The Endless Cycle
by Chris Rogers
Even at midday, a gloom remained over Prishta. The swamp’s fog never truly lifted, just retreated into the sky for a few hours each day before settling back down in the late afternoon. By early evening it was impossible to see from one side of a narrow alley to the other. The weak lanterns that lined Prishta’s streets didn’t help, but only left bright smudges in the misty shadows. It was busy now in the market square, but still somehow hushed, the people going about their business in dark robes, bargaining in the market in whispers and low tones. By nightfall, there would be only empty flagstones in the mist and a few scurrying figures hoping to go unnoticed.
Prishta had always been a haven for those who preferred to conduct their business in private. The murky waters of the surrounding glades were treacherous, but navigable, and the land surrounding the city was sparsely inhabited—a perfect place for a black market. In the past, that illicit commerce had brought turmoil and violence as the city’s most powerful denizens waged war on each other for control of the lucrative trade hub. That ended when the Khan’s Spider had chosen Prishta as his seat. Within months of his settling into the ancient library, a relative calm descended on the city. Generational rivalries were forgotten, blood debts remained unpaid, and the volatile streets became safe for the first time in living memory. No secrets could be kept from the Spider, and those who openly plotted against him either recanted, elected to leave the city, or simply vanished altogether.
Kitra sat in the square, legs crossed, watching the furtive traffic. He waited at a qobi vendor’s stand, and the red smoke from the pipe poured out of his mouth. After a few days in Prishta, Kitra had gained a deeper appreciation of how the Spider had orchestrated such a complete and quiet takeover. The city was crawling with his spies, all watching for signs of unrest. Yet no one paid much attention to the nearly catatonic qobi smokers, or so he hoped, at least, because the Spider’s agents criss-crossed all around the square, definitely looking for something.
“That one over there. The blind beggar with the cane,” Mags said. Kitra nodded slightly. The spirit had been pressed upon him as a punishment, but he had come to accept a grudging partnership with her during the past year. She hissed, then continued: “The young girl on the balcony of the gambling house. He’s not shy about employing children.” Kitra saw her, dangling her leg through the railing, looking bored and vacant. “The boy at the well.” Kitra grimaced. There were more watchers than watched in this pit of a city. A thin thread of magic encircled the neck of each of the spies just above the skin: the Spider’s web around each of his agents. Mags had seen them with her ghostly eyes, and through the strange connection she and Kitra shared, he had eventually noticed it as well. Or maybe it was the qobi—Kitra couldn’t be sure.
The Spider’s tight grip on the city made it all the more impressive that Ausin Tal could operate here. They had first heard about the Urugal prophet in the mountains near the border. As they drew closer to Prishta, the Urugal they met, operating under the thumb of the Gudanna Dominion, began to whisper furtively of a Deliverer. Tal, it was said, could see the future, he knew what his enemies were going to do before they did, and he could breathe on a warrior and grant him the strength of ten men. Kitra had hardly needed to look, because Tal wanted to be found. Rumor said Tal was building an army, and an Urugal warrior like Kitra was an attractive target for recruitment. An underground network had arranged his passage here, to the shadow capital of the Gudanna Dominion, a place he had hoped never to return.
He had to give up his golem when they entered the city, as well as most of his supplies. He had been smuggled in using the shroud given to him by the abbess when she pressed him into his quest. Under it, he looked like he had been dead for a hundred years. Two men carried him through the city gates, looking like a mummified corpse, just bone merchants up to their unsavory trade. And who would be sharp-eyed enough to notice if those two men looked like they were straining a little too much with the weight of a dessicated corpse?
Tonight, Ausin Tal was to gather a secret conclave of his acolytes, and Kitra would finally meet the one who had inspired such devotion in so many. The meeting would take place in a nearby cellar, and Kitra had watched the Urugal arriving all day, never more than two at a time. If the spies had noticed as well, they gave no sign.
