I was born into darkness and pain. I screamed until my voice was destroyed. I endured until my very identity was washed away like suds in a pounding surf.
I lay in a warm place filled with moving shadows. Some shadows would touch me; others would hover nearby. Through it all, slipping in and out of consciousness, I felt a Presence crowding my mind. It was bright and sharp as the edge of a knife, cutting from me what It did not need, leaving me clean and empty, like a newborn. Beneath it all, I clung to rage. Some of who I used to be survived within the unchecked umbrage. I saw faces as I existed in that interminable darkness – a young woman with vulpine features, bright red hair and hazel eyes; a young man with dusky skin, green eyes and dark hair. I saw an older man, distinguished, set apart. His eyes, too, were green, lined by age, although is hair was not gray. Other faces streamed into my dreams in flashes and were gone before I could even be sure of what I had seen.
How many days, weeks, months, years did I lay in that womb of agony? One moment I existed at the very tip of a sword; then next there was nothing.
I opened my eyes. A voice droned at the edge of my awareness. It took a few minutes for my eyesight to clear.
I made a sound at the back of my throat.
The droning ended abruptly. A gasp and then someone tore across the room to a door, pulling it open and disappearing through it.
My mouth and throat were parched and aching.
It took a great effort on my part to sit up on an elbow, to look around the dim room. There was only the yellow light from a candle on the bedside table to my left. Shadows danced against walls and across the floor. A draft kept the candlelight flickering.
I reeked of old blood, old sweat and bitter curatives.
The left side of my chest ached. I glanced down. A puckered scar bisected the nipple, its pink skin healed. I touched it tentatively. The ache came from within.
Voices beyond the door rose steadily then stopped before three men in dark robes hurried through it and into the room. They stopped at the foot of the bed.
“Prophet,” said the one to the left. His voice was deep and soothing. “Welcome back.”
“Who are you people?” The sound of my voice startled me. It was ugly–rough, torn, ragged.
They shared a glance before the same monk answered me. “We are clerics for the Shadows of Khahn, Prophet. We are here to answer your questions and make sure you are well.”
“Water, please,” I croaked.
The one in the middle hurried to the bedside table and poured water from a crystal decanter into a glass. He handed me the glass.
It took me a moment to steady the trembling in my hands enough to drink without spilling the contents on the bedclothes.
The cool water soothed my throat. I sighed and asked for another glass. I emptied that one, too.
“What are your names?” I asked.
“I am Thye’vehn,” said the one who had first spoken. “This is Luserehn and that is Anoltho.”
Thye’vehn seemed to be the youngest of them. He was perhaps in his mid-twenties with handsome but severe features.
Luserehn was heavy-set with a pleasant, forgettable face.
Anoltho was dark and watchful.
“Where am I?”
Luserehn took a step forward. “You are at a safehouse 12 sepeks from the city walls.”
I sighed. “What nation?”
Thye’vehn frowned. “Why, Tjish.un, Prophet.”
Tjish.un. A nation in the Southern Continent. It has treaties with Torahn, I’A, Set’kai, and Lethya. Matrilineal and matrilocal society.
The knowledge was in my head, but it seemed disconnected from any experience. It was like reading a description in a book.
I swallowed, ruthlessly pushing down the hysteria that had begun to bubble up.
“Prophet?” Thye’vehn asked.
I started. I had forgotten the monks.
“Who am I?” I asked him.
He took a tentative step forward. “You don’t know?”
“No. I know nothing.” I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. The room listed to one side and, crying out, I fell to my hands and knees.
Luserehn hurried to my side and assisted me to my feet.
“I need a bath,” I told them. “Please.”
“Of course, Prophet,” Thye’vehn replied. “Right away.”
Luserehn hurried to the door and through it.
“Please. Who am I?” I asked again.
“You will recall when the God allows it,” Anoltho replied quietly. He helped me to a settee in the middle of the room. I dropped down onto it.
“You must eat something,” Thye’vehn was saying.
I looked up at Anoltho. He watched me, patient and still.
“What is my name? Can you tell me that, at least?” I asked.
The monks shared a look.
Thye’vehn knelt next to me. “We name our Prophets. We give them ancient names. We have chosen the name L’hevent for you, Prophet.”
“L’hevent,” I pronounced.
“Yes,” Thye’vehn said.
“I am a Prophet, you say?”
The monk nodded. “Yes.”
