On the morning of the first day of the dry season, we traveled across the expansive grass fields west of city to its closest gate. We met the R’Nonayans halfway there.
General Keress turned out to be a relatively young man with a winning smile and handsome features. He was tanned from the sun, his hair the color of ripe grain, his eyes bright blue. I liked him right away, even if his presence was worrisome to me. He and I rode our lir’tahs side by side as we approached the western gate.
The R’Nonayans were not uniformed. Keress told me most of them were mercenaries, and R’Nonay did not provide uniforms to any but those who enlisted with its army for a minimum of ten years. So, we must have made an interesting sight cantering up to the Western Gate, thousands of fit men fully armed.
As we approached the wall, we saw what appeared to be skirmishes along its battlements. One city guard was pitched over the side of the wall and fell to his death feet below.
I pulled my sword from its scabbard. General Keress followed suit.
I lifted my right arm. “Hold!” I called to the troops behind us.
Our animals were restive, pulling on the reins and pawing at the ground.
We were still too far from the city wall to be convenient targets for archers. I pulled my field glasses from my saddlebag and turned them towards the city.
I saw guard fighting guard and others that appeared to be civilians fighting guards. I saw no archers at the ready, so I lifted my arm.
In my head, the Presence slid along its black waters, anticipating the spill of blood.
As we approached the city gates, they were opened for us. Several men stood on the other side.
A handsome I’An stepped forward. He was slender as a blade of grass and held a gory sword in his hand. He was dark as night, his thick hair held in several blades. His warm brown eyes flicked along the line of soldiers behind Keress and me.
“Which one of you is L’hevent?” the I’An called.
“I am,” I replied, moving my mount out of line.
The I’An bowed. “I am I’lhien, sir. The Resistance mounted its attack, focusing on the city gates and the guards along the battlements first.”
I dismounted and led my lir’tah to where he stood. “The Empress?”
“Today being the first day of the dry season, she is praying at the ziggurat.”
“I’ll handle her and her advisors,” I told him. I turned. “General Keress!”
The R’Nonayan dismounted and strode to where we stood.
“Your men are responsible for neutralizing those who oppose us,” I said. “Do not harm any that surrenders.”
He bowed. “Yes, Prophet.”
We mounted once more then entered the city, parting ways at the foot of Holy Hill. Keress and his mercenaries continued east along the boulevard, led by I’lhien. The Shadow troops and I headed up the steep hill.
At the summit, we encountered a token resistance, but the guards surrendered willingly enough.
Dismounting, I looked towards the ziggurat. Torches lit its apex. There was no one overseeing the altar there.
I turned to my generals. “Nefir’h, you and Temorin Take one third of the men into the palace. Secure the royal family.”
They saluted and began shouting orders.
I turned to Edvar. “You’re with me. Samohl, you, too. We’ll take one-third of the men and surround the ziggurat. Keep an eye on any who try to escape. Kalot’h, you take the remaining one-third and secure the abbey.”
I would allow Samohl and Edvar to take the lead. If I was going to fight with magic, I was going to have to conserve energy and focus.
I gave the reins of my mount to a soldier and strode around the orderly chaos to where six Shadow monks stood. They had marched alongside the Shadow troops.
“Thye’vehn,” I called out.
The young monk jogged towards me. He bowed.
“We’re going to have to fight with magic,” I told him. “The High Priestess will not surrender willingly.”
He bowed again. “This we know, Prophet. We are ready.”
I nodded. “Then come with me.”
We followed Samohl and Edvar along the east-facing wall of the pyramid to the south-facing wall, where iron double doors stood shut tight against intrusion. The monks arrayed themselves behind me. The soldiers began to spread out along the base of the ziggurat.
I stepped up to the doors and placed the palm of my hands on their hot surface. I closed my eyes.
I could “see” the lock in my mind’s eye. I took several deep breaths. The Presence spasmed in its waters.
Imagine how a lock works, the Presence whispered in my mind. Your will is the key.
