A World to Burn

*

Those who do not embrace death . . .

She shall embrace them.

*

The market square was bustling with people, so many people. Tazi had never seen so many fragile souls in all her life. The hot, humid air lay heavy about her, weighing down on her. The lack of a breeze made the pungent aromas of the market linger long in the air—spices, baked goods, roasting meats, but also blood and sweat and waste.

     The city was a living proof of the wretchedness of humanity, the blight it was upon the world. As Shalü Da, the Lady of Death, had told the prophets, humanity’s only purpose was to die and give itself back to feed the soul of the world. Apart from this, all humans did was soil and stain, polluting the world with their cities, their offal, their opulence, their violence. Take Giv Lasano, this capitol of the rainforest people, the Ji. All around them, the most beautiful and abundant forest on all Jan Ahava stretched, and they, selfish and greedy, had carved their monoliths of stone at its heart, damming its rivers, cutting down its trees, building monuments to their own greatness . . .

     And for what end? It would all burn down, as all things would burn down. Shalü Da proclaimed it so. The prophets proclaimed it so. Humanity was destined for destruction. All these great artifices would come crumbling to dust and the forest would reclaim them before the desert claimed the forest and the world returned to the dust from which it arose.

     Tazi curled her lip. Her own people, the Burdosi, had their vices and failures as well. They, too, were a stain on the world. Nonetheless, they at least had the decency to build no great cities, to tear down no great forests. The arrogance of these Ji! That they would think so highly of themselves as to create a monstrosity such as this!

     Tazi drew her small blooding blade, not easily recognizable as the true weapon it was. It fit in the palm of her hand, the tip of its blade barely poking out from the folds of her flesh. She walked through the crowded marketplace, waiting for a chance. A young man, strong looking, hoisting a burden on his sweaty back, bare arms bulging with muscle. He would do.

     Tazi allowed the press of the crowd to take her toward him, stumbling intentionally so that she bumped into him, the tip of her blooding blade nicking his skin. She bounced back immediately, apologizing profusely. He merely grunted, the small pain of her blade barely noticeable amidst the biting insects that filled the jungle.

     Tazi smiled, turning the blade in her hand and gently nicking her own finger, allowing her blood and the man’s to mix. She felt the connection immediately, a thin trail of her consciousness following the young man’s lumbering trek through the crowd, bearing his burden. She turned the blade back and went to hunt another victim. Her next was a woman, perhaps forty, working a stall. Tazi made as if to purchase something and managed the smallest neatest prick of the woman’s arm. Tazi pierced a different finger and a new strand of connection formed.

     Burdosi Blood Binders had been hunted nearly to extinction, their magic considered an abomination. Tazi had no doubt that it was, but for her this mattered little. If humanity was meant to destroy itself anyway, if its very existence was a disease needing eradication, then abominations were sure to exist most anywhere one cared to look. However, if being a Blood Binder was an abomination, then Tazi had no idea what she qualified as.

     Whereas most Blood Binders could not hold a connection with more than one person at once and could only influence their decisions over short distances and time frames, Tazi could hold no less than ten distinct consciousnesses at the same time. She could maintain her connections over miles and for days with nothing but a small prick of blood. So much power in one human was a rarity, indeed, almost unheard of. It was as though by eradicating the Blood Binders, those who had destroyed them had only created a single individual with more power than they ever could have dreamed.

     Tazi smiled at the thought and continued through the city streets, looking for more victims.

*

“You come searching for truth,” the old man surmised. He was ancient, so old that Tazi could not imagine how he was still standing upright. There was a darkness in him as well, a pit so full of evil she could all but feel its weight as a tangible thing.

     “I do,” Tazi said in a voice that was remarkably clear for a fifteen-year-old girl. She was a young Burdosi who would have had so much potential had it not been for the cursed talent that had awakened in her—she was a Blood Binder. One of the last of her kind, hated by the T’Vahn for the abomination she was, hated by the Ji for the threat she represented, hated by her own people for the stain on their culture her kind had made.

     She would have been slain had she been discovered, but her mother could not bear to see her executed, so she had secreted Tazi away. But that sending away had been nothing but an exile, a putting off of death inevitable. Tazi could not live among the Burdosi, for eventually she would be discovered, especially once she got the taste of blood and began to crave it. Yet neither could she travel to the Ji or the T’Vahn, or any of the peoples of the near equatorial regions for that matter. They would all hate her.

     So, she had wandered into the deepness of the desert.

