peers out from the mouth of the tunnel and feels like she’s standing at the edge of the world.
A chasm, so deep that sunlight doesn’t hit the bottom. Surrounding it are the openings of dozens of other tunnels. All are carved into rock that sits deep below the surface, now exposed and crumbling.
Once, this had been home to a vast colony of Void creatures. These had been their burrows, formed with the randomness of unmade matter. Sharp corners, dead ends, coils upon coils... all constructed without a plan beyond “eat the world.” That is the Void—mindless organic machines, driven by instinct to fight and consume and unmake with no thought beyond the present. She’s killed enough to know there is nothing deeper to the creatures than that.
But the tunnel Kai’Sa stands in is different. It is not random unmaking. It is practically a straight line running north, one she’d followed for nearly four days. This tunnel, this passage, was made with intention. With a goal. It doesn’t make sense...
Kai’Sa would make it make sense, starting with where this passage led.
So far, it has led to this chasm.
Kai’Sa eyes the openings on the opposite side. Hard to tell how deep any of them go. But she would bet her second skin that one of them is a piece of the same passage she stands in now.
She rolls her shoulders. Her living armor wakes, pulling its flesh tightly against her own. It has been her only constant, growing with her from the time she was a little girl. It had been one of the voidling beasts that killed her family, her village. Covered in its carapace, Kai’Sa would always be seen as a monster. But without it, she could not keep the world safe from the Void.
Without it, she would be nothing.
The scaly pods at her shoulders flex, and the embedded crystals illuminate as she selects her first target. The heat from the crystals spawns a; she launches it down the mouth of a tunnel deep below the surface. It takes six seconds to cross the chasm. Massive. Another second, and the missile hits a curve. Nope. Not what she’s looking for.
From here, it’s point and shoot, over and over. Most missiles hit something a second or two in. But Kai’Sa is nothing if not patient. She will go at this as long as it takes.
She finds the tunnel she’s looking for just as the sun begins to set. She waits for her missile to cross the chasm, then starts the count. One. Two. Three.
Four. Five. Six. This is it. This one’s the other end of the passage.
Grinning, she fires a barrage around the opening to mark it. Her earlier missile is still going... until she hears the horrible screech from whatever it struck.
She turns her shoulder pods inward, pressing them together to hide their light. She waits silently for her prey to show itself.
Another screech. A voidling creature emerges from the other side of the passage. Kai’Sa has spent years fighting and observing and cataloging voidlings. This is not one she’s seen before. The creature’s smooth, rounded body, injured from her missile, deforms as it opens its long lower jaw. Its mouth is filled with translucent needle-like teeth jutting out at dangerous angles. Its sides expand and contract like it’s breathing.
Or taking in scent, she thinks as it turns. No eyes, but it can still find me. She takes aim as the sun dips below the horizon. The voidling begins... to glow. Something—a tongue?—emerges from its mouth and emits a soft bluish light, looking like the hanging lamps in humans’ mines. Haven’t seen a voidling do that before. She notices that its injury is glowing, too.
Guess I’ll call it a Lamplight. She lets a missile fly. The Lamplight’s posture changes. It lets out a high, sustained shriek and dodges Kai’Sa’s blast. Dammit. Kai’Sa lines up another shot.
The entire tunnel behind it blooms with blue light. Hundreds of Lamplights join the first, mouths open, tongues raised and glowing. Kai’Sa forces herself to breathe slowly. She’s fought worse odds. All in one spot. Excellent. Kai’Sa unleashes a barrage, hoping to take out all the voidlings at once.
In the time it takes the missiles to cross, the voidlings spill out like dust, clinging to the walls of the chasm as the barrage whistles past them harmlessly.
Led by the injured Lamplight, they move as one. Toward Kai’Sa.
... the hell?
She raises her hands and fires rapidly at the swarm. She hits a few, but not enough to make a dent in their numbers. And they are already a quarter of the way to her. Kai’Sa looks around wildly. Not many options. Fight from her current location. Run back down the passage. Take her chances and dive down. Try to climb, fight them from the surface.
She glances above, then at the swarm. They’re halfway around. Climb. Kai’Sa shoots into rock four times in a zigzag—one for each of her hands to grip and her feet to balance. Pulling herself up, she begins the climb.
