The story focuses on a civil war in the territory of Nekrabal, as two factions - one devoted to Bershaevol, Goddess of Deception, and the other to Haekrabal, Many-Armed God of Perfection - fight to secure the Tower of Haeol in the middle of the Anghar river of lava; only to discover a centuries-old secret locked within the tower itself. What secret is it? Will it liberate the factions and end the civil war? Or will it spur the deaths of many more in the names of their lost gods?
AKRABAL GORGE, Nekrabal (10 Augury, Tae 2484), The Territories of Zargandar
"Move!" Against the torrent of ash-clouds and geysers marring their field of vision, General Keshande ordered his lieutenants and twenty thousand armed Khaveran warriors to charge down the southern wall of stone-hewn cliff-side steps of the Akrabal Gorge.
It was midday but with the ever-present rain of ash and dust, the sun was lost in the darkness and it might as well had been night. Strong-muscled, teal-eyed and pointy-eared, his long braided hair caked in the blue-green paint of sheepskin leather known as the Embe, and his ebony-black skin already coated with layers of powdery volcanic dust, Keshande knew they had to reach and reinforce the tower before Uruth and his Aksuri army emerged from the north side of the gorge.
As Keshande zigzagged his way vertically down the narrow, dust-worn ancient steps, two and three bounds at a time, he wielded his ebony fighting spear like a lever as a prevention from missteps and tipping over to his death. He was wincing like the rest, readjusting to intense heat rubbing against the braised leathery soles of his bare feet.
A thousand feet below him, was the thick and wide river of lava of the Anghar, belching hot, boiling fire along the dark divide of the gorge. Coming down along either side of him, their orange-red dresses and multi-colored bead-and-bone armor shining against the light, were two of his closest lieutenants - Umbakwe and Shakhdin. Following close above them, came the stampeding roar of his Khaveran army; their feet stomping down the steep incline like herds of light-hoofed mountain ibexes.
In his three hundred years of fighting this civil war with the Aksuri, Keshande, now a middle-aged ebon elf at four hundred and fifty years old, had been here a few times, initially as a boy, to train with his grandfather, father and uncles, before passing the rites of passage and becoming a general of the city of Khavera. Now, he wore the mantle of his tribe to lead the army himself. He remembered taking on guard duties at the tower before, years ago, when the Khaverans wrested control of the tower from the Aksuri two hundreds years before. Now, it seemed the Aksuri were rallying to retrieve what they had once lost.
"Umbakwe! Flank around towards the rear of the tower. Shakhdin and I will take the front!" Keshande shouted. Umbakwe raised his spear in acknowledgement, then ululated towards six thousand of his elite warriors, most of whom were females. They zigzagged down the incline in leaps and bounds, steering left away from Keshande and the remaining fourteen thousand.
The general can feel the intense heat from the Anghar lava river pushing up against his face now. He could see the charred and skeletal remains of the inhuman dead from deep beneath the earth bobbing along its molten surface. Steam shot up from the river like mad unpredictable geysers, hissing against clouds of ash and brimstone. As they ran, Keshande and his men used the vambraces strapped to their left forearms to shield themselves from loose rocks and sand flying onto their scalps and faces.
In its entirety, the Akrabal Gorge was a three-hundred-mile-long canyon of black powdery sand and tough granite rock, formed over many centuries by the persistent angry flush and flow of the Anghar river of lava. The river itself stemmed from an underground source deep below the surface, but through the millennium, had consistently flowed from cavern to cavern and finally emerged, exposed and angry, near the north-western volcanoes of Nekrabal, where they merged with those from Teranghar and Zhuul.
At its widest, the gorge was about ten miles from one cliff to the opposing side, but at its narrowest, the two cliffs were about a mile apart. With depths between a thousand to two thousand feet, the Akrabal Gorge was never deemed to be cross-able at any point, except by air (if the acid rain and geysers did not catch the intruders mid-flight first) or via its shallowest point, which was right at its center (near the one-hundred-and-fifty-mile mark).
