Contains HEAVY SPOILERS for THE EMPRESS SAGA, up to and including MAGE SLAYER

Seventh of Sun, Imperial Year 1342

One Year Before the Fall of Shan Alee

It no longer mattered how treacherous the road would become, no matter how much blood remained to be spilled, there was no price Gara would refuse to pay if it brought freedom to the Continent. Her life for her people. Her soul for her clan. Her heart for the fallen. Gara would even see these most precious of things fall to dust if it meant no other would ever feel the weight of a collar around their neck.

This price, however, might have been asking too much.

"Nope!" She crumpled the sheet of parchment and lobbed it into the face of the Irdish mystic sitting across from her at the table. "No more."

Vaan kept his face impassive as the paper ball bounced off his forehead and came to rest on the packed-dirt floor of Gara's hut. His gray skin, white hair, and long beard gave him an appearance to match his personality. Bland. Boring. Lacking any color or passion of any kind.

"Chieftess…" Vaan sighed tiredly. "It is imperative you become literate."

Gara turned on the floor to face away from him. She looked over her shoulder and showed him her petulant tongue as a reply.

A bass note rumbled from deep in Vaan's throat while he uncrumpled the parchment and pressed it flat. Gara's tutor didn't approve of what he called her childishness.

"You are no dimwit, Chieftess," Vaan scolded. "I have taken my measure of your intelligence and find you exceptional. Therefore, you have no excuse. Learn how to read, you shades-forsaken fool!"

Gara scowled over her shoulder. "No male has ever spoken to me as you do. With good reason." She spun back around and braced her hands on her knees. The low table that separated them was the only shield Vaan had against her fury. "I've led war parties into the lands of our hated enemy. I've slain arcanists. I've communed with God and bear His mark as His blessed saint. I've choked the life from our Aleesh oppressors with my bare hands! And, you dare speak to me of what I must do?"

Vaan gave her a flat look. "You're seventeen, girl. Get some perspective."

Gara's eyes widened with outrage. She bolted to her feet and kicked the table aside.

Vaan closed his eyes and sighed. He did that often. "Let me put it this way. Do you wish to know of where the Rubies will strike next and when? Would you find value in which routes the Amethysts transport the captives taken from Thandor back to the empire?"

"Of course I would," Gara shouted.

Vaan opened his eyes and scowled up at her. "Well, you will find that the Aleesh conceal information like this most cunningly in these things called books."

Gara scoffed.

"Other things as well," Vaan said in his most cajoling tone.

"Such as what?" Gara snapped. She crossed her arms over her chest and refused to look at him.

"The secret to forging steel, for a start."

Gara felt her ear twitch. Aleesh steel made for far better weapons than the wrought iron blades her clan's smiths produced. If she could arm even a portion of her warriors with steel…

Be cautious, the voice of God whispered. Those who overreach unerringly fall prey to their own ambition.

Gara heard the wisdom in the words of God. It was a wisdom long held sacred by the Thandi clans. Find one's place, the place at the pinnacle of one's ability, and be content. This was the right and duty of all Thandi.

"What must I do?" Gara whispered.

"I have told you, Chieftess, you…"

Gara thrust her palm towards Vaan. "Silence, male. I do not speak to you, but to God."

Vaan rolled his eyes and sighed once more. "Shades-forsaken heathens…"

"Shall I remove the foreigner?" Gara asked.

Accept the knowledge he offers, God answered. His people are nearer to the truth of this world than your own. Yet, you must take the whole of what he gives, not just that which you find most palatable. You will find that a piece of knowledge can be deadly without the context within which it lies.

Gara frowned. Ever since becoming God's saint, she'd found she rarely liked the answers He gave. But then again, she supposed that was to be expected. Anyone who claimed following their god was an easy path was full of shite.

If being faithful was easy, of what use could their deity be?

Gara frowned in Vaan's general direction as she addressed God. "This will give us victory over Shoen and his Empire of Scales?"

I am not Nashal or the Imprisoned One to see all ends. What I see is the final end at which all mortals must arrive. For I am Death. Many of your people have passed through my care because they lacked for knowledge. My blessed saint must not pass Beyond before her time has come. You were chosen to hear my voice and bear my mark, because you alone of your people understand the truth that will see the Betrayer's corruption purged from the world.

"And what truth is that?" Gara asked.

The truth of why mortals bear the capacity to hate.