Shoot, grab, pull. Shoot, grab, pull. As fast as she can, Kai’Sa makes her path. Her shoulder pods shoot at the swarm. They’re near, but Kai’Sa’s pace is good. She’s more than halfway to the—
And her hand hits sand.
She shoots again. There’s nothing for her missile to pierce. It blows through the sand, and more seeps down to fill in the empty spot. There’s nothing to grab. Can she jump the rest of the way? Jaw clenched, Kai’Sa turns toward the monsters. If she’s going to die, she’ll take as many of them with her as she can.
Suddenly, the wall around the voidlings cracks.
Hundreds of Lamplights drop with the falling stone, their light swallowed by the darkness of the chasm. Only three of them still rush toward Kai’Sa. That’s a number she can handle. They’re close enough that she can see barbs on their tongues.
Three shots fire. Two Lamplights fall. One left.
It smacks its thorny tongue against Kai’Sa’s ribcage. Her ribs crack beneath her armor as she slams against the rock. She struggles to take a breath while the suit repairs over her injury. Gripping the wall with her left hand, she grabs the creature’s tongue just below the barbs with her right. Violet power surges. The Lamplight’s tongue melts around her hand. Screaming, it backs away. Kai’Sa takes aim.
This time, she doesn’t miss.
Okay. Kai’Sa breathes. Okay. Next step. She’ll have to find a way to the surface.
That’s when she notices the stone cube sticking out from the sand.
That wasn’t there before. Kai’Sa reaches out and grabs—it is exactly the right size for her hand. She tests part of her weight on it. It holds. Curious, she leans to one side and looks farther up. Jutting out every armspan or so is another one of these stone cubes. She’ll question this turn of good luck later.
Kai’Sa scrambles up, one cube at a time, until she’s out. Looking around in the moonlight, she sees no landmarks, just dunes and rocky cliffs. A sand storm kicks up in the distance. She glances down into the chasm. If she squints, she can almost make out a glow...
The wind gets loud. Storm’s approaching fast. She turns to face it. At the center of the storm is...
The ground explodes under Kai’Sa’s feet. She hurtles through the air toward the storm, an arm in front of her broken ribs. She shifts position mid-air, her shoulder pods folding in front of her like a battering ram. If Kai’Sa’s attacker wants to bring her closer, that’s their mistake.
Something wraps around her shoulder pods and wrists, pulling her down, slamming her to the ground. Her ribs feel like they’re on fire, and her helm cracks where her head meets the earth.
She gets to her feet and forces her wrists apart. A red scarf, studded with stones, falls away. With a guttural yell, she sets her hands alight.
She’s stopped by the look of surprise and horror on the girl’s face. Even all these years later, she is still taken aback when someone looks at her and sees only a monster.
Push past it, Kai’Sa. She brings her hands up again, ready to attack...
Kai’Sa realizes she’s looking at the girl through the crack in her helm. Oh.
“You... see me?” It doesn’t matter. Humans are always afraid of her, whether or not they know she is one of them. But the girl’s expression gives Kai’Sa a foolish hope. Maybe this time could be different. Cautiously, Kai’Sa lets the helm pull away from her head, revealing the rest of her true face.
The girl drops to her knees, and Kai’Sa’s breath catches in her throat. “I am so sorry,” the girl says. “I thought you were—”
“Well, yeah.” The girl gestures toward the chasm. “People tend not to survive long in these collapses.” She gazes at Kai’Sa’s second skin. “And you don’t... look human? At first glance.”
The girl is not as young as she’d thought; she must be around her own age, or older. Kai’Sa stares as the scarf lifts from the ground by its stony ends. “The stones,” she says quietly. “You control the stones.” The girl nods as the scarf wraps itself around her neck as though by magic. “You made those cubes come out of the sand.”
The girl shrugs, smiling. “I could feel someone was down there with those monsters. So I tried to help.” Her smile slips. “It’s all I’ve been doing for weeks now. Months? Hard to keep track.”
Kai’Sa blinks, eyes suddenly stinging. Someone else is fighting the Void, she realizes. Not the same way I am, but... “Who are you?”The smile returns. “My name is .”
