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Bride Of Valkyn

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BRIDE OF VALKYN

PROLOGUE

My early life was uneventful.  I dutifully learned all the skills of a young woman of my caste - how to cook, sew, wash, care for the household animals, tend our garden and so forth.  A failing in Father’s eyes was my joy in dancing.  I would sneak off to watch visiting troupes and then return to my room and mimic the steps.  Though of small stature, I was strong and quick and dreamt of the day when I could take the stage myself.  I suppose I eventually did - in a way.

When a girl sees eighteen summers unwed in Ferisse, a virtuous frenzy grips the diligent parent.  My mother having passed into the arms of Gaea at my birth, the burden fell upon Father.  A stalwart of the merchant class, his penchant for gambling was matched by ill fortune to the extent that my birthday saw our family one step from the debtor's gaol.  And so, to deliver his daughter from a dire fate and redeem our family fortune at one bound, Father presented me one day to Porfilio Dimonte, a wealthy drover of cattle from Urrissa in Zagara - a man more than thrice my years.

"Good master!" cried the grey-beard on sighting me.  "Fortune smiles in the twilight of my days!"  He gave a gap-toothed smile through his cracked lips as he looked me up and down.  "Lithe as a dancer!” he croaked.  His wrinkled hands shook with ill-concealed lust as he signed the bridal contract.  But to me the clang of coin in the betrothal cup was as the tolling of the last bell. 

I cast an importuning look at Father.  But to he, duty was not bandied word.  It was meat and drink and the air one breathes.  Its golden cord binds all alike.  He had prepared me for my proper role in life.  Now it was time for me to repay his labors.  And so he handed me over and turned away without a word. 

You may think our parting cold.  Yet he was ever so to me.  Knowing nothing else, I did not think it out of place.  Later in life I considered why, unlike my siblings, my eyes were the color of the sky.  And why no one ever spoke of how my mother had died.  I resolved never to ask.    

Yet those thoughts were not uppermost in my mind at the moment.    A girl does not grow up among brothers without learning rough play.  And so, waiting until Father's chariot had passed the furthest ridge, I placed a knee into the nethermost parts of the nearest of Porfilio's guards and bolted.

Here I learned a lesson - do not underestimate the aged.  Porfilio, knowing in his heart he was not the most prepossessing of grooms, had anticipated his bird might fly the cage.  A shrewd blow of his staff and I was plunged into the dreaming realm of Lyessa.

When I awoke, I found myself lying in well-furnished chambers in the Dimonte mansion.  Porfilio’s vassals waited upon me hand and foot.  A leech tended the painful lump on my pate until the swelling went down.  I lacked for nothing except freedom. 

If the sound of hammering were not augur enough, through the cracks of my barred window I espied workers constructing a traditional Zagaran bridal platform.  I will spare you the details of this shameless custom, but I knew my days as a maiden were numbered unless I could devise an escape before the structure was complete.

Perhaps it was the All-Father himself who planted the seeds of the plan that came to me like a flash in a rainstorm.

One of my mercenary guards was a tall, strapping lad of Harkenia named Hulogu.  I had felt his eyes upon me from the first and knew that he was my salvation.  Slowly, but with careful intent, I dropped bread crumbs for him to follow.  A discarded scarf.  A hoisted hemline.  A furtive glance.

Soon we were whispering mad plans in the alcove.  Whether it was true love that drove him I will never know.  But he knelt and pledged his sword to my freedom.  We would escape and then ride together to his rustic homeland.

Did I say it was a mad plan?  But sometimes the Gods have their ways.

We were discovered, of course.  I would like to think it was the untimely neigh of a horse.  But more likely Porfilio was on to us from the beginning and, out of spite, chose to let our plot play out to its doom.  If so, more is the pity, for the three men slain by my brave Harkenian would still be alive.

The law is the law and their deaths cried for blood.  In a blink, the Zagaran bridal platform was converted into a scaffold.  There, before the magistrates and a vengeful crowd on market day, they hanged my Harkenian and made me watch.  In that moment I realized my cruel folly and felt the first weight of a burden I would carry the rest of my days.

I don’t think Porfilio felt pleasure watching me led in turn to the scaffold.  And I held his gaze the whole time, hoping the water of my eyes would melt the hardness of his heart.  But I am sure he was already calculating the cost of my replacement.

Lo and behold, as so oft happens in Ferisse, greed and the gleam of gold met in happy coincidence.

For as they slipped the noose around my neck, a tall Stavorian in black robes stepped forth and raised his hand.  The beating of drums halted and all turned to listen to his words.

Under Zagaran law the affronted party, even where murder has occurred, may accept penance in coin.    And so I watched the Stavorian, who I learned was called Stilicho, hand over a chest of gold to my erstwhile groom.  With a nod from the magistrate, the noose was taken off and my hands unbound. 

I wasn’t free very long, for in the next moment cuffs of Stavorian iron were clapped around my wrists.  I was out of the pot and into the fire, as they say.  But at the time I felt great relief, for I was only eighteen and not yet ready to join my mother. 

I got my first ride on a pack-pig when the caravan set off next morning for Stilicho’s compound in Taveris, the provincial capital.  As they set me in the saddle, one of the women whom I had noticed the day before attending upon Stilicho drew aside her veil and gave me a crocodile smile.  That was how I first met Kitaara - the lovely but deadly Numerian who I would learn was behind this turn of fate.

But I get ahead of things.  I didn’t find out all at once.  At first, I just noticed how strangely everyone treated me.  While a captive of Porfilio I was chattel.  But now, though still a prisoner, I was treated with deference. 

When we stopped at an watering hole in the Zagaran countryside it all became manifest.  

Stilicho approached me with four guards at his side.  He regarded me quietly, then spoke:

“Little beauty, you’ve given no trouble,” said he.  “I will have your shackles removed if you give your word you shall not seek to escape.”

Hiding my puzzlement, I nodded slowly.  As the irons were removed, Stilicho and his guards seemed to brace themselves.  Then they relaxed when they saw I did nothing.

“One cannot be too careful even with such a slip of a girl,” said Stilicho, smiling.  “Knowing her daggers tasted the blood of three men and she without a scratch.”

I remained silent, knowing that any word I uttered would betray my amazement.  Then it slowly dawned on me.  My Harkanian had killed three men in our failed escape.  Somehow they thought this bloody work mine.  But how?  I was not long finding out.

For as Stilicho and his guards walked away, Kitaara came and knelt beside me.  She began to speak.  The tale she told would wrest my life from one path and set it upon another, one that I walk to this day.

Stilicho was leader of a guild of Zagaran assassins.  Kitaara was his most trusted lieutenant - which gives you an idea of how poor a judge of character he was.  Apparently he had come to the position through inheritance rather than talent and his reign had seen a precipitous drop in revenues.  Kitaara, being possessed of both daring and enterprise, had decided the time had come to take the title of Master of Asps for herself.

How did I fit into all this?  Stilicho’s troupe had been passing through when they stopped to observe my execution.  Forming a plan in her mind, Kitaara gave Stilicho to believe the girl with the noose around her neck had killed three men during a daring but ill-fated escape.  In his mind, this made me a worthy recruit. 

Once bought, I was apt for the second phase of Kitaara’s plan.

“I own you now girl, body and soul,” hissed she.  “As I saved your life, so I can take it with a flick of the hand.  But do I as command and all will be well.”

"What do you want from me?” I asked warily.

The plan as she explained it seemed simple.  I would be trained in the shadowy arts.  Then, when the time was ripe, I would be the instrument of Kitaara’s ascension.  Once I had accomplished her purpose, she assured me I would be free to go my own way.

I did not believe this last for a moment, but as I had few options I readily agreed.  My training would begin once we arrived at Stilicho's compound.

There was a rather large fly in the ointment of all this.  Me.  I am the least worthy student you can imagine for assassin training.  A knee to a man’s jewels is one thing.  Cutting a throat is another.  The only killing I had done in my life was of a door mouse that had been caught in one of Father’s traps.  I felt ill for a week afterwards.

But necessity is a powerful spur.  Housed in a sparsely furnished chamber, I had little else to distract me.  So I set myself to learn the arts of the assassin with the same zeal I once lavished learning to dance the Tarantella.  Kitaara herself was oft my teacher.  Soon I could wield stilettos as if they were knitting needles.  I learned how to evade, when to leap, the nature of poison and how to find the soft place in the neck where the great fount surges. 

I also learned the arts of the courtesan, though I refused demands from Stilicho’s guards to demonstrate my lessons.  Kitaara approved of my resistance, not on any moral ground she said, but because an intact courtesan brings twice the price.  And unlike a mule, virtue can be resold over and over if one is crafty. 

Kitaara insisted on grooming me personally.  She said presentation was part of my training.  And so we would sit in the baths for hours as she braided my hair and fussed.  At times it felt almost sisterly.  But Kitaara kept a stern demeanor and I did not dare familiarity.  Nor for a moment did I believe she had changed her intent.  I think her purpose was to ensure I was just right for Stilicho.

Finally the great day came.  Stilicho had been told by Kitaara that I was ready.  All that was left was the private initiation which - surprise of surprises - for females was held in the bed chamber of the Master of Asps.  Kitaara had arranged for a poisoned blade to be secreted under the carpet.  I was to use whatever means necessary to lower Stilicho's guard and dispatch him with the weapon.  Kitaara would then grant me my promised freedom.

To say I was nervous would be to say a cat has whiskers.  But unlike a cat, I was possessed of only one life and certain I would lose that shortly.  Either I failed at my task, whereby Stilicho would flay me.  Or I succeeded, and Kitaara would “reward” me no less fatally.  Doom seemed so certain that my thoughts bordered on madness.  I knew only that I wanted to live.

Stilicho was sitting expectantly on his divan when I entered.  His eyes watched hungrily as I slipped off all my clothes.  Outside, the slow beat of drums began, the sound wafting with the warm summer breeze through the open window.  But when he reached for me, I dodged nimbly aside.  Then I began to dance, throwing into my movements all the ardor of desperation.  Slowly, then a bit faster, I twisted and writhed before his amazed eyes as if Cybele had found herself a new priestess.  Finally, as the drums raced and pounded, I fell to my knees before him, shining with sweat, tossing my hair and arching my back, arms raised in imploring finale.

The Master of Asps rose from his cushion with a strangled cry.  Kitaara, who had been listening impatiently outside, mistook the sound of the little death for the greater.  Flinging open the door, she rushed in to gloat.  She and Stilicho regarded each other with mutual shock.  I was as surprised as anyone, but knew opportunity when I saw it.  I leapt aside and reached under the carpet.

"What is the meaning of this?” cried Stilicho with a wild look in my direction.

“Traitress!” hissed Kitaara, coiling as if to leap at me.

“You’ll be wanting this,” said I in answer to both.  And with that I tossed the poisoned dagger onto the floor between them.

There was little to choose between Stilicho’s roar and Kitaara’s screech.  I covered my ears with both hands as I leapt through the curtains of the open window and onto the patio below.  The sounds of desperate struggle came from the room I had just exited.  If I was a gambler, I would have bet on Kitaara but I wasn’t staying around to find out.  I ducked into the shadows as guards began to stream in from other areas of the compound.  Apparently, the signal for the coup had been given in the confusion and fighting was already breaking out between the rival adherents.

My sole intention now was to put as much distance as I could between Stilicho’s compound and myself.  I had no idea where I was so I just went off at the run, down alley and avenue under the Zagaran moonlight, without a stitch of clothing or semblance of a plan.

You’ve probably been wondering if the Gods were going to make an appearance in this tale, since I have invoked their hand several times.  I hope I haven’t misled - they don’t actually manifest.  But I will let you judge for yourself whether what happened next was mere chance.

