Shards of Envy
The Staff of Sages: Right of Wisdom,
The Power of the Earth is felt.
The world shall crack, the skies turn black,
And mountains themselves shall melt.
Blood dripped from the corner of my lip into the pool below me, sending crimson swirls through the cloudy water and making the scavenger fish dart madly in search of its source. I was trembling, as much from anger as from the cold, and I hugged myself close, closing myself off from the world. My reflection in the murky water showed red, sullen eyes and wild dark hair that only half-covered the bruises and scratches across my face.
This should have been the greatest day of my life. The completion of my third full journey around the world. A day of celebration, a rare reprieve from our eternal quest to stay ahead of the relentless and merciless sea. The day I received the Animar I had been dreaming about for the past six months.
The tiny kit approached, nuzzling up against my leg to give comfort, but I shoved it away rudely, nearly sending it tumbling into the pool. Stupid thing. Mother knew I wanted the wolf pup, and yet she had chosen this tiny fluffball. No matter what element I bonded it to, it would never be truly useful for scouting or fighting. I wanted more than mere companionship.
To make matters worse, Skiff the navigator’s son – my arch-nemesis – had received the wolf pup. It was too much to bear. Even now, hours later, my heart still carried a trace of the heat that had surged through it. My hands knotted themselves into fists of their own accord, and my eyes glared back at me in my reflection. I could still hear the echoes of the roaring in my ears, like the rush of waves surging to drown me.
There was another memory lingering there as well, something quickly fading but never fully forgotten. A silent song. A strange sense of yearning. A subtle whispering…
The ring of metal hooves on stone distracted me from the thought, and I felt the dread that anger had held at bay come flooding in. The chieftain was coming, and for all her noble qualities, she was not known for her mercy. Even as her daughter, I was not immune from the administration of justice. Quite the contrary, in fact, as I would suffer the consequences both in public and in private. And this was the worst thing I’d ever done.
I considered running away, but I knew that was futile. I couldn’t survive on my own, and fleeing my fate would only make matters worse when I returned. Best to do as Father would have done, and tackle the matter head-on.
Scooping up the dumb kitten anyway, I tried to stand tall and proud, but it was hard not to shrink as Adamant, my mother’s bull Animar, came striding through the omnipresent mists. He was a brazen beast in both attitude and form, gleaming bronze from horn to hoof, filled with power and surety. My mother, sitting on his back, seemed every inch his equal, despite her short and slender frame. She seemed calm, but I knew that her calm was more dangerous than a thunderstorm.
Adamant huffed, making the fog swirl, and the kitten in my arms mewed back meekly. Our newly forged soul-bond let me draw a bit of courage from the tiny thing, giving me enough strength to look in my mother’s eyes. She met them without malice, and easily slid off Adamant’s back, We studied each other in silence for a moment.
Sighing, my mother walked straight past me and sat down at the edge of the pool, dipping her toes in the water. She patted the stone beside her, inviting me to sit next to her. Wary of this unfamiliar tactic, I sat down, tucking my legs underneath me. I didn’t like getting wet when I could help it, and they weren’t long enough to reach the pool in any case.
Mother stared into the fog, as though her eyes could somehow pierce the Cloud Sea. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s my fault,” she said. “Half his size and you still dropped him.”
“What?” I was confused. “You didn’t do anything. I known I shouldn’t a hit him, it just-”
“Hush, child.” With effort, I bit off the torrent of words pouring from my mouth. She turned to face me, and I could see that she was cloud-lost, her mind elsewhere. It was an expression I almost didn’t recognize on her.
“Your father used to be the leader of the tribe,” she said distantly. “He was suited for it. He was a man that could truly lead people. Make them cautious without being fearful. Make them work without resenting him. He’d make you love him…”
A single drop of water rolled down her cheek, but that must have been the rain starting early. I listened intently, as Mother rarely spoke about Father. I knew very little about him, only that he had been well-liked by the tribe and died trying to save a lost boy during a tempest. I’d often imagined the sort of hero he was, but I had always suspected the truth didn’t truly align with my daydreams. Now I wasn’t so sure.
“I was his second,” Mother continued, “so I took the job, but I’ve never been good at it. Not like he was. He’d make you want to do something, I’d want to make you do it. And those first few months were rough. Dark-to-dark marches with little more than boiled seaweed and algae broth. Five times I had to fight – really fight – just to keep control. To keep us together. Didn’t know I was carrying you until later.”
All thought of punishment forgotten, I was hooked like a flounder. This was like hearing some old legend of when the sea was flat and men feared to see the sun, something strange and wonderful and frightening.
“Y’think that’s how come I fight so much?” I asked eagerly. My mother regained her predator focus at the sound of my voice, and I regretted speaking instantly.
“Maybe,” she said sternly. “But I think you’d be a fighter either way. You take too much after me, and I haven’t taken the time to teach you temperance.”
“I thought my temper was the problem!” I blurted.
