Ashina by G. Howell White
From my perch, high on the ridgeline, I watch her approach, an ebony shadow growing, covering the vast distance across the frozen inland sea in methodical, practiced steps. She is close now; I can feel the very atmosphere pulsating against my chest. I can taste her constant gaze. Soon we will face each other, and soon I will die.
I’d earned her wrath the day she burst forth into this world, both she and her mother screaming, one in birth and one in death, as I took her father’s life in a spray of blood and shattering of bone before he’d ever laid eyes upon this new life.
The reason why did not matter now, all these years later. I knew from that day, as the shadow of the hidden sun passed across the land whilst I still stood over his lifeless corpse, a visceral portent that the remainder of my days would pass hiding in shadow, moving, always looking back to see the light hunting me.
In the end, that it should end this way was not a question; she had willed it to be such with her first breath.
The powers she came to possess were not of this realm, so said the stories passed amongst the people, speaking in silent tones, cowering in fear of discovery, in worry of their indiscretion somehow returning to touch her ears.
They whispered of her short time as a child, without nourishment of a mother, yet growing with each passing day, becoming in one yahr-pass what would be ten for another. Of how the colors behind her eyes shifted as the foaming water aside the water’s edge, emanated, turned the very ground around her to the substance of her will, be it flower or stone. They told the tales, supposedly passed down by her gemla, where she practiced the old-see, near-see and far-see, that which should have been impossible, yet she wielded it with impudence. Stories from shuddering, frightened lips bespoke of the blade she carried, burning with the fire and spite of the angry gods, destined to be wielded only one time, at the end of days when at last it met the neck of the hunted.
They also whispered of the hunted; I am he.
It is with that marker blazing like the light of a midday sun from my soul that I have fled these many yahr, farther than I ever suspected existed, beyond all the known lands of our world, to this forlorn and empty place. I do so not run solely in fear for my life, as the last, but in hope that she might somehow prove unable to follow, that some whim of the gods might misdirect her away from my path. Or, perhaps, that she might simply forget me with the vagaries of time.
Such was not to be, for neither the gods nor time proffered me any favor.
I did not deserve it.
Now the unrelenting sky, which had tortured me with burning of skin through countless days and freezing of limbs in the eves, filled with a swirling maelstrom of cloud and light, following her in an all-surrounding halo of power reaching through the heavens and beyond the horizons as far as I could perceive.
Less than a kek now, and while I can’t see her face behind the shadow, I know that she glares upon mine with the hatred of uncountable demons as though I kneeled before her, pleading for life, knowing it shall not be granted.
I’d once looked into her father’s eyes the same way, animus overwhelming me, revenge due for all he’d done, all he represented, all he’d made us to be. Thirty-odd yahr of suffering, brutality, and death by one claiming to be doing the work of the gods whilst decreeing his will over mere mortals had seen our families decimated, generations destroyed. Our hatred drove us then as hers did now, no other cause pray to inflict upon he and his whatever fate allowed before tearing us from this plane and casting us beyond.
It had been unexpected when, in the rage of battle, fate turned in our favor through virtue of a single arrow exploding through fragmented armor, burrowing into soft flesh, piercing deep and driving his body to the ground. Unbelieving, I slashed my way to him in mere moments, a gore-felled trail of limbs and innards, marking my path through his guard. A moment of respite could not be allowed, for surely doing so would see him arisen once again, and any chance for victory thrown to the wind.
I stood before him, blood-drenched blade in one hand, galdryx in the other, and gave neither pardon nor opportunity; with all my strength, I raised the shaft high overhead. Utter silence seemed to befall the battlefield at that moment, as if the gods gave time pause so that all might witness the scene before them.
A hellion-scream escaped my throat as I brought the spiked mass down toward his skull, with every intent of seeing his head explode into a pulverized red mist. But, just as I did, two things happened.
A tremendous bolt of lightning roared down from the heavens, splitting the day asunder in a thundering explosion of light, striking my weapon as it descended.
At the same time, he uttered one word … Ashina ... before the galdryx plowed through his skull, separating brain, jaw and teeth from body, lightning welding to armor, leaving a smoking hole where his head had been only a second before.
That very moment, a thousand keks away, Ashina burst from her mother’s womb in a waterfall of placenta, blood, light, smoke, and ozone. The healer delivering her, three gemla, and her mother were all killed. Ashina’s scream, it is said, was heard over three hours’ ride away, but when others finally dared to enter the room, they found her unscathed amongst the charred and smoking bodies.
As I stood over his body, I wondered how I could still be among the living. The flash had temporary blinded me, the roar causing my head to ring, yet I remained standing, breathing. Around me, the battle lines froze, and all eyes that had just beheld our victory turned toward the sky. For there, from where the gods had wielded a bolt of fire just a moment before, the sun now retreated behind blackness, swallowed whole, a dense night enveloping the countryside.
And that is when I heard it, that is when I knew my fate; for from the ebony circle high overhead, the gods repeated her name.
It arrived in a banshee wail, driving through my head, and I knew.
I’d been mistaken.
He’d claimed to be doing the work of the gods whilst decreeing his will over mortals, hunting us to our deaths. We’d fought back, as had others in the past, calling on the spirits of the olden ones, those who the spoken memories passed from father to child claimed had fought and defeated the very gods themselves, to stand at our sides, support us in our fight, with their strength added to ours. We railed against the madman, knowing him to be evil, bloodset on ending us, the fire of revolt burning deep in our breasts.
We were wrong.
The truth is, he was doing their work. We mortals were not wanted, and he was carrying out the will of the angry gods, to the letter: Exterminate us and free this world. If the ancient ones had indeed been defeated, then it was their children which now ruled this age, and they ruled it with a vengeance.
With his death, I sentenced myself to a lifetime of flight, for I knew at that moment she would be destined to hunt me, and would do so with the blessings, and powers, of the gods.
Ashina would grow. She would remember being born in a torrent of fire and death. Her life would be driven by nothing more than her hatred of mortals, by her desire of revenge for everything she knew being taken from her before she’d ever had the chance to know it. All the people of this world would suffer; all would be eliminated. This was, after all, the will of the gods, and she their blade.
In the end, there would only be one remaining; with his death, her revenge, and those of the gods, would be utterly and totally complete.
I hear her approaching now, footfalls heavy on the ground, climbing the last short distance toward me. Clouds dance, swirling tempests from every direction, converging directly overhead; I look upward through them as if down the throat of a whirlpool the size of eternity.
There, in the center, the burning sun is once again retreating behind blackness.
The gods have come.
I have no weapons, nothing with which to defend myself.
I can run no farther.
I am the last.
I shall be cast from this plane as have all the others before me, in pain and blood, because these are their wishes.
Below me, the ground changes; where before there was rock and dust there is now a glow the likes of which I have never seen. I seem to be slowly sinking into it, my legs bereft of feeling, utterly numb.
I cannot move.
Lightning strikes all around, providing ephemeral glimpses through the maelstrom as the sun disappears entirely, plunging what remains of my world into chaos and darkness.
Above the ridgeline crest, a blade comes into view, burning with the fire and spite of the angry gods.
Ashina is here.
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