“No, I can’t remember. I saw nothing. It was lies, lies from hell! I am free from it now. Let me return to my chambers, and my penance. I will not speak of it again!”
“The court has already commuted your sentence. You will not be harmed. You may speak freely of these visions. We must have a full record of them. We do not know where these visions came from, and they must be studied. We must confirm what you saw, now that you are… yourself again.”
“I cannot! I can feel that power still crouched within me. It is coiled within my breast! If I look at it too closely, I will see it again. I will not see it again! Do not make me see it again!”
“If you refuse to speak, the court may revisit your conduct. You could still be burned for heresy.”
“Burned… burned… yes…burned… everything… it will all burn… oh, what a relief it will be to finally, finally burn. Promise me. Promise me! Tell them to burn me. Burn away this flesh… free me! Free me with fire! Ha ha ha ha!”
[Text redacted. See below.]
“Are you still writing this all down? Very well. Let the record show that she is still laughing. Five hours, and she is still laughing. Let me know when she finally stops. If she stops.”
- Transcript: The Heresy of Mother Darain, Post Trial Interview
Sa’sholi is not the only demon in the underworld.
I did not listen as Marj spoke with this one and bargained with it and came to an agreement. I did not watch as she released it from the summoning circle. I do not ask its name. It scampers around the room now, rubbing at the metal bracelets upon its wrists while Marj stands, stiffly, leaning heavily on her staff. She glares at me.
I ignore her. “This one will take me to their hiding place?”
She nods. “Yes. And back here, once you are done with… what you have to do.”
“Good.” I hold out a hand towards the small monstrosity.
“I heard what you did,” she says, flatly.
I don’t answer. The demon takes my hand, and chants under its breath.
“We’re done after this. I can’t forgive you.”
I don’t answer. I begin to sink through the floor.
“Don’t you have any mercy?”
I don’t answer.
I see him as we pass through the ceiling into the chamber. He is seated on the floor, his back to me, writing something in a book. He does not rise. I do not give him the chance.
I release my grip on the demon and drop the last few feet on my own to the floor. My sword is already out. I swing it with all of my strength towards his neck.
The jarring impact knocks me on my ass, as if I'd swung at some massive bell. He sits, unharmed, still writing, as my ears ring and my head spins.
I shake my head to clear it and sit up, and stare at my brother, safe within his circle. All around him, at the perimeter of the circle, the air glows softly, and I know now that it is more solid than any wall. He is still beyond my reach. I might as well have not even come down here!
I scream, and the demon flees to a corner of the room, cowering.
I attack the desk with my sword, splitting pieces off of it, hurling glass vials filled with murky liquid against the far walls, and then I drop my sword and beat my fists against the wall and sink to the floor and burst into tears.
I take a few minutes to wallow.
I finally crawl over towards the circle and roughly shove what looks like Sa’Sholi’s corpse out of the way. I sit in front of my brother, challenging him to look into my eyes.
He stares through me. He cannot see me.
I look down and read what I can from the book he is writing in. I read of grandfather and Babaiya and Medros. My mind darkens and I feel a new rage building inside of me as implications turn into suspicions.
His quill reaches the end of the page and it flips of its own accord, and his hand moves back to the top of the book and continues to write.
I absently slap at the air before him, and it is as solid as the floor beneath me. He is protected.
I look again down at the book, which has just begun a new chapter. It’s part of our old story, the tale of our friends who struggled alongside us, and who fought, and some who died. I think about events, about deaths, about hundreds of years of frustrations, and come to a conclusion.
I stand up and gently gather my sword from where I left it, and place it against the far wall. I open my belt pouch and pull out a piece of apple. I shove it into my mouth, and I ignore its staleness. I stare down at the top of my brother’s head, imagining it splitting apart like the apple I carved this morning.
I consider the number of pages left before the book is full.
Then I sit down to wait.
The bell is tolling and I am unforgivably late.
Professor Thalamar will have my not insubstantial hide, and I still have a semester and a half to go before I graduate. I'm fairly sure I'll need it at some point before then.
Perhaps I'll just take the hide of whoever disenchanted my clock. There's an almost cyclical beauty to that thought. Perhaps all of us can walk around the city skeletally. Stranger things have happened in Orb's Rest.
Freshman pranks always annoyed me, and although I’m already late, I take a moment to get the smell of whoever’s aura got left behind when they toyed with my alarm. I don’t recognize it, but I file it away for future reference. There are many hours between the end of classes and curfew. Time enough for payback.
I mutter an apology to a woman I bowl over as I burst out the dorms. No, I'm not going to help her pick up her packages. I'm late, damn it!
The Forum Bell ceases its slow ringing, and now I'm really late. I'm already out of breath and I'm not even halfway there. It's no good taking the long way around. I turn and instead start across the grassy lawn towards the Union building. Thalamar's history lecture is on the far side. I'll have to cut through it.
Alright, now this is just unforgivable! I'm overtaken by two other students, equally late for their own classes. I know I'm out of shape, and I'm a bit on the heavy side, but they're just rubbing it in! And they're running on the grass, and they're not even upperclassmen... Goddess, they're freshmen!
