Volume 5:  Among the Stars, like Giants Part II:  Tales of Valen




Chapter 2


SHIROHIDA, stronghold of the Wind Swords clan.
Three months later.

      The harsh mountain fortress of Shirohida stood resilient and proud against the winter winds.  Everything about the castle was built for strength and to inspire awe.  It had never been taken in a thousand years, never fallen to an invading enemy.  Even Shingen had not captured Shirohida, although perhaps he had no need for it after drawing the Wind Swords out into open battle and destroying them on the plains below.
      The fortress bred a certain type of warrior, one as hard and cold as the mountains themselves.  There was little warmth here.  A Wind Sword had to be strong, fearless, remorseless.  In many ways they typified Shingen's breed of warrior.  He had even admitted in a private conversation that the Wind Swords had been his toughest opponent.
      The Great Hall at Shirohida was merely an extension of the strength of the rest of the castle.  It was a vast room, stretching high to the heavens, stone pillars reaching up to a roof impossibly far above.  There was a long aisle leading to the Iron Throne, where the Warleader of the Wind Swords sat.  Anyone who walked those long stone flags had to pass under the gaze of the statues of Warleaders past, set into the walls so that they could look down on their clan, passing judgment on the worth of their successors.  Some warriors had been known to break and flee before that remorseless gaze.  Hantenn's was not yet finished, although it soon would be.
      The Iron Throne was an uncomfortable seat, but then it was meant to be.  Covered with spikes and gnarls, it drew blood from him who sat upon it.  That was the intention.  A warrior with a comfortable chair would be tempted to spend too much time sitting and not enough time standing.  The Warleader of the Wind Swords used the Iron Throne on only three occasions: welcoming visiting dignitaries, standing victorious over defeated and captured enemies....
      And passing judgement on those of his own clan who had failed him.
      There was no room in the Wind Swords for failure.  There never would be.  But then, no one could be strong enough to match the ideal of a Wind Sword.  The perfect warrior was of stone, and all warriors were made of flesh.  So all warriors were imperfect.
      But the Wind Swords knew this and recognised it, and strove always to come as close to perfection as they could.  No fear, no regret, nothing that could make them other than stone.
      Warleader Hantiban knew he was far from the ideal.  He also knew he was not his brother, and he dreamed of the day when Hantenn's iron gaze would look down upon him.  Hantenn had died with honour and nobility, taking upon himself the burden of the disaster of Markar'Arabar.  That took the greatest kind of courage: the courage to admit, not just to himself but to the entire world, that he had failed.
      And it was so ironic that in failing so terribly, he had become a greater hero than he would ever have been in success.
      Hantiban might have been expected to hate his brother for that, but he did not.  He could not.  He idolised his older brother.  That was why he did everything he did.  He wanted to show his big brother how much he had learned, by not making the same mistakes Hantenn had, by being better than Hantenn was, by being better than anyone but Shingen.
      Marrain was on his knees before the Iron Throne, his dechai extended for Hantiban to claim.  The Warleader said nothing, waiting for his Warsecond to speak.
      "I have failed you, lord," he said.  "Ashinagachi is destroyed and the Fire Wings are scattered.  Your intended bride is lost.  I could not obtain her for you before the winter storms made it impossible to risk your army in the search."
      Hantiban listened calmly, looking at those behind Marrain, also kneeling.  A woman.  Berevain was her name.  She did not take well to the gesture of servility.  She was beautiful, but with a fiery and passionate nature.  By all accounts she had started numerous fights, and trusted no one but Marrain.
      Beside her was a tall warrior.  Unari.  Hantiban had heard nothing but good of him, but still, words and rumours could be lies.  He had not seen Unari in battle himself, and so could not be sure.  He would have to be sure.
      There were others, but he could not name them.  Some he did not even recognise.  Why was that?  Marrain was his Warsecond, his finest general.  Naturally he had a staff.  These were the people he trusted to carry out his orders.  In many ways they wielded great power.  They were the liaison between Marrain, and through him Hantiban himself, and the common soldiers.
      Why then did he recognise so few of them?  Surely he should know them all by name and deed?  But no, he did not know them.  He would have to take pains to do precisely that.
      "By your will, lord, I will continue this search alone.  Let me draw the crimson lines and embark again on this journey as a dead man.  I shall return with your bride, or I shall not return at all.  I beg you, lord, grant me this to atone for my failure."
      "No," said Hantiban calmly.  He had expected this reaction from Marrain.  The Warsecond was too honourable for anything else.  "You are needed here, Marrain, and you have not failed me.  The Fire Wings are scattered and rootless, little more than wanderers.  They gave up everything with Ashinagachi and now they have nothing.  I have but to reach out my hand and scoop them all up in one grasp.  That is not a task for you, my trusted Warsecond.
      "No.  There are greater deeds to be done, greater heights to be climbed.  You will have chances for glory aplenty, Marrain, and for honour.  You have done well, and I am pleased.
