by Antitonic and WriterRaven
Without disturbing even a single grain of sand, Liya manifested herself. Wherever she was, it seemed to be mostly desert. The sun bore down through a cloudless sky with enough intensity that she almost imagined she could feel it. Knowing she didn't have long, she extended her sense outwards, looking for a host body, without which she would be pulled home to her grave on the world of Melenas. Finding one wasn't a surprise, but what was a surprise is that there was only one. Usually, she had her choice of a few, and she could go with the one that was the most compatible with her possession. Still, she had precious little time to waste before her choice was made for her, so she willed her spiritual form to move towards the person she had sensed.
Dust clouds were being kicked up by a pair of people on mounts. Liya couldn't see through the dust clearly, but she could feel a compatible host. If she didn't speed up, she'd be left behind, and then taken home. She pushed herself to the limits of her spectral movement, and mentally took a breath to prepare for the sensation of assuming control.
The first thing she noticed was that the person she had possessed was wearing armour. Although she had spent years as Hadeel and other Knights of the Hallowed Order, she was unused to the weight. The second thing she realized was the mount under her was closer to a goat than a horse, and moved in a different way. The third thing was although her possession of this someone was total, it didn't confer knowledge of how the body was moving beforehand. All three of these facts dawned on Liya in one catastrophic moment that culminated in losing her balance, falling off the goat, and meeting the ground at speed in blunt force unconsciousness.
Fortunately, as a spirit, Liya no longer experienced the state of unconsciousness unless she so desired. She could remain in her host's mind and still maintain awareness of any active senses and the passage of time. This had allowed her to practice her abilities on Melenas, or to share a dream on Theros, but she still couldn't be apart for too long while visiting another's world. Liya took a moment to calm herself in the void of her host's unconsciousness before taking a risk and leaving the body.
The wind and dust had picked up in a rapidly brewing storm and the other rider had dismounted, urgently herding the stray goat back to her position. She could hear him yelling over the howling winds. "Come on Chaka, no time for a nap, Daghatar will have our heads if we're not back at the citadel before this sandstorm hits proper! If I have to tie you to this ibex to do it, I will!"
He paused, as if waiting for a response, before continuing, "Hah, fine, be like that, but don't you blame me for the smell!" Despite his words and quick movements, Liya could sense the affection and camaraderie this person felt towards her host, presumably the Chaka he had mentioned. As the rider lifted her prone body to her mount, Liya felt the pull on her soul trying to return home, so she retreated to the quiet of her unconscious host's mind. She didn't dare risk re-emerging while her host body was moving, so she contented herself with thinking about the little she had seen of this world.
It was hard to tell the passage of time without feeling, so Liya didn't know how long it had been when she started feeling warmth from without, followed by the sensation of weight on her borrowed skin. She opened her eyes, and came to staring at a stone roof.
"About time! Any longer and I was going to start asking the Wardens about you!" A familiar voice spoke up from the side of the room as Liya turned to face it. It was the rider from earlier, but he had shed the heavy armour in favour of a cloth tunic and pants. His skin was darkened from time in the sun, with a mess of dark hair spread in all directions from his head.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry you," Liya said, surprised at how light her voice sounded. She propped herself up on an elbow to sit up and face her conversation partner, but in doing so the fur blanket covering her fell to the bed's surface. The widening of the man's eyes and the slight breeze across her bare chest was enough to reveal to Liya at least one part of her identity: she was not the child she had been on Theros, but instead a woman grown. It also revealed that although the armour she had been wearing had been removed, the same luxury of replacement clothes had not been afforded her. She grabbed at the blanket in a blooming embarrassment.
"Wow, you must be feeling better!" The man said with a laugh, making a show of covering his eyes but doing a poor job so he could still see through. "Anyway, you don't have to worry about reporting in to Daghatar. I took care of that days ago."
"You've been out for around three days. Lucky we had good news for the khan, huh? Can't imagine what would've happened if we had bad news and you were out of commission." He laughed again before his face settled into one of poorly concealed concern. "Just look after yourself, alright Chaka? No one, least of all me, wants you trying to get back on your feet before you're ready." With a smirk, he was back to being jovial. "But, if you do decide to make acrobatic trickery your future, at least work on your landing!" He waved a hand as he exited the chamber, the cloth acting as a door swaying to a stop.
Liya waited a moment to ensure she had some privacy, and took stock of herself. Her skin was darkened by the sun, a copper swarthiness that was both familiar and foreign. Her arms and legs were sculpted from firm muscle and covered in healed scars, suggesting Chaka was a fighter, and a skilled one at that. She summoned her mirror, and barely kept her shock from being audible.
