io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “With Teeth Unmake the Sun” by A. Merc Rustad. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
With Teeth Unmake the Sun
Once there were nine Suns.
The ninth had no form and no name, and must be forgotten.
Seven remained gods.
The eighth was eaten.
Io Destiny is a rich planet, home to three billion lives, built as a faceted gem to honor the Seven Suns. All the gods are worshiped equally here in peace. Temples caress the lower atmosphere and ships dance in celestial orbit; the Seven Suns are honored in effigy in great statues and holograms that mortals adore. Io Destiny is the only neutral world. While the gods chafe and feud with each other, hovering on the cusp of war, this planet is sacrosanct.
It must never fall, lest the Seven Suns abandon notions of peace and once more bite at each other’s necks, plunging the universe into perpetual war.
First Wolf discovers unbearable want the dawn before he eats the world.
It is like this: His liege calls him from his restless slumber on Tau Usher. The pain in his belly has begun to subside at long last. He opens his eyes under the starlight of his home.
“Wolf, I have need of you. Come.”
First Wolf obeys sleepily. He leaps through atmosphere and void and prowls into the ship, holding back a yawn.
His liege’s ship has no name. It glides through void, so very cold, on course for Io Destiny. It hosts ten million souls and is a forest of metal and light: great curves of alloy and webbed neural interfaces, screens patterning the walls like moss. It is like home, this ship: ancient trees, wild meadows, biting rivers filled with ice. First Wolf approves.
He stalks through the ship to the bridge.
Sire. First Wolf bows with his forelegs when he sees his liege, his lower jaw brushing the floor. What is your desire?
The starborn stands on the bridge of their ship, watching Io Destiny on the viewscreen. Their body is silhouetted against the eerie glow of the minor star the planet orbits.
“I want to unmake the Sun Lords,” says the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf.
In this state—this stillness—their humanoid form is far more alien to him than then when they bared their teeth and shone with brilliance. To a non-wolf eye, the starborn would look unbearably human: willowy, restless, with skin too frail to withstand solar heat. Their head is smooth and their eyes are void.
First Wolf sits beside his liege, head tilted. Why?
“The universe was never meant to bow to gods.”
But why now? First Wolf asks. He has no purpose and he is still tired and lonely. Sleep lets him forget he is packless.
“Now I have the strength I need, and I have you,” the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf says, laying a hand on his nape. Their fingers—limited to five digits—dig through fur and rub the scar-chafed skin just so. First Wolf leans into their touch, into comfort.
The starborn are beings made from light given form. They pieced themselves together when the universe splintered open, unspooling life and energy as vast as time. Most have gone elsewhere, traveling beyond the constraints of physical matter. The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf, fallen among their kin, was stripped of their physical wings and cast out. Their first name was scoured from existence, and they chose to call themself the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf.
“Once, I swallowed all the shadows of all the wolves who had ever been: legends and bones, wolves of myth and nightmare, life-givers and death-bringers. To my people, there is no greater crime than to take the shadow of a living being.”
First Wolf was the only one who was not eaten. He came to them, in search of relief from the Sun burning in his belly. There are no other wolves in the universe, now. He looked.
Unsure why he is being told this, First Wolf nevertheless is curious. Why did you eat?
The starborn meets his eyes and does not flinch. “The first was my lover, and when he was dying, he asked. The rest . . . because I grieved. I could not bear the sound of wolf voices when mine was lost. I did not think.”
Does my voice cause you pain?
First Wolf is patient, though he itches to know why he was called. What does his liege want of him?
“When the Suns saw this, they demanded retribution,” the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf says softly. “After all, some of the wolves had served them. I was exiled into the Chaos Waves and torment for eternity. When I escaped, before you found me, my people were gone but the Suns are not.”
And now you wish to eat them, First Wolf observes. He does not recommend this strategy. It hurts to devour a god.
Their shadow expands: it fractures into a thousand-thousand wolf-shapes, each racing across the sides of the bridge and electrifying the air with chilling songs. Large wolves, small wolves, wolves of legend and chaos, wolves who sing and wolves who weep and wolves who dance. There are wolves he once knew before, and wolves born long after his stasis. He remembers their names and their songs and in this sudden, wrenching moment, First Wolf is not alone.
First Wolf’s heart leaps in yearning. He gazes, wide-eyed, at the pack that maps itself across the ship. He wants to run with them, dance with them, press muzzle to muzzle with kin; to sleep warm and safe in a communal den; to race through the cosmos on hunts and in play.
Let me join them! First Wolf begs, aching to bound amongst the shadows. He is not only any longer. He can have a pack.
Ecstasy ripples through him and he opens his jaws, wishing to howl his glee.
“Stay,” the starborn orders him, their hand holding his nape. “Make no sound.”
He can shrug off his liege as easily as he can crunch this ship into piecemeal, for he is First Wolf, but the starborn is not made of lies and so First Wolf is obedient.
Will you take me into your shadows? he asks, his thoughts heard only by the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf.
“Once you are a shadow, you can never be whole again,” the starborn says, too gentle.
First Wolf will give up his wholeness if he can be together with a pack. He has never had kin like this, and now they are no longer memory.
Around them, the wolf shadows bare teeth like sharp and wicked thoughts.
