She was hatched beneath the red-gold star, six willowy legs slicing patterns through the ether. The ley-readers were there. They praised the silver marking on her forehead and later called it an omen, a prophetic sign of impending greatness.
She knew nothing of prophecy.
Neither did her hatchmates. They clawed at her thorax as she heaved her segmented body from the blue-glow jelly of the egg, their bodies trembling with hunger. She reared and plunged amongst her fellow newborns, snapping their chitin between her mandibles. If there had been a carcass present, or any other source of nourishment, she would not have devoured her siblings. But there wasn’t, and their creeling, piteous cries were drowned out in the roiling compulsion to feed.
Her mind was filled with the scent of killing, and the sweet taste of raw flesh, and the thoughtless naiveté of a hatchling who knew neither kin nor foe, correctness nor wrongdoing.
The shame came afterward, in lonely nights spent eavesdropping on the nonsense chatter of younger hatchlings. In weeks and months of solitary hunting forays, wondering why her sib-group’s eggs had not been separated according to custom, why no one had intervened to offer the hatchlings other nourishment.
When she had passed her first molt, she demanded her right as an adult to speak with the ley-readers and ask her questions openly.
Their answers were enigmatic. They said that death was a part of all life, weakness a part of all strength, and that her dead siblings’ souls would pave the way for her eventual triumph. She was not satisfied, but she was granted no further information.
“It’s not their fault, Kitjaya,” her mindsguide told her as they emerged from the dark tunnels of the kin-nest and squinted into the afternoon sunlight. “You are the Predestined. The conditions on your birth were written nearly one thousand years ago, by the mighty Jakitu himself.”
“But he never explained why,” she said.
Her mindsguide hunkered down beside her, legs double-folded against his thorax. The chitin of his head and body was marred by overlapping scratches, the legacy of a long life spent in combat. His name was Tahn, but Kitjaya seldom called him that.
“Patience,” he told her. “M’hagmoth has spread His jaws to guide your future. He will bring you safely to and from the destroyer’s lair.”
“M’hagmoth should spread His jaws and tell me something more useful than that nonsense Jakitu wrote on the Record Stones!”
Tahn seemed genuinely hurt. “Have I taught you so poorly? Jakitu’s path did not lie clear before him at the outset. Nor did those of the other great heroes. Faithless words do not beseem you.”
Kitjaya turned away. Tahn’s disappointment stung. He was a paltry substitute for a sib-group, to be sure; he and Kitjaya shared no private language of the mind, harbored no sense of many-yet-one. But he had been her only companion throughout her lonely youth, and he had been nothing if not loyal. She wanted to reassure him that everything would be fine, that when the destroyer rose again she would vanquish it as Jakitu had, but she found no words to express her contrition. Instead, she shook the joints of her exoskeleton into place and settled on a nearby stone outcropping, forelegs crossed beneath her mandibles.
The kin-nest was alive with activity. Leggy architects scrambled at the openings of the mound, shoring up walls and polishing the turquoise runes that bordered each entrance. Hunters paced above the dried husks of winter grasses, sparring and sharpening their combat ridges. There would be rich foe-meat tonight, enough for the entire nest. Kitjaya felt a pang of envy as she watched the troupe assemble. As the Predestined, she was forbidden to risk her life in the foe-hunt.
“I know it hasn’t been easy for you,” Tahn said beside her. “Being alone, I mean. Tsitaka and I have never been the same since our other siblings rejoined M’hagmoth. It was like—like losing a piece of my soul.” He bowed his head in private recollection.
Kitjaya felt like a stone thrust to the bottom of an icy river. Did he think that because he had lost half his sib-group, he understood how she felt? The insolence. Did he dream nightly of his siblings’ newborn faces? Did he feel the snap of their legs between his jaws, the fading ether-ripples as their lives drained away? Was he haunted by the taste of their death, by the empty spaces in his mind where no sib language lingered?
“You’re as bad as the ley-readers,” she said, more bitterly than she intended. “Babbling about things as if you understood them.” She pushed herself from the ledge and trotted away from the kin-nest, shouldering past hunters and architects who failed to scramble out of her way.
Away from the kin-nest, Kitjaya’s heart lightened. She loved the rolling lowlands, the swish of wildgrass against her legs, the gusting wind and the unfamiliar scents it carried. Most of all, she loved the freedom she felt away from Tahn and the burden of her future. She reared playfully among the grasses, forelegs dancing, antennae spread to the breeze.