Dancing firelight greets the two women as they enter Taliyah’s camp, but it’s the scent of roasting meat that holds Kai’Sa’s attention. She’s surprised that Taliyah doesn’t go first to warn the others not to be afraid of the monster. Not that she could blame them when her living armor rumbles with hunger, ready to devour anyone who gets too close. The tents, cobbled from scraps of fabric and solid slabs of rock, look like Taliyah’s work. A group of thirty or forty, mostly children and elders, surround a large firepit at the center of the camp. The way they look at her—silently, with wide eyes and hunched shoulders—is horribly familiar.
Fear. Kai’Sa doesn’t meet anyone’s gaze. It’s for their comfort. But really, it’s for her own.
Taliyah’s arms are open wide as she introduces Kai’Sa, diving into a dramatic retelling of their meeting. The only movement in the crowd is the flickering of flames. Stillness, and silence, is their only response as Taliyah finishes her tale.
“I don’t have to stay,” Kai’Sa mumbles.
Taliyah shakes her head. “You’re injured. I can’t send you back out there when you haven’t eaten or rested. I won’t.”
A child half her height, a red cowl wrapped around his shoulders, stands. “You sure she’s human?” He squints. “Maybe it’s just some kinda disguise.” He almost falls backward from the force of two older girls pulling him down into his seat.
Taliyah laughs. “Have you seen a Void monster that can smile, 2 Samir?” she retorts. “I haven’t.”
Everyone looks at Kai’Sa expectantly. She does her best approximation of a smile, close-lipped so as not to look too aggressive. It doesn’t seem to scare the children. A victory.
The boy, Samir, stands again. “Fair enough,” he says as he walks toward Kai’Sa. He offers her a half-eaten piece of meat on a stick. “Want the rest of my sandsnake?”
Everyone else seems to breathe easier as Kai’Sa accepts the food. She rips the meat from the stick and swallows without chewing, her suit purring in relief. 3 Zaifa, one of the older girls with jade beaded through her hair, offers her more. This time, Kai’Sa slows down enough to appreciate the flavoring of cinnamon, sour lemon, and smoky ul-tawaat berries.
The taste brings back old memories, of life with her parents, of her father cooking over an open flame while her mother ground the ul-tawaat with her pestle...
Kai’Sa shakes her head to clear her mind—no good can come from dwelling in those memories. She really doesn’t need the rest, and she’s already eaten enough for her ribs to start healing.
But the camp has already started to relax, with people chatting over their own meals. Some have even turned their back to her. A show of trust. And the hope in Taliyah’s eyes is unmistakable. Please stay, they seem to say. Don’t leave us yet.
“I’ll stay awhile,” she concedes. “To heal.”The passage will still be there tomorrow.
Through the night, Kai’Sa indulges in both food and stories. Everyone has a tale to tell. The younger children speak of how their homes fell into the sand, how much they miss their parents and siblings, how they hope to reunite with them soon.
They are dead. Killed by the Void, as my own family was. Kai’Sa does not say what she is thinking.
Some of the elders speak of the sun-blessed Ascended warriors. Others tell the story of the , and the chaos that followed his death. Zaifa describes the darkness that infected the Ascended and drove them to madness and evil. None are believable, but Kai’Sa listens intently.
The story told by 4 Kadira, an older girl with rocky arm braces, is by far the most outlandish. She talks of a place called Xolan, across the Sai Kahleek, that has been magically protected for millennia. “It is said to be a paradise,” she sighs. “With libraries, and gardens, and water that flows as far as the eye can see. And everyone is safe, without fear.”
Kai’Sa does not realize that she has scoffed until Kadira and the children look at her. “No place is safe from the Void,” Kai’Sa says. “Especially so close to the Sai Kahleek. It’s a myth.”
“It’s real,” Kadira insists. “Where do you think we’re all headed?”
Without another word, Kai’Sa stands and leaves the storytellers to their tales.
She finds Taliyah leaning against one of the tents, deep in conversation with Zaifa and Samir, lit more by moonlight than by firelight. Zaifa traces her finger across an open scroll.
“You aren’t actually searching out this Xolan.” Kai’Sa doesn’t frame it as a question. “You’d be putting yourselves in real danger, crossing the Sai Kahleek over a fantasy.”
Taliyah exchanges a look with Zaifa, who hands Kai’Sa the scroll—a map of eastern Shurima. She points to a dot to the north of the Sai Kahleek. Xolan. North. The same direction as the passage. Kai’Sa frowns.