“Temperance, child. That means you master your temper. There’s a time to fight and a time to make peace. Sometimes you have to cuss somebody raw, and other times you have to swallow it. But you have to learn which is which, or you’ll end up riding the tide.”
I stared at the pool beneath my feet, watching the little creatures dart about, trying to scrape together a living from the ocean’s leavings. Just like us.
“How d’you know when to fight and when to take a lickin’?” I asked.
My mother wrapped an arm around me. I almost shied away from the unfamiliar touch, but after a second, I returned the gesture half-heartedly. “I wish I could give you a simple answer, my dear, but I can’t. You’ll just have to figure it out like the rest of us.” She paused. “Why did you fight Skiff?”
I was suddenly reminded of the stupid kit in my lap. It lay curled into a tiny ball, purring softly. I tried to hate it and found I couldn’t. “He got the pup I wanted.” You gave it to him, I almost said, but thought better of it at the last moment.
“That’s life, my girl. We’re only a little better than the worms, forced to wander and too weak to claim a better place. There’s a lot to envy in this world, and I won’t blame you for it.”
Not exactly the encouragement I needed. I let go of Mother and started to stand, willing to accept my punishment at the nightly meeting. I took one step before my mother caught my arm and dragged me back. She caught my face between her iron-firm hands, holding me captive and forcing me to meet her eyes. The force of her intensity hit me like a tidal wave, and her eyes blazed with the passion of the sun, branding her message into my heart.
“Listen carefully, child.” she demanded. “Envy can destroy you if you let it. It is a poison that leaves your soul weak and your mind warped with jealousy and fear. But if you master it – if you master yourself – envy will be your greatest ally.”
I found myself suddenly short of breath, my heart racing with inexplicable thrill. “How?” I whispered.
She pulled me to her, so close that our noses touched, her fingers digging into my skin. Even though she whispered her answer, her conviction was strong enough to defy the gods. “When they look down on you, rise above them. When they think you are weak, prove them wrong. Make yourself mighty, Kaea, and when you want something?”
She gave me a predator’s grin, the last smile of her life. “You take it.”
The time had come at long last. Back at the beginning of things, standing before the Spire. The faint, rippling glow of the little creatures within the water lanterns reflected on the twisted black stone in strange, alien ways, almost as if it were alive. To think that I’d spent so much time searching for ultimate power, and it had been hiding here all along.
I had come so far since I last stood here. It was harder to think of what I’d lost.
I laid my hand on the twisted stone, reaching for its soul. Solid stone parted before my fingers like water, sliding aside and rippling at my touch. As I pressed deeper, the stone began to resist my efforts, growing thicker, like tar, rebelling against the touch of my soul. I pressed on, bringing all my will to bear, forcing it to yield before my strength until it cracked and crumbled and fell away like so much sand, revealing a green glow so bright it threatened to blind me.
My fingers closed around the handle of a staff.
The barge rocked under my weight, wet timbers sounding with a hollow thud as I raced by on bare feet. Midnight – my Animar, now the size of a housecat – raced behind me, obsidian claws gouging into the slick wood for better grip. Rain pounded around us, beating the mirror surface of the shallow sea into hammered silver, and thunder growled ominously in the distance. It was fitting weather for a duel.
From the heavy thumps behind me, I knew that Skiff was not far behind, making his way up the chained barges with worrying speed. His Animar Crusher had grown as well, a gangly but dangerous wolfling. It was bonded with bone, a stark, skeletal white easily visible through the gray curtains of rain. I glanced back to see it snarling at me, gaunt face leering like a skull, fur bristling like a coat of ivory needles. They were both angry and both injured, Skiff’s face a mottled mess of bruises and cuts, Crusher marred by chipped flesh and swathes of shattered fur.
They were still faring better than we were. Midnight’s ear and tail were cracked badly, and aside from my own bruises and cuts, I thought I might have a broken rib. Every breath felt like a knife in the side.
I fought to stay focused. Couldn’t think of Mother’s passing. Had to focus on the consequences. Skiff had challenged me for leadership, but he would surely lead us to ruin. I had to win. I had to win, but I had underestimated Skiff.
Injured as I was, my best chance at victory lay in finding the right battlefield. And so, teeth clenched against the agony, and eyes squinting against the rain, I ran. But not fast enough.
Skiff’s foot caught me in the back of the knee at just the wrong moment, making my leg buckle. I nearly dashed my face into the corner of a crate, but I managed to twist aside at the last second. I took the blow on my side instead, which turned out to be far more painful. My broken rib erupted in agony, and my vision flashed white with the pain. I landed hard on my back, head swimming, but some fighter’s instinct surfaced through the pain and made me kick out. My heels crunched painfully against the bony stomach of the wolf, stopping the snapping fangs only inches from my exposed throat.