Gara waited for more words— a further explanation— but it didn't come. God rarely spoke, even to her, His blessed saint. He'd been more talkative as of late, but even then, just once or twice a week. Gara usually went longer than that between communions, and she could count the number she'd had since being chosen without needing to remove her boots.

Vaan made a show of twiddling his thumbs until the communion passed.

Clucking her tongue at the foreign mystic, Gara sat back down. "So be it. I will learn what you teach, male."

"Come to your senses, then?"

"I do as God requires of me."

Vaan raised a dubious eyebrow. Mystics were atheists. Of a sort. They claimed to acknowledge the existence of spirits but refused to believe gods were the same thing, only greater. Mystics said gods were nothing more than superstition, and those who claimed to be their blessed saints were delusional at best. Gara had no doubt that Vaan believed her to be an absolute lunatic.

He wasn't altogether incorrect. It took at least a little lunacy to face wizards and scriveners with just sharpened iron as a weapon. Fortunately for Gara, she now possessed something a slight bit more potent than just iron. God said that all Thandi now possessed it, and she only needed to show them how to use it.

Vaan gestured towards the table Gara flipped over during her minor tantrum. "If you're done being a child, we'll need a surface for your studies."

Muttering to herself, Gara stood and righted the table. She didn't like the way Vaan ordered her about, and she despised the fact she usually ended up doing what he wanted.

Once she was seated again, Vaan slid the wrinkled parchment across the table to her. It was covered with chicken-scratches he called runes.

"Please, Chieftess, read this first line."

Gara leaned forward over the table. "Will it tell me about steel?"

"Shades, no. Even if I possessed such texts, they'd be too advanced for…" His eyes dropped by a hair, and he quickly shielded his eyes with a hand. "Shades, girl, mind yourself. You're indecent."

Gara looked down. The collar of her loose shirt was hanging rather low, but so what? It wasn't like her pants had fallen down. Why did foreign men act oddly at the first sign of breasts? Were they infants?

"You may look now," Gara said mockingly once she fastened up her lacings some more.

Vaan cleared his throat. "No more stalling. The passage, girl. The passage!"

Gara gave a sharp tsk before squinting at the runes. "Chunik mul rothar sul diin."

Vaan nodded. "Excellent. The meaning?"

"Hatred to char am I."

He sighed, yet again. "That's a literal translation of the Aeldenn Tones. What does it mean?"

"It's what the slavers chant as they pass through the fires we set to bar them from our villages."

"True enough. This is an incantation, Chieftess. The first line for a basic fire-warding spell. The next four lines give the entire incantation, and if all five are spoken, an Aleesh witch is impervious even to dragon fire."

Gara frowned. "It is not for me to use."

"No, of course not. We are but daan and lack the power granted by gods to the Aleesh. No magic shall ever flow from your tongue."

Gara hid her smirk. Well, he was half-right.

"But, it isn't entirely useless to you." Vaan banged his fist against the table and raised his voice to a shout. "It's a valuable tool for instruction! Now give me the shades-forsaken translation, girl."

Gara grimaced and looked down at the page. The Aeldenn Tones were all backwards, the object and subject of the sentence all flipped about, and things that should have been one of the two were neither, more often than not. The Aleesh language didn't have words to describe other words and instead personified such things. "Hatred" in the passage didn't refer to the feeling of hate, but served as an adjective. It meant that the char was hateful.

"I hate being burned," Gara grumbled.

Vaan clapped his hands together. "There! You see? Easy as dyeing."

"Easy as…? Winds take you, male, death is not easy!"

"Not dying, dyeing."

"You lost me."

Vaan rubbed his temples with his forefingers. "Girl… Back to the passage. Your translation is crude, but accurate. I would've preferred you put a little more… eloquence… into it."

"You mean longer words that say the same thing but make it harder to understand."

Vaan looked insulted.

"Winds and storms, male. Your 'eloquence' misses the entire point of having a language to begin with. The point is to make yourself understood, and if you can't do that in as few words as you can, you failed."

"That's…" Vaan hesitated. "Actually, a good argument. Fair play to you, Chieftess."

Gara smiled and held her head a little higher.

"Now, the second line."

Gara scowled.

"Don't act a fool, girl."

"I am exceptionally intelligent. Your words."

"Yes, quite so, but you don't need to be an idiot to be a damned fool."