“Quite the lucky draw, to have the name of a secret cult leader dropped at our feet. Do you think this man is the Deliverer?” Mags asked.
Kitra shrugged very slightly. Tal certainly had some kind of power. But I’ve seen plenty with a knack for showmanship turn even a small blessing from the Ancients into a nifty little scam.
It was a better thread to investigate than any they found during their travels, even if the darker rumors (in one colorful tale, Tal drank the blood of his followers from a cup made of skulls) came up almost as often as the promises of miracles. Truth told, Kitra was more impressed by his organizational capabilities: Tal was running a secret cult under the nose of the Dominion’s spymaster.
And, If Tal was the promised ‘savior,’ then Kitra’s search would be over, he could deliver the abbess’ warnings, and then he would be free. Yet free to do what?
Mags’ voice interrupted his thoughts. “This city—why does it scare it you so?” She appeared only as a ghostly flame in the periphery of his vision, but Kitra could feel her watching him. She was invisible to all others, a hallucination that never went away.
“The Khan’s Spider captured me, held me here, tortured me.” Kitra said through the smoke. The vendor paid a murmuring qobi smoker no mind at all.
In the square, the quiet people continued their business. “For how long?”
“For as long as anyone is ever tortured: until I broke. Until I was willing to betray the forces at Bhira that had united to stop the Dominion. Until I was willing to betray those I loved.”
“You lied to me, Kitra! You lied!” Nimala’s eyes were filled with the righteous innocence Kitra had once admired. Now they were almost unendurable. A storm of flames swirled around him as the Gudanna forces swept into the breach Kitra had opened.
“I have our escape planned…” Kitra had to yell over the sound of the battle as towering golems clashed above them.
“With you?” Nimala looked disgusted. “Never.” He turned back toward the breach, drawing his sword. A sudden explosion of magic and debris rose up between them, and Nimala was gone forever.
“What happened to him?”
“He died, everyone died at Bhira—and I killed them.”
“Ah, and so you became the black-hearted mercenary captain of legend.” Mags’ smile was bitter, but strangely kind.
Kitra only answered: “It’s time.”
A low ceiling hung over the wide, dark cellar. A few lamps flickered between the huddled crowd. All the gathered faithful sat, praying or meditating. Kitra sat near the back, dizzy from the qobi in spite of his effort not to breathe the smoke too deeply. Everything had taken on a floating quality, and the sound of the murmured prayers of the faithful pressed against his face like a warm wind.
“Ausin Tal must tell a good tale,” Mags said as she looked over the congregation.
These were the chaff of an empire, a people held in bondage by their former brothers and sisters. The abbess said the Urugal were a diminished people, and these were among the most diminished of the Urugal: menial laborers, filthy peddlers of broken relics, and stooped beggars. Still, in their desperation was a sort of strength when so many gathered, so united by common purpose. Kitra had to admit he was impressed. If Tal could do this in Prishta, could he not unite the Urugal and free them?
There was no announcement, no invocation, no song. All of a sudden the whispered prayers stopped, and a deep drum beat began. The prophet Ausin Tal stepped into the light before the assembled congregants. He began speaking before Kitra even lay eyes him.
“We were once nomads, travelling where the winds swept us. We lived, died, and we moved on according the great wheel of our Ancient Ones. Our ancestors willingly spent the sparks of their lives in order to turn the mighty Wheel of Destruction. Life, death, and rebirth: a perfect cleansing cycle. But the cycle has been perverted, and we have lost our rightful place as the destroyers who open the way for rebirth. So we cling to this pathetic drudgery, desperate to eke out a few more years, or days—or even hours.”
Ausin Tal was a slim man, leaving his middle years behind him, and his eyes flashed with intelligence. As a sage, he wore his thick black hair in a tangled topknot, and his beard had not been trimmed in many years. No serenity showed in his glance, no peace gleaned from his communion with the Ancients. There was only hunger. Under other circumstances, Kitra would have called him a madman, but Kitra had seen too much of the Ancient Ones’ power lately to easily discount it.
