"The centuries you spent in amber have rotted your brain, Bloodcaller."
"Listen to me, Klaxxi'va," said Ninil'ko, turning from one Klaxxi'va to the next. Each faced him with an equally disapproving expression. "The empress will die by sunset no matter what we do. Am I wrong?"
"You are not. And yet you propose insanity. We do not have another to take the empress's place. We cannot put her at risk. If she dies, the cycle ends."
"The only solution to the mogu invasion is the swarmborn. If we cannot revive the minds of our young, we will not have the numbers to repel them," Ninil'ko said softly. "The swarmborn will not be of use until the relic is destroyed. I cannot destroy the relic while it is surrounded by an army. Our only chance to reach the relic is to tempt the army with a prize they cannot resist. The empress is that prize. She is the only possible prize! This is my logic. This is my plan. This is why you awakened me. Heed my words."
There was a very long silence.
"Warlord!" The junior mogu scrambled into the building. Seven senior military leaders looked up from the collection of maps and scouting reports scattered across a long table. Gurthan sat at its head. "The mantid are moving!"
"Against us?" asked one of the commanders.
"No!" the younger mogu said, gasping. "Away… away from us."
"Explain," said Warlord Gurthan.
The junior mogu took a few deep breaths. "Our scouts say a few mantid left their stronghold by air, carrying another."
"Why?" Gurthan asked.
"Not sure… The one being carried, it looked…" The messenger suddenly appeared nervous. He cleared his throat and carefully chose his words. News of Hixin's demise had spread quickly. "This particular mantid looked different. Very different. The other insects seemed to treat it with care and respect."
The commanders exchanged glances.
"Was it the mantid empress?" Gurthan asked quietly.
"The scouts think so, Warlord, yes," the junior mogu said.
Warlord Gurthan slowly stood, his eyes resting on the ornate urn on the corner of the table. His armies had moved cautiously beyond the wall thus far. Gurthan knew time was on his side; sooner or later, the mantid would only have reckless, desperate options. This was the moment he had waited for. "They've seen our preparations. They know we're attacking today. They hope to delay their destruction and keep their empress out of our hands, even if only for a few minutes longer. And now they've removed her from the one place they could have mounted a proper defense."
One of the mogu commanders looked uneasy. "They may be attempting to draw us out—"
"Of course they are," Gurthan said. It's precisely what I would do, he thought. "It changes nothing. We have enough warriors to overrun any defense they have."
"Your orders, Warlord?"
All of the commanders fixed their eyes upon him. The warlord quickly analyzed his options, searching for flaws and unseen dangers. The relic will be vulnerable while the army pursues the empress, Gurthan thought. That dangerous mantid flyer still lives. Is this a trap?
A smile spread over the warlord's face. "Send everything. Chase the empress. Bring her here. Preferably alive. I want her in this urn by sunset." I hope the flyer does attack, Gurthan thought. "And make sure the huatang crews are ready. Tell them to expect a strike from the sky."
Kil'ruk watched the mogu warriors and their slaves leave behind their tents, their cookfires, their belongings, taking only a single weapon each before rushing to the west. Clearly, the warlord had told them to waste no time.
They will kill this empress and every empress who might have ever lived. The thought spun crazily in his head like a spring sapfly near a kypari tree. Strangely, despite his anger, the mind-numbing effects of the mogu relic seemed dim compared to even an hour ago. He still couldn't hear the empress, but her absence no longer muddled his thinking.
In truth, he had never felt clearer in purpose. The lesser creatures wanted to end the cycle. Kil'ruk would stop them.
Only through battle do we grow, Ninil'ko had said. It is an efficient mentor.
It seemed even the hunger for battle could sharpen a mantid mind.
Kil'ruk waited until the last stragglers of the mogu's vast army disappeared over the nearby hills. He lifted into the air. Six other mantid flyers rose with him. Only six. They were the only surviving winged mantid mature enough to fight without the empress's voice guiding them.
The Terrace of Gurthan was laid out before him. The Wall towered above it.
Kil'ruk flew toward the Wall. Six hundred strides away, on the battlements, the white outlines of six honeycombs turned to face him.
"There it is, Warlord."
Warlord Gurthan squinted and shaded his eyes against the afternoon sun. Indeed, that distinctive mantid flyer was approaching from the west. Several other flyers, perhaps five or six, followed closely.
To the warlord's surprise, they didn't descend toward the terrace.
"Are they attacking the Serpent's Spine?" Fulmin said. "I suppose they don't know we moved the relic here."
"Perhaps," Gurthan said, doubtful. The mantid weren't known for such oversights. What am I not seeing? Gurthan glanced around the terrace. His guards held their positions but kept their attention on the mantid. Even the trained battle quilen at their heels tracked the flyers across the sky.