No Thandi male would dare speak to Gara in such a way. No Thandi male would dare speak to any woman in such a way. Foreign men were too full of themselves for Gara's liking. She much preferred the men of Thandor, empathetic, dutiful, and brave. Thandi men were easier to stomach because they weren't possessed of the same self-absorbed insolence that followed foreign males like a plague.

She heard a boisterous shout from outside, and it put an immediate grin on Gara's face. On second thought, some foreign males were alright.

Springing to her feet, Gara rushed out of her hut and left Vaan to shout after her. The sudden motion caused her joints to ache in protest after being inactive so long, and especially after what her bones had been going through lately. Once outside, the mists wrapped around her. Her bare feet sank into the soft, damp earth of the forest floor as she ran down the embankment from the highest point in the village.

Her clan resided within a motte and bailey fortification in the deepest reaches of the Great Forest. All of Thandor was blessed with a thick and expansive woodland, unbroken across the whole of the region. Here, in the center of the forest, an eternal mist hid the Thandi clans from the predations of their hated oppressors, the Aleesh of Shan Alee.

The mists were a gift from God, bestowed upon his favored people as their shield. The winds blew at His command, and the mists which He gathered here were brought from all corners of the mortal world.

Gara ran past the field where her warriors drilled in preparation for the next battle. She burst through the garden which contained the shrine built in homage to God, an altar of bones from beasts and twisted fiends arranged into a likeness of Death. By the time she reached the palisade walls of the village, she had a troop of children too young to hold an axe running behind her. They laughed and called her name, but Gara didn't stop to play with them. Not today.

After three month's absence, her most treasured friend had come back.

"Karst!" Gara shouted. She leapt into the air and fell upon the large man coming through the gate with a full-bodied tackle.

The mountain of a male laughed jovially as he caught Gara with no difficulty at all. He swung Gara about while she giggled in delight.

"Is good to see you, gadyuka," Karst bellowed. "Waves, but are these legs longer than last time I see you? This cannot be. Was not so long."

Gara currently had the legs in question wrapped around his middle. She leaned back. "Did you just call me short, you blustering oaf?"

"Is not thing to be shamed of. You are Thandi. Being Thandi is to be of the short. As of your black hair and of your pale skin and narrow eyes."

Gara swatted him. "At least I don't walk around looking like everything's a blustering surprise."

"You feel better now, yes? This thing of the pain and the twisting, it was hard to see on you."

"I'm fine, my friend. All under control."

"You are sure of this, yes?"

"Very. It only happens when I want it to, now."

He grinned with relief, a smile broad enough to show off his teeth.

Karst was strong, stronger than any mortal Gara knew. His scarlet hair was so unlike that of the Thandi, and he wore it long as if he were a woman. Gara would never admit it to another in her clan, but she found long hair on a man irresistible. Karst was beautiful and strong, with large, round eyes like the Southern Sea and a defined, clean-shaven jawline that made Gara weak in the knees.

He carried a broadsword on his hip, a steel one taken from the body of a soldier he killed in a raid. Karst was bare from the waist up, because he claimed anywhere that didn't snow the year round was too warm for his southern blood. He had thick leather boots, iron vambraces on his forearms, and a skirt of chainmail hanging around his waist. Gara thought he cut a barbarically dashing figure.

She desired Karst like she'd desired no other man before him, and he enflamed that desire even further by denying her lust at every turn.

He set Gara's feet back on the ground. Before Karst had a chance to stand up straight, thereby escaping Gara's reach with his towering height, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him with every passion she could muster. He was more or less receptive to her affection up until she pushed her tongue into his mouth.

Karst pulled away sharply. "Gah! No, gadyuka, this is not thing girl does for grown man, yes?"

Gara bit her lower lip and enjoyed the flush she felt growing in her cheeks. She placed her hands against Karst's stomach and ran them up his bare torso. "I can prove to you I'm no little girl anymore."

Karst bent at the waist to bring his face down to her level, then he poked her sharply on the forehead. "No. Is wrong, gadyuka. You are tiny girl who should be with her dolls, yes? Not with her tongue in mouth of grown man like me."

Gara groaned and rolled her eyes.. "Oh, come off it. You're, what, a year older than I am?"

He held up three fingers. "Four year." He raised up his pinky to join the other three. "Four. Is too many year. You are not of age."

"Like Hell I'm not. I turned fifteen two years ago."

"Of age is of the eighteen. Not of the fifteen. You Thandi, always in too much hurry to be grown."

Gara felt her eyes darken. "We have to be."

