by J.C. Hutchins
The night was divine.
Izvari stared up into the cloudless inkwell sky, her eyes focused on a single star: Netra-Bala, the Crow’s Eye, its gaze an arrow for all, a great finger pointing the path to the north, pointing past the burning cities of the Dominion and Empire, pointing to the ice-capped mountains at the top of the world, where the other half of her people’s heart-mind lived, where the other clans lived, long separated, misunderstood but never forgotten—and as she stared into its glittering form, she bit back a laugh because she was certain she was losing her mind. She was a leaf in a cyclone, ever flailing, never stopping, swirling on and on and on.
She could hear things. Voices that weren’t there. Whispers in dead languages. Wails on the wind. Laughing sands.
The Ancient Ones were coming.
A great gust blew from the south, rushing across her naked flesh. It dried the tears that had slid from her brass-glinting eyes—Had she been crying? Had the pain become so great so soon?—and a cascade of gooseflesh followed it a heartbeat later, surging across her like a stream, like cool water, the kind that filled her goblets every day at the royal palace in Kutastha, a year ago. A lifetime ago.
She’d been a princess then, but what was she now?
The cold ironwood altar upon which she lay grew colder still. Izvari shivered. The pain buzzing in her arms, chest, legs and scalp bit back, as if in response. Be still, it seemed to say. Endure, it seemed to say. You will not yet rise, it said.
Izvari kept her focus on the Crow’s Eye, far above. The night was divinely pleasant, yes, but it was also really divine, for the thin prazas moon hung above all like a great hooked sliver, a scythe poised to slice. And that was what tonight was about, she knew. Cutting the caul. Sliding through the veil. Finally joining Sunu, the greatest of the Urugal clans.
Izvari knew this—she’d known it all her life, in the faraway sense of talking about a thing, yet never living it; gazing through eyes of knowledge, but not experience—but she had never understood it. Not until now. Not until she was here, finally back in her homeland in the Hataza Desert, in her clan-city’s outdoor sky temple, undergoing the Now-Becoming: the sacred rite of passage all Urugal must endure to become adults.
The Urugal endure. Yes. They have always endured. For eons, they had wandered great deserts like the Hataza in the southeast and the Uruk-Abdhi in the southwest, never settling for more than five years at a time, seeking secrets of the spirit, and answers from thinking, speaking, ever-moving dunes. Long-dead ancestors walked among the living back then. They shared wisdom from places beyond, where worlds like their own great Eretsu were mere grains in a spectacular and vast Desert of Deserts, and where Bala—once a pet of the Urugal warrior-god Gopt Pala, and now a goddess herself—soared the endless skies.
Or so the stories say.
It is certain, though, that as civilizations eventually flourished in Eretsu’s lush northern climes, many Urugal clansmen sought fortune there, and brought long-lost desert relics and magics to the cities for trade. The bejeweled Durani city-dwellers soon called them ‘bone merchants.’ These Durani often feared the Urugal because they did not understand them. The dead didn’t speak to the Durani the way they spoke to the desert clans. For them, stone was more valuable than bone.
“The Durani way is not a wrong way,” Izvari’s ally and friend Raza Osa bin Beleem had recently explained, as he’d told her these tales of the Long-Ago during the past year. “It is simply a different way. It is not our way.”
And now, as if conjured by magic, Raza Osa’s round, pale face came into view, here in the sky temple. He smiled. His jagged teeth, filed to fangs as was the way of his clan, glinted in the low torchlight. Izvari had wanted him here tonight. Those who undergo the Now-Becoming require an ally to attend and bear witness, to advocate for her as the unconscious initiate.
She’d realized not long ago that wily Raza Osa—bald as an oka egg and old enough to be her father—was the closest thing she’d ever had to a true friend. It had been a lonesome childhood indeed in the Gudanna Dominion, so far from her homeland.
“Does it hurt, child?” he asked her now. His one good eye turned to her naked body. There was nothing lascivious in the gaze. This was a Now-Becoming; Raza Osa himself had been on a slab like this, moons and moons ago. There is no desire here, on the ironwood altar. Only unshaped clay.
Izvari nodded in response. It did hurt. The persistent needles plaguing her skin were agonizing, but the true pain lay beneath all that, in the Inks of Ebon now taking root in her flesh. This magical ink would be there forever, a battle cry to the sun-blasted desert, indelible proof of her adulthood. And it would soon bring revelation, Izvari knew.
Raza Osa nodded back, sympathetic. “It will become worse,” he said. “You will fall into the mouth of the World-Eater and fly on the back of Bala. She will show you things. You will see the past and the future. Eventually, you will speak to the dead. You will want to flee. But will you?”
“No,” Izvari gasped. She bit back a howl. The pain was worse now, like a candle held to flesh. How could that be? How could a thing grow so hot so quickly?
She turned her eyes away from Raza Osa, to the priests and priestesses stooped over her body. They murmured prayers as they administered the Inks. The needles slipped in and out, fast as snake-strikes.
A priest named Jiva continued to tattoo her right arm, using the traditional hammer method. He wielded a blessed ulna, from a human forearm, and rapidly tapped it against a bone in his other hand, this one much closer to her skin. Inserted into this second bone was a tattoo needle. He paused now, wiping away the excess ink and blood, praying.
His was not the only needle biting at Izvari’s skin. Majjari, a priestess, used the same method on her left arm. Another priestess inked below her breasts, on her ribs. Three more hammered ink into Izvari’s legs. The head priest, a dour scarecrow of a man named Yajvan, methodically tattooed her bald scalp.
They had shaved Izvari’s head. One could not be of the clan if one had hair upon the head. It is the Sunu way.
Raza Osa smiled again. It was a warm and serene thing, an anchor of kindness, and Izvari was suddenly grateful for it.
“You will be brave, Ksudra-Aindri… Little Crow,” Raza Osa said. “You will see great wonders.”
His smile slowly faded, slipping into something much sadder. His eyes seemed to see something far away and cold—a terrible memory, perhaps, of his own Now-Becoming.
Finally, he spoke once more.
“And you will lose your mind,” he said.
And then, as the Inks of Ebon suddenly seized her with a thousand-thousand steel fingers, Izvari screamed—and as Raza Osa said, her mind departed.
What came next was an endless tumble through a swirling storm of black sand and sharp bone. Izvari’s mind was somehow plumbing a hidden world beneath the desert, where all things were gaunt and barbed and fluent in Vigata, the language of the long-dead. She fell on and on, her unblinking eyes growing dry and raw from the obsidian sand, the skin on her flesh nicked and sliced by spinning airborne bone—and there was a delicious moment, brief as a heartbeat, in which Izvari realized there was no sand and no bone and she had no bleary vision or shredded skin because this was in her mind, she was still lying in the sky temple, she was comparatively safe there, this was merely a vision, a dream, there was nothing to fear—
And then a great mouth, somehow impossibly larger than the world itself, opened beneath her, and she saw its ragged, world-rending teeth, and the sky went sour with its breath, the stench of rotting flesh, the end of things, the birthplace of worms, the source of life, a thing so awful it seemed to wither her, like a cut flower baking in the sun, and Izvari opened her mouth to scream, and no sound emerged, only a swarm of flies, thousands, now millions, buzzing out of her mind-self and into the void—
And further still she fell, down the throat of the world-eater, the source of beginnings and endings, and the mindscape around her grew black as pitch, black as the Inks soaking deeper into her skin up there, somewhere in the land of the living, and the air grew cold and quiet… For a breathless, joyful moment, Izvari experienced a reprieve from all feeling, and all the unanswered questions she’d ever had didn’t matter anymore, and all the uncompleted tasks, and all the missteps and wrongs and broken promises seemed to simply vanish in this void, like candles blown out one after the other—and it was lovely and wonderful because there was finally peace here, wherever here was.
This is what dying feels like, she realized. It is over. And then it is not.
