That was a rare thing, in her life, and never a good sign. In the army, only the dead were quiet.
There weren’t many of those, today. That was also a rare thing. She hoped it was a good sign.
In the distance, the enemy host was moving. She knew they would be leaving; they had already won. Veloth certainly would have no intentions of turning his Exodus around to meddle with the remnants of those he had cast off.
How long had it been since that awful moment? How long had it lasted? It seemed as if only minutes ago she had marched at Trinimac’s side, yet the sun had clearly jumped towards the west. Towards the mountains, jutting up into the sky, jutting like…
She rubbed her jaw, which no longer closed. She was calm, still; a life spent soldiering had that affect on minds. She knew the calm wouldn’t last. Soon the shock would fade and the growing panic and fear and sorrow and rage would—
A scream tore its way from her throat, crashing into the empty air like the first stone of an avalanche. Her army – it surely was no longer Trinimac’s, but did that make it hers? – followed suit, and the empty plains echoed with howls of rage and loss and shame.
As she knelt in the dust, surrounded by her people in the empty plain, the enormity of their failure; of the loss of the Dwemerethi, the Velothi, and now the Matharani, those who had been sworn to Trinimac. She wondered what her folk would do now. She wondered if she could still call herself one of the Folk.
It was quiet again. Mourning had passed, and morning had come. The sun still turned through the sky, and though her world had ended yesterday, the world had not. She rose, and looked out on her people.
She was surrounded by a horde of monsters. They were hers, and she was theirs. Many looked to her, sunken eyes shadowed with despair. She was proud to see that despite everything, they still stood.
“Korosha, what… do we have orders?”
She took a breath, looking out over her soldiers. She knew then what had happened, and of the blessing within the curse. No matter how they looked now, no matter the catastrophe of the mythic that had defeated Trinimac and ruined them, she knew that Boethiah had not won. They had been changed on the outside, true, her people were still soldiers, and that could not be taken away.
“Summon the priests, and form up the legion. We’re not yet dead, and so we’re not yet defeated. We are changed, but alive, and so Lord Trinimac must be as well.”
Korosha stood with the high priests atop a small outcrop, looking over the rest of her people. Behind them, the altar sat cold and quiet.
“It’s not working, Korosha. Lord Trinimac isn’t simply not answering; he’s not there!”
Korosha surveyed the army filling the plain before her. We’re not an army anymore, she thought. An army is part of a nation, and we have no nation. In their tongue, truth, strength, and beauty were synonyms. The Folk would see none of those qualities in her people, and the Departed would not welcome them solely for being cast off from the Folk. She wondered what they were.
We’re looking in the wrong place.
So be it. The priests had discussed this, and had come to a resolution for when Trinimac did not answer.
Korosha doffed her helmet. The burnished silver metal gleamed in the sunlight, shining white and pure beneath the feathered crest of rank. She held it before her in both hands, as if cradling the face of a lover. The empty eyes stared back at her, and the dust on her hands scratched its finish. She gripped it by the crest, and thrust her arm up. The helmet swung below, no longer a lover but a dead enemy.
“We all heard the Liar yesterday!” she roared. The army, her army, her tribe, turned to listen.
“But truth is more than refusing one lie!”
She dropped the helmet, and its hollow clangs against the rocky outcrop sang a dirge. She rested one foot on its cheek.
“Auri-El preached of strength in beauty, and Trinimac of strength in honor.”
She could feel it, the ugly truth of the world, staining her. It clung to her, permeated her, crushing her.
“Boet-Hi-Ah spoke of strength in division, and Shor of strength in weakness.”
The helmet crunched beneath her foot. Her gauntlets fell next.
“We had thought that our enemies were liars and decievers, or themselves deceived. We had thought that we alone knew the world’s truth.”
Her priests whispered among themselves. She knew that they knew the truth of things. That their god was truly gone, and that they were alone in the world. She felt Durnathar unfasten her greaves and cuisses as she spoke. She felt the rumbling in the ground of her people shedding their armor as well.
“But the world is ugly, and we cannot escape it. We sought to reject the ugliness of the world, and instead we have sunken further into it.”
The priests had collected her armor, and Durnathar’s. Their chief, Vurnolamathel — Korosha had asked why priests chose such long names, but they never gave satisfactory responses — conjured a forge-fire between her hands and let it settle atop the sacrificial armor. Molten metal dripped, like burning tears; it ran, like mirrored blood. Her people’s tears. God’s blood.
She turned, and Vurnolamathel stepped forward to speak.
“Boethiah hopes us to be soiled in Mundus, to be fouled and consumed. The Folk we once called brothers will look upon us and see only filth.” Vurnolamathel threw her headdress onto the blazing altar.
“Once, we spoke of keeping pure of this world, of suffering it and seeking escape! We sought not to understand it, but to flee it, and return to that which we lost.”
Vurnolamathel stepped out of her robe. Durnathar took it from her, and added it to the pyre. She knelt, and dug her hands into the dirt.
“We are washed clean of false pride!” she proclaimed, and with her left hand smeared mud over her face.
Below, her priests began to circle among the gathered throng. Discarded armor was collected, and the fires began.
“We are set free of wilfull ignorance!” Vurnolamathel cried, and covered her heart in mud. Her voice grew deeper, rougher.
“We are given understanding of truth, that our enemies will never reach!”
Vurnolamathel tore off her remaining clothes and burned them. She raised her arms to her face, and tore the skin open against her tusks. Her hands dripped blood to the dirt.
“This world is suffering and pain, and we shall embrace it! We will know it, and master it, that we may never be mastered!”
Korosha and Durnathar added their clothes to the burning altar. Her people did the same. Korosha knelt before Vurnolamathel, and Durnathar joined her.
“Korosha, you once stood at the right hand of Trinimac, and at his left hand stood Durnathar. You served him faithfully and well, and in so doing served us. Whom do you now serve?”
Even though she had discussed this, rehearsed it, argued it with herself and Durnathar and Vurnolamathel, she paused. Trinimac, or her people. Yesterday the two had been one and the same. She knew her duty, but that did not lesson the pain of her betrayal. She and Durnathar spoke at once.
Silence. She almost envied Durnathar. They had each made their choice, and done so willingly. Durnathar could live with his choice. She was not sure how she would.
“We are the forsaken people, by god and kin. We have only each other, and yet you forsake us.”
Korosha kept her eyes on his. She owed him this much. She thought that forsaking her oaths to Trinimac had been pain. She was wrong. Durnathar looked up, then at her. He smiled.
And Vurnolamathel tore out his throat.
“Korosha, you stand faithful to your own, and so we shall be faithful to you.”
Korosha rose. Vurnolamathel marked her, earth and blood on skin. Korosha tore her arms open against her tusks. She and Vurnolamathel embraced, mingling the blood. Below, the priests continued the rites.
Korosha and her tribe loped across the plain. Behind them, the cast-off remnants of their former selves smoldered amongst the muck. She did not look back at those she had left behind. As she led the pack northeast, she thought less and less of what she had lost.
When they reached the great river, she thought only of her pack.
When they came to the mountains, she thought only of the hunt.