Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
Sasha woke abruptly, opening her eyes to darkness. A shudder passed through her like a wave,or a rippling hot flash. It passed in a second, but something had changed. It was like the very ground had shifted under her feet, like a stopped up gap in her chest was cleared and now something was missing, something she should have been looking for all along.
So the Treatise had broken. Fyn had not made it to Mithrinden in time.
Sasha closed her eyes slowly and waited, not moving a muscle or altering her breathing. It was too dark to see where her mother slept in a nest of cotton blankets on the other side of the room, but in moments she would know… would it be humanity’s triumph or death knell? Which gods had they loosed, and would her mother wake to wrath or joy?
The blankets shifted. Her mother had felt the change of course, as every human in the Basin had and maybe godformed too. Had the gods already given her her next orders? How long until they assembled for war?
How long until her mother guessed Sasha’s role in the Treatise’s escape?
Her mother sat up.
She was pleased. It was the way she rose, slow and indulgent, how she peeled the blankets away with care.
“Sasha?” Her gentle voice could not disguise a warning undercurrent that made Sasha wish she could sink back into the emptiness of sleep. But ignoring her mother was… unwise.
“Yes, Mother?” Sasha said quickly, sitting up herself and reaching for her daggers.
“You felt it?” There was a grim satisfaction to her voice that filled Sasha with dread.
“I did, Mother.”
Sasha didn’t need to see her mother to know she was grinning. “We have our gods, my daughter,” she said, and rose, dressing quickly in the dark robes she had begun to favor.
“Call the elders,” Iona ordered, lighting all the candles in the room with a wave of her hand. “We will meet alone in the Citadel of Power.”
Sasha squinted against the light. Her heart thudded. There was something more in her mother’s movements…
“And the other gods?” Sasha dared.
Iona did not answer at first, and Sasha braced herself for the anger. Then Iona shook her head and smiled.
“Oh, Sasha, my eldest, but I have not told you. It does not matter that those false gods are free to puppetmaster their abominations. You spoke out of turn to me when you questioned our army’s training, but I have since given much thought to your words, and so have the gods. You were right. Linking oneself to a god took months or years of study before the Sundering, and we have forgotten much. An army of Change-bringers or Consequence-givers would never be ready in time, and many will be too cowardly to fight.”
Sasha’s blood ran chill. Her mother never admitted when she was wrong. She was completely convinced she was doing the will of the gods in exterminating the godformed, and from everything Sasha had seen, it was probably true. To hear her admit they could not fight—
Her mother had turned to look directly at Sasha. She was holding Sasha’s component bag. Sasha felt a stab of alarm — she always hid it tucked under the foot of her ragged stretch of furs. Why was she touching it?
“But we won’t need an army anymore. Not when a single one of us will match a company of godformed tenfold.”
“One of us against a company? What do you mean?” Sasha asked, knowing she was pushing her luck.
Her mother seemed to be in an uncommonly indulgent mood and only smiled at her. “Oh now, darling, you would not want me to spoil the surprise, would you?”
Her eyes narrowed and her voice went suddenly sharp. “Now hurry up and summon the elders — you’ve stalled long enough.”
Sasha scrambled out of bed without bothering to change clothes — she owned two sets of the same tunic, leggings, and overskirt and changed them when they got dirty. She slung the pack that contained all her possessions over her shoulder — she never went anywhere without it.
Her component pouch was still sitting on the flat rock that had a polished sheet of metal mother used as a mirror leaning against it. Sasha glanced at her mother, who was busy scribbling something down across the room, and edged toward it.
No change. She took another step and reached down for it.
“You won’t need that,” her mother called sharply.
Sasha’s hand froze and slowly withdrew. She knew better than to take it, once her mother had suggested she did not need it. She used few spells beside teleportation, but that bag held every focus she had collected from six years of traveling throughout the Basin. She had at least one from every kingdom, though many were too weak to work all the way out here. It was her lifeblood, her freedom, and her way out — if she ever decided to take it.
Evidently her mother had realized the same thing. She felt Iona’s eyes on her back, waiting for a challenge.