And then it wasn’t, for the mindspace around her began to glow as if in the midst of a sunrise—the greatest sunrise never seen—and Izvari found herself standing upon the back of an astonishing thing, a crow as big as the sky.
I AM BALA, it told her. DO YOU KNOW ME?
Izvari did not. Izvari did not know many things of her people. It was her great sin. She’d been given away as a child, a human gift to celebrate the anniversary of a treaty between the Urugal clans and the Gudanna Dominion. The treaty’s terms: the Gudanna and Urugal would remain at peace for as long as the leaders of both peoples lived.
And so, she’d grown up as adopted Gudanna royalty in the Dominion, roaming the palace of the Great Khan, whose power and might defied reason. She’d lived in that world, and learned to love the Great Khan like a father. Until last week, she hadn’t seen her birth-father, the Sunu khan Bijin, since that day fifteen years ago, when he’d cast her away. She’d been five years old.
Far from the Hataza’s sands, Izvari had never followed the ways of her people. Instead, she willfully forsook them. For years, she lived in the spotlight among the Gudanna elite, waving in parades, learning to ride golems from the Great Khan, desperately wanting to be a person worthy in the eyes of the highest societies of Blood and Sand… and worthy of kindness from the Khan’s birth children. She never became those things. She was the Carrion Princess, always the Little Crow. Her adopted siblings, Nandanna especially, tormented her.
However, despite her ignorance of Urugal culture, Izvari had become an icon of sorts among the commoners throughout Eretsu—at least, that’s what Raza Osa bin Beleem had said. He’d once announced: “All of Urugal blood know the name Izvari. All know of the Little Crow.” He’d then grinned and added: “They will likely follow where she flies.”
During the past year, she had fought across Eretsu with the Marrow Crows mercenaries. Raza Osa had told her many stories about Urugal history and culture in the evenings, and between battles. She’d learned Urugal golems were stitched together from long-lost material beneath the sands: animal and human bones, ironwood and chitin, enormous fossilized fragments of ancient beasts… and other arcane things.
She’d learned Urugal holy men coaxed thousands of pounds of long-dead wood and bone from far beneath the desert surface to build their cities, too. Urugal clans should never live in such a city for more than five years, Raza Osa had explained. They should be burned, and a new city-site should be found. “Ours is a lean life,” he’d said.
Yet Izvari still had so much to learn about her people—which was why she hadn’t heard of Bala, the great soaring beast upon which she now stood, here in the Now-Becoming.
She shook her head, answering the crow-god’s question. Bala harrumphed and soared on, toward the growing light.
THEN YOU SHALL START BY LEARNING THE PARABLE OF CROW, she said.
Izvari did not hear the parable, but she experienced it. She remained on the back of the crow-god and yet somehow saw the history unfold in her mind’s eye. Is this a vision within a vision? she wondered fleetingly. Could I leave, if I tried?
You will not yet rise, another voice in her mind said. It was serene, but gruff. She listened to this voice. And then she witnessed the story of Bala, the first crow:
Chicken and Crow were friends long ago, the story began, back when the Urugal homelands were lush and green. Back then, Chicken looked as Crow did: lean and lovely, but white. She soared the skies. Crow was brave and wily, and was always getting into business that was not her own. Chicken always clucked her disapproval, but remained Crow’s ally. There were fewer birds in the skies then, you see.
One day, Crow stole fire from Dinakara, the Sun Goddess. Chicken was unimpressed. “Shame on you for defying the gods,” Chicken said. “Shame on you for being more than a bird.”
But Crow shared her fire with Man, and Man used it to prosper. He grew many crops. One day, Chicken landed by these crops. Curious, she began to eat. Delighted, she ate and ate and ate, and soon she became fat. She could no longer fly like her friend Crow.
“Get up! Soar with me!” Crow called to her friend. “It is not our way to stay here! We are made to wander, to remain lean and free!” But Chicken did not listen, and grew fatter still.
And then, dread times came. The sandy fingers of the Hataza quietly snaked across the land. Man’s crops turned to dust. His skin burned and peeled in the merciless sun. He left for kinder climes. Only Chicken and Crow remained. Crow wished to leave, but had not the heart to abandon her friend.
Chicken began to wither, and even when she became lean enough to fly, she could not, for she had forgotten how. To this day, chickens cannot fly.
As Chicken lay dying, she called upon Crow and her crow friends. As they gathered about her, Chicken said: “I became craven and greedy, and I must die for it. Crows, do not let me live. Put me out of my misery! Warn others of my fate!”
With a heavy heart, Crow and her friends killed poor, wretched Chicken. And then, so the wicked Hataza could not claim her, they ate what they could of Chicken’s body. This is why a flock of crows is called a murder, and a gathering of crows eating carrion is a wake.
Using the fire she’d stolen from Dinakara, Crow then set poor Chicken’s bones ablaze. She gathered the ashes and took them to Man. “Wear this to protect your skin from the sun,” Crow said, “and gain wisdom from the past.” Man did. Soon after, he founded Sunu, the first and greatest marrow clan.
This is why the crow is the Sunu clan’s sigil, and this is why Sunu do not fear death.
And this is why Sunu should never remain in one place for more than five years. This is why they burn their bone-cities when it is time to leave, and why they carry the blessed ashes. They cover their skin as protection against the unforgiving Hataza, and to remind them of the impermanence of life, and the certainty of death.
This is why the Sunu loathe avarice and cowardice above all things, the story concluded. For those loathsome traits lead to the abandonment of our ways.
And just like that, the vision left her, like wisps in the wind. Izvari blinked, not fully understanding.
THERE IS ONE IN YOUR REALM WHO IS LIKE CHICKEN, boomed the voice of Bala. THIS ONE HAS BETRAYED THE WAYS OF HIS PEOPLE. TELL ME WHO IT IS.
Izvari considered this. She was certain there were thousands, perhaps millions of people in Eretsu who’d betrayed the ways of their ancestors. How could she possibly know? Perhaps it was someone she knew, someone close to—
Oh no, she thought.
A wave of dread overwhelmed her now. Her stomach lurched, hot and queasy from the guilt.
“Me,” she said. “I am that person.”
Thunder rolled, out there in the featureless world beyond Bala’s wings. It took a moment for Izvari to realize it wasn’t thunder, but Bala’s laughter.
YOU ARE WISE TO ACCUSE YOURSELF, FOR YOU ARE FAR FROM YOUR ROOTS, Bala said, BUT YOU ARE ON THE PATH. YOU ARE RIGHTING THE WRONG. YOU ARE ASCENDANT. THIS ONE IS NOT. THIS ONE IS DAMNED. AVARICE IS HIS SIN. WATCH. LEARN.
And now the great crow-god turned her head downward, to look where land should be. Izvari gazed there and saw no land, but Bala dove then anyway, a great black spear screaming toward unseen earth.
Izvari screamed, too.
And she was screaming now, her voice carried far by the surging wind, here in the sky temple, back in the world of flesh and bone. Izvari opened her eyes, blinking past the tears, howling at the pain. She remained on the ironwood altar. The night air rushed around her, across her inked and bleeding skin.
Ink. Yes. That was still happening. Somewhere, far away, Izvari’s mind could register the delicate tap-tap-tap-tap-tapping, the sounds of priests and priestesses hammering on, driving the needles into her skin, drenching it evermore in the sacred Inks. Her flesh stung, afire.
How long had she been here, under these needles? Hours, certainly. A day? Days, even? Izvari didn’t know. The world was a blur. Where was Raza Osa?
As if hearing Izvari’s thoughts, his face loomed into her field of vision once more. She gazed at his ghostly ash-covered skin, at the obsidian tattooed designs that magically repelled the ash. A crown of sigils encircled his bald head. He looked like a fat, grinning skull.
Fat. Raza Osa was fat. Oh, no. Raza Osa is fat and Urugal aren’t meant to be fat, Izvari thought. Ours is a lean life, one of sinew and simplicity. Raza Osa didn’t live that kind of life. Raza Osa embraced the life of cities, and gold Talons, and comfort.
