Chapter no 37 – South

Red Rising

“Shit on a pike!” I yelp as Mustang puts salve on my back in the warroom. She flicks my back with a finger. “Why?” I moan.

“The measure of a man is what he does when he has power.” She laughs. “You mock him for Cicero and then spit out Plato.”

“Plato is older. He trumps Cicero. Ow!”

“And what was that about blood brothers? That means absolutely nothing. You might as well have said you were pinecone cousins.”

“Nothing binds like pain shared.”

“Well, here’s some more of that.” She pulls a bit of leather out of a wound. I yelp.

“Pain shared …” I shudder. “Not inflicted. Psychotic … ow!

“You sound like a girl. Thought martyrs were tough. Then again, you could be barking mad. Fever when you were stabbed, probably. You traumatized Pax, by the way. He’s crying. Good work.”

I actually hear Pax’s sniffles from the armory. “But it did work, eh?”

“Sure, Messiah. You made yourself a cult,” she mocks dryly. “They’re building idols to you in the square. Kneeling in supplication of your wisdom. O mighty lord. I will laugh when they find out they don’t like you and can have you flogged anytime they do a naughty. Now hold still, you Pixie. And stop talking. You annoy me.”

“You know, when we graduate, maybe you should look into being a Pink. Your touch is so tender.”

She smirks. “Send me to a Rose Garden? Hah! Now, that would tickle my father pink. Oh, stop squealing. The pun wasn’t that bad.”

The next day, I organize my army. I give Mustang the duty of choosing six squads of three scouts each. I have fifty-six soldiers; more than half are slaves. I make her put a Ceres in each group, the most ambitious. They get six of the eight commUnits I found in Ceres’s warroom. The things are primitive, crackling earpieces, but they give my army something I’ve never had—an evolution beyond smoke signals.

“So I’m assuming you have a plan besides just going south like some Mongol horde …,” Mustang says.

“Of course. We’re going to find the House Apollo.” True to my promise to Fitchner.

The scouts strike out that night from House Ceres, fanning out to the south in six directions. My army follows at dawn, just before the winter sun rises. I will not squander this opportunity. Winter has forced the Houses into fortresses. Deep snows and hidden ravines make heavy cavalry sluggish, less useful. The game has slowed, but I won’t. Mars and Jupiter can battle it out for all I care. I’ll come back for both later.

At nightfall on the second day of our move south, we see the fortress of Juno, already conquered by Jupiter. It lies to the west on a tributary of the Argos. Mountains frame it. Beyond that are the wintry six-kilometer-high walls of the Valles Marineris. My scouts bring me news of three enemy scouts, cavalry, in the fringes of the woods to the east. They think it is Pluto, the Jackal’s men. The horses are black, and the hair of the riders is dyed the same. They wear bones in their hair. I hear that they rattle like bamboo wind chimes as they ride.

Whoever the riders are, they never come close. Never fall into my traps. A girl is said to lead them. She rides a silver horse draped with a leather mantle sewn with unbleached bones—apparently the medBots are not so good in the South. Lilath, I think. She and her scouts disappear south as a larger warband appears from the southeast and skirts along the Greatwoods.

These are now real armies of heavy horse.

A single rider comes forward from the larger warband. He carries the archer pennant of Apollo. His hair is long and unbraided, his face hard

from the winter winds that roll in from the southern sea. A cut on his forehead nearly claimed both his eyes, eyes that stare now at me like two burning coals set in a face of hammered bronze.

I walk forward to meet him after telling my army to look as weathered and pathetic as humanly possible. Pax manages poorly. Mustang makes him go to his knees so he looks relatively normal. She stands on his shoulders for comic relief, and starts a snowball fight as the emissary comes near. It’s a rowdy, foolish affair, and it makes my army look wonderfully vulnerable.

I fake a limp. Toss away my wolfcloak. Fake a shiver. Make sure my pathetic durosteel sword looks more a cane than a weapon. Bend my long body as he approaches and I spare a look back at my playing army. My look of embarrassment is almost split in half with a laugh. I swallow it down.

His voice is like steel dragged over rough stone. No humor to him, no recognition that we’re all teenagers playing a game and that the real world still flows on outside this valley. In the South, things have happened to make them forget. So when I offer him a self-effacing smile, he does not return it. He is a man. Not a boy. I think it is the first time I’ve seen someone fully transformed.