      "All of you are to be commended.  You may leave."
      Hantiban stepped forward from the throne and took Marrain's dechai.  He then handed it back to the kneeling warrior.  Marrain rose, bowed and turned to leave, not saying a word.  The others began to follow him.
      Hantiban gestured to one of his courtiers.  "The tall warrior.  I believe his name is Unari."
      "Yes, it is, lord."
      "I wish to speak with him.  In private.  In my quarters.  See to it."
      "Yes, lord."
      There was so much treachery everywhere.  He had to be sure it was purged.  He could feel his ancestors looking down on him.  He could feel his brother looking down on him, even though the statue was not yet finished.
      "I will not fail any of you.  I will make the Wind Swords greater and mightier than you have ever imagined.
      "I will not fail any of you."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Perfection.  The quest for ultimate perfection.  That was the true goal of every Wind Sword warrior.  To elevate the spirit, to negate the flesh.  To become as stone.
      The flesh is weak.  The flesh creates fear, regret, desire.  All things that sap the true strength, all things that draw the warrior away from the spirit.
      Marrain was meditating, trying to pull himself away from the weaknesses of the flesh.  He had failed his lord once already.  Derannimer was still missing.  That was a failure.  He did not wish to fail again, and that meant he had to further himself along the great road between the rivers, to cross the gateless barrier, to become as stone.
      After being dismissed from their lord's presence Berevain and he had trained together, fighting with dechai, with hands and feet, against each other, back to back against imaginary opponents.  They had fought until their bodies became weary, until they were drained of everything.  Then they had settled down to meditate.  It was not easy.  Berevain was a distraction.
      "I do not like this."
      In more ways than one.
      Marrain tried not to speak.  He tried to concentrate on his meditation.  He tried to distance himself from the flesh.  Lust was a thing of the flesh.  Desire was a sin.  Berevain was beautiful, and passionate, and strong, but he had to see her as a warrior, as a companion, and not as a lover.  Then his spirit would be strengthened.
      If only she would stop talking.
      "No, I do not like this, and nor should you."
      He opened his eyes, sighing.  "What do you not like?" he asked, trying not to look at her.  Her dark eyes tended to dance at times like this.
      Fortunately for him, she was a little preoccupied.  "What our lord said.  Greater deeds?  Greater heights?  What else can he mean?  He does not intend to be merely overall commander of our fleets.  He does not want simply to avenge old wrongs."
      "He has Shingen's dream," Marrain said.  "There is nothing wrong with ambition."
      "But to what end?  What about the Shadows?  That was the point of this, was it not?  If he married that.... lady.... then he would be lord of the Fire Wings as well and there would be yet another clan to stand behind him.  Then he could lead our fleets back to war against the Shadows.  He does not need to be Emperor for that."
      "We have no further reason to fight the Shadows."
      "We may have forgotten them, Marrain.  I doubt that they have forgotten us.  That creature.... the thing that attacked us."
      "I am meditating," he snapped, a little harsher than he had intended.
      "It was one of theirs, was it not?  I have heard you screaming in your sleep about Markar'Arabar.  You are lucky that I know how to keep a secret.  It is one of theirs."
      Softly, his eyes tight-closed so as not to see it in her face, he said, "Yes."
      "It was terrible there, was it not?"
      "It was terrible," he whispered.  He imagined her there, her body blackened and burned, torn to shreds.  He imagined her on her knees, shaking before the sound of the screaming.  He whispered a silent thanks to his ancestors that she had not been there.  "There is no more reason for us to fight them."
      "They have not forgotten us, Marrain.  That creature....  Either the Fire Wings are allied with them, or someone wants us to think they are.  Sooner or later they will come back to us.  We should be ready when they do."
      "We will never be ready," he whispered.  "We cannot fight them.  They will destroy us utterly."
      "Then we will die fighting.  But we should at least try.  Our lord does not see that, and nor, it seems, do you."
      "You have not seen them!" he snapped.  "How can you say what is right until you have seen them?"  He wished his eyes were still closed, so that he could not see the hurt in her face.  "Where were you at Markar'Arabar?  Where were you?"
      She stiffened, and rose to her feet.  "You wish to be alone," she whispered.
      "Yes," he said, anguished.  "I do."  He did not, but he could not say that.  He could not even think it.
      She dressed quickly, never taking her eyes away from him.  She went to the door, and then stopped and looked back.  "I am fully aware that what we.... do is physical only, and has nothing to do with the emotions.  I am fully aware that on the battlefield you are my leader, and I am to obey you.  But this is not the battlefield.  I would like to think you could talk to me."
      "Go," he said.
      "As my lord commands," she said, anger plain in her voice.  She left, and Marrain closed his eyes until he heard the door close.
      Elevate the spirit.  Forget the flesh.  Fear, regret, desire.... all sins.  Be as stone.  Be as the mountain.