In the distance, a group of young kin careened through the fields, shoving and jostling in mock battle. They shouted to each other through etherbursts, babbling in that private, mutual language each sib-group developed in the first weeks after hatching. Their chatter bounced and rippled across the ether; shining wavelets against the muted permanence of the earth lines and the dim flicker of animal motion. Kitjaya, whose own mind stood dark and silent where such a language should have lain, felt suddenly, poignantly, and irreversibly alone.
As the group passed, one of the males spotted Kitjaya and bobbed his head in salute. Kitjaya was oddly touched by the gesture. The kin did not usually greet her that way, as one equal to another; they held too much respect for her role as the Predestined. Belatedly, almost too late to be noticed, Kitjaya nodded back.
The sib-group vanished behind a stand of trees. The wind carried back their scent mingled with an unfamiliar, cloying sweetness.
Kitjaya flicked her antennae, sampling the strange odor. It was not the scent of foes, yet it made her uneasy. She paused amidst the grasses, one forefoot raised, and sampled the air again. The wind gusted, then stilled. Birds sat motionless in the tree branches.
A shriek split the air. From the stand of trees where the sib-group had vanished came sounds of flailing and the crack of snapping shrubbery. Kitjaya sprinted toward them. Cries sounded amidst the ruckus. She heard a thump, then a rustling hiss as the thrashing faded.
By the time she reached the trees, it was over. The sib-group was scattered across the trampled grass. One of them lay in a heap against a tree trunk with an oozing gash in her abdomen. Another had lost two legs at the thorax. Two others appeared unhurt, but dazed. And the fifth....
The fifth member of the sib-group lay with his legs crumpled about him like a shriveled spider. His carapace was melted and peeled back at the thorax: the dripping cavity stank of charred flesh, gastric juices and overpowering sweetness. A thin ribbon of steam rose from the chitin.
“We never smelled it coming,” one of the surviving kin mumbled. “Not until it jumped on Aktel, and then everything was cinders and vomit. Is Aktel all right?”
Kitjaya glanced at the corpse. “No,” she said. “What attacked you?”
“It was like a worm,” one of the females said as she limped across the clearing. “Long. Bluish, with hundreds of claws on its underside. It left after we reached Aktel, but not because of us, I think. It was just... done.”
The ground thumped beneath Kitjaya’s feet: the sounds of approaching kin. A ley-reader pushed through the trees and stood staring at the trampled clearing as hunters, elders, and even a few architects pressed in behind him.
“So,” he murmured. “It begins.”
“Well, you don’t have to gloat about it,” Kitjaya growled. She swiveled her head to survey the onlookers. Some appeared genuinely horrified. The others jittered with thinly concealed excitement, like unborn hatchlings straining beneath the surface of the egg. It was the look of kin who felt honored to witness such momentous happenings, thrilled to stand at the brink of a Prophecy’s fulfillment.
Kitjaya turned toward one of the surviving siblings. “Where is your kinstone?”
“In the eastern fields, near the red marker.”
“Tend your wounds, then go prepare the place for Aktel’s burial. I will bring his carapace.”
The siblings bobbed their heads, still visibly shaken, and clustered near the underbrush. Kitjaya remained, resentfully aware of the lurking gaze of the onlookers. She stepped softly to Aktel’s corpse, ignoring the acrid smoke that still twined near his body, and grasped his mutilated thorax between her mandibles. His legs dangled like dry twigs. Kitjaya braced her feet and lifted him high over her shoulders in the traditional pose for a warrior slain in battle.
Her pace slow with the strain of Aktel’s weight, Kitjaya walked toward the eastern kinstones.
The foe-hunters returned early that evening, with barely enough meat to feed the night’s hatchlings. The carcasses they carried might have been mistaken for one of the kin were it not for the small, brutish heads and spiny thoraces. The conflict between kin and foe was as old as speech itself, if not older, but tonight the kin warriors took no joy in their conquest. They dragged their kills towards the kin-nest with none of the prancing and bragging that normally accompanied such victories. Sentries scanned the fields beyond the nest, jumping at every unexpected sound.
Kitjaya stood at the crest of the mound as ley-readers arranged luminous eggs on the hilltop behind her. She loathed hatchings. They brought back too many memories. Already the crunch of chitin echoed in her mind; the squeal of a sibling as her foreclaw gashed its eye; the snap of flesh between her mandibles. She shuddered and wished that protocol did not demand her presence here tonight.
Something scuffled to Kitjaya’s left. She turned and saw the survivors from the sib-group that had been attacked in the fields. They were coated with the scent of fresh earth, and puss still oozed from the carapace of the one who had lost two legs. One of the females took a hesitant step toward Kitjaya and bobbed her head towards the ground. “Forgiveness, Mighty One, if we have disturbed your meditation.”