The Animar crumpled, laying in a heap on the deck. Even with the protection of the bonded material, it was possible to get the wind knocked out of you. I felt as though I’d been tumbled through a rockslide, muscles battered and bones bruised. I wasn’t going to make it.
Through teary eyes, I could see Skiff closing in, wielding an old wagon spoke like a club. He was seething with anger, his face as red as a boiled crab. I was faster and better-trained, but he had the advantage of height, weight, and male musculature, and the bastard knew how to use them. My advantages were neutralized.
I was going to die. To Skiff.
Something trembled and sang within me, like the plucked string of a harp, some invisible connection leading… somewhere else. It was a thing of contradictions, soft and hard, near and far, cold and hot. Vast. Incomprehensible. Then, just as quickly, the indescribable sensation vanished, leaving me gasping from awe and pity, empty and full at the same time.
Just before Skiff could crack my skull against the timbers, Midnight launched herself from the crate I’d landed on, glass-razor claws extended. Skiff ducked to one side, but Midnight managed to catch his shirt and drag him to his knees. The club fell, rolling overboard with a small splash. By then, I had risen to a crouch, driven by some force I could not fathom, and I threw myself into the fray.
For a wild and breathless moment, we were a tangle of thrashing limbs and grasping fingers, fighting for position like a pair of battling tomcats. Skiff was stronger, but with newfound fire, I managed to claw my way to a superior position, robbing him of his strength with strategic holds, slippery maneuvering, and underhanded tricks.
With Midnight’s help, I finally managed to pin Skiff’s arm with hand and knee. My right hand found its way to his throat and began to squeeze, applying pressure to both arteries and windpipe, just like my mother had taught me. Skiff bucked and fought to no avail, eyes bulging from exertion and blinking madly against the rain as he struggled against the weakness beginning to consume him.
It was a strangely intimate moment. The world shrank around us, centered around the touch of flesh on flesh, the claiming of a life. Everything else faded in importance – the pain in my ribs, the hair in my face, the leaping wolf…
By pure reflex, I thrust out my left hand, catching the bone-wolf on the snout. Startled, the wolfling snapped at me, catching my hand between its cruel teeth. I don’t remember if I screamed, but I know that my grip on Skiff’s throat stayed firm, even as his Animar savaged my flesh, thrashing his head back and forth madly.
Skiff fought back while I was distracted, but Midnight was a storm of black glass, a fury of shards tearing his flesh to ribbons. As painful as the injuries must have been, Skiff paid no heed to them, instead straining his whole body to push my fingers back a single precious inch. He succeeded, drawing a thin breath, but it was enough to renew his vigor. His eyes were wild with anger and panic, and I could feel the strength returning to his struggles. I had to regain control quickly.
Ignoring every instinct, I thrust my hand deeper into the wolf’s maw, until my mangled hand was practically crawling down its throat, until it gagged and choked on my blood. Skiff looked at his companion in horror, feeling the animal’s panic through their link. I used his distress to reassert my grip. I would lose the hand for certain, but I would win this tribe. A small enough price.
The wolf soon collapsed, too loyal to let go and too weak to go on. Skiff spluttered something, his lips moving soundlessly. I wasn’t interested, but I made the mistake of looking into his eyes. After a moment much shorter than it felt, I relented, just enough to allow a faint whisper. I wouldn’t deny a man his dying words.
“I–” he coughed feebly. “I surrender. Quit. Forfeit. Just don’t… just don’t kill Crusher?”
I looked from Skiff to his dying Animar, and then to my ruined hand. I could feel the weight of the tribe members watching from a safe distance, but I spared no glance for them. Instead, I looked at Midnight, poised to strike. Her little chest heaved with earnest exertion and her eyes shone with life – elegance and passion and pride drawn in every line of her. I’d hated her once, but now…
Wincing at the pain, I withdrew my hand from Crusher’s throat, not daring to look at the mess. After a half-second of consideration, I released Skiff as well, working the cramp from my shaking fingers. I was dizzy as a drunk, but I somehow managed to rise to my feet, using the crate for support.
The deck swayed beneath my feet, and for the first time in several minutes, I noticed the rain and the wind, and for once I found them refreshing rather than oppressive. The tribe members were standing in silent witness on the surrounding barges. I met each of their eyes in turn, gauging – no, demanding their acceptance. Their obedience. Some gave it more readily than others, but I found no true defiance among them.
“I am your chieftain,” I croaked. “I do not have my father’s gift. I do not have my mother’s wisdom. But I promise you this: give me your unquestioning loyalty, and I will take you farther than they ever did.”
Nobody stepped forward to pledge their allegiance. But nobody spoke against me, either. It would do, for now. Somehow, in that moment, I could see it so clearly, like a vision just beyond the clouds. They all saw a bloodied and ferocious woman, practically still a girl, but in that moment, I saw myself as I truly was. A conqueror. They would see it too, in time.
