The map, drawn by long-dead hands in some isolated monastery, was jostled by the head that landed on it and ruined in a spray of blood. The head, eyes goggling at its predicament, once brown, was now blue black. The blood a perfect, bright red.
All at the table recognized the head. It was Tamras, the Durani ambassador. A fat, jovial man who peppered his conversation with constant praise that said, “I know this is your land, but never forget that I represent the largest army in the world.”
On one end of the table was Samdat, the Speaker of the Law, the dead Khan’s most trusted advisor.
Nandanna, the dead Khan’s daughter, flung the head from the other end of the table. She smiled, unevenly, and wiped her glove on a nearby merchant lord, ruining his silks with one, long, bored swipe of blood and gore. The man squealed in fear and stepped out of her way.
“I see I have the attention of court.” Nandanna pulled her sword as the men at the table all took a step back. “I demanded writs of fealty from all here, and received only four. Must it come to this? Where is your loyalty to my father!” Nandanna’s eyes marked each man, one by one. None returned her gaze, not even those who had already sworn their fate to hers. There were other heirs, for certain, but few that could match her abilities.
“Just as I predicted, the Durani pigs have taken advantage of my father’s death to attack our lands. They think we’re weakened. I will show them that we are not. I demand the crown!”
“This is not the law,” Samdat said, his voice low and far away. “While we are at war, there can be no ascension to the Saddle Throne.”
“Then I demand troops! I shall behead their Emperor Hamazi and piss in the hole, just as I opened his lying ambassador like a spring hog!”
“My princess, it is too late, the troops have left the city,” Samdat replied.
Nandanna’s rage overcame her, but only for an instant.
“Where have they gone?”
“To Aram at the fork.”
“On whose authority!?”
The sound of a man clearing his throat in the dark, beyond the lamps made all eyes turn. Rudatha, Nandanna’s toad-like brother, stepped from a curtained alcove behind Samdat. His talcum covered hand gestured to the exit, gracefully. The remainder of the court filed out and the siblings were alone.
“Father would have met the Durani and turned them back!” Nandanna’s vitriol wilted in the face of her brother’s eerie confidence. “Do you have nothing to say? Are you in league with Hamazi the soft? The master of trinkets? It has always been so with you. You know nothing of father’s ways of war! He taught me to-”
Her voice froze when Rudatha cut her off with a wave of his pink, fat hand. He was called the Spider Prince, because everyone knew that his web of spies streched from one end of the Dominion to the other, and beyond; few secrets ever eluded him. His presence made even the stoutest souls noticeably uncomfortable. As Rudatha emerged, even Nandanna had to draw upon her deep reservoirs of courage just to meet his gaze. She hated him for that.
“I offer you a word of advice, my sister, because I love you as I loved our father,” His voice was sprite-like and young beyond its years. “Rule is what lies between what is said and what is understood.” The Spider was pleased with himself, she knew; gloating. He developed the habit as a child at court. Giggling. Watching. It was his weakness.
Recovering her nerve, Nandanna turned and smiled. She was pleased to watch him jump and catch that momentary glimpse of uncertainty on his face. The Spider stank of perfume and his face was caught between grin and grimace as Nandanna approached. Looking down on him, she seized his shoulders in her hands, she felt his muscles tense to react but then go soft in submission. He was so weak.
“I would offer my own advice, brother. It is something father used to say when talking about you: even clever monkeys fall from trees.” Nandanna squeezed him then, hard, until his breath caught, lifting his feet off the ground for a moment; then she released him. “Consider that while I go now, to Aram, to take command of our forces. Wish us luck, brother.” She dropped him and closed the door behind her as she left.
The Spider stood, alone, smiling in the dark. “That’s it, my sister; be a good girl and rush off to claim your prize.”
Raja Sudhamra considered the map again and looked back upon the messenger. The boy was young, but his markings indicated he was one to be watched. Dahr was his name, a slum child of the lower city who scrabbled his way into the corps, just like Sudharma had. Dahr’s uniform was perfect, but missing one thing: the red rubies that marked battlefield victories. He was all too eager to earn them.
The boy was likely to be dead within the next moon.
“Is there word from the Sublime Court?”
“Just the ‘All Forward’ message.”
“And what does this make you feel?” Sudhamra was fully uniformed himself, dressed as a soldier several steps below his actual station. They called him the Beggar King, but he looked more like a military captain on leave, lost in some grand palace, not the ruler of the Lower Durani Empire and vassal of the great Emperor Hamazi. As he and the boy walked, their voices and footsteps echoed in the rooms of worked metal and stone.
Dahr’s face betrayed no fear, only caution. This boy was one to watch, though he couldn’t know how close the Empire once came to breaking upon the rock that was the Khan. Fifteen years ago, at Rue, the Gudanna armies nearly encircled all four arms of the Durani’s ponderous defense, all four winds.
“I…This soldier’s will is the will of the Empire.”
“A very careful answer for one so young,” Raja Sudhamra said. He crossed the room, away from the map that was his one demanded extravagance, a perfect representation of the frontier, of the Khan’s fortresses. His mines. His roads. There was no supposition on Sudhamra’s part. These things would belong to the Khan, alive or dead, until his last heir was in the ground and the Durani flag flew over the golden Saddle Throne.
“Why do you suppose that of all the indulgences I might demand as Raja, I have requested only this map? It is known I am frugal, yes?”
“Yes sir; it is known. I believe you have the map to plan strategy, sir. Yet you gaze upon it like one treasures a lock of a lover’s hair. The map conjures memories—perhaps, a lesson that must never be forgotten?”
The emerald marking Rue on Sudhamra’s map would forever remind the Raja of his two thousand men of the Western Wind turned inside out and scattered on the field of battle. At the end of every one of their last moments on this world, was the Khan on his Sand Lion—the terror of Eretsu, banner flapping in the wind, rich with the smell of blood. Sudharma was Raja now only because he had survived that day.
War was not coming, it was already here. Even now, it rushed to fill in the empty spaces, a poison of the mind that undid everything in its wake, a thread once pulled which unravelled the world. War—the thing he fought so hard to end, an idea that was repugnant to him; empty of honor and meaning. He had seen too many things in his time to have any illusions. He must teach this; his people must learn and understand it, before he himself waded into the fire. He was not likely to return.
“Precisely,” Sudharma answered. They boy still did not see. The Raja scanned the map again, his mind running the calculations. Two dozen army groups would have crossed the frontier by now on the Emperor’s order. Yalo, that idiot, will have marched his huge force right past the raiders at Metis. Luja and her moronic brother must have already seized Two Rock, as if anything in the world could keep it once the Gudanna regrouped. One may as well try to hold on to the sun.
The mantle of protector and general would again fall to him. The Durani Empire would challenge the world with its might, and wait for its response. It will fall upon him to make up the difference between Durani might, and Durani self-confidence, a gap only the Raja could fill. With his mind’s eye he saw a thousand Gudanna Golems on a hill, flying the banners of the Khan—dead, revered. He saw the Durani Empire burning, each city a charnel house filled with a hundred thousand dead. He saw his civilization in its tomb.
“And why do we fight?”
“The Empire fights for the glory of—,” the boy began.