Sand and dusty winds had left her hair dry and frazzled, defying any consistent directions. What stood out the most was evidence of Chaka's past: a large scar left by an axe or sword that barely missed damaging the side of her right eye, marring her face from her forehead to the corner of her mouth, barely exposing bone at some points. Chaka had either worn strong armour that day, or had been lucky enough to turn her head at the last possible moment. The physical effect of the scar pulled the eyeball towards it, leaving her eyeline crooked. With some focus, Liya could align both eyes to the center, but that forced her vision to distort and double. Relaxing brought it back to normal, but left the eye wandering.
She laid her head back down, resting on the pillow. It was harder than she was used to, filled with dried reeds, but comfortable all the same. She closed her eyes, and allowed sleep to take her body. Inside, Liya was concerned. What would be required of her on this world? She wasn't a fighter, unless Chaka possessed magic to assist with Liya's lack of skill. Even then, it would take time to learn what magic she had at her disposal and how to utilise it. Then there was her deal with Erebos to consider. Was she still bound by it, ensuring the deceased made their way across the incalculable distance to Theros? If she didn't abide by it, could she even be punished from another world?
Faintly, she heard a horn blowing, pulling her body back to its waking senses. Opening her eyes, she could see night had descended and its chill caused her to pull the blanket close. Looking outside, Liya could see faint light coming through the carved window from torches in the courtyard below. Inside the room itself, a candle was lit to provide a modicum of illumination. The curtain at the door shifted as a woman entered.
"Oh good, you're awake. I suppose that means Suke will stop bothering me at every turn to know your condition." She set a cup down on a side table, walked across the room, and gently yet forcefully grabbed Liya's head. "Look up."
No sooner had Liya obeyed than the woman barked another order. "Down." Then "Left," and "Right". Her tone was brusque, but reminiscent of someone who had worked with medicine or healing for a long time, and was used to having their instructions obeyed eventually. There was no point in arguing.
"Straight ahead." Liya did so, but the woman corrected herself. "With both, if possible." She sounded slightly sympathetic at that. Liya focused, trying to align her errant eye by the memory of her appearance in the mirror. After a moment of uncomfortable eye contact, made worse by the fracturing of Liya's vision, the woman let go as her expression softened into one of caring relief.
"Good, everything's fine. Sorry to ask that of you; I know it's been difficult since the attack." Her eyes betrayed her by darted quickly to Liya's right side, taking in the deep scar.
"The attack? Oh. Yes, I mean, you know."
"Mmm." The woman agreed non-verbally as she turned towards a small table at the side of the room.
"Sorry, who did you say was bothering you?"
"Suke?" The woman's eyes narrowed in concern and suspicion. "Your partner? The man who came in earlier? He was riding with you when you fell?"
Liya panicked. "O-oh! Suke! I thought you said... uh, Sark!"
"Exactly! That's why I was confused. I mean, of course I'd know Suke."
The woman stared for a moment, before nodding, evidently satisfied. "Of course. I'll get you some clothes. Some kaf?" She gestured vaguely towards the steaming cup she had brought with her.
"Um, yes?" Liya replied, unsure. She'd never heard of whatever it was she was being offered. The woman pulled a bundle out from a trunk at the foot of the bed, and handed it over before leaving the room. The clothes were similar to those that both the woman and apparently Suke had been wearing: a rough woven material for a top and trousers, softer than Liya remembered from Melenas, but not as soft as her tunics on Theros. Liya took some time to admire her borrowed body as she dressed, Chaka's fitness could only help in what was needed, and Liya felt stronger than she ever had.
Before long, the woman returned with a second cup, made of clay with no handle, and steaming like the other. Liya took it in both hands, and the warmth suffused into her skin without burning. The liquid within was a dark brown, nearly black, and smelled strongly of earth and a hint of foreign spice. Taking care to not scald herself, Liya drank.
At first, she thought it had been a trap, a poison of some sort. It was so bitter, how could anyone enjoy it? Then, she tasted the spices. They danced across her tongue with just enough strength and delicacy to draw attention away from the stark bitterness of the rest. She decided she liked it. The warmth was already spreading through her as she suddenly realised how cold she felt.
Liya sat for a while, savouring the drink, as the healer shared the room in silence. Once more the curtain dividing the room parted, allowing an armoured man to enter.
"Pardon the intrusion at this hour, but the khan is holding audience, and has called for Chaka to attend."
Liya and the healer exchanged looks, confusion meeting concern, before the healer nodded. "You don't need to stay here, and it must be important, so go."
Liya followed the man up to an open area on the roof, dominated by a massive tree. It took her a moment to register that several people were gathered, facing a seat that appeared to be made of a translucent orange crystal. The man seated on it was tall and thin, but solidly put together. His armour was more ornate than others she had seen, but from his presence, Liya would be foolish to assume that it was merely decorative.