It was also there at the center of the gorge, near the shallowest point - loomed the haunting Tower of Haeol, built nearly four thousand years ago on the backs of thousands of enslaved hands and feet. From a treacherous base, Haeol can only be accessed via a zigzagging path up to its first-level stone-door three hundred feet up, before rising another eight hundred feet to stare half-a-mile level across the plateau of both cliff-edges. The apex of the tower itself was so smooth and narrow that anyone stupid enough to take a half-mile magically-aided leap from the edge of the cliff towards the minaret will find it difficult to grasp onto it and slide off to a fiery death. Those who dared, never lived.
The Tower of Haeol was built four thousand years ago as a symbol of peace between north and south Nekrabal. However, cultural and religious differences between the northern Aksuri and southern Khaverans soon came to a head and a raging civil war to control the tower and rule Nekrabal had become part of the territory's ever-present history.
When Shakhdin and his warriors reached the basin at the front of the tower's base, they spread out across the black sandy floor, relieved that they were on solid ground. On both sides of the basin and the tower base, the Anghar lava river had forked around and converged farther down the gorge, continuing its south-easterly flow towards the Ekrab Sea for another hundred and fifty miles.
For the rest of the Khaverans not on the basin, they used their lava-resistant ebony spears to pole-vault themselves across giant cracks, or hopped from one molten rock to the next before their feet caught fire. Eventually, they spread out and rested on the T-handle of their spears, perched across the lava flow like crows on sticks. General Keshande was among them, sticking the bladed half of his spear into the lava and settling himself like a bird, surveying the cliffs and gorge for any signs of the enemy. He motioned for most of his men on the basin to position themselves nearer by the pathway entrance.
The pathway was amply wide at about twenty man abreast, snaking upwards along a rocky rise, crisscrossed by streams of lava that hissed like luminescent snakes, before reaching the actual foot of the tower. Keshande and his forefathers had never been inside the tower gates, let alone enter any of the twenty tower floors, as he had been taught, and reminded repeatedly, that the tower interiors were holy and sacred, and no mortal was allowed inside. This tradition had been respected by all Nekrabali, especially the warring Khaverans and Aksuri, since the beginning. So it seemed that the tower of Haeol had been nothing more than a symbolic representation of which faction held authority over Nekrabal's future.
"It is unfortunate," Keshande's father had said before he passed, "that the reason why we're fighting for control of the tower is because we believe in different gods. The Aksuri worships Haekrabal, the Many-Armed God of Perfection, while we Khaverans believe in Bershaevol, the Goddess of Deception. Your priestess of a mother might blame me for saying this, but I think the Gods and Goddesses are just playing us for fools with their perfect deception in this ridiculous war we're fighting. Someday, it must end, and when that day comes, my son, I hope that it is because of you, Keshande."
"Nose sharp, ears sharper, eyes sharpest!" Shakhdin's youthful voice rang loud and clear suddenly, and his instructions were echoed all around by his commanders to the rest of the army. Shakhdin had joined his men near the pathway entrance, waiting for Keshande's command. The general's second lieutenant was way more skinnier than Umbakwe. He was just shy of a hundred fifty years old, an adolescent by ebon elven years, but in the Khaveran dialect of the Nekrabali, Shakhdin meant sharp eyes and a clear mind; traits that the boy potentially had, perhaps far more compared to his first lieutenant.
Keshande had a stronger bond with Umbakwe of course, who was much older than the general and nearing retirement. Unlike Shakhdin, Umbakwe had way more military experience and battle-scars, having fought wars with Keshande's father, and had a definite penchant for humor and dance, and more wives than livestock. He was also chosen by Keshande's father as his closest friend and confidant, of which Keshande had learned much from since his father's death.
Against the hisses and belches around them, surrounded by tall black cliff-walls of darkness, Keshande smiled, relieved and comforted to hear Umbakwe's clicking voice echo from beyond the basin in response to Shakhdin's command, indicating that the elite army had also spread out and were waiting at the rear of the tower base. All they had to do now was wait. Based on information from Umbakwe's lookouts, General Uruth and the Aksuri army were hours away across the plateau, and there was only one way down to reach the tower: the northern cliff-wall of the Akrabal Gorge.