“The Ancients have awakened in me the power to usher in a new age for us, my brothers and sisters. I am their servant, but I will not say their humble servant. We have had far too much humility. No, the one I serve has asked for a different kind of servants: reavers who can usher in a new age of death, a cleansing of this overgrown garden of corruption, those who can speed the great cycle toward destruction. Can you not see it?”
And Kitra could see it:
A host of Urugal draped in glory as a black fire consumed all Eretsu. They were so many they looked like locusts on the land. The was not an army of conquest, but an army of undoing, the wind that blows out the last candle. At the center of the vast host was Tal, his head wreathed in flame, and at Tal’s right hand was Kitra, covered in blood as the army of death worshipped them both. Kitra could feel a thrilling power throbbing through his limbs even as a black bile rose in his mouth.
Thum, thum, thum went the drums.
Kitra caught his breath. “The qobi?”
“No.” Mags looked suspiciously at Tal. “That was him.”
“…But to usher in such glory will require sacrifice,” Tal continued. He gestured at a man and a woman who were led up to him. “Who are willing to make such a sacrifice?” At the question, a few stood and approached Tal, making a line down the center of the room.
Tal went to the first supplicant put a small iron bowl to his lips. With his other hand he held the man’s jaw open. It was an almost loving gesture, like a healer coaxing his patient to drink. Yet instead of drinking, vapors began to pour out of the man’s mouth into the bowl. As they did, the man faltered, then crumpled. Acolytes stepped up to support the wretch when he could no longer hold himself standing. In a few seconds, the healthy man had been reduced to an arthritic invalid, his bones crushed and weakened. The acolytes pulled him away, and the next supplicant presented herself. Tal brought the bowl to her lips in the same way, and this time Kitra could hear the bones snapping before she was dragged away in agony. Then the next stepped up. No matter how much poured out from each supplicant, the bowl never filled.
The drums sped up now as still more of the gathered stepped up to join the line.
“Blasphemy,” the spirit whispered. She seemed utterly shocked. “We have to stop him.”
“How do we know he isn’t the one we’re looking for? How do we know this isn’t the will of the Ancient Ones you serve?”
“He cannot be the Deliverer. He is consuming our people.”
Before they could settle the argument, the cellar doors burst open.
Gudanna soldiers rushed in—at least seven at the door, and who knew how many more on the stairs behind them. “Hold, in the name of the Raja Rudatha.You are under arrest!” Several more soldiers poured in from the another door across the room. The gathered Urugal sprang up, some pulling out knives as others rushed the entrance, hoping to slip out before the Gudanna could grab them. Bodyguards in maille shirts suddenly appeared around Tal. Kitra stepped up and unsheathed his swords.
As a Gudanna soldier raised his machete and brought it down on the huddled Urugal in front of him, Kitra burst into action.
I’ll never end up back in the Spider’s hands.
All his rage at the Spider poured out on the Gudanna soldiers. It quickly became a chaotic fight as he spent as much time pushing frightened Urugal out of the way as he did slashing at the Gudanna. Soon Kitra saw it was a lost cause: the raid had been well-planned, and the Gudanna were prepared for resistance. These Urugal weren’t warriors. Kitra quickly found himself pressed toward the other pockets of resistance, carried by the fight to Ausin Tal himself.
Tal looked calm. He did not fight, but watched intently, running his finger along the rim of his strange iron bowl. When archers with short bows scrambled in behind the ranked soldiers, Kitra slid behind a pillar to avoid the first volley. Even then Tal did not move, sure the arrows would not hit him.