When she’d met this strange merchant in Kutastha a year ago, she’d told herself Osa’s corpulence was excused because of his membership in the unique Raza clan. The Raza were as shrewd as they were savage. Its members adapted easily to new peoples and cultures. Osa’s girth was a masquerade, she’d reasoned then: something to make him appear prosperous in the eyes of Gudanna and Durani clientele. This would’ve made him a more legitimate trader in their eyes, and worthy of their patronage.
He’d used their own bigotry against them. Izvari had decided he was a very clever man.
But now, after learning the Story of Crow, and the fate of those who abandon the ways of their ancestors, she wasn’t so sure. Was he the damned one, as Bala had said?
“The Inks are speaking to you?” Raza Osa asked.
Izvari nodded. Tried to smile. Winced instead.
“The pain is great?” When she nodded again, he said: “But the things you shall learn are greater. You must endure. Have you met the crow-god?”
Izvari nodded again, and bit back a scream. The priestess inking Izvari’s ribs had moved on to the thin flesh atop her breastbone. The holy needle seemed to sear the skin.
“Has she taken you upward? Up into the future?” Raza Osa asked.
“Down,” Izvari whispered. “She was falling to the earth… Then I was here… Down. Not up.”
Raza Osa nodded at this. “You must see the past first, then,” he replied. He frowned. “Why, I wonder?”
“I… must… watch, and learn,” Izvari answered. “Bala says I must see… he… he who is no longer… ascendant.”
Her friend’s good eye glittered at this. Was that knowledge in his eye? Understanding, perhaps? “So Bala told you why the Sunu clan is meant to burn its cities every five years.”
He spoke clearly now, enunciating every word. “Has she spoken of your birth-father, Bijin? The one who gave you away all those years ago? Has she spoken of what he’s done to your clan?”
She frantically shook her head. What did he mean by that? What did he know? What did he see that she didn’t?
Wait. Hadn’t Raza Osa said something to her, the first night they’d met, back in the streets of Kutastha? Something about clan Sunu? Something about its bones?
Raza Osa opened his mouth to speak again, but his face blurred before her, warping into something ghoulish and inhuman. Worms wriggled in his eyes. His ragged filed teeth swayed back and forth in gaping, bleeding gums.
The pain on Izvari’s breastbone grew worse. The sacred Inks there were sinking in, finding her heart, filling it with roiling secrets.
She wailed, desperate to find escape—and like a sagging bellows, her mind sank into itself, searching for a mooring of meaning, but finding none. And then she was back in the nightmare world of the Now-Becoming, standing upon a crow as wide as the world, descending into the depths of the void without end.
The past. Raza Osa said I would be heading down, down into the past.
The great bird Bala plummeted ever downward, and despite Izvari’s certainty there was nothing out here in this omnipresent sunrise to see—no land below, or stars above, or clouds between—her eyes saw shapes and shades, first flying past in miasmic hazes, then in great fluttering curtains of light and sound, and then finally they loomed ahead, great masses of memories, crackling thunderstorms of years gone by, of a life lived… how, exactly? A life lived exceptionally? A life lived poorly? A life soaked in decadence and regret? A life that should’ve meant more than it did?
And then she was rocketing through the storm, squinting through lightning-strobes of memory after memory:
her birth-father bijin, leader of the sunu, and his lean face; his slender tattooed arm raised in a silent goodbye as she wailed into the desert sky, riding within the chest of a valkali colossus named “perdition,” heading northward, up into the gudanna dominion and her new home and conqueror-father
years inside the palace of kutastha now, hiding from her relentless and brutal adopted siblings, all blood-children of the great khan, all keen to hurt her, to rip her hair from the scalp, to break her heart, for the great khan loved izvari more than they—yes, she, the misfit girl, not of his blood, the carrion princess, the little crow, he loved her most of all
now the great jahnu khan, her conqueror-father, is training her in the art of prdaku, the fighting style he himself invented, and he’s telling her the two greatest animals are the panther and the viper, for timing is all, strike-and-recoil, distract-deflect-strike, master this martial art, he says, and you can pilot the dominion’s greatest and most savage urugal golems… you’ll be unstoppable, my beloved.
and she had mastered it, and he’d been so very proud, and the siblings had seethed, nandanna most of all
and now the night sky is filled with flame and ashes and someone is calling from a tower, the great khan is dead, dead to all, dead to thee, and izvari is dashing among the streets of kutastha, and befriending raza osa bin beleem and his peculiar friend vittorio zorzi, and she’s eavesdropping on their whispered conversation, and they are calling her something strange, The Great Thread, a thing that can bind the unbound and desperate (whatever that meant, izvari certainly didn’t know)
and the battles now, criss-crossing the continent as a member of the marrow crows, disguised as ksudra-aindri, “little crow” in urugal, mocked by raza osa’s sons, but their jibes become cheers as the lessons of her conquer-father make her an unstoppable force in the field… she and her black-winged golem, mandible, are poets of violence now, writing terrible and bloody verse across the countryside, dismembering enemy golems by the dozens, stomping knights into battleground mush, leading the marrow crows by example… and then leading them outright, shrewdly commanding them, inspiring them, transforming a band of jokester brothers into steel-eyed, relentless warriors—the marrow crows are knights to be feared, the durani and gudanna now know; they are as sharp and unforgiving as volcanic glass… their mysterious leader ksudra-aindri most of all, that young un-inked urugal, a girl destined surely to rule
a moment of whimsy, now: by campfire, near her battle-tent, watching raza osa bin beleem puzzle over a trinket owned by his strange-eyed friend vittorio zorzi, unable to fathom its purpose—this so-called amulet of numenesh is no powerful relic, raza osa was saying now, it’s worthless… and vittorio is replying just wait, raza, be patient, just wait—
and then, as planned, they’d fought their way south, to the great hataza and the homeland of her people, the sunu, and she’d strode into this great bone-city of gandu, and had marveled at its size and age—how long had it stood here? well over a decade? it was a marvel of intertwined bones and sandstone—and those confident strides had slowed and become something more quiet and tentative as she neared the throne chamber of bijin her birth-father, of the slender man who’d given her up in the interest of a lasting peace, fifteen years ago… and she’d slowed because she was afraid, afraid he would find her somehow wanting, somehow broken, somehow as out of place here in the desert as she was in the lush north
And then she’d seen him, and it was she who’d been crestfallen, for Bijin was not just far older than she’d remembered; he was round of face and belly, and well-clothed, and surrounded by riches and comforts that rivaled her life in the Kutastha palace. And he’d looked at her with a kind of hushed awe that Izvari had at first interpreted as pride… but it hadn’t been that, had it? No, now, here in the rushing gush of reexamined memory of the Now-Becoming, Izvari could see another thing in Bijin’s glistening eyes, something far more telling and troubling.
Fear. He was afraid.
Why had her birth-father been afraid?
YOU KNOW WHY, Bala the crow-god said.
“No. I do not,” Izvari replied.
YOU DO. YOUR FAT FRIEND TOLD YOU, THE FIRST TIME YOU MET. AND I TOLD YOU, THE FIRST TIME WE MET.
Her fat friend? Raza Osa. What had he said back then? Something about the Sunu clan?
The memory came to her now, undoubtedly aided by this magical place. It was a miraculous thing, a moment she could examine in her mind like a jewel, its every facet vivid and clear:
“I swear upon my father’s marrow, you are safe with me,” Raza Osa had said, one year ago. “I have lived in Kutastha for many years. I have seen you in many parades, and have heard the songs they sing about you. I know who you are. And I know what you are. You are the long-gone heir. You’re the one who can redeem the disgraced Sunu.”
She hadn’t understood then. The Izvari here in the Now-Becoming could hear the sullen Izvari of then: “The Sunu are not disgraced.”
And then, moments later, Raza Osa had called clan Sunu’s bones brittle. Feeble and corrupted, he’d said.
And again Izvari could see the brow of her then-self furrow as she asked, “By what?”