“I was not meditating,” Kitjaya said. “May I grant you wisdom?”
“Yes, please, Mighty One. In—in the burrows, they’re saying the thing that killed Aktel was the destroyer.”
“One of his minions, yes. The description you gave matches those from the Record Stones. The destroyer begins to break free.”
“Then, Mighty One... does that mean Aktel’s soul cannot rejoin M’hagmoth?”
Kitjaya saw the root of their anxiety. According to legend, the destroyer not only wasted its victims’ bodies, but ravaged their souls, as well. She groped for something comforting to say. “It... may. But M’hagmoth is mightier than the destroyer. If He wishes to bring a soul home to Him, surely He will find a way.”
The siblings did not look reassured. They thanked her, tapped their mandibles against their foreclaws, and retreated to a respectful distance. Soft ripples of etherspeech passed between them as they mingled with the growing crowd on the hilltop.
The hunters reached the summit. With silent aplomb, they deposited a speckled carcass in the center of each egg cluster, slicing open the thorax and abdomen to reveal the moist innards. A hush settled over the onlookers.
Ikatsu, senior ley-reader and mindsguide for the nest, stepped gracefully among the eggs, nearly glowing himself in their reflected light. He made a great show of examining each cluster, cocking his head and spreading his antennae in contemplation. Finally, he stepped onto a massive stone in the center of the hilltop and rose to his full height.
“In the beginning,” he said, “the mighty M’hagmoth spread his jaws and spewed the first life upon the world. Tonight, we welcome the renewal of that life, and rejoice in the birth of our kin.”
That was the end of the ritualized speech. But Ikatsu looked out across the gathered kin and continued: “Tonight, we must also acknowledge the return of an ancient enemy. This is not cause for fear. Jakitu’s heir walks among us, and her deeds in the coming days will soon grace the surface of the Record Stones. Tonight, we rejoice in the birth of a new legend, and a new era.”
Ikatsu bowed, formally and very deeply, towards Kitjaya. His head and thorax brushed the soil. The kin joined his obeisance. Black eyes glimmered in the starlight. Hundreds of eyes, thousands of them. Watching her.
Kitjaya felt like a dust mote lost in a sea of expectation, a stone ground to powder with the weight of others’ desires. Their fear pressed in upon her. She could not breathe.
What were they bowing to? To a prophecy, perhaps. To a promise. Certainly not to her, to Kitjaya, the poor sibless nestling who had murdered her own hatchmates. Not to Kitjaya, who loved the free, wild fields, who hated the pungent scent of hatchlings, who, on long lonely nights in her nest hole, dreamed a thousand ways of sneaking along on the foe-hunt.
All those eyes.... When they looked at Kitjaya, they saw nothing more than their own redemption, their own greedy, gluttonous hold on life. They saw only themselves when they looked at her. Only what Kitjaya and her destiny meant for them.
Ikatsu rose and began to intone the customary prayers for the hatching. Kitjaya turned and slipped into the sheltering tunnels of the kin-nest.
The familiar pathways soothed her, and she pressed deep into the blackness. Although she had not planned it, she was not surprised when she arrived at the Hall of Wisdom. The swirling patterns of the scent-murals were like old friends beneath her antennae. She had spent much of her youth studying these records with Tahn, soaking up the past as a guide to her future.
She skimmed past the ballads of the kin-wars and the birth of the foes, then slowed as she came to the Age of the Destroyer. As always, she felt frustrated at the lack of information there. What kind of barrier had Jakitu used to imprison the destroyer within the caves of Kashton? How did it function, and how was she to restore it? The murals told at length the tragic story of Jakitu’s birth, the dreadful foe-war that had left his egg cluster untended at the time of hatching, leaving him to devour his own siblings at birth. But they did not explain why that was important.
She moved on to the Record Stones, those massive, looming monoliths. The inscriptions there had been carved by Jakitu himself, scratch by laborious scratch, in the ancient stone language that would not fade or vanish without a muralist’s care.
Jakitu’s message was insistent. The Predestined must be the survivor of an unimpeded, natural hatching. He warned of the destroyer’s return, and spoke at length of the evils it had wrought. But he did not offer one word of practical advice. Just three brief lines, engraved upon a stone all to themselves:
To the Voiceless One I leave the Choice I quailed at. Fear not Your weakness, nor the Enemy’s strength, for Glory unmasked is Defilement, and Frailty assaulted is Power.
Kitjaya had read the lines thousands of times, and still they made no sense. She was the Voiceless One: that much of the message was clear. She had no sibling language, no ether-voice to carry her prayers to M’hagmoth. But the rest.... It might as well have been gibberish.