I checked on Skiff and saw that he and his Animar were both still breathing. Seeing them so broken suddenly reminded me of my own wounds, and all thoughts of glory were swept aside by a wave of pain. I sat down on the crate suddenly, pressing my bloody hand to my side, only to reignite the fire in my ribs. But there was one command I had to give first, even if I couldn’t fully understand it myself.
“I claim Skiff as my husband,” I declared through gritted teeth. “Mine and mine alone. Got that, Skiff?” He lay still, but when I kicked at him, he nodded slightly. “Good. Now somebody get me the ungod-damned healer.”
That’s what the Staff was: pure, unbridled power. I could feel it just beneath my fingertips, tingling like lightning, quaking like thunder, burning like ice. Power beyond anything I had ever imagined, past anything I could comprehend. Infinity bounded within the grasp of my hand.
It was everything I’d sacrificed for.
All that I’d dreamed of.
It scared me.
Here, on the brink of Godhood, I was afraid of getting wet feet. I could have laughed, but I felt as though my laughter could shatter the ground on which I stood. It was far, far too late to turn back now. I was master of the dry earth, and queen of all that lived, but I was not the maker of my own fate. I could see it clearly now. I’d never truly had a choice.
I heard laughter, a voice in my head that was not my own.
Are you so sure?
My warriors leapt into action, surging forward as one mass, a wave flowing uphill. Those with the strength to bond stone and metal took the lead, followed by weaker soldiers and lesser beasts to shore up the gaps left by the dead. The Mooneater tribesmen held their ground, presenting a hedge of bristling spears and waving clubs. A small group of men armed with swords and fierce Animari swooped down to protect their injured Chieftain, but they did not have time to retreat to safety. The battle was joined.
Skiff stepped to my side, and we spent a brief moment surveying the battlefield, ensuring everyone was in their proper place. The Mooneater highlands were carved into a series of terraces, connected by a serpentine stair. After conquering our way to the prime position among the wandering tribes, we were finally ready to take one of the peaks. The opening negotiations had been less than polite.
Once I was satisfied with the state of the battle, Skiff and I locked eyes for a moment, saying everything that need to be said without having to speak. He had grown much in the past two years, both in stature and in wisdom, but he knew his place and kept it. I could leave command of the battle in his hands.
I took off at a dead sprint, racing for the flagging eastward flank. Crusher and Midnight fell in on either side, keeping pace easily. Crusher had grown large – and then kept growing – until it was clear he had some direwolf heritage in his line. His bone form had been augmented with black iron, arranged to protect his most vulnerable parts and enhance his already deadly natural weapons. Skiff had arranged the melding so that Crusher looked like some skeletal specter, but he had a fearsome amount of muscle hidden beneath his exterior. Many warriors had surrendered at the mere sight of him.
As for Midnight…
I’d once despised my mother for giving me a cat instead of a fighting beast. Only after she died did I realize she had given me both. Midnight was more than a mouser or even a wildcat.
She was a tiger, a creature of infinite grace and deadly elegance. The glass-like delicacy of her obsidian form had been reinforced with bands of cruel black iron that mimicked her natural stripes, affording protection from hammers without hampering her uncanny agility. Crusher was a thing of nightmares, but Midnight was the monster that kept you awake at night.
She was still a harmless kit compared to what I had become.
I ran for the retreating chieftain and his guards. Their Animari rushed out to block our path – a drake, some sort of large lizard, a pair of dogs, and a proud stag with gleaming metal antlers. We split up with a mere thought; Crusher taking the dogs, Midnight cutting off the drake and the reptile.
The stag came for me, spear-point horns lowered and ready. One of the guards let out a war cry even as they retreated, confident that his large Animar would easily impale me. A few years ago, he would have been right, but I had learned some things since my first fight with Skiff.
I took a deep breath and reached.
All at once, the knots of worry in my mind untangled and snapped taut, like guy-lines in a storm, singing with the strain of power and bringing me perfect clarity. Those same lines extended outward, connecting me to the great web of life and death that bound all things. Over the course of many battles, I had learned to decipher the complex weaving of souls and fates as they twined together and apart, until I could catch glimpses of the pattern even as it was forming. As far as I was concerned, I had already won this fight.
The stag was charging at full speed,but that meant nothing when I knew where every hoof would land. The thrill of battle consumed me, heightening my senses and slowing my sense of time. I could hear every tone in Midnight’s scream of war. I could see the faint silvery glimmer playing over the stag’s spearpoint antlers. I could smell the mingled scents of clean grass and sharp blood.
Strongest of all was the sense of touch. I could feel the roughness of the stone beneath my bare, callused feet, and the pulse of blood pounding in my veins. I felt a sense of glory and power so strong that it could not be contained.
I felt… alive.
When the stag was only a single stride away, I reached again – inward this time – and touched my soul to one of the bands around my arm, binding us. In the space of a heartbeat, liquid lead rippled across my flesh, a suit of living armor and a source of inhuman strength.