Dawn was breaking as I reached the center of Taveris.  I knew it was the center since before me loomed an enormous temple dedicated to the All-Father.  I rushed inside and fell onto the fresh reeds covering the floor, completely exhausted, and lay gasping at the foot of the surprised temple priest.

I am sure a Priest of Valkyn sees his share of strange things, especially in Zagara.  Yet I cannot imagine this poor man was ready for the vision of a naked girl running into his temple and casting herself at his feet just as the rooster crowed.  To his credit, he recovered quickly.  He rushed into a side room, returning shortly to cover me with a blanket and give me a drink of water.

“I am Brother Genesius,” said the priest at length.  “Who are you child and from whence come you?”

I began to speak.  But before I could get a word out, there came a hubbub from the street.  I heard a familiar voice shouting loudly. 

Stilicho!  He had apparently prevailed over Kitaara and followed my trail.  Now he was outside with a gang of his men.  I had a fair guess he would not be gentle with me.

What happened next happened faster than the time it takes to say it.

I had not been particularly religious growing up.  Like all Ferissi, I was raised under the teachings of the All-Father.  But they say that in extremis - when one is the most afraid, tired and bereft of hope - is when one is most open to His song.

I looked up at the silver symbol of Valkyn hanging down from the Priest’s neck.  And then words came off my tongue as if someone else was saying them.  As I spoke, I felt a warmth in my limbs and a sense of clarity I had never known before.

“I am Cembrye of Medria.  I wish to pledge myself to Valkyn,” I whispered.  “Body and soul.  To He and no other.”

A look of shock spread across Brother Genesius’s face.  

“Child,” he said.  “Are you aware what this means?” 

As he spoke other members of the temple, priests and laity, were coming out of various side rooms.  Looks of surprise spread on their faces as they listened.

“Yes,” I replied.  “I would plight my troth to the All-Father.  I would become as his bride and serve Him in all ways.”

“And you have not known the touch of man?” Brother Genesius asked delicately.

I shook my head.

As strange smile came over the features of the priest.  He squeezed both my hands in his own.  For a instant, the symbol of Valkyn seemed to glow.

Just then came a crash as a table toppled over.  Stilicho and his men surged into the room.  The eyes of the Master of Asps fell upon me.  His face turned purple with fury.  He drew his sword and stepped forward.

“Stay!” cried Brother Genesius.  His voice rang like a clear bell through the vast chamber.  He stepped between me and Stilicho, joined by several of his colleagues.

“Step aside monk!” roared Stilicho.  “This little slave tried to murder me!  I demand my rights!”

“Lies!” cried I desperately. 

Stilicho pointed at me.  “To the fleshpots with her!  She will repay my investment on her back, copper by copper.”

“Your rights are as nothing besides the will of Valkyn,” replied Brother Genesius calmly.  “You forget where you are, Master of Asps.  This one is now under the protection of the Temple.”

Stilicho reddened but hesitated.  An enormous crowd had gathered by now, honest citizens and also members of the many bandit and smuggler families who peopled the towns of that region.  This temple was the heart of their religion.  Rogues though they were, they would not see it defiled.  And the Master of Asps was not a popular man.  Indeed, as he looked more closely around, Stilicho could see a number of hated rivals and enemies begin to saunter up.

Stilicho spat on the ground.  Then he sheathed his sword and beckoned to his men.  In a moment they were gone.

The ceremony took place a week later.  Brother Genesius officiated.  As with all Valkyn ceremonies, there was a simplicity and beauty to it.  And when they were done, I wept tears of relief and happiness.

“Have a care, Sister,” smiled Brother Genesius.  We were standing together on the veranda outside my new quarters in the late afternoon.  

He pointed at the white ritual paint still spread across my face. 

“Your tears will make it streak,” he chided. 

He laughed, then became more serious.

“You should not walk this path alone, Bride of Valkyn,” he said.  “Stay at the Temple.  I will be your guide.”  

His words seemed more command than request.  His comforting hand, placed at first upon my shoulder, slid to my waist.

I felt unease but nodded.  

Brother Genesius smiled warmly.  

"Then it is settled!" said he.  "You are weary.  Rest and we will send word when supper is ready.” 

I bowed deeply as he turned and left.

I walked to the edge of the veranda.  The rooftops and alleyways of Taveris stretched into the distance.  In my mind's eye I saw once more the face of my Harkanian.

I went into my quarters and pulled from under the bed the things I had taken.  Taken from the very side of Stilicho as he turned to leave.  My training had not been in vain.

Twin daggers of the finest steel.  The last light of the setting sun fell upon them in that moment, making them gleam as if dipped in fresh blood.

My hand went to the symbol of Valkyn new-hung about my neck.  

I picked up the blades.  Taking a deep breath, and one last look at the ordered and clean initiate’s chamber, I gathered my cowl, climbed down the veranda wall and slipped off into the gathering dusk towards Urrissa.

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Edited by cemya

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ELRIZA

The Tree of Valkyn has many branches.  The vast majority are found in the great temples that rise in the center of the cities and towns of the west.  But belief in the All-Father has another, more perilous, tradition - the mission.  In past times, when the religion was young, it was more common.  But even as the faith entrenched itself, the fervent and daring would continue to carry The Word into the darkest corners of Ferisse.

Leave taking was awkward.  Brother Genesius had saved my life and I had given my promise.  Yet I knew Stilicho.  Fear of damnation would not stay his hand.  So long as he drew breath, I risked the lives of all around me.

And so a week later I found myself in a Valkynite caravan headed east.  Funded by wealthy Potasi benefactors and led by a charismatic priest of Taveris named Father Telos, it was dedicated to spreading The Word to the westernmost edges of Elriza, a fierce and distant land governed by folk of nomadic stock.  Our mission was composed mainly of Taverissi, but we had an Elrizan translator and a letter of introduction from the Hierarch to the local ruler.

Father Telos gave me a warm welcome and, since I could read and write, made me his assistant.  But many eyebrows were raised at my presence.  I would later learn it had been a hundred years since a Bride of Valkyn had gone on mission - not since Bellana of Aramore.  A cloistered tradition had developed since her martydom.  I once asked Father Telos how she’d died.  He paled but would not say.  If I had known the truth, I don’t think I would have gone.

The outward trip was memorable.  I saw real mountains for the first time in my life as we made the crossing of the Kurpash.  Skirting the tainted lands of Venaris and their mad Emperor, we passed through Capali and then yet more mountains until we arrived in Elriza.  Bribes had been delivered long in advance and the thief-lords gave us passage without incident.  Once more we ascended white-capped passes, the Jazreel range, thankful they were the last.  As so, just before the summer heat arrived and put end to all travel, we fetched up at our destination, a small village just outside the great city of Shuhpur.

Arrayed in our finest vestments, we presented ourselves at the court of the Sultan.  It was a tense moment, for the fierce cult of Arkon grips all those lands and the Flame-Lord suffers no rivals.  But Shuhpur was not Agrapur - we would have been killed on sight in that holy city, home of the Living Prophet.  The Sultan of Shuhpur held instead that traditional hospitality trumped sectarian dispute.  This was politic, as his western trade routes abutted the lands of many faiths.

The diplomatic arrival ceremony passed without incident and we began to relax.  But as we started to leave, I sensed a brooding presence.  A tall man with a shaved head covered in tatoos and carrying a staff stood off to the side.  I would learn he was called Amnon, and was the High Priest of Arkon.  His robes were the color of flames and, as his hate-filled eyes fixed upon me, I felt a shiver run down my spine.

Sunrise of the next day found us in Urtopan, the small village where our mission would reside and practice.  The villagers were friendly and welcoming and slowly the dread I had felt in the great hall of Shuhpur began to leave me.  Indeed, that was the first of many wonderful days whose memory I shall always cherish.  To my eyes, Elriza was a beautiful land of clear air, spring-fed streams, and mountains rising rose-cheeked in the dawn’s light.

Each day was similar.  We would awaken in the darkness to carry out our ablutions.  Father Telos would then hold first prayers in the main hall of worship. Breaking our fast with a simple meal, we then spread out to our daily tasks.  Some would work with the healers.  Others would travel to the farms to advise on the planting of crops, irrigation and animal husbandry.  In the main hall there would be lessons on midwifery, pot-making and cooking.  Prayers would be offered again at mid-day and then we would work until sunset.  Evening prayers would be followed by dinner.  Then - and this was my favorite time - we would sit in the warm twilight of the patio talking and laughing and sharing stories.

Aside from when we held service, we did not preach.  We sought instead to spread the word through gesture and example.  We respected local customs and our women went about veiled.  In time, as the bonds of trust grew between ourselves and the local people, more and more asked of the nature of the All-Father.  And some began to come forward and ask how they could become his followers.

The fresh air and hard work agreed with me.  I felt a sense of purpose and a joy in living.  My love for the word of the All-Father grew with each day.

But the past does not sleep forever.  

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Edited by cemya

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MAITE

We had been a month in Elriza when the dreams began.  Not every night but often enough.  Always the same but a little different.

I was on the scaffold again.  Or standing in the crowd.  The drums would beat and I would look up.  My Harkanian would smile at me as they slipped the noose around his neck.  Or curse me.  Or just stare back.  The trapdoor would slam but I would be the one choking.  I would claw and gasp until I awoke covered in sweat.

Father Telos noticed one morning that I looked unwell.  He asked if I was all right.  I told him it was just the cycle of the moon and he nodded sympathetically.  I dared say no more.

One day we entertained guests from a Harkanian caravan new-arrived.  After the welcoming ceremony, an old woman named Maite came up to me.  We had a pleasant conversation until I mentioned I had spent time in Zagara.  Her countenance paled and she fell silent.  I laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and asked if I had offended.

“No, no,” Maite replied.  “But my son went to Zagara and we’ve had no word of him since his last letter.”  She reached into a fold of her cloak, pulled out a well-thumbed parchment, and began to read aloud.

The letter told of her son’s struggle to make his fortune as a mercenary.  Of his joy at meeting a slave girl.  Of how he planned to free her and bring her to meet his family so they could start their new life together.

“And that was the last we heard,” said Maite.  At this she began to weep.  I embraced her and asked the question that my heart already knew the answer to.

“What was your son’s name?”

“Hulogu,” she replied.

My heart raced.  I bowed my head, excused myself, and made my way as quickly as I could to my quarters. 

The late afternoon sun was arcing through the open balcony as I reached my room.  I cast myself on my bed and then, as in a summer rainstorm, the tears came in a flood.  When I was cried out I lay quietly a long while.  Then I prepared a warm bath in hopes it would restore my spirit.  

The great red orb was sliding below the horizon when I rose from the basin.  The air was still warm, so I didn’t bother to dress.  I walked barefoot and dripping onto the balcony and, resting my elbows on the ledge, took in the quiet evening vista.  I closed my eyes and let the soft breeze caress my skin, praying to the All-Father for guidance.  But his voice was silent. 

Glancing aside, I noticed two matched knives on the nearby table.  They were the same ones I had taken from Stilicho.  I had kept them wrapped and hidden away.  

Strange.  I did not remember taking them out.  Perhaps I had been cleaning them?

Idly, without conscious thought, I picked them up, one in each hand, testing their weight.

It had been long since my palms felt the pommel of a blade.  I looked out across the dusky fields.  Then, slowly, I extended one foot and fell into stance.  I was surprised at how well my muscles remembered.  I caught myself just as I was about to execute a sweep.  That was an old life best forgotten.

If only I could.

I was starting to lay down the knives when a familiar voice came out of the shadows behind me.

“I see you have kept in shape.”

Startled, I whirled, unwilling to believe my ears.  The knives dropped from my numbed hands and clattered onto the floor.

Kitaara.

The Numerian undid her veil and gave me a mischievous smile.

I leapt for the door.  But she was too quick.  In a moment her hand was at my throat and I was slammed against the wall.  I started to scream but she clapped her palm over my mouth.

