Welcome to Day 2 of the Stories from Guan-Yu event! Today’s excerpt focuses on Iliana, and pairs her story with “Transcendence,” a track from Audiomachine’s album Epica. Audiomachine’s first entry in their “Artist Series,” Epica showcases the expansive talent of prolific composer Paul Dinletir, featuring music heard on a variety of movie trailers including The Artist, The Iron Lady, The Grey, Prometheus and Life of Pi.
For a character whose violence and mercy would both echo for centuries after her death, “Transcendence” was a fitting track: peaceful but stirring, at once meditative and epic. Kind, young—the baby sister of the family—and also incredibly lethal, Iliana was one of the first voices to come to life in the world of Crucible, and I am glad to share a piece of her story with you today.
The group moved quietly, for all their armor, and they held weapons out in front of themselves, dark and ugly-looking, their fingers curled around triggers. They moved with precision, they moved behind statues and plinths to take cover as they made their way across the receiving chamber. These were trained soldiers.
But they were afraid. Iliana could not have said how she knew it, only that she did—she could fairly smell it off them, and it set her heart to pounding, and gave her only one thought:
This is prey.
Easy, pathetically easy, to step behind one of the men and twist his neck sharply, lowering him to the floor and launching upwards again in one clean movement, the point of her blade burying itself deep into his partner’s neck. The second man fell without a cry, and Iliana was already spinning, the bloodied knife biting into the flesh of a third, one leg planted on the floor and the other lashing out for the fourth; for him, she threw the knife.
They had cried out, and she had expected it. Two was fair to get silently, four was an honorable number to take down on one’s own. There were six left, six of them and she had no partner. A challenge, and one she would not have chosen.
But she hadn’t chosen—and she could not seem to stop. These were enemies, they were, she knew it, and they were scared, and she was faster than they were—
The thought was gone, and she was launching herself at the fifth of the men. He had hesitated when he saw her. Iliana thought she saw horror in his face, but that mattered less, for this one moment, than the fact that he had brought his weapon up and not fired. It was twisted away from him, her left hand slamming into his exposed nose, and Iliana realized that she had never heard that sound before, the sound of bone splintering as the shards sank into his brain. The life was draining from his eyes as she turned, swinging his weapon like a mace, and it knocked the sixth man off balance, enough for her to grab his knife and jam it, awkwardly, into that same area of exposed flesh below his chin, even as she staggered and cast away the strange weapon.
There were still four, and they would not be hesitating for long. On instinct, Iliana dragged one of the bodies in front of her as the marble around her exploded in a shower of stone chips and sound. One of the men must have found the trigger.
A line of pain streaked across her thigh, and Iliana did not bother to look. Skin, perhaps a little deeper; she could cope with that. She pushed the body up and forward, watching with amusement as the seventh man stumbled back. Superstition; humans did not like dead bodies. It was the man’s undoing, and the new knife—a knife she wanted for herself, a weapon she admired—was gone, her enemy’s blood spilling from his throat just as a blow caught Iliana from behind.
Seven before a hit. If this were the trials, Iliana would be congratulated. Only weeks ago, she had been lauded for less: You got through six of them before you went down!Layla and Shilad clapping and Yehoram’s hand squeezing her shoulder, Elyakim’s solemn nod of approval. Even Fateen had almost smiled.
Now, for the first time, Iliana was profoundly scared. She was turning as the second blow came, sending her sprawling onto the floor.
That blow was stronger than any she had taken before. Her eyes caught the glint of metal on the man’s hand, the structure built around his arm. She dragged herself up, shaking from the adrenaline, and looked around at the last three men.
They had surrounded her, finally, their weapons up. As Iliana pushed herself to her feet, she could see shock in their eyes; she never should have gotten up after that blow. None of them would have. But it was not enough to keep their fingers from the trigger. Game over. Unless…
A figure in the darkness. The faintest sound, breath and padded footsteps. Hope swelled.
“Why are you here?” Iliana asked them. “Who are you?” She frightened them, she knew she did—the very sight of her was terrifying to them. When she looked them in the eyes, they flinched. If she could make enough of that fact, there would be time.
Something whispered softly in her mind: was this the sort of soldier the Great Evil sent? Was this the great trial the Aireni had told them of, these scared men? Could that possibly be the truth?
There was no time to think. A figure hurtled out of the blackness, crashing into one of the three; Iliana heard bones break as Yehoram’s hands found the man’s head and turned. Her own hand lashed out, dragging one man forward by his weapon as she slid out of the way, her knee slamming into his sternum, her elbow crushing his throat.
The weapon was hers, and she turned, of a single mind with Yehoram, towards the tenth man. He died in a spray of gunshots, and Iliana was already turning back to her brother, his features picked out in the fall of moonlight.
“How did you find me?” He was hardly listening. He had come to her side the moment the last man lay still.
“Oh, gods, you’re alive. Thank the gods.” He was urgent, his hands touching her face, her shoulders, squeezing her hands. “You’re alive. I made it in time.” It was when his relief faded, his face stricken, that Iliana knew to ask. She felt a curl of dread in her stomach.
“Who?” She forced the words out. Her hands slid back to the weapon. It was comfort, of a sort. “Who did they kill?”
“They took down David.” Yehoram’s eyes were closed. “Ten, like this. He got six and I took the rest, but it was too late. Then I heard your fight.”
Iliana’s heart squeezed. “David?” she echoed. In her relief to be alive, she realized, it had begun to feel like a game once more. They were a team, they had won. It had never occurred to her that others were playing, too. In the fight, there was only you, only your opponents.
And David, David… Born so close they might have been twins, always her match in classes, always the one who found her at banquets and shared her sense of the ridiculous. It was David she sought out when she had nightmares, and she was the one David had sought out when he did not want to do his duty to produce an heir. They would stay up far into the night, laughing quietly from the shadows of the gardens as they watched the Aireni search for them.
“David is dead?” Iliana heard herself say. Her hands were still clenched around the weapon, she could not make them work. David could not possibly be dead. Not a man like that. He had been the best of them in the arena—everyone had gathered to watch him go through. He was so clever, always the best in strategy, and the best in a fight. And it was more than that: he was such a joy to watch in motion, he always had been. There had been a beauty to his strikes, pure and deadly.
Had been. How could he be dead? David could not be dead.
“There were too many of them. I’m sorry, Iliana.” Yehoram’s voice seemed to be coming from very far away, as Iliana turned and unleashed a hail of bullets into the body of the last man. She flung the weapon away from herself with a cry, pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes.
I hope you enjoyed this peek into the world of Crucible, and enjoyed Audiomachine’s beautiful track! To enter for a chance to win a signed copy of the album, as well as a signed copy of Crucible, leave a comment below!