“No, No, No!” Sudharma roared, his voice echoing like a thunderclap. The boy kept his ground but disappeared into himself as the Raja grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to the balcony window and flung open its shutters. The city below leapt in. A thousand sounds. Someone selling food. Someone yelling. A distant song. Children laughing, just below, nearby.
“Not for glory. We fight for our People!”
The boy, Dahr, trembled, looking out the window upon the stone towers of the city, and the clear blue sky. The Raja stepped past him back to the map, anger instantly gone.
“Say it,” the Raja said.
“We fight for our people, sir,” Dahr said, and something in his voice changed. Lesson learned.
“The Emperor fights for glory, but you and I must fight for our people. They are the only thing worth fighting for,” Raja Sudhamra said.
Outside the window, a Western wind was rising.
The Horned Blight stopped, but the clanking of its burden continued, as it reached the edge of the stream. The mass of bone twitched and shifted, as nervous as its rider. The Urugal Knight, Raza Osa Bin Beleem, jumped down to consider the mud. The moment he left his Golem, it lost its spark and became a frozen statue of bones.
Beleem was looking for tracks. A clear trickle of water ran in a thin line through a sea of red mud. There were scattered markings, but they were indecipherable to his eyes. He was not of the Forest Folk.
“All is well, girl,” Beleem whispered to his Golem.
Above him, the trees seemed to lean in close and listen. He lnoticed the cloud of gnats and flies that were attracted by his Horned Blight and smiled. This Golem was crafted before the Khan came to power. His father gave it to him at his naming ceremony. Ever since, he and the Blight were inseparable, traveling first the upper empire and now the lower.
Somehow he seemed to commune with the beast.
“Zikia raiders? Nonsense! You always did have an overactive imagination.”
Earlier, Beleem crossed the frontier into the Samula lands in the Akka Woods at the dawn, trying to find his way to Zul Basir on the other side of the forest. It was a shortcut which might save him a week, but which could just as easily end with his head on a pike. Within these woods, no law held, though they fell within the borders claimed by the Durani Empire. Here the Emperor was only just another a man.
“Whom do you serve?,” a strange voice asked.
The figure had been standing opposite him for some time, it seemed. A Zikia tribeswoman—stout and tall and covered head-to-toe in robes. Her hands were painted with dried red mud. She wore no weapons.
Beleem was foolish but not foolish enough to believe they were alone.
“Interesting question that,” Beleem said as he removed a Durani gold cup from his robes, He lifted the cup to his lips, sipped some water and spat it out. “Some say I serve myself. Others, who have bought my service, would say I serve them—Durani, Gudanna, those with coin. My mother said ‘Beleem, you serve only your stomach!” I wonder, Zikia lord, what you will say of me?”
“If you babble on like this, I shall say ‘he died slowly.’” the tribeswoman said. Suddenly, the tree behind Beleem took an enormous stride forward. Towering twice as high as his own Golem, the Wildwood Dryad was certainly imposing. Beleem had to crane his neck to take it all in. If this was his end then at least there was some wonder in it.
“Still others say ‘Beleem holds the secrets of the Ancients,’” the Urugal said, smiling up at the Zikia Dryad. He gestured to a pack on the back of his Horned Blight.
“Why should I trust an Urugal? Your words are bought and sold along with your loyalty.”
“You should know that death is the greatest reward you might give me. But I will say this: there is one thing I love above all others, and that is a good deal!”
The Zikia tribeswoman stepped forward. As she approached Beleem, she left no marks in the mud. “Relics?,” she asked, suddenly interested.
“The finest in the southern Empire,” Beleem followed.
“Do you have something that might teach the Durani some respect for our tribelands? The stone lords cross our territory, burn our trees, and insult us at every turn,” the Zikia said. She unwrapped the veil that covered her face and Beleem noticed that her teeth were stained a deep green. Her eyes were purple, and she wore a curious jewel in her nose.
Beleem produced an amulet from a hidden pocket in his robes. He always kept his valuables out of sight. He was no fool.
“I have just the thing, the Shard of Jahar — the power of the earthquake!”
The Zikia lord grabbed for the trinket. She was fast, but when money was involved, Beleem was faster.
“Since we’ve already established that you Zikia are so much more honorable than we lowly Urugal, I’m sure you’d be willing to discuss a fair price!”
The knight was on fire. And screaming.
You don’t see things like this in Kutastha, the capital city of the great Gudanna Dominion. Its streets are renowned for their absolute safety, thanks to the vigilant watch of the city’s elite Araksa guard. And you certainly don’t see such things within the walls of the capital’s royal palace. And it would be impossible to see this in the hallways of the palace. Events like this don’t happen here. It is safe, in the heart of the Dominion. It is secure.
And yet Archa could see the knight, her chest and sicarana raider’s scarf ablaze—her hair a swirling inferno, her dark armor growing darker and charred beneath the hellfire. He could hear her wails behind her battle-mask. The shrieks were almost song-like, hypnotic, breathless. And he could see the monstrous golem upon which she rode—an armor-plated Sand Lion—roaring in pain as well, its sand-sculpted paws scrabbling against the hall’s polished mosaic floor tiles, desperate for traction as it ran. Its massive form smashed through several support columns in this hallway, trampling at least a dozen people.
Archa dove for cover as the flaming knight and Sand Lion ran on, screaming, ever-onward through the great hall, crushing everything in their path. Next came a terrible thunderclap that shook the walls: Archa glanced over his shoulder and spotted the blackened and bleeding—and dear gods, still-screaming—form of the knight, thrown from her steed. The Sand Lion had smashing its boulder-sized, sorcery-forged skull into the hall’s far wall. The spells that had formed it were unwinding, and the golem was unbecoming. Its sludgy wet sand innards spilled out of its head wound. Countless tears appeared across its toughened hide. The beast howled a final time, and then its guts burst forth from all the tears at once. The thing had returned to the materials from which it was forged: sand and mud and blood.
The knight kept screaming. It was dreadful.
Archa wanted to help the soldier, but couldn’t. Not now. Not with so much at stake. Moments ago, the peaceful nighttime silence had been shattered by explosions in the North Wing of the palace, where the servants’ quarters were located. Great fireballs—created either by physical sabotage or sorcery, it was far too early to tell—had blasted great holes throughout the wing, spewing flaming debris and bodies throughout the walkways and halls. Archa had been walking throughout the palace, a late-night contemplative ritual he’d picked up in his middle age to help him sleep, when the explosions had began.
Archa knew this place. He loved this place. He’d lived here for the past decade, invited to reside here by Jahnu himself, the Great Khan of the Gudanna. Archa was a Raja-Khan—a powerful noble role he’d been granted after retiring as an esteemed Sultan commander from the Dominion’s Golem army. He’d spent the past ten years as an advisor to the Great Khan, and a mentor to his eldest son. They had been good years. The Dominion had grown. The Ancient Ones had blessed them.
And now, someone was setting fire to the North Wing. Archa’s tactician’s mind went into overdrive, quickly assessing the chaos here and what must be unfolding in the other wings … Especially the Great Gardens where the Khan’s children were housed, and the Inner Ward, the home of the Khan himself. Those buildings were safe from the fire.
But they might not be safe from whoever started the fire.
The North Wing was filled with servants. No one invaded the royal palace to kill servants.
