Mandie’s heart raced in rhythm with her feet as she soared across the open desert. Every exhale of breath grew louder with each sweeping stride she took as sweat mixed with the blood trailing down her cheek. She was the fastest among the palace warriors; only her shadow could keep up with her.
When she saw the Forbidden Palace in the distance, she pushed on the power of her legs with everything she had. Fatigue fought to take over her mind and force her to collapse, but Mandie refused to surrender to her physical limitations.
“Open the gate!” she shouted the moment her eyes could detail the iron port. “Open the gate!” she repeated, her voice struggling against a lack of oxygen to make itself heard.
The gate opened, its progression slow, but with a quick pivot, she slid through the small gap between the moving doors without hindering her pace.
The sound of her feet slapping against the stone passage leading to the main hall echoed through the quiet palace. When she reached the end of the passage—her destination met—she grabbed hold of the edge of a wall while taking deep breaths to regulate her heartbeat.
With no time to spare, seconds later, she hurried toward the throne at the other end of the hall, her leg muscles weakening as each determined step became more of a limp.
“Why did you abandon your post?”
Mandie stopped the moment she heard the voice of her leader, and she lowered her head. “Forgive me, Kalita.” A tear escaped to slide down Mandie’s cheek but was quickly lost in her gathered sweat. “I know I have failed you.”
Aira, an Illicitum, came from the western passage and rushed toward Mandie. Her long golden hair flapped above her pale bare shoulders before swinging around her almond-shaped green eyes as she came to a halt.
“Don’t worry about that now.” Aira pulled a napkin from her pocket and, with a gentle hand, began to clean the mixture of sweat and blood from Mandie’s face. “Your wound isn’t serious. It will heal in no time, but you need to rest before your body fails you.”
Mandie lowered her gaze and nodded. “I need to tell you what happened first—”
“Don’t worry about it.” Aira brought her small nose and thin lips to Mandie’s ear and whispered, “Now that we’re both here, I can see what you will say in my future. I know everything you want to report, or did you forget that this is my power?” She smiled and patted Mandie’s back. “Go now. I will speak to Kalita.”
Kalita tapped the edge of her wooden throne as she watched Mandie drag her feet from the room before turning her head toward Aira. “Why did you tell her to leave when I didn’t give the order?”
“The girl is exhausted. Her transportation pod malfunctioned, and she had to run back to the palace.”
Sighing, Kalita lifted her sharp chin. “I’m tired of reminding you that I’m the Umholi, and when I’m present, only I give orders. It’s been two centuries, yet you keep repeating the same mistake.”
“I’m not disobeying you. It’s just—”
“Enough,” Kalita interrupted. “I have no intention of discussing this subject again. You will find a way around it as usual. Now, tell me what happened.”
Aira smiled but quickly returned her expression to a serious one when she saw how Kalita’s wide eyes fell on her. “Rakamai is preparing to fight an Averetti tribe.”
“On his own?” Kalita lifted her brows.
“Yes. He’s waiting for them outside the Fantastic Forest now.”
Kalita closed her eyes and stroked her chin. “Maybe it’s for the best,” she said in a near whisper before opening her eyes again. “With him out of the picture, it will be easier to end the war.”
“It’s sad to say this about Rakamai, but I agree with you.” Aira sighed. “If he dies, there will be no one left to hold a grudge, and with the rest of the Kalangous’ council dead, we can restore the peace without delay. However, I fear that his defeat is not yet certain.”
Kalita’s eyes bulged. “Are you saying he has a chance to win against an entire tribe?”
“Yes. The chance is there, but it will depend on his decisions. For now, I can see both scenarios playing out in my mind. But if you want, we can make sure either possibility happens. All we need to do is give whomever we want to win a little nudge.”
Kalita rested her chin on her hand. “I would like to see if Rakamai has enough power to defeat an entire tribe. But if he succeeds, we should kill him ourselves.”
“Wouldn’t that be against our protocol? Technically, he isn’t the one who started the war.”
“Yes, it would be, but we need a win right now.” Kalita brought her hand to her bracelet and fidgeted with the lotus-shaped pendant. “It took years to end the last war, and we lost a lot of support as a result. If we don’t end this one quickly, they might question our ability to keep the peace.”
Aira took a step closer to Kalita. “Don’t be hard on yourself. That war involved all four factions. Yet, we did end it. They know where true power lies.” The Illicitum looked into her leader’s eyes. “I know you’re afraid they would find unity in pain and decide they no longer need us, but what Rakamai is doing, and the Averettis did before him, proves that these factions will forever be enemies to one another.”
“I disagree.” That declaration came from Rhett, who came into the hall with a steady stride. He rubbed his bald head with his large hand. “We have to prepare for every scenario. The four factions may be enemies today, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be friends tomorrow. If they unite against us, we will die.”
Aira turned her dainty figure toward him. “You keep forgetting we are the peacekeepers. They don’t see us as a threat, but as a necessity.”
“They will see us as such only for as long as they have to follow our rules.” Rhett crossed his arms over his bare, onyx-colored chest. “No matter what our cause, they will always regard us as a form of power that limits their freedom. They need to be reminded of what we can do, all the Kalangous, not just their leader Rakamai. What he’s doing now and what his council did before him proves they don’t fear us anymore. We have to teach them a lesson.”
Aira narrowed her eyes. “Let me guess. You want to be the one who exacts the punishment.”
“Do you have a problem with that?” Rhett asked as he pushed back his wide shoulders and jutted out his muscled chest.
“I do,” Aira spit out as she took a step toward him. “Kala is your old faction, and Rakamai is part of your bloodline. I find it hard to believe you would effectively punish the Kalangous.”
“I left my faction over two centuries ago, and like you, I’m an Illicitum of the palace. I will do whatever it takes to keep the world in check and make sure everyone follows our law or else,” Rhett replied, his voice raised.
“Enough!” Kalita shouted before focusing on Aira. “Rhett will go to witness the fight. If Rakamai succeeds, he will kill him. You, Aira, will stay here to narrate the battle for me. I want to know everything as it happens.”
“How can I narrate the fight? You know I can only see what is in my own future. If I know I’m not going there, then it’s no longer my future.”
Kalita squinted as her black eyes met Aira’s. “After all we have been through together, you must get it that I know what goes on in your head before you think it. I said Rhett will go, and he will go alone. I won’t change my decision. As for your power, we both know that it’s not limited to your own future. Stop these little games you play to pass the time and follow my orders, both of you.”
Kalita and Rhett bowed before the latter left The Forbidden Palace to fulfill his mission.