Dark Quarter, a valley on the tradeward coast of the Bejellian Sea.
As her penetrating gaze swept the landscape and the sky, Avestine found she was holding her breath. Sweat trickled past one ear, though it was a cold day. When she released her breath, steam warmed her lips. She wiped sweat from under her braid of blonde hair and loosened the ties at the neck of her leather tunic. She let her fur cloak hang low off her shoulders.
Stones crunched beneath her metal-toed boots as she stepped onto the promontory. She gazed across the valley. The haze floating above the purple ridge of trees was both smoke and fog. On the other side of the rise, almost one thousand soldiers were setting fire to the wilderness. She watched as the sky beyond the ridge began to glow.
Darklaw troops were defending Sahrdon’s gulf-side shore, fending off a naval attack from three-hundred ships sent tradeward. Avestine had brought this relatively small army to Sahrdon’s back. Her legates stood at attention ready to call forth their additional legions. If Kami sent her beasts to devour the front troops, Avestine would simply replace them. The tactic had worked in the Trade Quarter, and she was counting on Kami’s ingenuity to make it fail this time.
The entire ridge was aglow. Smoke gathered and mixed with the fog, spreading like a malevolent tide across the sky. Her ears sought the sounds of screeching and panicked beasts, but nothing arrived in sound or body. The land was utterly silent. She glanced at Rook, who shared her concern.
“Something’s coming,” said Rook. “I feel it.”
Avestine nodded slowly. The hairs on her neck prickled. Sweat continued to accumulate at her temples. “What do your ghosts tell you?”
Hidden in the shadows of his hood, Rook’s expression reached her only in thought. We shouldn’t be here.
“Go learn what they know,” she said. She watched his robe drop to the ground as his body joined the wind and scattered. Jaw clenched, she continued to stare where he had been.
She didn’t like what he had become anymore than she liked what Kami had become. The six gods had returned to the world in the bodies of their avatars, but the avatars had been her Essanti. They don’t belong to the gods, she thought. They belong to me. She would have Rook and Kami back as they should be: obedient and using their gifts for her benefit. She would send the gods from the world. She would send them to hell. This fiery destruction was the kind of bait neither Kami nor Bala could resist.
She smiled at the thought, smiled for the utter simplicity of her plan. She returned her attention to the distant ridge and awaited the signal from her forward scouts. She waited as the hazy skyline grew hazier and the smoke of burning trees stung her nose.
She thought back to her years in the Trade Quarter under the Unsetting Sun. She was glad to be standing on the volcanic shore near her beloved Sahrdon. She would rather spend a thousand frigid nights on black rock than return to the soft woodlands lighted by a warm, yellow sun that never set.
Avestine was sahr. She was the last living child of the Architect, the man who had carved the Empire of Darklaw from the world like a mad butcher and made monsters of his own children. She would reconcile every brutality and sadistic pleasure he had inflicted upon her by assuring no one ever controlled her destiny again. Lust for power had consumed her soul long before Arujan, the god of Kings, made her his avatar.
When the sign of Kami’s presence arrived, it reached Avestine on a horse, half dead. The scout she had sent forward fell from his mount as he crested the ridge.
Soldiers retrieved the body and shared the news: some kind of hemorrhagic fever. The body was still bleeding, and when it lay at Avestine’s feet, worms erupted from every orifice. Within minutes, the soldiers who had retrieved the body were bleeding. The sight weakened the line, and her foremost soldiers began to murmur and shuffle backwards. Before they could break ranks, she ordered retreat.
She sent her personal guard with the troops. She dispatched the sick men with the quick use of her blade. When she stood alone among the dead, the land was again silent.
“Very good,” she whispered to the sky.
Years before, Kami had sent beasts to stop her army but their attack ended when their bellies were full. This time, Kami was unstoppable, for vermin were never sated. Avestine shuddered at the thought of parasites. Kami was growing more powerful. She could compel the smallest of beasts now as easily as she had once compelled wolves.
Avestine released a long sigh and whispered again, “Very good.”
She let herself smile. She smiled because she knew she would win this war. Not just the war with Sahrdon but the one she had been fighting her whole life. She would destroy the gods, and then the world and everyone in it would belong to her.
Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.