By Amanda Swiftgold
Epilogue - The Road
It all ended in a flash of green light, and Sekhmet
blinked, his mind a swirl of long-forgotten images and sounds. The golden
snakes embedded in his fingers stiffened and fell away, and still he looked
out into the nothingness, lost in his own past. It wasn't until the orb exploded,
spraying him with its crystalline shards, that he gasped violently and flinched
A figure came into being amidst the swirling green mist, holding something in its arms. It glowed brighter and brighter as it formed a face and body. Sekhmet covered his stinging eyes, the symbol that had been streaked across his face shining and disappearing, until the light dimmed, and then he looked up and into the eyes of his father.
Essah silently sank to his knees in front of Sekhmet and watched the play of emotion across his face. Did it work? he wondered, seeing that the Warlord's eyes were once again focused on something only he could see. "Sekhmet," he said out loud, briefly reaching to touch his face, trace the tearstains tracking across it. Every tragedy he had experienced before, he had gone through again, had relived the pain again. For a while, he had become who he had been, before.
"Why?" he asked hoarsely. "Why did I have to remember? Why did I have to see just how miserably I have failed the one person who mattered to me more than life did? More than death?" His shoulders shook, and he turned his face away.
"Tell me," Essah prompted. "Tell me how you failed."
Sekhmet inhaled deeply, not knowing quite how to put what he was feeling into words. "I remember everything Talpa took away from me. I remember how I promised Lyonta I wouldn't join the Dynasty. She saw it, Father, she knew what I would do, everyone I would kill... I remember what I've done, and how much I enjoyed it!" He looked back up. "But I didn't care... I chose to forget my promise after they took her away from me."
The snake-god smiled gently at him. "I cannot erase the past, my son. I cannot change the things you've done. But I have brought back the memories that Talpa suppressed in you so that you would learn from them. You see what you have become?"
"Yes," he said bitterly. "I wanted revenge... I wanted to fit in." I wanted love. I wanted so much that I couldn't have. "I wanted... I wanted so much, Essah. But I don't think I wanted to be a monster. That was what they all thought I was, and I really lived up to their expectations, didn't I?"
We're coming close, I think. Now it's time to cross the line... "Sekhmet, you are not a monster. You see what you have done?"
"Yes," he answered, staring at his father.
"I have a gift for you," Essah told him, lifting what he had been carrying higher into his arms. Thick green lines spread across her face, the symbol of the bond between them, echoing his own mark once more. "I trust you remember her, too?"
Sekhmet stared in shock at the small form in Essah's arms. He was in that orb for four hundred years with a corpse? he thought wildly. "Chadih," he said in wonder. "She..." He trailed off as he watched her small chest move with her breathing, felt the quiver of her heartbeat inside his own chest. But he couldn't feel the presence of her mind as he had before. "She's alive..."
"Yes," Essah replied. "I have brought her back for you."
"How?" he asked, brushing back the wild strands of her hair to look at her face. Although still very thin, she looked much healthier than she had before.
The snake-god smiled down at the form of the child in his arms. "When Lyonta died, you called for me to help. I was unable to stop her soul from flying, but I was able to catch that of her unborn child. Your child, Sekhmet. I saved it in case I could not stop you from joining the Dynasty. When I saw how attached you had become to this girl you had found, even after her death, I saw what was to be done."
Sekhmet closed his eyes, sorting through his new memories. "You put the soul of my child into Chadih's body." That's why I can't hear her in my mind like before. I'm still bound to the physical form, but not her soul...
"Yes. She is your daughter. But only if you leave the Dynasty. Renounce Talpa and leave this place. Join the light and she will be yours. You are being used. You must choose not to let that happen."
Leave the Dynasty... do I really want to? Is it really this easy? He hid his face in his hands, leaning forward, deciding.
Cirian, a singer who looked at a bruised little boy and gave him what no one else would, his first taste of the emotion of love...
Datai, who had always trusted. The man of honor, even when everything he had known went up in flames...