“I cannot say, dear child, for I haven’t seen Sunu sands in many years,” her friend had replied. “But perhaps the question isn’t ‘By what?’ but ‘By whom?’”
By whom. What did that mean?
Izvari found herself smiling with realization, though there was no mirth upon her lips. She recalled the parable of Crow and Chicken. One of the birds grew greedy and fat and forgot how to fly. Bala was right. She had told Izvari, when they’d first met.
Izvari now knew who.
“But this isn’t my problem to solve!” she called to Bala. “This is his land. This is his great, aged, unburned city. It is his wealth. The clan is his, not mine. I am the long-gone heir. I am not a leader of men.”
YOU ARE THE GREAT THREAD, Bala said. YOU BIND THE UNBOUND.
“I don’t know what that means,” Izvari said.
The great bird’s head rose upward now, and its body followed, its great wings batting away the swirling memories below, now sending them higher and higher into an ever-brightening sky. What was up there? What waited for her?
The future, she realized. Revelation.
The non-world grew brighter now, and brighter still, and Izvari first squinted, and then squeezed her eyes shut, and the omnipresent light blazed even brighter still, seeping through her eyelids, turning the world red, and she mashed her palms over her eyes, wailing at the sun, telling it to stop—and then it did.
She was back in Eretsu, standing in the midst of a darkened forest. Every sense she possessed insisted this was real: from the humidity in the air (far warmer and wetter than the unforgiving Hataza, and her parched pores seemed to suck it in, relieved), to the dank smell of rotting leaves carpeting the forest floor, to the sight of flickering lanterns and war-tents just ahead, in a massive clearing.
But she wasn’t here, Izvari reminded herself. Not really. She was still on the ironwood altar, being soaked in spell-ink. This, here, was another vision, another peering past the veil, into the future, into the up, onto a place somewhere up north.
She stepped toward the clearing, noticing her feet made no noise among the leaves. She opened her mouth and called out. Her voice did not carry. Invisible, then.
Izvari walked on, more confident now… until she spotted the war banners among the battlefield tents. She’d expected this to be her future, for this to be her war camp. It wasn’t. It bore the barbed sigil of the Gudanna Dominion: a vaguely rosebud-shaped thing that made her think not of petals, but thorns. Beneath the Dominion’s sigil was the ghoulish skull-head crest of the Crown of Uruk, the powerful and ever-growing golem army under Raga Nandanna’s command.
Nandanna? Izvari wondered. Gods, is she here?!
An icy claw of panic seized her stomach. She couldn’t breathe. Sweat suddenly sprung from her shaved scalp; a drop slid down her forehead, into her eye. Izvari wiped it away, desperately willing herself to breathe, and failing again.
She knew this feeling. Oh, she knew it well. She thought she’d unlearned it—no, conquered it—during her leadership of the Marrow Crows. She was a warrior now. Ferocious. A killer. Yet in this awful moment, stretched impossibly long and airless and agonizing, the mere thought of her lifelong tormentor had undone the scars and awakened old wounds.
Nandanna could be right… in… there, she thought, gazing ahead.
Yes. Up ahead stood a structure far larger and grander than the others. Probably Nandanna’s command tent. Looming behind it, taller than some of the surrounding trees, and as still as stone, stood Harbinger, Nandanna’s titanic four-armed Blood Channeler. Its crimson armor was almost a sickly purple in the flickering torchlight. Uncommon for a Gudanna golem, its four arms were covered in gilded glyphs.
Nandanna’s soldiers strode from tent to tent, faces dour, save for a handful who appeared to stand vigilant guard against a small group of other warriors. This other group’s armor bore distinctive spider, sun and moon iconography, representing a division from the second great Dominion army: the Blood of Uruk. This force was ultimately loyal to Raja Rudatha, another Saddle Throne heir.
There was no way Rudatha would be here, Izvari knew. No, the Spider Prince was far too clever to ever leave his fortress, with all its books and scrying pools. Rudatha commanded his agents from afar, somehow seeing what they saw from the field.
One of these Rudatha loyalists glanced away from one of the guards now, out into the forest… and directly into Izvari’s eyes. Their gazes locked, magnetic. Izvari gasped. Spotted.
And then the man’s eyes flicked away, unperturbed, unknowing. She sucked in a lungful of air now, grateful with realization. Stupid, she thought. Remember, no one can see or hear you. Not even Nandanna. You were brought here for a reason. Be bold, Little Crow. Seek it out.
She strode into the clearing, past the warriors, toward the great tent. And as she pulled back its massive front flaps and sniffed the intoxicating scent of zryahva oils, she knew Nandanna was indeed inside.
And there she was, standing near a great table, glaring down at a map with wild, red eyes. Nandanna was furious. Despite the hour, the princess still wore her blood-red battle armor. Emblazoned on the plate covering her heart was her army’s skull-crest. On either side were glyphs spelling out the army’s battle cry—an axiom, Izvari knew, that Nandanna believed with every beat of her crazed heart: We Do Not Kneel.
She never did, Izvari thought, and she never will.
As if she’d somehow heard this, Raga Nandanna slammed her gloved fist onto the table. A nearby silver wine goblet jangled at the blow, catching Nandanna’s unfortunate attention. An eye-blink later, it was spinning across the tent, spraying wine, slapped away by her other hand.
“You are a liar!” she screamed at the tent’s other occupant, a raja-khan from the Spider Prince’s army—too young to have command over so many, Izvari reckoned. His face was handsome, but weak in a way, not hardened from battle. In contrast, Nandanna’s face and neck were a study of sharp angles and small scars.
Izvari herself had given Nandanna that scar on her bottom lip, long ago. That time, she’d fought back. The memory made her smile.
“You vomit lie after lie after lie, Rahu Yantra,” the Raga continued, squinting now at the man, jabbing a finger at him over and over. “My brother sent you here to spy on me. To deceive me! He knows my influence grows by the hour. Only one can lead the Dominion, and it will not be the poisonous recluse! Rudatha is no warrior, and he is no spider. He is a fat librarian. And you are here to ensnare me in his lies.”
The young man shook his head. His deep voice had the slightest lilt of a Durani accent. “Blessed Raga, that’s not the way of things. Not this time. I speak the truth. She is there—” he pointed at a red stone marker on the map’s southern region “—and she is bringing forth a thing so mighty and old, it has no name.”
Nandanna’s eyes went wide and wild again as she laughed. She clenched her hands into fists now. She unclenched them. Clenched them again.
Is she mad? Izvari wondered.
“But it cannot be her,” Nandanna snapped back. “You never knew the Carrion Princess, Rahu. You never met that bleating sheep of a girl. Worms have more spine. Nothing so weak could survive a trek through the war-torn south, much less a journey into the Hataza.”
Me. They’re talking about me, Izvari thought.
Rahu Yantra shook his head again. “I know not the girl, this is true, but my lord’s allies see many things, and they say it is she. She has become one of the tattooed Desert Wild. She appears different than you knew her, but it is her, and she is a leader of men.”
“Lies,” Nandanna spat.
The man took in a deep breath. “Blessed Raga, what do you know of me?”
“Only that you never served a day in the Great Khan’s army,” Nandanna said. “You didn’t earn that medallion on your shoulder. That’s the insidious work of my puppet-master brother.”
“I am Gudanna by blood,” Rahu Yantra said, “but was raised in the Empire. I learned things there, Blessed Raga. I scried secrets of my own. I unearthed unholy tomes. I learned the language of Rddhi, and mastered the mind-glyphs of Snehin. I know things about Zri magic, Blessed Raga—the sorceries of the Ancient Ones. The Durani became frightened of me. They were very wise to be afraid, and to expel me from the Empire.”
The haughty glint in Nandanna’s eyes had softened now. She seemed intrigued.
“My arcane… ah… endeavors became somehow known to Raja Rudatha,” Rahu Yantra continued. “Which is why I now lead thousands in his name.”