“We will unmake the heavens,” the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf says, voice sliced to a whisper. “And when the gods are dead, I will take you into my shadow if you still desire.”
First Wolf smiles. He is no longer tired, and no longer wishes to be left in stillness and rest. He has found his purpose.
Command me, and I will devour anything you wish.
First Wolf dances as he eats the world.
Giant mechanized statues spit music at him: thick and bloodied tangles that pulse and snap. The notes shatter bodies and minds of the people thrown into panic. Buildings quake and wail; ships swoop from the sky with cannons and nets to try and stop First Wolf.
He eats the ships.
First Wolf dances, his long limbs wreathed in shadow and his fur slick with old violence. He is careful not to show his teeth, which are still stained in sunlight. He eludes the music. It stretches for him, full of sharpened kisses and promises of cool, soothing sleep.
The music is made of lies.
The statues are puppets—just as he is, although to a different puppeteer. Cities crumble under his crushing paws. His toes are red.
He whirls and leaps, his own song carrying him through the air. The statues reach and fail to catch him. Atmospheric defenses crack and slough against his being. Great satellites crumble under his bite and fall into dying cities.
First Wolf reshapes himself as he plummets down once more: from quadruped to biped—his head always wolf, for he is jaws and teeth and hunger. His paws are crafted into humanoid hands tipped in knives. Shadowy fur sheers into a long, fitted coat with buttons like eyes, flapping about his knees. His boots hit the ground and leave no prints.
First Wolf hooks his claws into the hearts of the mech statues and rips them free. The music wails and thrashes. Atonal scores shriek and lash in all directions. The music rushes at him, cracking the air into frozen pieces. He smiles, taunting, and devours the hearts. He will please his liege. He will earn his place in the Pack.
The music shatters against his muzzle and body, cutting open new scars. His coat rips and he drops to one knee as splinters shred his fur and leave pinpricks of starlight in his ears. There is only pain in that last, futile attack.
Pain is not a lie.
He licks the last of the music from his lips. Silence settles around First Wolf. With the major defenses of Io Destiny undone, there is naught that can stop him.
First Wolf allows only one survivor: a child nestled in the cockpit of a broken ship.
Remember Death, First Wolf breathes into the child’s mind. He is a lone wolf and so he leaves his mark thus. He hurls the ship from orbit so it can drift among the void as the planet’s core begins to implode.
When the world is bones and static, First Wolf lopes across void towards his liege’s ship. It is cold, that ship. The chill of an unborn universe seeking a spark to bloom. He offers no heat from his belly; he does not want to burn.
As his paws touch unliving metal, First Wolf sloughs free of this current gender. She stretches, her pelt always shadow, and she prowls the decks in search of her liege. Their scent is one she can never taste, whether shipboard or in the wild galaxies linked in chaos.
She lopes through the ship to the bridge. The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf’s shadow-pack is gone, yet the scent of all the wolves who have ever been lingers and she inhales deep.
On the viewscreen, the world of Io Destiny crumbles.
The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf leans on the balcony railing. There is silence among their crew as all watch First Wolf’s work.
“The Suns have begun to fear,” the starborn says, each syllable a soft growl. “Well done.”
First Wolf inclines her chin in satisfaction. Then she glances at her liege, hopeful. Will you take me in now?
“There are other worlds,” the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf says. “Other futures I have glimpsed in dreams, where lies the victory I seek. I will not take you back yet. But soon.”
First Wolf has bitten off billions of lives since the war began.
The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf targets planets and systems that owe allegiance to the Suns. There was the hallowed grave-world Asuuru Vii, where First Wolf lapped up ghosts layered like a looped holo-mural; the trade hub Caydence Epsilon that tasted of cardamom and panic on her tongue; an asteroid belt dedicated to the contemplation of silence; he hunted down one of the sundered nebulas where machine intelligence evolved into sentient webs of pearlescent geometrics. And others, all swallowed and never sating her. Few burned as the Eighth Sun did, at least.
The Seven Suns cannot harm the starborn directly. The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf has wrapped themself in antithesis energy, shields spun from affairs with dark matter and eons beneath the heel of void. No god can touch them. And those who serve the Sun Lords have failed to conquer the wolves.
After he eats each world, First Wolf begs, Take me, sire.
The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf replies each time: “Soon.”
So First Wolf remains longing for the Pack he cannot touch and cannot join. He does not know how much more his belly can hold. If he cannot obey, puppet that he is, then he will not earn his place in the starborn’s shadow.
In frustration, he turns to the only human who is not afraid of him: Jarith.
Grace lines Jarith’s statuesque body. They wear robes of titanium mesh and ancient silk; their black hair is roped into fine braids and falls in a mane about their shoulders; their throat is netted with scars, and their hands banded in metallic bone-braces. It is their eyes that entrance First Wolf. Dark like the galaxy without stars, rimmed in silver paint, filled with such rage.
In the starborn’s vengeance against the Suns, Jarith is their war tactician and First Wolf is their arsenal.
Jarith is agender and tall for their species; the crown of their head scarce reaches First Wolf’s spine when they are side by side. They too are loner. First Wolf has seen many generations of humans live and die inside the ship; Jarith alone remains untouched by time and packmate affection.