Lyonta, her face filled with tenderness. She had accepted him without fear, given without asking for anything in return. Her eyes shone, her every feature embedding itself into his soul...
General Shoka, who commanded him and served him, looking past his appearance to recognize the skills within...
Aysanio, who with the gift of a naginata showed that even a demon could be a soldier and a friend...
Naaza Kaeoda, who would adopt a boy with no family name and make him a lord of men...
Aoi, who for one night had held him, who gave her freedom, her eternal life, to keep him from the Dynasty...
Chadih, a starving, forgotten, outcast child who looked to him for her only salvation...
Unacera, the gaijin he had hunted, whose words had burned into him something that was now becoming clearer...
And even Essah. Who, despite years of being ignored and used, despite having motives of his own, would kill and live in an orb for centuries for the redemption of his son.
Sekhmet's hands fell away, a glow beginning in the middle of his forehead and spreading outward, forming a symbol. It glowed with a pulsing light before fading out, giving him a headache. But it felt good, a kind of cleansing headache that he knew would leave him feeling better than before. "Piety," he said softly, opening his eyes.
The snake-god looked at the Warlord before him, still as stone, waiting for the words that would prove to be the key.
"I renounce the Dynasty, Essah. I renounce it!"
Essah smiled at him, but the weight on his soul did not abate. There is something wrong here... I do not see that the future has changed. The destinies of my people are still bound in slavery... Sekhmet is still bound to darkness... where is the answer? Suddenly he flung his head up. "Sekhmet, Talpa will sense something is wrong, and he'll come to reclaim you. You must fight him!"
His eyes grew worried, his mind trying desperately to come to terms with what he was now doing, with what he was now thinking. "Fight him? Essah, what about you?"
"Talpa has forgotten about me over the centuries I was in your orb. He now has other servants, other ways of controlling my people. If he catches me then I will be bound to him again, and we will lose everything we've gained!" he said sternly. "Including Chadih!"
He nodded, standing as Essah did the same. Slowly he traced Chadih's cheekbone with his fingers, smiling at her sleeping form. "You'll have to sleep a while longer, child." He met his father's eyes. "Take her somewhere safe. I'll escape from here and meet you in the mortal world."
Essah nodded and vanished. Sekhmet felt the energy of the Dynasty move, and turned as Anubis teleported into his room, taking a deep breath, trying to keep his resolve. It would take all he had to escape from here alive. He watched as the other warlord stood and stared at him.
"Sekhmet," he said irritably, "would you please answer the master's summons? We've been waiting to discuss the takeover, and I'm tired of having to always fetch you like Talpa's disobedient dog!"
He casually picked up the orb of his armor and used it, changing into his subarmor, and then turned to face the racks of weapons on the wall. "Anubis," he said with a smile, "you can tell your master exactly where to shove his 'takeover'." Sekhmet snatched his old sword away from the wall and spun around. "Just like old times, Anubis. Or don't you remember? Has Talpa taken that away from you, besides your senses?"
"You've finally gone completely crazy," the Warlord of Cruelty said in amazement. "There's no time for games now. Stop toying with me and come on!"
"As you wish!" he cried gleefully, leaping for the warlord. Anubis raised his arm, the subarmor absorbing the blow, but he was shoved back a few steps. "What's the matter?" Sekhmet taunted, slashing forward again and nicking the red-haired man's cheek. Anubis's eyes were mirrors of confusion and bewilderment as the blood trickled down, not bothering to wipe it away. "Talpa's hold on you must be making you weak!"
Anubis called his full armor, adjusting his grip on the kusari-gama. "You've turned. I don't know how it happened, but you've gone insane and turned on the Dynasty," he said incredulously. Dayus, Cale, he sent, Sekhmet's turned traitor! We have to get him for Talpa to deal with!
"Fight me!" Sekhmet screamed. "Fight me, you honorless bastard, or call in your poor excuse for an emperor to fight your battles for you! You can't see how you've been used, so I'll have to kill you all! Fight me, damn you!" he cried as the other two Warlords appeared, fully armored, answering Anubis's mental call.