“And how proud you must be,” Nandanna said, losing interest.
Rahu Yantra offered her a tight, patient smile. “I command his campaign to unlock the secrets of ages past,” he said. “I commune with the world in ways few can fathom. And I am here to tell you: I know, with the same absolute certainty that the sun will rise in the morning, that Izvari has mastered magics that can completely shift the balance of power in Eretsu. Left unchecked, the balance will shift… to the south.”
Nandanna stared at the man for a long moment, saying nothing. She absently raised a finger to the scar on her lip. Her gaze went cold.
“You have no proof,” she said.
“I do not,” he conceded, “but I have a message from your brother. He says the Urugal girl is more dangerous than anyone can imagine. He instructs you to recall Eretsu’s history, the days from the Long-Ago. Recall the exploits of deadly Mujin, he says.”
“Mujin?” Nandanna said. Her scarred eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t remem—”
She paused suddenly, her mouth agape. Her red eyes blazed bright with recognition. The color drained from her face.
“The Gur-Khan,” she whispered.
She slowly turned her gaze to the map on the war-table, and the red stone marker in its southern region. It represented a city, Izvari realized, and this city seemed familiar to her. She’d seen it within the year, she was certain of it. What was its name…?
Nandanna turned to Rahu Yantra now.
“Tell my brother we are of the same mind,” she said. “We must kill—”
But Izvari heard no more, for she was no longer there.
She found herself reeling, struck stupid by the sudden shift to another strange place: a palatial room, glittering of gold and precious stones. Knees weak, Izvari tumbled to the marble floor. She felt sick. Her mouth went wet, filled with bile.
Were these the effects of the mind-travel she was feeling? Or was it something else, something caused far away, in the realm of the real, of flesh and bone? Was her body going sour from the Inks of Ebon?
I shall endure, Izvari thought, spitting the bile onto the polished floor. She dragged a hand across her mouth. I will not rise, not there.
But she would rise here, certainly, in this grand and opulent chamber. She would stand and bear witness to whatever Bala had brought her here to see. Just how far into the future had she traveled? Months? Weeks? Days? She couldn’t tell.
She took in the magnificence of the room now. The great marble columns, the magnificent domed ceiling; the long, jewel-encrusted curtains hanging artfully from the dome, draped among elaborate gilded wall-hooks, spilling onto the floor; the dozens of yellow sapphires, magically floating just overhead, glowing bright, illuminating the room.
An immense wooden trunk rested in the center of the chamber.
She was somewhere in the Durani Empire, obviously. A building far from the battlefield, a place of import. But where? Whose lair was this?
A thud from afar shattered the silence. A broad-shouldered man had yanked open the chamber’s tall wooden doors and now stepped inside.
Ah. She knew this man. She’d fought alongside him when she commanded the mercenary Marrow Crows. He was Sudhamra, the Durani warrior-prince.
He strode past Izvari (just as invisible here as she’d been in the forest moments ago, it seemed), his dark eyes deep with concern. He was not in combat armor, as she’d seen him last. Today, he wore a beautiful hooded Raja’s robe, but he seemed uncomfortable in it, almost itchy.
Izvari noted his feet, just barely visible below the robe’s hem. Sudhamra didn’t wear the delicate sandals common for such courtly settings. He still wore his soldier’s boots, well worn and caked in dried mud.
Trailing behind him was an uneasy fellow. This one had the skin of a royal aide: too powdered, too pale, too well-fed. The aide’s face pinched in such an agonizing expression of worry, Izvari feared it might suck in on itself, like how a tub of water spirals down a drain.
“Raja Sudhamra!” the aide called, still chasing the warrior. He frantically waved a sealed scroll above his head, as if to catch the man’s attention. “You must read the message!”
Sudhamra stopped at room’s center, and turned to face the aide. He held out his hand.
“If the scroll confirms what I fear,” he said, now nodding at the chest, “I’ll need what’s inside here to find the answers.”
The aide offered the scroll. Sudhamra eyed the wax seal for a moment, clearly worried, before breaking it and unspooling the jhilli parchment for review.
“What does it say, my lord?” the aide asked.
“I don’t yet know,” Sudhamra replied. “It’s written in code and hums with magic.”
The aide, ever worried, licked his lips.
Sudhamra bent low, grabbed the trunk’s lid, and heaved upward. Izvari gazed at its astonishing contents: gleaming gemstones—thousands, no, tens of thousands—each about the size of a thumbnail. Every conceivable color was here: pale white pearls, brilliant emeralds, blue topazes, pale gold agates, rubies, and so many more. Growing up in the Kutastha palace, Izvari had been no stranger to splendor and excess, but this defied anything she’d ever seen.
Sudhamra raised the scroll to his eyes once more, and called out a word, a spell-word, something more felt than said. Dazzling magics roared forth from the parchment. Screeching, they swirled around the Raja like animals might, touching and sniffing him to confirm his identity. Satisfied, they surged into the great chest of jewels and were quiet.
Izvari glanced at the aide. The man’s eyes had widened to the size of tea saucers. He was about to piss himself, she was certain of it.
Sudhamra nodded soberly as he read the translated scroll. Finally, he spoke.
“Reports from the field,” he explained. “A dark force rises in the south. A warrior-queen conjuring a great and terrible golem of yore. And perhaps, just perhaps, commanding the greatest army the world has ever seen.”
“Who, my lord?” peeped the aide.
“Someone of whom I’ve never heard,” Sudhamra replied. “She calls herself the Mother Wing of the Ascendant Wake. Hm. ‘Ascendant Wake.’ Does that mean anything to you?”
The aide didn’t reply, which of course was his reply.
Sudhamra pondered this for another moment. He drew a deep breath, suddenly understanding.
“You. Your youth was undoubtedly filled with scribbling and study. Wasn’t it?”
The aide nodded.
“Mine wasn’t,” Sudhamra said. “I drank from gutters in the Arati slums, here in the Lower Empire. I stole food from those just as poor as me, sometimes poorer. I examine what I was… and what I still am… and marvel that I can even speak and read, much less lead. But read I did, back then.”
His eyes, softer now, glinted in the flickering light. The faintest of smiles graced his lips.
“I was fascinated especially by Eretsu’s history, back in those slum days. There were moldy outdated tomes, countless and apparently worthless, discarded by the Empire. Their trash was an oh-so-generous gift, you see. The makings of chimney kindling, if we slum-rats wished. But I didn’t. I read the histories. I learned things.”
The aide nodded slightly, but impatiently, waiting for Sudhamra to make his point.
“I don’t know what an Ascendant Wake is,” Sudhamra said, “but I’ve heard of the Great Wake of the Gur-Khan Mujin, the mightiest Urugal king who ever lived. They called him the prophet-leader. He held sway over all the southern Urugal bone-clans, near the end of the Age of Twilight. United, they marched northward, decimating what we now call the Lower Empire. He was eventually defeated by the forces of our own Dalkhu Hamazi. The imperial father was a mere general then.”
“The Immortal Emperor,” the aide marveled. “How long ago was this?”
“Centuries,” Sudhamra said. “The date isn’t important. However, the fact Gur-Khan Mujin was more than a warrior is important. He was a religious leader. And he was practically unstoppable.”
“My lord, I… I don’t understand,” the aide confessed. “The relevance…?”
Sudhamra gave him a grave smile. “Very few of us do, which may soon be our undoing. Watch.”
The Raja uttered another spell-word, and the trunkful of jewels trembled, as if possessed. The clattering of its wood against the marble floor was incessant and upsetting, a metronome gone weird. The box rose a half-foot into the air and smashed downward, onto the polished stone. Boom.
It rose and fell again. Boom.
And a third time. Boom.
And then every single jewel in the trunk sprang forth, taking to the air in unison, soaring as a great glittering mass up toward the domed ceiling. It paused now, a dozen feet above them, a rippling, breathing, swirling cloud of gemstones.