“And you are but a ragged remnant from the North,” the Apollo Primus, Novas, scoffs. He tries guessing the House we hail from. I’ve made sure the Ceres standard is the one he sees. His eyes flicker. He wants it for his own glory. He also happily notices that more than half my army of fifty-six is enslaved. “You will not last long in the South. Perhaps you would like shelter from the cold? Warm food and bed? The South is harsh.”

“I can’t wager it will be worse than the North, man,” I say. “They have razors and pulseArmor there. Proctors turned their favor from us.”

“They are not there to favor you, weakling,” he says. “They help those who help themselves.”

“We helped ourselves as best we could,” I say meekly.

He spits on the ground. “Little child. Do not whine here. The South does not listen to tears.”

“But … but the South cannot be worse than the North.” I shudder and tell him of the Reaper from the highlands. A monster. A brute. A killer. Evil, evil things.

He nods when I speak of the Reaper. So he has heard of me.

“The Reaper of yours is dead. A shame. I would have liked to test myself against him.”

“He was a demon!” I protest.

“We have our own demons here. A one-eyed monster in the woods and a worse monster in the mountains to the west. The Jackal,” he confides as he continues with his pitch. I would be allowed to join Apollo as a mercenary, not a slave, never a slave. He would help me defeat the Jackal, then retake the North. We would be allies. He thinks me weak and stupid.

I look at my ring. The Proctor of Apollo will know what I say here. I want him to know I am going to ruin his House. If he wants to try to stop me, this is his invitation.

“No,” I say to Novas. “My family would shame me. I would be nothing to them if I joined you. No. I’m sorry.” I smile inside. “We have enough food to march through your lands. If you let us, we will brook no—”

He slaps me across the face.

“You are a Pixie,” he says. “Stiffen your quivering lip. You embarrass your Color.” He leans toward me over his saddle pommel. “You are caught between giants, and you will be crushed. But make a man of yourself before we come for you. I do not fight children.”

It is then that Mustang throws a snowball at his head; naturally, her aim is true and her laugh is loud.

Novas does not react. All that moves is his horse beneath him as it wheels to take him back to his roving warband. I watch the man go, and feel disquiet seep into me.

“Ride on home, little archer!” Tactus calls out. “Ride home to your mommy!”

Novas rejoins his thirty heavy horse. Our only cavalry is our scouts. They cannot stand against ionBlades and ionLances at full tilt, even with the deep snowbanks to muddle the heavier horses. Our weapons are still durosteel. Armor no better than duroplate or wolfskin. I don’t even wear armor. I don’t plan on fighting a battle where I need to for a while. We’ve not had a bounty after capturing Ceres’s fortress and their standard. The Proctors have forsaken me, but the weather has not. Normally, infantry falls like dry wheat to cavalry, but the snow and its treacherous depths protect us.

We camp on the western bank of the river that night, nearer the mountains, away from the open plains in front of the dark Greatwoods. Apollo’s heavy cavalry now has to cross the frozen river in the darkness if they want to raid our camp as we sleep. I knew they’d try when they thought us weak, ripe for the taking. They fail miserably. Arrogants. As dusk settled, I had Pax and his strongmen take axes out to soften the thick ice of the river bordering our camp. We hear horse screams and plunging bodies in the night. MedBots whine down to save lives. Those boys and girls are out of the game.

We continue south, aiming for where my scouts guess Apollo’s castle lies. At night we eat well. Soups are made from the meat and bones of animals my scouts bring back. Bread is kept stored in makeshift packs. It is the food that keeps my army content. As the great Corsican once said, “An army marches on its stomach.” Then again, he didn’t fare so well in the winter.

Mustang walks beside me as I lead the column. Though she’s swaddled with wolfcloaks as thick as my own, she hardly comes up to my shoulder. And when we walk through deep snow, it’s almost a laugh to see her try to keep apace with me. But if I slow, I earn a scowl. Her braid bounces as she keeps up. When we reach easier ground, she glances over at me. Her pert nose is red as a cherry in the cold, but her eyes look like hot honey.

“You haven’t been sleeping well,” she says. “When do I ever?”

“When you slept next to me. You cried out the first week in the woods.

After that, you slept like a little baby.” “Is this you inviting me back?” I ask.

“I never told you to leave.” She waits. “So why did you?” “You distract me,” I say.