They peppered his guards, though, the arrows biting through their light maille shirts. Yet Kitra noticed they didn’t fall. One had his belly slashed open, and another had half a dozen arrows in his chest, yet they still fought on. Both should have been dead, but moved as if unwounded. Tal stepped forward and put his hand on the shoulder of one of the guards. The man stopped to look back at Tal and nod, barely registering the blade that cut deep into his upper arm. Then the guard threw himself into the Gudanna, pushing deep into their rank with the surprise charge. Kitra had just a moment to see the magic in the man’s belly, coiled like a snake before he exploded in a storm of mana-flame.
The ceiling caved, and the building above spilled into the cellar, cutting them off from the Gudanna. Kitra stumbled to his feet, coughing, his ears ringing. All but two of Tal’s guards slumped to the ground, finally too weak to stand.
Ausin Tal had picked up the only lamp still sputtering after the collapse. “When they dig through, punish them, my brothers and sisters. I will not forget your sacrifice!” As he spun around, Tal added: “Vhal Kitra!” Tal smiled like a host at a dinner party. ”I’ve long waited for you. Come with me.”
Kitra warily followed Tal through a hidden door in the cellar’s wall, an accommodation made by some smuggler in times long past, into the sewers of Prishta. It was a dark and twisting maze of tunnels and catacombs, half sunk into the murk of the surrounding swamp, but Tal never seemed to need light, nor did he ever lose his way. He moved quickly, but not like a man concerned he had the Gudanna Dominion after him, but more like someone afraid of being late to an appointment. A few minutes later, another dull blast of magic thudded overhead, and dust rained down on them. More of Tal’s self-immolating servants.
Kitra had some help from Mags, who made it easier to see in the darkness, but was nevertheless glad when they emerged from a duct into the foggy swamp. He was unsurprised to find golems waiting, half buried in the swamp’s ichor, and manned by yet more of Tal’s followers. At their arrival, the great constructs rose up out of the swamp, chunks of peat and mud sliding down their bony exteriors.
“How do you know my name?” Kitra finally asked.
“How else does a prophet learn? It was revealed to me by the Ancient Ones.” Tal smiled indulgently. “I know what you seek. Your quest has ended. I am the one who can set the Urugal on their true path. You have doubts, I am sure, but I will prove it to you. This morning I leave Prishta in order to bring the truth to those of our people who have forgotten it.”
Kitra smirked. “This morning you leave Prishta because the Spider found you. Stay here, and by nightfall he’ll have you in chains.”
“I can understand how things appear to you. In truth, I had no great purpose in Prishta beyond you, Vhal Kitra. I had to wait there, where I knew you would come.”
“Hell of a place to wait for me. I only came because some innkeep half the world away happened to mention your name.”
“Yet you had to come here. You had to retrace your scars before you would be ready to see the truth.”
The vision swam again in Kitra’s mind. The same burning wheel, the Urugal hordes, the sense of being beyond the pain of the world—and it was still mixed with the same stomach-turning feeling: corruption. He wanted to retch.
“What truth is that?” Kitra managed between clenched teeth.
“That you must serve a purpose, Vhal Kitra. All your strange and storied life has led to this moment. You have returned to the place where you were broken to be made whole. Now we can begin to eliminate our common enemies. I can give you the power you crave for vengeance. I can give you the power to raze Prishta to the ground and march the Spider before you, leashed like a dog. I will free your men, and you will become a terror unlike any this world has ever known. I have seen it come to pass in my visions.”
I am sure this glory bit works on most of these poor souls, Kitra thought.
“We have common enemies, you say. Is the Spider one of them?”
“Perhaps, but a minor one as I account him. I go now to face a far greater threat to our people, one against which you also have grievance. Come with me. Help me pass judgement.”
“No.” Mags stepped between them, her empty eyes glowing. “This man is evil. You saw what he did, how he consumed those people. What would he do in the name of his own justice? We should not help him lace a single sandal.” She flickered beside Kitra, plucking at him, straining away from the presence of Ausin Tal.
Tal turned calmly to look her square in the eye. “Silence, witch. What you saw tonight was a blessing from the Ancients. I took what was freely given in order to make our people stronger. How was what you witnessed any different from what any general asks of his soldiers in every battle?”