     And there she found him, a man alone amidst the crumbling ruins of a rock-strewn valley, a valley filled with tangled, curling purple vines and blood red flowers. A man marked with the scars she instinctively knew to be self-inflicted, the kind she would someday inflict on herself—the scars of a Blood Binder sating his desire for blood.

     The old man grinned at her, a toothless smile. “You’ve come to the right place, then. You are as I once was, exiled by my own people, hated by all. I am Denkam. I came to this place searching for the same truth as you. I found it and have long waited to find the one who shall replace me.”

     Tazi had no reservations. Whatever dark power or sinister order this man represented, she knew her fate lay with him. She was a reject and castaway from all cultures. She had long since quit believing in a world that mattered or had meaning. Somehow, she sensed that this man had as well.

     “Tell me more,” she said eagerly.

     And so, Denkam did.

*

Tazi retreated to the shelter of an alleyway, the shadows of the buildings blocking some of the burning rays of the westering sun. She had found her victims, had infected them all with her dark influence. Now, she had but one more task to complete before she could enact her mission in the city.

     She needed to find her replacement.

     Tazi knew he was here somewhere. She had heard rumors of the man who shared so much in common with her—a practitioner of dark arts, an assassin, a hater of human life, a devil ready to watch the world burn and perish as a martyr in its flames . . . they shared all but the goddess Tazi worshipped, and this, too, would soon be another sharing.

     Tazi wondered what her old master, Denkam, would have thought of her could he see her now. He had been, as she, a believer in Shalü Da and a member of the cult of death. Yet he had not seen the world’s destruction as a thing which needed acceleration. He had been content to replace himself with a new adherent and then give himself over to his lady. Call her impatient, but Tazi did not see eye to eye with Denkam. Humanity’s self-destruction was inevitable, but if they were truly such a blight upon the land as the tenets of her new faith claimed, why not increase their rate of decay?

     To Denkam and many like him, Tazi was an extremist. She had, in fact, been labelled so by the few members of the sect she’d met after killing her master. They had sought to kill her, but she had fled their hands. That made her an outcast even among outcasts, but Tazi had long since ceased to care about such things. Damn them along with the rest of the world, she had no concerns.

     Tazi sat amidst the refuse of the alley, not caring when the ever-present dampness of Giv Lasano, named the “Misty City” for a reason, soaked through her trousers. Nor did she make an effort to swat away the offending insects which bit and stung her face and arms. Tazi cared nothing for pain or discomfort. It was merely a fact of life, nothing more.

     With nothing to do but wait, Tazi settled back against the wall of one of the alley’s buildings and drifted off to sleep.

*

Tazi slit her master’s throat while he stared at her unflinchingly. When the flesh split open beneath her blade, spurting the red lifeblood onto her hand and the parched sand, Denkam seemed not even to react. He did not flinch in pain, and he made no effort to stem the bleeding. He barely even gurgled as his eyes went glassy, and he sank to the ground.

     Tazi stared at the bloody blade and the body of the man who had taught her the ways of death. How easily he had given himself over. It amazed her to think that even one so committed to the ways of death as he would embrace it so readily.

     Yet she found that she despised him. What had he done, this Denkam? He had made one convert and died, simple as that. Nothing glorious had been done in all his years as a worshipper of Shalü Da. He’d wasted away in the desert, waiting for her to arrive that he might teach her truth. Well Tazi would be different! She might make a convert before she died, just as he had, but she would not sit idly by in the meantime. She would be one of action.

     The world needed help dying, and she would gladly be the one to help it.

*

Tazi opened her eyes and rose, stretching. She reached back and patted the dampness on the seat of her trousers, shrugging to herself at the minor inconvenience it represented. She stepped from the alley. It was now nearly full dark, the sun having dipped into the west, the first moon beginning to peak out over the eastern horizon. In the dim twilight, the Misty City rose around her like a great hulking monster. Tazi smiled. Soon it would burn.

     She reached into her awareness and found the mental links with her ten victims still strong. She began even now to tug on their consciouses more intensely, forcing them to obey her, making them her puppets. She gave gentle orders to each, and they went about their tasks without thought or murmur of resistance.

     Satisfied that she had them fully under control, Tazi set off into the city to find her apprentice. This man would be easy. She would not need to teach him the ways of death—he already knew them. He was simply unaware of the goddess behind what he already believed. Soon, he would be.