Jarith. First Wolf texts at Jarith the way she does all those who are not her liege. Human ears are not built to withstand his howl, even whispered. I want your teeth.
Come to me. Jarith’s texts are as flat and clipped as their voice, and their command always excites First Wolf. He needs distraction. His liege has told him soon and he wants to howl. He keeps his voice closed when inside the ship.
Even without a name, he does not want to eat the ship and everyone it bears.
It took a long time to eat everything alive on a planet like Aldorau. First Wolf wants to forget the hollow-eyed stare of the boy he left alive as the only survivor.
First Wolf glides through halls and shadow until he comes to Jarith’s quarters. The walls are empty and there is little to mark the human’s territory. A silken nest of cushions and sheets; a desk with glass maps and holographic calculations of conquest; and a simple knife mounted on the wall. That blade is Jarith’s prize. They have never told First Wolf why they cherish it so.
Jarith stands naked with their back to the entrance of their den. They are staring at the knife. Jarith is a lone wolf, human-bound, and it is the raw-edged familiarity of that which draws him to them.
First Wolf studies Jarith’s body: etched in patterns of violence, temptation, fury.
He shifts his form into wolf-headed bipedal, the shape Jarith most prefers. Gender is a convenience for First Wolf; he savors pronouns and the shapes bodies can take. A delicious and delightful myriad of combinations.
Slowly, Jarith turns and lifts a hand. They gesture at their bed, their robes in a steel and silken puddle in one corner.
First Wolf pads to the nest, excited.
Jarith’s teeth bare in a smile. “You wish I would take you.”
First Wolf has always enjoyed being subdued. Yes, he says, ears pricked forward. First Wolf lies back on the bed and shows his belly. Do as you please with me.
“I will.” Jarith strokes his muzzle and cups his tattered ears with their palms before sliding their hands down his neck and to his chest and navel. They pause, feeling the heat from the swallowed Sun. “Does it still hurt?”
“Then let me make you forget. For a time.”
Jarith presses their body against him and thrusts inside him. They twist his thoughts about theirs, full of tooth and claw, letting him feel them unarmored. He chews their scars and savors the hiss of their breath. They are not gentle; neither is he. He shares in their rawness, their passion, their might. Their skin is not as hot as a Sun; it is cool and soothing, calming as the touch of the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf.
When Jarith is sated, First Wolf sprawls panting beside his lover, satisfied.
What was your god?
First Wolf tilts his head. Any god can deliver pain. It is most often what gods do.
“The Ninth Sun was pain.” Jarith runs their fingers along his spine. “In its realm, an absence of pain was mercy.”
Did you serve willingly?
Jarith makes a sound that might be called a laugh, if a laugh was made of razors and shredded wrath. “No.”
Yet you freed yourself.
“I did.” Jarith’s hand rests on First Wolf’s shoulder. “Don’t ask how.”
First Wolf does not ask.
“Pain and Death are not the same,” Jarith says. “They are bitter enemies. The Red Sun did not want me, will not take me. None of the gods will. Not after the Ninth left so many marks.”
First Wolf nuzzles Jarith’s hand, and his lover strokes his tattered ears again. First Wolf smiles, close-lipped.
“Wolf.” Jarith’s breath rasps in their throat. “The next world. Don’t.”
I have been given no command yet, First Wolf replies, glancing at Jarith in confusion.
“You will.” A muscle in Jarith’s jaw bunches. Their hand tightens in First Wolf’s nape, pulling skin and fur taut at the base of his jaw. “The next world. Don’t. It will not end well.”
“All of us.”
Then Jarith makes him leave.
First Wolf stands, quadruped once more, outside Jarith’s chambers.
They do not respond. They have never been made of lies. Do they hold secrets or regret like the scars across their body and thoughts?
First Wolf turns away, melting past the ones who fear. She can bend herself into the dark, stretch herself along the shadows. She must ask her liege what Jarith will not tell her.
First Wolf’s affair with the Eighth Sun went like this:
She saw the god of stasis in the unmoving rings of a crystalline world. Light was frozen, an aura that sheared clean against the unruly, decaying edges of time. After she had run wild through the universe, that stillness entranced her. The Sun’s power teased at her senses. Beckoned her.
What is this? she asked, prowling the edges of the god’s aura.
MOVEMENT IS CHAOS, the Sun told her. THERE WILL BE CALM.
May I taste it?
ALL WILL BE STILL.
She stepped inside and sensation fled. She was wrapped in nothingness, in absolute solitude, and for a while, she enjoyed the stillness. It was like dreamless sleep, mind and body lulled into rest. Yet there were no others to speak with her, to play with her, to share her bed. All within the Eighth Sun’s aura were frozen. They had no thought and no will.
She became bored.
When she said she wished to leave, the Sun told her no.
Why not? she asked. Thought vibrated in the stillness; she kept hold of her breath in her body, not yet spent.
I DO NOT PERMIT ANY TO LEAVE.
She growled at the Sun, and it tightened its influence—its stasis closed around her, trapping her limbs, pinning her muzzle, stilling her lungs so she could not howl. She was paralyzed in that state for an eon or two. Hard to tell when time didn’t exist within the influence of the god.
Even without time, her rage grew.