I wave my hand and exert my will, and they quickly fall behind me again. They'll remain as spotted newts for an hour or so. They will miss whatever class they were so eager to be tardy to, but it will teach them punctuality and respect of tradition. I honestly don't know what's happened to the admissions standards here. If it weren't for us seniors, I swear these delinquents would get away with murder.
OK, that spell took a lot out of me. I just... can't run anymore. Blood magic is the most powerful, most prestigious of magics, and it’s true that only the very best mages can master it, but it’s still tiring.
Don’t judge me. I had a long night, ok? Marjorique is… enthusiastic about studying.
Ok, yes, I'm not in the best shape either, but heaviness is the hallmark of my family, alright? It comes from noble living, scholarly pursuit, and intellectual rigor. I'm hardly the largest one in my class. We are upperclassmen, after all, and without a little size we'd hardly be able to call ourselves seniors, would we?
A thin mage is a mage who has to work at the docks to pay his rent. You know it’s true.
Either way, I’m already out of breath, my side is starting to hurt, and my legs are burning. Worse, I'm sweating through my robes. “Magically guaranteed to keep you cool, even with the most vigorous exercise” my ass. I want a refund.
I need a better form.
I close my eyes and imagine the third, inner eye within my mind. I will it to open, and when I look up again, I see the world of ether surrounding me. I reach out into it and grab hold of its strings.
Weave, form, change...
Paws, not hands.
Snout, not nose.
Fur, not robes.
Wolf, not man.
I bound forward across the grass, tail streaming behind me, tongue lagging as I pant and my muscles pump. The form is fit, as I intended, and even though I used even more of my blood’s precious energy to fuel the transformation, I feel full of life and power. I’ll pay for it later, unless I find a way to replenish what I’ve used up.
That’s part of the problem. I haven’t even had breakfast yet. Stupid alarm clock.
I gather my strength and leap through an open window on the ground floor of the Union building. My class is on the far side but first I can pass through the cafeteria on the way through and get some OH MY BLASTED CONSORT WHAT IS THAT HEAVENLY SMELL?
I’m swimming through a sea of odors, swirling colors flowing between and above the tables and students seated at them. Smaller blooms of color are the students, the mice underfoot, the roaches in the walls. I let my nose lead the way, through the sweat and emotions of several hundred students, focusing upon one in particular, an inexorable goal. I smell her hunger, her pride, her shocked surprise as I leap across her table...
"Blasted consort, Kiron!" Marjorique shouts after me as I bound away, her plateful of bacon already halfway down my throat. She'll make me pay for that later, but better Marjorique’s wrath than an anemic coma. Anyway, she'll have to catch me first! Three dozen other students stand and shout in confusion and wonder as I pass among them, leaping across, beneath, around their tables and chairs. There are no upperclassmen here at this time of day, besides Marjorique, and shapeforming isn't taught to the lower levels. Let them watch and learn! I grab a slice of ham, some divine beef smothered with gravy (my whiskers positively tremble,) and even a slice of some sort of chocolate cake as I pass. These underclassmen have wondrous taste in food, whatever else you might say about them. I leap through another open window and I'm through the Union and back outside.
Now I've got energy to spare and I race across the open stone courtyard between the Union and the Bowl. The courtyard is deserted; everyone’s in class already. A couple hundred feet more though, and I'll be there. I see it: a depression there among the trees, a small open air amphitheater of white stone, with seats and desks carved and arrayed in semicircular levels around a central floor where lectures might be given. I'll catch hell for being late, but not as much as if I missed class entirely.
I thoughtfully shift back into my natural, human form before walking up to the edge of the Bowl and moving down the steps to my row. It's a bit disconcerting, as always, to feel the firm and well-muscled flanks of my wolf body give way to the soft and pliable folds of my own. We're a weak sort, us men, compared to some of the animals. Sometimes I feel as if I could remain a wolf all day. If spell-casting was possible in animal form, I just might.
I catch several dirty looks as I find my seat, some because I am so late, some likely because I’m still drenched in sweat. Conrad, sitting two rows above, holds his nose and waves towards me, sending a glamour of sparkles and flowers cascading onto my shoulders. I chuckle and salute him, and take my seat, bathed in potpourri. I wave to some of my friends, who I can see seated around the bowl.
What I don't see is Professor Thalamar. The open space at the center of the Bowl is empty. The professor, late? I guess my mad lupine race was all for nothing. I feel the bacon settle in my stomach, and stifle a belch. Well, it wasn't a total waste.
Then the entire Bowl grows quiet as a woman steps forth from the shadowy cave from whence professors make their entrance. All eyes turn towards the center of the crater. It's not her green hair, nor her golden robes that seem to shine with more than merely reflected light. No, something magnetic draws our attention towards the lone stone podium down on the sand floor, and throughout the rows students put down their quills, stop fiddling with totems or charms and stare, fully attentive, hands on desks, at the woman striding purposefully towards the dais.