“Quiet my lamb,” said Kitaara.  “Or I will gut you here and now.”  I felt cold steel against my ribs and ceased struggling.  After a few moments, satisfied I would not raise the alarm, she drew back her blade.

“You look like you have seen a ghost,” she grinned.  “But Kitaara is not so easy to kill.  And she forgets nothing - especially betrayal.”

Releasing her grip, she stepped back and gave me an appraising look.  I remained pressed against the wall, scarcely daring to breathe.

“For weeks I follow the trail,” said the Numerian.  “I talk to people and learn many things.  But Elriza is a big place.  I begin to wonder if I will see that firm little bottom again.”

“I am no traitor,” I said, struggling against my fear.  “You were going to kill me once I had done what you wanted.”

“My lamb,” said Kitaara, clucking her tongue.  “Why would I do that?  Perhaps I thought of it once.  But not after so much care training you.”

Kitaara gestured dismissively towards the door. 

“And now you waste yourself in the middle of nowhere amongst these long-faced weaklings,” she said.  “This is not your path.”

“You don’t know anything about my path,” I responded hotly.  “I am pledged to the All-Father.  I have found a new life…”

“Bah!” she scoffed, cutting me off.  “Do you really think mumbled words and some paint can change who you really are?”

“You’re wrong!” I said.  “Your heart is so black you can’t see anything else.”

Kitaara laughed. 

“Is that so?” she smirked.  “Let us test my vision.”

Kitaara began to walk slowly back and forth, holding her dagger in one hand whilst stroking her chin with the other.

“I see a Bride of Valkyn,” she said.  “Her gentle ways and honeyed words are the picture of virtue.  Her eyes glow with the holy light.  A little painted saint.  Too good to be true, yes?”

The Numerian stopped before me.

“That is because it is,” continued Kitaara.  “For this same girl, thinking only of herself, lured an innocent boy to his death.”

“That’s not how it was!” I cried, tears starting in my eyes.

“Tell that to Maite!” said Kitaara.  “Ah, yes, I heard it all this afternoon.  Tell her how you bewitched her only son.  How you cozened him with sweet lies.”

“No!” I sobbed, “She can’t know.” 

I fell imploringly onto my knees.

“Life is a circle,” said the Numerian.  “You kneel naked before me.  Just like the last time I saw you.  But then you writhed at the foot of Stilicho, panting like a she-dog in heat.  Had I not entered, what wouldn't you have done?  Does your precious Father Telos know?  What would he think?   What would these others?”

“Please,” I begged.  “Don’t tell them.”

“I will not,” said Kitaara.  "If you grant me what I ask."

“What do you want of me?” I murmured numbly.

“You, my lamb,” said Kitaara.  “For it is not vengeance that brings me.  My eyes are opened now.  I have come to guide you to your destiny.”

We left in the black of night, our horses’ hooves padded to muffle the sound.  Kitaara led the way, a shadow among the shadows.  She waited silently when I stopped my horse atop the ridge.  I took one last look into the valley behind us.  Then we hurried west under the spreading stars.

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Edited by cemya

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PRIEST OF FIRE

They say nothing is lower than a serpent’s belly.  But whomever said that did not know how I felt as we rode away that night.

My vows, my trust - I had betrayed everything in fear.  Fear that I was a fraud.  Fear that Kitaara was right.

In truth, I was on the edge of the knife.  One path fell away into the abyss - the dull hammering of the slave who forges her own chains.  The other path gleamed terrible with both freedom and death.

Yet wisdom also says that before a forest may grow, it must sometimes burn.  All the undergrowth of self-deception and doubt, the tendrils that choke the striving branch before it can bear fruit.

That night I was reborn.  But like all births, there was pain.  I think Kitaara knew this had to happen.  If not now, then later.  I can find no other way to explain her actions.

Dawn was near when we heard the soft bellow of a camel.  Quickly we ducked behind a sand dune, lying down beside our horses, stroking their muzzles and praying that they made no sound.

The lead rider held high a torch but even in the half-light I would have recognized his hawk-like visage.  Amnon, High Priest of Arkon, servant of the Living Prophet.  Behind him rode six warriors, spears gleaming in their hands, their clothing the color of flame.  They passed us without a word and began to descend the ridge towards Urtopan.

Kitaara raised herself up to make sure they had passed out of sight.  She began to mount her horse, then stopped as she realized I had made no move.

“We must go,” Kitaara whispered.  “Others may come.”

“I know that man,” I answered.  “Bald with tatoos.  He is Amnon, the High Priest of Arkon from Shuhpur.”

“So?” hissed Kitaara in irritation.

“I felt his eyes on me at court,” I replied.  “He hates the mission.  Could you not feel it?  They come for blood.”

“What of it?” said Kitaara.

“We have to stop them,” I said urgently.  “You know what will happen if we don’t.”

“Now you speak nonsense,” said Kitaara dismissively.  “That life has ended for you.  Forget them.  Eh?  What foolishness is this?”

The Numerian’s eyes widened in surprise.

I had slipped one of my daggers out of its sheath.  I now held it to my bare throat with both hands.

“We will help them,” I said, looking into her eyes.  “Or you will travel alone.”

Such threats have value only in the belief they are sincere.  Boldness comes hard up against madness in that moment.  Yet if I was still alive, it was because Kitaara wanted it that way.  She would not have spent weeks searching for me and traveled hundreds of leagues across dangerous lands only to watch me bleed out on the sand.  The great danger would be if Kitaara felt I was bluffing. 

But there was no chance of that. 

For in that moment I truly did not care.  I knew that if I let Amnon and his men go down to the mission, I would be lost forever, beyond hope of ever feeling love or peace or faith again.  I was afraid, but I was also ready. 

Never taking my eyes off her, I slid the blade sideways.  I felt a sharp pain and then a trickle down my neck.

“Aiiiee!” cried the Numerian.  “You are truly a fanatic!  Enough of this!”

Kitaara rushed forward to pull away the knife.  A handkerchief appeared in her hand and she pressed it to my wound.

“So you will help them?” I said, gritting my teeth against the pain.

“Yes, yes!” hissed Kitaara as she held the cloth hard against my neck.  “You almost cut the vein, you fool!”

I felt faint and swayed.  She laid me down on the sand.  As I recovered, I could see her nibbling her lower lip, as she always did when she was thinking.

“Six men plus the bald one,” Kitaara murmured aloud as to herself.

She raised me to my feet.

“Very well,” said Kitaara.  “But we will do this my way, yes?”

I nodded.

"And if I do this thing," asked Kitaara, "you will come after with a free heart?"

I nodded.

Kitaara laughed.  Then, to my complete surprise, she leaned forward and gave me a kiss on the nose.  Before I could recover from my shock she had quickly bound my cut, mounted, and was motioning for me to follow. 

As we began to retrace our tracks to the village, I realized that Kitaara had not once called me “lamb.” 

She never used that name for me again. 

Except for one last time.

But I am getting ahead of things.

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Edited by cemya

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THE MISSION

Simplicity joined to a cunning insight into the human mind was the mark of a Kitaara plan.  She understood risk and improvisation.  But she disliked surprises.  Where possible, everything was worked out ahead of time.  My tendency to act on impulse was a never-ending source of anxiety to her.

Before long we were crawling on our bellies at the brim of the ridge overlooking Urtopan.  The bright morning sun belied the horror unfolding below.

Rural villagers have a sixth sense for trouble.  As soon as the High Priest hove into view at the head of his men, the locals scattered and shut themselves in their homes.  The Cult of Arkon had watered these sands with the blood of infidels for centuries and the flame-hued vestments of The Faithful inspired terror.  Not one of the locals dared assist the Valkynites.

The High Priest and his men were now gathered about the mission gate, where they had planted their spears in a semi-circle.  My brethren, unarmed and unwarlike as I knew them to be, had barricaded themselves inside.  In my minds eye, I could see Father Telos amidst his terrified flock offering calming words and prayer.

The sound of singing wafted on the breeze to where we lay about two hundred paces away.  I recognized the Valkyn song of those about to die.

I fought the urge to stand up.  Kitaara sensed my turmoil and laid her hand on my elbow.

“Wait,” she whispered.  “Not yet.”

The High Priest gestured with his staff.  His warriors fanned out into nearby lots.  In a few minutes they returned with armfuls of sticks and logs, which they began to heap against the door and walls of the mission.  They made several trips and soon the piles of wood and kindling were half as tall as a man.  Then the warriors stepped back and looked towards Amnon.  The sun, now at its scorching zenith bathed the scene in its fiery tint.

“Now,” hissed Kitaara.

I had dressed for my part by donning the short sleeveless tunic of pure white I had worn for my bridal ceremony in Taveris.  Maiden braids and bare legs completed the picture.  Taking a last deep breath, I stood up and walked to the lip of the ridge.  Kitaara crept to her hiding place amidst a small thicket of desert brambles.

As soon as I appeared, one of the warriors spotted me and shouted.  The High Priest and others whirled.  Throwing up my hands, I gave my best scream of terror, then turned as if to run, making sure I stumbled and fell several times before disappearing from their view.

If Kitaara was correct, they would not all come at once.  With his preparations to fire the mission complete, the High Priest would be reluctant to leave his work.  A man or two should suffice to gather up a terrified girl.

In the event, Amnon sent two.  As these unfortunates breasted the ridge, swords in hand, their eyes fell upon me stretched helplessly on the sand.  I cried out fearfully with palms up as if begging mercy.  The men gave coarse laughs and, sheathing their weapons, moved to lay hold of me.

The first man suddenly shuddered and pitched face-first onto the sand.  His companion whirled, then gave a grunt, doubled over, and fell like a sack of potatoes.  It was all over so fast, I didn’t have time to rise.

Kitaara wiped the blades of her daggers clean on their robes.  Then, before we dragged the bodies behind the brush, we stripped the cloak and turban off the smallest of the two men.  I quickly donned these.

Sometimes the same trick works twice, but it is best not to count on it.  So the next time I crested the ridge I was in the guise not of helpless girl, but rather as one of the warriors.  After making sure they saw me, I pitched my voice as low as I could, gave a guttural shout, beckoned, then disappeared back over the crest.

Two more men answered the call.  This time, they were so nonchalant they did not even have their swords drawn.  In a few moments, they had joined their comrades behind the bramble bushes.

Four down and three to go.

Now things became dicey.  Chances were high that even the dullest of High Priests would realize something was amiss.  Indeed, Kitaara expected they would all come this next time and we would have a real fight.  We hoped the staff of the High Priest was carried just for ornamental reasons, but we had to plan for the worst.  That was the best we could do.

So, still wearing the flame robes, I went back up to the crestline to bait them once more.  Just as I reached the top, several things happened at once.  Later Kitaara said this was just Fortune playing her tricks.  But I knew it was the Hand of Valkyn.

Impatient at the return of his men, Amnon had decided to begin the holy incineration of the infidels.  I saw him just as he approached the nearest wood pile with lighted torch.  Suddenly the door of the mission opened.  A pail swung and a cascade of water drenched the surprised High Priest.  The torch fizzled.  Amnon roared and swung his staff as the door slammed shut again.

Strange as it may sound, I laughed aloud at the sight.  But mirth died in my throat as the two remaining warriors, weapons in hand, headed up the slope towards me.  Clearly, the time of ruses was over, so I threw off the flame robes and ran.  The men followed in hot pursuit.  The High Priest stayed below, oblivious in his rage, cursing and pounding with his stick at the mission door.

This last fight was not as one-sided as the first two.  Kitaara still had the advantage of surprise and dropped one warrior easily.  But the second squared away and now he and Kitaara circled each other feinting.  Meanwhile, I had armed myself to join the fray.  I was nervous as I had not yet seen true battle.  But my presence alone was distraction enough for Kitaara to dispatch the sixth and last of the temple warriors.