I did as it asked, focusing my attention on the lock. The magic from my hands went in through the keyway. It bathed the mechanism of the lock, and I could see in my mind how the lock worked. I pushed more magic into the keyway until the lock gave way with a snick and the doors moved an inch or two inwards. I pushed the doors open and stood back. Dimness met our eyes.
I turned to Edvar and Samohl. “We have to proceed with care. Select ten soldiers to accompany us inside. The ziggurat is well defended. I will light your way.”
“But Prophet–” Edvar began.
I shook my head. “The God will protect me. Come.”
I raised my hands over my head and focused. Soon there was enough light to walk by.
The first thing that met us inside the ziggurat was an oily cold. I heard Edvar curse under his breath. The corridors went in three directions: west, east, and north. We split into three groups. Edvar led his men west along the outer corridor. Thye’vehn would use magic to light their way. Samohl led his troops north along the central corridor. I led my men east. Two of Thye’vehn’s monks left with Edvar and Samohl, which left me with four Shadow monks to help me in defeating the High Priestess and her advisors. She had at least eight advisors. I did not like those odds, especially when the High Priestess was rumored to be powerful. I squared my shoulders and pushed past my uncertainty.
Using magic to light the passageway, I led my company to the end of the corridor without encountering guards. Something felt terribly wrong.
The corridor bent north. Halfway down the north-facing corridor, I began to see cages filled with half-naked, grimy, starving men and women. The prisoners moaned and wept, calling out for mercy, their pitiful arms thrust through the bars. The closed-in space reeked of human waste and urine and putrefaction.
“We’ll come back for you,” I told a young woman. “Pass the word along.”
The magic was growing heavy. My body had begun to shake. Rivulets of sweat meandered down my back and waist. Salt burned my eyes.
Suddenly there was movement up ahead.
“Who are you?” a woman called from a distance.
She was naked, streaks of blood along her upper arms, chest, and thighs.
Without waiting for me to respond, she lifted her arms overhead. A dark red sphere appeared and began to turn between her hands. Yet, despite her nudity, she evoked awe and not a small amount of fear in me. This had to be the High Priestess.
Within me, the Presence moved restlessly in its inky waters.
Behind her stood five men and three women. Her advisors? They, too, held their arms aloft. Blue and yellow spheres of magic turned between their open hands. Unlike her visage filled with determination, they watched me with curiosity and a certain amount of trepidation.
Behind me the four Shadow monks took up their positions, arms held out. There appeared no sphere between their hands, only light.
I was attempting to form my light into a sphere, but it resisted me. I could feel the searing heat of the light licking the palms of my hands. The light felt heavy, and I was trembling with the need to form it.
Let go, L’hevent, the Presence murmured in my mind in order to hurl it towards her.
Do not ape her, the Presence advised.
My eyes felt like they were boiling in their sockets.
Do not see or hear or touch. Simply be. Feel the enemy with your mind.
Even as I attempted to obey, there appeared another woman, this one enveloped in red light. She had long, dark hair that writhed and slithered around her like vipers. She was massive, as tall as the ziggurat itself.
Inside my mind, the Presence screeched. My eyes rolled toward the back of my sockets. The Presence rushed from me through my eyes, nose and mouth, a sooty mist. Before us formed a man, easily as tall as the woman who towered over us. They saw one another and screamed words I could not understand. They raised their hands and magic flowed between them. The God threw a bolt of magic at the Goddess, but she bent her hands and the magic swung past her and headed back the way it had come. The Presence dodged and the magic flew past us to explode somewhere behind us.
I came to myself with a shudder. I could not afford to become distracted.
I closed my eyes. My tears felt like molten lava running own my cheeks. I “saw” the High Priestess as she formed her magic. In my mind’s eye, the light between my hands became pliable and flexible. I could hear screams far away. I pushed my anxiety and curiosity down deep inside me.
The High Priestess began her throwing her barrage of magic in the form of fiery arrows. I scrambled to create a shield between her people and mine. It was taking everything I had to maintain it.
As I fought her, I extended the light between my hands towards her. I could see it in my mind’s eye slithering along the dark floor towards her.
