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Monday, June 18, 2007
Opener of Ways

"Goddess", Aten said, as his eyes closed again and he laid his head back. Hastily, Hathiel pulled herself clear of the Merging, her thoughts confused. She looked down again at Aten's face. He was still smiling slightly, his head resting upon the sand. Then, he stopped smiling and his eyes opened again.

"This is not a dream," Aten said, "and you are not a goddess. Who are you? Where am I?"

Hathiel remained silent as Aten sat up. The warrior winced, his hand moving to the back of his head where the mast of the ship had struck him. Then, he muttered to himself. "I remember now. There was a storm, and my ship was destroyed."

He looked at Hathiel again, his eyes piercing, and then he grinned at her. "And you, lovely lady, are somewhat of an enigma. Why are you here with me, on this beach the gods have forsaken?"

Again, Hathiel was silent, confused as the warmth of his grin washed over her, and the man nodded. "I know not who you are, lady, but I suppose you mean me no harm, or you could have slain me as I slept. Interesting as this conversation has been, however, I fear I must depart, for as you can see, I have lost most of my possessions and I am hungry."

Aten pushed himself to his feet, but giddiness from hunger and the blow to his head caused him to stagger. Closing his eyes, he swayed for a while, waiting for it to pass. Then, he started to inspect his belongings. All he had were his clothes and the dagger sheathed in his right boot. He surveyed the surroundings. The beach stretched off to the north and south, and in the west, beyond the beach, tall trees covered the ground in shadows. Aten strode towards the woods, then stopped as five warriors emerged from them. They approached slowly, deliberately. And they were all carrying drawn swords.

As Aten was waking up, Pas and the other four men in his search party had approached the beach. Upon seeing that Aten was indeed here, he had been jubilant, for he remembered well the lashes that had been delivered to his back by order of the general. 50 lashes he had endured, for nothing more than the offence of sneaking his whore into camp. The other men in his party had been similarly punished for various other offences, which was why they had been more than happy to take Hindustani gold in exchange for the death of the general.

Pas would have liked nothing more than to walk onto that beach and plunge his sword into Aten's foul heart, but he was wary, for it was common knowledge that the general was one of the greatest fighters in the Empire and, even unarmed, he was not to be taken lightly. The woman Pas dismissed, but the general he feared. He wished to kill Aten and claim the gold, but he had no desire to risk death attempting it, and so he signalled for silence and crouched among the trees with his men, observing.

They watched as Aten sat up and spoke with the unknown woman. Senji cleared his throat and whispered to Pas. "He has no sword, Pas. Let's take him." But Pas gestured sharply for silence. Senji sneered but subsided. Pas observed as Aten stood and staggered, and a slow smile spread over his face. The general was obviously weakened from fighting the storm. He stood and turned. "The Hawk is injured. Let's take him, but be careful."

Pas and his men rose from their hiding place, drew their swords, and strode towards the Hawk General.

Hathiel watched as the five warriors approached. Obviously, they planned to kill Aten. Perhaps this was how Aten would die. It was later than had been decreed in the Book of Fates - and this was unheard of - but she could investigate that with her sisters later. Her duty now was to wait for Aten's soul to be freed from his body, then return it to the Source. As these thoughts went through Hathiel's head, Aten spoke as if oblivious to the threat of the swords in the hands of the warriors facing him. "I recognise you. You are soldiers of the Empire and you have served with me before. You will give me your supplies and a mount, if you have one."

The leader smiled without mirth. "I'm afraid not, general. Today, we will repay you for the pain that you have caused all of us, and we will repay in ki-"

Impatiently, Aten interrupted, "Yes, yes. I am sure that listening to you whine about how I wronged you will be as painful to me as the lashes I ordered laid on your back were to you. But you do not understand. I do not have the time. I am tired and hungry. I do not have the energy for this nonsense. This is not a negotiation. Give me what I asked for or die. Decide."

Pas' face hardened and he said nothing. Aten closed his eyes and drew a long breath, standing very still. When he opened his eyes again, all traces of weariness had vanished from him. He drew his dagger and flicked it in a high, slow arc towards Pas. Instinctively, the soldier's eyes followed the spinning blade as it fell towards him. Pas began to step to his right to avoid the falling blade. He never completed that step.