She knew defiance would cause the Eighth Sun to hold her forever. It had dwelt in its immovable domain for eons, soaked in power, saturated in absolute authority. Its will was unadulterated. She was trapped, pinned like fixed point in the eternity of time.
I will stay, she thought at the Sun. Let me move again, and I will be yours.
It was the first time she was made of lies.
The Sun’s stasis loosened and her lungs swelled with long-held breath. It unshackled her limbs and she lowered herself onto her belly. When the god’s power unwound from her jaws, she smiled. She channeled her rage into fusion, and she howled. She blew the Sun free of its stasis, into chaos and movement. The supernova sent it spinning into the antitheses of solar winds and music and heat.
And then she ate the Sun for what it had done.
After the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf soothed the burning in her belly, they carried First Wolf in their arms and laid her in a quiet den on Tau Usher. The planet was wrapped in serene flora, clear waters, quiet skies. Those who lived there called it Sanctuary.
I didn’t know this world still lived, she murmured, sleepy in the starborn’s embrace. I remember it. I was born here, wasn’t I?
“It still carries your scent. This world has always been a haven. You may rest here until the pain subsides. I will watch over you.”
No one will come for us?
“No god or wolf will disturb this place.”
Neither will we, First Wolf sighed. Never.
“Neither will we. Not now, not ever.”
(His liege was made of lies that day.)
The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf is in their library, a great ocular chamber suspended within the ship’s abdomen like a swollen bite. Texts live in tome and tablet and datachip. There is no gravity in this space. The words live as if in void: floating still and cold until touched and consumed.
“I know why you are here,” his liege says as First Wolf slides into the library.
Jarith will not speak.
“They disagree with me in this,” the starborn says.
Will you tell me what it is you wish, sire?
The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf sighs. “There is one last world I wish you to devour,” they say. “It is a final blow. One that will weaken the Suns’ hold on this universe inexorably.”
Which world? He is not hungry. The remains of Aldorau sit soured in his gut; some of the screams linger.
And First Wolf hears the true name of the place: home.
“This is the last,” says the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf. “With Tau Usher gone, we will have destabilized the Sun Lords beyond recovery.”
First Wolf will be allowed into the pack. He will not be alone anymore.
He hesitates. There are no other worlds?
“No, my wolf.”
A brush of pressure-change and the filaments of rage announce Jarith’s presence. They step into the library, masked and armored against the void. Pages drift aside as they approach in a slow, graceful arc. First Wolf has stretched himself out so strands of his coat anchor him to the sphere’s diameter.
“It’s not necessary.” Jarith’s voice is sterilized through their mask. Their hair, now pulled back into thick braids, drifts behind their shoulders. “The Red Sun already hunts spiders elsewhere. The Gray Sun is seeking solitude.” The pain from so many words lines their throat. “We have destabilized the gods.”
“Yet they remain,” the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf says. They brush long fingers against a disturbed book and it sighs as it alters trajectory and drifts away. “I wish them destroyed.”
“Don’t do this,” Jarith rasps. Then, “Please.”
First Wolf looks between the starborn and the tactician. He has never heard Jarith utter that pleading, simple word for any reason.
“No,” the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf says with regret so potent it makes First Wolf want to howl. “Sanctuary must fall.”
The Thousand Star-Eyed Wolf’s ship glides inexorable on course for Tau Usher.
First Wolf paces in his den, chewing at the insides of his own thoughts. He does not want to eat his home. He wants to belong with the Pack. He cannot have both desires.
First Wolf has built this physical space cycle by cycle, a place that is his. He comes here when he is not with the Pack. He’s covered the floor in petals from a trillion different roses, each shielded in a piece of shadow. On the walls, he has painted the history of his dance: worlds eaten, dreams swallowed, rage unmasked. None of his murals show him with anyone. He is always a lone wolf in the chaos.
Jarith stands at the entrance to his den.
What do you want? First Wolf demands, unstopped in his pacing.
Jarith holds up their cherished knife: a simple blade, curved at the tip, runed with old memories of the universe’s first birth. “I used this knife to make the Ninth Sun disappear.”
First Wolf pauses, rose petals drifting about his paws. He cocks his head. And?
“I want your pelt.”
“Keepsake. If you eat Sanctuary . . .” Their jaw works. “I will hate you.”
Then why do you want my skin?
Jarith’s fingers tighten on the hilt, tension rippling up their arm to tauten their shoulders. “So I can remember what we had before. Because you will eat, Wolf. You always do.”
First Wolf growls softly. Jarith is not made of lies: First Wolf is a puppet.
When he is done, though, First Wolf will be among the Pack and he will not need his pelt. He rolls onto his back, submissive. Jarith deserves to have one piece of him, even if Jarith will forever be alone once First Wolf is taken.
You may have my pelt, Jarith.
Jarith kneels atop him. “Without your pelt, you’ll no longer be invulnerable.”
He knows. He tried to eat himself, once, when the burning pain became too much after he swallowed the god. After this world, there are none left to devour. Worlds never could destroy him.
“Then close your eyes.”
The knife licks the underside of his ribs. It cuts him open, flays his pelt with the softness of oblivion. He is silent, in ecstasy, as they peel away his fur and expose the starborn’s shadow beneath. They leave his head untouched, cutting only from his collarbone and shoulders down, down, down. Their fingers tease against his flesh, his nerves alive and sharp, and they press their weight against him as they work.