The man accompanying her announced her to the audience. "My khan: the scout Chaka, as you requested." The man in the throne waved his hand, and Liya's escort gave a small bow and returned to the side of the plaza to join with a rank of his fellows. He spoke to her, voice commanding from the distance, "Please, be seated." He gestured towards a cushion positioned in front of the throne, next to another taken by a man dressed in layers of fur.
"Yes, uh... my khan." Liya hesitated, then copied the small bow the escort had given and sat down. At first she was unsure of how etiquette dictated she should sit, but she emulated the man in fur's position and seemed to draw no attention. A name echoed in the back of Liya's mind, and putting information together, she assumed this was Daghatar, and that "khan" was equivalent to a lord or king.
Daghatar spoke again, addressing the man in furs. "There, you have your guest. Now, will you finally tell me what is so important that you'd risk much to leave the frontier, alone, but refuse to disclose without a common scout present, even under instruction from a khan?"
The man in furs made a seated bow. "I apologise again, khan of the Abzan Houses. The whispers of the Unwritten often make no sense to those for whom they are not intended to hear. This month past, one of our shamans heard whispers of one of your warriors that would suffer an accident, though minor, and that they would need to be present for another reading. There were other visions associated that I assume make sense to this warrior that would mean nothing to others. With your permission?" He asked, gesturing towards Liya. Daghatar nodded, and the man turned towards her.
"Alongside visions of you and another falling, the shaman spoke of a great plain dominated by a fortress of stone, ruled by the faceless ones. Of a child both young and old. Of creatures of night given form. And of death, many times. Does this reading of the Unwritten sound of you?"
Liya was stunned. How could anyone know about her life? The places and people she'd seen and knew. Fighting back tears, she simply nodded. The man turned back to face the khan. "And you, oh khan of the Abzan?"
Daghatar shook his head. "Nothing but words. You've made your point. What do you ask?"
"The shaman was quite sure that what whispers they could hear from this warrior would not only be important to both the Temur and Abzan, but could possibly save every clan of Tarkir from destruction. So on behalf of my khan, Yasova Dragonclaw of the Temur Frontier, would you consider allowing this warrior to be her guest, and attend our shaman? We swear that no harm should come to her by Temur hand."
Daghatar considered this for a moment before continuing. "I will allow this, with some provision. My sister-kin is one of my scouts, and as such, is accustomed to working in tandem with another. You will bring both with you, and both shall be extended the same protection you offer to one. Further, if this offer is breached, I will personally lead all the forces at my disposal to bring ruin to anyone or anything bearing the Temur name. Secondly, they will also be extended my personal protection, the details of which I will not divulge to one not of my house. Suffice to say, if your word and the word of those you represent are honourable, you will have no reason for concern from it. These are my terms."
The Temur messenger bowed again. "It is so agreed. You are much fairer than anticipated. In truth, my instruction was to accept any terms you felt necessary, short of bloodshed."
Daghatar barked a short laugh. "If I had known that, my terms would have been far more extreme. But no, I am a man of my word, and the terms will stand. I expect you will be leaving as soon as my scouts can be prepared?"
"Then you will be escorted to your mount, to await their arrival." With a wave of his hand, Daghatar signaled one of the armoured guards to escort the messenger to the entrance of the citadel.
"Now," Daghatar started, addressing Liya and the assembled others. "I didn't name you sister-kin just for the ceremony, but that you're aware of how you should be receiving this instruction. I trust you to act as honourably as I would expect, lest you tarnish your name and that of all of the Abzan. Who is your partner again?"
"...Suke?" Liya guessed, less confident than she sounded.
"Yes, I remember now. Learn what you can, and if this is as grave as it appears. I wouldn't put it past any of the other khans to try something, but this is too specific to be a trick. As for the other..." He reached for a bag tied to his belt, and produced a small piece of the same orange crystal. "I trust you know what to do with this if necessary." He held it out towards her. Liya, taking the cue, stood and took the crystal in her hands. It was warm, and the reflected light almost made it look like it had a miniature sandstorm inside it, ever-shifting.
There was something else too. Liya focused on the feeling; it was like the feeling of being pulled away home in her spirit form, except only in her hands. But then, it was also hard to look away. Not impossible, just difficult; it kept drawing her vision to it.
"Thank you, my khan." is what she tried to say, except it came out as a mumbled slurring, as if her tongue didn't know which way to go. She tried to step backwards, but her legs didn't move the way she meant them to, and she started to fall.
