They came to a dead city in the mountain’s shadow under cover of night. Battle-hosts of a thousand warriors, each bearing bloody totems that told of the ancient lineages of the Sunborn Ascended who led them.
The city and the bones of its people had long ago become one with the desert, and it was impossible to tell ash and bone from sand. Only its tallest towers remained above the dunes: broken spires that sang mournfully when the winds blew from the realms beyond the mountain. Upon a broken plinth stood two trunkless legs of stone, the cruel visage of a half-buried avian head lying in the sand beside them.
In a long-distant age, an event of great moment had taken place in the valley where the city would later be built.
It had marked the beginning of Shurima.
And set in motion its ending.
None remembered that day, save the god-warriors who now led their hosts towards the city’s jutting ruins. Those same god-warriors had put the citizens to the sword in the wake of their emperor’s betrayal. And with its people murdered, they had seen the city burned and its name hacked from every stele and obelisk that remained standing.
Yet these acts of extermination were for naught but futile spite.
Futile because the child who had been taken as a slave from this city was long dead, and in life had no use for memory of his birth.
His act had destroyed the empire and sundered their brotherhood.
And so the god-warriors burned Nerimazeth, and its people, to ash.
The passage of deep time had stolen the golden scroll’s luster.
Much like us all, thought Ta’anari. He drew a clawed finger down the etched list of names and numbers, a meticulous record of tithes from the newly-established trading port of Kha’zhun in the north.
Kha’zhun had been a city of men for centuries, their savage tongue already debasing its name into something new and ugly. The Scholar might have found the scroll’s contents interesting, but the only worth it held for Ta’anari was the tangible link it provided to a time when the world made sense.
The room had once been a hall of records, its marble walls lined with shelves and stacked with scrolls recording tributes due to the emperor, accountings of his wars and long lists of his deeds. It had been a cavernous space, but the roof had caved in centuries ago, and sand filled most of the subterranean space.
He felt a change in the air, and looked up from his studies.
Myisha stood in the doorway, dwarfed by its dimensions, though Ta’anari’s black-furred skull would brush its lintel—were he still able to stand upright. Her frame was slight, fragile even, yet Ta’anari sensed she possessed depths not even he had fully grasped. Gold-blonde hair, like the men found in the cold north, spilled around her shoulders. Her features were youthful, but her eyes, one rich blue, the other twilight’s purple, held wisdom beyond her years. She wore thin silks, colorful and entirely unsuited to the desert, tied at the waist with a thin rope, from which hung a single golden key. A vivid pink scarf coiled around her neck, and she twisted its tasseled ends through her fingertips.
“They’re here,” she said.
“Nine hosts. Nearly ten thousand warriors.”
Ta’anari nodded, drawing his tongue over his yellowed fangs. “More than I expected.”
She shrugged and said, “They all need to be here.”
“Too much blood has been spilled over the centuries,” he said. “Too much hate unleashed. The idea that there could be peace between us is anathema to many of them.”
Myisha shook her head at such foolishness. “So many have already died in this endless war. You’ve managed to kill more of your kind than even the abyssal horrors did.”
A rebuke of her flippant tone died on Ta’anari’s thick tongue. She was right, after all.
And wasn’t that why he had summoned his kin?
“The moment Azir fell, a war between the Sunborn was inevitable,” said Ta’anari, putting aside the scroll, and rising from his study of ancient history. “With him gone, the scale of our ambitions was too great for any one of us to lead. So many visions of what the future needed to be, but all of us too broken to realize them.”
“Then perhaps you are not so different from mortals, after all.”
Once, he would have killed anyone who voiced such a thought, but the centuries of war and the colossal scale of the slaughter they had unleashed was testament to the truth of it.
Ta’anari had no clear recollection of Myisha entering his service. The lives of mortals were so fleeting, he barely noticed when one died and another took their place. But Myisha had drawn his notice more than any other. Her defiant insolence was part of it, but there was more to it than that. She had an insight into the minds of mortals that he and all his kind lacked since trading their humanity for greater power.
Ta’anari had last walked as a man so very long ago. He barely remembered the sensations of a mortal, or the awareness of time’s inexorable march. Ancient magic and the forge of the Sun Disc had remade him, wrought the crude matter of his mortal flesh into that of a god.
A flawed and broken god, but divine nonetheless.
His bronze-armored form had been panther-like, bowed by age and war, but still mighty. The fur of his upper body had once been lustrous black, but both his snout and limbs were threaded with grey, and he had reshaped himself as best he could. Ta’anari’s gaze had cowed entire armies, but one scarred socket now contained a cracked ruby, the other a slitted amber eye, rheumy with despair. His spine was twisted after an axe-blow taken during the Battle of the River Khaleek, a blow so ferocious that not even his fiery regenerative powers had been able to fully undo the damage.