Sasha swallowed a half-dozen retorts, most of them using the choicest vocabulary from four or five languages she’d picked up snippets of, and went looking for the elders.
According to a water clock in the hall, it was barely sunrise, but the Hive was buzzing like, well, a hive. Everyone had been woken by the ripple of power as the Treatise broke, and nearly half of the fifty strong band of warriors Iona had brought with her were out in the halls, chatting in Nikaboan, the language of the largest tribe that lived on the outskirts of Aisen and had long since allied themselves with the Seekers.
“Zeinaba,” Sasha called, spying the warrior elder listening to Asnake wonder aloud if he had felt Life’s power brush just out of his reach while he was meditating.
“Ah, Sashsonda, my child,” Zeinaba welcomed her by extending her hand face-up. Her face was worn with sun and wrinkles and her near-white hair floated around her like a cloud. Sasha pressed both of her palms around it in response and leaned in to kiss the woman on the cheek.
“Are you well?” Zeinaba asked her, reading the tension in her spine.
“I am hurried, Distinguished One. My mother wishes the elders to gather immediately in the Citadel. Alone.”
Sasha slipped into Nikaboan as easily as if she had been born knowing it. It was technically her second language, but it should have been her native and very nearly was. She’d first heard it at five, led into the Nikaboan camp by one of the Seeker couriers, returned to her homeland and her people and given an opportunity to grow before the Seekers called on her to repay her debt. The sounds had fallen on her ears like raindrops and within days she was stringing sentences together and learning how to skin a journeyrabbit with a throwing knife.
Her mother spoke nothing of the language, and had not troubled herself to learn it in the long year since she had first made contact with the Seekers and the Nikaboan.
Zeinaba’s lips pressed together, just briefly. “But of course, if our Injosa calls, we will go.”
“Thank you, Tribe Mother,” Sasha said distractedly, already scanning the crowd for the other two elders.
“Sashonda, wait,” Zeinaba said, catching Sasha by the arm. “Speak to me. What has she done now?”
Sasha wanted to sag into Zeinaba’s arms. The old, stern woman had always been kind to her if not close, but Sasha knew she would not look kindly on weakness.
She stuck to the problem at hand. “Our gods are back, but so are the godformeds’,” she told Zeinaba. “Mother says it doesn’t matter, that she and the gods have some kind of weapon or something to make us more powerful, I don’t know. What about those who aren’t… aren’t strong enough to wield it, Tribe Mother?”
She chose her words carefully. It could not sound like she was criticizing her mother — Iona would find out. She always did.
Zeinaba read more in her words — her fear for anyone who did not want to fight Iona’s war. The aging woman frowned, her hand gripping the short, extendable staff at her side. Did she plan to seek a god’s conduit and fight herself? Sasha knew she had a been a formidable warrior in her day, and she was nearly two decades younger than the other two elders, Bateno and Nehovo.
“It’s no use chasing a bush-rustle before you see the zeno’s spots,” Zeinaba said. “We must hear what the gods have spoken before we try to… temper your mother.”
That wasn’t good enough — Iona’s confidence and sheer conviction would win them over, as it had when she first established herself as head of the Seekers and her predecessor had willingly ceded the seat, as it had when she argued they must steal the Treatise before the Renewal, as she had when she ordered Sasha to follow Fyn and Cassia and bring them to her. She had the might of the gods on her side — could anyone deny it, after they had seen her power, after every step under her leadership had brought humanity closer to freedom?
Sasha hated that she heard those words in her mother’s voice, hated more that they swayed her still. If these gods and powers were their right and birthright, then Sasha wanted none of them. Her birthright was the great circle of land the Nikabo walked every year, the taste of dried zeno meat, and the fire-dances. Those things the godformed had only stolen from some, the few trapped far from their homeland in Selachen or Promise, drawn by the promise of a new life that turned out to be a lie. But to Sasha, those losses meant more than losing any gods or powers.
And if there was one thing Sasha knew, it was that starting a war with the godformed would mean losing every part of themselves that did not deal with gods and magic and power.
So she had defied her mother, and let the Treatise go. And she had still failed.