He feels as he did on Sanctuary. Comforted, wrapped in safety, and not alone.
His fur will regrow; a thin, velvety layer of dark across his body. But for right now, he is raw, able to taste the air of this ship as he never has before. It has more nuance than he knew: there are fragments of memory, laughter, song, fear, joy. The people on this ship have lives and souls and pasts. Futures, perhaps. He inhales a thousand hopes and questions; tremors of lovers tangled together linger at the back of his throat. Whispers dance across his thoughts—you will be okay, you will live, you will prosper—given from many mouths to others’ hearts. The ship may be cold, but inside it is teeming with life.
He understands, as he has not before, why the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf fights the gods. Not in vengeance, not entirely, but for those who are here, and who will come after.
It is good. It is not lies.
Jarith picks up his pelt and drapes it around their shoulders. “It ends after this, Wolf. Remember that.”
The ship glides into the Echelon Rampant Nebula, resplendent with a great hexagonal cluster of station cities. On the edge of the nebula, Sanctuary orbits a small, bright star. An armada from the Violet Sun and the Blue Sun waits between the cold ship and Tau Usher. Hundreds of dreadnaughts and battlecruisers; armored eel-ships with corrosive tongues bared; great void-cephalopods weaponized with Unwritten Script.
Jarith stands silent on the bridge, unblinking.
The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf leans on the balcony, a languid smile revealing their teeth. “My wolf,” they murmur, extending a hand at the viewscreen. “Unmake Tau Usher.”
Then they spread their arms, head thrown back, and unleash the Pack. The wolf-shadows spiral from their coat and arc through space towards the waiting armada.
First Wolf catches Jarith’s stare—unflinching, furious—as they stalk to the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf’s side. Jarith still wears First Wolf’s pelt across their shoulder, heavy and thick and dark.
First Wolf hesitates. He does not want to consume his home; it will disappear and he will never again have sanctuary. Jarith will hate him. Yet how can he refuse? His liege gave him a command, and after this, he will not be lonely.
He launches himself into void.
He is wolf.
(He is a puppet.)
He always eats.
First Wolf lands as soft as whispered secrets on Tau Usher.
This is a pinnacle bastion for the Suns’ fleets. It is an old well of power in the universe. If held by the Suns, they can launch continual war throughout the Principality. The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf wants to destabilize that advantage. If First Wolf eats all the power in Sanctuary, the Suns can never touch it.
There will be no dance, for the end of this world.
First Wolf hunts in silence, moving as a pall of bitter time through Sanctuary. She eats, and she is unhappy. She makes no games with the bones of the people. She is shadow, and she is wolf. The world doesn’t see her. She laps up the familiar taste of home from the center of the planet, pulling the transcendent energy through the fabric of existence and swallowing it whole.
It hurts. What else did she expect?
The last living souls on Sanctuary are a pair of young humans. They both see her. First Wolf hesitates, jaws wide. The girls stare her down, fists clenched side by side, their skin swollen from tears. Both sit in the wide branches of a jade willow, whose malachite-tinted fronds are scaled with frost. Each looks identical to the other. She cannot decide which to eat.
“Why are you doing this?” the first girl asks.
First Wolf considers. It is what I am.
The second girl trembles. Her voice crackles like static, filled with shock and grief. “But why did you kill everyone?”
Not done yet, First Wolf points out. There’s still you.
Both girls glance across the winter-wrapped city that is quiet. The spaceport that no longer hums with life. “I don’t want to die,” says the first.
“Neither do I,” says the second.
First Wolf tilts her head. She is still raw from her missing pelt, and she feels too keenly the girls’ pounding hearts and jagged thoughts. Why not?
“We want to see the stars,” the first girl says. “My sister and I were going to fly.”
The second girl snaps off a branch and stabs it in First Wolf’s eye. “You killed everyone!”
First Wolf is not injured; the wood turns to ash. The girl screams at her and kicks out, holding onto the tree for support. Her sister grips her, holding tight.
First Wolf takes a step back so the girl’s foot will not burn, too.
“Go away,” the girls shout. “Go away!”
They are both becoming full of rage; if they live, perhaps they will become powerful enemies. The girls can see First Wolf, after all.
First Wolf does not eat the humans. It would leave one of them alone, and she does not need to make any more sole survivors.
She leaves the girls a ship, should they ever care to fly.
First Wolf prowls along the equatorial band of Sanctuary, surveying what he has done. His paws leave decaying tracks along saltless oceans and between giant hive-trees. The power he swallowed writhes and bristles against the starborn’s shadow, yet it wanes, braiding into his atoms and leaving him more solid than he has been in a long time.
He has eaten so many worlds.
This one was home. It comforted him, nurtured him. The planet, the people, were not all willing to serve in the war with the Suns. He has never thought of the innocents.
Is this why Jarith hates him? Not because of Sanctuary, but because he has never thought?
First Wolf flies up again through the stratosphere, panting with exertion, and cants his ears for the hum of the ship’s engines. He will ask why devouring must now hurt.
He sees naught but destruction. The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf’s ship is savaged into pieces. His home. Obliterated.