Stripping off her demi-pauldrons in the heat, Kitaara had fought bare shouldered.  As she delivered the killing blow, my eyes fell upon a small tattoo beneath her shoulder blade that I had never noticed before.

A black crow with wings rampant.

There was no time to ponder this further.  We still had the last piece of work - the High Priest.

Opting for the direct approach, Kitaara bade me wait and headed down towards the mission.  In the throes of sudden inspiration, I ran forward and seized her arm.

“Eh?” she quizzed, squinting at me.  “Why do you tug?  Let us finish this.”

“No,” I said, “don’t kill him.”

The Numerian looked at me as if I was mad.

“The sun is hot,” said Kitaara, half-seriously, looking up at the sky.  “It cooks your brain.”

“Please,” I asked.  “Let me handle this.  Trust me.”

Before you consider what happened next, take a moment to place yourself in the shoes of Amnon, High Priest of Arkon and Servant of the Living Prophet.

Fired in equal measure by devotion and hate, you and your men have ridden long and hard from Shuhpur.  You have not eaten in over a day.  The last leg of your journey is a punishing all night sprint so you can arrive at dawn.  Exhilaration masks exhaustion as you come in sight of your prey.  The villagers flee in terror from your presence.  The mewling Valkynites, weaklings unworthy of your steel, conveniently entomb themselves in their own mission.  All that remains is to apply the Holy Fire.

Your men catch sight of a straggler.  It is the little Bride of Valkyn from the palace of the Sultan!  You smile as you contemplate her defilement before she, too, is cast into the flames.  Eagerly, you order two men to fetch the helpless girl while you finish your preparations.

Fidgeting as you await the return of the prize, you are amazed to instead see a warrior reappear alone on the ridge above beckoning for help.  What is taking those idiots so long?  It is only one girl.  You order two more men to go see what is happening.

The day grows hotter.  From within the mission comes again that infuriating noise - the singing of the doomed Valkynites.  Cursing, you decide not to wait any longer.  They burn now.  When they bring you the little bride, you will give her the knife instead.

Flaming torch in hand, you stride triumphantly towards the wooden door of the mission.  It is your moment of supreme triumph.  You are the Will of Arkon, Herald of the Living Tarim, vessel of divine vengeance.  The sweet scent of burning infidel flesh will be as incense.  You lean down to ignite the kindling.

An icy wall of water hits you, dousing your torch and drowning your pride.  No curse, no vile imprecation, no hurled thunderbolt from the eldest of the Elder Gods can match the rage that pours from your lips.  Dogs!  Bastards!  You strike again and again with your staff at the slammed door.  So consumed are you by your anger that you don’t notice the last of your men running off.

The door is sturdy.  Heaving with exertion, you at last stop your fruitless battering.  Shivering as the icy water drips off your vestments and pools at your feet, you raise your hand to your brow and suddenly realize how tired you are.  Your belly gnaws with hunger.  And where are your men?

You are alone.

Your eyes are drawn to the west where the now-haunted crest of the ridge looms.  There is no sound but the whisper of the wind.  High in the sky above, dark winged shapes gather and begin to circle.

And now you must climb that ridge yourself, one weary trudging step after another.  Past six sets of tracks that lead upward but do not come down.  You shiver again, but this time not from the cold water.

Imagine then, the mind of the High Priest as he crests the ridge.  And consider the sight that greets his eyes as he reaches the top.

A raven-tressed girl sits lotus upon the sand, head bowed and eyes closed, palms uplifted to the heavens.  She is barefoot and clad only in a white shift.  Her face is painted white and a band of white cloth encircles her throat.  About her lie the blood-soaked corpses of six warriors garbed in the flame-hued robes of Arkon, hands folded upon their breasts.  The bodies are arrayed as a six-pointed star with her at the center.  Many tracks lead to this spot, but there are no signs of struggle.

Amnon halts.  Then a hiss of intaken breath and a thud as his heavy staff falls to the ground.

In that moment, I open my eyes, rise and walk towards him.  As I near, I halt and regard him for a long moment.

“Wh-who are you child?” stutters the High Priest.

I raise both arms high.  My eyes roll back into my head as my entire body begins to shiver.  From my lips come words of doom:

Gaea peered with mournful eye into the mist

Forge me an instrument of retribution

I wish to prophecy through the rage of the naked sword!

And Arkon answered - twill be done!

I held my breath.  Then I opened my eyes, one at a time, peeking out and praying I had gotten it right.

All was well.  The High Priest had fallen to his knees, head bowed, face pale, bald pate beaded with sweat.  His arms reached towards me in supplication.

The phrases weren’t mine, of course.  I had read them a month before when I first began taking lessons in Elrizan.  It is the opening stanza of their national poem, an epic known even in the smallest village.  The words tell of the conspiracy of Gaea with Arkon to create Subeiha, the raven-haired warrior woman who would cut a bloody swathe through history.  Legends told that even after her death she would return if summoned to render justice upon the wicked.

These were weighty words to invoke.  But coming from the lips of a unarmed girl standing amidst a pile of dead men, I could see they had made a deep impression.

I seized the moment.

“She did her work well,” I murmured.  “But enough blood has been shed.”

I reached out and lifted the High Priest’s chin with my hand.

“My heart weeps for these men,” I continued, gesturing at the six corpses.  “For I come not with a sword, but with a message.  You have been spared for a great task, Amnon of Shuhpur.”

“What would you have of me?” gasped Amnon, not daring to meet my gaze.

“The flame that burns also brings light,” said I.  “Let the holy fire carry the word of Valkyn into these lands.  You shall be the herald of the new faith.”

I took his hand and raised him to his feet.

“Go now,” I said.  “Return to the city with these glad tidings.”

Kitaara came out of her hiding place as the High Priest disappeared into the distance.  A cloud of dust marked his beeline path towards Shuhpur.  She gave a low whistle, then laughed.

“You are quite the actress,” she said.

“If we killed him, more would have come,” I replied.  “The mission would still be in danger.  But now Amnon brings Valkyn and peace to the city.  By saving his life, we have saved many more.”

“Eh?” said Kitaara, a look of skepticism on her features.  “Peace and religion? You are young and naïve.”

The Numerian peered into the distance.

“You have saved some now,” she mused.  “But I think you have killed many later.”

I started to answer, but fell silent as I pondered her words.

“But that is not our business,” Kitaara said, turning away briskly.  “Come.  I have done my part.  Now fulfill our last arrangement and

we away.”

Quickly we covered the bodies with stones and brush.  Already scavengers were gathering.  I knew our paltry efforts would not keep them off.  But Kitaara was in a hurry.

The Valkynites were already gathered outside the mission as we rode up.  Their looks of relief at the disappearance of their tormentors vanished anew into terror until Kitaara raised her hand in token of parley.  I sat my horse to the rear, veiled and robed as a nomad. 

Father Telos came forward. 

“Forgive us, friends,” he said.  “But we were beset by enemies.  They seem to have left.”

“We have dealt with them,” said Kitaara. 

The Numerian tossed a flame-hued robe on the ground.

“Praise Valkyn!” cried Father Telos.

“Aye,” said Kitaara.  “But not too much.” 

She then tossed a silver necklace with a symbol of Valkyn onto the ground at the missionaries’ feet.  It was blackened as if it had been in a fire. 

Father Telos knelt and picked it up.  Then he paled.

“I know this necklace,” he said.  “It belongs to our dear sister Cembrye.  We have been looking for her.”

“Alas!” cried Kitaara.  “We found it amongst the charred ashes!  These dogs had no mercy or honor!”

A great wail went up from the missionaries.  It was a good thing I was fully veiled.  Tears streamed unwonted down my face.  It is not easy to be present at one’s own funeral.

Kitaara waited a respectful interval, then indicated that we had to leave.

“You bring joy and sadness in equal measure,” said Father Telos, his eyes brimming as he gripped the necklace tightly in his hands.  “We thank you for delivering us and would reward you.  But we don’t even know who you are.”

I had recovered somewhat by now.  It came to me that I would probably never see Father Telos or the others again.  But they were alive and safe.  I suddenly felt a great sense of euphoria.  Casting my voice guttural and low, and with the heaviest Elrizan accent I could manage, I shouted through my veil:

“We are the She-Cats of Kharamun, Daughters of the Burning Sands!”

There was a hubbub among the missionaries as they processed this.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kitaara wince.

“The She-Cats?” said Father Telos, nodding in amazement.  “Then we have learned a new name for heroes this day.” 

He went back into the mission and returned with a small chest.

“We don’t have much coin,” he said.  “But what we have is yours in token of your great deed.”

Kitaara began to spur her horse forward, but I was too quick.

“We accept no payment!” I cried.  “Honor and glory are reward enough!”

I could almost hear Kitaara’s teeth grind.  But the Numerian could only nod and smile weakly.

We had ridden well out of sight of the village when Kitaara could restrain herself no longer.  She cut in front of my horse and seized its reins.

“The She-Cats!” she growled.  “You were supposed to hold your tongue!  And carry the gold!” 

“I did what we agreed,” I replied defiantly.  “As far as everyone knows, I am dead.  That’s what you wanted.  It wasn’t easy to sit through all that.”

The Numerian let out an exasperated breath and struck her forehead with her palm.  But she released the reins of my horse.  We trotted on a ways in silence.

Kitaara suddenly laughed and reached out to pinch my ear.

“The She-Cats!” she grinned.  “Could you have chosen a more foolish name?”

“I had an inspiration,” I shrugged, my face reddening a bit.

“Ah, you and your inspirations,” the Numerian said, shaking her head.  “They will be the death of me I think.”

“Where are we going now?” I asked, changing the subject.

“To Besht,” said Kitaara.  “To meet someone.”

“Who?” I pried.

“Patience,” replied Kitaara.  “We have a long ride.”

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Edited by cemya

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THE BURNING ICE

I dreamt again.  

It was cold.  Bone-aching cold.  The scaffold was empty.  I looked up into the eyes of my Harkenian.  I tried to speak but he placed a finger against my lips.  His hands slid down to my neck.  At first it seemed a caress.  Then he began to squeeze.  I clawed and thrashed as his grip tightened.  

I awoke gasping.  I lay quietly a while, until I had cried myself out.  Then, as dawn began to dim the stars, I heard a low voice.

Wrapping myself in my cloak, careful not to make noise, I edged towards our campfire.

Kitaara sat beside the dying flames.  She seemed to be having a conversation with herself.  As I drew nearer, I could make out the words.

“She is not ready,” the Numerian muttered.  “But there is no time.”

Suddenly, even though I had made no sound, Kitaara whirled and looked right at me.

Fighting back the urge to pretend I had not heard, I ventured to speak.

“What were you talking about?” I asked.  “Did you mean me?  Ready for what?”

Kitaara’s eyes blazed.

“Do not spend yourself on questions!” she snarled.  “Only two things matter: the dead and those who make them so.  Here!  Today!  Now!”

Stubbornly, I opened my mouth to persist.  But the words died as Kitaara sprang to her feet with blades drawn and leapt at me.

My heart went into my throat.  Acting without conscious thought, I fell over backwards and kicked up.  My feet planted in Kitaara’s midsection and she sailed above me to land with a thump.  Panting, I scrambled to my feet.

But Kitaara did not continue the attack.  Instead, she rose, replaced her blades in their sheaths and dusted herself off.

“Good!” she exclaimed.  “But we must work on your form.”

Sensing my alarm, she clapped a hand on my shoulder as she walked past me to sit once more by the fire.  Taking a deep breath, I went to sit beside her.

Kitaara broke the silence.

“The day may come when we can speak of many things,” she said.  “For now, we continue your training and build on what you have learned.”

I knew better than to ask any more questions.