She saw, despite her attention being diverted by our battle. She attempted to block my magic. My magic froze. It could not penetrate her shield.
Help me, my God, I prayed.
The God did not reply.
Above us, the battle between the Goddess Cera, protector of the Empress and her family, and the God Khahn continued without abatement. Around us, the ziggurat walls were darkened from magical explosions.
“Leave here now!” the High Priestess demanded.
I could see that, like me, she was not unaffected by her use of magic. Her arms were shaking, and her hair was plastered to her face and neck by sweat.
“I leave here when my God demands it,” I yelled back.
She screamed in rage and released another salvo of magic.
This time she managed to hit my shield. I could see the thin, glass-like shield buckle. It would not last another hit.
“We must hit her together as one,” I told the four monks behind me. “We must or my shield will collapse. Now, focus your magic on the area of the shield right in front of her. On three.”
I counted off. When I got to three, we focused our energy on the shield around the High Priestess and released our magic. Her shield became visible as it incurvated and began to collapse.
The High Priestess held her hands up overhead as she attempted to repair the shield.
I cursed and threw more magic at her. I was becoming depleted. I ached. It hurt to hold my arms overhead.
The High Priestess glowered at me, releasing choice curses, but I saw when she slid to the floor unto her knees.
Several of her advisors fled down the corridor away from us.
She screamed obscenities and called on her remaining advisors to assist her.
“Quickly!” I told the monks. “Before they gather their strength – lets hit that area of the shield again!”
We focused and zeroed the magic right where we had hit before. I saw when she fainted. One advisor her held while the rest fled.
Overhead, the battle continued, but Cera was losing power. Khahn had a millennium of rage off of which to feed. The Goddess’s image was thinning, become two dimensional.
Khahn attacked viciously. He strode over us to the Goddess. They began to tussle. When they fell, the ensuing boom made us cover our ears with our hands.
I fell to my knees, exhausted and lightheaded. I had nothing left. I fell forward. I moaned when my face connected with the floor. My skin felt tight and burnt.
“Prophet!” someone said, gently turning me over.
I felt hands on my skin, and I screamed.
The hands moved away. I turned my head towards the tussling gods. Their fighting had slowed down. I looked away and closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes.
A young monk was bent over me.
“Make sure the High Priestess does not abscond. And make sure the prisoners are tended to by healers.”
I felt myself being lifted. Then I was being carried, held aloft as if I weighed nothing. I heard only footsteps echoing through what must have been yet another long corridor.
Suddenly, the echoes fell away, and I felt cool rain on my skin.
For a long time, while my eyes refused to open, I could feel the rain on my skin.
Then we must have entered another building.
“See to him! Only your finest healer!” someone demanded.
I knew him, but I could not recall his name.
I was set down on a soft surface.
I turned my head and attempted to open my eyes. I began to panic when my eyelids would not part.
I began to fight and scream.
I felt a weight on me. Someone tied down my arms and legs until I could no longer move.
After a long time, I felt a cool wet cloth wiping my eyelids.
I could hear the patter of rain and I could smell damp earth.
I was cold and hot in equal measures.
My skin was gently dabbed with a damp cloth. It hurt. God, it hurt! But I could not move to fight. I opened my mouth to scream but nothing came out. My words fell away from me as they were being born. My throat felt as if shards of glass were embedded there.
I was terribly frightened. Frightened that I had lost my sight. Frightened that Khahn would lose. Frightened that the Presence would return to nest in my mind.
I kept trying to open my eyes.
“Stop that,” a woman’s voice chastised. “You’ll tear the skin. I’m trying to use water to part them.”
I obeyed her.
Eventually, I fell asleep.
I dreamt of the Presence in its waters. I dreamt of the young woman with red hair and a young man who travelled with her.
It seemed I slept for years. Around me, the echo of quiet conversations. The slither of cloth against surfaces.
I turned my head towards the voice.
I struggled to open my eyes.
I started, sitting up before I was even fully awake. My body ached and my throat was parched and hurt as if I had swallowed glass. I still could not open my eyes. My body felt sunburned, the skin sensitive to the blanket on me. Exhaustion made me feel heavy and lethargic.