Metal screeched against metal as we collided. Although I was much smaller than the stag, we were now nearly equal in weight – my lead against the stag’s nickel or tin.
The proud Animar was unprepared for my sudden transformation, and it staggered drunkenly to one side before tripping over a root and tumbling down the hillside, out of the fight. I had already turned my attention elsewhere.
Midnight was moving like water, effortlessly graceful. The drake was already down, its complex form of interwoven vines and branches now little more than a heap of kindling. The lizard was made of tougher stuff – rough jade, from the looks of it – but my tiger had it by the tail, and swung her head to bash the thing against the rocks, cracking it open. Both of Crusher’s opponents were still standing, but they were badly hurt, overwhelmed by the direwolf’s sheer power.
I left them to their work. I had spotted an opening, and I intended to take it. The broken hillside was home to a dozen skirmishes, like a game of stones being played on an giant board without turns, each player racing to seize key positions and pieces. It was my goal to win the game, and that meant taking the Mooneater chieftain quickly.
I sprinted up the stairs, passing by a dozen battles with barely a glance and destroying anyone foolish enough to get in my way. Animari tried to block my path, but I could slip past the largest ones and dispatch any others. Warriors attacked me with swords and clubs, but I bonded iron just long enough to shield myself and resumed my chase, leaving them behind.
The Mooneater chief was hampered by the fighting as well – our young and elderly were filling the air with a hail of slingstones from a distance– but it wasn’t enough. He had already gained too much ground, and more men were falling into position, defending the stairs with enough men that even I could not fight my way through in time. It was time to try something desperate.
Screaming defiance, I pulled the strands of my soul so tightly they threatened to snap, wrapping them around my mind like a cocoon. My heart danced within my chest, and my senses grew so acute that I could have written a manuscript about the details I perceived in each unfolding second.
There was another connection as well, something deeper than water and stronger than storms. It flowed through me in a rush of power as brilliant as the sun, until I thought pure energy would begin to burst from my pores. Almost dizzy from the rush, I made the fateful gamble.
I bonded with the wind.
It was a feat that only a few throughout history had survived. In soul-binding, the flesh took on the attributes of the material, and the material took on the life and form of the host. Normally this caused little trouble, although many had difficulty reversing the bond, but elements like air and water were formless and fluid. In such cases, only the strongest souls could keep from drifting apart like a passing wind, and even then only for a moment.
Although I had never done it before, I knew from other feats that I was strong enough to hold myself together. But nothing could have prepared me for what it felt like. One second, I was a part of the world, fettered by gravity to the stone beneath my feet, bound together by the blood of my beating heart, tangled in the air spinning through my lungs.
And then I wasn’t.
I was a ghost, a pale shadow of my former self. My heartbeat was scarcely more than a butterfly flutter in my chest, and I felt breathless, my lungs unsatisfied. Even gravity felt like little more than a suggestion. I looked down at my hands and found myself invisible. No, not quite invisible – I could see a subtle stirring in the air where my fingers would be – but enough that nobody would notice unless they were looking.
I had done it. I had tapped a power known only in legends. I was ethereal, unseen, untouchable, with the power of the wind at my command. It was a power that most men could only dream of.
I was terrified.
I severed the bonding at once. My body reappeared, more slowly this time, bleeding back into existence as I fell to my knees. The chieftain was getting away, but for the moment, I didn’t care.
I’d never realized how badly I needed the anchors of self. My body, my people, my surroundings… they grounded me, giving me something to grasp, a place to stand and know myself. Being without that, even for a moment, felt less like bonding my soul and more like losing it. It was a torture I wouldn’t inflict on my worst enemies.
A club struck me in the back, snapping me back to the present. I cursed as I rolled out of my attacker’s reach, ending up facing the man. I bonded bone, leapt to my feet, and tore out his throat with my fingers. Crimson slicked across my ivory hand, sticky and hot. It reminded me of the day I’d lost the original to Crusher’s jaws.
I had sacrificed myself before. I could do it again.
The moment I remade the binding, time seemed to vanished, swallowed by the emptiness of the void. I only remember holding to myself with the desperation of the drowning, surrounded by the silent scream, lost in a maelstrom of nothingness.
When I returned to myself – what felt like a thousand years later – I collapsed at once, hugging the ground and weeping. I wrapped my arms around myself, eager to feel again, grateful even for the pain. It took a long minute for me to recover – savoring the the cool air and the solid thump of my heart. I wormed myself into the mud merely for the joy of the sensation.
My rejoicing was soon interrupted by the sound of booted footsteps, and a curious rasping hiss. I looked up to see the Mooneater chieftain, followed by his guards and his Animar, a massive slate-bonded serpent. As they came in view of me, they faltered and stopped in apparent consternation.
A feral joy filled my heart. Few feelings could compare with the satisfaction of the perfect ambush. I rose to my feet, rejoicing in the simple ecstasy of movement. I was plastered with mud and grass, but I felt like Maeris reborn from the depths.
