"Six days. It has been six days," said Klaxxi'va Pok. "Do any of you still cling to hope that the swarmborn will suddenly emerge from their fugue and return to the fight?"
"No," said another council member. "Unless we wish to try to bring the empress into the open again."
It was not a serious suggestion. Three days ago, the Klaxxi had convinced the empress to greet the swarmborn in the open, face to face, to prove she had not been killed but merely silenced by the mogu's strange relic. Thousands and thousands of swarmborn had gathered at Klaxxi'vess, but when she appeared, they had not recognized her. Unable to speak into their heads as she once could, she had no influence on them. They simply stared at her.
The only good news was that the swarmborn had not left. A solid mass of mantid still milled aimlessly around Klaxxi'vess. They would at least serve as living shields against the mogu's inevitable attack. None of the Klaxxi had any hope they would attempt to fight.
Klaxxi'va Pok limped to the center of the chamber. A wound he had suffered three days earlier pained him deeply. He came to a stop next to the large, smooth chunk of round amber that had been found and relocated to Klaxxi'vess only an hour ago. Inside lay a legend, a hero of the mantid preserved in case of a great crisis. A paragon.
"Then this is our only chance," Klaxxi'va Pok said flatly.
"The Wind-Reaver should take the role of Wakener," another council member said. All turned to look at him. "You know as well as I do that he is distracted. He's not useless, not like the others, but his mind still cries out for the empress's voice. The presence of a paragon may draw him out of his depression."
"Bring him here."
A sound rippled through the silence.
The paragon opened his eyes for the first time in centuries.
The vessel of his preservation, the amber egg, crumbled around him. Air flooded into his lungs. It hurt. The mantid toppled to the ground, retching uncontrollably. The amber had kept him alive, and his body rebelled against its absence.
It took some time before he regained control of himself. There was a healthy supply of kypari sap laid out before him, and he feasted upon it. He sensed there were a number of mantid watching him, yet they did not interrupt. It was a sign of respect. They would pretend not to notice his weakness.
For now, anyway.
Soon his strength trickled back. His limbs trembled, yet he forced himself to stand. "I hear the Klaxxi's call," Ninil'ko rasped. "I have returned."
One of the other mantid in the room spoke. "Ninil'ko the Bloodcaller, are you well?" he asked.
"Yes," Ninil'ko said with pleasure. If they knew his name, they knew his reputation. "Tell me what crisis has led you to awaken me. I await your—"
He blinked. There were three mantid standing before him, two of whom wore the traditional garb of a Klaxxi'va. Neither of them was his Wakener. Ninil'ko could tell. He sensed that the third mantid, the one with the interesting armor and weapons…
"You are not a member of the Klaxxi. What is your name?"
"I am Kil'ruk. Some call me Wind-Reaver."
Some? He is not a paragon? Ninil'ko thought. Interesting. Why did the Klaxxi choose him as my Wakener?
"Bloodcaller," one of the Klaxxi'va said, "we require your aid. The cycle is in danger."
Ninil'ko pushed aside his curiosity over the third mantid. "Tell me what you need."
"The lesser creatures have invaded. The empress stands on the brink of annihilation," the other Klaxxi'va said.
Then replace her with another, Ninil'ko didn't say aloud. If the Klaxxi'va hadn't already prepared for that, there were mitigating factors and the option wasn't worth mentioning. "I must see the enemy's movements before I can form a plan."
Kil'ruk tilted his head slightly. He looked oddly distracted, but his voice was strong. "I can carry you, Bloodcaller. I will show you the enemy."
Ninil'ko glanced at the two Klaxxi'va. They both nodded.
"Let's go, Wakener."
Only one building on the Terrace of Gurthan had been completed in the six days since the mantid had been broken, though slaves had worked night and day to lay the foundations and construct walls for a dozen more. For now, the completed building would serve as a war room, Warlord Gurthan decided. When the mantid were utterly defeated, it would be a fitting place to receive ambassadors from the other mogu clans. They would undoubtedly seek his favor when all that land west of the Serpent's Spine suddenly became unoccupied.
Fulmin led Warlord Gurthan inside. "I would like to show you something," the advisor said.
At the south end of the war room sat an unfamiliar object. "I've had this prepared for you over the past few days," Fulmin said. "It is finally ready."
Warlord Gurthan inspected the offering closely. It was a large urn, gilded in bronze. It seemed to shimmer, and he sensed residues of arcane energy drifting about like wafts of smoke near a stick of incense. "What is its purpose?"
"It occurred to me, Warlord, that when we finally kill the mantid queen, we will need a proper place to display her remains," Fulmin said.
The warlord's low laugh rumbled through the room. "I admire your foresight."
"Furthermore," the advisor added, "we may not even need to kill the empress to render her helpless."
"With a simple arcane spell, we can suspend the empress's spirit in this urn. Her physical form will vanish, but her mind will be trapped. It will be like a heavy sleep with troubled dreams," Fulmin said. "And if any of the other mogu doubt that you have truly conquered the mantid, you merely need to summon her spirit. Her very essence will be at your command. Her mind will be your trophy."
The warlord grimaced. "No. If the mantid know she is still alive, they might fight to save her. I won't give them a chance to bring her back."
"Ah," Fulmin said with a smile, "that is why I crafted the spell to be immutable to the mantid. They will not be able to damage the urn, much less free the spirit inside."
"It's too much of a risk."
"I will stake my life on it," Fulmin said. "Capture the mantid queen. Suspend her spirit. Then, to test it, throw the urn to the rest of the insects. If any of them are even able to scratch it, take my head as punishment."