This is a diversion, he thought, as he saw the inferno spread to the great hall far before him. The family is the true target.
Archa didn’t know this, not for certain. This wasn’t a rational deduction; this wasn’t something that would hold up to intellectual scrutiny. It was simply a sense of knowing: a sense of certainty that comes from decades of battlefield cunning, and duplicitous dealings beyond the front lines. It was the certainty that accompanied Archa’s awful thought: Because that is what I’d do.
“You! Guards!” he barked to a small group of passing Araksa patrol-soldiers. They stopped running and stood at attention. The highest-ranking Araksa, a young guard named Gadha, he recalled, stood straight, her eyes set ahead, focused, as if the world around her wasn’t descending into hell. A soldier behind her, a recruit, was less composed. His eyes darted about their surroundings, wracked with dread. He shifted from foot to foot, barely resisting the urge to run.
“Araksa Gadha, you will write these words on your heart. You will commit yourself to them, and you will not fail. Do you understand?” Archa asked. After the woman barked an affirmative, he continued. “Head to your nearest dispatch station and pass along these orders: Any soldiers not on duty are, as of right now. They are to be sent to the perimeter walls, to protect against threats beyond the capital. This may be the prelude of an invasion. After that, tell your men here to head to the Great Gardens. They must protect the Great Khan’s heirs and wards, no matter the cost.”
“Yes, Raja-Khan!” the Araksa screamed.
Archa continued. “Once you’ve sent them off, you and you” —he nodded to the frantic-eyed recruit— “will return here, to me. I’ll need you for something else, something important.”
The young recruit blinked. “Uh … Me?” he peeped.
Archa ignored him. “Araksa, are we clear?”
“Yes, Raja-Khan!” the woman screamed.
“Go,” Archa commanded, and they did.
The young recruit looked as if he was about to piss his tunic. Good. Fear—be it of the enemy, or of a glowering, screaming superior officer—was good. It made the mind sharp, and the senses even sharper.
Archa whirled around, dedicating his full attention to the flames now. The inferno was intense, but he’d seen worse. This could be contained. The North Wing, and many of its residents, could be saved … If they had someone leading the effort.
He glanced about. Dozens of servants ran and screamed, unhinged.
It would be him. Of course it would be him. Archa the Unrelenting, Archa the Grievous, the Khan-Blessed.
Back when he’d commanded Golem legions, his soldiers had said he was a born leader. Now, the politicians said so. This was foolishness. Leadership is not bestowed by destiny. It is a malleable characteristic, fleeting and fluid, best discovered and fostered by the mighty. It is earned through trials.
That’s what had happened to Archa, all those decades ago. The Great Khan himself had watched him swing a sword and ride a scarred, bleeding Sand Viper. He’d observed Archa—then barely a Golem Knight—rally a handful of his panicked brethren at the Assault of Bhiru. They’d won that battle. And that evening, the Great Khan Jahnu—looking like a nightmare made flesh in his barbed, battle-scarred armor and blood-soaked scarves—had arrived on the field, pointed to Archa, and asked, What is your name, mighty Knight? Archa might have pissed his own tunic with fright had he not pissed it all out on the battlefield earlier that day.
The Khan had taken Archa under his wing. He’d taught him how to be more than a warrior. He’d taught him how to strategize, to anticipate, to see far beyond the tip of a sword.
No. Leaders are not born. They are forged in fire.
“You, you, and YOU!” he bellowed, to three terrified servants, here in the hall. “To me! Now! We must stop this blaze before it reaches the high palace!”
Within minutes, he’d ordered a smart assembly of fire brigades to douse the inferno. The flames were mostly clustered in the wing’s storage and living quarters sections. Things would soon be under control. Good. He could leave now. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to check in on the Great Khan, to ensure his decades-long friend was hale and hearty. Valuable minutes had passed. Were anything to happen to the Khan, the Dominion wouldn’t easily recover.
The two Araksa patrol-soldiers—Gadha and the panicked recruit—returned from their errand, breathless.
“What’s your name?” he asked the young man.
“Yuvaka,” he gasped.
“Yuvaka, it’s time you learned some things about the world,” Archa said. “You and Araksa Gadha will come with me now. We must save the Great Khan.”
~ ~ ~
The trek to the Inner Ward was brisk, but tiring. Archa wasn’t a young man anymore, and he did precious little sprinting these days. And whose idea was it to not only place the Inner Ward in the very heart of the palace … But to build it atop three hundred and thirty-three steps, anyway?
You did, he thought, as he ascended the remaining dozen steps, desperately fighting back several lung-wracking wheezes. He’d breathe later. All that mattered now was the Khan.
Thirty years ago, this city belonged to the Durani Empire. After the Dominion had conquered and claimed it—renaming it Kutastha—the Khan audaciously decreed that it would become the Dominion’s new capital. This city would be reshaped by his vision, and in the Gudanna style. This proclamation had further incensed the Durani, and sparked what became the final years of the great Durani-Gudanna wars, which concluded at the valley of Rue. By wars’ end, both empires had nearly exhausted their resources, and their peoples’ spirits.
Archa had consulted the Great Khan on the reconstruction of Kutastha, and on the city’s security. Elevating the palace’s Inner Ward above much of the city had been Archa’s idea.
Archa and his younger companions completed their ascent, and stopped. Standing before the entrance of the Inner Ward—twin doors as tall as some of the greatest trees in Mahatavi, the great northern Forest of Forests—stood a dozen well-armed and armored Royal Guards. They inspired dread in all but the strongest-willed men and women. Standing several meters before them was Samdat, the Speaker of the Law. This wispy-haired elder had forsaken his given name seven years ago when he’d assumed the role of the Dominion’s highest arbiter of mandates and protocol.
Archa eyed the man. Even now, well after midnight, the elderly man was impeccably dressed in jeweled robes. He was a fastidious man, known for being as polite as he was shrewd … In the courtroom, anyway. Away from officious eyes, the man was ruthlessly blunt.
“Let us pass,” Archa said. “I must see to the Great Khan’s safety.”
The Speaker of the Law shook his head. His wispy waist-length beard swayed to and fro, parroting the motion.
“Raja-Khan Archa,” the Speaker said, bowing slightly. “It is an honor. However, you know the law. No one may enter or leave the Inner Ward after sunset.”
Archa gritted his teeth. The great Gudanna Dominion needed men like this. It simply didn’t need men like this this very second.
“Do you not hear the wails from the North Wing?” he snapped back. “Can you not smell the smoke? Let us through. We must check on the Khan!”
“Respectfully, Raja-Khan—” the Speaker began, but Archa stepped past him. He made it four more strides before he was shoved back by a towering Royal Guard. The massive, barrel-chested brute held a bladed spear as tall as two men.
“How dare…” Archa began.
The guard’s expression remained stony. His eyes, however, were apologetic … But only slightly. Orders were orders. Law was law. Archa held back a swear.
“It is the law,” the Speaker said. “No one can pass. Not even I.”
“This is a diversion, you old fool!” Archa cried. “A palace-wide distraction! If the royals are in danger, this very thing—this time-wasting foolishness right here, right now, this very moment as I’m speaking—is precisely what the enemy wants! What if this is an assassination attempt on the Khan?! Damn you, let me pass!”