      Be as the mountain.
      The mountain does not fear.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Berevain returned to her quarters.  There was someone there waiting for her.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Hantiban watched the interrogation in silence.  His companion was likewise silent, sensing, as he usually did, when to speak and when to refrain from speech.  She was not screaming.  She had not screamed once since it had begun.  For one moment only he thought that he had been wrong, that he had misinterpreted Unari's information, or that it had been wrong, but then she had admitted to the one thing, and the others all fell into place.
      There was treachery everywhere.  There was weakness everywhere.  He was not sure whether she was a traitor or not, but she was weak, and she caused weakness in others.  That was wrong.
      The Wind Swords needed to be strong.  Hantiban needed to be strong.  Marrain, he especially, he needed to be strong.
      "You were right, lord," his companion said at last, sensing the need to speak.
      "Yes," he said.  "I wish I were wrong, but I am not."
      "Your Warsecond is innocent."
      "Yes.  I had thought.... just for an instant, that he might be guilty, but no.  She seduced him, distracted him.  That is all.  No wonder he failed me at Ashinagachi, with such...."  He looked at her, admiring her beauty, even as she was, scarred and torn and tortured.  "Distractions."
      "And now, lord?"
      "Hmm.... there is no need for any more.  I doubt that she was acting on behalf of anyone else.  If she had been, there were many more things she could have done.  No, she was simply weak, simply.... misguided.  There is no need for more questioning.  The inquisitors can have their reward."
      He did not see his companion visibly flinch at that word.  "And you, lord?  Will you take your.... reward with her?"
      Hantiban thought for a moment.  She was very beautiful.  "No," he said, with reluctance.  "No."  A Wind Sword must be as stone.  Desire was a sin.  The inquisitors were not warriors.  They were not even peasants.  The nature of their work required.... lesser beings.  They were barely even Minbari, but a true warrior knew how to use every weapon at his disposal, and they were skilled at their task.  If they needed their little.... rewards, then so be it.
      "The Lady Derannimer will be brought to our marriage bed pure and unsullied.  I will greet her the same way."  Desire was a sin.  He would be as the stone.  The stone does not desire.
      "Indeed she will, lord.  And very soon now."
      "Soon?"
      "Yes, lord.  It was as you said.  All that has to be done is for you to reach out your hand, and take her.  That is all.  Will you.... will you require Warsecond Marrain to be informed of what has happened here?"
      "No," Hantiban said, firmly this time.  "He is still recovering from his injuries.  I will let him sleep.  I will inform him personally in the morning.  He will no doubt be pleased to hear that I have released him from so great a distraction."
      "My lord is most gracious."
      "Gracious?  Yes, I suppose I am."  He watched as the inquisitors bore down on Berevain.  Still she was not screaming.  "That is a flaw, I believe.  No doubt it will destroy me some day."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

He did not feel the rain as it lashed against his skin, he did not feel the cold as it soaked into his bones, he did not feel fear even though it settled into his heart.  He was as stone, he was as the mountain, and the mountain feels nothing.
      It was dark, but he did not care.  The rain was tearing into the mountains of Shirohida but he paid it no heed as he walked across the slick stones.  His footsteps were sure, certain, convinced there was no risk of falling he had walked these paths during the trials of manhood he had walked them blindfolded and he had not fallen he had not been afraid there had been no fear.
      The mountain does not fear.
      Stone does not fear.
      He could see her there despite the dark despite the rain that filled his eyes it was all rain none of it was tears he did not cry he did not know for sure yet but he did not cry and he would not even if he was right the mountain does not cry stone does not cry the perfect warrior would be as stone.
      Emotion is weakness.
      She moved as he approached lifting up her head despite the pain it must cause her she was bound there nails riven through her wrists and ankles affixed to the side of the mountain that was the mark of a betrayer she had not betrayed anyone he was sure of that no he knew that she was no traitor he was though he had driven her away sent her from him he could have saved her.
      No regret.
      Regret is a sin.
      Regret is a weakness.
      Her eyes were still clear still hers but he could see on the rest of her body what had been done to her her clothes were ragged ripped torn there were marks burns scars cuts wounds she looked as though she had been in battle perhaps at Markar'Arabar itself but she had not there had been no battle here she had simply been tortured tortured and tormented and left to die here as a traitor that she might become a part of the mountain she had betrayed.
      But she was no traitor.  He knew that.
      He stopped beside her and reached out with one trembling hand to touch her face she looked at him and there was no hope in her eyes no futile desire for freedom only a clear understanding of what had happened and that there was one thing he could do for her one thing only that one thing and no more.
      He understood.
      That was not emotion, which was a weakness.  That was respect, respect to a fellow warrior butchered.
      He reached up for the nails they had been driven in firmly hard with great strength but there is no strength than can match the resolve of a Wind Sword slowly carefully delicately he began to work at the first nail the one in her right hand the hand was swollen mutilated covered with dried and drying blood but still he worked he knew the pain she must be in but she did not cry out not scream with pain not do anything save look at him with those darkly passionate warrior's eyes.