The cryptic stone had always felt like the ultimate betrayal. Jakitu, like Kitjaya, had devoured his own siblings at birth. He alone understood the empty aching within her, and what it meant to be a solo mind amidst a sea of sib-groups. Why, then, had he condemned her to his fate? Why had he slated her to face a dangerous enemy with so little information to guide her?
Footsteps echoed through the darkness and stopped at the entrance to the Hall. Tahn’s scent filled the tunnel. “There you are,” he said, then turned and spoke over his shoulder. “I told you she’d be here.”
Five ley-readers stepped into the tunnel. Their scent was as delicate as the pale skin of their carapaces; soft wafts of lavender and vanilla. Ikatsu strode to the fore.
“We have come to give our blessing before you travel to Kashton.”
“I am not going to Kashton.”
Kitjaya had not intended to say the words. They were a childish daydream, a mind game she had played as a hatchling: What would happen if she did not go? But now that she had spoken, she felt the truth of the utterance. She would not walk a path lain down by dead heroes, for someone else’s benefit.
Tahn slipped past Ikatsu, lowered his voice to a private murmur. “Kitjaya. This is the path you were born for.”
“It is the path Jakitu and the ley-readers chose for me.”
“It is the path M’hagmoth chose for you.”
“I said, I will not go!” Kitjaya whirled, foreclaws raised, in battle stance. Tahn did not move. His scent revealed no aggression. Slowly, somewhat bashfully, Kitjaya lowered her forelegs and backed off.
Ikatsu motioned Tahn aside. “Child of Destiny,” he intoned. “By what right do you violate the demands of prophecy?”
“By right of choice,” she answered wearily. “By right of self. Now go away.”
“Your selfishness condemns our world to destruction.”
“This world has done nothing for me. I do not see why I should save it.”
A ripple of nervous motion passed through the ley-readers. “You mock M’hagmoth,” Ikatsu said. “You mock the very being that gives us life.”
Kitjaya clambered toward Ikatsu, her head held high. She was not so tall as he, nevertheless he seemed to shrink at her approach. When she spoke, her voice was as clear and crisp as a winter morning. “No. I do not mock M’hagmoth. I mock tradition. I mock the pompous, foolish, selfish demands of society. I mock you, Ikatsu, but not M’hagmoth.”
Kitjaya turned and left the tunnel. She felt as though a great weight had been lifted from her thorax. For the first time, her life was her own.
As she neared the surface, her elation faded. She had made her own choice, yes. But the new path was merely an inverse of the old. Did her life mean so little, that it could only be expressed as the acceptance or rejection of Jakitu’s prophecy?
She paced the dark hallways, brooding.
That night one of the kin was slain in his nest hole. The day after that an entire sib-group was found in the fields, their carapaces hollow and blackened as Jakyl’s had been. But the destroyer’s minions were not finished. Each night Kitjaya lay in her nest hole and listened to the death-screams and the restless trample of kin seeking to protect themselves from an enemy that struck without warning and vanished without trace.
Mourners gathered near the kinstones, but Kitjaya did not join them. She was ashamed at her coldness yet could not bring herself to feign sympathy. Their world was ending. So be it. It was not hers.
At night she dreamt of her siblings. In the dream, she swallowed them dispassionately, one by one, the destroyer incarnate. But when she awoke she curled into a shivering, leggy ball in the dirt and whispered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“The kin will kill me soon,” Kitjaya told Tahn one afternoon as they sunned themselves in front of her nest hole. Tahn’s head swiveled in surprise. “You’ve seen the way they watch me. They’re full of dread. Soon the destroyer will come upon us. They want to fight, and they know they can’t harm him. They will take their revenge on me, instead.”
“And you will welcome it.”
“I do not fear it. The souls of my siblings weigh upon me. And the burden of the Prophecy. I long to be free of that.”
Tahn shifted on the rough stones. The snap of his joints seemed unusually loud in the silence. “Death is just another kind of prison,” he said after a while.
“Is that supposed to mean something?”
“The demons that haunt us in life do not vanish when we die. If you regret an action taken in life, you won’t escape that feeling by dying. All death does is remove the chance to make things right.”
Tahn watched her intently. Kitjaya felt irritated. He only cocked his head at that angle when he was trying to sidle his way towards a point.
“If you want to say something, mindsguide, then say it.”
“All right. Your siblings died so that you could become the Predestined. If you die without going to Kashton, you will have made their deaths meaningless.”
Kitjaya stared at him in shocked realization.