She laughs lightly before drifting back to walk beside Pax. I’m left confused both by my response and by her words. I never thought she’d care one way or the other if I left. A stupid smile spreads on my face. Tactus catches it.

“Smitten as a lovebird,” he hums.

I hurl a handful of snow at his head. “Not a word more.”

“But I need another word, a serious word.” He steps closer, takes a deep breath. “Does the pain in your back give you a hard-on like it gives

me?” He laughs.

“Are you ever serious?”

His sharp eyes sparkle. “Oh, you don’t want me serious.” “How about obedient?”

He claps his hands together. “Well, you know I’m not prime fond of the idea of a leash.”

“Do you see a leash?” I ask, pointing to his forehead, where his slave mark could be.

“And since you know I don’t need a leash, it may do to tell me where we are bound. I would be more … effective that way.”

He’s not challenging me, because he speaks quietly. After the whipping we both received, he’s taken to me in a frighteningly loyal way. Despite all the smiles and sneers and laughs, I have his obedience. And his question is sincere.

“We’re going to ruin Apollo,” I tell him.

“But why Apollo?” he asks. “Are we merely checking off the Houses at random, or should I know something?”

The tone in his voice makes me cock my head. He’s always reminded me of some kind of giant cat. Maybe it’s the frighteningly casual way in which he lopes along. Like he’d kill something without even tensing his muscles. Or maybe it’s because I can imagine him coiling up on a couch and licking himself clean.

“I’ve seen things in the snow, Reaper,” he says quietly. “Impressions in the snow, to be specific. And these impressions are not made by feet.”

“Paws? Hooves?”

“No, dear leader.” He steps closer. “Linear impressions.” I get his meaning. “GravBoots flying very low. Do tell me, why are the Proctors following us? And why are they wearing ghostCloaks?”

All his whispers mean nothing because of our rings. Yet he doesn’t know that.

“Because they are afraid of us,” I tell him.

“Afraid of you, you mean.” He watches me. “What do you know that I don’t? What do you tell Mustang that you don’t tell us?”

“You want to know, Tactus?” I’ve not forgotten his crimes, but I take his shoulder and bring him close like he’s a brother. I know the power touch can have. “Then knock House Apollo off the gory-damned map and I will tell you.”

His lips curl into a feral smile. “A pleasure, good Reaper.”

We stay away from the open plains and cling to the river as we move farther south, listening to our scouts relay news of enemy holdings over the comms. Apollo seems to control everything. All we see of the Jackal are his small bands of scouts. There’s something strange about his soldiers, something that chills the heart. For the thousandth time, I think of my enemy. What makes the faceless boy so frightening? Is he tall? Lean? Thick? Fast? Ugly? And what gives him his reputation, his name? No one seems to know.

The Pluto scouts never come near despite the temptation we offer them. I have Pax carry the banner of Ceres high, so that every Apollo cavalryman in the surrounding miles can see it glimmer. Each realizes the chance for glory. Parties of cavalry dash into us. Scouts think they can pry our pride away and gain themselves status in their House. They come stupidly in threes, in fours, and we ruin them with the Ceres archers or Minerva’s spearmen or with buried pikes in the snow. Little by little, we gnaw at them as the wolf gnaws at the elk. Always we let them escape, though. I want them angry as hell when I arrive on their doorstep. Slaves like them would slow us down.

That night, Pax and Mustang sit with me by a small fire and tell me of their lives outside the school. Pax is a riot when you get him going—a surprisingly energetic talker with a penchant for complimenting everything in his stories, including the villains, so half the time you don’t know who is good and who is bad. He tells us of a time he broke his father’s scepter in half, and another time he was mistaken for an Obsidian and nearly shipped off to the Agoge, where they train in space combat.

“I notion you could say I always dreamt of being an Obsidian,” he rumbles.

When he was a boy, he would sneak from his family’s summer manor in New Zealand, Earth, and join the Obsidians as they performed the Nagoge, the nightly necessity of their training, in which they looted and stole in order to supplement the paltry diet they were given at the Agoge. He would scrap and fight with them for morsels of food. He says he would always win, that is until he met Helga. Mustang and I lock eyes

and try not to bust out with laughs as he waxes grandiloquent on Helga’s ample proportions, her thick fists, her ample thighs.

“Theirs was a large love,” I tell Mustang. “A love to shake the earth,” she replies.