Each blazed bright now, illuminated from magics within, like the floating yellow sapphire-lamps. The nebula glowed and pulsed in a vague kind of unison, a heartbeat of sorts.
Izvari gazed upward, unblinking, transfixed. She felt a tear slide down her cheek. Not from sadness, but awe. This was beautiful.
Sudhamra issued another arcane command, and the jewel-cloud quickly assumed a new form. It was a visage very familiar to Izvari: the endless emeralds now represented lush fields and forests, the topazes rippled like waves, the pearls were now rows and rows of ice-capped mountains, home of the northern Urugal clans, the gold agates spilled on and on, into the bottom of the image, representing the Uruk-Abdhi and Hataza deserts…
It was a breathing, glittering, glowing map of Eretsu.
And there, in the southwest: a pulsing patch of rubies where a city should be.
That city again! I know it, Izvari thought. I have seen it. No. I’ve seen it and heard it. It’s haunted. Possessed. It’s called…
“Libir,” Sudhamra announced, pointing at the fiery stones. “It was once one of the greatest cities our kind has ever known. It’s been abandoned for centuries. The restless dead reside there, and devour everyone who enters… everyone but one, that is. The Great Khan Jahnu emerged unharmed from there decades ago, possessing the secrets of Arcanum Gudanna. That’s when the hateful uprising began, and we all fought until we were on our knees, and then we fought more, and we all nearly drowned in the blood at Ru.”
“The city of Libir is where the great prophet-leader Gur-Khan Mujin, the Father Wing of the Great Wake, once ruled,” he said finally, “and that’s where we must march. To preserve the order not only of the Empire, but of all Eretsu. This mighty warrior has discovered her own forbidden magics there.”
Gods. So I am to go to Libir, then, Izvari thought. The Marrow Crows and I were mere miles from that place barely a month ago. The city… it shrieked. The ghosts, I heard them. They chilled my very soul…
“Sire, I still don’t understand,” the aide said. “What does this have to do with the ancient Urugal king?”
“She is ascendant, you fool,” Sudhamra replied, “Gur-Khan was a mere prophet and he rallied the entirety of the southern Clans. This Mother Wing could become the heir of all. She is claiming the crown, and not just the crown of her tribe. The crown of all Urugal tribes. She intends to unite them with her Ascendance.”
“But the Urugal are scattered,” the aide said. “They’re scrappy scavengers. Even united, their tattered forces couldn’t topple the Gudanna, much less the mighty Durani.”
Sudhamra’s face was grim. “Do you know how many people in this world have Urugal blood in their hearts and bloodlines?”
The aide opened his mouth to speak. Sudhamra raised his hand, cutting him off. He whispered another spell-word.
Far above them, the jewel-map of Eretsu undulated, like a boat sail in the wind. Rubies emerged into the landscape, glowing bright. The Urugal clans’ homelands in the southern deserts blazed red now.
“Yes, sire, as I was about to say—” the aide said, but Sudhamra shook his head, again silencing him.
Another wave of rubies appeared, setting fire to the iciest realms of Eretsu: the mountains in the far north, where the northern Urugal clans lived. They were a mysterious people, Izvari knew, rumored to possess strange powers of deceit and disguise. Now the continent’s southern and northern regions glowed red.
Still no match for the great central civilized kingdoms, Izvari thought now. No match for the might of the Dominion and Empire. They are too wealthy, powerful, and organized. We could never defeat them all.
But then Sudhamra said another spell-word, and Izvari gazed into the map as it changed once more, and her tears came anew. Not sadness, no. Awe, again. Victorious awe.
The map’s central band pulsed with countless patches of crimson.
“What… is… this?” the aide gaped.
“The Great Khan Jahnu hailed from an Urugal clan in the southwest,” Sudhamra said. “The Uruk. They were a minor clan. A nothing, really, but they had Jahnu, and Jahnu had a vision of conquest. His seed, and the seed of his Uruk warriors, now lives on in countless men and women, across great swaths of land that once belonged to our people. They claim allegiance to the Dominion now, but they may not always. Blood means everything to those people.”
“I finally understand,” the aide said.
“Then make haste and tell my commanders we’re marching at sunrise,” Sudhamra said. “We must stop this child-queen from unwinding the world.”
Izvari squinted. That was a voice. Where was it coming from?
Izvari. Hear me. Come to me.
And as if pulled by a great thread, Izvari was no longer here.
“Izvari… Izvari… Izvari, come to me. Come back to me, my daughter.”
Izvari opened her eyes back here, on the altar of the Sky Temple, and gazed into a man’s round face. It was not Raza Osa bin Beleem. It was her birth-father.
Bijin loomed above her, expressionless, imperious.
Around her, the priests and priestesses worked on, hammering the magical Inks of Ebon into her flesh. Izvari was certain the glyphs and shapes were nearing completion. She didn’t know this by seeing the tattoos, but from a steely sense inside the stomach, an unspoken, sorcerous certainty. She could intuit a growing power within, the cohesion of something great… a culmination of something greater than she’d ever been, or ever known.
It terrified her. It exhilarated her.
“You… You do not… love me,” she heard herself say to Bijin, recalling her descent into the past, reliving how he’d given her away fifteen years ago. A faraway part of her noted how parched and delirious she sounded. She didn’t care, and spoke again. “Did you ever?”
If Bijin heard her, he made no indication. He blinked slowly, regarding Izvari, impassive. The young woman’s crazed, brass-rimmed eyes took him in. She fought a manic urge to bray laughter. He wore the black double-cloak, headdress and tattered scarf of the Sunu, but he was fat. How can a man who lives in the desert be fat?
This is not the Sunu way, she thought. It is abhorrent. One does not eat more than another, here in the Hataza. None should ever go without.
Her father had been lean when he’d cast her away. She remembered that. She’d seen that.
“I… I thought you loved me,” she said. Her voice lilted and trembled, a crazy-sounding thing. “It… felt… like you did. Long ago. Lies? Trickery?”
Her birth-father ignored this.
“You should not be doing this,” he told her. “You are not Sunu.”
“But I am, by blood and right,” Izvari said, “and I will be, by ink and rite. I am… I am but between the worlds right now, father. I am no longer the Gudanna princess, if I ever was. I am dead. I am being… reborn.”
Bijin turned away. He glared at someone just out of Izvari’s sight. She tilted her head slightly, and saw all. Raza Osa bin Beleem was staring back at her father, seething.
“She’s gone mad,” Bijin told the merchant. He nervously rubbed his doughy cheek with fingers so plump they looked like sausages. “No one with the ill-mind can be in the blessed line of succession. It is our way.”
Raza Osa glared back, saying nothing.
Izvari spoke again, gritting through the pain, and willing her voice to remain lucid, together.
“You are… afraid,” she said, grinning, understanding. “You’re afraid of your daughter! Why? Your lone heir has finally come home! I… I have seen the future. The Durani and the Gudanna—they shall soon be weakened, distracted, reeling. We can cow them, as they all have tried to cow us, for so many, many years.”
“You see, Raza Osa? She’s mad!” Bijin cried. He leaned over her now, jabbing a finger at her face. “You know nothing, crazy child. The blood oath between the Urugal and Gudanna still stands. The Khan may be dead, but I am not. No ill shall come to us, as long as I live. The Gudanna and Urugal will remain at peace. Those are the terms of the Zanta treaty! The heirs to the Saddle Throne will understand this!”
Izvari howled laughter at this. She sounded like an animal, and found she didn’t care.
Bijin stepped back, hand over heart, aghast.
“Hah! The heirs to the Saddle Throne will be more ruthless than their father ever was,” she heard herself say. “They never earned their might. That makes them cavalier and dangerous. They care not for the old ways of word-bonds and honor. The Great Khan himself didn’t care for them much! The heirs will kill each other, and then they’ll kill everything else in sight. It’s in their blood.”
Izvari glared up at this man who wasn’t a man. To her new eyes, he was little more than a grub.