He lifted a weapon from the table, a magnificent four-bladed Chalicar. He felt the perfect balance of its killing edges, but more than that, he felt the weight of expectation it embodied. He sighed and slung it in his shoulder harness before limping over to Myisha.
Even hunched by the ravages of time and old wounds, Ta’anari towered over her. The War of the Sunborn—though others were calling it a different, darker name—had exacted a grievous toll of lives on her kind, yet she had no fear of him.
Sometimes, he sensed a measure of pity from her.
At other times, a withering contempt.
She placed a tiny, hairless hand in his massive, pawed fist. “You are still a god-warrior, Ta’anari,” she said, “Remind them of what that once stood for, and you will win them over.”
“And if they don’t listen?”
She smiled. “Simple. You kill them all.”
His life-bearers were waiting for him in the sand-sunk antechamber. Once they had been queens and the rulers of mortal empires, but in the face of Ta’anari’s invincible warhost, they had pledged their swords to him.
Better to fight alongside a god-warrior than to be crushed by one.
Teushpa bowed as he approached, her muscular arms knotted with tattoos and banded with jade torques. Defiant, but loyal, she had been the last to offer her blood. Sulpae was desert-born with a lineage that reached back to the time before Azir’s father. She stamped her long spear at the sight of him. Her shaven scalp was scarified in a grid and pierced with gold beads at every ridged intersection.
Idri-Mi, proud and sturdy, held her long-hafted axe at her shoulder, its double-leafed blades heavier than most men could lift. She was a queen from the east whose mother and grandmother had fought for him. Her pale skin was like ivory, her long black hair hung with silver hooks.
Ta’anari stood before the three warrior women.
They were not his bodyguards; he had no need of lesser beings to protect him. Instead, they served as symbols of his will, how he could dominate proud warriors who wanted him dead, and were skilled enough that they might actually be able to hurt him.
His brothers and sisters of the fallen brotherhood would bring their life-bearers too, but none were so fierce as his.
Even so, none of the women looked him in the eye as he spoke. To meet the gaze of a god-warrior was to die.
“I have seen many life-bearers over the centuries of my existence, but you will be my last,” said Ta’anari. He scanned their faces for a reaction, but years of servitude had purged them of the weakness of emotion. They were as expressionless as the fallen statues littering the remains of the dead city. “I know this with complete certainty, as much from the patient gleam in your eyes as the nightmares that rip through my skull when Myisha’s elixirs wear off. You are all loyal, but you hunger for my death.”
Was that a flicker in the eye of Teushpa? Once, he would have gnawed the flesh from her bones at such a lapse in control, but his appetite for slaughter had waned over the centuries.
“I cannot blame you,” he continued. “What does my kind offer yours but death and horror? An age ago, the Sunborn saved this world at a terrible cost, but now we have brought it to the edge of ruin. The Ascended Host’s days of glory are long past, overshadowed by the darkness of our warring, and the all too fleeting memories of you mortals.”
Bitterness tainted the last of his words, tempered only by the knowledge that he and his brethren had brought this upon themselves. Overweening pride, war-damaged psyches, and ancient feuds alloyed to forge the blade that sundered their chains of duty.
Ta’anari let out a shuddering breath. For over a thousand years he had fought against this moment, but now it was upon him, he knew death was nothing to be feared.
“If you live through this night, you will greet the dawn free. When the sun rises, return to your people and tell them what you saw and heard here.” He turned away. “Myisha, is everything prepared?”
“Yes. They’re waiting in the amphitheater.”
Ta’anari nodded. “Then let us end this.”
The space had not been designed as an amphitheater. It had served as Nerimazeth’s marketplace, but Ta’anari’s slaves had carved it from the desert’s embrace, and his magic had shaped it with heat so intense that it vitrified the sand. Now it was an arena of blown glass; a caldera of smoky black, sea green and numinous iridescence. Its surfaces captured the soft moonlight and reflected it back in floating veils of silver.
Ta’anari entered through a sweeping arch shaped like a frozen instant in the life of an ocean wave. Tension thickened the air, as was only to be expected when the gods gathered their battle-hosts.
Ten thousand men and women filled the tiered heights of the amphitheater, the champions of the god-warriors assembled below. No blades were bared, but all were ready to unleash an orgy of slaughter at their liege’s command.
Ta’anari swept his gaze around his fellow Sunborn—brothers and sisters once united by unbreakable bonds of love and duty that were, in time, revealed to be as brittle as glass. Unimaginable power had wrought their bodies, drawn from a realm beyond comprehension to sculpt their mortal flesh in ways none living now could recreate.
But our minds are still mortal, he thought, and shockingly weak.