Zeinaba eyes had gone distant, as if she was thinking or remembering something, but now she came back to herself and patted Sasha on the cheek. “I will find the others. Go and let your mother know we are coming. Tell her everyone is eager for her to address us later today and guide our next steps.”
It was a less-than-subtle way to remind Iona that whole of the Seekers looked to her, not just the warriors and mages, but Sasha thought, phrased that way, it would not anger her mother too much, and so she simply nodded, extracted herself from the crowded tunnel and set off toward the Citadel.
Halfway there, Sasha rounded a corner a little too quickly and nearly bumped right into a little dark-eyed girl clutching her father’s hand.
“Hi Sasa!” Mina said in the common language used by humans in the Basin, her vowels thick and her consonants imprecise in the way of a young child. “We’re looking for Mommy!”
Sasha lifted her eyes and looked into the face of the man standing before her: Marwan, her mother’s partner. Lighter-skinned, with short, curly, brown hair bound in a ponytail, he wasn’t Nikaboan at all, and though he couldn’t trace his lineage his narrow nose and high forehead suggested he was from the grasslands of Larisen in the fertile center of the Basin.
He was not Sasha’s father. Sasha only just remembered him, but he had been Nikaboan too. As best she could guess, though she’d never dared ask her mother directly, they had been forced apart after Sasha was spirited away and Iona punished and sent to the Ashbourne mines. Iona had not waited long before finding someone else to bear her children. Behind Marwan and Mina, another boy and girl, only four or five years younger than Sasha herself, stood silently, holding their spears a little askew.
“Mother is busy,” Sasha said to Mina, though she didn’t take eyes off Marwan. Her tongue felt thick and heavy in her mouth as it did every time she spoke to her mother’s family. “She’ll speak to everyone later.”
“Did she do it?” Marwan asked searchingly. “Are the gods satisfied?”
Sasha forced back a stirring of pity for how far the man had come, and how out of place he was among her people. “They are back. If that was all it took to satisfy them, it still would not change my mother’s plans,” she said bitingly, and without giving him time to respond, pushed past him and continued on to the Citadel.
The delay proved lucky, though — she met the elders just before reaching the Citadel, and entered the chamber with them instead of facing her mother alone.
Like at the ritual the day before, Iona had lit every torch in the chamber, an excessive burning that nonetheless left the ugly stone almost beautiful in the shifting light, and certainly grand. She was standing at the edge of the underground lake almost exactly where Sasha had teleported Fyn and Cassia away, and Sasha clenched her fists against the sudden terror that somehow her mother knew what she had done.
But Iona was only crouching over the crate of pottery shards that Sasha had painstakingly gathered after the disastrous ritual, lifting and examining them one-by-one. Sasha could feel the kaleidoscope of power from here, splintered into hundreds of shards. Over time, with the vessels broken, the power would leak away, but for now the powerful elemental forces still hung strong in the air.
She straightened up and bowed low to the elders as they entered, even though Sasha had told her before that that wasn’t at all how you greeted them. “Welcome,” she said in the common Basin language, her eyes aflame, “to a new age!”
Bateno, a small, hunched man with drooping eyelids who was leaning on Nehovo’s arm, squinted up at Iona. “Not to rush you, Injosa, but would this new age permit an old man to be seated while we speak?”
Iona, who had been about to continue whatever speech she had planned to pour out upon her audience, cut off mid-word and sputtered a moment before regaining her composure. “Of course, Distinguished One,”she said, and waited for Nehovo to assist him to a broken stalagmite.
Nehovo settled herself next to him, but Zeinaba remained standing beside Sasha.
“If we are ready now,” Iona said with measured politeness that did not entirely conceal the barbs underneath.
She stepped up on a flat rock at the water’s edge and spread her hands. “Elders, daughter of mine, we have done it. The cruel Treatise is shattered and our gods are returned to us!”
As she spoke, a wind picked up around her, rustling her tunic and making her braided hair sway warningly.