There's power down there, real power, barely contained, and I glance sidelong at my classmates, and note that I'm not the only one to notice it. Some of my fellows fidget at their desks, shifting uncomfortably in their robes and looking anywhere else but at the floor of the Bowl.
She looks out and up across the seats, eyes flitting down occasionally at what seems to be an attendance sheet. As her gaze passes by me I feel a sudden jolt, like the spark one feels sometimes when touching metal, and I have to look away. When I raise my eyes again, she has finished taking roll, and has stepped from behind the podium, moving forward to address the entire class. I still feel that pressure, that sense of water raging behind a dam and barely kept in check, and when she speaks, it only seems to increase.
“Gentlemen. Ladies. Professor Thalamar will be tardy this morning, and he has asked me to begin the lesson for him. I see you were discussing history and politics yesterday, no? Who can sum up what was covered yesterday? Anyone?”
Lights appear above several heads, some brighter and more ostentatious than others. Some of the older students don't bother with the garish magical displays, and merely raise their hands. I sit on my own, trying to puzzle out the nature of this massive power I can feel pressing down upon me from the woman teaching our class.
"You. Kiron, is it? Can you give an answer? And be thorough."
Her words slam into me like a slap to the face and rock me from my stupor. I answer instinctively, blurting out information from memory.
"Yesterday we focused on Kazio, capital of the old kingdom of Regotia..."
"Regotia" she corrects me. She pronounces it "Regoosha." I frown. Thalamar pronounced it "Regot-eea."
"Reegoosheea", I say, slowly and precisely. She narrows her eyes, and twirls her finger for me to continue.
"Regotia" (and I pronounce it to her satisfaction) "Was the kingdom north of us, though they claimed ownership of all of the surrounding kingdoms: over us here in Misia, over the Fair Folk in Rego and even over the mountains and valley of Archus that was Lost. Archus broke away from them and formed their own kingdom, and Regotia never managed to regain their lost land. The Folk in Rego and the mages here were always strong enough to defend our borders, though Regotia always tested them. Things never erupted into war, but there were a few skirmishes along the border over the years."
She nods, ticks something off on a clipboard she has pulled from out of nowhere, and looks back at me. "What about the unification? Did they join willingly with the other kingdoms?"
"No, they were the last kingdom to agree to unify, even after agreeing to be bound by the decisions of the Council. At that point, the Folk and the humans and dragons decided to just let them live in their isolation, built garrisons along Regosha's borders and went on with the business of choosing a king. The people of Kazio revolted and overthrew the Prince of Regotia, after he'd decided to invade the kingdoms to the south and started forcing everyone into his 'Grand Army'. The military probably helped, knowing that it was suicide to try and fight the other seven kingdoms, and they sent a representative to the Council afterwards and joined with the other kingdoms to form the Kingdom of Eight."
She frowns at me. "You left out a lot of details, but that's fine for now. So, what happened to Kazio and Regotia after the Cataclysm?"
"Afterwards? When the Kingdom broke apart, Kazio went back to isolation. They were still the capital of the old lands of Regotia, but most of that land is empty now. The Fair Folk helped rebuild the city itself, and most of the people in that old kingdom just stay there in their capital. It's a military city, designed to repel invasion, and they're a military people. When the stoneskins moved south from the Ice Lands after the Cataclysm, they started trying to settle in Regotia, and the army is constantly fighting them at their northern border. They're always at war. Kazio doesn't bother with the other kingdoms anymore, but the stoneskins move down every year in the winter, and Kazio always forces them back. They're a very ordered society. Everyone serves in the military, and their entire economy is based on it. They're also not very fond of outsiders. We do still trade with them, and mages looking for training in combat usually go north after finishing school to get experience in battle. The Regotians always pay well for someone who knows some good offensive spells."
"Good enough," she interrupts me. "So, today, we're moving on to New Synon. What do you know of that city?"
This wasn't the assigned reading. It’s a good thing I’ve read ahead, but still.
I stammer out what I know.
"Um... they were originally Synon, capital of the old Kingdom of Synon, and they are still a great trading city just south of the Great Wall. Every caravan on the way to Horabina and the South stops there. They were always friendly with the dragons, and I think they were the only city to maintain cordial relations with them even when they pulled out of human lands. It was also built below sea level, and much of the city was swallowed up as water poured in after the Cataclysm, but the dragons came to the aid of the city and helped hold back the water with their own magic long enough for the humans to build dikes. Now the city is called New Synon, and sits on an island in the middle of a vast lake. The dragons rule over the city..."
She coughs, and I jump. "The humans have their own local government," she says, annoyed, "and are allowed to decide their own affairs. They only defer to the draconian government in matters that affect both races."
I swallow. "Um, yes, thank you. Er... There are many humans and dragons who live in the city, and it's split into two halves: one for humans and one for dragons. I've heard rumors about humans and dragons marrying and mating, and a caravan trader I talked to said that some of the knights in that city are actually half-dragon and half-human, with wings and scales, and..."
"Was that in your textbook?" She looks particularly annoyed right now.
"Um. I'm not... I don't think so... Sorry. I... where was I?"