Syphax’s gaze offered understanding. Zigantus radiated disgust. Xuuyan seethed with outright contempt. It had been Xuuyan’s axe that crippled Ta’anari at Khaleek. The chelonian-headed god-warrior spat on the ground as Ta’anari limped to the center of the amphitheater.
Shabaka and Shabake, the raven-feathered seer twins, did not even look up, too engrossed in casting auguries with scrimshawed fingerbones. Valeeva watched Ta’anari with the same haughty disdain that her brother always did—the one member of their sundered fellowship he was relieved had not attended.
Cebotaru the Wolf paced back and forth, impatient to be done with this conclave. His battle-hosts ravaged the far north, and the lands over the western seas. Of all of them, Cebotaru was closest to breaking the bloody stalemate.
Naganeka of Zuretta watched from within her hooded cowl, a long scaled robe draped over the coiled length of her body. Her venom blinded life-bearers stood ready to convey her words, should she actually deign to utter any. None of them had heard her sibilant whispers in over five hundred years.
Only Enakai offered respect. He came forward, his skin patterned with new, vivid stripes of orange and black. Where Ta’anari was bent and bowed, Enakai wore his great age with pride, eyes undimmed, and strength unbroken by the long ages he had made war. Long ago, they had climbed the golden steps to the sun-disc together, hand-in-hand as its searing light infused them with celestial power. Enakai had borne Ta’anari’s wounded body on the retreat from Icathia, fought as his brother in the mud at Khaleek, and faced him as an enemy at the Glacier Port.
Live as long as we do, and the wheel will turn many times.
Enakai took Ta’anari’s paw in his. “Ta’anari.”
No more needed to be said. The span of many lifetimes’ worth of experience, joy, loss and heartache were contained in their exchange of names. They were beings raised up as gods. Inconsequential words were beneath them.
Enekai’s eyes narrowed as he caught sight of the weapon slung behind Ta’anari’s back. He opened his mouth to speak, but Ta’anari gave an imperceptible shake of his head.
“I hope you know what you are doing,” Enekai murmured, returning to his place at the edge of the amphitheater.
Ta’anari took a breath; he had rehearsed this moment many times over the years, understanding that a single wrong word could end this before it began. His kin were god-warriors, and had all the haughty arrogance and quick temper common to beings of such ego.
“Brothers and sisters,” he said, the magically crafted acoustics carrying his words throughout the amphitheater. “Such a gathering of the Sunborn has not happened since the drawing of the thousand before the walls of Parnesa.”
He saw nods, that vivid memory stirring the dimmed embers in their souls of what they had once been.
Now build on that. Speak as if to each one of them.
“I look around, and I see power,” he continued, every word delivered with passion and belief. “I see gods where once walked mortals—beings of noble aspect, mighty and worthy of devotion. Some call our ancient brotherhood sundered. They use the ancient tongue to name us darkin, but to see you here gives the lie to that word.”
Ta’anari paused, letting his flattery wash over them. It would be empty to most, for choirs of tortured subjects sang praises day and night to them... on pain of death.
But it might open enough of the rest for them to be won over.
“You all remember when we marched shoulder to shoulder, when Setaka led our Ascended Host to push the emperor’s realm to the very edges of the world. I know I remember it well. It was an age of glory, an age of heroes! Cebotaru, you and I rode dragons of twilight to the piercing summit of the world, where all time is as one, and witnessed the creation of the universe.”
He turned, and held a hand out to Syphax.
“Syphax, my brother, we waged war on the abyssal monsters when they poured from the ocean rift on the eastern coast. We fought for ten days and nights, to the very limits of endurance, but we drove them back. We triumphed!”
Syphax nodded, and Ta’anari saw the memory of that war ripple through his scaled flesh in waves of purple, black and red.
“I do not speak of that time,” said Syphax, his many eyes veiled in smoke. “Seven thousand golden warriors of Shurima died on the red shore. Only you and I returned alive.”
“Yes, we paid a terrible price for that victory, brother—in flesh and in spirit. But what a fight it was! Mortals renamed the ocean in honor of our deeds that day.”
Syphax shook his head. “Your memory has omitted the horrors we saw that day, Ta’anari. Keep your talk of glory. I’ll not hear it. When I close my eyes, I still hear the screams of those we lost. I relive how those... things killed them. Worse, how they wiped them from the world, and devoured their very souls. So spare me your gilded recollections, I do not recognize them.”
“Yes, they were days of blood and, yes, it is likely I glorify them,” said Ta’anari. “But I speak of how the world should know us and remember us. As mighty heroes, bestriding the world at the head of invincible armies and commanded by an undying emperor who—”
“But Azir did die,” snapped Xuuyan, planting his mighty long-axe hard enough to crack the glass beneath. “He died, and without him at our head, the Sunborn fell to war. What went before is now dust and ashes. It is meaningless. So if you think reminding us of golden memories will end this conflict, then you have fallen further into madness than any of us.”