Suddenly, Keshande and his men heard the rumbling of thousands of stampeding feet near the top of the northern cliffs. The ground began to shake, setting off loose rocks, dust and sand onto those closer to the edge.
"Arrows ready!" Keshande bellowed, reaching for his short bow and poison arrows from the strap on his back. As the rumbling grew louder and a dust-cloud began to form above their heads, Keshande adjusted his toe-holds against the handle of his spear and took aim.
He frowned as he heard another terrifying stampeding noise coming from his right, farther down the basin along the gorge, where the lava river flowed out towards the Ekrab Sea.
"General! Aksuri has descended the gorge nearer to shore and are coming towards us from the south-east!" Shakhdin shouted, pointing towards the chasm beyond where Keshande perched. They can hear Umbakwe's ululation growing louder as he too heard the noise and had begun to panic.
"Quick! Signal to Umbakwe to hold his ground. Have our men line and block the pathway towards the tower! We must not allow them access!"
Shakhdin understood the command and whistled to the rest. Just as most of the fourteen thousand warriors began to move and converge near the pathway leading up towards the tower, the first of Uruth's Aksuri warriors, their eyes aglow with bluish light, came leaping out of the misty darkness from above the walls of the gorge.
Across his field of vision, Keshande witnessed Aksuri warriors, similarly dressed as the Khaverans except for headgears and masks to cover their faces, tossed short spears and swung curved knives at his army. Many were caught in a volley of poison arrows from his men, but to his surprise, most of them remained unfazed, plucking the arrows like sticks and resuming their attack. What surprised him even more was the fact that they were trudging through the lava-fire without screaming. As their feet and ankles surged up in flames, melting to the point of flayed skin and charred tissue, they remained battle-hungry and focused, flinging whatever weapon they had before collapsing and writhing silently in a heap of fire.
It is the Aksuri way, Keshande thought to himself, they worship perfection and so block out all pain before death.
The Aksuri had definitely evolved. Keshande remembered how they were like when his father's army took over the tower two hundred years ago. He recalled meeting Uruth, then a teenage ebony-skinned shamanic warrior under the tutelage of a reputably strict sorcerer-master. Uruth's master had admitted defeat then, passing the key to the tower to Keshande's father; the same onyx key which now rattled within his belt pouch. A key which was never meant to open any of the gates within the tower...ever.
With the cliff-side Aksuri defeated, most of whom dying on their own accord in the river, Keshande quickly turned the aim of his arrow at whatever it was that was charging from the gorge to his right. Several of his warriors, including Shakhdin, came forward to provide him with support. The dust-cloud storming down the gorge began to clear just as the rumble of the stampeding noise grew louder.
Their eyes widened when they saw the Aksuri riding mountain bulls and rhinoceros towards them, stampeding across the river of lava like it was another bed of solid rock. Leading the charge was an Aksuri woman of extreme beauty; her ostrich-feathered spear-tip glowing in a bright blue light, her trance-like eyes shrouded by a translucent bluish glow. She had braided black hair with peacock feathers and a perfectly shaped face that drew immediate attention. Her entire body was tattooed in symbols dyed in red and orange. She wore painted tree-bark armor reinforced with bone, leather-skin and beaded onyx.
"Aksuri shaman!" Shakhdin shouted, urging the general to retreat towards the pathway. The panicky second lieutenant realized that they needed to move quickly as the herd was closing in fast or they would be trampled any minute. It also became clear to all of them that the shaman's magic was keeping the herd from sinking into the river.
"General Keshande! We need to move back to solid ground!" Shakhdin warned. Keshande however, wasn't listening. He was so mesmerized by the Aksuri shaman and her charging herd, no more than fifty yards from where he perched, that his nocked arrow and bow fell limply from his hand.
"Keshande!" Shakhdin screamed, realizing that the general was caught in her spell. He swung downwards from his spear-perch, feet barely touching the molten rock on the ground, before vaulting back up to grab the General and leap to safety. The rest of the warriors perched around them could not move back in time, screaming as they were trampled in a blind stampede that pushed them into drowning fire.
In the midst of billowing dust, splattering brimstone and angry steam, Keshande finally blinked and shook his head, watching the herd rumbled past them. He stared at Shakhdin, his face sweaty, wiping dust off his eyelids, cheeks and forehead.