"Is not just you, gadyuka. The Thandi are not only mortals who make war with Shan Alee." He pounded a fist into his hand. "We give them the drubbings, too, yes? Made four slavers be of the dead just this morning."

Gara couldn't hold it in anymore. She snorted before succumbing to a fit of giggles. Nashalites had the funniest accent, and Karst was actually better with her language than most southerners.

"Ah, yes, yes. She laughs at things I say. I would hear her speak in my tongue, then it will be me being of the laughing." He looked around the yard just inside the gate. A large group of villagers had come down from their huts to see who it was their chieftess welcomed. When Karst didn't find what he was looking for among the crowd, he brought his mouth close to Gara's ear. "He not yet here?"

Gara sighed. She'd rather pretend today would stay a peaceful day, but Karst hadn't come all the way from frozen Altier Nashal just to catch up and brush off her advances.

Tomorrow, the war to free all the races of humanity from Shan Alee would begin.

"Not yet," Gara said quietly. She couldn't be herself anymore. To be the clan's chieftess was to be faceless, and she could no longer wear her own. "Teranor showed up last week, winds save me, and Marcel got here just yesterday. Now that you're here, we're just waiting on Akazewi."

Karst rubbed his chin. "You not greet them as you greet me, yes?"

Gara allowed herself to give Karst a sly wink before turning her back on him.

"Gadyuka!"

She put an extra sway into her hips as she walked away. Gara looked over her shoulder and cocked her head for Karst to follow. "Maybe I did, maybe I didn't."

"Unforgivable! I will break heads of these dirty, old men for this."

"Winds and storms, fine. I didn't." Gara shuddered. "None of them's as pretty as you, anyway."

"I am man, gadyuka. A man is not pretty."

Gara looked sidelong at his backside as he came to walk beside her. "Not from where I'm standing."

"She speaks as dirty, old man. Is not thing for pretty girl to do."

"You're in Thandor, Karst. Don't tell me what gender does what."

"Is fair enough. Just do not be of the coming to the south and fill our womens' heads with this thing of the fighting and the killing."

Gara scoffed. "And why not? I've seen your women. Tell you what, any Nashalite woman who wants to fight, send her to me. I'll take them if you won't, no question."

Karst grunted.

"Women are better at swordplay, anyhow."

"Not so."

"Care to test that claim?"

"You are aberration, gadyuka. You and all Thandi women. I am not of the complaining. I like this that you kill the Aleesh, yes? But these ideas, they are not good for all peoples."

"Karst, in the words of my tutor, you're not an idiot."

"Ah. Thank you kindly."

"I don't think it's a compliment when Vaan says it."

"A moment, my friend," Karst said as they passed the shrine. "I must give prayers to your god. Is his land we make this pact in, yes? I need pray for good fortune in this war. Good fortune for us both."

Gara smiled. "Thank you, Karst. You honor us."

Kneeling before the bone-covered shrine, Karst held his arms out wide. He spoke in a reverential tone. "He is stronger here, but he is god we honor in south, too. We honor many gods, not just the one." Nashalites didn't seem to mind talking as they prayed. It was like they figured the time they spent on their knees was enough of a sacrifice. "Last Shepherd we call him. God of death."

Gara shrugged. "We keep it simple. God is God."

"You have better name for him than this? His true name? This is not thing we speak of him in my homeland."

"We do," Gara said, "but we don't speak it casually. If we're feeling especially formal, the Lord of Bones is enough."

"Is no wonder Thandi women so good at killing when they worship Death."

Gara came to stand beside Karst and looked up into the empty eye sockets of an aurochs skull topping the shrine. "God is more than Death. You call Him the Last Shepherd, and that is closer to who He is. He is the wind who turns away the arrows flying towards our hearts. He is the salvation of those whose time has not yet come. When we do release our last breath, He is there to guide us home."

Karst chuckled. "Is good to hear of king who loves her god."

Gara's smile vanished. Faceless, she quickly forced it back into being. "Queen, Karst. The word is queen."

Karst shrugged. "Is not a word for this, a woman king, in Altieri. I take what you say for true."

"It's alright. We didn't have a word for this either until me. No chieftess has ever united the Thandi clans before."

"Is this pride I hear?"

"You're damned right it is."

"Good. We soon need it." He held up his hand and Gara took it to help haul him to his feet. Blustering oaf was heavy.

