by Nathan Weisman
The camp fire threw the silhouette of the coiled Dune Viper against the the side of the hill. The image reminded Raka of the children’s shadow puppet shows that reenacted the stories of the Khan’s great victories.
As a child Raka would be captivated for weeks after seeing the puppet shows. He and his brother, Nulo, watched the spectacles in amazement at the Great Khan, and by association their father who rode beside him. With every show came the same argument of why the Khan was so amazing.
“He is simply unbeatable in battle. There is no better warrior in all of Eretsu!” Raka would proclaim.
Without denying the Khan’s skill as a warrior, Nulo would argue with his brother, “The Khan is not great because he can simply kill most efficiently. Surely you see his true skill is in being able to outwit his enemies.”
A smirk crept across Raka’s face as remembered how he and Nulo would bicker. Nulo will see reason. He must.
Drawing closer to the coiled Dune Viper Raka was able to get a better look at his brother’s campsite. His brother had set up his camp in the center of the Golem’s coil, using it as shelter and a mobile fortress.
Dismounting his Sand Lion, Raka approached on foot calling out to his brother.
“Nulo we must speak.”
For a moment there was no response. Then the Golem slowly lifted its head, focusing its glowing red eyes on Raka. The Viper, named Jati, was originally owned by his father and was well-known to Raka. It was, in fact, the first golem Raka had ever ridden. When his father died however, the eldest son, Nulo, inherited the Golem.
Raka thought about calling to his brother again, but before he could call out again the Viper shifted to create a path through its coil leading to the campsite and Nulo.
“Today has been a day of firsts brother,” Raka said reaching the campfire where his brother sat. Nulo sat calmly, concentrating more on the flames then his younger brother. With a small gesture of his left hand the Golem moved to close its coil.
Behind Nulo, an ornate spear stood erect, the heraldry of their family under that of Rudatha’s. The weapon had been gifted to Nulo from Rudatha years ago and had been kept in pristine condition. Raka prefered his curved scimitars in their dusty and worn scabbards.
“The first battle of a new war with the Durani, the first time we Blood Knights of the The Blind Fury—the pride of 27th Torrent—have tasted defeat,” Raka continued. “And the first time that I have had to track my own brother down for being a deserter. I dare not believe there is a correlation.“
Nulo turned his attention to his brother more fully. “You insult yourself by making such wild and childish accusations. I remain loyal to the 27th and our leader. Which, I remind you little brother, is Prince Rudatha, not that dakini Nandanna,” Nulo said spitting after saying the name.
“Did you not just fight in the same battle that I did? Nulo, you are as naive as a child. Trapped in your Prince’s web of lies and false promises. Now it is time for blood and honor, not Rudatha’s shadow puppets. Nandanna knows this. I do not know about you brother, but I fight for the Dominion, and the Dominion needs a new Khan not a reclusive – ”
Raka was cut short as a searing pain slashed across his cheek. A thin red line spread from below his left eye down his cheek as the cut began to bleed. Even knowing about his brother’s blood magic he was surprised to see a small sanguine blade lose its form in Nulo’s hand and fall to the ground as a few drops of blood. It was a chastisement, if Nulo had wanted he could have cut me down because I was so unprepared. Not so next time, brother.
“It is no wonder that you wish to follow Nandanna, you are as impulsive and brash as she is. Like her, you are also too dim to notice that there is more happening than you can see.” Nulo said.
Raka clenched his fist, taking every ounce of self control to not lash out at his brother.
“Did you notice the banners of our enemy today Raka?”
“Of course, we faced the 7th Gale of the Desert Wind. Under the command of the now late Lord Yalo. I am not some child in need of a lesson Nulo.”
The thought of Lord Yalo brought back the image of the Jagara Colossus collapsing in upon itself as the Sand Widow ripped a boulder sized crystal out of its chest. The hulking mass became engulfed in searing blue flames of mana—burning any knight unlucky enough to be trapped in its wreckage.
The Lord Yalo’s Colossus was a fierce adversary, a foe that any Gudanna would be proud to have faced in battle. Raka reflected on a particular display of the Jagara’s strength and Yalo’s awareness of the battlefield.
The Colossus had picked up a Horned Blight, throwing it toward a nearby Winged Preserver that was waiting with its scythe to decapitate the golem in mid air. It would be his honor in the future to face such a foe again.