"What is going on?" Dayus said as Sekhmet laughed hysterically and held up his sword defensively.
Ah, so Anubis is afraid to take me on by himself! "What's going on?" he grinned in reply. "I don't know!"
Cale stared at the brown-armored man in shock and disgust. There had been no indication of this sudden change in loyalty in anything he had done or said previously. "Is a spell affecting him?" he wondered out loud.
"No, only the truth!" Sekhmet yelled, feeling a bit dizzy. All he knew was that he had to get out of the Netherworld somehow. The question, however, was how, exactly, he could do that with the others after him. "Join me, or stand aside, or fight me, come on, I'd love to see you try!"
"We'll have to stop him," Dayus said, looking thoughtfully at the man who was now facing off against all of them.
Yes, restrain him! Talpa called into the minds of the three remaining Dark Warlords. He has been turned somehow, but I can still reclaim him!
As you wish, Master, Cale returned, drawing his nodatchi. All of the warlords charged for Sekhmet, who did the best he could to fend them off. He parried a blow from Dayus with his arm, the material of his subarmor absorbing the slash, and jumped back. He knew that they were trying to get him into a corner. He needed his armor, his swords. But there was no room, no time.
Slicing haphazardly at Anubis, Sekhmet leaped back one more step, focusing as much of his mind as he could spare on the energy net of the Netherworld. He slid back into its force just as the weight of Anubis's kusari-gama went flying through the place he had been. The sight of his chambers faded as the walls of the throne room came into view.
Not here! he thought immediately, switching his sword to his other hand for a moment. He teleported again, no real destination in mind. And there was still no time...
As soon as Sekhmet had disappeared, Anubis took charge.
"After him!" he bellowed. "Split up! He's not going to get away!"
The other two Warlords nodded and transported as well, the situation too serious for them to take up any time by arguing over Anubis's authority. Cale, feeling very at home in the energy, closed his eyes and concentrated on any telltale disturbances in the field. He knew Anubis had gone to the main dungeon, and Dayus was now in the stables. But there was no sign of Sekhmet's passing. He must not be thinking of anywhere in particular, and that's why I can't trace him.
Cale mentally sighed. They'd have to teleport randomly around with the hopes that one of them would end up in the same room as the traitor. Floating about in the nothingness, the warlord could feel a sudden crackle on the edges of the field. Talpa's blocked out the Dynasty, he realized. No one can get to the mortal's world. And that should make our job a lot easier.
The energy made the amplification of thoughtspeak much easier. Sekhmet, Cale thought, you wanted a fight. I'm more than willing to oblige. Or are you the one who's afraid of us?
He heard Cale's taunts as easily as if the man had been standing next to him and shouting into his ear. He almost spat out a thought-response before catching himself. "I'd fight you," he muttered, "but even if I defeated you I'd still be killed by Talpa or one of the others." Sorry, Cale, but I'd really like to get out of here more.
The rapid teleporting was wearing him out, a headache beginning behind his right eye. And he did not like this running for his life. Still, he pulled himself into the transport field once more. This time he could feel the barrier that prevented him from simply going straight to Earth. Not that he would have tried that anyway. There were simply too many opportunities for Talpa to get to him on that kind of trip.
It's a good thing I don't have to concentrate to get where I'm going, he mused in the split second the trip took, or my head would probably burst. The energy dumped him into a somewhat familiar dark hall. His nerves felt taut from all the teleporting, and for some reason one of his knees gave out from under him.
"Damn," Sekhmet said, struggling upright and looking into the darkness. Newly remembered memories were suddenly sparked, and he gasped in recognition. "The snake-gods!" he cried, running as fast as possible with the pain in his leg down the dimly-lit hall. The door at the end of it could only be used by those of their blood. The demon emperor would be able to come after him, but the Warlords could not.
And they'll help me fight Talpa, I know it... I can summon my armor... He nearly slammed into the door, but recovered immediately. His breath coming fast, Sekhmet pressed up against the carvings, accessing the special energy field around the stone. I want to get through here, he directed, feeling it slowly pulling him in.
