Zhonyja rolled her shoulders irritably. The mark was itching. It seemed to do that a lot lately since the war started. It only stopped when she was killing. A small price to pay for the powers it appeared to grant, but it was annoying. It also seemed to be growing across her skin, though she wasn't sure. Zhonyja no longer had scars on her skin to measure the marking's progress since they didn't stay long enough. The unique marking might not be granting her immortality, but it was certainly making her extremely difficult to kill. She still got tired, and grumpy, but injuries merely slowed her down, barely really hampering her in a fight, though they still ached as they healed.
Fortunately, transmuting pain into a rage was something taught to Zhonyja at an early age. So well that she couldn't stop if she tried. She banished the thoughts as she strode down the last section of the now familiar path to the effigy where Kruul seemed to spend all his time these days. His behaviour worried her before the war; now the treacherous part of her mind whispered his sanity was slipping away. Possibly into the effigy, of which he had become so obsessed.
When she found him, crouched over a fire, smoke curling around his head, she thought for a moment that it was forming shapes, almost a figure above him she couldn't quite place. He sensed her and turned, eyes still closed as the last of the smoke clung to his face.
"We are winning," she said, quietly, "but I'm not sure how many will be left to celebrate."
He sighed out a thin trail of smoke and opened his eyes. Zhonyja took an involuntary step back at the sight of Kruul's eyes as they seemed to glow a terrible scarlet for a moment before fading back to their usual colouration. She blinked and wondered if she'd imagined it. Perhaps she was more tired than she realised.
He nodded thoughtfully, either missing or ignoring her reaction and muttering to himself. "Then it's time."
She observed him, waiting for an explanation as he sighed, put on his ceremonial mask from the ground where it rested next to him, and rose.
"Come with me" he gestured her to follow and strode off in the direction of the cliff wall.
She followed uncomfortably, something in the air today had her even more on edge than usual. They walked in silence for a few minutes, the soles of her feet burning and healing in the sand as she ignored Kruul's footprints. The hiss of the burning sand caused him to look back, and he grunted in amusement.
"No need to follow me anymore; the mark is powerful." There was a tinge of regret in his tone that made her uncomfortable, and she found herself deliberately stepping back onto his prints. He smiled, and she saw his eyes crinkle behind the mask. For a moment she fancied they were both flooded with memories of simpler days. Then the moment passed, and Kruul turned to the wall, stepping into an opening she hadn't realised was there. His voice drifted back out to her, echoing oddly.
"I have some things to explain to you."
Zhonyja followed, her eyes adjusting quickly to the gloom of the passage and saw that it dug into the canyon wall and twisted downwards and out of her sight. As she followed Kruul down, his voice bounced around her.
"You see I haven't been candid about the full plan. Now it's time for the final stages, and I'm afraid you aren't going to like them."
Zhonyja was unsure how to respond, with what they'd already done, she'd already done, what could he possibly think would make her turn away now? She had already set her race upon itself, personally killed her kin when they'd been on the other side.
"You doubt my commitment?" She was offended by the thought.
"No, at least not to the plan as you know it. But there is a much deeper game at play, and I fear the next move in that game will be hard on you."
She intended to respond, but she emerged into a cavern, and her tongue stopped in her mouth.
The space was dark and cold, flickering with an odd light that emanated from something that writhed in the centre of the room. It distorted the air around it and twisted Zhonyja's vision, a flickering blur slightly more significant than a person and hazy, like a fragile curtain placed over a tent opening at night. She found that she could see shapes through it, although they were unfamiliar.
"What is that?" She breathed out unevenly. Whatever it was made her mark writhe sympathetically on her skin and the experience was unpleasant.
"That is a rift, to another place and time."
"You made it?" She was astonished. The rift was a power she'd never dreamed was possible, let alone within Kruul's grasp.
She saw him in the darkness on the other side of the room as he shook his head, chuckling ruefully.
"No, that's beyond me, for now. The rift is, well, not natural, but it occurred here for reasons I don't understand. Let's call it Torin's will."
She breathed in. There was a strange acrid scent as she approached and circled the rift, noting the ritual elements inscribed on the ground surrounding it. Now that she had some idea of what she was looking at, she could make better sense of the image that rippled, indistinct, in its heart.
"That looks familiar." She said without commitment. She could see mountains, or at least she thought so. But the image rippled so violently that it was challenging to get a clear view of anything. She stared into it and could feel her brain start to ache as it tried to make sense of something that seemed to be layers of images, one on top of the other.
Kruul snorted "Feigning understanding doesn't give you understanding."
She shook her head to clear it and glared at him.