     Tazi knew where to look for him. When he was not taking the lives of others, Rehen Dazhai frequented one of the many temples in the Ji city. It was a temple of the Cult of Zhavoi, a religion known for debauchery and dark arts. How such a center of worship could survive in a major city, especially when its existence was not even the least bit hidden, Tazi knew not. What she did know, however, was that it would not be hard to find Rehen, and that pleased her.

     She went to the temple, which was nothing more than a façade of stone carved into the hillside where the land sloped down to the river, which ran all through Giv Lasano. A pair of dark-cloaked men stood outside.

     “Are you initiated in the sacred rites?” one asked her through a cloth mask. It was the same black as the cloak and hood and hair and eyes of the man, leaving him a vague and formless thing, a voice speaking from within a shadow.

     “No,” Tazi admitted. “I am a seeker.”

     “And through whose words do you come seeking?” the other queried.

     “Rehen Dazhai,” Tazi replied.

     The two black shapes turned to one another and nodded.

     “Enter, friend of the initiated,” the first said.

     Tazi stepped through the portal and into a low and dark corridor. Ahead, she could see a set of stairs leading down into a cavern lit with firelight. She descended, coming to an elevated ring surrounding a center pit. Along the ring were alcoves, some occupied by couples or threes, most in some state of undress, engaged in a variety of practices. Others had single individuals lying in near-comatose states, lost in the influence of some drug or alcoholic substance. In the pit below, there was no statue or center of worship, for Zhavoi was no god, rather an ideal—life is short, enjoy it to the full.

     The pit floor was filled with naked bodies, an unspeakable orgy, sexual vice so lewd Tazi was all but physically repulsed by it. The heavy scents of incense and drug-laced smoke rose from the pit, leaving Tazi light-headed. She felt the smallest allure from the sight of so much naked flesh, but she had long since sworn not to engage in the pleasures of the body, and she had no intent to start now.

     Finding Rehen amidst the chaotic pleasure den was not hard. He occupied an alcove alone, the only member of the entire assembly beside herself not either under the influence of some substance or riding some high of sexual ecstasy. Tazi had wondered at first that such a man as Rehen would frequent such a place, but now, seeing the look of disgust on his face, the cold, calculating edge with which he watched the revelers, she saw why.

     These were not his brothers and sisters of debauchery—they were his next victims.

     “Looking for a mark?” Tazi asked in a low voice, coming up near him.

     He turned a pair of lazy eyes on her, nevertheless unmistakable in their hatred. “Who asks?”

     “One who feels much as you do about the sad state of the human race,” Tazi replied. “One who would see it annihilated.”

     A small gleam appeared in the cold eyes. “You are looking to kill?”

     “Yes.”

     He gestured down into the pit to a woman atop a stone disc in the center. Her bronze skin nearly gleamed in the firelight as she knelt, legs spread apart, a young man between them. Tazi turned away, curling her lip. Had these people nothing better to do with their miserable, wasted lives than carouse?

     “What of her?”

     “I intend to kill her tomorrow night,” he said casually. “I have had my eye on her for some time.”

     “How do you intend to do that?”

     “Swiftly, as with all my kills. I take no delight in causing suffering, any more than I would delight in the suffering of an offensive insect. I take no pleasure in the pain of others; some things simply need to die.”

     His lazy eyes flicked about the room.

     “You are quite open for not knowing me,” Tazi commented.

     “If you had any ill intent for me, I would simply kill you as well,” he replied.

     “You’re so sure? I’m far more powerful than you might think.”

     “As am I, but that is beside the point. I know who you are, Tazi. Not fully, but enough to know that you have been seeking me for some time. Don’t look so surprised. I do not give up my whereabouts so easily as these fools. Had I not wanted you to find me, you wouldn’t have.”

     Despite it being unnerving that he knew so much already, Tazi also found that reality thrilling. It showed her that she had been right in seeking him out. He was exactly whom she’d been looking for.

     “When I said I was looking to kill, I had no thoughts of an assassination. I intend for something more . . . grand.”

     Rehen’s eyes narrowed slightly. “What do you have in mind?”

     “You hate this city, do you not?” Tazi asked.

     “It is a center of consumerism, debauchery, and injustice. I have no reason not to.”

     “I plan to burn it to the ground.”

     He stared at her in dull amazement. “And how?”

     “I have ten setting about the work of it already. It is not so hard as you might think. This is a place of injustice, you say. Well, set the right places on fire, and all efforts at quenching the flames will be directed there, the rest of the city be damned. All you have to do then is let the fire spread and the rest goes up in smoke.”

     “But you would kill the innocent!” Rehen protested. “Thousands would die who are not the true culprits behind the corruption of this place!”