“It’s the best chance we have of finding safety for these people,” Taliyah explains. “Their homes have been destroyed, their families... separated. They need hope that things will be okay.”
“False hope helps no one. When it comes to the Void, the only thing you can do is run and hope you’re fast.”
Taliyah shakes her head. “If we go around the sai, we’ll run out of food. Stay where we are, we run out of food. Go back, and all we’ll find are the towns that fell. Where else do we run?”
Kai’Sa stares at Taliyah. “Do you know what lives in the Sai Kahleek? What hunts there?”
“The xer’sai. We’ve all heard the stories.”
“No. Xolan is a story,” Kai’Sa says. “The xer’sai are real. I’ve fought them before, many at a time. This is their nest. Trying to cross it is a death sentence.”
“I’ve fought Void creatures too. Or did you forget that I saved you?”
“Those weren’t xer’sai.”
“Whatever they were, I defeated them when you couldn’t.” Kai’Sa can see determination in the set of Taliyah’s jaw. “If Xolan is our only hope, then that’s where I’m going to lead everyone.”
“Besides, we’ve got a plan,” Samir says, excited. “Taliyah’s going to build aor something over the sand, and we’ll take people across together.”
He can’t be that much older than I was when the Void took me. Aloud, she asks, “What, can you move stone too?”
“I’m the best rock hopper you’ve ever met,” Samir says with a confident grin. “None of those monsters can move as fast as my sandboard. And if they try?” He mimes a blast from the ground. “Taliyah drives ’em back with some rock-splosions.”
“You sound like a child,” Kai’Sa spits. Samir’s smile drops. “The children of... all they do is devour. Anything that gets in their way? Gone.” She leans in close. “When they hear you, they hunt you. They don’t stop until their teeth close around your bones.”
“You’re scaring him,” Zaifa accuses as she puts a steadying hand on Samir’s shoulder.
“Good. He should be.”
“So come with us,” Taliyah says confidently. “You can help keep everyone safe.”
“No. Because you’re not going.” Kai’Sa points to Samir. “You are not putting these children in that kind of danger. They’ll die. Make your way around the sai. Take as many as you can. Leave the slowest behind, use their rations to—”
“We won’t!” Samir stands toe to toe with Kai’Sa, glaring up at her. “Taliyah will protect us. I will protect us.” He puffs out his chest. “I’m going to help these people, and they’re all going to make it across because... because each of their lives means something.” He stomps back toward the firepit, with Zaifa chasing after him.
“It’s your only chance,” Kai’Sa says quietly. “Otherwise, you’re condemning them all to death.”
“No.” Taliyah steps in front of Kai’Sa, refusing to let her look away. “Our world is a tapestry, and every life is a thread of a different color. Each one makes the whole more beautiful.”
Ugh. Metaphors. “Then the Void is a flame,” Kai’Sa replies. “It unmakes everything it touches. If your tapestry catches fire, the entire thing will burn... unless you cut the smoldering threads away. Then you still save most of it.”“You’re wrong. Any threads that drop make it all unstable, easy to unravel.” Sunlight appears at the horizon, and Taliyah’s eyes flash gold. “I’m not willing to let any of them go.”
The camp sleeps through the heat of the day. Kai’Sa wakes a few hours before sunset. People shoulder packs and gather bindles, ready to move on. Children hand out flatbreads and cheese. She overhears as a child pulls at Kadira’s robe and shyly asks if the older girl could take “the scary lady” her food. Taliyah collapses the stone structures back into the earth, leaving little sign that they were ever there. Kai’Sa watches and nibbles at her bread, trying to make it last.
“I don’t suppose you’ve changed your mind,” Taliyah says, “and decided to join us.” Kai’Sa sees the sheen of sweat on the girl’s brow. This exhausts her more than she lets on.
“No. I have somewhere else to go.” She sighs. “And you haven’t changed yours.”
Taliyah shrugs. “I have somewhere to go, too.” She turns back to her work. “I’m disappointed. You know what you’re doing with these Void monsters. You could help these people.”The best way I can help is to figure out what made that Void passage. It was made with a purpose in mind... and that scares me. But she doesn’t say that. Instead, she says, “I hope you can help them yourself.”
The passage proceeds much as it had earlier: in a straight line.
Except it feels lonely now. Kai’Sa wonders if she shouldn’t have spent so much time with Taliyah. She’s been alone for more than half her life, just her and the Void monsters that dwell below the surface world. She didn’t realize how good it would feel to be a person again.