"New. Synon." She looks infuriated for some reason, and the feeling of pressure, and now of threat, is greater than ever. I hurry on.
"Yes... so, um, the city still regulates trade between the north and south, because reefs make sailing around that area difficult. They control the only pass through the Wall, so they've done well through tolls, but they've also put some of that towards funding the maintenance of the roads that still lead throughout the whole realm. They have a rivalry with Horabina to the south, but are in many ways the center of culture and civilization in the Southlands."
The woman of green and gold has turned around, and takes several deep breaths before turning back to me. When she does, her smile is kind, and the sense of looming menace is gone, but the pressure, the feeling of incredible power, remains.
"You mentioned the Cataclysm again. Tell me, Kiron, what caused it?"
I shake my head. "Nobody knows that. It just happened."
"You are studying to be a scientist and a mage. Speculate."
"Well... I don't know. I think... well, the Chasmites believed that it was the curse of the gods, to punish man for trying to learn the secrets of the universe. The Daranites said that it was the struggle of the Titans, spilling over into our world.”
"I didn’t ask you to recite various heresies of the past. What do you think?"
I shake my head again. "I'm not foolish enough to speculate on something without any evidence. At least not in front of a professor."
She smiles again, this time warmly. "Very well. Where might you find evidence?"
Now I'm getting uncomfortable. This entire lecture has been aimed directly at me, and the other students are fidgeting in their seats. "I... wouldn't know. I guess... someone who was alive back then might have information. One of the Fair Folk. Or a dragon, maybe."
Her smile expands into a massive grin which suddenly and unexpectedly vanishes. She turns, returns to the podium, and grabs up her papers. "Well, perhaps one day you will meet a dragon in your travels, and you can ask for yourself." She turns, and strides purposefully from the dais, leaving us all confused, and me standing, self-consciously, at my desk as she vanishes back into the darkness of the caves.
A moment or two later, Professor Thalamar rushes out, panting, clutching his scrolls and wand.
"Sorry, everyone, I don't know how I managed to oversleep. I'm certain I set my clock. No matter, I'm glad to see you're all still here. Kiron... you can sit down, boy. Is there something you needed?"
"No sir... I was answering questions for the substitute."
"Substitute? What are you getting on about boy? I didn't have time to call in a substitute; I only just woke up five minutes ago. Now sit down and let's get on with the lesson."
So I sit down amid murmurs and confusion. What else is there to do?
I have to meet with Karram, and I don't want to. Karram is a lesion on a camel's ass. He's the sand that gets stuck in your own ass when you're out alone on the dunes chasing that same idiot camel because it has a lesion on its ass and won't listen to you. He's the sandstorm that comes up out of nowhere, despite all of the auguries and the hints of the wind, and blinds you because you were stupid enough to follow a camel with a lesion on its ass out into the desert.
Then you are blind and must beg on the street for the rest of your life, all because of a stupid camel, and that is how I feel about Karram.
Karram is an idiot, am I clear now? He is also incredibly powerful, and this implies consequences, and that I should meet with him regardless of my feelings. I would happily leap out the rear window and onto the rooftops and disappear into the city, and for a moment I am tempted.
Nahhu is clear, and all paths lead to blood, and so I must meet with Karram.
He calls again from below. I sigh, and tighten the belt on my robes, and tie back my hair. I forgo makeup, and decide against the black dress. Too symbolic. Too inevitable. I shall cross that bloodbath when I come to it. I stick with the training robes, and grab up my wide brimmed straw hat to keep the sun out of my face. I smile into the mirror. Serviceable and flattering, perhaps even disarming. I am hoping to convey casualness, agreeableness. It is as good as I can make it. The drought is heavy and I have not bathed in twelve days. The ribbon tying back my hair is blue and I consider switching it for green but then Karram calls again and I can no longer delay.
I loudly tramp down the stairs to the door, louder than I must, because I am tired of Karram's shouting and I will not raise my voice in return. “I am coming, cease your bellowing”, my feet shout on my behalf. Karram does not reply, but at least he ceases his shouting. I breathe, and call upon the nahhu and center myself.
Nahhu is clear, and all paths lead to blood. I fool myself and pretend that this time might be different.
It is difficult to find inner peace today, in this heat, with a lesion on a camel’s ass below in the courtyard waiting in all of his idiocy, but nahhu is with me and in sink into it and feel a little better, and so I open the door and step into the sunlight.
My home this week is on the second floor of a building along one end of a courtyard. It’s really nothing but the dead end of a particularly wide alley, so there is but one way in and out. The courtyard is framed by the surrounding buildings behind and to each side. It is quiet; we are sheltered from the more traveled roads. Noise is less here, traffic is less here, violence is less here. Women poke their heads out from windows above, or pull tight doors below, and shoo their children within. Men are not here. Men are at work, in mines or in shops or in fields except for Karram and the ten men behind him with hands on the hilts of their curved blades. Women are sensibly inside, except for me. All this I digest in a moment through the nahhu, and as I step outside, I broaden my awareness through nahhu and into nehhu and beyond into neghhu but not into neghhru because it is a fire that burns, and without thinking or trying I consider the various ways I might climb these buildings and drop, unhindered, in some street beyond, out of reach of those who seek me, without incident. I seek for any path that might lead away, to other towns, other encounters, meetings without blood, without cool steel.