As the days on the road passed, Kitaara was true to her word.  Each evening, after we’d made camp but before our meal, we would practice my fighting skills.  I had thought I’d learned much from Kitaara in Taveris.  But now she opened new doors to me that I had barely imagined.  And I was no longer the unwilling pupil.  Elriza had planted a seed within me.

This was training as never before.  No matter how flawless I executed a move, Kitaara wanted it done better.  Again and again.  Many times she left me sprawled in the dirt, licking blood from my lips.  But as the days passed, my strikes grew truer and Kitaara would cluck her tongue in appreciation.

We neared Besht.  I could tell because mountains loomed in the distance.  The missionaries had passed nigh here on our outward journey.

Kitaara had gone ahead for her midday scout.  When she did not return at the usual time, I cautiously went forward to see if all was well.  After a league or so, I came upon her horse tied to a small cactus at a bend in the road.  Securing mine alongside it, I rounded the corner and came upon her.

Kitaara knelt before a large pond.  She remained deep in thought even as I walked over to stand beside her.  Feeling her disquiet, I followed her eyes.

To my amazement, the pond was covered in thick ice.  Beneath a burning Elrizan sun at zenith - and yet ice!  How could there be ice?

Disbelieving, I reached down to touch the surface.

“Do not!” warned Kitaara, snapping out of her reverie.

Too late.  I cried out and drew my finger back in pain.

The ice had burned like fire.

My touch seemed to have disturbed the pond.  The ice darkened and began to crack.  I could sense a shifting in its depths, as if things beneath were stirring.

We heard a low growl and whirled.

On the top of the embankment stood a creature such as I had never seen nor dreamt.  Its shape was as a desert jackal, yet distorted and thrice the size.  Bluish-white scales covered its matted fur and great slavering fangs hung from its ruined maw. 

The eyes of the beast glittered as it leapt down upon us.

Kitaara already had her weapons out.  Dodging its charge, she slashed at the creature’s flank.  The monster gave a screeching howl that made me cover my ears.  Then it sprang again – directly at me.

I dove between its forepaws, praying I was small enough to roll beneath its belly.  My eyes brimmed at the stench as it passed over me and I felt the snap of air as its jaws narrowly missed my legs.  Once clear, I scrambled to my feet, drawing my blades in the knowledge that failure now meant death.

As the creature gathered itself again, a shape flew out of the corner of my eye.  Kitaara vaulted onto the monster’s back.  The Numerian did not hesitate, but drove her daggers through the top of its skull.  The beast shuddered, gave a despairing howl, pitched over and lay still.

I stood gasping, feeling a coldness in my limbs like as to my last dream.  Yet the pond and the beast were real.  I turned to Kitaara, hoping she would have calming words.

But Kitaara was peering off into the distance.  In her eyes I glimpsed what I had never seen before. 

Fear.

I followed her gaze.

All along the horizon rose distant banks of blue-tinted clouds.  Blue lightning flickered and there came the long rolling sound of thunder.

“Kitaara…” I gasped.

She replied without taking her eyes off the clouds.

“We must reach Besht before nightfall."

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Edited by cemya

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BESHT

I recall that day with difficulty.  So much was unfathomable to me and, even had I the means to understand, there was no time to ask.

The banks of blue clouds rolled over us just as we reached the gates of the city.

Once more the heavens shattered with blue light.  But this time there was no thunder.  Instead we heard a howling and ripping as if many butchers tore the skin from an enormous beast whilst it yet lived. 

Then came the hail.  Hail the size of your fist.  Hail that burned to the touch.

Kitaara yanked me under an awning as the first barrage hit.  But many townspeople, crowding to gawk at the strange weather, were too slow.  Now they screamed as the burning ice pounded them.  Some fell down, never to rise, while others managed to crawl beneath shelter.

I held tight to Kitaara’s hand as she dodged and ran, leading us deeper into town.  After that first burst, the showers of ice seemed to lessen. 

Finally, as we reached the gates of a large estate, the hail stopped.  There was a terrible silence.  Then from all around us came wailing and cries for help.  The temple bells began to peal in the distance.

Kitaara searched around while I stood shivering in my robes.  She found what she was seeking - a small brass gong - and struck it.  A low tone echoed across the inner courtyard.  In a moment came the sound of rattling chains.  With a creak the gates were pulled wide.  As we rushed in, I could sense hooded figures fall back into shadows on either side. 

Kitaara did not pause.  In a moment we crossed the courtyard to the main entry.  The large wooden doors stood open and we rushed into the darkened interior.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I heard a soft snuffling around us.  Kitaara kindled a nearby brazier and in its light we saw the cause.

Children.  Boys and girls, in equal measure, sitting quietly all around us on benches in the long narrow hall.  Garbed in homespun, none older than twelve, they looked upon us with anxious eyes.  I spied a rope crossing the floor and saw that shackles bound each of them to their bench.

Slaves.

Kitaara surveyed the children as if counting them.  Seeming satisfied, she took my hand again and pulled me towards a door at the end of the hall.  Warm inviting light gleamed through the cracks beyond. 

I started to speak but Kitaara silenced me with a look.

The door pulled open from within as we reached it.  We entered a large circular chamber, richly decorated in Elrizan style, with thick embroidered curtains and intricate tiling. 

Before us stood a being such as I had never imagined.

She was like to a woman and about the same height.  But the resemblance ended there. 

Her skin was light blue and her unbound hair shimmered a silvery white.  As we drew near I could see these hues were not cosmetic but her true coloring.  Her eyes did not have pupils and were as silver as her hair.  Her ears were long and pointy like a bat.  She wore finely-made black leather armor and an ebon sword was girt at her waist.  As we drew up to her, she executed a graceful bow.

“Yuki,” said Kitaara, not bothering to return the bow.

“Kitty!” smirked the blue woman. 

Kitaara’s eyes narrowed in displeasure, a reaction that seemed to please Yuki.

“I confess I did not think you would make it,” said Yuki.  She tossed her silvery hair.  “It is late in the season.”

Yuki gestured towards the high windows. 

“Lovely out, isn’t it?” Yuki exclaimed. 

She hugged herself as if to shiver.

"Brrr!” she grinned. 

Yuki waited as if expecting a reply.  A disappointed look crossed her face when Kitaara remained silent.  Yuki turned and began to pace slowly before us.

“So serious,” she huffed.  “To business then.  I lost many lackeys in the attack on Stilicho’s compound.  Quite costly.  It would have gone smoothly but the signal was given – shall we say – prematurely.” 

Yuki gave a peculiar laugh that made me think of the noise a wind chime makes when struck.

“But a deal is a deal and I always keep to the letter of my contracts,” she continued.  “The slaughter was diversion enough to gather up the cargo and carry it to this place.  One hundred souls sealed and delivered.  You even managed to get away in the bargain.”

Yuki stopped, as if noticing me for the first time.

“So this is she?” Yuki asked to no one in particular.  

Yuki reached out a blue finger to caress my cheek.  Her touch was icy and though she held contact only a moment, it left my cheek feeling numb.

“So pretty!  So warm!” exclaimed Yuki.  “I can see why she made Stilicho yelp.” 

Yuki laughed to see me redden. 

As Yuki stood close, I spotted a small tattoo at the base of her neck.  A black crow with wings rampant.  With a shock I realized that this was the same mark I had seen on Kitaara’s shoulder during the fight at the mission. 

Yuki followed my eyes.  She smiled and began to speak.  But Kitaara quickly stepped forward to interrupt.

“Our arrangement is over then,” said Kitaara.  “You already have payment.”

At the first mention of Stilicho, I had begun to put two and two together.  Now I had heard enough and the words burst forth as from a broken dam.

“Kitaara!” I exclaimed angrily.  “So that’s what this was about?  Taking over the Asps so you could sell slaves?  Sell children?”

“Silence!” snarled Kitaara.  “Now is not the time.”

“I won’t be silent!” cried I.  “This is wrong and I won’t be a part of it.”

We heard the creak of a door behind us.  Kitaara and I both turned, abandoning our argument for the moment.  Yuki was already walking past us to greet the new arrival.

If Yuki’s appearance was a lot to digest, this was something else entirely.  I literally pinched myself at the sight.

Imagine a tall man garbed as a forester, complete with leather armor, crossbow and sword.  Then place upon his shoulders the horned head of an elk.

Not a mask.  Not a helmet.  An elk head.

I pinched myself again.

Yuki quickly led this ruminant apparition before us.

“Before we go further, let me introduce our guest," said Yuki.  "This is Stoor.”

“What is he doing here?” Kitaara asked suspiciously.  

“You never let me finish, Kitty,” said Yuki.  She began to pace once more.

“The attack failed, but the contract was fulfilled,” said Yuki.  “You made your escape, but unfortunately I was captured.”

“Captured?” said Kitaara.  I could see her hands begin to edge towards the hilts of her weapons.

“Yes,” said Yuki.  “Even I can’t fight Stilicho and half his guild all by myself.  As I said, thanks to your little dancer the timing was off.”

Yuki stopped pacing and turned to face us.  Her smile was gone.

"Since the terms of our contract were satisfied, I was free to make another deal,” she said. 

Yuki nodded to Stoor.

The elk-man reached into his vest and pulled out an amulet on a golden chain.  As he held it up, I could see a large red stone set into the center.  It seemed to pulse with an inner light.

“A bloodsoul amulet,” breathed Kitaara.

“The terms were fair,” said Yuki.  “Fifty children for me to resell at profit.  Stoor gets fifty for his - experiments.  Well, forty nine now – Stoor insisted on a test while we talked.”

Stoor uttered a cross between a snicker and a whinny.  He spun the amulet so that it flashed and glittered.

“And that pretty much makes me whole,” said Yuki.  “What Stilicho wanted in return was quite reasonable.”

Stoor raised his head and gave a trumpeting call.  As the echoes died away, we heard the sound of many boots in the hallway.

“Sorry Kitty - this isn’t personal,” said Yuki.

I heard Kitaara curse and the ring of steel as she drew her weapons.

I opened my mouth to speak.  Then something struck my head and I was plunged into darkness.

 

Dante__s_Amulet_Pic_2_by_DarkenedDante_z

Edited by cemya

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THE PILLARED HALL

The pain from a pebble beneath my cheek brought me back to the world.

I became aware of a dull throbbing in the back of my head.  I tried to move, but realized my arms were tied.  Gritting my teeth, I took a deep breath and opened my eyes.

I was lying on the floor of a large circular granite chamber bounded by marble columns.  A grey light I guessed to be dawn peeked through windowed openings high above.

Nearby lay Kitaara, bound as I was.

The thumping of boots drew near.  I twisted to see who it was.

Stilicho.  Clad in black robes, the Master of Asps strode quickly past me to stand over Kitaara.

Now came a heavier tread that sounded like hooves.  I blinked as an armored bull-man hove into view.  Steam swirled from his snout and his tiny eyes glittered red.  The creature held an axe in one hand and a pail of water in the other.   Embossed on one of his pauldrons was the symbol of a crow.

Stilicho pointed down at Kitaara.

“Get her up,” he commanded.

The bull-man dashed water over Kitaara.  She sputtered.  As he yanked her to her feet, I saw that she was bruised but otherwise unharmed. 

Kitaara took in her surroundings.  Straightening, she shook the bull-man’s hand off her shoulder. 

Several braziers in the corners of the chamber ignited.  In their light I could see we were not alone. 

Yuki leaned against a pillar, filing her nails.  Off to the other side was Stoor, a crossbow in his hands.  Another half-dozen figures whom I recognized as Stilicho’s guardsmen ringed the room.

“Kitaara,” said Stilicho quietly.  “None the worse for wear?  I was concerned after the first reports.” 

“Ten of Stoor’s finest carved up like venison,” offered Yuki cheerfully.

Stoor fingered his crossbow.