Alone with her thoughts, she hardly notices the time pass. Soon, she sees older tunnels, enormous holes punctuating the passage walls and leading elsewhere. Xer’sai tunnels. I’m below the Sai Kahleek. But she still doesn’t see or hear any xer’sai.
She spots a bluish glow down one of the tunnels. Quietly, and with as little motion as possible, Kai’Sa peers down the opening into the darkness.
She sees a few smaller xer’sai of a kind that she has encountered and named before. A group of 3 Callers, reedy bipedal creatures with four prehensile jaw-talons, chirp softly to one another. Their shrieks can cut through the desert, alerting others to the presence of fresh prey. Spiky 1 Hatchlings, already larger than the Callers and due to grow much larger still, stand beside them. Together, they encircle dozens of Lamplights.
One of them has a glowing blue mark like a burn on the side of its body. That’s the one I shot, Kai’Sa realizes in horror. Taliyah’s attack didn’t kill it. It might not have killed any of them...
As she watches, one of the hatchlings stalks over to the marked creature. It extends its tongue and touches it to the hatchling’s horn.
A soft blue light engulfs the hatchling. It glows.
The sudden chattering of Callers drowns out Kai’Sa’s gasp. What are they doing? Her heart beats in her throat as more hatchlings and Callers go toward the Lamplights to receive their own glow. Are they making the xer’sai more powerful? She shakes her head to clear her thoughts, and takes aim at the marked creature.
Whatever it is, I’m going to stop them.
That’s when a loud boom shakes the earth.
An enormous xer’sai 6 Dunebreaker cuts through the stone wall with the bladed horn above its eight eyes. The talons along its jaw scratch into the rock, leaving deep gashes. Every step shakes the ground to drive fear into its prey. It hisses, swiping its horn at the Lamplights. It slices three of them at once, their deflated bodies leaking bright blood.
The Dunebreaker doesn’t like what the Lamplights are doing.
The Lamplights screech and flee toward the passage—toward Kai’Sa. She feels the familiar rush of power as she and her suit become invisible just in time for the Lamplights, then the Dunebreaker, to rush northward past her. The Dunebreaker’s horn rips a deep gash through the top of the passage. It bows inward.
The passage is going to collapse.
She dashes ahead, trying to keep up with the massive xer’sai while it can’t see her. I need to know where this leads. I have to understand.
But then, from somewhere behind her... Screams. Human screams.
Kai’Sa drops her invisibility and dashes up toward the surface before everything crumbles beneath her. She blinks as her helm readjusts to the sunlight. The dust clouds make it hard to see, and the crash of rockfall pierces her ears, but she can still hear the sounds of panic. She runs toward them.
Ahead of her, she sees the crevasse that formed where the Dunebreaker’s horn tore through the ceiling of the passage. A stone platform is dangling over the edge, though most of it remains on the sand, refusing to fall into the fissure. The people standing atop the platform are screaming, but a lone figure remains calm. Taliyah. Her stone bridge. She’s the only thing keeping it up. Her arms shake from the strain, but slowly, she lifts the front of the platform back toward the surface.
A child’s shout comes from below. Someone fell into the passage.
Kai’Sa sprints toward Taliyah. “You need to get back!” she shouts as the bridge rises. “The whole thing is going to collapse beneath you all if you don’t move!”
“Samir’s down there!” Taliyah screams as the bridge finally makes it to the surface, settling onto the ground with a thud. “I’m not going to leave him!”
She lets out a strangled yell and pushes against air with one hand. The bridge groans as it scrapes away from her, pushing it a good distance away from the collapse. Then she dives into the crevasse.
Kai’Sa stares over the edge. She’s going to die down there if I don’t help her.
Kadira and Zaifa come running from the bridge. Kai’Sa fires at their feet.
“What are you doing?!” Kadira shouts, jumping back.
“That huge xer’sai could turn back any minute,” Kai’Sa says. “Get the others out of here.”
“We’re not going anywhere until we know Taliyah and Samir are safe,” Zaifa says with clenched fists. “We can help you.”
I don’t have time for this, Kai’Sa thinks as her shoulder pods unfold, crystals crackling with power. If I kill these two, the others will run.