Damn you, Gorgus. Damn you, Peytr. I will not kill again.
Nahhu is clear, and all paths lead to blood, for this is Karram Bloodletter, Karram Peacemaker, Karram Foeslayer, Karam Whatever-The-Hell-He-Is-Calling-Himself-This-Day, and like the lesion on a camel's ass, he finds a way to lure you into the sandstorm, and the whirlwind, and the stinging blindness. Destiny tears away illusions of choice. And behind Karram, bound and kneeling with the sword of Karram's second in command at his throat, is Behtu. And all of the paths leading away from this confrontation end with Behtu’s dismembered corpse delivered to his wife and children. And so the whirlwind is upon me, and destiny spits in my prayers to the goddess but I am a practical woman and so I do not run from it. I turn, and I embrace it, and I step forward, and the nahhu spreads, and I enter the whirlwind with both eyes open, and blood will be spilt today.
Damn you, Gorgus. Damn you, Peytr. I hope you choke on it.
I do not let my emotions show, and I choose to let Karram speak first. And of course he does, because he is a lesion on a camel's ass.
"You have stolen from me, woman!"
"You have broken our contract, lesion on a camel's ass."
Knuckles whiten, slight shifting of weight, settling dust, perspiration, nahhu...
"I hired you to kill this man, and yet here he is, alive. I must do this work myself, and you have the nerve to send me this... note... this excuse?!"
He tosses a scroll at my feet and I do not move to pick it up. I need not read it for I wrote it. It is a simple note:
I told you when you hired me that I am not your enforcer. My skills are wasted on defenseless shopkeepers and their families. Find me a worthy target, and leave the protection racket to the fools you call your Auburn Wind.
I believe Karram is now angry with me, and I understand that this is so because it was my intention.
It all boils down to reputations. It was a mistake to agree to work for the man, but I owned another man a favor, and he owed Karram a favor, so… I did not know that Karam already knew of me, nor the use he intended to make of me. I would have been better off simply absolving my debt by killing the first man. My god would have frowned on it, but he frowns on everything I do these days.
"You were recommended as the best assassin I could buy, and you refuse to kill for me!"
Ah, reputations. "I am the best assassin, and I am not for sale. I kill whom my god demands. I agreed to defend you, and I warned you that I would only deliver a target if my god demanded it be brought before him. You are interested in Behtu. My god is not. You are interested in propping up your ridiculous criminal empire. I am not.”
He bristles at this, but instead sputters, "You took my money!"
"Take it back."
And I toss a pouch of coins at his feet. And for a sensible man this would be the end of the matter. But Karram’s look is calculating, and the camel's ass is twitching as the lesion's brain works and considers because Karram is the kind of man who cannot let things such as his pride rest, and he is possibly also angry that I wrote in large letters "Karram is a lesion on a camel's ass" in a highly visible spot in the market less than a mile away.
I am the flea on the camel, and occasionally, I cannot resist taking a bite.
"You don't seem to understand, missy..."
Nahhu settles, subtle adjustment of sleeve, exhale...
"...I've got my reputation to consider here. See, I'm a respectable businessman.”
(I do not laugh, and I am very proud of myself for this.)
“People expect consistency. I protect my own, and I destroy what threatens them. If I'm not paid, I collect. If I'm insulted, I repay. Behtu here" and he kicks the bound man in the back of the head "didn't pay me what was owed, and then broke the arm of the man I sent to collect. He needs to be made example of. Understand? Same goes for you."
Karram slides closer. Nahhu, evaluation of angles, sunlight glinting on scabbard, lower head slightly, brim of hat shielding eyes, better line of sight if turned just so, rock back gradually on heels of feet, center of balance, pivot point...
"He insulted me, publicly. You insulted me, publicly. Money doesn't fix this. Behtu needs to die, publicly. You need to apologize, publicly. You do that, and then do some work for me, for free, and maybe he dies quickly. Otherwise, he goes slowly, and piecemeal, and I let my boys have you for a plaything."
Now I do laugh, and it echoes, bright and terribly out of place in this scene. I laugh, long and loud, and Karram bristles and his men bluster and finally Karram shouts “This isn’t funny!”
I hold up a hand in placation as I catch my breath, doubled over. Oh, this is so undignified. I have to reach deeply into nahhu to pull myself together, and I can feel the strain, and something within it snaps. Not good. I maintain my composure and my clarity, but the edges start wavering. Nahhu starts wavering. Time to finish this.
I begin to walk forward, and Karram’s second in command flexes, and holds the point of his sword closer to Behtu's throat. A pitiable groan comes from the bound lump of meat and bones that used to look like Behtu before the beatings and the swelling.
I immerse myself in what remains of nahhu, and all of the paths and trajectories point towards the coming blood and not away and already my mind is lost and my body responds to that which has been predetermined. Destiny tears away illusions of choice.