“Sorry, was it twelve?” said Yuki.

“Enough,” said Stilicho.  “Yuki, you may depart.  I will send payment once I am done here.”

Yuki cocked her head.

“No dice," she replied.  “Best to keep things simple.  I'd like to see what happens anyway."

Yuki resumed filing her nails. 

Stilicho scowled, but turned back to his captives.

“How did it come to this?” asked Stilicho, slowly pacing around Kitaara.  “You were a ragged street urchin when I plucked you from the gutter.  Under my teaching, you became the most ruthless killer in the Kingdoms.  You made me rich on a dozen worlds.”

The Stavorian let out a long sigh.

“Now I see a worm was eating you away,” said Stilicho.  “From the inside, where none could see it.  Doubt.  Pity.  Sympathy for the lessers whom the Gods have made our prey.”

Stilicho gestured about the chamber.

“This sickness blinded you to the truth,” continued Stilicho.  “Real power is not counted in coin.  It flows from life itself.  Wealth beyond measure for those with the will to harvest it.”

Stilicho began to pace again.

“I did not suspect it was you, Kitaara,” said Stilicho.  “My caravans ambushed.  The children set free.  I was sure it was some mewling priest.  You had me on the edge of ruin.  All that was left were these last hundred.  But you could not forbear to let even these few remain in chains.”

My mind reeled as I absorbed all this.  Kitaara remained silent. 

Stilicho stopped before the Numerian.

“That was your mistake,” said Stilicho.  “A mistake you compounded by seeking to nurture an apprentice at my expense.”

Stilicho walked over and pulled me to my feet.  His eyes gleamed with hate and lust.

“I shall take her before your eyes,” Stilicho snarled.  He began to slide his hand between my thighs.  I twisted and kicked, which made him laugh

“Free her,” said Kitaara.  “I am the one you want.”

Stilicho shook his head.

“It has gone too far for that, I am afraid,” replied Stilicho.  But he released his grip on me.

Stilicho gestured at the bull-man. 

“Meet Two-Ton, my new second,” said Stilicho.  “He should prove more trustworthy.”

The bull-man grunted, his nostrils flaring as he gripped his axe.

Stilicho paused.  He closed his eyes, as if consumed by an inner debate.  There was a long silence.  Then he opened them.

“I will give you one last chance,” he said.  “For the many corpses you have made in my service.  For the bloody-handed terror you once were.”

Stilicho gestured.  One of his guardsmen opened a door.  From the darkness beyond we could hear the rattle of chains and the soft voices of children.

“Return to my side, Kitaara,” said Stilicho.  “Bend the knee and I will buy these children back at twice the price and free them.  Be my second once more.”

Two-Ton shifted uneasily, a look of confusion in his eyes.

Stilicho turned towards Yuki and Stoor. 

Yuki shrugged.  Stoor gave no sign.

“I ask only a token of your penance,” said Stilicho.  “Proof that you have banished the weakness within you.”

Stilicho pointed at me.

“Cut out her heart and bring it to me,” he commanded.

Stilicho nodded to Two-Ton. 

The bull-man seemed to hesitate.  Then he strode forward with a knife.  Cutting Kitaara’s bonds, he handed her the blade and stepped back.

Kitaara closed her eyes.  She seemed to be murmuring to herself.  Then she opened them, straightened, and advanced upon me.

I felt hollow.  Lost.  As Kitaara reached me, I steeled myself, hoping it would be quick.

Instead she pressed her forehead against mine.

“Remember your training,” she whispered.  “Clear your mind.”

Kitaara cut my bonds with a single motion and shoved me aside.  Tossing her knife into the air, she caught it by the blade and took aim at Stoor.

There was a loud twang.

Kitaara staggered as the crossbow bolt struck her shoulder.  Her knife clattered onto the floor.  She struggled to recover it, but another bolt struck her, this time in the upper chest.  She cried out and fell heavily onto her side. 

“Kitaara!” I screamed.

There was the crank of a crossbow being armed again.

“Stay!” shouted Stilicho.  “I want her alive to see what I do to the girl.”

“No,” said Stoor, speaking for the first time.  His voice was deep and rasping.  “She dies now.” 

The elk-man raised his weapon.

A sound like a wind-chime being struck pierced the air.  Almost faster than sight, a spout of water rose from the puddle made by Two-Ton’s pail.  It crystalized mid-air into a silvery ice-spike that flew across the room and, with a thunk, buried itself between Stoor’s eyes.

Stoor gave a strangled bleat and fell to the floor with a thump.

Yuki stepped forward.  Wrinkling her nose, she prodded the corpse daintily with one foot.

“Poor dear,” she said.

Yuki turned towards the astonished Stilicho.

“By the terms of the contract, I own all the cargo now,” said Yuki. 

“What are you playing at, witch?” growled Stilicho. 

Two-Ton and Stilicho’s guardsmen fingered their weapons, uncertain.

“Just protecting my investment,” said Yuki.  “You offered double to free the children if Kitty would purr for you again.   Looks like that isn’t happening.  But those numbers sounded good to me.  Since I took out doe-eyes, I think you owe me a hearing.”

Stilicho’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.  But he nodded.

“It’s pretty simple,” said Yuki.  “Let’s raise the stakes.”

Yuki pointed at me.

“Give her a chance,” said Yuki.  “If she wins, I get the same terms – twice the cargo’s price in gold and they go free.”

“And if I win?” said Stilicho. 

“It’s all yours,” said Yuki.

Stilicho nodded.  A fiendish grin spread over his face and he began to shrug off his robes.

“You are a fool, witch,” smirked Stilicho.  

“We’ll see,” said Yuki.  She went to lean against a pillar once more.

Two-Ton clomped over holding the twin daggers taken from me when I was captured.  The same I had stolen from Stilicho so long ago.  It could have been my imagination, but as the bull-man handed me the weapons, he seemed to give a nod of encouragement.

I gripped the blades, numb with fear.  This all seemed to be happening in a dream to someone else. 

Then I looked to where Kitaara lay.  Her eyes were closed, but her chest was still rising and falling.  A pool of blood spread slowly beneath her.  

The sound of children's frightened voices came from the outer chamber.  

Remembering Kitaara's words, I took a deep breath, knelt, closed my eyes and said a prayer to Valkyn.      

I opened my eyes to find Stilicho leering at me.

“On your knees again, little dancer?” grinned Stilicho.  The Master of Asps twirled his daggers through the air in an intricate pattern.  In the light of the braziers, I saw the embossed emblem of a crow glittering red upon his tunic.  

Stilicho's smile vanished when he recognized the weapons I was holding.  

"A thief as well, I see," he spat.

We began to circle one another.  Yuki and Two-Ton watched with intense expressions.  The only sound was of breathing and the shuffle of feet on stone.    

“I suppose she told you this was your destiny,” said Stilicho.  “Your fate was a brothel – you should have gone when you had the chance.”

Stilicho lunged at me, slashing at my leading arm.  But he struck air as I dodged to the side.  Immediately, he repeated the move, with the same result.  Then again - but my small size and quickness seemed to confound him.

“Pathetic!” smirked Stilicho.  “I can see that you…aaargh!”

Stilicho’s taunt was cut off mid-sentence as I darted in.  He twisted, but failed to evade.  I heard a loud curse as I leapt away.

Stilicho clutched a bloody gash on his arm. 

Two-Ton snorted. I glimpsed Yuki smile.

“You little quim!” snarled Stilicho.  "I'll see your insides!"      

Enraged, the Master of Asps launched himself at me like a whirlwind, trying to trap me against one of the columns.  I abandoned all thought of attack.  It was all I could do to stay out of his reach.  Both of us were now panting for air.

Suddenly, Stilicho changed pattern to sweep at my leg.  

I felt a searing pain across my calf. Then a rush of wetness.  

Nauseous, I dropped one of my knives, staggering to put distance between myself and Stilicho.  If I had not grasped at a pillar I would have fallen. 

Looking down, I knew it was over.

Hamstrung.  I could no longer walk.  My life blood was pouring out and I knew I would not be conscious much longer.  Even through the pain, I could not help thinking I would never dance again.

Stilicho stood triumphant a few feet away.  Brandishing his blades, he raised his head.

“Great Kane, take this offering!” cried he.  “Let her blood flow in tribute to your glory.” 

Stilicho advanced upon me for the last time.

Pushing off the pillar, I put my weight on my remaining good leg.  Then my hand went to my temple.  My eyes rolled back into my head and I started to collapse.

Stilicho laughed.

As I fell, I rolled into a somersault.  The momentum carried me to the foot of Stilicho.  Gripping my blade in both hands, I closed my eyes and thrust upward with all my might.

I heard a man grunt and felt a warm spatter across my cheeks. 

Opening my eyes, I saw Stilicho looking down in surprise at the hilt of the knife buried beneath his heart.  He clutched feebly at it.  Then he pitched over and lay unmoving. 

My sight was already dimming.  I felt very cold. 

Leaving a trail of blood on the floor, I crawled to where Kitaara lay.  I saw that she had raised herself onto one elbow. 

Kitaara gripped my outstretched hand.  Her eyes fluttered.

“It is done,” Kitaara murmured.  She squeezed my hand tightly.  

"My lamb," she whispered.

Kitaara's eyes closed as she released her grip.  She slid to the floor.  A thin stream of blood ran down the corner of her mouth.  Then she quivered and was still.

Tears ran down my face as I rolled over onto my back. 

I heard Yuki shouting, but it seemed to come from a great distance.

“Free the children and get them to safety.  Put the gold in my cart – and be quick!  Come on Two-Ton, I need your help with this.”

So this was death then.  I was so cold.  I thought of father and my brothers.  I felt sad.  And afraid.  I was only eighteen.

As in a fog, I saw Yuki and Two-Ton standing above me.  They seemed to nod to each other.  Then, in unison, they raised their arms high.

A blue glow seemed to fill the air. 

I felt sudden warmth and, as my thoughts fled, a sensation of flying.

 

Cembrye%20A_zpshpiqzrgl.jpg

Edited by cemya

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ETERNAL KINGDOM

A buzzing in my ear. 

I open my eyes.

A bee. 

Golden and delicate in the warm light, the insect hovers a moment by my cheek.  Then it darts off and comes to rest on one of the bright purple asters growing out of the flower pot atop the bed-side dresser.

Lying in on a morning like this feels so nice. 

A cool breeze comes through the open window, rustling the pink and yellow curtains.  I pull up the soft covers and start to roll back over.

The bee buzzes, circles a few times, then alights on the tip of my nose. 

I wave it off. 

It returns to the same place.  Its tiny feet tickle. 

Starting to feel annoyed, I shoo it again.  Why is it bothering me?  I just want to doze a bit more. 

The bee flies up and settles back on my nose.

Exasperated, I throw back the covers and swing my legs over the side of the bed.  The bee flies up, but this time instead of landing on my nose it settles on my arm. 

I twist to shake it off.  Then I see it - drawn across the skin of my forearm.

The tattoo of a black crow, wings rampant.

It all comes back in a rush. 

Kitaara.  Stilicho. The Pillared Hall.

My heart surges in my chest.  Gasping for air, I catch at my throat and cry out. 

The bee flies up to circle above me.

I am dead.

But something isn’t right.  My mind knows what happened.  But this place – it seems so real.   

I look about me.  I am in a simply furnished but neat and comfortable room.  Beside the bed and dresser is a small table with two chairs.  A hearth beckons, stacked with unlit logs.  The walls are painted in soft colors and there are fresh rushes on the large open floor.  A plain dress and leggings are neatly laid out over the chair.  At the other end of the room is a wooden door with a brass knob.

I look wonderingly at my forearm.  I stand up, then remember.  Wincing, I reach down to my leg. 

With a shock, I realize the horrid wound is gone.    

And I feel – different.