     “There are no true innocents, not among humanity,” Tazi replied coldly. “I think you know that, or you wouldn’t be here. How many of these revelers are nobility?”

     Rehen hesitated. “Few,” he admitted. “If the rulers wish for pleasure, they simply hire it.”

     “Exactly. Humans are the only creature of all that has been made to have vice, and it is rooted so deep within us it cannot be pulled up without destroying us. It would be like trying to uproot the trees of this very rainforest and expecting a forest to remain.”

     Rehen nodded slowly, seeing her point.

     “What if I told you,” Tazi continued, “That there could be more to your life’s work than simple assassinations? What if I told you there is a being, a being of divine power, who grants purpose in death and killing, whose existence depends on it?”

     “You are trying to get me to join a cult?”

     “Yes, but more. It is not simply a religion to be practiced—it is a life to be lived.”

     “I’m curious,” Rehen admitted.

     “You should be. I have been watching you for some time Rehen Dazhai, and I believe my way of life will suit you quite well. What would you say to coming with me, learning my ways?”

     Rehen glanced once more at the pit of revelers, eyes lingering predatorially on the woman he planned to kill, before drifting his gaze back to her. “I’ll see what you have to offer, and if I don’t like it, I’ll kill you.”

     Tazi smiled. “Works for me,” she replied.

*

They left the temple together, venturing into the night. Tazi was still holding all ten of her victims with her mind. She had sent them to various locations to prepare the fires. She had already managed to secret away the proper fire-starting supplies in those places and now, with a few mental commands to their captive minds, she had them moving the kindling into position.

     Since Giv Lasano was in the midst of a rainforest, timing would be crucial to keeping these fires going long enough to have the desired effect. This was one of the few clear nights she’d seen in the Misty City, and the chance of rain was ever-present. But she would not stop with ten fires. She would get them burning and move on to greater things.

     They went out into the dark streets, wandering seemingly aimlessly, but Tazi was focusing on moving toward the center of the city, near the capitol buildings.

     “Watch and see the greatness of Shalü Da,” Tazi said to Rehen with the smile.

     With a few mental tugs, Tazi’s puppets lit their fires. It did not take long before the orangish red glow could be seen coming from the palace, the parliament house, the temple district, the market, and other places. Soon, the city was chaos. People scrambled from all directions, panicked voices filling the streets as some of the fires began to spread. Tazi moved swiftly, releasing her mental grip on those she’d had start the first fires and finding new victims. She picked soldiers, volunteer fire fighters, and others who would seem not out of place and touched them with her blooding blade.

     With her mind holding them captive, she sent them to new stockpiles, to start new fires. Within half an hour, ten more fires were raging in other parts of the city, and Tazi released her prisoners and found new ones. As she went about, doing her dark work, Rehen followed, watching with amazement. The city was in such an uproar, such a chaotic mess, with citizens running everywhere, screaming in panic, that no one even seemed to take notice of the only two who seemed neither panicked nor interested in lending a helping hand.

     Within two hours, Tazi had no less than forty fires blazing across the city. The desperate defenders had managed to put some out, but not all. The entirety of Giv Lasano was now under siege from walls of flames, which sought to burn through every structure not made entirely of stone. Unfortunately for the people of the Misty City, wood was a lot easier to come by than stone in the middle of a rainforest.

     Tazi left the city and went to stand on a hillside over the river, watching bucket brigades as they struggled to fill enough pails and containers to outrace the flames. Rehen stood beside her, staring at his city, a roaring conflagration.

     “You are a monster,” he said, turning to stare at Tazi.

     “Yes, I am,” she replied through a cold smile.

     Rehen drew a blackened blade from within his cloak. “You don’t deserve to live,” he said. “This was too far.”

     Yet she heard the grudging respect in his voice and her smile broadened. “Of course I don’t deserve to live,” she said, “And that, my friend, is the entire point. None of us do, and you know that. It’s why you are who you are. Kill me if you’d like. You’ve already learned the lesson I wanted you to learn. You are one of us now.”

     Rehen advanced on her, knife raised. Tazi made no move to defend herself. If she was to die tonight atop this hill, overlooking her greatest triumph, she considered that a fine way to end her mortal existence. But Rehen stopped when he saw her not trying to flee or fight back, and the knife dropped.

     “Who is ‘us’?”

     Tazi met his gaze and grinned. “Come with me, and I’ll tell you,” she said, turning and walking into the night while behind her an entire world and culture burned to the ground.

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