To their credit, the Mooneaters recovered quickly. “Finish her,” the chieftain ordered, stepping back and drawing his sword. His guards stepped forward, leveling their spears at my heart. I noticed the chieftain’s Animar moving discreetly into the brush, but before I could figure out where it was going, the battle was joined.
The lead soldier lunged, thrusting his long-bladed spear toward my face. A mere twitch of my neck kept it from skewering my skull, and for an eyeblink, I could see my wild eyes reflected in the polished bronze of the blade. They were glowing.
I laughed, unsure of why I felt the urge but unable to resist. Then I went to work.
My good right hand shot up to catch the spear by the haft, and a flick of my arm sent my surrogate stone hand flying free, directly into the face of the soldier trying to flank me. Turning on my toes like a dancer, I plucked the spear free and broke off the shaft against another soldiers’s knee. I twirled past him as he stumbled, coming so close it almost seemed like we had practiced it. I slid the stolen spearpoint across his throat as I drifted by, as gently as a caress. He did not rise again.
The other soldiers fell quickly. I mounted the bronze blade to my shortened arm and cut through them like a scythe through seaweed, impervious to their attacks. I moved like the wind and struck with the power of the sea, a storm of violence. Within the span of ten breaths, I stood alone against the Mooneater Chieftain.
His slate serpent tried to ambush me from behind as he spoke, but I caught it with my blade arm and crushed its head beneath my heel. The chieftain gaped.
“What are you?” he demanded, outraged. “This is impossible!”
Strangely, I knew he was right. Nobody else could soul-bind like I could. Soul-melding was a subtle art, as tricky as catching eels. Most people had to meditate for hours before attempting even a single binding. Some, like Skiff, could do it every few hours. A true master with years of experience could enter a trance that allowed him to change between his most practiced bindings every few minutes.
I could do it continuously.
With a thought, I shaped the bronze of my arm-blade into a proper hand, then charged, armoring myself in bronze at the last moment. The Mooneater chieftain bonded himself to the flagstones, hoping to weather my attack, but I was unstoppable. The stone of his torso cracked beneath the point of my shoulder, and I thrust my hand in like a wedge, changing the shape of my false hand to pry the opening wider, until I could see the living stone of his beating heart. This time I did not hesitate. By the time I finished, only gravel remained.
“How?” the chieftain croaked, and then the life faded from his form, leaving only a still, lifeless statue.
I felt a surge of triumph. The victory was ours. I could hear cheers and howls coming from my people as they gained the upper hand in the battle. We had come farther than my mother could have ever dreamed, and we still had more conquests ahead.
But in the midst of my exultations, I felt a brief moment of worry as I thought of the answer to the dying chieftain’s question. Other souls were like the breeze I had tried to bond, constantly in motion, changing in response to desire, circumstance, and experience.
Mine was not. Like the mountain peaks, it stood firm and unyielding, changing only slightly as the years wore on. Where others fought to understand themselves, I simply knew. I relied on that certitude.
I pushed the thought to the back of my mind. It was time to celebrate our new homeland. Was I suddenly supposed to doubt the very source of my strength and ambition?
Perhaps I should have.
The voice was everywhere and nowhere, within my head and filling the vast and starry void. Infinite and intimate at the same time.
It was… familiar.
With the curse of understanding, fate and free will are not so different. You were chosen for this, but you chose this in turn.
The power was all around me now, but some impossibly thin barrier separated us, like a scrap of parchment keeping the ocean at bay. I strained to breach that barrier, but it danced just beyond my reach, teasingly.
I dug in and fought, straining myself to the limit, but it was only a poor imitation of the wild forces bound to the staff. I roared silently, demanding answers from whatever beings were in my head. If you chose me for this, then what are you waiting for?
Hatred burning claimed a crown, Sorrow won the sword. Only purest jealousy will grant you this reward.
Screaming would have shattered me, so I contented myself with rage. I had subdued the earth, and now, on the verge of holding the very powers that had forged it, I was expected to solve riddles?
You are wiser than you know, worldbreaker. You understood my touch long ago. You know what is required.
Envy. A fire that never died, a hunger that was never satisfied. I’d used it drive myself until the world fell at my feet, but now… what lay beyond this? Was I doomed to an eternity of dissatisfaction? Did I still want to take this power?
Did I have a choice?
Accept your destiny, Kaea. Let go. Jealousy suffers no rivals.
Let go of my people? My family? Midnight?
Not for all the power of the gods.
And yet, if I refused…
In one hand I held the world I had forged, and in the other, I held the earth itself, but to have one meant letting go of the other, and the wrong choice could lose me both.
I opened my eyes – my real eyes – and found my people gathered around the pitiless black tower of the Spire, illuminated in the glow of my own brilliance. I’d told them to leave. Why hadn’t they left?
In that moment, I understood.
I looked at those I loved for the final time, and whispered my last words.