“Reminding us all of what we once were is only part of my reason for bringing you here,” said Ta’anari.
“Then state your purpose, or let us get back to killing one another.”
Ta’anari tried to stand upright, but failed when the twisted bones in his back creaked like a bent branch. Pain shot up his spine like the raking claws of a Void-born terror.
“It is the old wound, Xuuyan,” he said. “It never really healed. You remember, at Khaleek?”
“Of course I remember, cripple,” snarled Xuuyan. “I remember every blow I have struck from the moment I stepped from the light of the great disc. There are none of us here who cannot speak of great deeds or betrayals at the side of those we once called brothers and sisters.”
“You and I, we held the line where Icathia once stood. You saved my life more than once.”
“Those days are gone now,” snapped Cebotaru, the words mangled by the growing disfigurement of his jaw. “And in the past they must remain.”
“Why?” Ta’anari demanded, rounding on him. “Why must they remain in the past? Are we not the Ascended of Shurima? We are not mere avatars, we are gods! What is reality, but what we decide it should be? Any one of us could rule this world entirely, but instead we have fallen to petty squabbling, waging wars for reasons that no longer make sense, even to the few of us that could still name them.”
He paced, his tone hectoring and judgemental, despite himself.
“Zigantus, you believed we should rebuild from the ruins, to continue Azir’s legacy. Enakai, you sought to establish a new kingdom. Valeeva, you and your brother saw spite in every eye, and sought vengeance for slights real and imagined.”
“Oh, they were real,” she hissed, her alabaster skin threaded with violet veins and her venomous spines standing erect at her shoulders.
Ta’anari ignored her. “Each of us saw a different path into the future, but instead of using our Sunborn powers and working together to achieve something divine, we fought like scavengers over a fresh corpse. Yes, Setaka was long dead, and we will never see her like again. Yes, Azir was betrayed, and our empire lay in ruins, its people scattered and frightened. Shurima needed a strong leader to guide its rebirth, but all it was left with was us, broken monsters who had stared into the abyss too long and felt its horror twist their minds to madness and self-destruction.
“So instead of rebuilding, we fought for the scraps of a dead empire, while burning the rest of the world to the ground. Even now, we would sooner see the extinction of all life rather than find common purpose. Alone we are mighty, but together...? There is nothing we cannot do. Nothing. If we wanted, we could storm the celestial gates, leave this ashen world behind, and forge a new empire beyond the stars!”
Ta’anari’s voice dropped, laden with regret.
“But we do not. We do what lesser beings do. We kill each other in a war that has lasted many times longer than any we fought before.”
And then his voice rose, soaring to far reaches of the amphitheater.
“But it does not have to be that way, not any more!”
Ta’anari reached back over his shoulder and unslung the Chalicar. A murmur of shock rippled around the amphitheater at the sight of the ancient weapon.
“You all remember this,” he said. “It is the weapon of Setaka, greatest and noblest of us all. Brought from beyond the mountain and raised aloft at Shurima’s birth. It is the blade that will one day be borne by Sivunas Alahair, the Bringer of Rains. In their hands it will be a weapon of great destruction, or a symbol of unity.”
He held out the Chalicar for his fellows to see. Its edges glittered gold, shaped by cosmic forces beyond this world by powers not even the wisest of Shurima understood. Ta’anari saw their reverence, their awe and pride.
But most of all he saw their desire to possess it. Xuuyan took a step towards him.
Of course it would be Xuuyan.
The god-warrior spun his axe, and Ta’anari remembered the awful pain of its obsidian blade splitting his armor and smashing his spine to shards.
“I will kill you and take it from your dead hand,” said Xuuyan, a wide grin splitting his beaked skull. “Will that make me the leader?” His chitinous carapace bulged at his shoulders, studded with outgrowths of bone spikes and iron blades. Even in his prime, Ta’anari could not best him.
But Khaleek was many centuries ago, and Ta’anari had learned new tricks since then.
“Are you going to fight me with that?” Xuuyan asked, pointing to the Chalicar with his axe.
“No,” said Ta’anari, turning to hand it to Myisha.
Its weight was almost too much for her to bear, but she winked and again he sensed capricious amusement from her, as though the sight of gods about to fight was amusing to her.
Xuuyan sneered. “Then what? You will face me unarmed? Is that what this is? You want to die here, in the sight of your fellow gods?”
“Not that either.”
“No matter, I care nothing for your reasons,” said Xuuyan, “I will finish what I began at the river.”