They ascended the raised earthworks of the village. When they passed by Gara's hut, Vaan was waiting outside with a dour expression and a sour look in his eye. He didn't easily forgive when Gara skipped out on her lessons, not even when it was for more important matters than learning how to read. Reading and writing were more male skills, anyway.

Vaan harrumphed once it became clear Gara didn't intend on returning to her studies, and he gave Karst a glower. He probably thought Gara was taken him somewhere private.

I should be so lucky, Gara thought.

A larger building stood behind Gara's hut. It was the largest structure in the village and had been built by Gara's mother. It was a building whose purpose had never been required before. The people had started calling it the high house, and it was where chieftesses from the other clans would gather when they wished to meet with the queen.

It was also where the foreign kings agreed to meet and plan for the coming war. Here, in Thandor, in Gara's high house, because she was the ruler of the people who fought most savagely against their oppressors.

Above the entrance, the doorframe was of newer wood than the rest. It'd been replaced after Gara's mother, the previous chieftess, was taken by the Amethysts. Whether her mother was dead, languishing within the daan'mirata of Marwin, or already carrying the half-breed bastard of an Aleesh high citizen, Gara had faith that her mother could rest at ease knowing a new name was engraved upon the high house. Two Thandi characters, Ga and Ra were branded above the doorway.

The High House of Gara.

"Why do you fight, gadyuka?" Karst asked as they paused before the door. It wasn't the first time he asked this stupid question. He always did so when they saw each other, and Gara always gave the same answer.

"Because there is no choice but to fight."

"Is not true. Dying is choice. Submit to Aleesh is choice."

"No acceptable choice but to fight."

"Now this is true," Karst laughed, and that was where he was usually content to let it end.

Gara, however, felt a need to give more this time. Perhaps it was the promise of battle coming with the dawn, perhaps it was the fear that she may never get another chance to speak like this with her most treasured friend, but Gara needed Karst to know exactly why it was she fought the Aleesh.

"I hate them," she said softly. God had said Gara understood why mortals could hate, but the real truth was that she had no idea. She only knew for certain that she could hate, and she did hate. Gara could hate like no other. "I hate what they've done to us, what they reduced us to."

Karst made a low sound of agreement.

"Thandor used to be a great land. The chieftesses used to rule their clans from castles, not from huts made of sticks and mud. In the days of Inwé, our songs tell that no race of humanity was held above another. Not even the Aleesh with their magic tried to rule over anyone else. They didn't oppress and enslave us. They and the mighty protected us from proteurim and fiends and evil dragons. But they changed. The Aleesh hate us now. They see us as… less… than they are, because we didn't have any magic to stop them.

"I want Thandor to be like the songs my mother sang to me. I want all of our lands to become what we were before the Aleesh turned against us. I want us to be greater than we've ever been. It's become an ache within me. A need. I must fight them. I've known this since before God appeared before me and marked me as His saint. It's a feeling deep inside me like nothing else. I know what I must do, but I don't know if it's something I can do. With or without what God has given me."

Karst watched her sidelong. "You have word for this feeling?"

Gara exhaled through her nose. "Maybe. I don't know yet. It might be it's too strong a thing to say." She thought of her earlier conversation with Vaan about eloquence and snorted. "I don't think I could say it with ten-thousand words."

"Be sure to tell this to me if you are of the learning. I am curious of what goes on in this pretty head."

"Don't call me pretty, Karst."

"And why should I not?

"It makes me really mad you won't bend me over and make me scream my thanks to your ancestors."

His face turned a shade to match his hair. "Thandi girls are worse than dirty, old men, I think."

"Nah, even my sisters say I'm a whore, but that's rot. Whore's are professionals. I'm a hobbyist."

"At least you know this, yes? Is important to know failings."

Gara scoffed. "Is it a failing when you mount up on any and every village girl who'll let you?"

"Is different."

"I take it back. You are an idiot." She licked her lips. "A sexy, sexy idiot. I'm starting to think the only reason you won't shag me is because you're scared of a woman who wants it more than you do."

He didn't offer a reply.

"Winds and storms, am I right?"

"We are no longer of the speaking of this." He strode with determination into the high house. "Come, gadyuka. Is time we meet with our brother kings."

Gara wore a triumphant smile as she watched the strongest of rebel kings flee from her. Then, taking a deep breath, she followed him inside. The meeting couldn't yet truly begin, not until Akazewi arrived, but there were some things they could get out of the way before they started in earnest.

Once the Five stood as one and revealed to all, they would take the world's breath away.