I walk to the open area of the floor.  Cautiously I do a piroutte.  Then a leap - amazed as I vault easily across the entire room with little effort. 

Taking a deep breath, I attempt a grande jete – a difficult move I had seen the lead dancer of a visiting troupe perform when I was a girl.  A move I had always failed to complete.  I sail into the air and land perfectly.  I do another.  And another.  And still I am not tired.  Laughing, I set up to attempt a fouette. 

I am so absorbed I almost don’t hear the creak of the door opening. 

Alarmed, I whirl.

In the open doorway stands a furry rodent-like creature on its hind legs.  Half the size of a man, it wears a scarlet tabard and carries a slender staff.  On its head is a stylish feathered cap. 

The creature coughs.

I suddenly realize I am not wearing a stitch of clothing.  I hurriedly grab the dress on the chair and pull it over my head.  Then I think - how silly.  Why be modest when you are dead?  Especially in front of….of….whomever this is.  I should have gotten used to seeing strange things by now.  I struggle a moment.

“You’re a Guinea Pig!” I blurt out finally.

“A Guineacean,” the creature corrects me.  He has a pleasant chirping voice.  “Aloysius Pilkington Biggles-Dockworth, Office of the Registrar.  But you may address me simply as Pilkington.  And I am at your service, my lady.”

Pilkington bows deeply.

A talking Guinea Pig.  I am at a loss. 

“My deepest apologies for interrupting her ladyship before she had….ahem, completed her morning toilette,” says Pilkington.  “Shall I return later?” 

“No, no – please stay,” I urge. 

He bows once more.

“Am I dead?” I ask bluntly, speaking the thought foremost in my mind.

“Dead?” repeats Pilkington, appearing puzzled.  “No.  I mean yes.  I mean no.  Oh bother – has no one told you anything?”

I shake my head.

“Ugh!” says the Guineacean, slapping his forehead.  “So typical!  Things ran much smoother when Fennel was head of the section!  Now its catch as catch can!  Dear me, dear me…well, I will answer as best I can, but you really should wait to speak to a proper Guide.  I just register the deeds.”

Pilkington peers at me, appearing to be waiting.

“If I am not dead,” I ask, “where am I?”

“My lady!” exclaims Pilkington.  He motions, then turns and walks out through the doorway.  I follow.

In a moment we are on a green lawn.  Around us stretches a wide and peaceful countryside of rolling hills and fields, dotted by small woods.  There are no structures but the small cottage we had walked out of.  In the distance is a large hedge, beyond which I glimpse the silvery thread of a stream.  Above us is the clear blue sky of a perfect day.

Pilkington makes a sweeping gesture.

“This is your realm, my lady,” says the Guineacean. 

“What does that mean?” I ask.  “Is this heaven?”

“Only if you make it so, my lady,” replies Pilkington.

“So I am dead?” I repeat, beginning to feel irritated despite the beauty of my surroundings.

“Well no, my Lady,” stutters Pilkington.  “I mean yes.  I mean…well, no.  You really should wait for a proper orientation.”

The Guineacean ruffles in a satchel he is carrying.

“Before I forget,” says Pilkington.  “Here is a parcel I was to deliver.”

He bows as he hands me a bundle neatly wrapped in cloth and twine.

There is the sound of a horn from the direction of the hedge.

“The gate!” says Pilkington.  “A visitor already?  Quite unusual.  Pardon, my lady.  I will go see who it is.”

As Pilkington speeds off, I open the parcel.  Inside is a scroll and a small wooden box.  I undo the scroll and begin to read:

***

Cembrye –

If you are reading this, then it worked.  Just so you know, that was my first Calling.  Don’t ask me how it works.  I just know the higher-ups do the heavy lifting.

You probably hate me.  I can understand why you would.  That was pretty messy.  Whatever.  In the end everyone has to earn it.  Which you did.  For what it’s worth, I’m glad.

Now you’re one of us.  What that means is up to you. 

I made a small fortune out of this.  But maybe some of Kitty – and you – rubbed off on me.  Because I’m about to give a lot of it back. 

You could outfit an entire kingdom with what’s in the box.  Take it.   I did some checking and I believe the little boy is still alive.  I don’t know where.  But if you can find him, I think there is a way to reverse the process.

Have to run.  If you are in the area, feel free to visit me sometime.  Dress warm!

Yuki

***

I put down the scroll and open the small wooden box.  As I tip it over, a piece of jewelry spills onto my palm. 

The bloodsoul amulet.  It seems to throb with an inner light, even in the bright morning sun.

With a shiver, I put it back in the box.  Rewrapping the parcel, I go into the cottage and carefully place it inside a dresser drawer.

Pilkington comes racing up as I return back outside.  As he reaches me, he stops, bends and put his paws upon his knees.  I wait for him to catch his breath.

“My lady,” Pilkington wheezes finally.  “Indeed, you have a visitor.  However she would not give a name.  She asked to be announced as a 'She-Cat of Kharamun.'  Quite peculiar.  Shall I ask her to come back later?  My lady!”

The Guineacean is nearly bowled over as I burst past him, racing towards the hedge gate, leaping and squealing, falling and laughing. 

I am sure Pilkington thinks me quite mad. 

But then Guineaceans think that of all humans.

 

Hedge_zpsj06evp0c.jpg

Edited by cemya

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PORTAL

We are immortal.  The gods choose the best of us to be champions.  They send us to the dying worlds to fight, to collect the souls of the damned.  The mortals fear us. They see us as executioners and scavengers. 

They call us Crows.

I stand before a portal with no name.  But I know where it leads.   

Even wrapped in my pocket, I can feel the amulet’s warmth.

I step through the gate...

 

Gate_zpsmaygbuno.jpg

 

END OF PART I

Edited by cemya

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Part II

CROW OF VALKYN

THE EMPTY THRONE

Ransom halted, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.

Four steps.  Then a last long step to the landing.

The Ranger opened his eyes and slowly exhaled, tasting the early morning air.

It had been too long.

Ransom never forgot the first time he had visited The Pantheon, many years ago.  The foundations had barely set, yet people already called it the greatest wonder of the Kingdoms.  Built atop Highmount, its central ridge linked a cluster of three hills named, appropriately, Order, Balance and Chaos.  Each hill was crowned by its own magnificent temple, delved at immense cost by The Devoted.  Yet all were as children to The Pantheon. 

The Ranger’s head turned from side to side as he descended the broad steps of the thirteen outer rings.  The vaulted ceiling stretched so high the lights from the apertures were mere specks.  At night they formed a cunning pattern that mimicked the constellations. 

On a typical day, these marbled halls were filled with wide-eyed visitors, most mundane but also many Crows.  As one descended, each ring told a unique tale.  And all these tales wove into the greater saga, its ending yet unwritten, in which all races had their place. 

These were the Rings of the Heroes.  Crowded on either side with statuary, murals and paintings, the Rings memorialized the feats and sacrifices of the most remarkable Crows of ages past.  The finest artists of the Kingdoms ensured each portrayal was a masterpiece of its genre. 

On one enormous mural, a young Queen braced herself, terrible and fair, as she blocked the path of an unseen menace.  On another a Guineacean captain balanced atop the foaming prow of a ship, his scarlet cloak billowing as he gestured towards a far horizon.  A gilded bronze, ten times the size of any man, portrayed a massive Minotaur, streaming blood from many wounds, as he swept the heads from the grasping horrors encircling him.  Some memorials were more modest, yet held their own power.  Ransom always felt moved by a small fountain in a quiet alcove, upon which was simply carved: “To Arabella, from her friends.” 

Ransom’s first visit had been followed by many others.  Despite this, he knew he had seen only a fraction of the Rings.  As he continued down the steps, each time he passed a gallery that was new to him, he forced himself to keep walking.  He needed to remember his purpose. 

He was almost there.

The last steps opened into the great chamber, a vast circular space with a raised platform at its center surrounded by a clear pool of water.  Here, at the very heart of The Pantheon, rose the greatest of its works – The Empty Throne.  A hundred feet of polished granite carved into the likeness of a kingly chair.  

And there she was.

A veteran of many campaigns, Ransom was not easily impressed.  As a Ranger, he was used to relying on his own judgment and skill.  As a third son, he’d earned his way by merit.  When he’d received today’s orders, he’d inwardly cursed.  A foolish waste of time.  The reports couldn’t be true.

Yet there she was.   

Clad in a simple blue dress, the girl sat quietly on a bench besides the pool.  She had taken her shoes off and was idly dipping her toes in the clear water.  Sensing his approach, the girl rose and turned, running one hand through a mane of shiny black hair that reached far down her back while smoothing her dress with the other. 

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I lost track of time.”

Ransom fought to hide his amazement.  They made no Crows of children, but this girl looked even younger than her years, an impression compounded by her short stature.  She carried herself with an assurance that suggested she was well aware of her physical beauty.  But there was a sadness around the edges of her eyes.  And when she stood, consciously or not, she had fallen into what an experienced warrior would recognize as prelude to a fighting stance.

Noticing Ransom’s gaze drawn to her bare dripping feet, she gave a lissome smile and wiggled her toes.

Oh, she was a dangerous one. 

“You know who I am?” asked Ransom. 

“Of course,” answered the girl, as if surprised at the question.  “Pilkington described you to a T.”

Ransom wondered who Pilkington was.  But he reminded himself to keep focus.  This wasn’t developing as he’d expected.

Before he could say anything further, he felt a presence behind him.  He half-turned as a tall, dark-complexioned woman in assassin leathers strode up.  Weaponless as they all were in this sacred place, he could not help but reach instinctively for the empty space on his belt where his scabbard usually hung.  He winced, knowing the gesture would be marked as a sign of weakness.   

The newcomer placed herself an equal distance from Ransom and the girl.  Then she crossed her arms.

“Kitaara, I presume?” he queried.

The newcomer shrugged her shoulders.

Another piece of the puzzle, thought Ransom.  But the Order needed answers.  Best to get straight to it.

“Then you know why I am here,” said Ransom, turning to address the girl directly.  “Pardon my lack of manners.  I am Ransom, a Ranger, servant of Arkon and Warden of the Golden Council.  Your time in the Kingdoms has been short, but I expect you've heard of us.” 

The Ranger bowed.

The girl, who had by now put her shoes back on, returned the bow.

“I am Cembrye,” she said.

Ransom raised an eyebrow. 

“Just Cembrye?” he asked.

“You have your answer,” interrupted Kitaara. 

“Perhaps,” said Ransom. 

“Strange reports come to the Council,” he continued.  “A mundane girl slays a Crow in a duel.  A tremendous feat for one so young.  The fight appeared to be over slaves and gold”

Kitaara shifted, but said nothing.

“No great matter by itself,” continued Ransom.  “This temple rests on the three hills.  Another follower of Chaos or the Balance means little.  Our swords give judgement on the battlefield.  But that was not the end of it.  A mundane child was used in a forbidden ritual.  The vessels of the dead, for better or worse, are allowed us.  But this ritual stripped the essence from the living and captured it in an amulet.” 

“We had nothing to do with that!” blurted Cembrye. 

Kitaara looked grim, but remained silent.

“Did you not?” said Ransom.  “Now to the last.  When a Crow is Called, in the fullness of time each comes to The Pantheon.  Their journey ends at the three hills, where they take up the mantle of champion for one of the All-Father’s children.  Yet this mundane girl, trained by a follower of Malekai, ascended in blood upon prayers to Kane and Illara, has not done so."

“So I ask again,” said Ransom, looking intensely at the girl.  “What is your name?”

The girl lowered her head and closed her eyes.  Her lips moved as if in prayer.  Then she lifted her chin and looked directly at the Ranger.

“I am Cembrye...Bride of Valkyn,” she murmured.

Ransom felt anger welling in him.  He turned towards the assassin.  