His charge was like an avalanche—a rumbling, inexorable thunder that was as deadly as it was inescapable. Ta’anari had seen entire phalanxes broken by it, giants toppled and fortress gates smashed asunder.
Ta’anari dropped to one knee and placed his hands flat against the amphitheater’s glassy floor. He felt currents of magic running through its structure, golden threads of power linking him to every living being that stood upon it. The mortals were like tiny sparks rising from a fire, fleeting and inconsequential, but the god-warriors were newborn suns of roiling magic.
He tapped into their power, just as Myisha had taught him. He drew out a measure of the cursed prescience of Shabaka and Shabake, feeling their alien senses twist within him. The lizard-swiftness of Syphax surged through his ancient body. The rage of Zigantus, and Enakai’s sense of righteous purpose.
Ta’anari closed his eye, now knowing where Xuuyan’s charging blow would land.
He swayed aside, the blade slashing a hair’s breadth from his throat. Xuuyan’s passing was like a thunderstrike, and Ta’anari swung around, grasping one of his attacker’s curling shell-horns. He vaulted onto Xuuyan’s back as his former brother roared in fury.
The god-warrior rolled, trying to throw Ta’anari, but his grip was too tight. The seer twins’ unwitting gift allowed Ta’anari to anticipate every wild, bucking move his foe made. Xuuyan reversed his grip on the axe and swung it over his shoulder like the barbed whip of a lunatic penitent. Ta’anari rolled aside as the blade smashed down, cleaving a deep and gory trough in Xuuyan’s unnatural armor.
The Sunborn bellowed in anger, wrenching the blade from his hardened flesh in a welter of blood. One of his horns hung by sinewy threads, and Ta’anari ripped it from the carapace. Ivory white and curved like a scimitar, its tip was sheathed in iron, and needle-sharp.
Xuuyan slammed into the wall of the amphitheater with a hammering impact that smashed it to spinning fragments of razored glass. Scores of mortal bodies tumbled into the arena, only to be crushed underfoot by the struggling god-warriors. Xuuyan hurled Ta’anari from his back. He landed hard on the ground, still clutching the sharpened horn.
Xuuyan turned and swung his axe down in an executioner’s strike, but Ta’anari dove aside, and the floor exploded in knives of glass. Instead, Xuuyan’s gnarled foot stomped down on his chest, pinning him to the floor. He felt his ribs crack, a shard punching through into his lung. The weight was colossal, easily capable of crushing him like an insect.
“The Chalicar will be mine!” Xuuyan shouted.
The god-warrior’s leathery, helmet-like skull extended from his armored carapace, his neck pale and thick with pulsing arteries. Soulless black eyes bulged at the promise of slaying yet another rival. As he’d promised, Xuuyan meant to finish what he had begun on the banks of the River Khaleek.
“No,” grunted Ta’anari through blood-flecked fangs. “It won’t.”
He unleashed a surge of newly-learned power, unknown to the rest of his kind. He blinked—a terrible sensation of hurtling through an unending vortex overcame him, a tunnel surrounded by hideous monsters that lurked just beyond the threshold...
The sensation lasted a fraction of a second only, but felt like an age.
He opened his eyes, and he was once again atop Xuuyan as the deadly axe arced towards the ground. A hard bang of displaced air echoed behind him as the fleeting portal closed.
Ta’anari raised the bloody horn high overhead, and plunged it down into Xuuyan’s eye.
The tip punched deep into the god-warrior’s skull, Ta’anari’s inhuman strength driving the entire length of the horn into the mass of Xuuyan’s brain.
It was a ferocious killing blow, but Xuuyan still stood, his Ascended flesh not quite ready to admit that it was dead. Ta’anari leapt clear as the towering god-warrior crashed to his knees with the sound of a mountain toppling. Xuuyan rolled onto his side, his remaining eye staring at his killer with mute incomprehension. His beaked mouth still moved, but no words came out.
Ta’anari gulped in breaths that heaved in his blood-frothed lungs. He heard Myisha squeal with delight, clapping like a proud teacher pleased at a student’s wild success.
The sound sickened him.
Even if things had gone exactly as planned, he’d suspected he would have to kill at least one of his brethren. But he had not relished the prospect. He and Xuuyan had never been close, but they had fought side by side for the glory of Shurima, back when the sun blessed them, and filled their bodies with strength.
He knelt beside his fallen opponent and laid a furred hand on his head. Blood glistened with the light of dragon-wrought stars. “I am truly sorry, brother,” he whispered.
A roar of anguish went up from Xuuyan’s champions. Not in mourning for their fallen god—Xuuyan was too hated for that—nor even in hunger for vengeance. The roar was for their own forfeit lives. Murderous blades slipped from the sheaths of the warbands to either side of them.