Damn you, Gorgus. Damn you, Peytr.
"So what's it going to be?” smirks Karram. He hooks his thumbs into his belt loops. “You, of all people, should understand the importance of reputation."
Ah, nahhu, now in the hour of our deaths grant us the understanding to reject false illusions.
And he does not realize how closely I have slid up to him, and he does not notice the glint in my eyes, and he does not see my hand come up beneath his chin, and he does not understand as I speak "I understand completely, and I apologize for this, for my reputation demands it" that his end is near, and he does not hear the snick of steel as my blade flashes out and away again to its hidden places, and he does not notice that there is a hole running from underneath his chin through the muscles at his throat and that several veins have been severed entirely, and he falls without outcry, and a spray of bountiful red decorates the front of my robes and the wall to the east.
A butterfly this time. A pleasant surprise. I speak softly.
Wings, fleeting, delicate.
You fly swiftly away
never to return
such is life
such is blood
Nahhu snaps completely and flees and it is only me, Darsena, and the alleyway but the lesion has been removed from the camel's ass, and nine of the ten men have backed up noticeably. Second-in-command still stands with his sword in hand, nervously shifting his weight, but his sword is pointed away from Behtu and so I am generous.
I silently pray that Second-in-command values money and position over pride and loyalty. The smell of blood is in the air, and nahhu is silent and I do not know if all paths lead to more blood or if this meeting will end with mutual understanding. Neghhru sings at me, loudly in my left ear and promises its guidance but I do not dip my toes in it because it is a fire that burns. I decide to try calmness instead of bluster and hope for the best.
Damn you Gorgus. Damn you Petyr. Do not be hungry. Do not be hungry.
I turn towards Second-in-command, removing my blood splattered hat to reveal my face and Second-in-command flinches as I meet his eyes, so I smile. "Are you in charge now?"
He stares at me blankly, stares right through Karram’s crumpled body and only after a minute looks back up, nodding, tensing.
I lean down and grab up the fallen coin pouch. "Here is the money owed to your Auburn Wind." I toss the pouch towards him and he catches it, dropping his sword with a clatter. "Enjoy your new position." He does not appear to be enjoying anything at this moment.
I lean down again and remove Karram's own, much heavier, pouch from within his robes. I stuff it into my own, and replace my hat. Then I stride slowly towards the men who part like water before me, and do not move to restrain me as I lean down and cut Behtu’s bonds, and help him to his feet. He leans against me, heavily. “Can you walk?” I whisper to him.
“I shall fly if you ask,” he says, coughing up some blood of his own. I gently support him and turn and begin walking us towards the end of the alley.
Thank you Gorgus. Thank you Petyr. Thank you for…
“Stop her. Kill him.”
Damn you Gorgus. Damn you Petyr. Damn both of you forever.
I wish Used-to-be-Second-in-Command had just been greedy.
Nahhu is gone and neghhru taunts me but I learned to dance long before I met either of them, and this is an old dance. My hat falls as I turn, and my left leg kicks it up into the nearest man’s face. I drop Behtu and hear him grunt as he smacks the pavement, but my arm is now free and wraps around the arm of the man who just thrust a dagger through that space. I lift, and twist, and break that man’s arm, then spin him away and watch him fall as my own blades come forth. Eight men, plus Used-to-be-Second-in-Command, remain.
I cannot take the time to gently disable them all and still protect Behtu, and so I move swiftly. I duck under the wild swing of the scimitar of the nearest man and glide past him, blade flashing. He staggers back, grabbing at his leaking belly even as I spin and hurl the dagger through the eye of one of his friends. I use his head to vault past him as he falls, ignoring his screams, and kick another one in the face, burying a second dagger in the neck of the one behind him. The one I just kicked shakes his head and rises and manages to grab at my pant leg even as I throw another blade at Used-to-be-Second-in-Command.
My blade goes wide as I stumble, but I spin and place another kick into the chest of Should-have-fallen-when-I-kicked-him and he flails backwards into a wall, collapses and does not move.
Five more, but they’re holding back, standing in a rough semicircle. Smart. Those two in the middle have obviously fought as a team before. Dangerous. I charge the man just to their right instead, spin and yank him so he tumbles into the nearest of the pair, then I engage the other directly. His blade is straight and pointed and he thrusts instead of swings so I slide underneath it and my blade finds his groin. He almost falls on top of me so I roll away and come up behind his partner, who is still hung up with the man I pushed at him. I grab them both by their heads and clonk them together and they fall.
Used-to-be-Second-in-Command and another lackey stand close together, blades trained on me. Used-to-be-Second-in-Commend’s eyes are narrow, calculating. I seize a last chance to end this.
“Walk away, take the gold and your life. Let us call it all even.” I smile, hopefully disarmingly. There is a lot of blood coating my right forearm and probably my face by now.
He’s thinking, and his friend’s blade wavers in hesitation, and for a moment I’m sure he’ll just walk away, but then Used-to-be-Second-in-Command turns his head and hisses. “Mata! Ashkam!”