One of the guards broke rank to run up and catch her before she fell too far, taking the crystal in one hand and supporting her with the other. "Whoa, easy there," the familiar voice said. Liya looked back at the guard to see Suke's face bemused beneath the helmet. The pulling feeling in her hands had stopped, and everything else relaxed. She tried to shake off the confusion she felt and answered, "Sorry, just a little dizzy all of a sudden. It's fine now."
Suke turned to Daghatar. "Apologies, my khan. I am Suke, the scout partner of Chaka here."
He nodded. "Good, that saves the time of calling you to me and explaining. Mount up, and travel as soon as you can. Try not to make that necessary." He pointedly glanced at the crystal. "The dragons have been encroaching on our lands enough as it is; we can't afford a clan war, despite the threat."
Liya started to ask about "dragons", but before she could speak, Suke snapped a salute punctuated with "Yes, my khan!" leaving Liya to quickly copy it. Apparently judging that to be their dismissal, Suke carefully led Liya away; she followed him to the staging area of the citadel.
"What happened there? Are you alright?" he asked.
"There was something with that crystal..."
"The Ancestral Amber? What do you mean?"
"Like it was pulling me in?"
Suke looked at the crystal, bouncing it a little in his hand. "...No?"
"Maybe I was just imagining it, and I was dizzy from standing too fast or something," Liya offered. Suke laughed and clapped her on the back.
"Yeah, that's probably it. Not like you're dead or anything, walking all upright like that."
Liya stopped cold. "Sorry, what?"
Suke spun around, with a serious glare on his face. "Maybe you've been dead this whole time, and this is your eternal damnation. Forever bound to the amber of the kin-tree you're buried under. Or worse, you're still alive, and there's a malevolent spirit possessing you, trying to use your skin as a disguise." He stared at her for a moment, before he betrayed himself by laughing. "I really got you, didn't I?! You should see the look on your face! I'll remember this forever!" he sputtered between raucous laughter.
"Come on, we've got to get going," Liya said, coldly. She didn't appreciate being made fun of, even if he was technically correct. She stalked off, leaving Suke to chase after her.
"Oh come on, Chaka. I was just kidding! Wait up!"
They met up with the messenger and his mounted bear by the citadel entrance. Suke and Liya each took an ibex, and Liya requisitioned a set of armour to match Suke's. The ride from Arashin to the outer ranges of Qal Sisma took four days, which would have been shorter had the three not encountered a young dragon hunting for food. The Temur messenger, Talsu, charted a wide path to avoid it.
Once they entered the lowlands that signaled the change of territory, Talsu produced a pair of white cloths and handed them to Suke and Liya. If they held them aloft while they rode through, they would not be attacked for their clan membership alone. Suke initially showed the cloth disdain, but Liya wasn't taking any chances, and, seeing himself outnumbered, Suke relented. A good thing, too, because Talsu seemed to ride them through the center of a number of Temur encampments. The watchful eyes were hard to avoid, but they respected the symbols of peace the three rode under.
Eventually, they drew to a halt outside a mountain cave. The climb had been a challenge for the pair of ibex, but the bear showed no signs of extra fatigue. Just before entering, Talsu held his hand out to the other man, barring his entrance. "I'm sorry, but this isn't for you. I ask that you wait outside, unless called forth."
Suke didn't care for that, and was quick to make it known. "What! If you think I'm going to come all this way just to sit outside... Who knows what you're going to do to her in there?! I can't..."
Liya cut him off. "Suke. Please. I'll be fine; you know me. Just watch out for our mounts, so we can return safely. Can you do that, for me?" She was bluffing, with no actual knowledge of Chaka's skills. She had been unable to find out her abilities while under such close company, and that was concerning enough. She didn't need to incite war for her mistakes.
That seemed to do it. He still kicked the snow in frustration, but saw to the mounts without much further complaint. Liya turned to Talsu. "Please, after you."
The cave was noticeably warmer than the exterior, with the smell of smoke emanating strongly from every direction. Just past the entrance, Liya lost track of which direction they had come from, as the smoke thickened just below the point of choking. Talsu stopped just short of a banked campfire, and spoke, "Whisperer, I bring you the Abzan warrior you sought."
Liya couldn't see through the haze at first, but it seemed to clear, revealing a hooded figure seated against a wall. The walls themselves were covered in painted figures and drawings.
"You have my thanks Talsu. You may leave." The Whisperer's voice was that of an elderly woman, roughened by continued exposure to smoke.
"Are you sure? But what if she..."
"She won't. I have heard from the Unwritten, it is neither of our places to do as you fear."
"If that is your wish." Talsu shot an unreadable look at Liya and turned to exit.
The Whisperer spoke again, hand gesturing, "Your journey must have tired you. Please, be seated." Liya complied, wary but speechless. "I know some of what you are, but there is much that is still shrouded. What is your name?"