The god-warriors had taught their slaves well.
Men without a god to protect them were nothing more than vermin to be exterminated, or so the teachings had always been.
“Hold!” shouted Ta’anari. “Champions, stay your blades!”
These warbands were not his; but he was Sunborn, and the awesome authority in his voice halted them in their tracks. His fellow god-warriors stared in open-mouthed wonder at what Ta’anari had done. Naganeka of Zuretta slid forward, and lowered her upper body to study Xuuyan’s cooling corpse. Pale smoke was lifting from his flesh, celestial energies already fleeing the mortal meat of his body.
She pulled back her hooded cowl, revealing her many hypnotic eyes rimmed with ash, and scaled lips overhung by long, ebony fangs. She bent over the wound in Xuuyan’s back, and her tongue flicked out to taste his death.
“Rhaast will be disappointed,” she said, her voice a wet, reptile hiss. “He had sworn to slay Xuuyan himself.” Her venom blinded life-bearers shuffled behind her, unsure of what to do now that their reviled goddess had spoken aloud.
The others came forward warily. Enakai and Syfax watched Ta’anari with newfound respect. The others fixated on Xuuyan’s death, but they had seen Ta’anari do something impossible, even for a god-warrior.
Shabaka and Shabake circled the corpse. Their stunted wings fluttered in agitation. They wore the smell of death like a shroud—the corruption that touched them all was most obvious in those two.
Onyx eyes, eyes that had seen too much, darted back and forth. “Told him he would die today, didn’t we, sister?” said Shabaka.
“They never listen, do they?” Shabake replied.
Shabaka giggled. “No, no, never listen to the mad ravens. What do we know? Only everything!”
“You foresaw this?” demanded Zigantus.
“Yes, yes, saw him get too close a look at that horn of his. Told him so, but he just laughed.”
“Not laughing now, is he, brother?”
“What else have you seen?” asked Syphax.
The seer twins huddled together, whispering and tossing the small bones back and forth between them. Their minds had been shattered during the battle to seal the Great Rift at Icathia. No one, not even a god-warrior, could meet the gaze of the titanic entities who watched and dwelled within the Abyss without their sanity unravelling a little.
Shabake frowned. “Future too tightly woven to know...”
“And too many possible outcomes from the now to see any clearly,” Shabaka added. “Not for sure.”
“All of us may die today. Or just some,” said Shabake. “Or maybe none. Maybe you kill Ta’anari now, Zigantus, and we all get to live.”
“Live to kill each other another day!” cackled Shabaka.
“She wants it. She is the pebble that starts the avalanche.”
“Speak plainly!” demanded Zigantus. “Who wants what? Pebbles? Avalanches? Who are you talking about?”
“Her!” screeched Shabaka, pointing past Ta’anari to the slight figure of Myisha. “She is the mote-light in the eye of the gods.”
Myisha held the Chalicar tight to her chest, like a child clutching her father’s blade.
Cebotaru snarled and hauled Ta’anari to his feet. The Wolf’s physique was slender, yet monstrously powerful and wrought with four sinewy, grey-furred arms curled into clawed fists. “What are they talking about?” he growled. “That one, who is she?”
Ta’anari bit back a scream of pain as the twisted bones of his spine ground together. “She is a mortal, nothing more,” he said.
“You always were a miserable liar,” said Cebotaru, baring long, crooked fangs. “The truth, brother, or I will rip your throat out before you can blink.”
“She helped me find the Chalicar,” said Ta’anari.
Cebotaru shook his head. “The Scholar buried the Chalicar with Setaka when he took her body into hiding, after the doom of Icathia. How is it that a mere mortal knew where to find it?”
“She did not, but she led me to Nasus.”
The others forgot Xuuyan, and turned their attention on Ta’anari.
“You saw the Scholar?” said Valeeva, the spines on her back rippling with anticipation. “No one has seen him since he killed Moneerah for delving the charred ruins of Nashramae’s great library.”
“I saw him, but he is much changed since we last knew him. Whatever burden he bears has all but crushed him. He dwells at a tower raised on a hidden cliff, watching the dance of stars. He bade her find me, and bring me to his tower.”
“Why you?” hissed Naganeka. “Why not any of us?”
“I do not know,” said Ta’anari. “There are many more deserving of his attention.”
“And you spoke to him?” asked Enakai.
“I did,” said Ta’anari.
“And he told you where to find Setaka’s blade?”
“Just like that?” spat Syphax.
“No, not just like that,” Ta’anari snapped, throwing off Cebotaru’s grip. He turned to retrieve the Chalicar from Myisha. The power within the weapon was potent and restless. “I told him of our war, of how we were burning paradise and clawing at one another like animals. I told him I needed the weapon of Setaka to end this bloodshed.”