He shrugged "It's no shame in not understanding, I believe what we're seeing is the same location, hundreds of times simultaneously, the rift is present at all those times." He paused, "At least that's what I think is happening."
"Have you thrown something through it or gone through it?"
He stared at her "Have I….." he shook his head in amazement. "No, I haven't randomly thrown something through the unstable incredibly powerful anomaly that may well be the literal will of Torin….just to see what happens…" He shook his head again. "I don't know if anything can go through, and if it can, I suspect that it might only be once."
She studied him "And you have plans for what that one thing should be?"
He grinned slyly, and her stomach clenched. He was going to send her.
She backed away a step involuntarily; she couldn't go through that thing, not knowing where it went or even when it went.
Kruul's grin turned to a chuckle, "No, you need not worry, you're needed here. It won't be you to go through."
He turned away and moved into the shadows more rooted in the cave on the other side of the rift, leaving her to examine it. The glow was entrancing, alluring in the way brightly coloured animals attracted a mate or prey. She shuddered and pulled her gaze away from it, trying to focus on anything else in the cave. The markings of Kruul's rituals weren't just found in the objects on the floor, as her eyes adjusted further to the gloom she could see that runes and glyphs covered the walls and even the ceiling. Now that the rift was no longer her focus, she could feel that the whole cave was thrumming with power.
"What is all this for?" she asked, pitching her voice after Kruul. For a few moments, there was silence other than the soft and eerie echo of her voice.
Anxiety rose in her suddenly, and she realised that she very much did not want to be alone in here. Kruul's voice came from the gloom and shattered the illusion of solitude, though it did little to calm her rising anxiety.
"That's a question I can't answer for you." His tone was regretful, perhaps even sad.
"This is what you've been doing for the last few weeks then?" While I waded through the blood of my kin on your behalf the treacherous part of her hissed silently.
"Yes," he replied.
"This is more important than the war for the life and future of our race?" She asked.
There was a pause, before Kruul replied, "In a sense, this is the future of our race." Again she heard that peculiar note of something unfamiliar. Kruul wasn't prone to regret or doubt. The knot in her stomach inched ever so slightly tighter.
"Well, you'll no doubt be glad to know that while you've been here, we've been winning that war. It's very nearly over. The shamans are on their last legs, and I'd say the next few days will mark their end."
She wandered the cave restlessly, trying to shake her feelings of foreboding. They were winning. Comprehensively in fact.
"Yes." His tone now was contemplative. "I knew you would win, though I didn't expect it to be so quick."
"No. You've never disappointed me, daughter, I wasn't expecting you to start now. I depend on you more than ever."
Those words would once have inspired a flood of pride, but now they barely soothed her unease. Something was very wrong. With this cave, with Kruul. She'd stopped pacing in front of a particular glyph that had caught her eye. It was familiar. She'd seen it somewhere before, somewhere important. Another sigh drifted to her and Kruul emerged from the dark, however, now he was in complete ritual garb. An outfit generally reserved for only the most significant of occasions.
"I'm sorry, daughter, but we are, ironically, out of time. We must act now."
"What must?..." He gestured with one hand, and she felt her entire body freeze, locked in place by its muscles at his command.
She swore through clenched teeth before her throat locked closed.
Kruul regarded her, gaze unreadable behind his mask. His hands were moving in ritual gestures as his voice joined them in a resounding chant that reverberated in the small cave.
Zhonyja felt the mark of Edarr on her back twist and stretch across her, prickling as power flowed into it. Her mind raced in a panic, what was he doing to her? Did he know of her doubts and believes she'd betrayed him? Desperately she tried to force her voice through the compulsion, but it was all she could do to breathe through her nose and manage a quiet grunt. Kruul ignored her struggles, moving in slowly timed steps towards the rift he now observed. She could see that this, whatever it was, was an incredibly intricate ritual that had been the subject of his last few weeks, and she suspected many before that. So he had been planning whatever this was for a long time. How long, though? Did it pre-date even the war? For what possible purpose?
The next few minutes stretched unbearably as her eyes grew dry and sore, unable even to blink. The blaze of power across her back expanded until she felt the marking stretch to encompass her entire body, encasing her limbs down to fingers and even tickling across her immobile eyelids. At last, it was everywhere, and with a sudden blaze, it contracted. Agony spread across her as it burned its way deep into her flesh, seemingly sinking to her bones. Her breath snorted through her nose and tears welled and ran down her face. Finally, the net of pain fell to her core, wrapping her heart and brain in a fire before mercifully vanishing, leaving her dizzy with sudden relief. Zhonyja's thoughts shattered, but she immediately became aware of a new presence in her body. A steady thrum accompanied her heartbeat, sourced from a new power, raw and unfamiliar. With it came an urge to move, to strike. Her eyes fastened on Kruul, the urgent power overwhelming the tiniest portion of his control. She saw his eyes widen in recognition, and he snorted.