“You stench-speckled half-shell!” she said, lowing her forehead and shoving him from the ledge. “Pretending to visit because you care about me, pretending to be my friend! You’re just as bad as all the others. All you see in me is a chance to save your own whining carapace. Get off my ledge!”
Tahn tumbled across the gravel beneath the ledge. He pulled his legs beneath him and slid to a stop halfway down the slope. “Save my own carapace? What do I care about my carapace? Tsitaka and I are all that’s left of my sib-group, and we’ll die soon enough. It’s the young ones I ache for, the ones that will never see a day past their first molting, the ones that will never share any of the beauty in life, because you can’t get past your bloated ego. The world’s bigger than you are, you know!” He turned and limped down the rest of the slope.
Kitjaya watched him go. She felt numb.
She had thought Tahn understood. Her denial of the Prophecy was the only scrap of her life that was truly hers; she couldn’t give it up without giving up part of herself. M’hagmoth would understand. Kitjaya wasn’t certain that this selfish, pathetic world was worth the effort, but if He truly wanted to save his people, He would do so. With or without her.
She watched the sunset fade from rose to crimson, and finally to violet, before creeping back into her nest hole. It would not be long, now, before the kin came to slay her. They would come in a mob, filled with fury. They would crack her carapace and spread her innards on the cold ground, and she would welcome it. Then, at last, she would be done with this empty world. She would owe nothing: not to M’hagmoth, not to herself. She would be free.
Kitjaya awoke to the trample of feet in her nest hole and the angry, chittering war cry of her kin. She shifted on the cold earth, but did not rise or open her eyes.
Foreclaws struck her thorax, scraping and gouging. A clumsy attack, Kitjaya thought. An adult’s hardened thorax was difficult to penetrate; the base of the skull or the fused ridge between thorax and abdomen were more promising targets. The claws struck again, on her cranium this time. A jarring burst of sensation came as a foreleg slapped her antennae.
“Get up! Get up, you lazy foe-meat, and kill me too!” The voice was aged and female.
Kitjaya opened her eyes.
A gray, cracked-carapace female was attacking her. Weak, ill-placed bites grazed off of her chitin. Kitjaya twitched her antennae and pawed the air with a forefoot, but could neither hear nor smell others approaching. Her attacker was alone.
“What do you want?” She batted the female’s clumsy attack away with two hind legs and pulled herself to a crouch.
“I’ve come to die!” the female shouted, fumbling another strike to Kitjaya’s carapace. “My brother’s on his way to his death because of you, and I can’t bear to outlive the last of my sib-group. Get up! Get up and kill me!” The barrage of forelegs and mandibles resumed. Finally coming fully awake, Kitjaya sampled the intruder’s scent and found it familiar.
“Tsitaka?” she asked haltingly. She had never actually met Tahn’s sister, but the similarity in scent was unmistakable. “What are you talking about? Has something happened to Tahn?”
“He’s gone to Kashton!” Tsitaka wailed. “He’s gone to face the destroyer in your place!”
“The fool! He’ll be killed!” Kitjaya pushed past the chittering female and left the nest hole, turning west towards Kashton as she emerged.
She was in the fields and out of sight of the kin-nest before she stopped to reconsider. Tahn would die anyway, once the destroyer broke completely free of the barrier. If the old fool wanted to hurry the process, why stop him? He was no friend of Kitjaya’s, just another selfish lackey of the ley-readers. He’d probably only gone to manipulate her into following him. And like a soft-shelled hatchling, she was doing exactly that.
She reared. Was it a trick? Or did Tahn truly believe he could face the destroyer in her stead? Might he be M’hagmoth’s answer to Kitjaya’s willful rebellion? The emptiness within her turned to fear.
M’hagmoth, Mightiest, hold him close in Thy jaws. He has been my only family.
The sky stretched clear and blue above her. Kitjaya wondered, as always, whether M’hagmoth heard her odd, inward pleas with no sibling language to carry her prayers to Him. Certainly, if He heard her, He had never bothered to answer.
She resumed her westward lope. The loamy earth turned to porous, black rock as she neared the caves. Legend said that centuries ago—long before Jakitu first faced the destroyer—the ground had retched flaming bile across this entire area. Nothing grew on the barren, craggy slopes. No prey crept in the crevices between stones. Kitjaya picked up wisps of Tahn’s scent and a vague undertone of dust and sulfur, nothing else.
She was tired and thirsty when she reached Kashton in the early afternoon. She had covered the distance more quickly than Tahn. She could see him each time she topped a rise; a dark spec scrambling up the slopes of the cone-shaped hill that housed the cave entrance. He had already vanished, however, by the time she reached the entrance herself.