My first fight was accompanied by gentle rain and a lullaby zephyr. So much had changed in the years since that fateful day. Skiff had become a wise and obedient leader, our Animari had grown into monsters and maneaters, and our lowly tribe had risen up and swallowed half the dry earth, victors of a hundred consecutive conquests. It seemed fitting that my final battle would take place in the storm of storms.
We stood in the midst of the maelstrom, only able to endure its wrath by virtue of our bondings – strong metal and heavy stone. To the east, I could vaguely make out the world-wave, like a mountain chain of raging water creeping inexorably closer. It was a display of unfathomable power, majestic and terrible. Kolbryn: Lord of the Sea, Slayer of the Sun, a mortal man consumed by the ungodly power of Despair. Even the might of the maelstrom was a mere harbinger of his coming.
I’d spent my entire life fleeing from tide and tempest, the pitiless power of Despair. I would run no longer.
But now I knew why we had.
The wind was a vengeful spirit, constantly trying to drag us from our feet or tear away our possessions, filling the air with a blank howl loud enough to drown the sound of trumpets. The rain fell in torrents, striking as hard as hailstones, pinging against the metal of our skin and weapons, running in sheets across the ground. Every few moments, like a slow heartbeat, the roar of the rain was broken by a crack of thunder, a shock of ungodly sound that struck you to the bone. Streaks of lightning chased each other across the black churning of the sky like dolphins, flickering playfully through the clouds before breaching the surface with a brilliant flash. The light was unsteady, but it came often enough to give us gray-veiled glimpses of the army arrayed on the opposing bluff.
Like us, the Drylanders were bonded with strong materials that would grant them protection from both the elements and their enemies. As we were nearly matched in strength, this would be a battle decided by tactics and endurance.
The battlefield between us was a broad, barren plain, forming a large channel that separated the mainland from its smaller sister during high tide. It was best known as the Wash, though some called it Kolbryn’s Pass, believing that the being himself passed through in his eternal pilgrimage. Looking at the twisted and tortured stone beneath us, I could believe it.
At times when the tide was high –as now – the Wash was wild, a mess of sloshing ponds and rogue waves, cut through with swift currents and snarled with whirlpools. Fountain sprays burst from the churning waters at unusual angles and irregular timing, the result of waves being forced through the maze of caverns beneath the surface.
And yet the waters were still shallow, leaving islands of various sizes and occasional passage between them, but no place was truly safe, and it would only grow more dangerous as the tide rose. There was no guarantee of victory. One mistake could leave us all at the mercy of the sea, our wars and worries meaningless before its magnificence.
One more battle, I told myself. After this, I will reign, supreme and secure. No more need of ambition or envy. Free to raise my child in peace.
I nodded to Skiff, and he raised the banner to advance. Lesser chieftains acknowledged the order and led their clans down the stairs into the Wash – Mossfolk, Mooneaters, and Hornbreakers on the left, Eels and Sunskinned to the right, and the former wandering tribes down the center.
I began, leading the charge, shaking the earth with my strides. Then I stopped. raising a hand to halt the rest of the horde. Skiff passed on the signal without question. I knew the other chieftains must be wondering why I would give such a strange order, but the sight that had prompted it was stranger still.
A man stood in the center of the Wash, surrounded on all sides by leaping waves and crashing surf, but completely untouched. Not a single drop reached his person. He was unbonded, in his natural form, but all the fierceness of the wind scarcely ruffled his hair.
As though he had felt my attention, the stranger looked up and met my gaze. He smiled, and then began to glow, drawing every eye to him. His robes brightened from white linen to pure sunshine, and a corona shimmered in the air about him, as though refracting the light of an unseen sun.
“He’s walking on the water!” Skiff cried, shading his eyes against the blinding light. And the man was – rising and falling with the churning of the waves without causing so much as a splash or a ripple.
For half a second, I quavered. I had never seen powers like this before. How could we fight such a being?
But then I felt the kick of the unborn child within me and took courage. Whoever this was, whatever he could do, he was not the sea, and so he could be slain. We were all mortals yet.
I descended, but did not give the signal for the others to follow. If anybody stood a chance of defeating the stranger, I did. If anyone was to fall by his hand… well, that was my right and my duty. I did not shirk the responsibilities of the station I had claimed. Sometimes I told myself that it made a difference.
I stopped at the edge of the water and drew my cleaver, a length of hardened bronze as tall as I had been at the start of this campaign. I kept the point low behind me, ready but not threatening.
The stranger likewise made no signs of aggression, his hands open and empty at his side. His light faded and died as he approached, but he remained aloof from the annoyances of wind and rain. Now that he had grown closer, I could see how they bent around him, as though he was surrounded by a sphere of perfect glass. Could I breach it? I shifted my grip on the cleaver, ready to swing at the slightest provocation.