Behind him, recruit Yuvaka unsheathed his curved shortsword.
“We’re with you, Raja-Khan,” the young man said. His voice trembled, but there was a steel there, for which Archa was grateful. He knew he’d chosen well.
“We’re with you till death,” his other companion, Araksa Gadha, affirmed.
The Speaker of the Law’s eyes widened. “Madness!” he said. “And what if you’re the very enemies you claim to hunt? What if you’re the assassins-to-be? Shall I let a king-killer into the Khan’s very own chambers?”
“Damn it! You know me better than that!” Archa screamed. He glanced at the Royal Guards, intent on making his point—if not to the Speaker, than to them. “I helped the Khan conquer more lands than you’ll ever see. Hells, the Khan asked me to mentor and raise his eldest child! I loved him and his family. My loyalty is absolute!”
“And you know me,” the Speaker said. “And you know the only way to sway me is to slay me. Which will in turn spell your own death by the swords behind me. You’re one of the Dominion’s greatest warriors, Raja-Khan, but there are a dozen of the palace’s best soldiers here, and even more past the great doors. You can’t kill us all.”
“Were I thirty years younger,” Archa retorted, “I’d make a liar out of you.”
The old man offered him a grim smile. “Begone,” he said, “before you do something you’ll regret.”
Turn back, Archa thought. Now. Go to the Great Garden. Look after the Khan’s heirs and wards. You’ll be granted access there, without question. Leave this matter to the Royal Guard. They’ll look after your friend. Stay out of this.
Go, his mind said.
“No,” he heard himself say.
He felt his hand reach for his own blade, knowing this was suicide. But when one lives a warrior’s life—a life without compromise, a life in which victory is the only truly acceptable outcome—one does not cower before men. Especially gods-damned bureaucrats.
The world became a whirlwind, moving far too fast: the sword was free of its scabbard now, and glittering before him, and the Speaker’s eyes were transfixed on the steel, incredulous, and the blades of a dozen men behind the Speaker were free now, and Archa knew this was insanity, but if his blood must spill tonight to save the Dominion, so be it, no compromise, no retreat, no regrets—
A woman’s scream, barely audible through the great doors’ highwood, shattered the silence.
And now, the screams were words: a dreadful chant, a mantra for a Dominion gone mad.
“The Khan is dead!” the voice wailed. “The Khan is dead! The Khan is dead!”
~ ~ ~
Ten years ago, when Archa had helped the Great Khan conceive the floor plan of the Inner Ward, his lord master had made only one architectural demand. He required that a great windowless room, fitting specific and unusual specifications, be built within its walls. This great room, which the Khan had called Valaga, was built.
To Archa’s surprise, it was never used.
To simply not use a room seemed strange to Archa … Especially one as grand as this, with its single tall door, ten-meter-tall domed ceiling, expansive circular design, and bricked walls made of pure snowstone. The thing had always been a mystery to Archa. Why had the Khan built this, only to let it become forgotten and gather dust? The leader had unimaginable wealth, yes—but because of his sandswept youth, he’d always had little patience for waste. It was unlike him.
However, now, it was clear the place had a use, after all. Archa stood in the doorway of the peculiar round room. The snowstone bricks were here, of course, but they weren’t blank anymore. They were covered in thousands of scarlet glyphs, line after line of them, painted upon nearly every brick. They went as high as the ceiling.
What had the Great Khan been doing in here? And for how long had he been doing it?
The Great Khan’s body lay in the center of the room. When Archa had first seen it a few moments ago, he could barely believe his eyes. Jahnu had been unstoppable. Jahnu was unkillable. And yet here he was, Archa’s mentor and friend for nearly forty years, lying in a large and dreadful puddle of black blood, a long jiva knife embedded in his heart, up to the hilt.
The Khan’s own hand was on the hilt.
Tattooed on the Khan’s wrist were the first of many protection sigils—a series of tattoos that went up the man’s arm, nearly up to the shoulder. These sigils, applied by shamans and priests over the years, protected the Great Khan from spells of all sorts.
The room smelled of incense and sweat. Five large mounds of sand, each taller than a man and of a different color and consistency—from far-flung regions of Eretsu, most likely—were placed at equidistant points in the room. Peppered on the surface of these mounds were dozens of candles. They were all aflame, yet bled no wax.
This was sorcery, of course. All of it. Archa didn’t know much about magics, but it was clear this wasn’t some kind of idle cantrip the Khan had been performing. If the scarlet iconography and strange ever-burning candles represented what Archa thought they did—what Archa had been once told about long ago, in a darkened battlefield tent, by a beautiful woman—this breed of magic was long-dead. This unholy spell was a remnant from another when, from an age of unspeakable horror and wonder, from when the Ancient Ones roamed Eretsu. This was before they ascended to godhood, many millennia ago. This was Zri magic. Pre-Arcanum.
Zri wasn’t just one of the most-ancient magics, the beautiful woman had told him back then, before they’d made love. It was one of the most complex and dangerous.
What interest did the Great Khan have in Zri magic?
Archa asked this question now, and many others, to Kana, the rattled, weepy maid who’d discovered the Khan’s body minutes ago. She recited what she knew: the Great Khan had given her strict instructions to bring food and drink to the great room at precisely thirty-three minutes past the Hour of the Beetle. As far as Kana had known, this would have been the only food the Khan would’ve consumed for at least a day. He—and three sorcerers—had been locked in Valaga for at least that long, maybe longer.
The timing had been important, Kana said … Though the Great Khan hadn’t been told why.
It probably had to do with the spell, Archa reckoned. It would probably be over by then.
“Raja-Khan, I swear on my father’s heart that I know nothing more,” the woman said, here in the room. Archa had cornered her, and the two guards who’d accompanied her to deliver the food, for questioning.
“And you—none of you—saw the three sorcerers leave this room?” Archa asked the group.
They solemnly shook their heads. Damn it.
He dismissed the maid and guards. He frowned, taking in the scene.
His soul ached. His friend was dead on the floor. No. The Khan been far more than a friend. He’d been Archa’s lord master, and the reshaper of Eretsu—a man whose will could cow the whole world.
The emotions were too much: the rage, the sadness, the desire to tear apart this room, white brick by white brick. It was by sheer will alone that Archa didn’t tumble to the ground and weep for the kingdom’s loss. This was the unraveling of his world, of the Dominion’s world. It was a thing that could not be fully understood.
The emotions, the sorrow, they’d have to wait. Movement was necessary now. Movement. Momentum. Justice would propel him for the time being. Justice … And vengeance.
“Raja-Khan,” said recruit Yuvaka. Archa had ordered the young man and Araksa Gadha to stay close. Why, he couldn’t precisely say. Because it had felt right? Because it had felt good to have company, in a kingdom presently turning upside down? Because it would’ve been something the Khan might have done?
“Yes,” Archa said, pulling his eyes away from the great puddle of black blood on the sandstone and ruby floor. Black blood. Spellblood. But the Khan was protected from every imaginable spell, wasn’t he? The tattoos on his arm…
“Did the Great Khan kill himself?” the young soldier asked.
“No,” Archa said. “I can’t believe he’d do that.”
Now Gadha piped up. “Why, sir?”