“I’m sorry to wake you up, Prophet, but the R’Nonayans have begun to loot and rape.”
I sighed. “Bring me General Keress. At once.”
“Healer!” I called.
“Why can’t I open my eyes?”
“We’ve been applying warm wet cloths. Please lie down. We’ll apply the treatment again.”
“May I have some water first, please?”
She walked away then returned, pressing a cup to my lips. I drank the cool, sweet water slowly. It bathed my throat soothingly.
When I finished that cup, she stepped away. “Go easy on the water. I’ll give you more in a bit. Lay down so I can wash your eyes.”
When I lay down, the healer placed a warm wet cloth over my eyes. I could feel the water trickling into my eyes. I told her this.
“Good,” she murmured. “Your eyelids are parting.”
There was a commotion somewhere in the room.
“You called for me, Prophet?” General Keress asked.
“Yes,” I growled. “Put a stop to the looting and raping. We don’t want the populace turning against us.”
“Sir, you know how men are…I may not be able to stop it.”
“Find a way.”
“At once, Prophet.”
I heard him leave.
I needed to get back to duty. If I fell, who would rise in my place? I had a feeling the R’Nonayans would not mind taking over.
I sat up, taking hold of the wet cloth, and rubbing it gently over my eyes.
Slowly, I opened my eyes. My eyesight was slightly blurry. I told the healer this.
“Give your eyesight time to recover, Prophet,” she said. “It might take a few days.”
I rose. “I can see well enough.”
I was in a large tent. There were several occupied cots arrayed around my own. To the right of the tent flap stood a rectangular table. I could not make out what was on the table. I could smell the bitter odor of medicants.
“You leave against my advice,” the healer said.
“So noted. Where are my clothes?”
She brought them to me and helped me to dress. The clothes smelled burnt. I could no longer hear rain outside.
I pulled my boots on, re-braided my hair, and strode through the tent and into a late afternoon. The skies had a few ragged clouds. The wind off the ocean was cool.
“Prophet!” General Edvar called as he strode towards me. “You’re looking better.”
“What of the High Priestess and her advisors?” I asked.
He swallowed. “The High Priestess and one advisor remain. The others are being pursued.”
I nodded. “Bring me Thye’vehn and Luserehn.”
He saluted. “Right away, Prophet!”
General Nefih’r stood quietly off to the side.
He saluted. “We have found five young women with red hair, sir. They are being detained, just as you asked.”
“They haven’t been hurt, have they?”
“No, sir. They’re being kept in the abbey until further notice.”
I nodded. “Thank you. Will you accompany me to finish what I started?”
“You mean, the Empress and her remaining advisor?”
“None other than.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll come.”
“Bring General Keress also.”
He saluted. “At once, sir.”
I turned towards the palace. From what I could see, all that remained was blackened and sooty marble. The flames had eaten the diaphanous curtains that had hung around the main floor instead of walls. Some of the upper floors remained intact, but the first three floors looked gutted.
I turned and saluted General Keress.
“You’ve taken care of your men?” I asked him.
He saluted, fist to chest, and bowed. “Yes, sir. My apologies.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” I assured him. “Men get hot blooded during battles.”
“That they do,” he replied, rising onto the balls of his feet. “But they were warned prior to coming ashore. I will have to make an example of some of them.”
We began walking towards the ziggurat.
I rubbed my eyes, but my eyesight remained blurry.
“The healers told me your eyesight is not up to par,” he said.
I did not look at him. “I can’t see very well, I’m afraid.”
“Then what are you doing out of bed?”
“I fear who will rise in my absence; more than I fear harming my eyes.”
He grunted. “Are your generals trustworthy?”
“Then it is me who must not be trustworthy. Is that it?”
I sighed and turned to him. “You have behaved honorably. But I don’t want to tempt the powers that be. I must continue to appear hale and whole.”
He nodded. “Point taken.”
“I should like to meet with the members of the Resistance. The Shadows must make their move soon before the new government is chosen. Do I have your support?”