      He did not give up.
      That would be surrender, which was a weakness.
      Finally the nail came free and her arm swung down to hang low next to her body then he went to work on the nail in her right foot and it came free and then her left foot which also came free he did not know how much time passed it hardly seemed to matter he did not feel the lashing rain or the biting cold or the pain that settled into his hands or the cuts on his fingers but only the knowledge that he had to finish this.
      A warrior completes what he begins.
      To do otherwise would be to surrender, which was a weakness.
      Then he turned to the final nail the only one now holding her up the only nail supporting her entire weight the pain in her must be exquisite but she did not scream she did not cry out she is a true warrior the nail fell free and she collapsed but he caught her shielding her body in his arms and lowering her gently to the ground the rain made the stones slick and damp but she did not slide she lay there and slowly unaided she forced herself to her knees.
      He knew what was coming, and he readied himself for it.
      She reached out and with one swollen bruised mutilated finger that had once been so graceful and that had once caressed him with such passion such love weaknesses all she touched his eye and she drew a narrow line down to his mouth then she moved to his other eye and drew another line both the marks of morr'dechai of failure or betrayal she had her own scars there old now atoned for forgotten by all save her he knew what it meant both meanings and he nodded she smiled and tried to whisper something but the words were lost to the wind.
      Life is as nothing.  There is death and there is the acceptance of it.  No fear.
      Fear is a weakness.
      Stone is not weak.
      He held forth his dechai the blade pointing towards her and she grasped it not wincing as her swollen once-beautiful hands clasped the blade she lowered it to her chest to her heart and looked up at him waiting he nodded once and slid forth the other blade of the dechai the blade usually hidden within the hilt the blade only ever used once he grasped it with his hands and he did not wince as new cuts opened the hidden blade was always razor-sharp it always cut and it always left scars to do otherwise would make this meaningless it had to be remembered or what was the point.
      He did not cry.  That would be a sign of weakness.
      But the rain did touch his eyes.  The drops were not tears.
      An honourable death this a true warrior's death her death would be with him forever the scars on his hands no scars on his soul but just on his hands a honourable death better by far than slipping away into the darkness here alone on the mountain in the rain at night an honourable death.
      She smiled and whispered something but again he could not hear her.
      He tightened his grip around the hidden blade the pain was now immense but he did not cry out to do so would be to dishonour her she tightened her own grip as well as she could she did not cry out either she was strong and proud a true warrior she deserved a true warrior's death.
      He pushed the weapon forward it slid into her chest and into her heart and it stopped instantly she died in one single second and her body fell back the blade of the dechai sliding from her grasp surrendered at last in death he kept hold of his grip and pulled it from her body the cuts in his hands grew deeper still but he did not notice her blood stained the blade and that he saw and that was right that was appropriate that was necessary.
      He did not shed any tears.  She had died well.
      There would have to be a pyre of course but somehow he doubted he would be able to do it himself he had other things to do and he might not survive them but they still had to be done he doubted she would need a pyre anyway there would be no need of a fire to light her way to the next world her bravery and courage would be enough for that surely her ancestors would grant her another life in which she had a chance to be as brave and as honourable and as beautiful as she was in this one.
      He hoped for that much at least.
      Hope was not a weakness.
      He bent down and withdrew the hidden blade of the dechai from his sliced hands and he looked down over her face her eyes were still open still looking at him still smiling in their beauty and their passion he closed them gently and kissed her once on the mouth no there would be no need of a funeral pyre not for her.
      That was not hope.  That was certainty.
      Stone is certain.
      The mountain holds no doubt.  Not ever.
      He turned from her body still not knowing what had caused him to come here but knowing only that it was right and necessary and that it had to be done and he walked away still not feeling the rain still not feeling the cold still not feeling anything but the determination to do what now had to be done.
      A few of the guards saw him as he walked, dripping wet and covered with blood, carrying a bloodstained dechai through the corridors of Shirohida, but none of them tried to stop him.  None of them said or did anything.
      They had all looked in his eyes and seen emptiness.
      And they were all afraid.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Hantiban, Warleader of the Wind Swords, Lord of Shirohida and future Emperor of the Minbari, could not sleep.  He could not even meditate, and so he spent the night training alone, hearing the wind and the rain striking at the walls of his castle.
      He did not know why sleep eluded him.  He did not even know why he felt that strange.... foreboding.  He was not a mystic, not a prophet.  He was just a warrior, and he knew enough to admit that he was far from the path of enlightenment.  But he felt something that night.  Something.... moving.
      The power of fate perhaps.  The turning of the wheels of destiny.
      He did not know.
      He lowered his dechai and sank wearily to the floor.  His body ached.  The Iron Throne had cut him in countless places.  It always did.  He hated that infernal chair.