"That was fast. Then I'm sorry, but I have no time to waste. You'll have to work out this new power for yourself."
He turned toward the rift and began a new ritual. Rage burned through Zhonyja. She wasn't sure how, or why, but she was certain he had betrayed her deeply. The mark burned across her back and she felt an overwhelming compulsion to kill him. She snarled, fighting for every movement as her body went taut against the spell, rather than with it.
Kruul glanced at her, and she saw fear creep into his eyes as he increased the pace of his incantation. His steps led slowly to the rift. Zhonyja now understood his intention to pass through the portal even if she didn't understand why.
She had to stop him. If he reached that portal, he would escape her vengeance, and she couldn't let that happen. Her left arm twitched and began to rise as she pulled her right leg free of the spell and lifted it. As it lifted, she realised her error and her body tilted, unbalanced, and with a crash, she fell to the ground, unable to even protect herself.
Pain lanced through her shoulder and face as the stone met her, and she roared in anger. The fall had also damaged Kruul's hold on her; she could feel the shackles of the spell loosen, not broken yet, but weak enough that she could force herself to all fours and haul herself, growling, along the floor towards her tormentor. Kruul swore when her hand brushed his ankle, losing the incantation momentarily as he turned and kicked her solidly in the head, rolling her backwards, dazed. As she shook it off, he restarted his chant hurriedly. She got back on all fours, spitting out a gob of blood and raised her head to see that the rift was now stable, showing a clear image of a clearing on a mountainside, with peaks in the distance.
There in the clearing stood a familiar-looking black stone effigy, and she realised why the glyph on the wall had looked familiar because there it was again, on the forehead of the giant stone lizard that perched, wings spread, on the massive skull. Kruul's voice halted, and she saw he was done and was now regarding her.
"I'm sorry, my daughter. I won't ask your forgiveness, I don't deserve it, and I don't need it. I can't even hope that you come to understand," He paused as she snorted away the pain, still fighting the conflicting compulsions raging through her.
"When the pains start, seek out the witch doctors, that will help. "He watched her for a moment, "Good hunting, my daughter."
He turned and stepped to the rift. Zhonyja roared in pure rage as she accepted that not only had he betrayed her, he was going to abandon her. With all her might, the mark blazing, she shattered the weakening compulsion and launched herself from the floor, left arm reaching for his treacherous throat. He had passed entirely through the rift when her hand caught the back of his robe and dragged him to a stop.
He turned as she lay, outstretched, her hand on the other side of a rift she didn't understand, tangled in the tail of the robe he wore, the only family she had ever known. His eyes met hers and then flicked up past her to something that she couldn't see, widening in shock. Then the rift closed.
Its edge sliced through her wrist cleanly and she didn't even register the pain for a few breaths as the relief of the compulsion releasing her muscles swept across her body. The scream of rage and pain that tore from her throat was barely recognisable as her own, but it vibrated through her whole being, the mark twisting across her skin in sympathy and frustrated hunger.
Hunger for revenge and for the betrayal she had suffered. What more, it was at the hands of the one she had followed and supported all her life. Rage at the fact that he had escaped her reach, to where, or when. Only the gods knew that.
She did have some clue to where at least. She fixed the image in her mind, mountain top clearing, effigy, clear silhouettes of some distinct mountains on the horizon. One with a very pronounced spur atop it like a horn, another with a wedge carved into it's top. Perhaps enough for her to narrow the search area at least, if she looked hard enough.
In the meantime, she could still work vengeance on whatever plan he had set in motion. She didn't doubt that his plot revolved in some way around the civil war he had set in motion. A war with which she could interfere. His fellow Witch Doctors were doubtless a part of his plan, whether they knew it or not, so she could start with interrogating them. The stump of her left wrist was cleanly sheared and not even a drop of blood leaked from it, despite it being a very open wound. It was disturbing to look at, almost as if she could simply see inside her arm.
She shook her head and ripped some cloth from her pants to bind it, mostly just to cover it to save her from looking at it. She would go and "talk" to the Witch Doctors, see if they knew enough to resummon the rift, though she suspected they wouldn't. Chances were, they did not even know of its existence.
If they couldn't help her, then well, she would do what she had to ensure Kruul's plan, whatever it was, didn't come to fruition.