“Nasus rejected us the moment Azir fell,” said Zigantus. “Why would he help now?”
“He rejected the Sunborn, because he saw the bitter jealousies and twisted rivalries that fester in our hearts,” said Ta’anari. “He has been walking the forgotten paths of this world, wracked by grief and adrift in memories of his lost brother, but always he is drawn back to the land of his birth.”
Ta’anari took a breath, grimacing as he felt the currents of magic shifting within him. Sharp pain stabbed up into his heart from his belly.
So, the end begins...
Myisha had warned that using the magic she had taught him would irrevocably change even an Ascended, breaking the fetters that bound the immortal breath of the gods to his human flesh. That power had held the hurts of endless battle and the passage of millennia at bay, but some things were never meant to live forever.
Fear touched him then, cold and unfamiliar, but he fought down the creeping tide of pain and weakness.
“You are right, Zigantus. Nasus will never fight in our war, but that does not mean he is heedless of what we do. He told me the stars speak of a time far in the future when Shurima will rise from the sands once more, when the rightful ruler will fight to claim dominion over all that has been lost.”
“Shurima will rise again?” said Cebotaru, unable to mask his eagerness. “When?”
“We will not live to see it,” said Ta’anari. “Not all of us.”
Shabake pushed her scrawny, skittering form between them. Her withered arms stabbed the air, her dark eyes wide. “All of us may die today. Or just some,” she screeched.
Syphax pushed her away. “The Chalicar,” he said. “It will play a part in Shurima’s rebirth?”
“Yes,” said Ta’anari. “For good or ill. It will be a symbol for the people of Shurima to rally behind. I had hoped it could heal the wounds between us—a reminder of what we once were, and what we could be again. It could have saved us if we had taken the chance to reclaim the brotherhood that once bound us together under a single banner.”
Cebotaru grunted in amusement. “And now the truth of it comes out. You gathered us here to claim the right of leadership, bearing the weapon of our greatest champion, and anointed by the Scholar himself.”
Ta’anari shook his furred head.
“No, I could never be the equal of Setaka, or Nasus. All I sought was an end to this war. I had hoped we could do it together, but I see now that was an impossible dream.”
Ta’anari walked away from his brethren, moving to stand in the centre of the amphitheater. All eyes were upon him, eight god-warriors and thousands of mortals.
The pain was spreading all through him, almost too much to bear. He swallowed, tasting the grit of sand in the back of his throat. Fur was drifting free from his body in wispy clumps. Every movement felt like broken glass was grinding in his joints.
He turned to address the others.
“Power without check made us vain, made us believe that nothing should be denied us. That made us poor stewards of his world, and we do not deserve to be its masters. We once called ourselves the Ascended Host. What are we now? Darkin? A name debased by mortals who no longer understand what we are, or what we were wrought to do.”
He lifted his fading eye to the thousands watching from the steps of the amphitheater, tears cutting a path through his flaking skin.
“They hate us, and when the horrors of the abyss rise once more, they will beg for our return,” said Ta’anari, meeting Myisha’s eager gaze. “But we will be gone, no more than whispers on the songwinds, a dark legend of imperfect gods told to scold disobedient children.”
With the last of his strength, Ta’anari rammed the Chalicar down into the crystalline floor of the amphitheater. The sound was deafening, like a hammerblow against the veil of the world. The cracks from its impact spread farther than they should have, and the clear sky burned with the diamond brilliance of a newborn star.
But this was no golden radiance. This was cold, merciless and silver.
“What the sun made, the moon will unmake!” screamed Ta’anari.
And a blazing column of white fire stabbed from the midnight sky.
It struck the Chalicar’s extended arms and reflected that fire outwards, drawing in the god-warriors and piercing their chests. It burned them, reached into the arcane heart of their being and devoured the magic that made them.
Shabaka and Shabake vaporized instantly, disappearing in an ashen cloud of drifting feathers. Their screams were cackles of release, freighted with resigned foreknowledge.
Syphax twisted in the light like a hooked fish, but even his power was meaningless in the face of this cosmic fire. The bull-headed Zigantus tried to run, but not even his legendary speed could outrun the moonfall called down by Ta’anari.
Even as his skin sloughed from his bones, Ta’anari wept so see them die. They were his brothers and sisters, and not even centuries of the most brutal war imaginable could make him hate them.
He saw Enakai unmade by the radiance, his divine flesh dissolving into light from his bones. He reached for Ta’anari, and his eyes were accepting as he met his fate.
He sobbed at what he had been forced to do.
The light burned away his remaining eye, and a world of darkness closed in on him. The last of his strength fled his body and he slumped to the glass floor of the amphitheater. He heard more screams and the shouts of fighting men who knew nothing of the affairs of gods. More bloodshed, but it would pass.