"No Shakhdin. That's no ordinary shaman. That's Uruth. He is now a woman."
Over the past three centuries, General Uruth, a shaman of the Aksuri tribe had harnessed the power of Haekrabal to perfect not just his magic but physical form, becoming a seductress with great power. (Reference images sourced from https://app.artstation.com/artwork/bNNPv & https://www.artstation.com/artwork/bq6rv)
"Then we need to defeat him! Her I mean!" Shakhdin pulled Keshande back up on his feet, "we need to alert Umbakwe!"
"No, leave Umbakwe and his elite army where they are. He may be able to out-flank them, if we time this right. Come with me. We need to join our men at the pathway and defend the tower."
Keshande led Shakhdin along the side of the gorge, keeping to the edge, staying hidden behind boulders and clouds of dust. They crouched behind a rock just as the shaman signaled a halt by the edge of the basin facing the pathway entrance. She lowered her glowing spear and the translucence in her eyes faded. She looked across at the Khaveran army standing guard on the pathway, then around at the cliff-faces and gorge.
"General Keshande!" The commanding voice was unmistakably Uruth's but female. She spoke loud and clear, willing her voice to travel along the gorge to get his attention, "it has been a long time since we last met!" Keshande was certain Umbakwe would have heard her as well.
Uruth steered her rhinoceros about, her eyes searching to find him, as she maintained a safe distance from the pathway entrance. Keshande knew there were more than ten thousand poison arrows trained on her and her warriors - any antagonistic move on her part would spell terror for her army of eight thousand Aksuri warriors; a rag-tag ensemble of ebony orcs, humans, elves - on foot and astride beastly mounts, with war-painted faces and chests, clubs, spears and curved blades.
"Show yourself Keshande!" Uruth continued, "for if it is the tower you want, you can keep it!"
Shakhdin threw a sidelong glance at Keshande, shaking his head no. The general knew they would be discovered soon enough and he didn't want to put Shakhdin's life at risk.
"Shakhdin, make your way to Umbakwe on the rear. Let me handle this."
Despite Shahkdin's protests, Keshande pulled his second lieutenant towards his chest in a comrade embrace before pushing him aside.
Before Shakhdin could pull Keshande back, the general stepped out of his hiding spot, arms spread out.
"I'm here, General Uruth!" Keshande greeted, as he walked slowly towards her. "I see that you've changed quite a bit."
Uruth smiled upon recognizing him, her lips looking luscious despite the beads of sweat trickling down her cheeks and neck. As Keshande approached her, her soldiers formed a circle around him and lowered their spear-points at him, prompting him to stop. Keshande could feel the pulsating hum of their spear-tips, as if they were imbued by some sort of harmonious power.
"I'd thought you wouldn't recognize me after all this time, Keshande. After what your father did to my master, I'd thought you would have easily forgotten about us."
"No Uruth. We've always been keeping watch. We know you will return someday."
"You've grown older I see. The last time we met here, you were but a young elven boy, and I, a young disgraced shaman who has lost his master."
"What is it that you want Uruth? The pathway is blocked by my men. You are outnumbered. Your spells are no match against the volley of poison arrows aimed at your army. It is the only way up. We...hold the higher ground and the tower remains in our control."
Uruth narrowed her eyes as his words sank in. She dismounted and sauntered over; her warriors parting briefly to let her through. With her up close, Keshande could see that Uruth was a remarkable creature of beauty; even her physique was symmetrically shaped and attractive. Despite Uruth's hypnotic blue eyes, he had to divert his gaze several times just to distract himself while being reminded that this woman standing before him used to be a man.
"But I have you, Keshande. Isn't that enough?"
"The Khaverans worship Bershaevol. Even if I die, they will defend the tower with their lives."
Uruth laughed, her lilting laughter playing out like a tempting whisper in his mind.
"Do you know the difference between you and I, Keshande? The very nature of our beliefs that drive us to do the things we do?"
"I care not to assume that I do."