He saluted me. “The values of the Shadows are more aligned with ours than that of the Resistance. We need an ally against I’A.”
His words gave me pause. The values of the Shadows are more aligned with the values of R’Nonay? I went hot and cold at once. I said nothing in response. Let R’Nonay think what it liked, but I would die before Tjish.un became a patriarchy.
Nefih’r caught up with us and came alongside me.
We entered the ziggurat at the south-facing wall, where the two iron double doors had been propped open. Four R’Nonayan guards stood at attention. They saluted us as we walked up.
“General,” one of the guards said. “There are lit oil lamps just in the doors. It’s pitch black in there, sir.”
“Thank you,” General Keress murmured.
The lit oil lamps hung from hooks along the wall. Their buttery light did little to dispel the gloom. We each took a lamp and held it aloft as we walked deeper into the pyramid.
We came to the end of the hall and continued north. The rank odor of unwashed bodies, disease and waste filled the hall. We came upon the cages where the Empress’ opponents were imprisoned. I could hear men crying out for mercy.
I stopped at the first cage. I knelt and held the oil lamp aloft.
A young man cowered against the bars, hiding his face from the light of my lamp. He was filthy, with overgrown hair and fingernails. The dirt and soot on his skin could not hide the vicious bruises and cuts along his naked body. He reeked of putrescence.
“What’s your name?” I asked quietly.
He gave a violent start and whimpered.
“We are here to set you free, man,” General Keress stated.
The young man shook his head and hid his face alongside his arm.
I gazed up at Nefir’h. “Get the healers here, Nefir’h. These men need to be seen to. Why hasn’t this been done already?”
He saluted. “The healers were helping the grievously wounded, Prophet. I’ll bring what healers are available.”
Keress and I continued to the next cage. This one held three officers dressed in the Tjish.unen uniforms. Like the first man, they were ragged with unwashed and uncombed hair. Their beards reached their collar bones. Their skin was sooty and puffy with bruises. They reeked of human waste and urine.
“Who are you men?” I asked.
They looked at one another then at me.
“Do you not speak the Common Tongue?” I asked.
One of them cleared his throat and sat up as high as the cage ceiling would allow him.
“We do, sir,” he said. “It’s just…no one has spoken to us in so long. They merely dump the maggot-riddled meals on the ground, and we eat from the ground.”
I rose. “Where are the keys to this place?”
“I suppose the Empress has them still,” General Keress replied.
“No, sir,” one of the prisoners said. “They hang on the wall opposite the cages. It’s to torture us, sir.”
I turned and held the lamp aloft. Sure enough, the keys hung from a hook on the wall opposite the cages.
I picked up the round key holder and turned back to the cage. Handing Keress my lamp, I knelt before the cage once more. My hands shook from exhaustion. It took five tries before the key fit in the keyway and I was able to open the cage.
“Don’t go any place, you understand?” I said to the prisoners. “Healers are one their way to take care of you.”
The one who had spoken crawled to the door and looked up at me.
“Don’t do this,” he urged. “If she catches you, you’ll end up here, too.”
“You needn’t worry,” General Keress replied. “The High Priestess is soon to die.”
The men looked at one another with wide gazes and shook their heads.
We left them just as the healers were arriving. We continued to the next cage. There were so many of them! There must have been at least one hundred such cages. For some, we had come too late. They lay dead in their cages. The sickly-sweet odor of decomposition filled the close-in space.
Other cages were filled to the brim with prisoners. They could hardly move. The sight of these poor men filled me with rage.
“I’ll get some of my men to take the corpses out and burn them,” General Keress said. “And I’ll send others to open the cages ahead of the healers.”
He hurried away.
Healers swarmed the space. I handed the head healer the keyholder. I wondered how many men were still alive and how many had succumbed to disease or starvation and thirst.
I squared my shoulders and continued down the passageway.
I came to the place in the corridor where the monks and I had fought the High Priestess and her advisors.
“Prophet,” Nefir’h said as he ran to me. “The healers are here, as are the R’Nonayan soldiers who are going to take the dead out into the square to burn. One of their soldiers is opening all the cages.”