Hathiel blinked as Aten exploded into action. Almost faster than the eye could follow, he took two quick steps and hurled himself towards Pas. His left arm blurred out, slamming the heel of his palm into Pas' nose, driving the bone into his brain. The others had barely begun to tense in reaction when Aten's right hand flashed out, plucking the dagger out of the air and slashing open the throat of the man on his right.

Aten ducked under a neck cut from his left, then leapt into the air, spun, and hammered a booted heel into his assailant's face. As he landed in perfect balance, he hurled his dagger into the eye of the warrior furthest to the left. Aten spun to confront the remaining soldier, but he had turned to run. The general scooped up Pas' sword and hurled it like a javelin to stab into the fleeing man's back.

A groan sounded from behind Aten. He turned to see that the soldier he had kicked, Senji, was still alive. He strode towards the would-be assassin. "No! Don't kill me!" Senji cried.

"I'm too tired to do so, man," Aten replied, sinking to his haunches to stare at him. As the man started to weep in relief, Aten spoke again. "You can do it yourself."

"No! I won't do it!" Senji shouted.

"You will do it, for if I have to, by all the gods, I swear I will make it last for hours," Aten said.

They stared at each other. Senji obviously wished to attack, but lacked the courage. Finally, with a despairing cry, he rose to his knees and drove his sword into his own belly. For a while he remained motionless, then he fell over and started to writhe and scream in pain.

Aten strode over and casually flipped the soldier onto his back with his foot. "Gods, man, you appear to have disembowelled yourself. It looks as if your death will take an agonizingly long time, after all. However, as your screams are beginning to grate on my ears, I shall be kind and put you out of your misery."

The general gathered up the dying soldier's sword and stepped on his chest to hold him still. With one powerful blow, he hacked Senji's head from his shoulders.

Aten retrieved his dagger and wandered among the corpses of the soldiers, taking their swords and hefting them for balance. As he did so, Hathiel replayed the fight in her mind. She had never seen any man move so fast before, but it was more than just his speed that had been unusual. In the course of her immortal life, Hathiel had witnessed many scenes of violence. The action was usually brief and brutal, but unsure. Aten had been like a wolf among sheep, utterly confident and completely in control of the fight. His movements had been supremely graceful, like a dancer's, and yet blindingly sudden. By comparison, the assassins had appeared clumsy and inept. Hathiel knew that here was a true prince among warriors, perhaps the deadliest she had seen in centuries.

She watched as Aten wrenched Pas' sword from the body of the soldier who had tried to escape. The blade slashed through the night air in a series of bewildering arcs as Aten tested it. Apparently satisfied, he unbuckled the sheath from Pas' body and attached it to his own belt. Then, he turned to regard Hathiel quizzically.

"Well, you seem to be no stranger to death, lady."

Hathiel almost laughed aloud in spite of herself. If the man only knew . . .

Aten watched as a look of amusement flitted across the strange woman's face following his words. With her fair skin and white hair, she appeared fragile and ethereal. Perhaps that was why he had thought she was a goddess. Though her hair was white, it was not the listless white of the elderly. Instead, it seemed to glow with its own luminescence in the moonlight. Then, a deep voice spoke from the direction of the ocean.

"That was very well done, young Hawk." The woman gasped and Aten saw, for the first time, a look of alarm on her face. He spun to confront the owner of the voice. It was a man with ebony skin and short, tightly curled hair. He wore a gray shirt with a strange symbol embroidered in gold on its sleeves. And he was standing on the surface of the water.

Despite the blatant display of supernatural powers, Aten could sense no danger emanating from the strange figure. Yet the woman was afraid, and Aten reacted to that fear. His dagger flashed into his hand, and then into the air. "No!" Hathiel shouted, but the dagger was already hurtling towards the black man like a crossbow bolt.

Aten watched in disbelief as the dagger slowed, then stopped, floating in midair in front of the man's chest. "My, my, such insolence from a lower creature," the black man drawled as he stared into Aten's eyes.

The air was no different. The moonlight still illuminated the beach and Aten drew breath as he normally would, but, staring into the stranger's eyes, he suddenly felt . . . pressure. It was as if an invisible mountain had settled itself on the shoulders of his spirit. Aten tried to resist the immense pressure, but slowly, he sank onto his knees and his head bowed.

"That is much better. An appropriately respectful posture."

The pressure eased and Aten stood up. "Who are you?" The general asked.

"He is a demon! An accursed being who does not belong in this universe!" Hathiel hissed.