"Chaka, of the Abzan."
The hooded figure nodded. "And your name?"
"I just said..."
"I know, but if you insist, our hospitality ends here. I did not call for one of the Abzan, but another."
Liya was shocked. How much did she know exactly? "...Liya."
"It is good to meet you Liya. On behalf of the Temur clan, I extend welcome to you." Liya started to speak but the Whisperer cut ahead, "You don't have to worry. I will keep your secrets. They are imperative to the reading, and it is not my place to divulge them at whim."
Liya sighed in relief. Though she had no real reason to, she felt she could trust the older woman. She was suddenly filled with the desire to tell her everything, to finally talk about everything she had been through over the last 100 plus years. And yet, it was tempered by doubt. What if she was to blame for it all? What if, by telling someone, she would be breaking some rules that she didn't know, hurting people because of it? Ultimately, she opted for silence.
They sat there by the fire, crackling wood the only sound between them. Liya wanted to ask what was going to happen now she had come, but as soon as she made any noise, the shaman hushed her gently. After a minute or so, the shaman spoke, her words coming out soft and distant. "Guide me. Give something of yourself to the flame. Both of you."
"What should I do?"
"Anything. It need not be physical. Mayhap a secret." The Whisperer sounded a little more alert, like Liya had interrupted her trance somewhat, which made Liya wince apologetically.
Liya reached up and removed her helmet. She grabbed a few strands of Chaka's hair and, with a sharp tug, pulled them loose and surrendered them to the fire. Her own offering was more difficult. What could she even give, being a spirit? She thought for a moment, before a possible answer came to her.
Unsure if it would even work, Liya knelt closer to the fire, and whispered to it. "When I was a young girl, I had an imaginary friend named Patoo. Once, I stole a pie and blamed it on her." She had never told anyone that, and the memory made her smile at the childishness of it.
Maybe it was a trick of the light, but when Liya straightened up, it looked like the smoke had thickened. Whatever she said must have worked. Her smile slipped a little as she realised she didn't know what she had said. Something about a friend, and some food maybe? She felt fear as she tried and failed to recall the memory.
Another moment passed in silence before the Whisperer spoke again.
"You walk the stars, by forces dark pursued.
I see it in your eyes, your mind, your soul.
When dragon's spell doth aid an ancient feud,
Thou walkst the first of steps to be made whole.
An adversary grim leads their onslaught,
In land familiar thou shalt prepare,
The shaper is thy charge, though knows it naught,
And burden sealed in stone is thine to bear.
From shattered vault you fly to city-world,
A friend you seek shall see a friend in need.
The War grows near, ascendant's wings unfurl'd,
And when it's done, thy fight thou shan't concede.
The path is clear, the way be true, and hark!
Thy future's thine, when soul is lit by spark."
Her voice had a strange tone to it, not dissimilar to how Liya sounded to herself in spirit form. The effect was unsettling. The shaman took a deep breath as the smoke appeared to thin again. When she spoke now, her voice sounded as it had when Liya first entered.
"Take need of the words spoken here, for their significance falls to you to understand, as does the fate of the Unwritten of all the clans of Tarkir. Failing to do so ensures disaster for all."
"But what do they mean?" Liya asked.
"They are for you. Whether that means now or later, it is all the same. I can only offer this and the visions I saw: a dragon, furious and blinding; the noonday sun devoured by night; the Seeker of Power; and you bowing in service. Beyond that, the whispers of the Unwritten hold little for you. Now, you may take your leave."
Liya waited a moment before it became obvious she had been dismissed with no further conversation, so she stood and made her way to the entrance. The path seemed much shorter and clearer than it had on the way in. She reached up to shield her eyes from the harsh difference in light, and saw Suke seated next to their mounts, which had been secured with a wooden stake to the ground. Talsu stood by his bear and was the first to notice her approach.
"So, it's done then," Talsu said, a statement and not a question. Suke leapt to his feet.
"What happened in there? Are you alright?"
Despite herself, Liya laughed. After all the strangeness, Suke's behaviour was oddly reassuring. "I'm fine Suke. I'll tell you after; for now, we should be on our way, to avoid wearing out our welcome." Talsu just nodded and turned to his bear, preparing to mount up. Suke fumbled a little in the cold, but with Liya's help, they were ready soon after. Together they made their way back down the mountain and through the encampments, white cloths flying.
Talsu guided them to the territory border, and, taking back the white cloths, wished them well and parted from their company to head back into the mountains. The first time they made camp after, Suke practically cornered Liya t with what surely were all his questions and thoughts. Even if he was Chaka's compatriot, Liya felt reluctant to tell him everything that had happened, because how could he understand? She managed to fend off most of the queries by repeating the prophecy to him, though he understood it less than she did.