Kadira and Zaifa join hands, but they do not move. Kai’Sa remembers the stories they told around the firepit. The food they shared with her. Their fear of her, and how it left them over the course of the night.
... I don’t want to hurt them. “I’ll go down and help them. Please, go back to the others. They need someone to be strong for them.”
“Fine. But you have to bring them both back,” Zaifa spits out as she and Kadira run back toward the bridge.
I will. I promise. Without glancing back, Kai’Sa leaps into the growing hollow below.
Her feet hit the bottom hard enough to snap any normal person’s bones. In the distance, she sees glowing voidlings—not just the Lamplights, but the hatchlings and Callers they’ve converted—surrounding a smooth stone dome. That must be where Taliyah and Samir are.
She hears a subtle shift in the rumbling sound from afar. The Dunebreaker’s turned around, she realizes. If it’s after the Lamplights... it’ll be coming right back here.
Kai’Sa digs deep into the power of her living armor. Her wrists areby violet light, until they’re not. Invisible again.
She fires on the Callers. All five die without making a sound. The hatchlings turn, looking for the source of the attack. Only the blind Lamplights, tasting the air, can sense her. Before they can pinpoint her, she’s already taken out the hatchlings.
Now she’s in trouble. Dozens of Lamplights rush toward her. She fades back into visibility and dashes away as fast as she can.
They’re on her in a matter of seconds. She fires wildly, but only a few of them drop. One catches her by the ankle, slicing through her suit with the barbs on its tongue. She falls as she attempts to dodge more attacks. But they slice at her from all sides, faster than her suit can knit itself back together. Blood drips from her arms, her legs, her cheek. She tastes the tang of copper as it runs over her lips...
And then something explodes from beneath. The Lamplights areback and away.
They pause, confused. Kai’Sa looks beyond them. Taliyah’s head pokes through the top of the dome. She’s shouting something. Kai’Sa’s helm reforms, and she hears Taliyah shout, “Come toward me!”
Kai’Sa crouches. “Give me a running start!”
The earth explodes beneath her, propelling her through the air, over the voidlings and toward Taliyah. She lands on her good ankle, and tries to sprint—she can’t. So she dips back into her suit’s power, letting it drain her reserves of energy to speed the healing of her ankle. She can’t run for long.
But she’ll try to make it count.
As the monsters get closer, Taliyah propels Kai’Sa toward her again. Theshe lands on is different, with sharp bumps dotting the earth. Kai’Sa runs over them, trying to get the Lamplights to follow her rather than go toward Taliyah. The one in front bears her mark, and gets close enough to reach for her again...
An explosion tears it to pieces, staining the earth with glowing blood. Kai’Sa stops in shock.
“Keep running!” Taliyah shouts. “That’s what triggers the explosions!”
So she does, circling around Taliyah.
A few Lamplights get too close. Taliyah’s “rock-splosions” tear through them. The others seem to learn, slowing down, but they become a target for Kai’Sa’s missiles.
It doesn’t take long to thin their ranks. But the rumbling grows louder as the Dunebreaker bores its way back. We don’t have much time.
There’s only a handful left. Kai’Sa stands near the dome, exhausted, and fires the last missiles she has the energy to make. Slowed by the minefield, each voidling takes the hit.
Grinning, she turns to Taliyah. The girl is pale, coughing from the dust in the air. Her arm is around a frightened Samir’s shoulders, as he struggles to keep her upright.
“I can’t...” Taliyah pants. “The ground... It’s unstable. Can’t keep holding it up...”
Kai’Sa takes Taliyah in her arms. She beckons for Samir to cling to her back, then runs toward the walls of the hollow. I’m at my limit. I don’t know if I can make it up to the surface like this.
Suddenly, Taliyah twists out of Kai’Sa’s grip and leaps, summoning a rising platform beneath her feet. She pulls Kai’Sa toward her and propels them all upward. Her strength gives out just short of the surface. Kai’Sa and Taliyah grab the ridge and do their best to hold on...
A dozen hands reach down, covered in dirt and dust. Is this real? Kai’Sa wonders as she stretches up toward them. Two hands pull her up. It is. She looks up, recognizing some of the faces from Taliyah’s camp. One of the hands around her wrists belongs to Kadira. I’m being rescued.
“Zaifa!” Taliyah cries once they’re all on solid ground again. “Kadira! You came back for us!”