Uruth paused, turning to look at her warriors, their quiet mounts, and Keshande's warriors behind the pathway barricade. They were listening intently, the simmering groan of the Anghar made it all the more anticipatory.
"Ever since our defeat, the Aksuri has been striving for perfection. For the past three hundred years, we've mastered the economics of running a thriving city like Bal-Aksur, removing poverty, corruption, crime and complacence. Our prayers to our God Haekrabal have bore fruit and he has gifted us with the insight to better ourselves, our cities and our way of thinking."
Uruth reached out and grabbed Keshande's chin before he could spit at her feet. Her grip was strong, nails digging into his bristled skin till they bled. Surprised by her strength and threatened by a dozen spear-points on his neck, Keshande had no choice but to succumb to her whim.
"But you, the Khaverans and the rest of you down south, you worship a Goddess whose single-minded focus has always been to deceive, to fool, to corrupt. Even now, after these many years, you still cannot see past your father's weakness, embracing it like it is your honor and pride."
Uruth spat on the ground, causing the sand to hiss back.
"What is it that you want Uruth?" Keshande forced the question through clenched teeth. She noticed that his hands had tightened into fists.
Uruth grinned, showing perfect white teeth, before letting go of his chin.
"I want us to enter the tower, together. I want us to see what secrets our forefathers and masters have been hiding from us all these centuries, forcing us to fight a war that served no purpose nor benefit. When we know what exactly they have been hiding from us, only then, will we know, why we have been fighting this war for the last four thousand years. Wouldn't you want to end this, Keshande? Wouldn't you want to unite Nekrabal as one kingdom, free from a war made out of lies and millions of unnecessary deaths?"
They had been moving up the tower for the past five days. At first, they were with their men, starting their ascent cautiously and methodically, but as Keshande and Uruth ventured higher level by level, they began to uncover traps, magic, challenges and riddles that not only took the lives of many of their men but changed the way they had to work together. Several times, on the third, sixth and ninth levels, both Khaveran and Aksuri warriors had to fight off abominable beasts made out of lava-fire and impenetrable rock; creatures from hell whose blood burned like acid upon contact with flesh and bone. By the tenth level, halfway up the tower, Keshande and Uruth had lost almost two-thirds of their men.
When they finally reached the nineteenth level, the only two people remaining were Keshande and Uruth. As they sat heaving with effort from the suffocating air and heat, the final and last level stone door looming tall at more than ten feet before them, they said their prayers to their respective gods. They realized that the tests of the tower had changed them completely. Not only had the loss of their warriors given them grief and pain, the very nature of them having to work together, sacrificing self-worth at times, had mentally changed how they perceived one another.
There also came a point, near the sixteenth level, when Keshande and Uruth were trapped in a coffin, with spikes and sand closing in around them. The riddle had been about loving the enemy, and the general had no choice but to give Uruth a kiss. That moment continued to haunt him but it had also changed him, altered the way he saw Uruth and her plight.
On the fourth night, as they broke free of the coffin and cowered by a corner to rest and recover, Uruth had shared several painful memories about her past. Memories she had not told anyone except Keshande.
"My master was an intelligent man, but he was also a cruel man. When I was a young boy, before he lost his life here at the base of the tower, he would train me, teach me how to read the signs and symbols of our tribe. But he would also beat me, urging me to better myself to gain the upper-hand over our enemies," Uruth spoke, her voice breaking as tears flowed down her cheeks, "and so I did. I perfected not just my magic, but my voice, my mind, my body. I became a courtesan, I disarmed kings and warlords before plunging my knives through their hearts. For I am Uruth the Untameable, I am better than my former self. I am the Sorrowful Truth of my people."
Keshande crawled over to her and put an arm around her shoulders. He had initially felt sympathy, but days in the tower had opened his eyes and mind to the possibility of a peace between them; an empathy he never knew he had. That night, they made love, a bewitching intimacy he didn't expect or had ever felt before. In the throes of their love-making, he saw visions of himself standing on the highest level of the tower, holding his own disembodied head, blood dripping onto the floor. When he finally woke up, his naked body covered in sweat, Uruth was watching him, her eyes glowing like cat's eyes in the dark, her lithe body stirring his loins once more.
