing her movements, then ducked under the lash
of her whip and grabbed her by the shoulders. Rammed her up against the
tree again. Pushed the knife to her throat.
She dropped the sword. “I give!”
He released her, barely even panting. It was somewhat disappointing. He had hoped she would be better than this.
“You’ll never win a Name with these skills,” he said.
She avoided his eyes. She knew the truth. “I know,” she said quietly. “What should I do?”
Savant couldn’t answer. He could only look at her, that peculiar feeling swelling in his chest again -- pity.
There was a sudden crackling in the underbrush.
“Hey!” a voice shouted. “What are you doing over there?”
of the savants looked up, their expressions blank and guarded. It had
been a strange voice, unfamiliar. He narrowed his eyes, looking up the
foresty slope at the man who stood there.
was not of the Hive; his coloring made that obvious. Pale, pale hair,
like the white sands of the beach, and a strange glow about him, one
that savant wasn’t sure was there.
“Who are you?” he called.
a visitor, passing through,” the man replied. There was a strange irony
in his voice that Savant didn’t like. He leveled his dagger, glaring up
at the man, suspicious.
“What do you want?”
“Well, nothing... until now,” the man grinned. Then he nodded towards them. “Grab the girl.”
At his cue, five more figures emerged from the bushes. Savant turned,
looking left and right, unable to face them all at once. One of them
lunged for Bug, and he stepped in front of her, wielding his dagger with
expertise. Wham! He jammed it into the man’s chest, letting his attacker’s own momentum carry him onto the blade.
There were too many to fight at once, and Savant had never been in true
battle, only one-on-one sparring. He tried to reach her side, but
another got in his way, and then he was facing two of them with swords.
They were skilled. He slashed at them, but was unable to get close
enough to use the dagger. Their blades kept him at bay.
They had Bug by the mouth. A tall one was dragging her away, easily
overcoming the small girl. Savant noticed their identical pale hair, the
slight glow to their skin. Who were these men?
He was overwhelmed, and they were starting to shift back into the
bushes, taking Bug with them. A peculiar feeling was coiling in his
stomach... his heart was pounding, his pulse throbbing in his neck.
Chills flowed down his arms. Abruptly he stopped, unable to fight any
longer, his body becoming slow and clumsy. He almost dropped his dagger.
What was happening? He could feel a strange energy tingling across his
skin, burning his feet, as though pulled up from the earth. Heat seeped
through him -- no, fire. It scorched his lungs, consuming each breath.
“Orion,” one of the blond-haired men called. “Look! He’s changing!”
Savant looked up the hill at the one who had first appeared, their
leader. He knew what they were now. Their glowing skin. Their melodic
Rage burned inside of him. They were taking Bug, and he couldn’t stop them....
His muscles bulged. He suddenly felt as though maybe... just maybe... he was growing taller....
“Stop him!” one of the Harpies yelled. “Bind him! Don’t let him transform!”
A few of the Harpies turned back, staring at him. He caught a glimpse of Bug’s small body, a bag forced over her head.
And then, suddenly... music.
He didn’t know where it came from, but a song echoed through the
forest, a melody that held more power than voice alone. It took him a
moment to realize that one of the Harpies was singing. The sound
appeared to be coming from the man’s entire body, or more than that,
from the trees, even -- and as Savant watched, he saw the singer begin
to glow. The light grew until it was bright, blinding. He had to look
Pain lashed through him.
Savant fell to the ground, his arms suddenly strapped to his sides. His
body was glowing just like the singer’s, but it was not a gentle
experience. He felt as though his skin was being burned off. The voice
Magic, he thought. His rage boiled, seething and roaring inside of him... but his body remained frozen. Song magic.
He finally gave up struggling, lying in silent pain on the ground.
Harpies strode back towards him. They didn’t seem concerned at all, and
perhaps that was the most infuriating. “Should we kill him?” one said
in a beautiful, sky-filled voice.
“He’s only a child,” another said.
“Yes, but he will grow into adults.”
“We are of the First Race,” their leader spoke up. Savant recognized
the voice. It was the first one he had talked to, who had hailed them in
the forest. “We do not kill children.”
“They have killed ours before.”
“But we are not like them.”
And then, with the dull rustling of foliage, the Harpies turned and walked away.
And he could do nothing but lie in pain... until finally he passed out.
* * * * *
Crash frowned, still staring at the dagger’s blade, remembering Bug’s face as though she stood directly before him.
He had returned to the Naming ground as soon as he had been able to
stand. The competition had been just beginning, and Cerastes had met him
near the forest, his eyes cold and solemn. “Where have you been?” he had asked. “Where is the Viper?”
had replied, and given back the dagger. He could remember changing the
story slightly, telling his Master and the others that the Harpies had
come to steal the Naming weapons, and had taken Bug. The Grandmasters
had been sitting in a circle, meditating, chanting the sacred rites of
the Naming. They had stopped to hear his story.
“We must finish the Naming. It is tradition,” one had said. “We will search for her after.”
After, when it would already be too late.
had competed that day. He was supposed to be silent during combat, as
smooth as running water, but rage had boiled inside of him. One after
one, he had dropped all of the contestants, boys that were years older
than him and far stronger. His rage had burned him alive.
He had taken the Viper. Told himself that a Name would make up for
it... that losing Bug was not his concern. It wasn’t his responsibility,
they had searched. As soon as night had fallen, they had entered the
forest, looking for signs of her. They had followed the Harpies’ trail
through the woods, snapped twigs and threads of clothing, all too
obvious. As though the Harpies were laughing at them.
The trail had ended at a tall cliff, where the forest dropped off into the ocean.
“She is gone,” Cerastes had said. “Just as well. She was weak. That is why they took her.”
Crash knew they had been right; they had only spoken the truth. Their
Hive was not compassionate, would not chase after a small girl to the
ends of the earth. No, they had let Bug be taken, and had lost the whip
as well. He had nothing to feel guilty over. His day, in fact, had gone
just as planned.
But he was the one who had led her into the forest.
Crash finally slipped the dagger back into its sheath, a long, slow
breath escaping his lips. His gaze returned to Sora across the fire, to
her golden hair, so different from Bug. She was small, too, and weak.
And he was leading her into the swamp.
No more, he thought. No more innocents at my expense.
He had won the Name of Viper, had continued killing, had tried to be merciless and unwavering in his duty to the Dark God.