“What does that mean?”
“The God has sent you to be our general, Prophet. We are on the brink of a rebellion to remove the current ruler and replace her with our own.”
I swallowed. Rebellion?
“Prophet, we must change how things are done in this nation. Our sect have suffered greatly, and our God is all but forgotten. We will join the rebellion but then we must take control. We have been armed by R’Nonay. They have provided 26,000 troops for our cause. The Shadows number 17,000. We will have more troops than any other faction fighting alongside us. More than the Resistance and more than the Maidens of Sene. Once the Empress is removed from power, it will mean a civil war. But we will succeed, Prophet. You will lead the 17,000.”
R’Nonay. Military dictatorship. Patrilineal and Patrilocal. It has treaties with Ynha, Aelbihn, and Yllysia.
My heart leapt in my chest. “R’Nonay?”
“Aye, Prophet,” Thye’vehn replied.
“But…you trust them?”
The monks shared a look. I huffed with impatience.
“We do,” Thye’vehn answered. “We’ve signed a treaty with them that they will not attempt to invade us or have any say in how we govern ourselves.”
How naive. I knew something about the military. Perhaps I was a soldier. I also knew that R’Nonay could not be trusted, but I said nothing. I did not trust these monks, either, and I would have to proceed carefully if I were to remember who I was and escape.
A commotion outside the door resolved itself into two men carrying a wooden bathtub between them. Others came behind, carrying buckets of cold and hot water. They poured the water into the bathtub then hurried out, closing the door quietly behind them.
“Will you need assistance bathing, Prophet?” Luserehn asked.
“No. I don’t need an audience either. Give me half an hour.”
They bowed as one and hurried out, closing the door behind them.
I rose slowly, pulling down my trousers and stepping to the tub. I sat down. The water came up to my waist. The tub had a niche carved on the inside. A washcloth and a bar of soap were crammed inside. I took these out. As quickly as I was able, I soaped my body then rinsed. I bathed twice. I reached up and touched my hair. It had been cropped close to the skull. I recalled that man’s worth was in the length of his hair. Why would they unman me in such a way? I took a deep breath and released it in a rush. I washed my head and then rose. They had left a drying cloth on the arm of the settee. I took it up and dried the water from my skin then wrapped the drying cloth around my waist.
The monks returned within the half an hour, carrying a stack of dark clothing.
“These are for you, Prophet,” Luserehn told me.
I dressed quickly. There was a black silk tunic, rough spun trousers, and a coat. After I dressed, they produced a pair of familiar-looking boots.
“Why did you shave my hair?”
Anoltho straightened his back. “A Prophet does not need, nor should he concern himself, with conceits.”
“Conceits?” I echoed.
Anoltho inclined his head. “Even so.”
I gazed into his dark eyes. There was something there beyond caution and bland respect. I continued to gaze into his eyes until he began to fidget
“You don’t believe I am a prophet?” I asked him.
He swallowed, his gaze slithering away, towards the other monks.
“No. Answer me,” I growled.
Anoltho clasped his hands before him. “You are her nephew. You blood is polluted by the blood of the Mat’a’mahr clan.”
I strode to where he stood and glared into his eyes. “You don’t believe the God cleansed me?”
“Of course he does, Prophet!” Thye’vehn answered.
“Let him answer!” I spat.
Anoltho parted his lips. His face suffused with blood. “Uh…”
The rage that simmered inside me rose, sharp and bright, a sword with which to excise. I wrapped my hand around his throat and squeezed.
He gasped. His hands came up and attempted to dislodge my grip.
I squeezed more tightly.
His eyes bulged.
I felt the rush of power. It lent me almost inhuman strength. I twisted my hand and snapped his head to one side, breaking his neck. He crumbled to the floor; his neck set in an angle.
The other two monks knelt on the floor, cowering behind their hands.
“Forgive us, Prophet,” Thye’vehn whispered. “I thought if he saw you, he’d see you are touched by God.”
“There are other unbelievers,” I said.
“Yes, Prophet,” they murmured.
“We cannot be victorious if we are divided among ourselves.”
I took a deep breath. The Presence was aciculate at the edges of my thoughts.
I closed my eyes. I could see a darkness deeper than the darkness behind my eyes. The Presence moved sinuously like a viper in its inky waters.
“We must excise those who are not with us,” I said. I opened my eyes. “Stand up.”