Warlord Gurthan regarded him for a moment. Rare was the mogu willing to wager his life on success, and Gurthan had to admit that the notion of keeping the mantid empress's spirit as a memento of victory greatly appealed to him.
"Fulmin, I think you'll have earned more responsibilities once we settle the mantid," Warlord Gurthan said. "Can you teach me this spell?"
"Then do so. Right now." Warlord Gurthan let a wide grin split his face. "I intend to end the mantid today."
The view from the air was incredible. Ninil'ko crouched on the Wind-Reaver's back, letting the flyer carry him ever higher, finally cresting at almost a thousand paces in the sky.
The paragon said nothing, and Kil'ruk didn't make any conversation. Ninil'ko simply studied the movement of the mogu's army. The situation was certainly dire. The Klaxxi'va hadn't exaggerated. Unless the lesser creatures moved cautiously, the army would likely attack Klaxxi'vess before sunset, and even though thousands of swarmborn were packed together, encircling the site, they wouldn't provide much resistance.
Ninil'ko could sense the absence of the empress's voice, but it meant little. He didn't know her. And even if he did, he served a new purpose now. Empresses come and go. Ninil'ko tapped Kil'ruk on the shoulder, and the flyer jerked in surprise as though he'd woken from a doze. Odd, the paragon thought.
"Wakener, who among the swarmborn is most skilled at attacking that wall?"
"I am," the flyer said.
It was the first good news Ninil'ko had heard since awakening. Glimmers of a plan danced in his head, yet there were still serious challenges to deal with. "That wall did not exist in my time."
"Can you defeat it?"
"I do not know."
"So the empress is doomed." Kil'ruk's voice was despondent.
"I did not say that," Ninil'ko said. "The cycle will be preserved at all costs."
"But the empress is doomed."
Ninil'ko said nothing for a moment. The Wind-Reaver's mind is still immature. He is a creature of the empress, not the Klaxxi. That was a troubling thought, but it illuminated something interesting. He let his mind chase it, worrying away at its secrets.
The pieces fell into place. Ninil'ko understood why the Klaxxi had allowed—forced, probably—the Wind-Reaver to awaken him. An ambersmith had speculated long ago that the process of reviving a paragon from his amber slumber was akin to an empress bringing her swarmborn into the world. There was a certain logic to the idea. Being preserved was painful. It felt like dying. Who was to say that being awakened wasn't simply being reborn? Young mantid were hopelessly dependent on the empress; perhaps a paragon would feel a similar bond to his Wakener, even if it was only a pale shade of such blind loyalty.
The theory wasn't entirely wrong, Ninil'ko realized. Even now—
He shook his head sharply. The plan stood out clearly in his mind. He knew how to stop the mogu. But he would need Kil'ruk the Wind-Reaver fully focused on the task at hand, not distracted by the empress's absence.
He will die no matter what, but he needs to do as much damage as possible before then, Ninil'ko thought. "Wakener, how long have you served the empress?"
"Since I arrived in this world," came the irritated reply.
"How long have you served the Klaxxi?" Ninil'ko asked. Kil'ruk did not answer, so the paragon pressed onward. "To serve the Klaxxi is to preserve the cycle. Preserving the cycle means the empress survives. Do you not serve them?"
"I serve the empress," Kil'ruk said.
"Do you know what the cycle is?"
"Explain it to me."
Kil'ruk's head turned, and the paragon could see the flyer's eye staring back at him. This was dangerous territory, Ninil'ko knew. If the Wind-Reaver decided he was being treasonous, well, it would be a long way to fall to the ground.
After a few moments, Ninil'ko broke the silence. "You were born knowing about the cycle. You can feel it. You know its importance. It is an instinct that simply has not been explained to you. There is no shame in that."
Ninil'ko very carefully described the hundred-year process. How the empress nurtured the swarmborn. How they all rushed against the lesser creatures at once, to prove themselves in combat. "Only through battle do we grow. It is an efficient mentor," he said. Ninil'ko did not mention how often empresses died and were replaced. When Kil'ruk asked him what the empress was like long ago, the paragon changed the subject.
"But one cruel truth about the cycle is that this empress will die one day. She knows this. She accepts this," Ninil'ko said. "It is nothing to fear."
Kil'ruk began shaking. Ninil'ko waited patiently for the tremors to subside before he continued. "That is why the Klaxxi are here, to make sure the cycle lives on. To make sure her good work never dies."
"What use is the cycle without the empress?" Kil'ruk whispered. His wings seemed to falter, and the two mantid dropped a few strides before he regained control.
"Battle is an efficient mentor," Ninil'ko repeated. "There is much to learn from the lesser creatures." And why did Kil'ruk suddenly go rigid at that statement? Ninil'ko pushed on, sensing that he had finally reached the flyer. "With every cycle, we learn more about battle, about them, about ourselves. We grow stronger. We change. The lesser creatures learn nothing except fear."
Ninil'ko could feel Kil'ruk's breathing slow. He was calming down. He was listening. "How long will the cycle last?" Kil'ruk asked. "Forever?"
"No. The day will come when we need swarm no more," Ninil'ko said. "Until then, the Klaxxi preserve the cycle. They make sure this empress—and all other empresses who will ever live—will live as long as she can. Do you understand?"
Kil'ruk didn't answer, but Ninil'ko knew the seed had been planted. It was time to let it grow.
"Please return me to the Klaxxi," Ninil'ko said. "I must tell them my plan."
"Can we win?" Kil'ruk asked.
Ninil'ko let out a rasping laugh. "By doing what the enemy does not expect. That is how you win any battle."