The caves of Kashton were hardly more than a crevice at the surface: a narrow slit in the hillside, like the first split in a carapace at molting. Kitjaya stepped cautiously inside the rift. The floor was so narrow that she had to prop her right set of legs against the slanting wall. Sight vanished as she crept forward. She navigated by the echoes of her steps and by the brush of her antennae against the walls. Tahn’s scent lay fresh on the rocks.
The tunnel sloped downwards; gradually at first, and then more steeply, so that soon she was wedging her feet against rocks to keep from slipping. The farther she got from the surface the more fragrant the air became. Tahn’s faint trail was soon overpowered by a combination of burnt carbon, fetid dankness, and the same heavy, cloying sweetness that had marked Aktel’s death. The smell of it turned her stomach.
Ahead, she heard scraping, scratching sounds and the tell-tale wheeze of Tahn’s panting breath. She called to him, but he did not answer. She doubled her pace, then froze as a muffled shriek and a rush of moving air filled the tunnel. She heard Tahn grunt as he was thrown against a wall. The too-sweet scent intensified. The ether flashed like a thunderstorm.
Kitjaya sprinted forward, slamming heedlessly against rocks in her downward plunge. Something writhed on the floor ahead of her: Tahn. His head and shoulder were entwined in by a long, supple form. The thing blazed like lightning to her ethersense, a brightness so vivid she could almost hear it crackling.
She reared and clawed at the thing, braced for a counterattack. To her surprise, the soft tissue fell away from Tahn’s carapace. It struck the ground with a muddled whump and thrashed in what might have been confusion before retreating into the darkness.
Tahn lay panting on the floor of the tunnel. Kitjaya’s antennae traced the shape of his exoskeleton. The chitin along his face and thorax had warped and melted under the assault. Steam still wafted from the curling edges.
“You are truly... the Predestined,” Tahn wheezed. “The destroyer’s minions would never retreat from anyone else.”
“Perhaps not,” Kitjaya said. She angled her shoulder beneath his thorax and pressed upwards. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
But Tahn sagged against her shoulder and did not rise. Putrid ichor flowed from his wounds, clogging the cracks of her carapace. “You know, it’s funny,” he said. His voice was disturbingly weak. “That thing, when it was on me.... It was speaking.”
“Speaking?” Kitjaya struggled to push the limp elder to his feet.
“In my sib-group language. Like a thousand voices, all shouting at once. I thought, for a moment, they’d drive me insane. But I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t even move.”
“Well, move now, then,” Kitjaya said. She sidled downslope and pressed upwards against his body. “That thing might come back. We can talk about this later.”
“It’s important now,” Tahn said. “Stop pushing, Kitjaya, I’m not going anywhere. That thing seared through my thorax nerves. I can’t move my legs.”
Kitjaya froze. For the first time since following Tahn into the caves, it occurred to her that he might not return from them. She couldn’t drag him back up the entire slope, even if she was strong enough: with his carapace melted open, the jagged rocks on the tunnel floor would slice his innards to pieces. She crouched beside him in stunned silence.
Tahn rested his head on the floor. His breath was so shallow that she hardly heard it at all. After a while, scratching sounds echoed on the trail ahead of them, odd slitherings that vibrated the stone beneath her feet. Kitjaya rose to a defensive stance, but whatever lurked in the darkness came no nearer. She wondered what the things would do if she left. If she went to the kin-nest for help, would Tahn still be here when she returned?
“I’m sorry.” Tahn’s weak voice at her feet startled her. “I’m sorry for the way the ley-readers treated you, for my part in your upbringing. We never looked past the prophecy, never saw you as anything more than Jakitu’s successor. I’m ashamed.” The final words were hardly more than a whisper. His antennae drooped against her foreleg. His breathing became a strained, gurgling sound.
“Tahn?” Kitjaya crouched until their faces nearly touched. Her antennae flicked across his melted forehead, his closed remaining eye. “Tahn?”
He shuddered, gagged, and stopped breathing. Warm fluid pooled between his mandibles and coated Kitjaya’s knees. The last, faint ether flickers along his head and neck faded.
Kitjaya was not certain how long she crouched in the darkness, growing wet with the ooze from Tahn’s body. Long enough for the slithering up the tunnel to approach and withdraw several times in succession. Long enough for the fetid liquid on her legs to crust and begin flaking.