There! There! Cale suddenly felt the brush of
Sekhmet's consciousness as the traitor used the energy to go to one specific
place. It came from one place in the field, the one part Cale could not use.
And yet there Sekhmet was, and in a moment he would be beyond their reach.
Only Talpa could deal with him then, and the Warlords would end up being
Sending out a call to the others, he concentrated, easily knowing where exactly he needed to go. Like a wolf on the scent, Cale had found his prey. And he was not about to let him go.
The energy tingled against his face as he began to slide
through the door, feeling somewhat comforting. Sekhmet nearly closed his
eyes as the cool air started to envelop him.
Suddenly he knew someone was behind him, but in the middle of transporting he couldn't do anything. An armored hand grabbed onto his hair, violently yanking him back and out of the field. He stumbled back, the grip on his hair the only thing keeping him from falling. His headache soared to new heights.
Sekhmet lashed back at whoever had him, tearing away and spinning around. Wordlessly, the other Warlord stepped forward and attacked. He swung his old sword with as much force as he could muster, the clang as it hit Cale's nodatchi deafening. With a growl of rage, he attacked again, missing as the Warlord parried with the claws of his armor.
And then he felt it as the air moved and someone came out of the teleport field behind him, and then once more as Dayus appeared behind Cale. But Cale had pressed his attack, and if he turned to fight Anubis, who had to be back there, he'd be killed or captured. But what does it matter? I'm dead anyway!
Anubis came up behind Sekhmet, moving his weapon forward. He pressed the scythe blade against his neck. The man froze, and Anubis smiled grimly. "That's right, move and you're dead. Talpa will be here in a moment to deal with you, traitor."
Sekhmet fumed, hearing the smugness in the Warlord of Cruelty's voice. He couldn't let them take him, couldn't let Talpa take away the memories now that he could actually remember them. He tensed slightly, prepared to push back and get away from the blade, but Anubis felt it and was prepared. He pulled the kusari-gama closer, the edge biting into Sekhmet's throat. A small trickle of blood dripped onto the metal and ran down its length.
He stared straight at Cale and Dayus, relaxing as if in defeat. As his knee ached in pain, an idea sprang into being. But I'll only get one chance...
Anubis chuckled from behind him. "It's a pity I'll have to suffer through fighting by your side against these new Ronins," he said softly into his ear. "What I wouldn't give to be able to kill you now..."
You only wish you could kill me, Anubis, he thoughtspoke through the link between their armors, the blade against his neck preventing him from speaking.
"So, still defiant?" he asked. Sekhmet did everything possible not to tense his muscles, not to give away that he was about to try something. There was only one chance... "How does it-" Anubis began, but he was cut off when Sekhmet kicked backwards, his foot connecting with Anubis's knee. The Warlord stumbled back a step, the kusari-gama swinging out as he flailed for balance.
He used the power in his subarmor to leap up and over the man, the top of his head grazing the ceiling. There was no time to go through the door, but if he could just get his breath back he could start teleporting again.
The other two had sprung into action the moment he had made his move, and Dayus wrenched his weapon off his back and cast it forward. One of the blades grazed his cheek, and he raised his sword to block the other one that threatened to cut him.
He still was not able to summon his full armor, backed into a corner, and he was soon overwhelmed, his sword snagging in Dayus's naginatas and wrenching away from his fingers.
The ancient metal finally snapped, the thousand hairline cracks running along its surface glowing bright green. The pieces clattered to the stone in a shower of green sparks. One more slash, and Sekhmet fell to his knees. He knew that he would not be able to get out of this one.
Anubis, supremely confident, banished his armor and strolled up to him. He could not stand the look on the other man's face, so full of power and certainty. Sekhmet lunged for him despite his wounds, despite the fact that it was hopeless. I am not going to be taken alive! They aren't going to take it all away from me again!