“You can see her?” Kitra’s grimy brow wrinkled in surprise. “At least I’m not mad, then.”
“I can do more than that. I can rid you of her, send her to torment forever. She is a parasite, feeding off the fire of your soul, but I can cure you. You need only drink.” Tal had produced his iron bowl, and held it out to Kitra.
“No, I don’t think so,” Kitra said flatly, “but I will travel with you and see this common enemy and your justice. And you will leave this spirit alone or I promise you I will kill you, prophet.” He wondered if anyone could kill Tal if it came to that.
He does have guards, at least, and that seems like an unnecessary precaution for an immortal.
Tal nodded. “As you wish. If she is the price I pay for your presence, I will endure the parasite. You will both be my guests.”
For the first few days, Tal was nowhere to be seen. He had ridden off while Kitra and the others maintained a steady pace through the swamp. Each day, more of Tal’s cult joined them, and soon they were a caravan built around eight golems. By the third day, Kitra counted twenty-six men and women. By the fifth day, there were over a hundred.
The land around them changed from the heavily forested glades to a flat and open wetlands stretching to the horizon. The nights were cold, yet Tal had left orders no fires were to be lit. It was a bleak land and a bleak company, steeped in mantras and fervor. Tal’s acolytes made up the whole group, the light in their eyes feverish and unfocused. They were all expectant of something, but Kitra was fairly sure they had no idea what.
On the first day, a young woman had walked with him, smiling, speaking in a reverent voice about the greatness of Ausin Tal. She tried to engage Kitra for more than three hours, but when he said nothing in response to her preaching, she eventually excused herself.
It took him another few days to realize he was now a prisoner. Whenever he strayed too far from the group, members started following after him, smiling and friendly, yet insistent. He could have cut them down easy had he decided to leave, but he meant to uncover the answer to Tal’s riddles and make up his own mind about the dark prophet.
If nothing else, Kitra was able to keep to himself, and for once Mags remained quiet. He could feel her revulsion as a prickling on his skin. She could hardly stand each minute in the company of such evil.
Now you know how I felt in Prishta, Kitra thought.
In the quiet, however, Kitra began to wonder what he should do next. Mags could kill him where he stood, he knew, and yet she had chosen not to keep him from this course. Perhaps she trusted him, or still trusted in the abbess’s belief Kitra could serve some greater good.
Prophecies and more prophecies. When did I become the Ancient Ones’ favorite plaything?
Kitra had no doubt the gifts offered by Ausin Tal were really traps, yet how could he be sure in these strange times? What if Tal really was the savior of the Urugal people? As Kitra rode, he wondered if Tal was not the Deliverer this world deserved—the Deliverer he deserved. He had been a monster before the abbess trapped him and given him his quest. And yet, was he still a monster if he did those things so long ago that few still alive thought of him as anything other than a tale to scare children? The answer to that question came easily: Yes, absolutely, for now and forever.
Still, he could not help but ask it again and again.
By the evening of the tenth day, Kitra guessed they were nearing a thousand men and women in a sprawling camp in the empty streets of some long-ruined city. The desert was close now, and each gust of wind pushed sand across the flagstones. When they stopped, by some unspoken consensus, small fires were quickly lit under the shelter of the golems. It seemed a poor choice after days of huddling in the dark in country that could have masked them. Anyone, anywhere in the area could have found them.
Even so, it was a relief to have a little warmth, and the hundredth fire wouldn’t divulge any information about their position that the first ninety-nine hadn’t already given away. Kitra was deep in thought when Tal appeared in the orange glow.
“May I join you?”
Kitra waved at a flat rock opposite his own seat.
“Are you thinking of your men, Vhal Kitra?”
“Among other things.”
Tal nodded. “We will free them together. Let me ask you: what do you believe about fate?”