“But the Seekers’ work is not finished,” she said. “We have our gods, but can they be said to have truly returned, when so many thousands spurn them and give up their humanity to whore after other gods? No. We drove them out before, thinking it was enough, and it only grew their power and led to the empire’s downfall. We cannot make that mistake a second time. This time, when we march with the gods at our backs, it is for the extinction of this unnatural plague.”
Bateno may have been old, but age had not dulled his wits. He and Nehovo shared an unreadable glance.
“Injosa,” Bateno said slowly. “That you are favored of the gods is indisputable. You were given power not seen since before the Treatise and have used it to bring back the gods, that is similarly undeniable. Even now, many must be reaching out and beginning to learn the power that is their birthright. But your other claims are preposterous and ignorant. No one living remembers before the Treatise, but that does not mean our gods have passed out of living memory.
“My grandmother taught me on her knee of Life and Death, of Endurance and Decay. You speak of the gods as if they were one entity, but that is not how my grandmother taught me. Are they not opposites? Do they not represent the great balance of constants, forever pushing against each other, and Duality the mediator to help us reconcile the light and the dark? I cannot see the gods agreeing on any goal other than their own freedom — it is not their purpose to shepherd humanity down a pre-given route. Your obsession smacks more of Death than Duality, and if your new god Change is truly the author of this reckless, destructive plan, then I cannot mark him on the right branch of the Emypreal Tree beside our blessed Ladies Life and Consequence.”
The wind around Iona whipped her hair into a frenzy, the braids smacking against her flushed cheeks. Sasha’s heart beat like a trapped bird against her ribcage. It was not wise to make Mother angry, but if anyone had a chance of standing up to her, it was the elders. They did not use magic, except for Zeinaba, but at a word from them the whole of the Nikabo would walk away and spread the word to every tribe in Aisen, and where would Mother get her army then?
“You are foolish and short-sighted, Bateno” Iona snapped, not even deigning to call him by an honorific. “Yes, this is Change’s will, and I have told you again and again that all the gods unite with him in this! Humanity is crying out for the godformed’s annihilation. And I am their agent to fulfill the prayers of thousands.”
Bateno’s eyes went very still, but he did not react to Iona’s insult any other way. Nehovo shot up with a speed startling for one of her years. “You go too far, Iona. You think thousands wish their homes shattered into a war that we can only lose? You know that is what would happen.”
“The gods reflect their worshippers,” Iona said.
“No,” Bateno said. “They reflect humanity. All of humanity. They are bound to us, inextricably, much as the elemental gods are bound to their godformed. The godformed hurt themselves when they sealed our gods and theirs away. They sealed them away, not knowing that they carried the power to change them instead.”
“It does not matter!” The wind around Iona reached a howling shriek. It already carried grit and sand — suddenly a rock the size of a closed fist was sucked up and spat out, flying directly at Zeinaba and Sasha.
Sasha dove to the ground and rolled to cover behind a stalagmite, clutching her daggers instinctively. It could not have been intentional, and yet she had never seen Mother this angry.
Zeinaba snapped her staff open with a single, fluid movement and advanced on Iona. She pushed through the maelstrom with her head down, raising a fist to block another rock that whirled toward her. Whether out of shock or fury, Iona did not back away when Zeinaba broke through to the eye and got right in Iona’s face, whirling her staff to point it under her chin.
“I think you have made your point clear,” Zeinaba said. She said it calmly, but her voice carried clearly over the whirling wind. “And I think this conversation is over.”
Sasha stood up and started forward despite herself, her eyes wide. Maybe Zeinaba could do it. Maybe she could make Mother stop, withdraw the Nikabo’s support and send her away, and then Sasha would be free, free to travel again and do her own work to undermine Selachen, or to stay with the Nikabo, or to do… anything.
The Injosa and the elder stared into each other’s faces, one contorted with anger, the other deadly calm, waiting to strike.
Then with a movement quick as lightning, Iona stretched out her hand and slammed Zeinaba backwards with unworldly speed and strength. The warrior woman somehow struck a glancing blow before the full force of the blast hit, and Iona gave a shriek that was more fury than pain. The wind-wall dispersed as the shockwave slammed into it and spread outward. Sasha staggered back but held her ground, unable to take her eyes off of Zeinaba.