“Kitaara Red-Hand,” he spat.  “The Trickster puts this girl in great peril.”

“This is none of His doing,” replied Kitaara evenly.  “Else she would wear the spider mark even now.”

Ransom had dealt with Malekai’s followers many times.  They were renowned for their lies and manipulations.  Yet, as Warden of the Golden Council, he had been gifted with Truesight. 

Kitaara was not lying.

He turned back to the girl with growing unease.

“Do you have it with you?” he demanded.

Cembrye shook her head.

“It's in a safe place,” she replied.

Ransom scowled and stepped closer to the girl.  Kitaara matched his movement.  The air was thick for a moment.

Ransom passed a hand over his eyes.  Then he took a pace back.  Kitaara did the same.

“My apologies,” said Ransom.  “But you must understand.  If the Golden Council knows of this amulet, then so do others.   The power it unlocks could upset the balance itself.  But it is not just the amulet - there is the matter of the title you claim.”

Ransom took several steps towards the pool and looked up at the massive statue.

“The All-Father is gone,” he declared.  “His absence frees the Gods and their champions.  We contest his legacy but unite to fight the greater threat.  All that would change were He to return."

Ransom rounded on the girl.

"Your claim is sacrilege," he said sternly.  "If you persist, it will bring down upon you not only the Devoted, but all three Great Councils.  They will not care if your beliefs are the fruit of some misguided cult.  The fate of a heretic is worse than death."

The Ranger stopped.  The girl was pale and shaking.  He had gone too far.

Ransom sighed inwardly.  

A familiar feeling began to creep over him.  A feeling usually associated with the appearance of a noble, but lost cause.  It did not help that a pretty girl was involved.

“Do you have any proof?” he asked in a gentler tone.

Cembrye shook her head, eyes glistening. 

“Only what is in my heart,” she replied softly.   

Ransom gritted his teeth.  She was not lying.  But none of this made sense.  And yet...there was something about her.  

A great lesson he'd learned in life was to trust his instincts.  But what he was about to do would not only gain him no favor with the Golden Council.  It would launch him on a fearful path towards an unknown end.  

Ransom took a deep breath.  

So be it.

“Know this,” said Ransom.  “You have some time.  But eventually the Golden Council will gain the agreement of the others.  They will bring you to trial.  A girl who claims to hear the voice of the Almighty cannot be ignored.  Others will try to seize this amulet for their own ends.”

“As for myself,” he continued.  “I do not know the Gods desires.  But I know what such an amulet could do in the wrong hands.  There are those, even of Order, who would not hesitate to use it as a weapon.  Yet to destroy it would be another crime.  For unless I miss my guess, somewhere a child suffers.”

Cembrye glanced at Kitaara, who gave her a warning look.  The girl hesitated, then turned back towards the ranger.

“Yes,” said Cembrye  “He is a young boy.  I plan to find him and reverse the process – somehow.”

“What of the amulet’s creator?” asked Ransom.  “Stoor cannot have acted alone.” 

“That is not your concern,” said Kitaara coldly.

“No Kitaara,” murmured Cembrye, placing her hand on the assassin’s arm and giving it a squeeze.  “We can't do this alone.” 

The girl stepped towards Ransom.

“What about your Council?” asked Cembrye.  “Wouldn’t they object to your helping us?”

‘Only if they find out,” smiled Ransom.  “But I suspect your guardian keeps her ward's secrets well," he added mischievously.

“I am not her guardian,” said Kitaara.

“I am not her ward," said Cembrye at the same time. 

Kitaara rolled her eyes as the girl giggled.

“Well,” said Ransom.  “We are all taking risks.  I will contact you shortly – I need to handle other business first.  But watch your steps.  I recommend staying in your realms for now.”

Ransom nodded to them both and turned to walk away.  He couldn’t help but overhear a last snatch of conversation.

“Why did you tell all?” growled Kitaara. “We agreed to listen and no more.”

“I had an inspiration,” said the girl.

Ransom smiled as he began to ascend the steps. 

Lost in his thoughts, he did not notice a hooded figure slip into the shadows as he passed.

 

the_empty_throne_by_vajrasimha_zpsabykeb

Edited by cemya

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THE DEVOTED

The blue and green sphere hung from the vaulted ceiling like an ornament.  Slowly, almost imperceptibly, delicate tendrils of light appeared at the poles.  As they joined, the sphere began to pulsate.  Faster and then faster yet. Suddenly there came a great flash. 

Anaxis joined the others in covering his eyes.  When he looked up again, he saw it was done.  A gossamer web had formed across vast oceans and continents.  A new world was brought forth.  The chanting of the Devoted ceased.  They all stood in the darkness, savoring the moment, until the sphere finally faded from view.  Then the Sanctum lamps were lit and the hall filled with excited chatter.

“Congratulations, Lord Archon,” said the sharp-nosed man next to him.

Anaxis nodded.  He did not feel like celebrating. 

Beryl, the Crow who had sacrificed himself, had been as a brother to him.  Together they had fought and cursed and laughed and whored across a hundred campaigns.  When Anaxis took his vows as a Devoted, Beryl did not abandon him like the others.  When he rose to Archon, Beryl seemed to accept that the terms of their friendship had changed

What a fool he had been, thought Anaxis.  Some adjust.  Others pretend to. 

When he’d heard that Beryl had volunteered, he’d tried to talk him out of it.  But it was useless.  Beryl only laughed and chided Anaxis for wanting all the glory to himself. 

Glory?  Anaxis knew better.  The Making wasn’t about glory.  It was about survival.

The Hunger engulfed one world after another.  It could not be halted or reasoned with.  Without The Making, without the creation of new worlds, the Hunger would someday reach the Kingdoms.  And then would come the end.  The end to Crows and Gods and Campaigns.  The end to the lot of it.

The Devoted were all that stood in the way.  A unity of faiths, its members sworn to a sacred task.  Their chants opened a rift in time.  And into that rift walked a willing Crow.

Anaxis looked up at the now-empty space above.  The new world would be given a suitable name.  Something uplifting to celebrate Beryl’s role in The Making.

Yet all Anaxis could think was that his truest and oldest friend had decided to be no more.  And that it was his fault.  The Archon gritted his teeth. 

“My Lord?” whispered the sharp-nosed man beside him.  “Are you ill?”

Anaxis shook his head.  “No, Eamon – I am fine,” he replied.  “Just weary.  I think I will go to my chambers.”

Eamon nodded and stepped aside.  

In truth, Anaxis was not tired.  He was just in no mood for Devoted prattle. 

And he was expecting a visitor.

Anaxis reached his rooms, locked the door, and sat down in his high-backed chair.  He let out a deep sigh. Tonight was a watershed.  He no longer felt a shred of doubt about the path ahead. The Making bought time, nothing more.  And the price - good men like Beryl – was too high. He, and those who followed him, would no longer play at this charade. It was time to change the rules.

He heard a series of soft knocks and moved to unlock the door.  A cloaked figure slipped inside.  Closing the door, Anaxis motioned to an empty chair, then resumed his own seat.  The figure pulled down its hood. 

The Archon had not met many fae before Leya.  Unsurprising, given how they regarded males. He watched her now as she unbuckled her scabbard, her graceful, dove-like wings folded neatly behind her back.  Long blonde hair tumbled down over her bat-like ears as it shook free.  Anaxis caught his breath as she bent over to adjust the leggings of the form-fitting doeskin she wore.

“You are so obvious,” she said, without looking up.

“So are you,” he laughed.

Leya turned to fix him with her large green eyes.

“I could erase my shame with one slice," she said.  "They would just find your body.”

“And yet you don’t,” replied Anaxis.  “I wonder why?”

“You know well,” she sighed as she came to sit in his lap. Anaxis placed his hands on her hips and drew her close.

“We are two of a kind,” mused Anaxis.  “Drawn to the forbidden.  We just use different weapons.  You, a blade.  I, my tongue.”

“Now I know why the Matriarchs command all men be slain,” she murmured, leaning in to nibble on his ear.

“Business first,” said Anaxis, gently pushing her off. 

The fae sulked, but got up and took a seat in a chair.

“What did you find?” he asked.

“You waste my talents,” Leya yawned.  “Spying in cloisters – you can hire a guinea rat for that.”

“I need discretion,” replied Anaxis.  “Someone I can trust.”

“Trust?” the fae scoffed.  “You won’t even tell me what this is about.”

“It is for your protection,” said Anaxis.  “There are matters that…”

Leya cut him off.  “Yes, yes,” she scolded.  “Devoted business….holy business.  Have it your way.”

The fae took out a small dagger and began to clean her nails.

“Whoever tipped you was right,” Leya continued.  “They were down at the Empty Throne.  Ransom, Red-Hand, and the girl.  I had a nice view but couldn’t hear it all – I didn’t want to risk getting closer.  The ranger was interested in some trinket, but the girl didn’t have it on her.  She claims to be the Bride of Valkyn.  Mad as a mooncalf, poor thing.  Ransom must like them crazy, since he agreed to help her.”

“Interesting,” said the Archon, making a tent with his clasped fingers.  “How did she appear to you?”

The fae’s eyes narrowed.  

“A pint-sized priss,” she sniffed.  

Anaxis curled his lip in a half-smile.  By all accounts, the "Bride" was achingly lovely.

“What of the other matter?” he asked.  “Your trip to Ferisse?  I assume you uncovered nothing.”

“To the contrary,” said Leya.  “I found him.”

“What?!” said Anaxis, starting from his chair.  “Are you certain?”

Now it was the fae’s turn to drink in another’s discomfort.  

“Yes,” said Leya.  “It was Clem.  He was at one of those cult temples.  Calls himself Brother Genesius now.  And here’s the funny part.  He'd crossed paths with your mooncalf.  Tried to make her his plaything - but she bolted.”

Anaxis felt a chill come over him. No.  It couldn’t be.  It wasn’t possible.

The fae looked at him with concern.  “You look terrible,” she said.  “Are you all right?”

Leya reached out but he waved her off.  She recoiled, a flush coming over her cheeks.

Now he’d done it. “I’m sorry,” he ventured, trying to make amends.  But it was too late.

“Save it,” Leya declared.  “You think I have nothing else to do but run your errands?”

“Leya”…he said, rising.

But the fae had already grabbed her things and was out the door, slamming it behind her.

The Archon sank back into his chair.  His thoughts were no longer on Leya but rather on the last piece of information she’d brought.  And the disturbing possibility it suggested.

Clem had always been a strange bird.  One of the oldest Devoted, a follower of Hero no less.  Yet, in his addled way, Clem was brilliant.  Anaxis had celebrated when he’d agreed to join their cause. 

But as the means they planned to use were revealed, Clem began to cause problems.  He declared there had to be another way.  He withdrew and spent his days alone, shuttered in his chambers.  They could hear him shouting as if arguing with himself.  Then, one day, Clem burst out, filthy and bearded, with a wild gleam in his eyes.  “Yes!” was all he said.  And he ran off.

At first they’d looked long and hard, fearful that he would reveal their plans.  But it was as if Clem had disappeared from existence.  Slowly they relaxed and, in time, almost forgot about him.

Now Clem had surfaced on that wretched dust ball Ferisse.  Just as an unhinged Ferissi girl he'd met turned up in the Kingdoms claiming to hear the voice of the All-Father.  

Either it was the greatest coincidence of all time.  Or...

Anaxis took a deep breath.  Calm yourself.  Legends and myths are just that.  The stakes are too high to stop now.  We stand on the very cusp of success.  

A plan formed in his mind.

Retrieve what was lost.  Deal with the fools and idiots responsible.  Then dispose of Clem's blasphemous little girl.

The Archon gathered quill, parchment and ink and made sure the lamp had plenty of oil. 

He had a long night ahead.

 

traditional_newari_oil_lamp_by_konviktu5

Edited by cemya

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