They stood, hands before their faces.
“I will create a troop of holy warriors,” I said. “They will number 1,000. I will choose five commanders to lead them. It is they who will go to the faithful and excise those who are not true believers.”
“But, Prophet,” Thye’vehn said. “Is there time?”
“There will have to be,” I said. “Gather the faithful here by this time two weeks from now. I will know who will fit into my plans.”
“And remove Anoltho’s body, please.”
“Right away, Prophet.”
When awake, I spent my time in solitude, praying and thinking. The Presence pushed against my consciousness, its thoughts tentacles reaching into the heart of my being. I learned that if I wanted to communicate with this Being, I needed to be quiet, to sit in stillness and allow Its thoughts to bubble to the top. I learned to be still even when I walked the perimeter of the safe house and then to the untamed beaches beyond. There were times when I meditated for hours and the Presence would not reappear and, at other times, I would sit for a few minutes, and it was there, just beyond conscious thought.
One morning, I jogged to the city wall and then back along the white sandy beach. I jogged until I grew exhausted and then pushed past the discomfort. I had the feeling running was something I had enjoyed when I had a name and an identity. It was another clue stored away until another time. It was then, when I sat cross legged on the soft sand, gazing north that the Presence spoke to me.
L’hevent, It said.
I closed my eyes and blocked out sights and sounds. I am here.
Things will happen quickly now, It continued. You mustn’t lose track of your purpose.
What is my purpose?
To lead the Shadows to victory. To change Tjish.un forever.
Are you Khahn? I asked.
I am. You and I are. We are conjoined until your purpose has been exhausted. You are the vehicle through which I live again. Soon you will understand. Fear not your role and my presence. Through me you will be a great warlock and so continue to serve me.
Why do you linger at the edges of my thoughts?
The Gods will know I have awakened, that I have found a vehicle on this world to enact change. If they realize I am here before change is made, it will jeopardize everything. I grow stronger every day. Soon, the Gods themselves will not be able to stop me. But we must proceed with caution until that time.
It withdrew into the edges of my thoughts once more.
As the days and weeks passed, the faithful began arriving in carriages, wagons and on lir’tah-back. I learned the Shadows owned several properties in the area and the faithful would be housed there or in the city. I began to search for the 1,000 Spears of Khahn from those who came to the property where I was living. It was a simple task: choose from among the faithful those who were young and beautiful and train them to be perfect warriors. I visited the other properties and spoke to young men there.
Thye’vehn and Luserehn were my guides. I chose those that the Presence wanted, although I did have to turn away some five who had physical weaknesses that would not survive the training. When the 1,000 Spears had been chosen, I sought five commanders from the faithful to help me train them. The Spears would be under my protection and command.
I trained the five commanders. These men came from the military. They were also unquestioningly loyal to the God and, by default, to me. The Five were: Nefi’hr, who was forty-nine years old; Kaloth, who was thirty-two; Temorin, fifty; Edvar, twenty-seven; and Samohl, forty-three. They did not have wives or children to dilute their attention or dedication. Each commander would take over the training of 200 Spears.
The Spears would be trained to serve the King of Tjish.un when he was chosen. But they would also fight near me during the rebellion and the civil war that would result.
As I toured the properties in search of the Spears, I also met and talked to the faithful. There was not a woman among them. Only men of all ages. They were in awe of me, seeing something in my eyes perhaps or in my manner. Word of Anoltho’s death had burned through their ranks and there had been some defections. I sent spies to find the defectors and kill them. They brought me gory proof for every death.
The Shadows were a finely tuned machine. Their reach was long across Tjish.un and into R’Nonay in the east of the continent.
I had no solitude from the moment I rose from bed until I lay down at the end of the day. I was precious to the bulk of the Shadows therefore guarded at all cost and at all times.
I was lonely nonetheless. These men were not friends. They were not family. They served me just as I served them, but they did not seem to think a prophet needed friends or companions.
I was not afraid of death, which was a good thing considering how many attempts were made on my life. Almost daily, some attempt was thwarted. I wondered how I was supposed to accomplish anything when I was so hated. Most of the time I thwarted the attempt myself, for they would come in the middle of the night, and I would always know. Or, rather, the Presence would know and warn me.
One early morning the house was still. I awoke and knew there was someone in the room. I pretended to sleep, and the intruder came closer to the wide bed on which I lay. I felt rather than heard when he picked up a pillow. I turned over and he was on me with savage strength. I could not breathe, but I did not fight.