The elder crumpled as she fell, her cloud-like hair flattened from the force of the blow. Stern, steady Zeinaba, who had first taught Sasha how to throw a knife.
Sasha did not shout anything to her mother. She did not scream. In a single, fluid movement she drew both daggers from her belt and threw.
Only for Iona to raise her hand and have the daggers bounce off one after another, as if against an invisible shield of force.
“I see,” Iona said. She walked toward Sasha, the wind picking up around her head again.
Sasha stumbled backward until she had put her back against one of the taller stalagmites. She ignored the way her heart was pounding, the part of her that shouted at her to grovel and beg her mother’s forgiveness. The time for that was past.
Sasha had only one knife left, a tiny one hidden in her sleeve. She didn’t think Iona knew about it, but if she came close enough…
“I see,” Iona said again, still stalking closer, stepping over Zeinaba’s limp body as if it wasn’t there. Sasha couldn’t see if she was breathing, but she didn’t see any blood..
“You side with them. You side with the small-minded and the selfish over your own mother who sent you away to keep you safe and took the punishment herself. You side with the ones who have never seen miners choking on the dust from rocks they had to break, who have never seen a child exhausted to illness for the sake of a drake who couldn’t be bothered to walk between towns, because you have not seen any of it, and why? Because I saved you. And you. Should. Be. Grateful!”
At this last word, Iona lunged. But not at Sasha.
She dove for Nehovo. Nehovo was trying to help Bateno, who had fallen to the ground from the shockwave. He raised his cane and thrust it at her, but Iona dodged the blow and lifted Nehovo by her neck as if she was lifting a child.
“But it doesn’t matter,” Iona said, breathing hard. “I brought you here to offer you great gifts, all of you. To show you how the gods have found a way to equal and surpass the godformed’s power. Ideally, you would have accepted my gift and gone on to lead your people forward and fight a battle unmatched in the history of the Basin. But with an extra bit of sacrifice, the process does not need your agreement at all.”
Iona drew her own dagger, stabbed Nehovo in the heart, and let the elder crumple to the floor.
Sasha turned and ran, heading for one of the tunnels at the back of the chamber. She did not scream or cry for help — the last people who could have done anything to stop her mother were dead or dying in that room. No one would hesitate to apprehend her if she was running from their Injosa.
Iona pointed a finger, not at Sasha but at the ceiling overhead. It cracked and broke, sending stalagmites and shards of rock raining down. Sasha skidded to a halt and scrambled back, shielding her head with her arms, but a shard still glanced off her shoulder and knocked her to the floor, pinning her arm but by some rare favor of Luck not crushing it.
“I’ll start with you,” Iona said, “so we can get all those irritating notions of childish rebellion out of you head. Then I suppose I should use Zeinaba and kill Bateno, since she already has a warrior’s training. Two sacrifices, two weapons of Death. Neat, is it not?”
Sasha knew she had only seconds, but the arm with her final knife in its sleeve was pinned underneath the rock, and she could not reach it.
Iona bent over and stabbed Bateno. The elderly man died a horrible rattling gurgle. Nehovo and Bateno lay side by side, shrunken and feeble in death.
Iona dug her fingers into Bateno’s chest, soaking her hands in blood, and began to chant. To Sasha’s horror, a dark mist rose from the elder’s body, a mist like the ones oozing from the shards of the jugs. But this power tasted like blood and stank like rotting flesh. Sasha had never felt the magic of a corpse before. It pressed upon Sasha with a horrible, final despair.
Sasha heaved again against the rock. She felt her skin tear and blood run down her arm to her elbow, but her heart was pounding too hard for her to feel the pain she knew should come.
She couldn’t escape. She’d been a fool to think she could escape her mother. Not when Iona had the gods on her side.
Iona shouted the final words of the ritual, words that sounded only vaguely like any language Sasha knew. She brought her hands down and pointed at Sasha. The mist coalesced around her arm and shot at Sasha, forcing its way into her throat.
Death’s magic entered Sasha’s body. That was when the pain began.