The first huatang shot rang out just as the winged mantid crossed the west edge of the terrace. Two flyers dropped in an instant. The dangerous one was not among them.
Two hundred strides to go. The flock stayed level with the battlements. The mogu guards on the ground watched closely.
The mantid saw the puff of white smoke a heartbeat before the honeycomb's payload of pebbles whistled past. Kil'ruk heard impacts on a carapace to his left—fatal impacts. He didn't know who had been hit. Nor did he care. There were five more loaded honeycombs to worry about. It was time to see whether the Bloodcaller lived up to his legend as a tactician.
"Disperse," Kil'ruk said.
The remaining flyers—four, Kil'ruk saw in a quick glance—scattered left, right, and up, but didn't descend. The paragon had expressly forbidden it.
The lesser creatures will expect you to dive for the terrace, Ninil'ko had told them, so don't.
Another honeycomb fired. It missed, low. Two more fired in tandem. Low again. The paragon had been right; they expected the flyers to make a play for the relic. Slaves scrambled over the four empty honeycombs, reloading.
Wind-Reaver, most of their shots will be fired at you. They fear you too much to do otherwise, Ninil'ko had said.
They drew close to the Wall. Fifty strides to go. The final two loaded honeycombs were aimed true. They would not miss, not at this range.
Twenty strides. Time for the next part of the paragon's plan.
They can't imagine that you wouldn't be the first to strike them, Ninil'ko had said.
Neither can I, Kil'ruk had responded.
Surprise them. Surprise yourself, the Bloodcaller said.
Kil'ruk's wings suddenly buzzed into a translucent blur. He ascended fast, incredibly fast, almost as fast as he could dive. The final two honeycombs tried to track him and cranked off hasty shots in a panic. They missed.
None of the honeycombs had been reloaded yet. The other four flyers fell upon the battlements in a berserker whirlwind of amber and blood.
Kil'ruk let his wings go still. His momentum carried him higher and higher, arcing above the Serpent's Spine. He reached his zenith about four hundred strides above the battlements.
It was strangely quiet up here. The sounds of battle were far below. The empress was silent. For the first time in his life, Kil'ruk was flying into battle truly alone.
It didn't disturb him at all.
He began to dive.
"Clever," Warlord Gurthan said, smiling. The flyer had exploited their assumptions and neatly threaded through their defenses. Now it had a clear dive to the Serpent's Spine. "Very clever indeed."
"Should we send reinforcements?" Fulmin asked.
"No. Even if we were to lose everyone on the battlements, it would mean little if the relic—"
A shrill cry interrupted the warlord. "Mantid! Mantid from the west!"
Warlord Gurthan spun. A dozen mantid on foot charged toward the Terrace of Gurthan, already within a hundred paces of the mogu. All of the guards had been so focused on the flyers…
Clever, he thought, no longer smiling.
Ninil'ko the Bloodcaller charged into battle with the rest. He hissed and clicked his mandibles—kss kss tk-tk-tk-tk—and the other mantid arrayed themselves in a wedge formation. He allowed himself a moment of satisfaction; his time in the amber hadn't quelled his talent a bit.
Most paragons received their second name from the Klaxxi. Ninil'ko was the only paragon, to his knowledge, who had chosen his own second name. Who else should have? The Klaxxi had lauded him for his sense of broad strategy, and his empress, weak and pathetic though she might have been, had marveled at his cunning in defeating a mantid rebellion.
But which of them would have named him Bloodcaller?
Ninil'ko raised his spear as his fellow mantid sprinted over the last few strides to the mogu. He pointed the curved blade at the left flank and clicked his mandibles together twice. The entire mantid force targeted two particular mogu. The enemies died in a cyclone of sharpened amber.
Ninil'ko slowly swept his spear across the defenders' skirmish line, picking targets. Click click click. Three more mogu died, leaving a giant hole in their defenses. The left flank collapsed. Click click. Two quilen died. Click click click. A mage, a beastmaster, and a wounded quilen fell next.
It was a gift. Ninil'ko had learned even as an immature swarmborn that he could communicate and influence other mantid without words. When he projected his will, nearby mantid knew where to attack; when he hissed or clicked his mandibles, they knew when. He could send his soldiers in and out of combat at will, directing the flow of battle on an imperceptibly precise level.
He had never explained the gift to anyone, not even to the Klaxxi. Ninil'ko didn't truly understand it himself. Was it the sound they responded to? Could he influence them like the empress? He wasn't sure. Perhaps he was tapping into some ancient part of the mantid mind, some primal instinct left over after the Old One had bestowed them with clarity of thought and a higher purpose. Perhaps this was how the mantid had communicated long ago.
In the end, it mattered little. When Ninil'ko called, blood flowed. Soon the terrace ran red.
And Kil'ruk continued to dive.