The black man raised an eyebrow. "You injure me, Hathiel, truly you do. I am absolutely crushed that you would label me so." He looked at Aten. "I assure you, general, I am not a demon. At least, I am of an order much higher than that of the mindless, ravenous being that caused the storm which sank your ship."

The demon gestured at Hathiel. "The appellation of 'demon' applied on one such as myself is nothing but a falsehood the gods use to mislead their servants.

"However, my nature is immaterial for now. You may address me as the Upuatu, Opener of Ways. Now, listen carefully, Aten, for your time is short. The storm that sank your ship was caused by the demon Zu. Zu was sent by a practitioner of the dark arts. Both the wizard and the soldiers who just attacked you were in the employ of the Hindustani Lord Girish. As you know, the Tiger General has been killed and the army he led into Hindustan was crushed. The Blood Buddha now marches upon your Empire with an army numbering more than 150,000. Your mentor, Tannin, has been murdered in his own house in a bid to provoke you to rage, for Girish feels that you are the only one who poses a slight threat to his plans of conquest. Is he right? That depends on you, Hawk General. Will the Empire survive or fall? That, too, depends on you. Whatever you decide to do, I give you Hathiel to aid you as best she can. Choose well, young Hawk."

The Upuatu turned to Hathiel. "Stay with this man," he said in a strange voice that seemed to be a whisper, yet reverberated in Aten's ears like thunder. Hathiel gasped and twisted as if trying to escape from some unseen grip. The air around her writhed as she struggled, then settled as she wilted and fell to her knees. "You are now bound to this shell of flesh, my dear Spirit of Air, until I choose to release you. If you wish that to happen, you must assist Aten in whatever task he chooses to undertake."

Upuatu held out his hands, palms facing the sky. "Come, Astarel, and lead these souls back to the Source."

A Spirit of Air appeared before the Upuatu, glowing and insubstantial. She floated towards the slain men, and for a moment, Aten could see their souls rising. Then, they all vanished. Aten looked back towards the Upuatu, but he was gone too, and the general noticed that his dagger was once again sheathed in his boot.

Aten strode towards the kneeling Hathiel. "Are you all right, lady?"

She appeared like a statue, totally immobile and staring vacantly into the air in front of her. The air shimmered around her again, slightly at first, but then ever more violently, until Aten was forced to step away as he felt tremendous waves of pure force blasting at his spirit. To stay there was to have his sanity blown away. Beads of perpiration appeared on her face and abruptly, the air settled. Hathiel let out an explosive breath of air, and fell to her side.

Aten leapt forward and caught her, lowering her gently to the ground. "I can't . . . break free." Hathiel whispered. Aten sat beside her, staring out to sea.

"Who or what was that . . . Upuatu?" The general asked.

For a moment there was silence. Then, Hathiel replied. "He is a legend, a myth, even to my sisters and I. We did not think He still existed, even though those of us who are eldest, those to whom the gods sometimes speak, know that the gods themselves told us of Him. Some say that He is more powerful than the gods themselves, though the gods deny it. They insist that He hides from them, fearing their power, and yet there is fear in their own eyes when they speak of Him.

"No god knows His purposes or His true identity, or if they know, none of them has chosen to tell us. When questioned about His origins, some gods say that He is a renegade who originated from their own realm. Others speak in weasel words and say He is nothing but a cowardly demon. The Book of Fates mention Him not at all. A goddess once told me that He is older than all of them, and that He was already here when they arrived in this universe. Some among us believe that the Creator Himself created the Upuatu before or just after He created the universe. Others believe the Upuatu is even older than the Creator.

"What all the legends agree on is that where He walks, chaos follows, and that He opposes the Book of Fates. I knew that He was powerful, but I did not expect His mastery of the Source to be so profound that He could make me human without destroying me. Above all, I did not know that Astarel had defected to His side. Is she alone? Or is there a cult among the Spirits of Air who secretly worship the Upuatu?"

For the first time since she spoke, Hathiel showed bitterness and raised her voice. "Inattentive gods! That they could allow this to happen! And now I cannot reach out to them. He has taken that power away from me too."

Aten considered her words, then spoke. "And I assume you were here because I was to die in the storm?"

Hathiel looked at him sharply, then shrugged and nodded.

The general nodded, and looked out at the sea once more, his eyes thoughtful. Then, he looked back at Hathiel and grinned. "Are you hungry?"

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