      "It was easy for you," he whispered to the shadows.  "You were never afraid of anything.  You were a perfect Wind Sword.  Stone.  That was all you were.  Stone.  You never knew it, did you?  But you were, and that made it all the worse."
      His brother did not reply, but Hantiban knew he was watching him.  His brother always was.  "I was never good enough.  Never.  How could I be, compared to you?
      "Well, I will be.  I have been promised it.  I will be the greatest warrior in the world.  In history.  For a thousand years they will be hailing my name when you and Shingen and all the others are long forgotten."
      Hantiban sighed, and looked down.  The rain was so loud.  So very loud.
      "'What do you want?'  That was what he asked me.  I do not think he was surprised by my answer.  He smiled - smiled!  And he said it would be done, but he knows nothing.  None of them do.  That wasn't what I wanted.  What do I care what warriors a thousand years hence will say?
      "No, I will be the greatest warrior, brother.  That is true.  But in my eyes, not yours, not theirs!  I want to look at you, to look at that damned statue that is more real than you ever were!  I want to look in those stone eyes and know in my heart that I was better than you!
      "That I was better than you."
      He looked up.  "Damn you, brother," he whispered.  "Was that such an impossible thing to give me?  You did not even ask me to be your kaishakunin.  Would that have been so much?  I would not have failed you - not at morr'dechai."  He looked at his hands.  There were no cuts there.  No marks.
      There should be.  Hantenn should have asked him.  He would have performed the duty with pride, with honour.  He would have borne the cuts with pride.
      But no.  Even in death, Hantenn had made it clear that he considered his younger brother beneath his attention.
      He looked at the door.  A noise was coming from outside.  This was his private training sanctum.  No one came here except his personal trainer.  Unless this was an emergency.  Had someone attacked?  The Fire Wings?  No, they could never have got this far without being detected.  One of the others?  Had they betrayed him?
      Then everything fell into place, and he only cursed his weakness for not knowing it sooner.
      He walked to the doors and opened them.
      His two guards were standing there, weapons drawn, ready to strike.  Marrain stood facing them - if it was Marrain.  This was a man who looked like him, stood like him, but Marrain had never had that sheer coldness in his eyes before.  Never.
      Hantiban shivered.  This was like looking into his brother's eyes once again.
      In his hand Marrain held a bloodstained dechai.  Hantiban knew what had happened.  Why had he believed even for a second that it would go differently?  Stone eyes.  Stone bearing.  The distraction had gone, but in death she had been the catalyst, releasing everything she had held back in life.
      "Admit him," Hantiban ordered.
      "But, lord...."
      "Admit him.  We have.... private business to discuss.  When we are finished, he is to be permitted to leave Shirohida.  No one is to obstruct him.  No one!  Whatever has happened, he is to be allowed to leave and he will not be detained.  Am I clear?"
      "Yes, lord!" both of them said at once.  They stepped aside and allowed Marrain to enter the sanctum.  Once they had done so, Hantiban closed the door and looked at his Warsecond.  He could not resist looking at Marrain's hands.  He was not wearing gloves.  Yes, there were the cuts.  They were still bleeding.
      The marks of a kaishakunin.
      "She is dead, then?" Hantiban said.  "It was for the best, Marrain.  She was betraying us.  She was a traitor to all of us.  She was distracting you, preventing you from being all that you can be."  Marrain said nothing.  The rainwater pooled at his feet, mingled with his still-dripping blood.
      "There are too many of them.  We have grown too weak.  Shingen knew that when he defeated us, and it was only confirmed at Markar'Arabar.  How many of us died there?  But you survived.  The strong survived and became stronger.  Now you will become stronger still.
      "You understand that, do you not, Marrain?"
      There was still no reply.
      "Did you love her?  No, I do not think so.  She told us that you did not.  She became stronger as well, as a result of what was done to her.  In the next life, she will be better than she was in this one.  I do not know if she understood that.  You see, Marrain.  I had only the good of our clan at heart.
      "It is hard being Warleader.  My brother made it look so easy.  He made everything look so easy.  He was a strong man, was he not?  An honourable man.  A good and true warrior.
      "But he led weaklings.  Not you, but too many others.  He never bothered to make the rest of us strong.  Why should he, when he was strong himself?  Well, I am not strong, but I will make strong men of those who follow me.  If I must destroy half the clan to do it, I will make the rest of them stone.
      "Why do you think I permitted you to enter?  Why do you think I gave orders that you were to be permitted to leave?  I knew this would come.  You are here to kill me.  Well, kill me, if you can.  Perhaps it will make me stronger.  Perhaps it will not.  But that is my dream.  That is why I wish to lead.  We will all be strong, every Minbari living on this world will be as stone.  Why do you think I want to be Emperor?
      "To make us all stronger.
      "Kill me if you can, if you wish.  I will try to stop you."