"It's time," she whispered, kissing his forehead before getting dressed and urging him to do the same.
Together, they walked up to the final stone-door and unlocked it with his key. They entered the room, hand in hand. What they saw surprised them both. It was a circular room about fifty feet in diameter. At its center hovered a glowing onyx key, looking identical to the one he held in his hand. Etched in a circular pattern on the floor below its dim light were the words: The keys to the heart and mind of the kingdom can never be won.
Beyond that, there was nothing else of interest or value in the room.
"I-I do not understand," he muttered.
"My master once told me that whoever holds the key to the tower, holds the heart of the kingdom," Uruth whispered, circling the suspended key, eyeing its magical potency, sensing if it's a magical trap. Her gaze settled back on Keshande.
"My father said the same to me, when I was a boy, but different. He said whoever holds the key to the tower, holds the thoughts of the kingdom."
"You gave me your heart Keshande. As I have given you mine. Question is, can we share the same thoughts? Together, we now hold both keys and the thoughts and heart of the kingdom will be ours. Don't you see? Winning isn't everything."
She was about to reach out and take the suspended key.
"No Uruth wait..."
She stopped, fingers mere inches away from it, her eyes on him. "What's wrong?"
"Listen to me. I have to be honest. I did not--" He struggled, unable to find the words.
"Did not what?"
"This key isn't meant for either one of us. It is meant to remain in the tower."
Keshande sensed Uruth's agitation as she lowered her head and let out a deep breath. She must think him a fool to misread her intentions even then. But he knew what was right and wrong, and he didn't think that taking the key was the right thing to do. Yet, he couldn't seem to stop her. He felt an emotional pull deep within him overpowering the urge to step forward and hold her back. Uruth seemed to have read his dilemma.
"Don't be a fool, Keshande. You have the key your father gave you, now this key belongs to me," she reasoned, and reached forward, "the final test isn't about the keys. It is about u--"
Before Uruth could touch the key, a poison arrow spun through the air, flew past Keshande and nailed her outstretched hand to the far wall. She screamed, clutching her poisoned hand with her other, only to realize they were not alone.
"The tower is ours!" It was Umbakwe. He had ascended the tower and was now standing by the doorway. The first lieutenant looked haggard and injured, having survived the ordeals of the tower on his way up. Keshande was suddenly glad to see his father's friend and adviser beside him once more.
"General," Umbakwe said.
"Umbakwe, where's Shakhdin? He is supposed to be with you and the rest," Keshande asked.
"He is waiting at the base of the tower, general, with the rest of our elites."
Keshande nodded, thinking for awhile. He turned to look at Uruth, at her pinned hand now turning purple, veins turning green along her arm. Tears flowed down her cheeks, her lips quavering.
"Keshande, the final test isn't about the keys or the tower. It is about us," she said, "the keys to the heart and mind of the kingdom must always be one."
"She's trying to stall general. She's reversing the flow of the poison," Umbakwe said, pointing at Uruth's other hand. The first lieutenant was right. Keshande could see Uruth's other hand clenching up as she tried to push the flow of the poison back towards the arrow-head.
Umbakwe was about to draw a second arrow but Keshande stayed his hand. "No Umbakwe. Leave her to me."
Keshande walked over to Uruth.
"Help me...Keshande. Help me stem the poison...I can't do this with my magic. Use your antidote, please," she begged, her free hand straining against the tide of green coursing down her other forearm, across her chest and up along the side of her neck. Her eyes were slowly turning a pallid grey, her legs wobbled and her breathing grew ragged.
"You lied to me, Uruth," Keshande said, crouching close enough to see his face reflected on the surface of her eyes, "you said you didn't want the key, the tower but here you are," he raised his key so that she can see it, "this is all you've ever wanted. This is what you've longed for these past three hundred years. Vengeance for what my father did to your master. To you."
"Then you disappoint me, Keshande," Uruth said, this time with a tinge of anger, "you are just like the rest of your kind."