This is not how it is supposed to be. The remains of the keel in tatters of propulsion and venting oxygen. Bodies float amid the debris, slicked in void-chill. First Wolf races through plasma-sheared slices of hull, across wires strewn out like raw nerves, around the ghosts of engines and torn-apart libraries drifting in paper snow. He wants to throw back his head and wail. There is nothing left of home. It is all gone.
And he cannot sense the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf anywhere.
Dead eel-ships float in pieces amid the ruins of the hexagonal city-cluster. Ravaged dreadnaughts list in the void. The starborn’s ship was shielded with word-absorbing algorithms; in the ship’s belly floated a Chaos Whale, fished from the Waves where the starborn had drowned for so long. The remains of the Chaos Whale are little more than solar-bleached bone and the sonic disharmony. There is only eat or eaten, an invariable law.
His liege is gone, and the people they protected are dead. First Wolf snarls, balanced upon the corroded balcony that floats unmoored. There are no illusions. His growl scatters the debris, hurtling it like comets in all directions.
He spins, his fur sharp as absolute zero. He will skewer anything that comes close.
There is a sleek single-body ship a lightyear away, watching. In it is Jarith. Alive.
“Wolf.” The human’s voice cuts through chaos and space, draws him nearer. “I can help you find them.”
Jarith is supposed to hate him now.
“Follow me, Wolf.”
Do you know where our liege is?
How the siege of the Echelon Rampant Nebula should have transpired: The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf’s shadows chew through material defenses, haunt the living like ghosts until mortal minds crack and melt, dropping flesh-husks in the wake of madness. The Chaos Whale eats the cephalopods and deflects the Script drawn from aborted galaxies. The ship’s cannons decimate the Suns’ dreadnaughts into ash.
That plan, that possibility, is now a lie.
First Wolf sits folded into the spaces between where light blooms in Jarith’s ship.
Jarith ties back their hair with slim golden chains. They are dressing for war: in radiant entropy-scaled armor, with gauntlets forged from decayed starlight, and they don a helmet shaped like a wolf’s head. They no longer have his pelt. “The ship was boarded.”
First Wolf didn’t believe any being not touched by the wolf-shadows could step inside the ship’s atmosphere.
“One of the starborn’s own betrayed them,” Jarith says. “Let the mortal general aboard. Disabled defenses on the bridge. The general took the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf’s sword when he defeated them.”
Where were you?
“I was supposed to flank the armada,” Jarith says. “Prevent escape.”
And? First Wolf demands. Is our liege dead?
“Hardly.” Jarith laces their boots. “Our enemies don’t want their death. The Suns want subjection. The gods will torment the starborn for all eternity, or until they are broken and yield.”
What of the pack?
“Trapped inside their skin when they were taken. All suffer the same fate, Wolf.”
First Wolf paces, wishing to gouge the ship into pieces in his frustration; he doesn’t, for Jarith cannot breathe in vacuum.
You haven’t told me where they were taken.
“I will, but only if you do me a service.”
Why? You said you will hate me. Were you made of lies?
Jarith hesitates, one hand pressed against the other, their bone-braces agleam. “I . . . thought I was honest.” They take a breath. “Thoughts can lie, even one’s own.”
First Wolf shakes his head. He needs to find his liege and only Jarith is left. What do you want?
“Let me ride inside you,” Jarith says. “You can move unseen. I can’t.”
He almost curls his lips back to show his teeth, then decides against such aggression. He doesn’t want to fight Jarith. He will win, and he doesn’t like such a probability. Stop testing my patience.
“I need to see the starborn.” Jarith looks him in the eyes, as vicious as when they watched him dive towards Sanctuary. “After what was done.”
My belly is one of fire, First Wolf says. You will burn.
They shrug. “You saw the scars. I’ve endured a hundred-thousand torments. What’s one more?”
Very well. First Wolf reluctantly opens his jaws wide and lets Jarith climb into his mouth.
They taste of vengeance, a mirage built from a thousand nights in solitude. Jarith drags their fingers along the inside of his throat, down his ribs, and pauses, hesitant, at his heart.
“There are so many holes,” they whisper.
First Wolf has had a long, long time to love and lose and never truly belong to another the way a pack belongs.
“They took your liege to the center of the Principality,” Jarith says, settling themself with their spine against the starborn’s shadow that holds back the Sun. Heat sears their armor and burns against their skin, sinking into bone. Jarith snarls against the pain and endures. “They were imprisoned aboard Forever Brightness, Burning Dark. The ship will deliver them unto the gods at the Courts of Tranquility.”
Hold fast, First Wolf says, and launches himself into the nebula in pursuit of the dreadnaught that took away his liege.
“There,” Jarith says, and First Wolf follows his lover’s directions.
There is no sign of the dreadnaught or its general here. A prison station caught in a stretch of empty space between the newly built Courts of Tranquility and the vast reach of the Principality. It is all but empty. First Wolf feels the dim heartbeats of a thousand beings: guards or prisoners, he does not know.
Does not care, really. He is here only for the starborn.
“Let me out,” Jarith says. “I’ll see you’re undisturbed.”
It’s tempting to say no, and keep Jarith in his belly forever. It would mean he is never again without company.