The smile on my face freezes because Mata, the man whose arm I broke, the first one, is kneeling where he fell next to Behtu, and he is too far away for me to reach, or throw a blade at, or do anything to. And he’s already holding that damn dagger in his other arm now, and he’s glaring at me and wincing, and then he is grunting with effort as he drives the damn thing into Behtu’s chest.
Damn you Gorgus. Damn you Petyr. Are you never satisfied?
The clouds hiding nahhu shatter and it rushes back at the call of my inward screaming and I immerse myself in it fully. Nehhu settles like a mantle over my shoulders, and neghhu girds itself about my loins. Neghhru sings at me, as always, but I ignore it because it is a fire that burns and I do not need it for such as these.
And I do not scream and I do not call out in despair or anger or hatred as I slowly walk up to Mata-who-I-should-have-killed-while-I-had-the-chance, and he tries to slink away but his broken arm obviously is a torment and so I end his pain with a sweep of my arm that slashes his throat and I am already advancing on Used-to-be-Second-in-Command and Next-to-him before Mata-who-I-should-have-killed-while-I-had-the-chance has fallen and neither of those men who remain understands the danger that approaches them and they both attack together, well trained to fight as a pair, but I am no longer dancing so when swords strike I am no longer there and when heads turn I cannot be seen and when Next-to-him falls with his neck snapped his eyes are still open and unblinking in surprise. Used-to-be-Second-in-Command stumbles backwards as I simply approach and duck beneath his desperate sword thrust and grab his wrist and break it and throw his sword away, then force him to his knees and drive my final dagger into his ear.
And all is silent but for the soft thud of his body hitting the ground, and the sound of a single baby wailing, and the terrified murmuring and prayers of women sensibly locked away and hoping I will just leave when I am finished here.
I step away, nahhu and nehhu and neghhu suffocating me and demanding an acknowledgment and I turn to take in the scene.
Blood everywhere. Bodies sprawled. It does not look like a butterfly, or a cricket, or a house, or a man, or anything but a jumbled mess of futility. I pick up my crimson stained hat.
Futility, futility, futility.
Life is futility.
Blood is futility
I banish nahhu and nehhu and neghhu and vow never to call upon that power again and know that my vow is meaningless and empty, as it is every time.
Somewhere, neghhru giggles, and I ignore it.
And it is only me, Darsena, and the alleyway, and I have no guidance and I can see no paths but I am at the end of the path and there is nothing here but blood because destiny tears away illusions of choice. I gather up my blades, and wipe them clean and ruin my robes and secret them away in their hidden places. The few men I did not kill are groaning and I ignore them while I stoop to check on Behtu, but he is dead, so I leave him where he lies.
I leave the alley and move into the public street and the noise and the distraction and I ignore such things and walk towards Behtu’s house quickly, ignoring stares and questions and murmurs and I walk quickly into the house, place Karram’s pouch of gold upon the table and quickly walk out before Behtu’s wife and children can react. I do not meet their eyes. I do not answer their questions.
I turn and enter another alleyway nearby and move out of sight before finding a suitable spot to climb to the roofs. I lift myself upwards and over the edge and sprawl onto my back. I hear the stamping of feet, the shouting of voices and the clanging of arms. Guards have been called, I am sure. People are terrified. I am covered in blood.
I lie on the roof and let the sun beat upon me. I say nothing. I do not cry.
Lunch time passes. I lie on the roof and let the sun beat upon me. I say nothing. I do not cry.
Dinner comes, and the lights are lit. I lie on the roof and let the sun’s final rays slide over me. I say nothing. I do not cry.
Darkness falls fully, and I slide off of the roof, slip through the alleys unseen and unheard, and finally reach the city wall. I say nothing. I do not cry.
I know this spot well, and there is a small culvert here in the wall leading outside of the city. It is wet, and it is smelly, but it is big enough for me. It is not grated or sealed. I slip through, and soon I creep out into the tall grass beyond the city walls. I move away, through the grass, into the brush farther away, into the thistles and brambles that tear at my robes and my flesh and I throw myself into the bushes a distance from the city and lie on my back, staring at the stars.
I lie in the bushes and let the bugs crawl over me. I let out a scream. My eyes blur and all of the tears I held back before come spilling out. My nose is running.
I curl myself into a ball and weep and give my water to the dead, even unto Karram, the lesion on a camel's ass who never comprehended the doom that had enveloped him. I weep for Behtu and Mata and even Used-to-be-Second-in-Command-who-used-to-be-alive. I scream the names of their deaths into the night, and know that somewhere, far away, my god is smiling.
Damn you, Gorgus.
Damn you, Petyr!
I vow never to call upon that power again and know that my vow is meaningless and empty, as it is every time.
And it is only me, Darsena, and the bushes, and nahhu is gone. I weep, bitterly, and I wail and I beat at my head and at my breasts, and I rip the blue hair ribbon from my hair and hurl it away.
It hovers and flutters in the wind and falls at the feet of the woman standing there, gown glittering and seeming to shine golden, her green hair looking all the more out of place here in the midst of auburn and yellow and red. The brambles should be ripping up her dress, but she stands among them as if in the eye of the whirlwind, calm in the sandstorm.