“They are cruel,” she continued. “They killed me, in my mind, over and over while I lived there. Do you not hear me, father? They murdered my heart. They crushed my spirit. They ridiculed our people. It is time to avenge me, and the Sunu, and reclaim the Urugal’s honor. We can march northward and fight them. They are ill prepared for my wrath.”
Bijin shook his head. “The treaty stands,” he said. “We remain where we have remained for fifteen years.”
Izvari growled. She willed her dry tongue to move, to scrape against her teeth. She wanted to conjure a mouthful of spit. She would spit on him. Yes. This coward.
The spit didn’t come.
“Where did my father go?” she asked instead. “Who is this talking snake before me?”
She cackled mad laughter.
Bijin turned to Raza Osa now. “You are her Witness. Stop this. I command you to stop the ritual. She’s lost her mind.”
“Impossible,” Raza Osa said. “Once the journey of blessed ink begins, it must be seen to the end. An unfinished death-glyph is an affront to our ancestors. They’ll kill her if we stop now.”
“Better to die now,” Bijin said, “than to spend her days raving and laughing at the dunes.”
Raza Osa looked down at Izvari. There was something akin to love in his good eye. It went cold, now, as it turned back to Izvari’s father.
“If you try to stop this,” Raza Osa said, “I’ll kill you myself.”
Izvari’s birth-father gasped, and now Izvari was gasping, because the coils of ink were pulling her away again, back into the Now-Becoming, back to the crow-god, and the secrets it demanded she see.
Her soul’s mind returned to the place between places, and she was standing upon the sky-spanning back of Bala once more. The shapeless world around them was brighter now, something past sunrise, yet not noontime. This was the most hopeful time of day, Izvari reckoned, when delicate dew still glints upon the flower petals before it is burned away.
The god flew straight ahead now, which surprised Izvari. She’d expected more ascents into the future, or descents into the past. Was her journey over?
NEARLY, the crow-god said. BUT YOU FORGET WHY YOU ARE HERE, LITTLE CROW. YOU FORGET THE TRUE PURPOSE OF THE NOW-BECOMING.
Izvari frowned. Had she forgotten? This was the rite. This was the great cutting of the caul, the passing through the veil. Becoming worthy to walk among the ranks of her people.
“I am to become an adult in the eyes of the Sunu and the world,” she replied. “What truer purpose is there?”
TO GLEAN WISDOM.
“I have. From the past, and the future.”
NO, LITTLE ONE. FROM THE DEAD.
And now a new voice—a man’s voice: serene but gruff, young yet old—called out to her from behind.
“From me,” he said.
Izvari turned, and felt her eyes go wide. The man was impossibly tall, at least two heads taller than the towering Great Khan, her adopted father, had been. He was broad of chest and shoulder, but slender, the kind of physique known well to the Urugal clans, who spend lifetimes straddling that tenuous line between strength and starvation.
His head and face were completely hairless, as was the Sunu way. Elaborate streaks of black tattoos raced from the top of his head, to his forehead, and down onto his cheeks. His skin was covered in the sacred bone-white ash, again, as was the Sunu way. His eyes glittered, his irises the color of brass.
The warrior wore the lightweight armor of the Sunu—bound black scales, peeled from the great hide of a conquered uraga snake—and a black hooded combat cloak, both regal and understated.
A king’s crown graced his head. Carved from bone, the lower jaw of a human skull—
(mandible, Izvari thought)
—was fused into the bone-crown, as were the skeletal fingers of an ages-lost creature. It was dreadful, and beautiful.
“Are you the prophet-leader?” Izvari asked.
“No,” the man said. “You are.”
Izvari said nothing. She didn’t know what that meant.
“All who enter the Now-Becoming speak to a long-gone ancestor,” the man said. “You are speaking to me. We are connected, you and I, by a thin tether—a delicate red thing, a line of blood, miraculous and mysterious and improbable, stretching across the ages. We are kin in blood, and in mind.”
“Gur-Khan Mujin,” Izvari said, and knelt. “My king.”
“Stand, child,” he said. “I haven’t ruled in countless years, and I certainly have no command over you, not here. I am here to counsel you, if you have the ears to hear.”
Izvari rose and nodded soberly. Beneath them, Bala the crow-god soared on.
“You are to kill him,” Mujin said plainly. “You know this.”
Izvari felt her shoulders sag. Her stomach churned, sick once more. Not this again. She did not wish to hear this. Patricide. No. It could not be done. It was not right.
“It is not just,” she heard herself say.
Mujin’s eyes narrowed. “That is a lie,” he said. “Cowards lie. Is that the way of things? The mighty Izvari Ksudra-Aindri, commander of the Marrow Crows, is a coward?”
Izvari set her jaw. If her gaze could have burned holes into him, they would have.
“Whyever are you sore? You must be a coward,” Mujin said, “for few things are as just as an ascendant heir slaying a swollen, selfish clan-leader who no longer leads, but sits, eats, and sags. Your people remain in a bone-city that should’ve been burned and abandoned at least ten years ago. They hunger for change, but honor the old ways. Only the ascendant can claim the sword and right to rule. Only she can take what’s hers—if she wants it”
He eyed her for a long moment.
“Do you want it?”
Izvari sighed. Her head ached. Her heart ached.
“I have been home for all of a week,” she murmured. “I was a half-starved, half-mad killer of men and crusher of beasts for the year before that. And before even that, I was a child cowering in a corner, and before that, a castoff, an unwanted thing, a halfhearted bribe to a conquering khan. How could I possibly know what I want?”
Mujin continued to stare at her, saying nothing. Well? his eyes asked.
Yes. Well? she asked herself. What do you want? Admit not what you know, but what you feel. You feel born for this, for the banner and the battlefield. You learned that in the last year. Men and women look to you. They crave you. They don’t want to bed you, they want to be you. To be as fearless and cunning as you. To conquer. To lead.
I want to lead, she realized.
“…And to lead my people, I must rightfully command the clan. As is our way,” she said aloud. She gazed into Mujin’s eyes. “That is a high price, my king. That blackens the heart.”
The prophet-leader nodded sagely. “You are wise to make this a matter of reason and not passion,” he said, “but too much of one without the other makes the mind sick.”
Izvari thought of Nandanna, and shuddered.
“Do you know why they fear you?” Mujin asked. “The leaders of the other kingdoms? You saw how they trembled.”
Izvari recalled the rubies in Sudhamra’s enchanted jewel-map. The glowing stones had soaked most of Eretsu in glittering crimson.
“They believe I can unite the clans,” Izvari answered. “Like you did.”
Mujin gave a gruff chuckle. “Oh, no. Not like me. I united all of the southern clans—even the lost, sand-mad clans of the Ugra Maru—but I did not unite them all, not everywhere. That’s what they think you can do.”
“Gods. I wouldn’t know why,” Izvari confessed, “or how.”
Mujin grinned now, impish.
“Surely you do,” he said. “Princess.”
And like a thunderclap, a tumbler within Izvari’s mind fell into place. Princess. That was right. She was an adopted daughter of the Great Khan, yes, but a daughter nonetheless. All those grand balls she’d attended over the past fifteen years… all the knightings… all the cross-kingdom tours… all the parades, the endless parades…
“All of Eretsu knows me,” she said, “and many are related to me, in some small way, through Urugal blood.”
Mujin nodded. “This world teems with countless scraps of people, desperate people—dozens here, hundreds there, thousands over there—who need only to be bound together by a common cause. A common queen. A prophet-queen. An Ascendant queen.”
“I am the Great Thread,” Izvari said, understanding. Mujin nodded again. Izvari stood straight now, feeling confidence bloom in her chest. “What must I do?” she asked.
“Seize your birthright,” Mujin replied. “After that, travel to my once-capital, the haunted city of Libir. Do as I did, and as your conquerer-father Jahnu did. Pass its cursed gates. Survive its trials. Commune with its frenzied, vicious spirits. Survive. Present unto them the Rune.”
She blinked, not understanding.