The stranger halted just outside the reach of the blade, looking into my eyes without fear, as though we were merchants discussing a deal in some town hall, rather than enemy warriors facing one another on a storm-wracked field. He was an older man, tall, with wise and weary eyes to match his graying hair. From the jut of his proud chin and the easy nobility of his stance, I knew that this could only be the Drylander’s king, Sandring Skyreader.
Seeing the recognition in my eyes, Sandring nodded slightly, as though confirming my realization. Then, without ceasing eye contact, he carefully drew his weapon, a long-handled warhammer with a head that glowed fireshell red, as though it had just emerged from the furnace.
I didn’t attack. Not yet, not rashly, not with so much unknown. My people – my child – needed me. I would not start a fight unless it was necessary. I would finish the fight if it was.
“Kaea the Conqueror,” Sandring murmured, his deep voice somehow cutting through the tumult of the storm. “You must know you stand no chance. You are outnumbered, fighting on foreign lands, and facing forces you have never known. Our people have been entrusted with the secrets of the ages, hidden truths you can scarcely comprehend, things of gods and prophecy.”
He paused, as though awaiting a response. My only answer was to raise my sword in challenge. Sandring looked toward the stygian heavens and heaved an inscrutable sigh.
“Those very prophecies are what bring me here today. I surrender.”
With that, he dismissed his protective spells and knelt in the seething surf, proffering his weapon with his head bowed low. I stared for a long moment, suspecting some trickery, but the man showed no sign of deception or duplicity.
“Why?” I grunted.
The King remained in his place, his clothing growing sodden and filthy, his thin hair pounded flat by the rain, the picture of humility. “To fight fate is folly, great conqueror. You are the one foretold. All that I have is yours – the whole world is yours – but your destiny transcends that of tribes and tribute. One last battle, one last foe.”
It was a confirmation of every dark suspicion and terrible thought I’d ever pushed away, the culmination of my greatest fear and my grandest dream, a fate beyond fathom or fear. I’d conquered the world trying to avoid it, distracting myself with an endless succession of wars and petty jealousies. The knowledge was the opening of an abyss within my soul, consuming me from the inside.
Even though I knew the answer, I had to ask.
Sandring tilted his head, looking out over the madness of the Wash, past the drowning lesser peaks, through the haze and fury of the eternal Storm – looking to the wave that had drowned the world, and the being that held its reins.
It belonged to me, and I to it. There is no distinction between us, for we are one, bonded and bound, the infinite and the infinitesimal in perfect harmony, total union.
The shards are no longer words from Sandring’s dusty tomes, and more than some prophecy made by gods long dead or a faded hope at the end of a long journey. We are of one body and one soul, indivisible. We breathe together. We see together. And we act together.
I can feel the whole of the earth, every inch of soil and stone bound to me, their slow song ringing through my soul like a bell. The power is instant, immediate, effortless. I could make mountains or rend continents like lesser beings would raise heaps or dig furrows. Even now, at an idle whim, I was raising the earth beneath my feet, forming a pedestal, a monument, a temple to our might. But no edifice would ever be sufficient, for I had discovered the secret. This power came at a terrible price.
I felt the yearning to unleash my might and tear the world asunder, to grind the pillars of the earth together until the whole world shook and churned itself to sand. But I did not. There was some subtlety within the shards beyond my fathom, the smallest of quirks that kept them in check, forming a delicate balance, albeit an uneven one. My people would survive, and adapt, and grow strong. They must, for that was the terrible curse and the great blessing.
But there was one being that would feel the full force of my powers. Kolbryn’s reign was at an end. One tyrant to replace another, as the gods decreed, and none of us the wiser.
For all this, I did not hesitate, for the Shards were within my thoughts as well, and I had surrendered myself to fate the moment I set my path for the Spire. Kolbryn and his shards were my greatest foe, and Envy’s shards would suffer no rivals. Despair must be shattered, and Kolbryn slain.
Once I would have thought that it would be devastating, losing such great power.
Now that I understood, I envied his release.
Spurred to new urgency by this pique of jealousy, I reached into the very fibers of the earth, wresting control of sand and stone, claiming mastery over the earth just as I had its people. Half the globe was in my immediate grasp, from its tallest peaks all the way down to the secret fires of its molten heart.
Stone shuddered and then erupted around my human vessel, spears and columns thrusting me forward, rippling the earth in my wake like water. Rivers of red-hot rock burst from the ground like ungodly worms, slithering at my side and swelling with every passing second. Grains of sand came to life at my call, taking flight like a swarm of insects, a sandstorm to match Kolbryn’s hurricane. Through them, I could feel the changes in the air that signaled his approach.
For the first time in a thousand years, he had changed his course. He came prepared for battle.
And for the first time, I was prepared to give it to him.
And yet, as we rushed toward each other – two gods armed and armored with the very powers of the earth – I felt neither the triumph of conquest or the thrill of battle, for even as the shards and I were one, so was my ascension and my damnation.
I would forever live in envy of the life I had forsaken.
With a roar to end the earth, we collided.