The Presence shown behind my closed eyelids like a star. I turned my hands palms up and thought the words of power. My hands began to burn. I reached up and clasped his forearms. I heard a scream and then the pillow fell away from my face. I gasped and sat up. I held on to him while the Presence’s power rushed through my body to my hands. The young man lay on his side to my left, screaming. Guards rushed into the room.
I did not turn from my purpose. I held on to his forearms as the power began to boil him from the inside out. His eyeballs popped and matter ran down his temples. When his screaming ended abruptly, I let go his forearms and sat back.
The guards were watching, fascination and horror crowding their faces.
“He came to kill you, Prophet?” asked one of them.
They removed the body without being asked to.
I rose and washed at the basin across the room. Afterward I dressed. There was no returning to sleep. There was only the need to move.
I opened the door to hall.
“Please fetch the Five for me.”
“Right away, Prophet.” The guard jogged down the hallway to the stairs.
I was pacing when the five Athe-Uteth–Commander-Generals–arrived.
Edvar, the youngest and the one with the most tender heart, went onto one knee before me.
“The guard told us someone made an attempt on your life.”
I nodded. “Rise. Do not kneel to me; I am not your God.”
He rose and bowed. “Pardon, Prophet.”
“How is the training of the Spears progressing?”
Temorin took a step forward. “Well enough, Prophet. They have heart.”
“That is good,” I said. “Train them as I have trained you.”
They bowed. “Yes, Prophet.”
“Fancy a jog, Prophet?” Kaloth asked.
“Yes. I was hoping to burn some of this energy before I break my fast.”
Today I did not run with them towards the city. We headed west along the beach. We jogged for 21 sepeks west and returned east. When we finished, we were drenched in sweat. I felt light as a feather, unburdened by dark thoughts or loneliness. We bathed in the communal bathing chamber then dressed for the day.
The mess hall was full and raucous with voices. When we walked in the voices died down and everyone stood up and bowed.
“As you were,” I told them and headed for the serving window.
The men bowed again, a murmur of voices rising into the stillness. They took their seats.
Once we were served, we headed over to the table reserved for the higher echelons of rank.
The breakfast was plain but nutritious: grains boiled in water and milk; a bowl of cut fruit; tza nuts; and a glass of water. The Shadows did not consume meat, I had learned.
We did not speak as we ate. My thoughts were a thousand miles away. I dreamed again of the young woman with red hair. I wondered who she was. In my dream she spoke to me, but her voice was silent. I struggled to hear her words, but it was like they were smoke swept away by a gust of wind. I frowned. I had no time to seek her, even if she held the key to my identity. The group known as the Resistance had sent notice that in three days’ time we would join them in the streets of Da’hrisjah to remove the Empress from power. Once the Empress was dead, then the Shadows would wrench control. The resulting civil war would create enough chaos to solidify our place. We would have to kill every single leader of the Resistance. It was necessary.
I emptied my glass of water and set it back on the tray,
“How are we meeting with the Resistance?” I asked Nefi’hr.
“They will send their leaders here. We will travel back to the city with them, and they will apprise us of what they need.”
“It will be easy,” I told them. “If we are each assigned a leader. Once the Empress is dead, we can dispatch them easily enough.”
They bowed their heads.
“Where are the R’Nonayans coming from?”
Samohl shifted. “They are in the bay, Prophet. We will send up a flare and then they will come to shore. They arrived just two days ago.”
I sighed. “I wonder if we can wrench control of the Resistance without the aid of R’Nonay.”
They cocked their heads. “What is the purpose of that?”
I tapped the tabletop with my finger. “I don’t trust R’Nonay.”
“We have a treaty,” Samohl reminded me.
“Prophet,” Edvar said. “They don’t have enough troops to invade us.”
I sighed. “God forgive me, but it still doesn’t sit well with me.”
“We’ll pay attention,” Temorin said. “If it looks like they are going to betray us, we can fight back.”
“Fight on two fronts – against the Resistance and against R’Nonay? We’ll be pulverized.”
Temorin opened his mouth and then closed it without a word.
“This is our time, Prophet,” Edvar murmured. “The God won’t let us down.”
“The God has His own purpose that He does not reveal to me.” I took a breath and released it in a rush. “Alright. Let’s hope our trust is not misplaced.”