After what seemed like an eternity, she rose from the cold floor. Her legs were stiff from prolonged crouching, and she stumbled slightly as she moved deeper into the tunnel. She had gone only a few body lengths when spongy forms slipped past her in the darkness, twining between her legs and rushing for the unprotected corpse with little whimpers of glee. Kitjaya shuddered as they began their slurpy, crackling feast, but she did not turn. She could not guard the body forever.
Kitjaya’s legs trembled as she navigated the jagged stones, not out of fear, but out of newborn conviction.
She would face the destroyer.
Not because the ley-readers expected her to or because Jakitu’s prophecy dictated that she must, not even because Tahn would have wanted her to, but because she had seen its works and found them vile. And she would not merely imprison the old evil thing behind a newly formed barrier. She would destroy it. She would face the destroyer because she could not bear to let it live.
The tunnel seemed to last forever. Kitjaya moved cautiously, wary of another attack by the destroyer’s minions, but none came. Streamers of hot steam wafted upwards, making her cringe although they caused no real damage. She became aware of a distant, patterned thrumming, like the steady hum of a mating couple’s wings; the vibrations were oddly comforting against her feet and legs. Her body trembled to its rhythm.
Then she rounded the corner and shrank back from an overpowering brilliance of ether. An earth-line crossed the tunnel: not one of the weak, fleeting things that meandered across the world’s surface, but a river of pure power cutting through its heart. It danced like a linear sun, vibrating with an eerie triple-heartbeat.
She approached it cautiously, cringing at its intensity. Surely, this must be the barrier Jakitu had spoken of. It did not cross the entire tunnel. A tiny wedge near the floor remained clear, although scorch marks on the nearby stones suggested that the barrier had only recently receded.
The gap was already large enough for the snake-like minions to creep through. If Kitjaya’s experience with smaller earth-lines held true for this crackling river, the opening would grow larger still before the earth-line’s flow stabilized. Soon it would be large enough for the destroyer itself.
Kitjaya splayed her legs until her thorax brushed the cave floor. She would not pass easily beneath the dangerous etherglow, but she would pass. She ducked her head and inched into the gap, wincing as one knee jutted too high and singed in the brilliant earth-line.
Her head and exactly half her thorax were through the opening when a shriek cut through the darkness. A scraping, writhing form wrapped itself around her head. She flinched and jerked upward, but the wide spread of her legs prevented her from reaching her full battle height. It was a good thing, too: she would have risen straight into the barrier and seared herself in half. Heat scorched her temples. She whipped her head from side to side, but the thing clung stubbornly.
A disorienting kaleidoscope of ether-flashes bombarded her mind. Where Tahn claimed to have heard voices speaking his sibling language, however, Kitjaya heard only nonsense. With an awkward scuffle, she raised her front foreleg and scraped at the thing. It fell from her face like old moss and scuttled away across the floor.
She pulled herself through the barrier and stood still, panting. Her head and shoulder burned where the thing had touched her. She felt her exoskeleton warp and pull where the heat had been strongest. She flexed her antennae, only one of which was still functional. A vast numbness seemed to cover that side of her face, an emptiness devoid of the scents and sounds she would normally feel.
Oddly, although she suspected her death lurked at the end of the tunnel, Kitjaya felt no fear. It was as though the numbness had penetrated deep into her thorax and wrapped itself around her heart. She pressed forward.
Abruptly, the narrow crevice opened out into a wide cavern. Moving air wafted against her antennae. The stone walls stretched away at her flanks. In front of her, something massive pulsated, sliding against itself with small scrapes and sucking noises. Green-glow sparks of energy flashed where segments of the thing briefly separated from each other, and in these fleeting moments Kitjaya saw the outline of something twining and fleshy, coated neither with fur nor chitin but with the mottled gloss of entrails.
The creature spoke. She had expected an intimidating voice, something deep and resonant. But the words might well have been spoken by an elder of her own kin. “I expected you sooner.”
“Are you the destroyer?” Kitjaya asked.
“Are you Jakitu’s successor, and yet you do not know?” The tone was mocking. “But I see you do not. The old fool chose to keep much of his wisdom for himself.”
“Who are you?”
“I am that which was before you, and that which shall endure after you. I am that which bore you, and that which shall devour you. I am M’hagmoth.”
“You lie,” Kitjaya hissed. But even as she spoke, her certainty wavered. Jakitu’s accounts of the destroyer were notoriously vague, with no reference to where it came from, or what it was. “Why would M’hagmoth destroy His own creations?”
“Can that which creates not also destroy?” the writhing mass asked softly. “Can that which sows not also reap? Jakitu did not believe me either, at first.”
Kitjaya did not know what to say. Her face burned where the destroyer’s minion had attacked her. Her singed knee smarted from the brush against the barrier. It was hard to think.
