Note: Mild spoilers ahead!
A dozen harried candidates line up in the great hall. We are specks of faded color against white marble, just the crumbs of those who began the competition. I can no longer tell who was rich or who was poor. All of us are changed, our expressions raging from haggard, to wary, to haunted.
My face is a mask I don’t recognized. My skin is flecked small cuts where leaves whipped past me in the demon storm, and what little softness there once was feels as if it’s been scoured away.
“You may be aware of the attack on the fortress, and I am so pleased that you have survived. Lives were lost, but the Sundo must continue. The magic that protects Tigang is weak until we select a ruler.”
I don’t buy the regret Kalena is selling us. She practically glows in her white skirt and tunic. “Tomorrow the tests will resume,” She calls us forward with open arms, the very image of Omu’s marble statue herself. “But today, come see what is required of those that serve.”
I bite back my impatience to get back to Virian. None of the Baylan have asked about her, too busy tending to their own injured to notice one missing girl.
The damage the demon inflicted grows evident as we walk. Vines as thick as my legs creep through the light shafts in the ceiling, and grasses sprout from every surface. Baylan take axes to roots as thick as tree trunks. It looks as if Astar’s banyan reached through the fortress to crush us all.
We wind up a wide ramp and emerge blinking on the lip of the rooftop valley. Brown-clad initiates cluster beneath the vaguely human statues of the Seven Immortals at its center. Their stone faces are worn by five hundred unrelenting Tigangi winters, but traces of personality remain.
Omu holds her hands out to bless us, clad billowing robes that show off her fully human form. Madur the Guardian, is frozen mid leap, eagle wings forever in flight. Monkey-Headed Minue the Maker, strikes a hammer to an anvil, and shy animals peek out from behind Kitha the Healer’s deer spot robes. Carabao-Horned Nenlil the cultivator, hauls a basket of rice ready to be planted, while Hamshar the Seeker, turns his huge tarsier eyes across the ocean towards home. Last of all, Rea the Archivist, cradles books with her sticky fingers and gecko tail.
They might be real beings that walked and lived once, and I half expect the statues to step off their plinths.
But Kalena ignores them and begins to hum. The sound reverberates in the bowl of the rooftop valley and its intensity grows until pebbles shake at our feet.
A figure shrouded in red glides slowly towards the black stone in the center of the valley. Though layer upon layer of red cloth obscures her face, there’s no mistaking Arisa. She brushes past me. Her head fixed is straight ahead as if in a trance and Teloh leads a small cow on a rope behind her.
Once it might not have been a cow. I shudder at the thought, and wonder how much blood built this place. I want to be done and gone from here and I ball my fingers to stop from screaming my impatience.
Kalena turns to the initiates. “Yesterday we were attacked and our numbers have dwindled, so we have asked you brave ones to answer our call. Maybe you are not ready, but you must become ready. The Immortal court is the beating heart of Tigang.”
But the Diwatas are not its iron. There is iron in all of us. We humans determine what to do with the power that the Diwatas bestow upon us. We humans enact their will on earth, because they cannot interfere on the mortal plane. They are nothing without us. This is a truth my mother taught me, not the Baylan.
“Pledge your life and your obedience to the Seven. Let your old life fall away. Today, in blessed Omu’s light, you will begin a new one,” Kalena says.
The initiates form a coiling line, and it trembles like an unsure snake, but Kalena guides them forward as the cow crumples to its knees and keels over.
Its blood pools on the black volcanic rock at the center of the valley and drips from Teloh’s blade. It is the last piece of Lavan, shipped across the ocean to our new home. Blood fills its pock marks, and drips down its sides. The smell of magic grows so strong that I gag. It reminds me of the thick perfume of shadowed forest and black soil. It reminds me of Teloh.
“Choose your master,” Kalena commands.
A thin girl takes the center of the valley. She stares long and hard at the statues before kneeling in front of Arisa.
“Louder,” Kalena commands.
“I dedicate my life to the teachings of Kitha the Healer,” she says, not sounding at all sure of herself.
“Your life is our life.” Arisa says and presses a blood-kissed finger onto the girl’s forehead. The girl rises at a whisper and stands behind Kitha’s stone pigeons.
The process repeats and the initiates split into clumps gathered at the base of the statues. More stand beside the cunning Madur, than beside Rea and her books. Senil, the head Archivist, appears disappointed. Reshar is also disappointed, but I think the small number at Hamshar’s statue speaks more to his personality than his sect. He leans back against the statue, drinking from a wineskin. He didn’t even bother with a shirt, just a short tapis wrapped around his hips, so his tattoos are on display. Their fine black lines extend from his arms to his toes.
Then I see Tanu in the line. I know he must have given thought to his choice, because when he kneels before Arisa, he does not hesitate.
“My life belongs to the Empress Omu. I dedicate my life to her commands,” he says.
I’m disappointed that he hasn’t shown an unexpected side to his personality. I would have been more pleased had he chosen Nenlil and cared for plants all his life. Or even Minue, with her iron and anvil.
But as Tanu walks away, Arisa lets out a high keen and her head slumps to the right. The hairs raise on the back of my head. The valley suddenly seems to contract, because her voice is larger than us all.
“Your sacrifice has been accepted. Bow before me.” Arisa extends her hands, but it is Omu’s voice.
And I drop hard to my knees alongside everyone else. Even the Datus fall prostrate. Small stones cut into my forehead, as I am crushed against the gravel, and I hear others cry out. I strain to see what is happening.
Everyone except Arisa and Teloh lies prostrate. Arisa remains caught in a trance, while Teloh stands behind her and weighing the still-bloody knife in his hands. For a moment, I think he will take the knife and slit her throat with it, but he looks in my direction and hurls it into the dirt.
“Enough,” he growls.
Arisa’s hands dip, and I see her struggle for control. She tips over, unconscious, and Teloh catches her before her head just before it touches the dirt. The Astar’s glass crown topples to the ground and fractures into a dozen pieces.
Who is Teloh to command the Diwata? Who is he that they listen? My eyes catch his, but he turns away with a long suffering sigh.
All around me, people are stirring and when I finally rise to my knees, I cannot find my feet. I feel like the earth is still shaking beneath me though everyone else seems steady again.