The Given Avatars
Year 207 of Chakra 58King Gwann1
King Gwann’s kindly eyes widened.
The single word had not been uttered by the high priests chanting sonorously in classical Ashcrit. It had come from the altar itself.
The stonefire had spoken.
He stared at the fragment of rock that lay in the center of the large white pentangle. The altar was five times the normal dimensions—twenty-five yards on each of its five sides, instead of the normal five yards. The tiny pebble of stonefire was a mere black dot in the center of the ash-carpeted ground. The silverwood barrier that formed the five lines of the pentangle provided further protection to the priests, ministers, nobles, and servants who sat on the periphery of the sacred space.
The priests had insisted on this precaution, and Gwann had agreed gladly. His desire for a successful ceremony was outweighed by his inborn terror of stonefire. To a Krushan, it was a great source of power, the searing fire a response to the call of their ancient blood. But to any non-Krushan, it was evil incarnate.
It had cost several scores of lives just to obtain the precious, cursed thing itself. Stonefire was not officially banned, because the Krushan knew that there was no need to ban it. The wretched substance could take care of itself, and then some. Scores of Gwann’s bravest and boldest had sacrificed their lives to acquire and smuggle it across the Burnt Empire and into Gwannland. A few had been betrayed, others were killed fighting bandits as well as smugglers who had caught wind of the enterprise, but the vast majority of those brave warriors had been killed by stonefire itself. Despite all precautions—special yards-long silverwood tongs to handle it, a silverwood casket to contain it, and even two silverwood shields, all devised at great cost—the wicked thing had found opportunities to lash out at its abductors and burn them to ash during the long, perilous journey.
Among them was Jonasi, Gwann’s late wife’s brother and his most trusted champion. With him and most of his elite king’s guards lost in the desperate quest, Gwann was left with nothing more than a few platoons of untested recruits and broken veterans. His capacity for war, or even defense, was gone. Gwannland’s coffers, bare. Gwannland’s natural resources, taken. The war against Guru Dronas had cost him everything, and the price he had paid for mere survival had been the better half of his entire kingdom. Gwannland was now Gwannland only in name.
All he had left now was this final, desperate gambit.
The Ritual of Summoning.
And what did Gwann hope to achieve by this arcane ritual?
Vensera had asked him the question when he first spoke of it several months ago, after the war with Dronas ended.
A means of survival, he had answered.
She had looked at him for a long moment, her grey-green eyes searching his face the way one might look at a man to ascertain his sanity.
“This is Krushan sorcery,” she had said, and there was an edge of fear in her tone. She had not sounded so fearful even when they had stood on the field of Beha’al, looked out at the vast host arrayed against their own forces, and realized that they stood no chance of victory against Dronas. “These rituals are meant to summon the stone gods. And the stone gods recognize only the Krushan. We mortals were never meant to meddle in such matters.”
Gwann had drawn in a deep breath and released it slowly. “Neither were mortals meant to live alongside Krushan. Yet here we are. All together on a single continent. Thus has it been ever since they arrived here from wherever they came from. That is the way of our world, Vensera; it is what we are given. We can only survive by whatever means are available to us. If using Krushan sorcery is the only way to repair our fortunes, then so be it. We have no other choice.”
She had looked into his eyes and seen his despair, his ache at the forfeiture of territory his ancestors had fought so bitterly to win and hold for generations. “We will endure this loss,” she had said then. “It is what we do. And one day, when we have rebuilt our strength . . .”
She had not needed to continue. She was the greater warrior of them both, the superior strategist and tactician. His skills were those of administrator, jurist, and city planner. He had always taken her word when it came to martial affairs, just as she took his when it came to domestic ones. But he need not be a military genius to know that they stood no chance of ever rebuilding; he knew economics, and the fact was, Gwannland had nothing left to rebuild with. Everything their kingdom had possessed—people, farms, mines, trade stations, everything and anything that could fetch income, now or in the future—was now controlled by Dronas. He had carved out the heart of Gwannland and left them with the bare, broken bones.
Gwann had put a hand on her cheek, gently. She was still handsome, the scars adding to her rugged appeal. What most mistook for hardness, he knew to be a carapace; she was as soft on the inside as she was hard on the exterior.
“You know that will never happen,” he had said softly. “This is the only way.”
“It is one way,” she had admitted. “There are others.”
“It is the only sure way,” he had said. “If this succeeds, we will stand a chance of retaking Gwannland and ousting Dronas.”
She had fallen silent then. She could have countered with the argument that ousting Dronas, even if such a thing was possible now, would come with a heavy price: the wrath of the Burnt Empire. And if they had not been able to defeat Dronas at their strongest, to attempt to resist the empire at their weakest would mean total destruction. Not even the fealty oaths of his ancestors would protect them. But she said none of these things.
Instead she had said the one thing Gwann had never expected.
“Gwannland was my dowry,” she said at last. “Given to me as the price for taking you in matrimony.”
He had stared at her, not sure how to respond.
Yes, the realm was endowed to her, and she was its supreme commander.
That was the tradition: stree, being the stronger gender and built for war, received a dowry from the manush’s family at the time of nuptials. In this part of the world, the tradition called for the manush to gift a dowry to the stree, and Gwannland had been Gwann’s to Vensera. His only claim was a heritage, to the history of his ancestors...