She would not put it past the destroyer to claim to be the deity, in a feeble attempt to save its life. But as she thought about the engravings on the record stones, one thing seemed clear: Jakitu had believed. For Glory unmasked is Defilement. The phrase from the Record Stone no longer seemed cryptic. Had Jakitu deliberately concealed the most fundamental of betrayals? Was his choice to imprison the destroyer, rather than slay it, a desperate attempt to preserve his people without destroying their God?
Her mind reeled. “If you are M’hagmoth,” she said shakily, “then prove it. Speak to my mind the way you spoke to the ancient prophets. Fill me with the glory of your presence.”
Was it her imagination, or did the bright flashes between the creature’s coils grow sharper? “I do not perform to the whim of my creations.”
Kitjaya stared at the pulsing coils and recalled the second half of Jakitu’s ancient message: Frailty assaulted is Power.
“You can’t do it,” she said. The words were a revelation. “You can’t speak to me because I have no sib-group, because I’m an unbound mind. The path that connects sib-groups to each other is the same path you use to destroy them. That is why Jakitu was able to bind you. And why your minions can’t harm me with their ether-chatter. That is why I shall be able to kill you.”
“If you kill me,” M’hagmoth said, “You rob your people of the chance to rejoin their creator. My minions gather the precious kernels: the thoughts, the souls, the aspirations that have grown since I planted the seeds of sentience on this world eons ago. Your species exists to increase my glory. Slay me, and you destroy the very foundations your society is based on.”
“Then perhaps it is time to rebuild.” Kitjaya stepped towards the seething mass. “Tell me, M’hagmoth. Are you afraid of me?”
The creature hesitated. “It is the nature of all sentience to fear what it cannot control.”
“That is what I thought,” Kitjaya said.
She leapt forward and gripped the writhing, fleshy mass at its thickest point. It shrieked and pulled away, but she bore down with her jaws and slashed at it with her fore-claws. Flesh spattered about her with nightmarish familiarity, and for an instant she was a hatchling again, scratching, biting, drowning in her own carnage. Coils flayed at her carapace, but she shoved them aside and they flopped away like so many clumps of damp earth. Ether-babble filled the spaces of her mind, but found no hold on her. M’hagmoth’s power lay in its ability to warp the thoughts and actions of the kin. Without that weapon, it flailed in her grip like an overgrown hatchling. Kitjaya snapped, and clawed, and snapped again, until the writhing coils stilled.
She heard its minions rasping in the darkness, twining like unearthed worms against the stones before retreating through the tunnel. Could they survive without their master? She was not certain, and she was too tired to care. Her body stung and burned where M’hagmoth’s coils had struck her. Her joints ached from the climb through the tunnels. Limping and panting, she made her way back to the barrier, scooted beneath it, and headed towards the surface.
She paused beside Tahn’s carcass, tracing the rough edges of his chitin with her antennae. “Thank you,” she said softly.
The night was nearly over by the time she emerged from the caves. Kitjaya hunkered down at the entrance to rest her aching body. She was in no hurry to return to the kin-nest. The kin would expect an account of the slaying, a ritualized tale to be engraved on the record stones. But what could she tell them?
She understood now why Jakitu had left so much unsaid. Reverence for M’hagmoth was deeply ingrained in her culture. She was not certain her society could function without it. Jakitu, apparently, had shared her concerns. To the Voiceless One I leave the Choice I quailed at.
Jakitu’s other omissions made sense, too. If the ley-readers had known that sibless youth were resistant to the destroyer’s attacks, they would have raised an army against it: an entire generation of solo minds. Jakitu’s cryptic prophecy may have condemned Kitjaya to a childhood alone, but it had also saved countless hatchlings from the same pain she had known.
Kitjaya remained at the cavern entrance until the barren landscape faded from black to gray and the stars vanished into the predawn sky. Only the red-gold star remained, bright and hopeful on the horizon. Kitjaya watched it climb its lonely path up the sky, and came to a decision.
Jakitu had feared to tell her people about the destroyer. Kitjaya feared, too, but she was tired of walking in her predecessor’s shadow.
She would tell her kin the truth.
They would not hear it willingly. The ley-readers would denounce her as a fool and a charlatan. They might exile or even kill her.
So be it. She would give her people the knowledge they needed to build a new society, one based on truth rather than tradition. Even if her death would be the price to pay for that accomplishment.
Kitjaya began the long journey back to the kin-nest, her limbs filled with a startling buoyancy. Her life was her own now. No one, not even the ley-readers, could take that away from her.