“You found it months ago, in the dangerous caves,” the man patiently explained. “The place where the membrane between the living world and the world after is very thin indeed. A place almost like this, come to think.”
“The caves…?” Izvari whispered, wondering. Ah. She nodded now. “Mathis. You’re talking about the Rune of Zukti.”
Mujin nodded back. “You were meant to have it,” he said. “Present this to the spirits of Libir, should you survive their torment. You’ll be rewarded.”
“With the power to summon a thing the world wishes to remain buried,” he replied. “A bone-golem so colossal and destructive, the last living men to have survived its onslaught consumed bhagna root to forget its unholy name. For to know its name is to make it stir.”
Izvari tried to swallow. Couldn’t.
“But you know its name,” she said.
Mujin nodded slowly. “And I will share it, if you wish,” he replied. “Though doing so commits you to the blood-soaked path.”
Izvari didn’t need to consider his warning, not this time. She would cower no more. She would lead.
“Tell me,” she said.
“Ashmogh,” the prophet-leader uttered.
IT STIRS NOW, BENEATH THE SANDS, the crow-god said. IT HUNGERS TO RUIN ALL THINGS.
“And now it is done,” Mujin said. “It is time to pass through the veil. You are worthy, Izvari. Recall the parable of Crow. Embrace the ways of your people. Become the Mother Wing of The Ascendant Wake…”
The man’s voice was fading now, as the world around them suddenly brightened more and more, as if Bala was now soaring into the sun. Izvari squinted, desperate to catch one last glimpse of the great Gur-Khan Mujin, but he was gone, consumed by the light.
Yet his final words rang clear:
“…and fight,” he said. “Fight to kill. Make your unmerciful might the last lesson your enemy ever learns. You will endure. But now, you must rise.”
And then his voice, and this wondrous, terrible place of visions, was gone.
Izvari’s eyes opened wide, back here in the sky temple. The memory of Gur-Khan Mujin swirled fully in her mind for a half-moment, and was then gone. Anguish took its place, a breed of pain beyond pain, as the Inks of Ebon sank their death-magic roots past her muscle, into her marrow. The final stage.
She arched her back and screamed. This was terrible. This was exquisite. This was the climax of her Now-Becoming, fifteen years in the making, now upon her.
And then all was silent.
A weary sliver of her mind observed it was sunrise now. The priests and priestesses were lifting her body from the ironwood altar. Much of her naked form was covered in ink smears and blood, the details of the spell-glyphs unclear. How much of her had they tattooed? How long had this taken? How long had she lain there, hallucinating, wailing, gibbering at moon and man?
The holy ones steadied her trembling body now, as they slowly stepped across the sandstone floor, passing statues of past Sunu clan-leaders, each carved from long-dead wood, toward a pool of clear water at the sky temple’s center. A pool, in the desert! Impossible, but here.
Near this pool sat a trough of stone. Inside the trough were ashes.
Bijin stood nearby, watching the priests work, his fat fingers nervously fidgeting at the sword hilt at his side. The cheerless morning wind whipped at his cloak and scarf. The ashes on his skin made him look pale, of course—yet he seemed paler still, beneath them.
The men and women brought Izvari to the edge of the pool now. They lowered her in. The water darkened instantly as she slipped under, a swirling, oily fog of black and red.
She emerged from the ink-stained pool, alert. She raised her arms, marveling at them. The blood and ink smears were gone. The death-glyphs and her pale, wounded flesh shimmered in the morning sunlight. She gazed downward and took in the sight of herself: more than half of her body was now covered in the Inks of Ebon. The designs were twisting shapes, barbed curves that seemed to flow and fold into each other. They were terrible. Monstrous.
I am beautiful, she thought.
The priests and priestesses grabbed handfuls of white ashes from the stone trough, and smeared them over Izvari’s skin. She was soon bone-white, like the others surrounding her. And now, the magics in her skin-ink blazed black and powerful, repelling the ash. The obsidian tattoos became completely visible, hideous and glorious.
Suddenly, spirits—dozens of them, spectacular things as white and wispy as comets’ tails—swirled out from the Ebon designs. They snaked around Izvari’s limbs, caressed her shaved head. They whispered and chittered. Now they flew outward, dancing among the priests standing in the sky temple. They did not touch Bijin.
As quickly as they appeared, they vanished, like smoke on the wind. Izvari was, at last, Sunu.
Do you understand the parable of Crow? the voice of Gur-Khan Mujin whispered, in her mind. Do you understand what you must do?
“I understand,” she said. She felt Raza Osa’s hands at her shoulders, pulling a robe over her body. She turned to face her birth-father. She pointed at him.
“You are not Sunu,” she said, her voice icy. “Not anymore. Not for fifteen years, at least.”
Bijin sputtered. “You! You are mad! How dare—”
She strode toward him, silencing him with a wave of her hand. Behind her, the priests and priestesses stood stock still. Raza Osa remained behind her, too, undoubtedly ready to strike anyone intent on stopping this.
“The war between the Gudanna and Urugal back then,” she said. “It ended. The treaty you’d made ensured your people’s safety for as long as you lived. But you were still scared, weren’t you? You were so very afraid of the Gudanna and what they might do. You feared they might invade again, yes?”
Her birth-father said nothing. His eyes, however, said all.
“So you gave me away,” Izvari continued. “I was a sacrifice. They were never going to invade again, but you sacrificed me anyway, to ensure you’d be safe for the rest of your life.”
Bijin took a step backward. “I… I did…” His fat lips trembled. “It… It was what was best for the clan.”
“Gods damn you,” Izvari snarled. “You feared death. You sacrificed your lone heir. And that was exactly what you wanted, yes? For me to be gone, for the line of succession to be severed, for you to reign without challenge. This is not the Sunu way.”
The priests and others murmured their assent. Raza Osa’s voice was loudest of all.
“You abandoned many of our ways, fat leader!” she cried. “You kept the Sunu here, in this city, for fifteen years—far longer than it should ever have stood! And you did it to keep yourself well-fed, and lazy, and loathsome. You disgust me. You dishonor our clan, and all other marrow clans.”
Her hand whipped out and snatched the hilt of the sword at his side. In an eye-blink, the scimitar was free of its scabbard, gleaming in her hand.
“You abandoned me,” she hissed. “You tossed me into a viper-pit. The things the Great Khan’s children said to me… the things they did to me… Your heart hasn’t the space for such pain. But mine does.”
Her birth-father began to weep.
“You are not Crow,” she said. “You fear death. You have become craven and greedy, and you must die for it.”
Bijin did not plead, or protest, as the blade came down.
Izvari turned now to the gathering of holy ones. She eyed each one. They gazed back, their expressions hopeful. Behind them, Raza Osa smiled with pride.
“I am Izvari,” she said. “I am now Mother Wing of The Ascendant Wake, of the greatest marrow clan that was, Sunu.”
They placed their steepled fingers to their foreheads in reverence, as is the Sunu way.
“Know this,” she said. “We leave this too-old city by nightfall. We’ll burn it and gather the ashes, as we’ve always done. We will migrate for many miles. We will eventually build anew. We will all eat together, and one shall not have more than another.”
She turned her attention now to the north. Somewhere out there was the haunted city of Libir and its secrets… and past that, the border of the Gudanna Dominion… and beyond that, the Durani Empire… and beyond that, the Great Weald of the Zikia.
She gripped the sword hilt more tightly now.
“We will reclaim the honor of our clan,” she said. “We shall unite all the Urugal across all Eretsu. And we will descend upon those who degraded and oppressed us for so long: the vile Gudanna, and their treacherous Saddle Throne heirs.”
In her mind, Izvari could hear the voice of Gur-Khan Mujin once more. If his soul spoke from the past, or from out here in the Land of the Dead, she did not know.
Fight to kill, Mujin had said. Make your unmerciful might the last lesson your enemy ever learns. You will endure. But now, you must rise.
Izvari nodded grimly. Yes. She would.
They all would.
Illustration: Joel DuQue