I’m woken the next morning by Tactus. His eyes are cold as the dawn’s freeze.

“Our horses have decided to run away. All of them.” He guides us to the Ceres boys and girls who were watching the horses. “None of them saw a thing. One minute the horses were there; the next they were gone.”

“Poor horses must be confused,” Pax says sorrowfully. “It was stormy last night. Perhaps they ran for safety to the woods.”

Mustang holds up the ropes that held the horses during the night.

Pulled in half.

“Stronger than they looked,” she says dubiously. “Tactus?” I nod my head to the scene.

He looks over at Pax and Mustang before answering. “There are foot tracks …”


“Why waste my breath?” He shrugs. “You know what I’m going to say.”

Proctors pulled the ropes apart.

I do not tell my army what happened, but rumor spreads quickly when people huddle together for warmth. Mustang does not ask questions even though she knows I’m not telling her something. After all, I did not simply find the medicine I gave her in the Northwoods.

I try to look at this newest kink as a test. When the rebellion begins, things like this will happen. How do I react? Breathe the anger out. Breathe it out and move. Easier said than done for me.

We move to the woods to the east. Without horses, we’ve no more play to make in the plains near the river. My scouts tell me the castle of Apollo is near. How will I take it without horses? Without any element of speed?

As night falls, another kink reveals itself. The soup pots we brought from Ceres to cook over our fires are cracked through. All of them. And the bread which we kept so securely wrapped in paper in our packs is full of weevils. They crunch like juicy seeds as I eat a supper of bread.

To the Drafters it will look an unfortunate turn of events. But I know it is something more.

The Proctors warn me to turn back.

“Why did Cassius betray you?” Mustang asks me that night as we sleep in a hollow beneath a snowdrift. Our Diana sentries watch the camp’s perimeter from the trees. “Don’t lie to me.”

“I betrayed him, actually,” I say. “I … it was his brother that I had to kill in the Passage.”

Her eyes widen. And after a moment she nods. “I had a brother die. It’s not … it wasn’t the same thing. But … a death like that, it changes things.”

“Did it change you?”

“No,” she says, as though she just realized it. “But it changed my family. Made them into people I don’t recognize sometimes. That’s life, I suppose.” She pulls back suddenly. “Why did you tell Cassius that you killed his brother? Are you that mad, Reaper?”

“I didn’t tell him slag. The Proctors did through the Jackal. Gave him a holocube.”

“I see.” Her eyes go cold. “So they are cheating for the ArchGovernor’s son.”

I leave her and the warmth of the fire to piss in the woods. The air is cold and crisp. Owls hoot in the branches, making me feel watched in the night.

“Darrow?” Mustang says from the darkness. I wheel about.

“Mustang, did you follow me?” Darrow. Not Reaper. Something is amiss. Something in the way she says my name, that she says my name at all. It is like seeing a cat bark. But I can’t see her in the darkness.

“I thought I saw something,” she says, still in shadow, voice emanating from the deeper woods. “It’s just over here. It’ll blow your mind.”

I follow the sound of her voice. “Mustang. Don’t leave the camp.


“We’ve already left it, darling.”

Around me, the trees stretch ominously upward. Their branches reach for me. The woods are silent. Dark. This is a trap. It is not Mustang.

The Proctors? The Jackal? Someone watches me.

When something watches you and you don’t know where it is, there is only one sensible thing to do. Change the bloodydamn paradigm, try to even the playing field. Make it have to look for you.

I break into movement. I sprint back toward my army. Then I dash behind a tree, scramble up it and wait, watching. Knives out. Ready to throw. Cloak curled about me.


Then the snapping of twigs. Something moves through the woods.

Something huge. “Pax?” I call down. No response.

Then I feel a strong hand touch my shoulder. The branch I crouch in sinks with the new weight as a man deactivates his ghostCloak and appears from thin air. I’ve seen him before. His curly blond hair is cut tight to his head and frames his dusky, godlike face. His chin is carved from marble, and his eyes twinkle evilly, bright as his armor. Proctor Apollo. The huge thing moves again below us.

“Darrow, Darrow, Darrow,” he clucks over at me in Mustang’s voice. “You were a favorite puppet, but you’re not dancing as you ought. Will you reform and go north?”


“Refuse? No matter.” He shoves me off the branch, hard. I hit another on the way down. Fall into the snow. I smell dander. Fur. And then the beast roars.

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