Vengarl stopped in the shadowed path between the black cliffs. His skin prickled. Impossible. It was only midday, yet there was magic in the air.
There. On the western cliff. Ribbons of violet haze curled away from a fresh, jagged crack running down the cliff's face. A tremor must have ruptured an underground gas pocket. A small one. This gift would not last for long. Vengarl stepped into the mist and lifted his arms, palms upward, allowing the Breath of Creation to envelop him.
It sank into his skin.
It flowed through his veins.
It expanded his mind.
It brought him closer to Oldir. To the Rigid God.
Vengarl could feel Oldir's will, Oldir's cold purpose, Oldir's dark heartbeat pumping just beneath the fragile skin of this universe, a surging web of veins within the Void that even now throbbed with anticipation. The final masterstroke against the corrupted cycle was at hand. Vengarl and the rest of the chosen ones, the Forged—the Tribes—needed only to wait for a little while longer.
Ascension is nigh, promised Oldir.
But all too soon the swirling mist melted away in the breeze. The waves of bliss lingered only a few moments longer.
No more of this magic would arise until sunset. Then it would fill the entire mountain, just as it did every night. Why? It was the will of Oldir. All Tribes, high and low alike, were surrounded by His glory until the sun rose and His gift faded away. Every night, all Tribes were equal in His dark gaze.
Not so in daylight. In daylight one had to earn his or her place. That, too, was the will of Oldir.
Heavy boots crunched on small broken rocks behind him. Having followed him all the way to the Lonely Mountains. "Master Vengarl." It was his subordinate Ji'nara, approaching him cautiously. "You are needed."
She was the Fifth Ascendant. He was the Fourth, one link higher in the Chain of Ascension. One day she would try to kill him.
But likely not today, Vengarl thought. He didn't bother turning around. "It can wait," he said. He wanted to survey this location for further magical pockets. If more will arise here during the day…
"No, it cannot," she said. "Master Nuroka sent me. He wishes to speak with you."
"Very well." As the Fourth Ascendant, Vengarl could not disobey First Ascendant Nuroka any more than he could disobey Oldir. "Did he say why?"
"He has challenged Highlord Ma'lash to Shir'Rak," Ji'nara said. "One of them will die tomorrow."
Silence filled the canyon. Vengarl showed no reaction, made no movements. He couldn't. It was as if all of his thoughts had frozen solid in an instant.
Was she lying? No. Absolutely not. Ji'nara was cunning, not reckless. If she were to lie about this, Vengarl would gut her and leave her corpse for the hungry wolves. She had seen him do it to different subordinates. It had to be truth. "Interesting," was all he said. His other thoughts he kept hidden from her. Just as she was hiding hers from him.
"Did you know?"
Finally Vengarl turned around to study her expression. "Yes," he said. That was a lie, of course.
Shir'Rak. There hadn't been one of those among highly ranked Tribes in months. Oldir's plans were so close to blossoming. Once they did, every living Tribe would rise to glory under Oldir's new order. Challenging the Highlord in a fight to the death? Now? It was madness. Why would Nuroka…?
Ji'nara was watching him closely. Vengarl's next words would determine whether she would join the ritual.
He met her eyes. "Will you fight tomorrow?" he asked.
"Perhaps," she said.
"It should be quite entertaining. Highlord Ma'lash does not permit his challengers to die quickly," said Vengarl. This must stay contained. If too many ascendants joined the fight—if too many Tribe leaders died—the chaos could delay the Rigid God's plans by months. Or decades. Vengarl would gain nothing from that. If Ji'nara stays out, none beneath her rank will dare join. Not for a Shir'Rak this unexpected. He put an edge on his tone. "Enjoy watching. I would hate to kill someone of your competence."
She didn't seem to react. Only the slight twitch of her shoulders beneath her black, jagged armor betrayed her emotions. "I understand," she said flatly. And it was clear she did. Ji'nara would not fight tomorrow. "Master Nuroka instructs you to go to his quarters," she said.
"Very well," said Vengarl, dismissing her with a sharp gesture.
Ji'nara left without another word, glancing over her shoulder at him. She would talk. That was good. Vengarl wanted the others to believe he would declare himself as a combatant. But he did not want them to know for whom. If they were confused, so much the better.
It would mask the confusion within himself.
Vengarl left the canyon along the narrow path that had brought him there. It was not far to the Tribe outpost, but it was time enough to think.
Questions weighed heavily on his mind. Who would join the fight? Whom would they fight for?
And how many could Vengarl kill?
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