Would the mortal hosts continue the war his kind had begun?
Perhaps. But it would be a mortal war, and it would end.
Ta’anari drifted in darkness, lost in memories of happier days.
He tried to recall his life before climbing the golden steps to meet the sun with Enakai. Little remained of that time, the memories shed as the heavenly power had crowded his skull.
Ta’anari heard footsteps. Booted feet crunching over broken glass. He smelled mortal flesh, rank with sweat and decay.
They were smells he recognised. His life-bearers.
Ta’anari lifted a hand, seeking the touch of another living being, but no one took it.
“Sulpae?” he croaked. “Is that you? Teushpa? Idri-Mi? Please, help me. I think... I think I am mortal once more, I... I think I am human again...”
“You are,” said a voice that seemed on the verge of laughter.
“Myisha,” whispered Ta’anari. “Are they all dead?”
“No. Naganeka, Valeeva and Cebotaru escaped before the fire could take them. But they’re pretty weak, so I don’t think they’ll be a problem for long. It’s the others, all those who didn’t show up, who’ll be harder to trap.”
“No! You must finish them,” wheezed Ta’anari. “Even a wounded god-warrior could conquer this world.”
“Trust me,” said Myisha, “what we did here spells the beginning of the end for your kind.”
“Then we did it. We brought peace.”
Then she really did laugh. “Peace? Oh, no—this world will never know peace. Not really.”
Confused, Ta’anari struggled to rise, but the hard jab of a spear butt to the chest pushed him back.
“No, you stay down there,” said Myisha.
“Please, help me up,” he said. “I told you, I am human now.”
“I heard you, but do you imagine that fact washes away your multitude of sins? Think of all the lives you ended. Does being human now mean you’re forgiven for the oceans of blood you spilled? Tell me, how many atrocities did it take before your withered conscience finally pricked you enough to act?”
“I don’t understand,” Ta’anari murmured. “What are you saying?”
Myisha giggled, and she suddenly seemed so much younger to him, yet impossibly ancient too. He heard the cracking sound of the Chalicar being pulled from the amphitheater floor.
“I am saying that your death has been a long time coming, Ta’anari,” said Myisha. “Some of you turned out not so bad, I suppose, but most of you were so damaged in the war with the Void, it’s a wonder you survived this long. Perhaps you and your kind were a mistake to begin with, but a mistake I can help correct.”
Even without eyes, Ta’anari felt the golden power of the Chalicar hovering just above him. Though his body was withered and all but spent, he cried out in agony as its edge split his chest.
Myisha whispered into his ear. “The power that coursed through this weapon touched you all, Ta’anari. It knows your kind now. And I give that fire to mortals.”
Her hands were inside him, and Ta’anari felt his heart being cut away, felt it being lifted from the cage of his cloven ribs... yet, still, he lived.
For a few moments more, at least.
“Idri-Mi,” she said, handing off Ta’anari’s heart, “take this and the Chalicar to your weaponsmiths. We will need to take a different approach in dealing with the rest of the...”
“Wait, what was that old word?”
She snapped her fingers.
“Ah, yes. That’s it. Darkin.”
- For a detailed look, see Twilight of the Gods.
- Twilight of the Gods serves as the first main event to re-introduce The Darkin into the new canon.
- was the host of the Aspect of Twilight during the Great Darkin War.
- It is revealed that Celestial's Kingdom above Targon's peak. is from the
- "Sivunas Alahair, the Bringer of Rains" is potentially based on the description.
- In order to help Ta'anari convince the others, not only did helped him locate , but also taught him how to channel it to both to outmight his foes, heavily funneling his vitality rather than being drawn mad, and release an empowered form of to reverse the Ascension away from the Darkin.
- From all the Darkin, only 10 were gathered (including Ta'anari), from which:
- Xuuyan died prior to the Ascension-reversal.
- Shabaka and Shabake were vaporized instantly by the Moonfall, with Syphax, Zigantus and Enakai dying to the moonfall a few moments later.
- Ta'anari's ascension was reverted and he was human once again. later removes his heart, but its unclear if this simply killed him or if she sealed him in a darkin weapon.
- Naganeka, Valeeva and Cebotaru managed to escape still as Ascended. Whether they are still alive or were eventually sealed, is to this day unknown.
- It was Ta'anari's three warrior former-queens, Teushpa, Sulpae and Idri-Mi, are the ones responsible to carry away the duty of commending their weaponsmiths to seal away the Darkin into weapons with tutelage.
- At the end of the story,  had absorbed the - for want of of a better phrase - Darkin DNA essence, which - combined with Ta'anari's heart - would allow humans to craft the weapons tailored to trap the Darkin at a later date.