      "No," Marrain said, the first word he had spoken.  The word.... it was cold.  For a moment Hantiban heard his brother's voice, and he shivered.  "I will not kill you."
      He moved his dechai to Hantiban's face, the point held rock-steady just below his eye.  The Warleader made no effort to stop him.  A swift motion and a blur of pain, but Hantiban did not flinch, did not cry out.  There, are you proud of me at last, brother?
      The motion was repeated on the other side of his face.  Hantiban knew what this was, and he knew why.  The marks of morr'dechai, the marks of a dead man walking, of a warrior who had failed or betrayed his lord.
      Or a lord who had betrayed his clan.
      Through a mask of red, Hantiban watched impassively as Marrain turned and walked from the room.  A warrior who was as stone.
      With a hundred of those, he could rule the galaxy.  But there were not a hundred of those.
      Not yet, anyway.  Hantiban would make them.
      Marrain was lost, for now.  But he would return.  Once Hantiban was worthy of his service, once he could erase those marks, then Marrain would return.
      When the time was right.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Ikar Mor Ystrynn, Ikarra 7.
Half a year later.

      Kin Stolving wrapped her cowl tightly around her head and walked out of the building.  The sandstorm was violent and would be getting worse.  She did not want to travel in this weather, but she had little choice.  Any more time spent listening to those idiots would lead to disaster.
      Could they not see?  No, they were blind.  All of them.  Blind, and foolish, and terribly afraid.
      She looked up into the blood-red sky, but the stars were hidden, obscured from view.  It was night, but there was nothing to indicate that.  There was no night, no day, nothing but the red mist, the sands perpetually rising and falling, lashed against the cities of Ikarra by the merciless winds.
      She remembered, less than a decade ago, when everything had been fruitful and pure, when the waters flowed with life and the stars shone bright in the cool night sky.  The world had always been hot and desert, with many dangerous areas, but it was a testing ground, a place where the holy people of the heavens could prove themselves and ascend to the stars.
      If this was still a test, then the Gods were being too harsh by far.
      A light lit up the sky and she started.  The fighting.  Still it continued.  Years had passed, years of solid war.  The aliens had come for no reason, and with no motive had simply begun to fight.  The planet had been bombarded from orbit, dust thrown into the air, and her beautiful world had begun to die.
      There had been but a moment's respite.  The Minbari had come and had lent their might to the Ikarran fleet.  The invaders had been driven away and the world had known peace, but only for a time.  The Minbari had been defeated elsewhere, and the invaders had returned, stronger and more determined than before.
      No one knew what they wanted.  They achieved no benefit from this.  They achieved no advantage, no money, no conquest, nothing but death.  Over eighty percent of the population of Ikarra had died in the long years of bombardment.  Some had tried to flee, but most had not.  This world was holy, this world was their testing ground.  This was all a test set by the Gods.  To flee it was.... wrong.
      She struggled on through the onslaught, not knowing or caring where she was going.  Anywhere was better than there.
      They had a plan, they did.  All of them.  The priests, the generals, the leaders.  They would create a warrior, they would make a suit of armour capable of taking the warriors to new heights of strength and courage.  Warriors who would feel no fear, would need no food or water, would never tire, would never weaken, would fight and kill until all their enemies were dead.
      Blasphemy.  A corruption of the form the Gods had given them.  Some said that the Gods had abandoned their children here.  Others claimed that this armour was a gift from the Gods, a means of deliverance.
      All foolishness and blasphemy, but what did it matter?  So many were dead that there seemed little point in continuing.  Kin had already sent her mate and children to the desert winds.  She was alone and always would be.
      But she would die pure, out here, in the vastness of the desert where prophets walked and Gods dwelt.
      She did not know how far she walked.  Time ceased to have meaning.  The lights above her went out, and she knew that whatever pitiful ships had been sent up there had been destroyed.  Strangely, it was only warships that were being targeted.  Civilian vessels carrying refugees had been permitted to leave.
      "This is our home," she said to herself, whispering the words into the rough cloth of her cowl.  "This will forever be our home."
      It happened all at once.  There was no warning, no hint of what was there.  Kin had always been devout, praying to the Gods five times every day, believing in their power.  She served as a warrior in the Legions of Flame in service to the Gods.  She gave birth to young in thanks to the Gods.  She had known they lived here.  She had known they appeared sometimes to the particularly holy.
      But she had never believed that one of them would appear before her.
      It was everything she had imagined them to be.  Tall and majestic, light shimmering from its long wings.  It was perfection made flesh, a being of light and wonder and beauty.  The sandstorm did not seem to touch it.  Nothing seemed to touch it.
      She fell instantly to her knees, pulling the cowl away from her face, heedless of the pain of the stinging sand on her exposed skin.  This was a God, and would be greeted with an open face.  She extended her hands to it, whispering the litanies as she had been taught.
      It looked at her benevolently, and then it raised a hand.  She stopped.