"One thing I know is," she said, leading the conversation to a close, "I'm going to need to learn how to fight. You can help with that, right?"
"What do you mean 'learn how'? We've been training for years!"
"I... I mean fight better. Obviously I can fight; otherwise I wouldn't have... beaten you that time?"
Suke laughed. "Ha, you wish! That was a fluke, and you know it!"
Liya laughed along with Chaka’s partner, but also in her own nervousness. She had nearly revealed herself without thinking. She'd have to be careful with everything she said in the future.
Liya crumpled under the mace's strike. She was still getting caught out by the sidestep. Still, she felt guilty over taking advantage of her abilities. Over the last week, she had managed to learn of Chaka's magic: the ability to make oneself stronger and faster.
Suke extended his arm, which Liya took gratefully, and helped her to her feet. "You're still looking too…straight forward. You need to watch everything, but without losing focus. Still, you're doing much better. We'll have you back to fighting fit in no time."
"Still don't know what happened?"
Liya shook her head and continued to lie. "Whatever that shaman did to me still hasn't worn off. But as you said, I'm improving."
A slow clapping broke the moment, as Daghatar stepped into the training pit. "And yet, you show promise. I wish you had told me instead of burdening yourself with it, but there is wisdom in your actions. I confess, were I in your position, I fear my emotions would best my pragmatism." He gave a wry smile before resuming his usual manner. "Still, that isn't why I'm here. I said that you show promise, which is true as far as my eyes can see, so I would ask if you wished to train with me. That way, your skills would return to their original level, and I can hone my own in return. My usual training partners have been reluctant of late with everything going on. What do you say?"
Liya didn't know what to say. It sounded good, but she worried about keeping up her disguise under more strict scrutiny, and that left Suke by himself. Would Chaka do that to her partner?
"What about Suke?" she asked. "Could he join in too?"
One of Daghatar's eyebrows started to rise in a questioning manner before Liya added "Uh, my khan," realising she may have been too late to get away unnoticed with forgetting.
Suke made a disapproving noise and elbowed Liya in the side. "What are you saying?" he hissed.
"Ow," Liya said. "I mean, what?"
Suke turned to face her. "You've wanted to be one of the elite warriors for years. Since I knew you at least. And now that the chance is practically handed to you, you worry about me?"
A chill ran down Liya's spine. Had she messed up? "I'm just so used to having you by my side, is all."
"This is good for you. Just say yes, and don't worry about me." Suke laughed a little. "Besides, the way you fight, I'll be your commander in no time!"
His acceptance made Liya relax a little. She turned back to Daghatar, who was making an obvious point of examining the condition of the training ground around him so as not to be seen to be eavesdropping or waiting. Noticing the conversation had ended, he refocused his attention on Liya.
"My khan, I would be..." she started, before a booming crack of lightning and thunder interrupted. Liya had seen a dragon tempest before, on her trip back from the shaman, though that had been at a distance and only for a moment. Everyone knew the storms brought dragons, much like childbirth brought babies, but none knew the cause.
As the first drops of rain touched her skin, Liya knew to get ready. The storms only produced rain at the epicenter, where the dragons would descend. An organised chaos broke out within the citadel; horns blew to rally, warriors ran with purpose, collecting arms and armour to stand against the oncoming foes.
The storms usually lasted a scant moment, yet this one gave no respite, raging on for what felt like hours. Until suddenly, it stopped, calming and clearing as quickly as it had arrived, with no dragon in sight.
The collected fighting force paused, unsure what to do, a few daring to exchange puzzled glances until Daghatar called out with an uncertainty to his usual commanding tone, dismissing the assembled troops to their original positions. Suke sidled up to Liya, his eyes still peeled to the clear sky above. "I think that shaman might have been onto something after all."
Liya said nothing, just nodding. If this truly was the beginning of the prophecy, what did this mean for her?
Liya returned her sword to the rack, and rolled her stiff shoulder. Although her partner for the day's session had been one of the regular warriors and not the khan himself, the effects were still present. Daghatar's training over the past months had been a dramatic step up in intensity than what she had experienced with Suke, and at every step she had been afraid of revealing herself with her inexperience in combat. If Daghatar or any of the other elites she had been training with noticed, they had not questioned it further than the Temur shaman's magic still affecting her skills. On the bright side, her reliance on Chaka's magic for pure survival and the lie to cover her inadequacies had been diminished by her legitimate growth in combat prowess.
A part of her wondered if she had known before what she knew now, would she have been treated the same way by the Knights of the Hallowed Order?