“Thank you, Nefir’h.”
The gods were gone. In their absence, the High Priestess lay on the floor, her head still on her remaining advisor’s lap.
We fell silent again and I closed my eyes. Behind the darkness of my shut lids, I could not feel the Presence stirring.
“Are you well, Prophet?” Nefir’h asked.
“What I must do does not sit well with me,” I told him. “I must witness her demise, the demise of her advisors.”
“I must hardened my heart,” I heard myself say.
“And seeing the suffering these prisoners have suffered has not hardened your heart?”
I sighed. “It is because women will die, you understand. It goes against everything I was taught by teachers, by my culture.”
“I understand,” he said quietly. “But they cannot be allowed to live. Besides, women are no better, no worse than men.”
I nodded, though his words shocked me. It had grown unbearably hot in the corridor.
There was a small sooty dust devil spinning quietly off to one side.
I approached it.
Nefir’h stayed put.
I knelt before the dust devil.
“My Lord,” I whispered. “I am here.”
A piece of the inky dust devil reached out and wrapped around my left wrist. It felt cold to the touch.
I have been avenged today. I am clean and whole.
Yes, my God.
The God moved against my skin. I stiffened.
Do not fear me. This is my worst visage. It is necessary for life to end in order for it to continue. Do you understand?
I do, my God. I reached out with my other hand and ran a finger along the swirling dust. It moved against my skin and then pulled away slowly.
You must sacrifice to me, L’hevent. Once a week. It need not be a human; an animal will do just as well.
Yes, my God.
I tire of this.
At once, the God spun faster and faster until it resembled a mist.
As I watched, it shot towards me, and I felt it enter through my eyes, nose, and mouth. It felt so cold, it burned. I bit down on my lower lip and tasted blood. I coughed, my eyes burning, my nose runny. I covered my eyes with my hands and steadied myself as the God became part of me once more.
I sighed and rose and fell forward.
Nefir’h cried out and ran to me, taking hold of my arm before I fell any further.
“We must make an example of her,” I told him.
“Take her out into the square and her advisor, too.”
He helped me to stand against the wall and hurried to call four soldiers to take hold of the High Priestess and her advisor.
I was lightheaded again. I needed to replenish my energy. All I wanted to do was lay down and sleep, but I forced myself to watch as the soldiers bore away the High Priestess and her hanger-on. I walked slowly along the wall, taking deep breaths.
Nefir’h found me as I reached the entrance of the ziggurat. He put his arm around my waist and helped to walk out into the square.
As I watched, leaning against Nefir’h, soldiers poured out of the pyramid, carrying the infirm and dying and hauled them over to the abbey. Towards the center of the square, the R’Nonayans had stacked the bodies of the dead prisoners. It is here that I sent the High Priestess and her advisor.
I heard running and turned around to find Edvar hurrying towards me.
He saluted. “Prophet, the royal siblings have escaped.”
“Find me General Keress,” I told Nefir’h.
Nefir’h saluted and hurried away.
I struggled to maintain myself on my feet. My legs were shaking.
“Prophet, let me help you to the field hospital,” Edvar murmured.
I shook my head.
“Who escaped with the heir to the throne?” I asked.
Edvar squared his shoulders. “The younger sister, the oldest male…sir, your brother and mother and father. Your mother is the Empress’s younger sister.”
“Bring the rest of the family to the abbey.”
Edvar saluted and jogged away.
“You called me, Prophet?” General Keress asked.
I turned to face him, clasping my shaking hands before me. “The royal family has escaped. Send troops south along Merchant’s Road – have them stop and examine every wagon and carriage they see. And send troops out into the bay. They might have absconded to a ship.”
General Keress saluted. “Right away, Prophet.”
My vision had begun to clear.
“You look peaked, Prophet. Perhaps it is better if you returned to bed.” Thye’vehn murmured as he approached me, Luserehn at his side.
“No. There is much to do before we can relax.”
“I should try to eat something, Thye’vehn.”