“Did you not notice the banners of the Gilded Band and Marshal Agrima among their ranks?” Nulo asked pulling Raka back to the present. “Since you are not the child of some goat herder I should not have to tell you that Agrima and the Gilded Band belong with the Northern Biting Wind from the other side of the Durani Empire. Not with an invasion force of the Desert Wind.”
Raka was growing impatient. “What does it matter if the enemy made few minor troop redeployments. Such things happen in the Dominion fairly often.”
“Brother, I am trying to help you see that bigger picture, there are things at work beyond what you can see. However, you are unwilling to see them—as ever. ” Nulo said returning his gaze to the fire.
“Just as you are not willing to see that Rudatha has killed our Khan. You heard Nandanna when she rallied the 27th, she will prove the Spider’s guilt. Then we will crush him like the fat bug he is.”
“You go too far Raka,” Nulo said coolly keeping his gaze on the fire. “Nandanna orchestrated our defeat to steal loyalty of the 27th Torrent- this I know for fact. She is responsible for Zyamala’s late arrival. I need not tell you how her Wildwood Dryad would have changed the outcome of the engagement. You also know, as I do, that Zyamala has always been loyal to Nandana. Surely you can see the correlation. Raka, Rudatha is not a threat to the Dominion as Nandanna claims. It is Nandanna’s blind ambition that will destroy the Dominion. You must see this.”
Nandanna would not betray her fellow warriors. She was one of them, she knew what it meant to be truly Gudanna, to live and die on the field of battle. She was the only one who could carry on the legacy of the Khan.
“You have nothing but speculation brother. If loyalty to Nandanna is enough to prove that you are a traitor, you can count me among them.”
“This is no random accusation, I know this for a fact. I saw the Dryad during the battle. I was deployed to the outside flank and could see her in the distance, just waiting.” Nulo said as his eyes became unfocused remembering the battle.
The image of gouts of fire erupting around him as he rushed forward- following the fearless Black Widows in a charge to dislodge the enemy’s encamped Fire Rams came rushing back. The foolish charge led to the death of many as they were caught in explosions of fiery shrapnel. The attack was, however, a partial success at it succeeded in bringing the enemy artillery down. It was reminder of how costly the coming conflict would be, how all the world would be consumed in the coming war.
Raka’s grip closed silently around the hilt of his sword. Even if Nandanna held back troops she must have had her reasons. It must have been for the good of the Dominion and the Gudanna. There was also still the chance Nulo was mistaken in what he saw. This changes nothing, the Dominion still needs Nandanna. Rudatha’s guilt is plain and his snivelling plans will do us no good in the face of the Durani onslaught.
If Nulo’s tale were to be told however—even if it was nothing but a lie, would it convince many to leave Nandanna’s side to fight for the Spider? That could not happen. I cannot let it happen. “Who else have you told about this? Who else saw the Dryad waiting?”
“No one. No one as far as I know. That’s why I left. Not to desert, but to tell Rudatha -”
Hearing Raka’s sword being pulled from its scabbard Nulo dropped to his back from the log he was sitting on as just as the sword sliced through where his neck was a second ago. He tried to roll away but was caught under his brothers foot. Struggling to breathe, Nulo bit into his own hand, ripping at his flesh.
Raka kept the edge of his sword pressed against Nulo’s neck causing a trickle of blood.
In a wave of memory and emotion the years of his life spent with Nulo washed over him. From sparing as children to taking to the field of battle for the first time. Nulo had saved him countless times. Doubt seized him. Was this truly the only way?
Raka was pulled back to the fatal present. Nulo’s hand was weeping blood—a spell, a weapon of blood was forming in his hand.
“Blood and Honor.” Nulo coughed.
There was no time for contemplation. In a single swift motion Raka shifted his weight slicing through Nulo’s neck with a single clean cut.
After cleaning his sword Raka and bandaging his wound he lifted Nulo’s body onto the fire along with his decapitated head. As the body was engulfed in flame Raka collapsed to his knees weeping in front of his brother.
Nulo is dead. I have murdered my own brother. I am a man without honor. No. No, Nulo was going to kill me. Nulo was going to betray the Dominion. Nulo was going to aid the murder of the Khan. Nulo was going to fight against Nandanna, against what it means to be Gudanna. Nulo needed to die for the Dominion to survive.
“We do not kneel.” Raka repeated Nandanna’s words to himself, regaining his composure and lifting himself up from the ground. “I will not kneel in front of the Durani, I will not kneel before Rudatha, and I will not kneel before you, my brother.”
Illustration: Joel DuQue