Unfortunately, her position as Daghatar's preferred training partner had resulted in an amount of distrust among some of the elites, who wondered why she was getting the preferential treatment over them. Liya had been transferred from the scout barracks to nicer accommodations closer to the khan, and received a commendation to justify it. On top of that, being separated from him meant that she saw Suke only in passing, or at times when she was being called and couldn't stop to rekindle the friendship, which made her feel guilty about what that meant for Chaka once she left.
She was pulled from her reverie by a messenger standing to the side, about to draw her attention. "Yes?" she asked, taking the initiative. Judging by his small shocked reaction, Liya suspected the messenger thought she had been further lost in thought than she had been, which amused her, thinking her fighting skills were more useful than expected.
"Warrior Chaka, the khan calls for your attendance by the Amber Throne." He gave a quick salute, and dashed off, presumably to carry the message to others. Liya briefly considered taking the time to change from her practice armour to something a little more comfortable, but decided that if the khan was taking audience from the throne, it was most likely something that needed more immediate attention, despite how the sweat made her skin crawl.
She walked the now familiar path to the raised seat at the base of the First Tree, in the open chamber on the roof of the fortress. There Daghatar sat, a thoughtful expression on his face as he stared into the middle distance.
"My khan, by your request, I have come," Liya announced herself, complete with the traditional salute. If nothing else, the near to a year as Chaka had been good practice for maintaining a disguise. She waited for his acknowledgement before taking a seated position in front of the throne and slightly off to the left, as social graces dictated for her standing.
Daghatar remained silent for a moment before addressing Liya. "I have received reports of a Sultai force heading directly for us. As I'm sure you know, this would not be noteworthy under normal circumstances. But with increased draconic activity closer to our outposts than ever before, it's unusual for them to travel so far without apparent cause. Then there's your prophecy."
"Since you informed me of what was said at that unfortunate meeting, I've been thinking it over, trying to understand it. I believe we are at the precipice. 'When dragon's spell doth aid an ancient feud' could only refer to that strange dragon-less tempest when I asked you to train with me last year. And what is a Sultai attack if not 'An adversary grim leads their onslaught'? If this is correct, we need to take action. Your troop should get ready by tomorrow morning."
"My... troop?" Liya asked, a little confused.
Daghatar looked mildly shocked, as if not expecting her hesitance. "Yes, your troop. As the prophecy is apparently tied to you, and involves the survival of all the clans of Tarkir, not just the Houses of Abzan, you will be tasked with leading a small force to combat this threat. I cannot join you, unfortunately; my attention is required along the northern trade roads. There's been an unusual increase in dragon attacks on our supply caravans, and as strong as you are," he said, with a gentle smile, "that dark magic is still draining you from your full capabilities. The Sultai can be dangerous, but nothing you can't handle."
Liya felt a panic. This would be a task that would stretch her limits in both body and spirit, and that was before the prophecy business got rolled into it. "By your leave, my khan. I need to assemble my soldiers, then."
"Traversing the sand wastes is no small order for the regular forces; take a scouting contingent with you."
Liya nodded, and saluted once more, rising to her feet. She knew just the man for the job.
Travelling through the desert was never easy, but it was made worse by Suke's reluctance to talk. Liya thought that even on the job, as it were, having the chance to be together again would be good, but any time she attempted to get close to him, he found a reason to get away; be it needing to issue orders to his scout team or insisting on taking point in directing the collected soldiers. She could see the bluff ahead that the tactician had picked for an intercept with the Sultai; their archers would have prime position from the elevation, and it was easily defensible in the case of close combat.
Before she had noticed, Suke drew up next to her on his ibex. "We need to talk," he said, indicating with his head an area off to the side, away from the others. His voice sounded odd, almost choked, like he was holding back anger or tears.
Liya started to talk, "Suke, it's good to see you again. How's your training been...?"
"Cut the shit, Chaka! Do you have any idea what you've done to me?!"
"Oh, don't act like you don't know! We were together for four years! I was going to ask you to marry me! And now, NOW, as soon as Daghatar shows an interest, you offer yourself on a silver plate, with not even a thought!"
"That's not..." Liya protested. Suke continued to yell, oblivious or just not caring about the crowd starting to take notice.
"SHUT UP! I don't believe anything you say anymore! Stupid me, here I was thinking 'Oh it's just a mistake, she wouldn't just abandon you after everything you've had,’ but you never once, NOT ONCE, came back to me. NOT ONCE did you talk to me instead of him. You... whore!"
Liya stared, shocked to speechlessness by his words. She didn't even notice she had punched him until it was done, blood already streaming from his nose. Instead of fighting back, or shouting more, he just laughed. It wasn't the warm, friendly laugh she remembered, but once of bitterness and cruelty.