AusinTal laughed. “I believe much and more. I have seen fate at work in our lives.”
“I spent my youth as a drunken graverobber, stealing from the dead. I was nearly always hungry, and I rarely had a roof over my head. Then I stumbled upon a lost temple full of treasures. At first I could not believe my luck—I still believed in luck in those days, instead of fate—but then I discovered the temple was not empty, not at all. What lived there was an old power, and I realized it could have destroyed me. Instead it welcomed me, and in that tomb taught me that all been the workings of fate. I was reborn as its servant. I am destined to unite the Urugal clans, just as these others are destined to be sacrificed to its cause, all playing their parts as is determined by fate. Just so, you are destined to become the force of a cleansing destruction that will sweep away empires and tribes alike, and begin a rebirth.”
At Kitra’s silence, Tal continued. “Think, think how all you had was taken from you: you have been stripped of all your attachments to this world, made pure. Yet you are mired in guilt and indecision. Why? Why cling to these pretensions of an unformed morality when the true Urugal way lies before you?”
Kitra saw it all, a lifetime of crimes and betrayal, and in the vision he saw himself embracing it. He played the role of devil before, but in the vision he was no longer playing. Gone was the man who had started out doing what he must in order to survive. In his place was a wanton killer, a man who didn’t care for coin or cause, only slaughter. It would be easy, he realized. Tal was offering to take away all the burdens he had carried. And what was the price?
Only that he become what the world already thought him. In that instant, Kitra realized it was too high a price.
“I am a servant of Urugal Zas-Sai, The Black Locust. He is old, perhaps the oldest, and he remembers with longing when the wheel of birth and destruction spun much faster. He is building, with our help, a new world. But others, those who oppose him, are building as well. And tonight, an instrument of one of our greatest enemies will pass into our hands. Even now she comes to treat with me.”
At the mention of The Locust, Kirta felt the hunger, but now it made him ill. This was an urge to devour without purpose. It was only hunger, and when the world had been stripped bare there was still no satisfaction—only more hunger.
Ausin Tal stood. “Tonight, you will take revenge against those who sold you to the Gudanna all those years ago, and embrace your fate. I have seen it.”
“He’s mad!” Kitra felt Mags opening up to him again the moment Tal left.
He quickly unsheathed each of his blades, examined them, and then returned them to his waist.
“And powerful. He would kill me, or worse, if he suspected I couldn’t be won over.”
“The Black Locust? I’ve never heard of such an Ancient One. Who would follow something that called itself The Black Locust?”
“Shhh! you can be heard, remember?”
Mags quieted and dimmed. “Warrior, you do not yet know. During our time in this awful caravan I have watched all these people. He has poisoned all of them. Remember the men in the cellar? He has worked that same magic on all of these. At his word, they will all erupt into flames.”
“They are all living bombs, you mean?” Kitra growled.
“Yes. You would have been as well, if you had taken any of his magic.”
“Thank you for the warning. It’s a little late.”
“You didn’t seem inclined to listen to me at the time. What did he mean about revenge?”
“I don’t know. I was taken in the court of Clan Sunu. I had brought an offer to join the alliance at Bhira, but the Sunu had already joined the Gudanna.”
Mags spun about. “They come for you.”
It was the woman from the first day, along with a few of Tal’s guards in maille shirts, carrying heavy falchions, dressed in white, as if prepared for death. They fanned out around Kitra in a circle, and one said “Master Ausin asks you attend him, my lord.”
They waited to receive the envoys in the ruins of a small shrine on a cliff near the frayed edge of the ghost city. Concentric rings of ruined pillars held up a few last slabs of the roof. A mosaic of stars still remained in a few places on the floor, bleached and broken. Tal stood in the center, of course, prayer beads in his left hand and his iron bowl in his right. He looked exactly like a holy man ready to recite a sutra, not at all like a killer prepared to set fire to his entire flock. His acolytes had arranged themselves along the aisle near the entrance.