Except that is what the Eighth Sun did to him, so long ago, and he will not be like the god. He could never force himself inside his liege, inside the pack. He must be taken willingly.
There are no viewports on the prison station. He makes his own, extending his claws and carving open a hole in the outer skin. Alarms klaxon in discordant howls. He spits out the tactician.
Jarith rolls to their knees, armor blackened and steaming, and lift their head. “Go.” They unsheathe their Sun-killing knife and draw a handgun comprised from the songs of dying stars. “Free your liege.”
First Wolf digs deeper, into the heart of the station. Where he finds the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf.
They hang suspended in absolute darkness. The starborn’s prison is a sphere, its surface skinned in data readouts and a holographic outline of their body. A score of wraiths guard it. First Wolf tears them apart without devouring them. None of the wraiths scream.
The starborn’s voice is faint, withered. Filled with such pain, First Wolf wants to howl in empathy.
He attacks the cage with his teeth. His jaws are useless. He slashes with claws to no avail. First Wolf hurls himself against the sphere and it does not move.
“Stop, my wolf. You can’t undo it.”
Panting, First Wolf crouches. Confused. Why not?
“It is you, First Wolf.”
He smells it then, and it is not a lie.
The darkness is impenetrable. As hard as he throws himself against it, gnaws at it, the darkness remains unmoved. It was made from his pelt, that darkness. He cannot eat himself.
First Wolf paces, anxious. He needs Jarith’s knife, but he cannot bring himself to leave his liege yet. If the Violet and Blue Suns return, they will take the starborn away and First Wolf might not find them again. Why didn’t you run when the ship was boarded?
“After I crawled from the Chaos Waves, I swore I would never flee.”
Then why send your tactician away? He does not understand this defeat. This impossibility. They would have protected you.
The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf’s forehead presses against the inside slope of the cage. “Jarith is the one who let General Zu aboard.”
Lies, First Wolf snarls. You were made of lies once! Don’t lie now!
“I’m not. They called back the shadows and let the general close enough to duel me. I lost. They wrapped your pelt around me to keep me here.”
Jarith betrayed him. First Wolf cannot understand this. He shakes his head, pacing faster, his claws gouging the prison-station’s hide. He does not want to feel such hurt.
“You made me a promise long ago,” the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf says quietly. “Do you remember?”
How can he ever forget?
It was when he crawled on his swollen belly, throat aflame, teeth aching with sunlight, across empty space so dark nothing would ever grow here again. He crawled until his muzzle touched the fallen starborn’s feet.
They stared at each other, two broken things defined by pain.
First Wolf could smell the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf’s grief and hear the howls of all the wolf-shadows inside them. He knew, in that unknown span of time when he drowned in the starborn’s gaze, that this one, and this one alone, could save him. Or destroy him, if that was what he begged for.
He had eaten a god; that was enough punishment.
I am First Wolf, he said. Consume me, use me, unmake me—only stop the burning, my liege.
“I will do it for a promise,” the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf said. They knelt. “That if I ask, you will give me the sun.”
I swear it, he said, for a wolf’s promise is binding like the inevitable decay of all matter.
“Then take this,” they said, unpeeling their self-shadow from their form. Its wings thrashed like unspooled galaxies, lashing out at space and chaos.
First Wolf swallowed the shadow and felt it curl around the Sun. The shadow threaded through rib and spine, latching to the definition of First Wolf: his sense of self, his existence. It filled him, sweeping like a galaxy reborn through his essence. Pain like he had never known wracked his body and he howled.
“It will not hurt forever,” the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf said, stroking his ears and face with many-fingered hands. Touch soothed him, let him feel other than pain for those few breaths. “I can promise you that.”
On the prison station, First Wolf still remembers.
Don’t ask this, First Wolf begs. I don’t want to burn.
The Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf snarls. “They can’t die with me.”
Unlike his liege, First Wolf is not untouchable now. He gave Jarith his pelt, his indestructability. The Violet Sun and the Blue Sun can skin him and root out the heat from his belly. Not an easy task, but not an impossible one. After all, he did not think a mortal soldier would defeat the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf.
Did you see this? First Wolf’s throat aches with remembered heat. Your fate and mine?
“No. There are no unchangeable futures. The universe is alive, not a static thing. It will always roil and grow, molt and flower in its own way. But I knew that . . . if I was ever caught, like my kin did to me, I would do anything to assure my wolves did not suffer as I would. Thus I made you promise. And now I call upon you to fulfill it.”
But you will die.
He feels the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf’s bitter smile even in the dark. “On my terms. Not a plaything for the gods’ vengeance.”
First Wolf shuts his eyes as he reforms his body. He looks as the starborn’s human-form once looked, save for the head. Always his, always wolf.
“Set them free,” the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf whispers. “Give me the sun.”
First Wolf extends his claws, shaped like the knife Jarith used to skin him, and punctures his belly. He heaves, splitting himself open, and lets out the devoured light and heat and power held so long inside.
The dead Sun’s essence shatters the sphere, disintegrates his old pelt. It does not have his strength, separated from his body, and it, like him, can burn. Shadow and sunlight cancel each other out so the brunt of the supernova is compressed into the shape of a body. Light lets the shadows scorch free and run. The wolf-shapes howl and dance, scattering wild across the galaxies.