Suddenly, the bluish glow on Uruth's free hand intensified, the paleness of her eyes turning crystal-clear, as she gritted her teeth and forced the flow of poison back down her neck, across her torso and arm. Keshande realized that her magic was indeed powerful, that she had been testing him, sustaining the flow of the poison in her bloodstream just to see if he would offer her the antidote. Realizing that he wasn't, she had to reverse the flow with her spell instead.
But before she could complete her spell and reverse the poison fully, Keshande had unsheathed his curved knife.
Without a word, he stabbed her heart with it, disrupting her spell from completion. The jab caught Uruth by surprise, as the look of horror on her face made him hesitate, doubt even the decision he had made. He saw disappointment in her eyes, her free hand clutching his arm for support, as she tried to speak, whisper, but alas, blood had flooded into her lungs and bubbled up her throat.
As the poison resumed its flow through Uruth's veins, Keshande held her stare steady; trying to read her mind, wondering if what she had said was true. His face struggled between sympathy and empathy, depression and regret; he wasn't sure what emotions he was feeling at that moment.
Blood finally trickled from her mouth in a coughing fit, before she winced and spoke her final words.
"I did not lie, Keshande. The tower is yours. What I wanted was for us to be perfect. We passed the tests of the tower together. We survived our bitterness, our differences together. Oh, we could have defied our gods together. But like your Goddess, you choose to deceive yourself. And in so doing, deceive your people from the future they deserve...from the woman who has finally learned to love you."
Before Keshande could utter a word, the fires in Uruth's eyes died out and her head went limp.
At first, he thought he knew what she had meant, but then he realized what she was trying to tell him, what she had been fighting for all her life since her master's death and her transformation. She had seen the imperfections of her people and had wanted peace for Nekrabal. To her, this was the only way, by sharing the same heartbeat and become of one mind - Aksuri and Khaveran - each faction holding a key as a symbolic promise for peace. But he also knew he didn't give his heart fully to her, he could not as he wasn't ready, and with his hesitation, he had chosen to side with his Goddess and his own people instead. He had betrayed her trust and cost her the life she had struggled to perfect all these years - the perfect union of two leaders - a God and a Goddess - in a territory torn apart by their beliefs.
"You did the right thing general. She had meant to tempt you and steal your heart," Umbakwe said, studying the general.
Keshande turned, tears covering his face. "No, Umbakwe. She didn't steal my heart. I stole hers."
"Come general," Umbakwe said, helping the general to his feet and slinging his arm around his broad shoulders, "we should join the rest."
"I saw myself in this room, Umbakwe. A dream. I was holding my head in my hand."
"It could have been my heart, but the Goddess showed me a vision of me holding my severed head instead. What was she trying to tell me?"
"I-I don't know general. Why show you a severed head?"
Keshande began to wonder himself. Was the Goddess trying to tell him to leave all thoughts behind and follow his heart, or prepare for the anger of his Goddess if he did not use his head and think?
"You loved her?" Umbakwe asked, wiping the tears and noticing the pain in his eyes.
Keshande looked at Umbakwe, but could not bear to answer. The first lieutenant released a momentary sigh.
"You did what you thought was wrong, general, not what you felt was right. It has always been our way. The Khaveran way. Your father would have been proud. The tower remains in our control, general. As it should be."
Before Keshande could correct Umbakwe on what his father had really wanted, his first lieutenant had dragged him out through the doorway.
Keshande watched as the sturdy stone-door into the highest level of the tower clammed shut on its own accord. His last glimpse of the room was the hovering key and the circular words dissolving into thin air, and Uruth's lifeless eyes staring back at him.
As Umbakwe helped bandage some of his wounds, Keshande broke down and wept.
In his sorrow, he finally learned the truth, just as what Uruth had said about herself. His father's words flooded his mind: ...the Gods and Goddesses are just playing us for fools with their perfect deception in this ridiculous war we're fighting. Someday, it must end, and when that day comes, my son, I hope that it is because of you, Keshande.
About the World
This section highlights the world of Mortalissar in greater detail, especially her territories, countries, races, magic, calendar and belief systems. Occasionally, I will write short fiction stories relevant to a particular realm to define its unique characteristics set against a larger canvas. Hopefully, over time, the collection gives you, the reader, a greater appreciation of the uniqueness of this world, and her many qualities and flaws.