“And brought help.” Kai’Sa nods at them both. “Smart. Thank you.”
Below, the Dunebreaker bursts back into the hollow. Kai’Sa holds a finger to her lips and mouths don’t move. Dunebreakers can only sense things they can hear or feel or see moving. If we stay still and quiet, we’ll live.
The creature prods the deflated bodies of the Lamplights with its horn. It shuffles around, finding the corpses of the glowing Callers and hatchlings.
Satisfied that its enemies are dead, it burrows back through the rock and down into the earth.
Kai’Sa waits until they can’t hear it anymore before she lets anyone move. Then Taliyah, exhausted and pale, lifts another bridge of stone from the ground and takes them all back toward the others. A drained Kai’Sa and an only somewhat humbled Samir bring up the rear.
“I would have made it back up on my own,” Samir says with a tired grin at Kai’Sa. “But it was nice of you to come help. What with me slowing everyone down and all.”Kai’Sa gives the kid a sidelong glance, and can’t help but smile. “Couldn’t sit back and lose the best rock hopper I’ve ever met, could I?”
A roaring fire burns bright in the firepit. Taliyah’s stone bridges, pushed from the sai to safety, have become a wall around the camp.
Kai’Sa lies beyond the light, not willing to let on how sore her body still is. Better to rest than to eat, she thinks miserably, the scent of charred cabbage floating toward her.
Taliyah sits and silently offers Kai’Sa a bowl full of cabbage and millet. Kai’Sa pushes it away.
“You’re not hungry?” Taliyah asks.
Taliyah looks surprised. “Why?”
“You should have listened to me,” Kai’Sa says bitterly. “Instead? You couldn’t protect your people—those voidlings you thought you killed were the ones attacking us. You almost lost everyone. If I hadn’t been there, you would have.” She sees the regret in the twist of Taliyah’s lips, the set of her jaw. “And when they needed you most, you abandoned them. You left them all to die so you could try to maybe save one person.”
Taliyah is quiet for a moment. “Not that I’m not grateful, but... you know you did the same thing when you came down to help me, right?”
Kai’Sa doesn’t know how to respond to that.
“Don’t go toward Xolan,” Kai’Sa says after a few moments of awkward silence. “The Void passage that collapsed, the one I’ve been following, was directly below your route there. I’m pretty sure that Xolan is where it leads. That means the Void already has it.”
Taliyah nods, her shoulders slumping. “I’ll tell them they need to find another place.”
“They? What about you?”
“Well. I’m going to Xolan.”
“That’s where you’re going, right?” Taliyah sighs. “I thought I could protect these people. Get them to safety. But you were right—there is no safe place. So... we’ll have to make one.”
“Uh. What do you mean?”
“If the Void is in Xolan... then we take it back! Make it safe enough to lead everyone to it... and try to help whoever is already there.” Taliyah sounds so optimistic.
“If the Void has taken the town... there’s not going to be anyone left to save.”
“We can’t know that from here. Even if there’s one person who needs our help, that will be worth it to me.” Taliyah steps forward and takes Kai’Sa’s hands in her own. They feel warm and calloused, even through Kai’Sa’s second skin. “I can’t do it without you, Kai’Sa. I didn’t kill those Lamplights on my own... but I was able to when you were there with me. Let’s find this place together.”
If she had been there when my home fell to the Void... maybe I could have been something different. Kai’Sa looks at the hope in Taliyah’s eyes, the strength in it. But I am who I am. The world needs me like this. So does she. I’ve seen what we can do together. I think I need her, too.
So does whoever might still be alive in Xolan.Kai’Sa takes a bite of the charred cabbage and nods. “Fine. Another thread for the tapestry.”
Taliyah waves goodbye to her people as Zaifa leads them away. Earlier, Zaifa had found a spot on the map, a former trade city, that should lead them through grazing territory. “Even if we run out of food,” she had said, “there’s a good chance that we’ll be able to hunt there.” “Be safe and be well,” Taliyah had said, hugging her tightly. “The blessings of the Great Weaver upon you all.”
Now, they are out of sight. She turns back to Kai’Sa, her only companion for the next leg of this journey. I know she’s happy to have the company, Taliyah thinks with a secret smile. Even if she won’t admit it.Together they set out across the Sai Kahleek on a floating stone bridge, their destinies momentarily woven into one.