First Wolf’s mass is sucked away, caught in the absence of the heat. He collapses on his hands and knees, his howl drowned in the cracking of reality. The starborn’s body blazes brighter than any Sun, and then the light is gone. What’s left of a frail, physical form crumples to the ground.
First Wolf bites the starborn’s throat, crushing skin and bone and memory. He feels the familiar absence of life slipping between his jaws. He will be sure there is nothing left for the gods to hurt.
When his liege is dead, he crawls away in search of his own place to die.
First Wolf finds Jarith on the ruins of Sanctuary.
Jarith stands under the tree where First Wolf did not eat the girls. They lean their forehead against the trunk. One arm hangs limp at their sides, the other pressed against the tree to cushion their brow. “You must hate me, Wolf.”
“Kill me if you wish,” Jarith says. “It’s over.”
First Wolf should. Jarith lied to him. Yet Jarith did not make him obey, did not make him eat all the worlds without thought.
First Wolf flops on his stomach, exhausted. He is quadruped again, and not even four legs can keep him upright. Would it work?
Jarith shrugs. “Maybe. At the least, you can hurt me.”
Yes, he could. He could do terrible, terrible things to Jarith, and the human would not resist.
First Wolf doesn’t want to eat. Nor does he want to destroy the one being who does not fear him. The pack is gone and he will never be part of it. Why did you do this?
Jarith kneels before him. This time, shrunken from all he has let go, First Wolf’s head scarce reaches the human’s thighs were they to stand side by side. Jarith interlaces their fingers in First Wolf’s fur. “They wanted you to eat your home.”
And I did, First Wolf snarls. “I did!”
Jarith doesn’t flinch at his voice. “I know.” They cup their hands against First Wolf’s cheeks, their thumbs pressed under his jaw. Slowly, they tilt his face up until he looks them in the eyes. “I’m so sorry, Wolf.”
Why did Jarith let him? Why not stop him?
If I’d not obeyed, would you still have betrayed us all?
“I would have regardless,” Jarith says. “Might have been harder with you there.”
First Wolf lashes out with one paw, batting Jarith to the ground. He snarls, furious. He did not have to eat his home. And yet, even had he not, he would have lost. It would have taken only a little longer.
Jarith pushes themself to their hands and knees. Their neck is bare, hair pulled to either side of their spine. First Wolf could snap his jaws closed around their throat with such ease.
You should have killed my liege, First Wolf says. Not betrayed them.
“I’ve tried,” Jarith says, and First Wolf hesitates before he pounces. “It never worked.”
Why not? You have a knife to unmake gods.
“They were the one who gave me the blade. It would not harm them.”
First Wolf does not want Jarith to be made of lies. He waits, a howl locked in his throat.
“They gave me a tool to free myself,” Jarith says, the strain clear in their jaw, “so I owed them a debt. But when I escaped the Ninth Sun, I saw a fragment in its heart. One probability mapped across existence.” They inhale slowly. “It was pain.”
“I saw you, Wolf. I saw you eat everything. All of it. Until you were alone with never a hope of another’s touch.”
He understands that.
“You were left in pain.” Jarith sits back on their heels. “The starborn would have driven you to your destruction. So I helped our enemies, helped the general and his ship take your liege. For that I’m not sorry.”
Then what is your guilt? He tastes it, overwhelming as Jarith’s hatred was, once.
Jarith edges nearer until they kneel before First Wolf again. “That you must endure, as do I. The Suns’ victory will not lead to peace for us. That’s never been our fate.” Another breath. “But there will be others who will know.”
He understands again.
“We won, in a way.” Jarith shuts their eyes. “The Sun Lords’ power has been forever disrupted by our war and your hunger.”
That is no comfort when the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf is dead, with the pack freed and scattered, when the ship is gone, when all those who once lived on Sanctuary are eaten. He is helpless. What does a wolf who devoured worlds do when there is nothing left to consume? His own skin is burned away and his liege is ash.
Only Jarith remains.
“What will become of us?” First Wolf asks. His voice, this weight against his tongue, is only a breath when his howl was once the roar of a galaxy being torn asunder.
Jarith tilts their head back, gazing up at the darkened sky. “We could stay here. The gods may not look for us. Not on a devoured world.”
Stay. Home. Us.
First Wolf is not sure he deserves that, after what he’s done. “Will you eat me, if I ask?”
Jarith can make it end. A death that is not burning.
“If you ask.” Jarith swallows and presses their forehead against his. “Please, Wolf. Not yet.”
He shuts his eyes and rests his head in Jarith’s lap. They are alone, with each other, in Sanctuary’s twilight. This empty world will be theirs if they wish it.
“Not yet, then,” First Wolf says.
Jarith holds him, and for a moment, that is enough.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a 2016 Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Shimmer, Cicada, and has been reprinted three times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad, Patreon, or their website. Their debut short story collection, So You Want To Be A Robot, came out from Lethe Press in May 2017.
This story takes place in the world of A. Merc Rustad’s Sun Lords of the Principality series. Four other related stories are available in Lightspeed’s archives.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the January 2019 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Ashok K. Banker, Roger Zelazny, E. Lily Yu, Tony Ballantyne, Meg Elison, Maria Dahvana Headley, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.