      <You are chosen,> it said.  Even its voice was as music.  <You have a great duty to perform.>
      "Name it, lord," she said.  "And I shall obey."
      <You will leave this place.  This world.  You will go to another and you will find one who is beloved by us.  He will arise soon, bringing with him a chariot from beyond the stars.  You will serve him all your days, and in doing so, you will serve us.>
      "Yes, lord," she said instantly.  "Who is this, this man whom I am to serve?"
      <He is the Ghost-yet-to-be.  He is of no race you know, but he shall stand with the Minbari and name himself one of them.  They shall call him....
      <Valen.>
      She shivered at the sound of the name.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Temple of Kar Dratha, Markab Homeworld.
That same day.

      A'Iago Mar-Khan knew that he was the last of them.  Even as he was training his students, he knew that he was the last.  None of them understood, these students.  None of them had the right mindset, the right comprehension.
      It was not as if it was entirely their fault.  It was the war.  All of it was the war.  Too many soldiers had died, and it was only natural for the generals to turn to the Kar Dratha Brotherhood.  They were after all the greatest warriors of the Markab race.  The proper training of a Kar Dratha Brother took over half a Markab lifetime.  Fewer than one in fifty completed the training and earned the right to add Mar-Khan to their name.
      The Brotherhood had always been small, and now they were but one.  The others had gone to war, and they had died.  A'Iago was the youngest, and he had remained behind to train more Brothers.  But that was not what the generals wanted.  They desired invincible warriors now, today, to fight against the horrors thrown at them by the aliens called the Shadows.
      The generals did not care about the pursuit of perfection, about the ancient philosophies and hidden wisdom.  They did not understand that a student must spend over three years in silent meditation and fasting before he was considered ready even to touch a weapon.  They did not care about the Night of Bitter Sweetness, the Long Year of Silence or the Pain of the Mask.
      No, they wanted warriors, and today.
      Some of them had potential.  Maybe.  Most of them A'Iago would not even let near the Temple on a normal day.  Perhaps one or two of his three hundred students could become full Brothers, in time.
      But they did not have time.
      He left them to their training, watching them hitting each other with their wooden sticks, and he wanted to cry aloud in protest at the blasphemy he was committing.  His dead Brothers would be reviling him from the afterlife for desecrating their Temple with such a perversion of their training.
      But what was, was.  He did not like it.  In fact he hated it, but it was a lesson he had learned long ago.
      What was, was.
      He knelt before the vast statue of Kar Dratha, carved from gleaming crystal in the very image of the holy prophet himself.  The statue never needed cleaning, never needed polishing.  Always the light shone in it, illuminating the room entirely by itself.
      He felt so insignificant beneath the statue, so aware of his minuscule place within the galaxy.  He was the least of the Brothers, the youngest, the least competent, and to him fell the task of training the next generation.  No, this was wrong.
      <Yes,> spoke a voice from within the statue.  <This is wrong.>
      A'Iago looked up.  Light came from within the statue.  A greater light.  Something moved within the rock, and emerged from it.  It was....
      It was Kar Dratha himself, composed entirely of light, his great wings beating slowly.  The light shone everywhere, so bright as nearly to blind him.
      "Lord," he whispered.  "Lord."
      <A greater task awaits you.  You have been chosen for a finer purpose than this.>
      "Name it, lord."
      <You are to leave here, and travel to Minbar.  There you will await the one to come.  He will create a new order as this Brotherhood was created.  You will assist him.  You will be the understanding and the wisdom to his enthusiasm and purpose.
      <You are the last of my Brotherhood, A'Iago Mar-Khan, but you will be the First Ranger.>

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The H'l Kar Capal Z'bri, Tak'cha worldship.
That same day.

      Zarwin continued the bowing and obeisances as the words of the litany rang in his mind.  We have sinned.  We have all sinned.
      He knew the words by now.  He knew the meaning.  He knew the history.  He knew the terrible sins that had cost the Tak'cha their homeworld and reduced them to exiles in space, wanderers on their worldships.
      Once the Tak'cha had been the most devout and spiritual race in the galaxy.  They knew their Gods existed, and they strove always to be worthy and noble before Their gaze.  The Gods had lived with them and dwelt on their homeworld, a world which was a paradise and a haven, where all was plentiful and there was no illness, no disease and no death.
      Then came the pride.  That was the first sin.  The Tak'cha were the holy, the special, the chosen and the beloved of the Gods.  Why should they not be better than the other races?  They were better, after all.  They were the chosen.
      Time passed, and if pride had been the only sin of the Tak'cha then perhaps they would still be in paradise, but that was not to be.  The Gods left, slowly, one by one, called away to fight a great and terrible war, a war that had been enduring for all of eternity against a terrible evil.  The Tak'cha offered to help, but the Gods had refused.  They were not ready, the Gods said.  They were too weak.  They would die.