Archa shook his head. “Why would anyone spend so long building an empire—conquering so many peoples and lands, absorbing so many societies and bloodlines into the Gudanna culture—and end it like this? It defies everything I know of the man. His was an exacting mind. His was an ambitious and rational mind.”
He turned to the young man.
“Do you know the territories from where the Great Khan hailed? What our great leader was, before he was our great leader?”
The recruit shook his head.
Archa gave him a bittersweet smile. “He was poor. Son of a lower clan lord, in the southern sands. He was Urugal: a death-obsessed scavenger, a bone swindler. But he saw wisdom in gazing beyond his tribeland borders. He thirsted for something his clan had never known: greatness. The world had never known a mind like his.”
In those ensuing years of conquest, the Great Khan hadn’t only pursued knowledge of the numerous ancient magics that forge golems: Arcanum Durani, Arcanum Zikia and many minor arcana. He had discovered an entirely new one, powered by sand and blood and might: Arcanum Gudanna. And with that discovery, the Dominion had grown … and its unshakable rivals, the Durani, had trembled. The Durani, who’d become fat and slow—slaves to their opulence and elaborate, archaic caste systems and traditions—had been well on their way to falling, forever. The Arcanum of blood had been key.
“A mind like that would never do this,” Archa concluded, nodding at the Khan’s body. “Not by his own heart-will, anyway.”
Gadha spoke up. “The three sorcerers…”
“…Are the ones to find, yes,” Archa said. He glanced about the great circular room, at the countless glyphs painted upon its walls. “The question is: Who were these mages? And what were they doing here? What was happening here? I need someone who knows of this old magic. This forbidden Zri sorcery.”
He turned to Yuvaka. “I’m giving you a task that’s more important than I can say,” he said, gazing at the young man with stern eyes. “You are to go to the city’s southern settlements. Find Pilu the Withered. Bring her here. I need her mind.”
The recruit stiffened, saluted.
“But, uh … Sir?” he asked.
Archa eyed him. “You should be gone now, recruit.”
“Ah. When I get to the slums, how will I find her?”
“You are a soldier in the Great Khan’s…” Archa stopped. He blinked, his heart heavy. “You are a soldier of the Gudanna Dominion. You have the training. You will commit yourself to this, and you will not fail. Bring her here. She, and you, will remain here for as long as it takes. I’ll return when I can. Now go.”
“Yuvaka lacks confidence,” Gadha said. “It is a failure of my leadership. I accept full responsibility for his behavior and apologize.”
“For stars’ sake, hush,” Archa said. “He is finding his legs. Just as you did. Just as we all have.”
The Araksa smiled to herself, relieved.
Two Duta military messengers, in their indigo armor and robes, entered the great room. They stepped to Archa, and saluted.
“We bring news from the halls, Raja-Khan,” one of them said.
“Three men in sorcerers’ robes were seen by several guards in the North Wing. They used sorcery to set fires in the servants’ quarters and storage areas. They did this as they made their way toward the Northern Gates.”
Archa nodded, sighing. He’d been partly right, then. The fires had been a diversion … Just not one to divert attention away from the murder here at Valaga. They’d been set to obfuscate their escape. When the fires had started, the killing had already occurred.
“Why weren’t these sorcerers apprehended?”
“Those who tried were incinerated,” the other Duta messenger said.
“The sorcerors are gone,” the first Duta said. “They may still be within the city walls, however.”
They’re probably already outside the city by now, Archa thought, if they know its passages half as well as I do.
“Go on,” he said.
“All of the Great Khan’s heirs and wards are safe,” the second Duta said, “save for one. The ward Izvari.”
Archa frowned. He knew the girl. Young, pale, quiet … And relentlessly persecuted by her peers. She had been a hostage of sorts; a peace offering given to the Great Khan by the Urugal clan Sunu more than ten years ago. Despite this, Izvari loved the Khan like a father, and he had loved her back. In fact, the Great Khan loved Izvari more than many of his own blood-children. Archa knew this because the Khan had told him so.
“She killed him,” Gadha said, her voice cold and certain. “She killed him and ran.”
“Perhaps,” Archa said. “Or perhaps she ran because she did not belong here. The princes and princesses were very cruel to her. And besides, the sands sing songs to the Urugal—songs the rest of us can’t hear. They beckon. Duta-folk, what else did you learn?”
The first messenger spoke up. “The fires are out in the North Wing,” he said. “The city watch reports that no siege forces await beyond the capital’s walls. The city is safe.”
I’m not worried about the city anymore, Archa thought. I’m worried about the entire Dominion.
“Anything else?” he asked.
The two Duta exchanged glances, nervous. Uncertain.
“A body has been found, in one of the storage rooms, near the fire.” one finally said. “It’s been identified as one of the three sorcerers who fled.”
Archa felt his eyes widen with rage. This was the most important piece of information these two had. Why hadn’t they provided it first?
“Please, Raja-Khan! Please!” the second Duta said, clearly panicked. “Come! See. It’s… It’s more complicated than you think.”
~ ~ ~
The stench of scorched wood, flame-blasted stone and charred flesh was omnipresent, here in the North Wing. Archa and Gadha stepped through several halls where water had risen to shin-level. This must’ve been the work of enterprising Golem Knights who’d instructed their massive steeds to dump great tubs of water taken from the palace’s reservoir. It had easily controlled the fire … And had flooded some parts of the North Wing, like this one.
He stood at the doorway of the storeroom, where the Duta-folk said the sorcerer’s body lay. He dismissed the messengers and stepped inside. Araksa Gadha followed.
Archa stared down at the body, here in the cramped space. Seldom-used dry goods surrounded the corpse. How long had it been here? Based on the color of the man’s waxy skin and sunken eyes—and his stiffened limbs—it had certainly been longer than a few hours. Which didn’t make sense.
The man’s neck was broken, turned nearly completely around. His chin lay against his shoulder. The body was on the floor, laying on its stomach.
If the Araksa Guard hadn’t gone door-to-door during the recent evacuation, there’s no telling how long it would’ve taken for this body to be found. Curiouser and curiouser.
“This can’t be one of the men who set the fires,” Gadha said. “He’s been dead far too long.”
“Yes. Let’s see just how long,” Archa replied. “Help me turn him on his side.”
They wrenched the heavy, stiff body from the floor and pushed it over, so the man’s shoulder dug into the floor. His twisted face now faced the ceiling.
Archa squatted and eyed the corpse’s wrists. There were no protective tattoos there, as there’d been on the Great Khan. Good. This would work, then.
He pulled a small dagger from his boot sheath and pierced his index finger with its tip. He painted a holy symbol on the corpse’s forehead—a trick taught to him long ago, back on the battlefield, by his once-beloved.
The corpse opened its eyes.
Its glassy, gray orbs gazed about the room. The Araksa behind Archa swore, hissed a quick prayer and stepped backward, all seemingly at the same time.
“It can’t hurt us,” Archa said. “It can’t do much of anything, really. It’s stupid. Nearly completely gone.”
He placed his hand before the dead man’s eyes, mere inches from them. He snapped his fingers. The corpse’s eyebrows furrowed slowly, as if hearing something faint and far away. Which he was, in a matter of speaking.
The dull eyes turned, syrupy slow, toward Archa’s snapping fingers. The corpse blinked again.