He reacted quickly, tripping him and throwing him to the ground. Before Sekhmet could move again, the breath knocked out of him, Anubis knelt and put his knee into the small of his back, using his weight to hold him down.
"Damn you," he growled, trying to push him off. "You are going to pay for this, I swear it!"
"And who will take the payment from me? It won't be you," he laughed.
Master, Dayus thought, Sekhmet has been subdued.
Excellent, Talpa returned. I am prepared now to return him to my control. The image of the spectral mask shimmered into being behind the Warlords. Dayus and Cale turned and saluted as Anubis grabbed onto Sekhmet's hair.
"Look at your master, traitor," he spat, yanking his head up.
The pain in his back was terrible... It feels like he'll break my spine! Sekhmet scowled up at the image, trying to ignore the pain, trying to fight it away. "Talpa is not my master anymore!"
"Don't you understand?" Talpa asked him, a strange note of something like bewilderment in his voice. "I will always be your master." Swirling mists began to coalesce around the red mask, sending the straight white hair flying.
He knew what was happening, knew that Talpa had come to reclaim his mind, to subjugate him once more so that he could use the power of his armor for Talpa's will. "No," he cried, struggling to pull away. No, no, no, no, no!
"Hold him down," the demon lord ordered.
Dayus and Cale, having banished their own armor when Anubis did, responded to Talpa's command, grabbing his arms and pressing them to the ground. Dayus put his weight of the back of Sekhmet's shoulder, effectively pinning him. "No!" he yelled once more, feeling absolutely helpless.
The mist intruded on his mind, laid it bare, and one by one the memories began to slip away. Everything, painful, joy, rage, everything sliding back into the blackness. Faces first held no meaning and then themselves were gone. He tried to hold on, tried to keep things back, tried to hide. But there was nowhere to hide.
Cale looked down at the prone form, strangely disturbed. He wanted to ask questions, but was hesitant to disturb Talpa in the middle of the procedure. What is he doing?
He looked around at the faces of his fellow Warlords. Anubis was gleeful, clearly enjoying Sekhmet's disgrace. Dayus, on the other hand, showed no emotion at all, except perhaps a slight tension in his jaw. Cale didn't know what to make of the whole situation. He knew that what Talpa was doing was right. But there was still something that struck him as odd about the whole thing. And he couldn't figure out what.
Focus. Concentration. Sekhmet couldn't let them take it away. Lyonta... he had promised her that... promised... promised her what? No! There was a blonde man... his name, what was his name... no, this can't be happening, not after all of this! He finally just thought of one face, of Lyonta. She smiled at him, green eyes bright and sparkling. He held it there as long as possible, until her image, too, was taken by the blackness. Unable to withstand the mist any longer, he followed after...
"It is done," Talpa announced suddenly, eyeing the three remaining Warlords. "You may get up now."
They stood up, leaving Sekhmet unconscious on the floor, and then Cale, saluting, spoke his mind. "What did you do, Master? How were you able to turn him back?"
"Somehow, several of his memories returned," Talpa replied, "and these must have caused him to rebel. I simply took them." It had taken much of Talpa's energy to subdue the memories in an unwilling mind, and he would need to rest, as it were, before he could erase this incident in the remaining Warlords' minds. It would be easier to get them to agree, however, and thus would take less energy.
"What do we do with him now?" Dayus wondered.
"Leave him," Talpa boomed. "He will have returned to us when he awakens. For now, we must return to the throne room and continue our plans for the invasion. The Ronins have arisen and the time of the Shadowlands is upon us. Go."
The three nodded and bowed. "Yes, my lord," Anubis said, and they vanished, Talpa's shimmery form disintegrating with a low shriek.
The blue-flamed torches in the hall flickered with his departure, dimly illuminating the form on the floor. Today, his blood trickled down to form stains on his pale skin. Soon, he would cause blood to flow.
But the promise was not left unbroken. The destiny could still be fulfilled. And although Sekhmet could not have known it, his shoulders shared a portion of the burden of the world.
Something had begun.
This tale be done, but the story goes on. For, from every ending, comes another new beginning...