“I suggest we head to the abbey, Prophet. That is where the mess hall has been set up.”
“No time,” I replied.
“Begging your pardon, Prophet,” he said. “I am going to have to demand that you eat. The last time you ate was last night. It is now well past noon. The use of magic taxes anyone.”
“You’re right, of course. Luserehn, please alert my generals and General Keress that I am in the mess hall.”
Luserehn bowed. “At once, Prophet.”
The abbey was a large building with two wings – the south wing and the north wing. There were five stories, one story less than the old palace, and several stories shorter than the pyramid.
The sick and dying were housed on the ground floor. The entire northern wing had been setup as a makeshift hospital. The nuns and monks had fled when the palace was first set on fire. Someone had had the forethought not to burn the abbey with the palace.
We entered the foyer of the abbey and looked around. All we had to do was follow the moans and cries of the infirm and the dying to find hospital. There were twenty healers on hand. The woman in charge grasped my forearm in greeting.
“I am Savai, sir,” she said.
“Thank you for coming and taking care of these people,” I told her.
She brought her hand to her heart. “It is my profession, sir.”
“Have you been briefed about the severely tortured and starved men who are on their way from the ziggurat?”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “They are arriving every few minutes.”
“Then take good care of them. Please.”
She bowed. “Right away, sir.”
“Where can we grab something to eat?” Thye’vehn asked her.
“The mess is through that far door there.”
I clasped her forearm and then Thye’vehn and I were heading to the mess hall.
Servants from the burnt palace were cooking food and serving it.
“How come they did not flee?” I asked Thye’vehn.
He shrugged. “Not sure, Prophet.”
The servants fell upon their knees as we approached them.
“Rise,” I told them.
They rose slowly.
“We need to eat something,” Thye’vehn told them.
“Yes, sir,” one man answered. “There is soup and bread. Soup is all most of the infirm can eat.”
“That’ll be fine,” I replied. “Bread and soup.”
The servants bowed and hurried away.
We found seats at long tables in an adjacent room. There were several soldiers at meal already. They rose and bowed. Roughly half were R’Nonayan.
“As you were,” I told them, and the monk and I sat down facing each other.
We did not speak until after the servants had brought our meal and left once more.
We tucked into the soup. It was hardy, filled with root vegetables and aromatics but no meat. The bread was dense and dark with nuts and syrup.
As I ate, I began to feel the aches and pains of the past few days seep deeper into my muscles and joints. My eyes felt gritty and wanted to close. I struggled to keep awake.
“Prophet,” Thye’vehn ventured.
I glanced up at him and pushed my empty bowl away. “Yes.”
“Prophet, sir.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “That battle in the ziggurat–“
“Have a care,” I said. “The God hears all.”
He blanched and sat back. “It’s only…”
“That was the God’s darkest incarnation,” I told them. “The one who comes to take the dying away. Do not forget that He is also the God of regeneration and renewal.”
“Yes, Prophet,” he murmured.
I nodded. “We need Him in this aspect until the war is won.”
“Sir,” he said, glancing around us. “Sir…is the Goddess dead?”
“That I cannot say, Thye’vehn. I did not see the outcome of their battle. What I have been told is that gods cannot die. Perhaps Khahn depleted her to the point where she vanished once more.”
He scrambled to stand.
“Sir,” he said. “I am not like the other Shadow monks who would like to push the Holy Pantheon to one side and replace it with the God Khahn alone. Death and regeneration are not the only aspect of faith that we need, sir.”
It was like a cold finger slithered up my spine. I shuddered.
I leaned against the tabletop with my hands. “Do not fall away from the faith. The God is strong now and must become stronger if He is to return to the Heavenly Pantheon. Listen – I only want to return Khahn to the Pantheon and nothing more. Those extreme points of view will fall away. Have faith.”
“Yes, Prophet,” Thye’vehn murmured.
“I have things to do,” I told him. “Thank you for accompanying me and making sure I ate. Please help with the sick and dying now. Give succor and last rites.”
“Yes, Prophet,” the monk replied.
I turned from him and strode towards the exit.