“Guh,” it said. Its voice sounded like stones scraping upon stones. Its breath was a putrid blast that reeked of death.
The young soldier clamped a hand over her mouth and dry heaved.
“Name,” Archa said. “Your name. Now. There’s little time.”
“Duh… Durrrrr. Durrrr-jah,” the corpse said.
“When were you slain, Durjah?” Archa asked. “How long ago?”
The corpse’s eyes closed, as if thinking. A long moment later, they opened. The being looked confused.
Archa snapped his fingers again.
“Damn it, when were you killed?” he asked, his voice more stern this time. The dead were dumb. They could only recall the most rudimentary of memories, and it took them a long time to do even that. Azanta, the Gudanna spirit-realm of the Yet To Be Burned, was far away.
“Tuh,” the body of Durjah finally said. “Twooooooo. The moon says hello. The moon says hello, hello.”
The stink of its breath was overpowering now. Behind him, Gadha retched again. Archa’s eyes were watering. If they didn’t get out of this storeroom soon, he’d be sick, too.
The moon says hello, hello.
The moon says hello … Twice. The moon rises, two times.
Two days ago, then.
This was all the dead could tell him, really. A name. A time of expiration. The third and last answerable question wouldn’t help Archa’s investigation, but it was something he always asked of the dead, be they an enemy or ally. It was the decent thing to do.
“Durjah. What do you want to be remembered for?” Archa asked.
The corpse blinked. It sighed, a long and rasping horrible sound. The stench was omnipresent now. Gadha fled the room. Archa felt the vomit churning in his stomach. Just another moment, he thought. Be decent.
“I think… I was guh. Good,” Durjah said. “Good father. Yes. A good father.”
The corpse’s eyes fluttered, then closed. That was it. Dead forever. No more questions. No more answers.
Archa stood. Still, he desperately needed more answers. He considered what he now knew. Three sorcerers had gone in to help the Great Khan with his spell. One of had been impersonating this man Durjah, who’d been two days dead.
Archa still didn’t know what spell the Khan had been casting. He also didn’t know how such an impersonation was possible. A disguise? Enchantment? Something else? There were protections against all such magics throughout the entire palace, gates that would unbind any glamor and sound a warning to the guards. Archa made a note to have all those protections tested and checked by his own people. He frowned, such an investigation would take days.
He stepped out of the storeroom, grateful for the comparatively fresh air. He turned to Gadha and gave her a sharp look.
“Like recruit Yuvaka, you’ll be my voice tonight,” he said. “Go to the palace’s captain of security. Tell him I sent you. Tell him to spread the word to his people, and to the army’s soldiers, and to the mercenaries beyond the city and throughout the Dominion: a manhunt shall soon begin, one unlike the Dominion has ever seen. Tell them we’ll be searching for two men: I’ll provide more details soon. Great riches await the warrior who finds them. Understood?”
The Araksa gave a smart salute.
“Do this now,” Archa said. “We won’t see each other again, I fear. Thank you for your eyes and ears and service. You do the Dominion proud.”
“Thank you, sir.”
She ran off, down the charred and sodden hall.
Archa sighed, alone. The Great Khan’s funeral would be next, he knew. Per custom, he was not obligated to attend, but he would. He would be there, and he’d be watchful.
After all, the Khan’s killer might be there.
~ ~ ~
The Gudanna traditions of treating a body after death were new and revolutionary, compared to the ways of other cultures—the old ways, inspired by the Urugal’s inventions all those centuries ago. Some say the rituals existed before even the Urugal clans existed, created by the Ancient Ones themselves.
The Gudanna did things differently. The Great Khan’s body would be treated with magical oils, blessed sands and paints. These would protect his bones and some of the internal organs from the flames of the great Mu, the pyre, the flames that would sever his soul from this world, and let it ascend, like the swirling cinders, into the worlds beyond. The bones would be taken to the catacombs beneath the city, contributing to the grand and ever-growing foundation of the Dominion, a solemn reminder of the sacrifices made to live in Eretsu’s greatest kingdom. The organs, and other body parts that survived the blaze, would be removed and used in more exotic ways.
Ideally, this treatment of the body is done quickly—within hours after death, whenever possible. This is done as a reminder of the fleet-footedness of death, of its capriciousness. Grand wakes are not planned in the Dominion, nor are speeches, or other lengthy funereal proceedings, as are done in the Durani Empire. Death moves quickly, and so do the Gudanna. Life is uncertain. Life is impermanent. In the Dominion, life concludes with little fanfare. The Great Khan would have it no other way.
You were a terrible and fearsome man, Archa thought, staring at the swirling cinders here in the Great Garden, where the Mu pyre had been hastily built. You were the greatest man I knew. You were fearless and ferocious and generous. You conquered, but nearly always united those you’d overpowered. You incorporated enough of their culture into the Dominion’s to appease them … And to improve the culture and well-being of all. You were a ruthless bastard, and you were my friend.
Your death will not go unavenged.
The flames rose higher and higher, consuming the ornate and priceless armor on the Great Khan’s body, and the skin and muscle beneath. The maid Kana’s voice echoed in Archa’s mind over and over now, like a metronome gone mad: The Khan is dead the Khan is dead the Khan is dead.
Was his killer here?
Archa’s eyes drifted from the blaze to the dozens of people gathered here, many of whom were the Great Khan’s heirs and advisors. Few of these personalities appeared distraught or sad. Archa reckoned it might be the hour—at the Hour of the Bat, the mind and heart are often numb, and dumb—but that was unlikely. Eretsu was in the midst of great uncertainty, and many of those assembled here were likely scheming on how to take advantage of it. The Great Khan’s rule had been absolute … And to hear the Khan say it, everlasting. To Archa’s knowledge, no formal succession plan existed, though his eldest son Rudatha was presumed to claim the throne. But presumptions can sometimes prove false.
Perhaps someone here knew the truth.
The Great Khan had fathered many children—well over thirty. Nearly all were sired with the female leaders (or the daughters of leaders) of the tribes. Forging such alliances helped ensure the loyalty of the tribes. But it also blended the Khan’s magic-infused bloodline with others’, which could bear untold secrets into new magical Arcana, or help the Khan’s influence over existing Arcana. The Khan rarely spoke of these things, even with Archa. Archa didn’t fully understand it. All he knew was there was a purpose to this breeding that seemed greater than succession.
Now Archa gazed at some of the most powerful heirs and politicians among the group gathered here:
Nandanna, one of the Khan’s eldest daughters, stood close to the flames. Her eyes blazed with almost as much ferocity. Nandanna was a warrior-princess, a master of combat, both with a blade and on a Golem. It wasn’t a surprise to see her presenting her rage so clearly here: Archa knew the princess had little patience for subtlety. Hers was a warrior’s way—a warrior on the offense.
Is that rage simply a ruse, though? Archa wondered. Is it masking her guilt? Nandanna has always been imperious, power-hungry, seething for combat and conquest. The Khan’s death might throw the Dominion back into war with the Durani … Something that might please her.
Beside Nandanna stood the Speaker of the Law. His expression was dour, but Archa could see a satisfied glint in his eyes. Perhaps he was enjoying his place at the center of all this pomp and ceremony. Or perhaps, as caretaker of the Dominion’s laws—a very powerful position indeed—tonight represented a plan finally coming to fruition.