Kitra stood off to the side, flanked by guards. Mags paced between the columns, watching the entrance to the building.
Five Urugal knights strode in, led by a young woman with her helm tucked under one arm. “This doesn’t look like a meeting, prophet. It looks like a trap. Speak quickly.” For a just a moment, her eyes were drawn to the spot where Mags stood, narrowing.
Can she see the spirit too?
Her glance returned to Tal as he stepped forward. “I am so glad you have finally agreed to treat with me,” he began.
“I haven’t. I was coerced. Your acolytes have taken to killing themselves whenever I have refused them. They lay across our path, ready to be trampled.” Her voice was clear and strong. If she was afraid of Ausin Tal, it didn’t show.
“Such extreme measures became necessary when you would not answer for your crimes against the Urugal people.”
The knights drew their weapons and stepped around their leader, protecting her.
“We were promised safe conduct,” she said. She still wasn’t afraid, but outraged. Her chin was thrust out, her brow was clear, and Kitra realized where he had seen that look before, that look of righteous innocence. It was the look he had loved in Iskate Nimala.
Tal stepped toward her. “Palace dog, you lack the will to unleash the true power of our people.”
“You called me here just to insult me? Why?” Her ferocity and confusion mixed in equal measure.
Tal said nothing. He merely waved his hand toward them, a signal to his assembled flock.
The knights began edging out of the shrine slowly, back to back. They were ready for an attack, but not for what Tal had in store. One of the acolytes, an older woman, reached out slowly, gently, and seized the arm of one of the knights. He tried to shake her loose, but the unnatural strength of her grip held. Then another reached out, and another, and the knight was pulled to the ground, trying to kick free of the mob. The same thing happened to a second knight when he couldn’t bring himself to his weapon at an old man. As he fell, the remaining three knights belatedly began to fight back. Rather than make for the exit, the knights’ leader, when she realized what was happening, pressed forward to attack Ausin Tal.
She had nearly broken through the congregation before one of Tal’s followers burst into flame and exploded. The wave of magic knocked her tumbling forward, sprawling at Ausin Tal’s feet. Blood trickled down her chin and ran freely from a cut above her eye. Slowly, painfully, she turned over onto her back. Behind her, the other knights had been slaughtered. Only a few acolytes had survived, wounded and writhing. A few seconds later, one of the remaining pillars crumbled, sending up a cloud of dust.
Before Kitra could do anything, Mags drew up close to him, whispering in his ear to confirm what he already knew: “It is her! She is the crow from the vision!”
Tal remained calm as he yelled over the chaos. “Vhal Kitra, this is Sunu Izvari, heir to Clan Sunu, and the adopted daughter of the Great Khan. Her father betrayed you to the Gudanna, and she luxuriated in the courts of the Khan while you were tortured in his dungeons. Step forward and take your revenge against her.”
“She’s still half a child, prophet. She wasn’t responsible for what the Spider did to me.”
“We do not permit half measures. You have already killed her. I have seen it in visions countless times. Take her life, and you will become a warlord unlike any this world has known for an entire age. We will spin the wheel of rebirth! Test fate, if you think you can refuse me. She will die anyway, and so will you.”
Izvari had pushed herself to one knee while Tal spoke. She was dazed, shaking her head.
Kitra just needed a few more steps to get close to Tal. He moved slowly, calmly—but before he could close the distance, Tal’s face twisted from proud command to disgust.
“Swine!” Tal reached into his bowl, and an arc of searing mana leapt out at Kitra. Mags swooped in front of it, screaming in pain. The force of her defense forced Tal back a few steps, and Kitra used the moment to pull Izvari off the ground.
She looked at him for one long, probing moment, and Kitra saw in her white eyes a vision of warfare, but he also saw the possibility of peace. A people of death, yet living in balance.
Izvari nodded and fled.