"So, I see how it is. That's fine; you enjoy being the saviour of Tarkir or whatever. I'm leaving." He wiped some of the blood from his face with a gauntleted hand and flung it at Liya in a show of disrespect. He mounted his ibex once more and turned to ride away, with a shrill whistle to signal his scout team to join him. He stopped, just on the outskirts of the area they had been in, and looked back. "I thought you loved me," he said sadly, before turning away and riding off. Some of the warriors Liya had chosen to join her rode with him, amidst comments of "That's what you get," and "I always thought..."
Liya just watched them leave, despair hitting her like a stone. One of the remaining warriors, a woman maybe around her age if not a little younger, walked over to lend her support. "Come on, don't cry. We still have a job to do."
"I'm not crying," Liya said, before realising she was. Or at least, her body was, experiencing a more powerful sadness than she felt. Could Chaka hear what happened? Did she know?
A distant horn blew, announcing the Sultai attackers. Liya issued commands as best she could given her inexperience. The loyal warriors filled in the gaps where they could, allowing for what they interpreted as Liya's distress to cover any missteps. She might not know as much as they did, but even she could tell it wasn't going to be enough, unless they got very lucky. She could see now, they had needed the full force they had initially brought. The scouts leaving was bad, but the defectors of the main force were the killing blow. As if to compound the bad day she was having, the skies opened up in a rare rainstorm. At least it wasn't a dragon tempest.
The Sultai forces were visible now, despite the rain. Undead horrors shambling, nagas slithering, and humans starting to run. And at the forefront, a cloaked figure in black leading the charge. With a cry of "Abzan!" Liya joined the fray.
She swung her sword in now-familiar motions, using magic to reinforce when an errant strike looked like it would hit, allowing her to take the blow with ease. And still, the enemy swarmed. Her soldiers cleared around her, taking some of the pressure off, pressing forward where they could, but ultimately allowing the enemy to approach as was the Abzan way. The cloaked figure cut through one, Liya thought it was the woman from earlier, but wasn't sure in the melee, and spotted her. They broke into a sprint at the sight of her, and Liya took a defensive stance. Their swords clashed in fluid motion, a dance of death in which neither could afford a misstep.
Liya dodged and parried, locking blades with the enemy so that neither could safely disengage. The movement allowed her to see into the cloak; the man fighting her looked sick. His skin was soft and showed signs of decay, almost seeming to be falling off in places, but unlike the other undead she had faced, his eyes showed a dangerous light of intelligence and awareness about them.
"Finally," he growled, barely audible above the rain and battle. "I've found you, Liya." The emphasis on her name was impossible to miss.
"What? Who are...?” Liya started to ask before the ground erupted in a blast of light.
She was sure she had blacked out for a second, but tried to regain her footing. Injured, she stood before a descending dragon. The cloaked man had been blown further away, as had the majority of both sides of the conflict. She saw him stand up, look at the dragon, then back to her, before giving her a jaunty wave and vanishing in a veil of shadow. She could feel an echo of a pulse within her chest. That same power that allowed her to travel to other worlds had reacted to his disappearance. Does that mean he's like me? she wondered.
The dragon landed with a heavy thud, while an aven man floated down elegantly next to it. The dragon spoke in an unintelligible rumble, while the aven translated. "So, those that call themselves Abzan indulge in necromancy alongside their Sultai brethren. Mistress Dromoka will need to be informed. She had planned to be lenient on the others, but this news will distress her so."
One of the warriors spoke up. "What do you mean necromancy? We do nothing of the sort!"
"Oh?" The aven asked on behalf of the dragon. "Then why do you consort with the undead?" And the dragon raised one clawed talon and pointed it at Liya. "This cannot be allowed to continue. Your sentence has been decided." The dragon reared back, and, to a one, breathed its deadly breath of light across all present on the battlefield, Sultai and Abzan alike. None, save the dragon and its attendant, were spared.
Liya opened her eyes, not realizing she had been bracing for the impact. She was back in her own form, her spiritual body floating over an area of baked sand. Looking around, she could see the spirits of each of the warriors that had remained with her, equally puzzled. Clearly, they had not expected to die quite so suddenly. The dragon and the aven were already flying away. One of the warriors looked over at her and, with a similar spiritual echo, asked, "What did you do?"
She had doomed them all, yet all she could say was, "I'm sorry." She looked to her right, and there was Chaka, seen for the first time from the outside since Liya had arrived on this world. She could feel the pulling of her soul reclaiming itself to her home, yet she didn't fight it. She just kept saying "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry" over and over until she was back home again. She floated under the shade of the tree that marked her grave, and wept.