She is the whirlwind. She is the sandstorm.
I am suddenly aware of just how filthy I am, and that it has been twelve days since I have bathed. I feel the power radiating from this woman, the force contained within her, straining as if to break, and I have no shelter against it. Nahhu is gone, and I cannot find it, and it is only me, Darsena, and the bushes.
But then she smiles, and it is stunning from within her frame of green hair and she reaches down and collects a single tear from my cheek with her fingertip, then straightens again. Fear melts away, and I suddenly find nahhu again, and the power settles back upon me and all of the paths and trajectories point to this woman and her golden robes, and not away, and so I embrace destiny, and reject the illusions of choice and I embrace the whirlwind, and I look up towards her expectantly.
She smiles again, and offers her hand. "Dear child. Have you given any thought to traveling?"
Sanity, oh goddess.
She's back, then!
Erin comes striding into the hall through the postern door, green hair streaming behind her, golden robes fluttering in the breeze that always seems to follow her wherever she goes. Somehow in my latest madness I ended up here in the large hall they use for dining, just one immense chamber in this even more immense network of caves, and I am sitting at a large table of oak, I think, and there's food in front of me. Ooh! A leg of lamb and some bread. They still care for me even in my moments of insensibility, and I'm a bit ashamed at that, though I'm still grateful, especially for the food. I'm gladder to see Erin though, and I smile to her as she glides towards me, all gold and green, and the one certain center of my existence. She pauses only a moment to kiss my cheek, then turns to face Sini who has just come up behind.
Sini stops, looks her up and down, and then slaps her across the face. "Are you mad?!"
Erin stares back and him, and I do not move from my chair. She'd be greatly offended if I ever dared to try to defend her honor, and she does not need my help. She remains dignified.
"We have waited long enough."
"The Jewel shows nothing! The future is uncertain! You KNOW this, damn you! You have asked before, and we have told you no!"
"And I decided differently."
"So you took it upon yourself to go out into the human world and set things in motion, despite our edicts, despite the interdiction!"
"I do what I think is right."
"You are blinded by your love for this... mortal man." He says it like it's a disease, and I think I might just be offended.
Erin quietly motions with her hands for me to stay put, rounding on Sini angrily. "You are blinded by fear. You are letting fear of the unknown tie our hands when we should be out there in the world, acting. Did you even know that the Hyth-Tao is burning? Do you know how many people have died already? Even one of us could have incinerated that entire army, and you would have us stay here and wait!
Sini pinches his brow, grimacing. "People die. Villages burn. Empires rise and fall, all without our help. Do you remember what happened the last time we meddled in the affairs of the world when the prophecies were unclear? We had the god's damned CATACLYSM to enjoy! And with things this unclear again, you'd still act?"
"Doing nothing is acting just as much as doing something. And what I saw in the Jewel was worse than any cataclysm."
Sini stares at her for a moment, implications settling in. “What YOU saw...?” Then he roars: "YOU DARED?!"
And Sini is gone, and in his place is a massive dragon of red scales, flames licking at his lips, bearing down on Erin.
And she stands her ground, and just as suddenly is gone herself, and in her place is a green scaled wyrm. She absorbs the blow that carries them both against the far wall, but is just as quickly gone, shifting around and behind Sini, griping him and slamming his massive form against the wall once, twice, three times, and then into the ground, her fangs on his neck.
The furniture is ruined, and my lunch has been trampled underfoot. I'm sitting in a chair in the middle of a cave with two dragons wrestling mere feet away. And damn it, I'm still hungry.
Erinnius growls, her words coming without need of sound of mouths.
I. DARE. And the future is unclear because everything, EVERYTHING, depends on our actions. We know what will happen if we do not act. Nothing. The same plodding darkness and cycle of destruction and rebuilding and death, and a final end when the darkness falls.
She slowly removes her fangs from his neck, slides backwards, and seems to blur until only Erin, a lady in golden robes and green hair is standing there. Sini glares at her from his back, smoke rising from his nostrils, but likewise returns to a more human form.
She helps him to his feet. "You've seen them in the Jewel. I know you and all of the others have, and I had to know for sure who you were talking about. I had to look. They're the key, don't you understand? We need to get them all together, get them all working together, and maybe, if we're lucky, we can undo the damage that's been done."
Sini wipes a spot of blood from the corner of his mouth. "You arrogant bitch. You think this is all about you and your mate over there."
I try to look inconspicuous.
"You've sealed it; you've set it in motion, now it's on your own head. I’ve looked into the darkness myself. I know what waits for us if we act prematurely, if you fail! We have no other choice now. Things will rise, or fall, based on your plan. There's no other option. The world will thrive, or it will burn, one or the other, and there’s a better than equal chance of the latter."
He strides dramatically from the room, pausing at the doorway. "You had better damn well hope you know what you're doing."
She waves and a fireball hits him squarely in the face. He stalks away, grumbling and literally smoking.
No one ever claimed life with dragons was dull.
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