Tal raked his hand across Mags, and Kitra could feel her being pulled, torn away to someplace else. He reached out to her as he bounded toward Tal, and for just a moment he saw a version of himself in blue fire that pulled her back to him. Then the guards were on him.
He managed to push the first out a nearby window. The moment he fell out of sight, an explosion rose up and mana-fire licked back into the shrine. Kitra caught a quick glimpse of Tal gesturing over his bowl before he slid behind a pillar. Kitra dashed around the other side to find the remaining guard smiling as the fire glowed in his belly.
The explosion tore upward into the night sky.
In the aftermath, Ausin Tal walked among the many dead, but they were hard to identify. The red of their blood was almost black in the moonlight. He found Vhal Kitra, sprawled out, lifeless. He had been central to the Locust’s plan, but it was not the first time some other Ancient One had interfered.
As he looked on, Tal realized he wasn’t alone. There, in the corner, sat the spirit that had possessed Vhal Kitra, her head in her hands. She wept softly—a sound like laughter to him, the music of a small victory amid defeat.
“Foolish spirit. Because of you, my rival has escaped me. The pain I will visit upon you… I will trap you in a place of devastation for eternity. Why did you stay?”
The spirit looked up from her bony hands, her corpse-like face hard. “To distract you.”
Tal didn’t understand when the first sword plunged through his chest, nor the second. Pain overwhelmed him, and when the swords slid out, he realized they had been supporting him. He reached out for his bowl, but someone kicked it away.
Anger flared him in then, mixing with magic. “No!” His cry was wet with blood. “I have been chosen. I am the one fated to rule.”
“No, you aren’t,” Vhal Kitra said, “because if you were, I wouldn’t be able to do this.” He kicked Tal against a pillar, then shoved him over to a wall. Tal readied another spell—weaker without his bowl, but it would be enough. Yet before he could deliver it, Kitra ran both his blades through the mage, hoisted him from the floor by the swords’ handles, and shoved him out a window, swords and all.
“Have I fulfilled your abbess’ prophecy? I’ve lost track.” Kitra’s lips were cracked, and he had been burned and bruised in a dozen places.
“The debt is paid,” Magdina answered. “We have found the Deliverer, and our order will aid her as we can. I foresee a path of tribulation before her.” The spirit led him, limping, away from the shrine into the wilderness.
A panic went up in the encampment behind them as Ausin Tal’s body was discovered.
“What about your swords?” Mags asked.
Kitra shook his head. “Leave them. I’ve done enough killing.” The fight had gone out of him with that last thrust through Tal’s body. Once, when he had just met Nimala, they had spent the entire day swimming in a mountain lake. When night fell, he was exhausted; he felt emptied out and lazy on the beach afterward. I hadn’t thought of that in years. I don’t know why it comes to me now. It was something he had seen in the Sunu girl’s eyes.
“No killing?” Magdina smiled, and Kitra saw her as she truly was: not a crone, but a regal matron, wrapped in the robes of her devotion. Her back was straight, and she walked with a stately grace. A single jewel was pressed on her forehead, just over her eyes. Those eyes retained a mischievous glint, as well as the long memory of pain. “How will anyone remember to die without you there to remind them, warrior?”
“Something tells me the world will manage that part without me.”
“On that we can agree. Well then, what now?”
Kitra looked to the south, toward the desert where his men were buried. “I think I will go back to your temple, spirit. I must wake my men, but I’ll do it slowly, one at a time. I’ll work with each of them to see they give up their allegiance. The Forsaken Five Hundred are the stuff of song now. I want to make sure they stay so.”
“Hundreds of men, released one at a time—that could take many years.”
Kitra nodded. “Especially if you knew the men. It’ll take a great long time. Perhaps, one day, when I’m done, I’ll even become a holy man myself, shaving my head and lighting incense. Can you imagine that?”
Kitra expected another wry retort. Instead the spirit only replied “Perhaps.”
Illustration: Joel DuQue