Behind the Speaker stood Rudatha, a pudgy, pale man. Prince Rudatha, the Khan’s eldest child, wasn’t one for show. Archa had mentored him as a boy; he was the closest thing Archa had to a son. Back then, Rudatha had been shy, withdrawn. The Great Khan had asked Archa to instill steel in the boy’s blood, to prepare him for a life of leadership. A life out in the world.
Archa had done so, but even still, Rudatha had refused to become the leader his father wanted. Archa had at first tried to inspire diligence in him by enforcing a nearly martial law, but the young boy had preferred books and strategies over dawn practice, and when he proved himself more than able to debate tactics over the dinner table, Archa bent to the small prince’s wil. Now he ruled a significant amount of the Dominion from his “library city” to the south, gathering knowledge and information as he always had. What was he doing here at the capital, on the night of the Khan’s death?
Nearby were the scheming nobles Garo Bataar and Avakara. They, and so many others here, were like circling vultures: predictable and predatory, and undoubtedly angling to gain influence in the days following the Khan’s death. That was motive for murder, by Archa’s reckoning.
And near the end of the assembled guests stood Tamras, the Durani ambassador. Short, fat and squinty-eyed, the man looked more mole than man. But he was a powerful politician, even here in his enemy’s capital. The Durani could stand to benefit greatly from a new war. They might be hungry to reclaim the many lands they’d lost to the Dominion. Still, Archa dismissed the thought, access to the Khan was too tightly controlled, his guards too loyal. On its heels came another, more unsettling thought: The Durani had learned to fear the Khan but his sudden death provided the Empire with their best tactical opportunity in a generation. The ambassador turned his head toward Archa and nodded in a perfect imitation of polite sorrow.
Thanks to the sorcery powering the pyre’s flames, it didn’t take long for the blaze to consume the Great Khan’s flesh—but the other ceremonial fires would burn all night to mark the occasion. The priests soon removed the protected bones, organs and other items. They scurried off, leaving the guests to say their final goodbyes among glowing embers.
Archa watched the heirs and politicians walk past the cinders, whisper a prayer, and make the reverent gesture of final-goodbye. They strode down the Great Garden’s small hill, back to their lives and the rising sun. Rather than heading down the hill, however, Prince Rudatha stepped up to Archa.
“Raja-Khan Archa,” he said, and gave a respectful—and, given his legendary stature in the Dominion as heir apparent, unnecessary—bow. Archa gazed at the young man. Rudatha wasn’t just clever; he was spectacularly smart, a learned tactician whose knowledge of the Dominion (and its goings on) was comprehensive. Many called Rudatha the Spider Prince, after Urnayu, the great world-spider of myth. The world is Urnayu’s web, and we are but the flies, the bedtime stories said.
“My prince,” Archa replied, and bowed back. “I am so very sorry for your loss.”
“As am I, beloved mentor … Though many here believe my sorrow is hollow.”
“I don’t understand, my prince.”
Rudatha gave Archa a knowing, chilly smile. “Oh, you understand most perfectly,” he said. “I see it in your eyes, for the story is as old as Eretsu itself: the heir kills the father to claim the throne, just as my father killed my grandfather, and now you believe I did it to claim mine. My whisper-collectors have been hard at work in the hours since the Great Khan was murdered. This is what people are already saying about me. Especially the people here.”
“And did you?” Archa said. He didn’t want to ask this of Rudatha. He loved him like a son. And he feared him. “Did you kill him?”
Rudatha’s smile warmed into something more natural now. “Ah, Archa. Ever the soldier. Ever the blade—you cut right to it, don’t you? Of course I didn’t. I cannot say I loved the Great Khan … Not in the way most sons love their fathers. I have more love for you than he. Then again, the Great Khan was no typical father.”
“And you were no typical prince,” Archa said. “Leaders belong in the light, not the shadows.”
Rudatha shrugged. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. But you know me better than most. You know I am … ah … A planner, if nothing else. Were I to have struck my father down, it would not have been now. The timing is poor.”
Rudatha’s voice remained airy and pleasant … Though his eyes had gone bone-cold. “Oh, the reasons are legion, and as far-flung as sand upon the wind. It is of no import—not for this conversation, anyway.”
“You’re not inspiring much confidence in your innocence,” Archa said.
“But that is precisely what I am,” Rudatha said. “Innocent. I wish for you to clear my name, dear mentor. Will you do that?”
Archa crossed his arms. “I intend to find your father’s killer,” he replied. “That is all. I pray that it is not you … For your sake.”
Rudatha nodded and smiled. “It wasn’t.” he said, and strode down the hill.
The Speaker of the Law scurried up to Archa now, his face pinched in an expression that was part worry, part disgust.
“The Spider Prince,” he said, and spat. “Dreadful man. I have it on good word that he is behind the Great Khan’s murder.”
“I imagine you have evidence,” Archa said.
“Not… Not yet,” the Speaker said. “But I need not evidence to know it’s true. My heart’s heart says it is. That one, he schemes! He pulls strings from his library city, making men prance and dance to his tune. And they do so unwittingly! He performs his craft with such stealth, the flies never know they’re in the spider’s web.”
Archa resisted an urge to roll his eyes.
The Speaker of the Law leaned in. His voice was low now, conspiratorial. “I say these next things to you, out of respect to your position.”
“You’ve shown very little respect so far,” Archa replied.
The Speaker made a sour face. “Kindly watch your tone. With the Khan dead, I’m the lone arbitrator of the law’s letter. Until a new Khan is chosen, the fate of the Dominion rests with me.”
Reason enough to kill our leader, Archa thought, eying the old man.
“I’m calling for a Convocation of Khans,” the Speaker said. “I do not wish Rudatha to be crowned Khan—not now, at least, with his innocence in such question. This requires an investigation—”
“I’m conducting an investigation,” Archa said.
The Speaker waved away this comment, hushing Archa, perturbed that he’d been interrupted. “A formal investigation,” he sniffed. “Something that would hold up to the scrutiny required of a royal court—of a tribunal. We need investigators worthy of the Dominion’s fate. Not some … Well … Retired, arthritic Sultan.”
Archa blinked, astonished at the insult.
“I’m sorry for such candor, but surely you see my point,” the Speaker continued. “You were a personal friend of the Great Khan. You helped raise Rudatha. You’re far from impartial. In fact, some could say there’s a risk you might collude with Rudatha to ensure his innocence … If you’re not colluding with him already.”
“You are joking.” Archa spit his words through clenched teeth.
The Speaker gave a smile that was clearly supposed to be reassuring. Instead, it made him look like he had to fart.
“I’m speaking only of what others might think,” he said, grinning his grin. “In any case, a formal inquiry must be formed, and the great captains of the Dominion’s army must return here to Kutastha to review the information and vote in the succession, should it proceed.”
Archa frowned. “But … With the realm’s greatest warriors here, that will leave the Dominion’s frontiers in a compromised state,” he said. “At the very moment when the Dominion is at its weakest. Leaderless.”
“Bah,” the Speaker said, again waving his hands. “No one would dare attack the mighty Dominion. I shall take my leave of you now, Raja-Khan. Do watch yourself. Many dangers await a man who hunts assassins.”