      Then came the second sin.  Anger.  Fury grew within the souls of the Tak'cha.  They had striven always, across a hundred lifetimes, to serve the Gods.  They had performed great deeds in Their names.  They had constructed great wonders.
      And now at last the Tak'cha knew they would always be inferior.  No matter what they achieved, no matter what they accomplished, what wonders they created, they would always be inferior and would never be considered worthy.
      And so the Tak'cha set out to prove their worth.  One of the Gods still dwelt alone in paradise.  The Tak'cha sought out this last God, and destroyed Him.  The revelation was swift and glorious.  The Gods could die.  The Tak'cha could surpass them.
      Retribution was slow, but inevitable.  The Gods' wrath blacked out the sky.  The seas of paradise boiled, the air became as dust.  Filled with terror, the Tak'cha fled, watching in horror as their paradise was torn asunder, destroyed down to the last atom.  They were allowed to flee, the Gods making no effort to stop them, but never again would they have a home.  Now they would always be wanderers and outcasts.
      They had sinned.  All of them had sinned, but there would be a chance for repentance.  One day the Gods would return, and they would offer the Tak'cha a second chance - if they remained penitent, if they remained devout, if they remained faithful.
      And now, across the vastness of space, came whispered words.  A Great War was beginning.  A terrible enemy was returning.  The Gods were going back to war.
      Was this the time of repentance the Tak'cha had been promised?
      They waited.  All of them waited.
      But not Zarwin.  He was tired of waiting.
      The same day the Gods appeared to Kin Stolving at Ikarra 7, the same day Kar Dratha spoke to A'Iago Mar-Khan in His Temple, Ramde Zarwin took his crew and his ship and left the only home he had ever known.  The H'l Kar Capal Z'bri faded into the night sky.  He did not know where he was going, only that he knew what he was seeking.
      The Gods.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Imperial Court, Yedor, Minbar.
The year 329 since the ascension of Shingen, four years before the arrival of Valen.
The Day of Light.

      They came first in whispers and rumours.  It was the workers who began to speak of their arrival.  Some of them went, terrified, on bended knees, to the priests to tell of what they had heard.  The priests listened, and were troubled.
      The warriors heard rumours as well, but few believed.  They were more concerned with war anyway.  As soon as the winter ended the Wind Swords went to war, their armies led by their new Warsecond, a tall warrior named Unari.  They sought the missing Fire Wings, who had forged an alliance with the Storm Dancers.  The three clans met in battle on the plains of Osarishima, and the Wind Swords were victorious.  The Lady Derannimer was not found, nor was the Warleader Parlonn.
      Several of the other clans began to display ambitious tendencies.  The Star Riders, the Moon Shields and the Night Walkers all fortified and strengthened their military.  Hantiban's seeming expansionism had alarmed them, but according to some reports all three clans had been building up their resources for a lot longer than that.
      No, few of the warriors heard the rumours or paid any attention to them.  One did, an outcast with eyes of stone, but if he said or did anything, no one recorded it.
      The religious caste debated the rumours as much as they could within Yedor.  It was not public knowledge, but many of them had been holding meetings with a strange alien called Shryne.  He had been speaking of the need for peace.  These new rumours troubled them.
      Sightings increased.  Strange, glowing lights in the night sky.  Visitations of ancient heroes.  Warleader Hantiban was said to be visited each night by the ghost of his departed brother, urging him on to greater glories, or possibly pleading with him to withdraw from this path.
      Elsewhere, the war grew worse.  All communication with Ikarra 7 was cut off.  The Markab worlds were consumed by chaos and anarchy after the entire Government was massacred by a hideous monstrosity that hid within dead bodies.
      All of Minbar seemed to hold its breath.
      Then they came.  Not just as rumours, not just as legends, not just as whispers.
      They descended from the skies above Yedor in what became known as the Day of Light.  Hundreds of them, shining like stars falling from the heavens.  Their great wings beat slowly and majestically.  Their names were whispered in hushed tones.  Valeria.  Varenni.  Ra-Hel.  Countless others.
      It was their leader who spoke.  Ra-Hel, His voice echoing across the whole planet, His words as music and melody, His speech as poetry, His appearance as flawless beauty.
      And from that moment on, the course of the Minbari people was set.
      To the heavens.
      To war.
      And to the Shadows.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Babylon 4, the time stream.
Somewhen out of time.

      And they were coming, too.  No Minbari realised it yet.  No Minbari knew their names.  The dreams would not start for another year.
      But they were coming.
      Propelled backwards in time by the spirit of a dying Vorlon, guiding the hope of the Minbari people, concerned for a battle being fought a thousand years in the future, a battle of which they would never know the outcome.
      One of them talked and talked and did little else.  The other merely sat and thought, and listened.
      No one on Minbar knew their names.  No one knew they were coming.  No one even imagined the changes they would bring.
      But they were coming.
      And soon, now.



Into jump gate




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