The Speaker stepped away, joining the others as they trekked down the hill.
Archa glanced at the remaining people by the pyre. The Durani ambassador, Tamras, was at the ashes now. He said nothing. He made no respectful gesture.
Instead, he glanced up. His eyes met Archa’s.
The ambassador offered him a very wide, very toothy grin.
Tamras then left with the others, leaving Archa to stare at the smoldering cinders, unsettled and alone.
How did they kill you, Jahnu? he wondered.
He left the Great Garden, praying he’d soon have the answer.
~ ~ ~
The sun was up by the time Archa returned to Valaga, the great circular room where the Khan had been murdered. Aside from the absence of the Khan’s body, the scene was undisturbed, as he’d commanded. Standing by the door was young Yuvaka, who’d followed his orders and summoned Archa’s old friend, the battle-shaman Pilu.
Pilu the Withered.
Archa nodded to the recruit, then approached the woman.
“It’s been too long,” Pilu said, squinting at him in the candlelight. She smiled. The scars on her face made her look far older than she was. She hobbled toward him, her left leg’s peg-leg clacking against the stone floor. Her left arm on the same side ended at the elbow. Hers had been an undeserved fate.
They held each other for a long moment—longer than appropriate, with the recruit in the room. Archa barely cared. The world was cruel, and tonight’s events had made it crueler still. He craved this: a simple touch, a reminder that tenderness existed here for him, as fragile and misshapen as it might be. He could’ve held her forever if he could, his once-beloved. She of the whispered legends of magic, as they’d lain in his tent all those years ago.
But he couldn’t hold her forever. This was not the place for such things. And this was not the time. It hadn’t been time for nearly twenty years.
“Tell me what you’ve learned,” he said to Pilu. It hurt to cut straight to it, but it was necessary.
She nodded, understanding. She waved her lone hand at their surroundings.
“Ignore the iconography—and the sand and the spell candles—for a moment,” she said. “Look only at the shape of the room, the color of the snowstone bricks, the ruby mosaic designs on the floors. Hells, even the shape of the ceiling.”
Archa did. It meant nothing to him. He waited.
“It’s all very precisely designed,” Pilu said. “This chamber is more than a chamber. It is a conduit. A funnel with a sole purpose: to channel the proper magics for a single—and very powerful—spell. The most powerful I have ever seen.”
“Zri magic,” Archa said. “Pre-Arcanum.”
Pilu nodded. “This kind of magic defies such trivial tribal language as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ or ‘us’ and ‘them,’” she said. “This magic hails from a time before language. Or tribes. Or even humanity. This is the sorcery of the Ur—the Ancient Ones. Those Who Ascended. Those who watch us still, who occasionally answer our battlefield prayers. This is not meant for our minds. To truly understand Zri magic, one must go mad.”
The room seemed to close in around to Archa now. He suppressed a shiver. He waited for Pilu to continue.
“I am not mad,” she finally said, “and while a part of my heart will always be yours, Archa, I do not wish to lose my mind into divinity, just to answer your questions. I do hope you understand.”
He returned her smile. A part of his heart would always be hers, too.
“I do,” he said.
His mind, however, growled. It was troubled by history. This chamber had been built a nearly three decades ago, when the Great Khan had conquered this city and made it the Gudanna capital. The Great Khan had a plan for this room, a vision. He’d apparently planned this day at that time, perhaps even longer ago. This room had been built to facilitate a single, and very powerful, spell. What did it do?
Oh, Great Khan, how you were filled with secrets, he thought.
Pilu nodded to the walls. “The chamber’s architecture was critical for the Zri sorcery to work,” she explained, “but it was only a component. The sacred earth-piles here and here—” she nodded at the great mounds of the sand now “—and the ever-burning candles, they’re components, too. But none of this is key.”
She pointed at the scarlet script on the great curved bricks. “The glyphs,” she said, “are key.”
“What do they say?” he asked.
Pilu looked grave. “It pertains to blood,” she said. “The power of blood, and bloodlines.”
“Blood,” Archa repeated.
“Changing blood, somehow,” Pilu said, nodding. “Pooling the blood of many children into one—back into the spellcaster, perhaps. We can assume that means the Great Khan.”
The blood of children. Blood sacrifice, maybe? That didn’t make much sense.
“Heirs?” Archa asked. “The bloodlines of the Khan’s children?”
Pilu shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“Read it again,” he snapped.
“I’ve already read it a dozen times,” she replied, “and a dozen times after that. That is how I know what I currently know. As I said, my beloved Sultan, I will not go mad for you. This is all I can safely glean.”
Archa stared at the incomprehensible glyphs. He sighed.
Pilu spoke up. “It makes sense that the Khan and his sorcerer assistants were in here for as long as they were, though. The ritual takes more than a day to complete, and it requires absolute perfection in its execution to properly work. A misspoken syllable … A misplaced candle … A misaligned brick or mosaic shard … Any of those things would’ve meant doom for the spellcaster.”
Archa shook his head, dumbfounded. His eyes wandered to the sigil-covered bricks before him. He did not see them, though. His mind was afire with questions.
The Khan was an audacious man, but if Pilu was right, he’d put himself at great risk—unacceptable risk—to cast this spell. Why would the Khan risk his life when he already possessed everything a man could want? A thriving kingdom … Wealth beyond measure … Adulation, adoration, prosperity and peace. The man was legend.
What would possess him to do something like this—whatever this was?
Archa blinked. He gazed ahead at the stones and words painted upon them.
Huh. What was that?
He walked toward the wall, noting a strange shape—a smudge. A smudge on one of the glyphs.
“Pilu,” he said. “What does this say?”
The woman hobbled over.
“Must not,” she said.
“Does it look strange to you, this ‘must not’?” he asked.
Pilu squinted. She cocked her head to the side. Finally, she nodded.
“Ah. It’s been changed,” she said. “My apologies- in my attempt to retain my heart-mind, I did not look so close. Should the glyph be written with a flourish on the bottom, like so” —she drew an invisible curved line beneath the symbol, where the smudge presently was— “then it means ‘must.’ However, without that delicate flourish, this sigil means ‘must not.’”
Changed from must to must not.
Archa turned to the woman. “You’re telling me that the entire meaning of this spell was upended—was reversed from its intended purpose—because of this single smudge?”
“For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost,” Pilu said.
This was it, Archa knew. This was the dreadful proof he needed. The Great Khan had not committed suicide. Whoever changed that symbol had killed him, just as sure as if they’d driven the knife into the Khan’s heart themselves. Murdered.
It was time to find the murderer. Yes.
“Thank you,” he said to Pilu. She offered a simple nod as a reply.
“Yuvaka!” Archa called.
The recruit dashed from his position at the great door to Archa’s location.
“I have one last task for you, young one,” Archa said. “Have my Dune Viper golem readied. I will join the hunt for these fleeing sorcerers. I must be there for their capture. I must lead the interrogation. If they die unquestioned, no one will ever know who killed the Great Khan. And why.”
The recruit dashed from the room. Archa turned and gazed at the blood-stained floor, where his friend had died.
I shall avenge you, my friend, he thought. I shall find the one who killed you … And I shall kill him myself.