“On Cultivating a Chosen One” by Christopher Baxter
The bag over Professor Belik’s head reeked of moldy onions. The tunnels he was stumbling through, meanwhile, carried a musty odor of distant shit. The assault on his nostrils was enough to make him dizzy. Maybe that was the point—he’d long since lost track of their course through the darkness. He clutched his satchel to his chest and went where he was led.
He could hear water flowing nearby; he suspected they were in the sewers, or at least nearby. And every now and then, echoing distantly from up above—screams. Probably sacrifices to the Night King, on the altars far above. Belik shivered. He should never have come back to the city. This was too close, too dangerous.
He clenched his teeth and shoved those pitiful fears aside. This was greater, far more important, than his own life. And at his age, how much longer did he have, anyway?
“We’re here, professor,” his guide whispered, slowing her pace.
“Thank you for arranging this, Karesh,” he replied.
“How could I pass up the chance to hear you lecture again?”
Belik heard the creak of old hinges, felt the hand on his arm tug him in a new direction. He heard a scrape, felt a chair touch the back of his legs. Karesh patted his shoulder, and he sat. The door creaked shut. The room remained dark.
“Professor Belik,” a raspy voice said from somewhere up ahead. “I understand you wanted to speak with us.”
“Demanded, more like,” a high, reedy voice said.
Belik squinted, trying to make out the speakers. What was the point of leaving this malodorous sack on his head in the pitch black? “You are the leaders of this . . . rebellion?” They’d been giving him the runaround for weeks, and he half expected yet another delay.
“. . . some of the leaders,” replied the raspy voice.
Belik knew that voice, he was sure of it. “General Omar? It’s you, isn’t it?”
There was a pause, followed by some muffled whispers. Then a sigh. “Karesh, a light, please.”
From nearby he heard the strike of a match, and a lantern guttered to life. The bag was pulled from his head. Belik blinked in the light. A grizzled man, nearly as old as Belik himself, stood over him. Long scars ran down the side of his face, pale on his dark skin.
“I thought you died when the university burned,” Omar muttered. “With all the rest.”
“I nearly did.” Belik grimaced. “Most of my books did. All my research . . .” He spat, as much for the distaste of the memory as for the taste the sack had left in his mouth. “It’s taken me a long time to replace what I could.” He held up his satchel. Omar took it and returned to his seat, opposite Belik. Beside him sat a hunched, club-footed woman and a young man with bandages over the lower half of his face. A few more ragged soldiers, armed with rusty rifles or even rough spears, stood around the edges of the room. Karesh took a place among them and nodded to him.
“What is this about, Mr. Belik?” the hunched woman said, frowning.
“Professor. I came to inform you that your tactics won’t work.”
The man in the bandages snorted. The woman sneered. “. . . and what do you know of tactics?”
Belik straightened. “What I know is history. And history says that you will fail here.”
“I assure you, Mr. Belik. Between us we have more than sufficient knowledge of military tactics, historical and modern.”
“This isn’t some border skirmish; it’s not even a war. This is a dark lord. Your tactics don’t matter. No hit-and-runs, no bombings, no assassinations are going to bring down the Night King! Your little cells, your scattered army, will simply be snuffed out. Armies are useless here.”
The bandaged man rolled his eyes. The woman frowned at Omar, as though impatient for him to speak. Omar simply watched Belik.
“Dark lord or not, he isn’t invincible,” the woman said. “We can wear down his forces, slip moles into his legions—”
“You are ants hoping to wear down a mountain.” Belik nodded to the satchel in Omar’s hands. “Take a look. Dark lords are creatures of ancient magic, and it is only by deeper, greater magics that they may be laid low.”
Omar tapped his fingers on the satchel, still watching Belik. Then he opened it and removed the papers inside, each covered front and back with tight writing and hasty sketches. He glanced over them briefly. The bandaged man leaned close to see better, but the woman barely glanced their way.
“What are we looking at, professor?” Omar said.
“History. Dark lords are not brought down by armies, nor by rebellions. They are brought down by heroes, by those chosen at fate’s hand.”
Omar leafed through the pages. “I’ve never heard of most of these.”
“Have you been beyond the Talon Mountains? Studied the lore of the sunken continent? Have you spent four decades of your life specializing in prophetic history? Of course you haven’t heard of them.”
“This is superstition and nonsense,” the woman said. “We can’t take this seriously.”
Belik bit his tongue, strangling a cutting reply. He needed to be polite. So many idiots ignored reason if it wasn’t presented to them pleasantly. He’d learned that the hard way. He waited, watching Omar.
“Five years ago,” Omar said, his voice distant, “Professor Belik demanded to speak before the national council. He spoke to us of prophetic symbols, of dark omens. That he believed a dark lord would soon arise in our land. We did not listen.” Omar glanced at his companions, each in turn. “I think I would be a fool to ignore him again.”
The two still looked dubious. Belik cleared his throat. “I trust you all remember the first building to burn, when the Night King took the capital?”
The woman wouldn’t meet his eyes. “The university.”
“Not just the university. The library of history. My department.” Belik pointed at the papers. “The Night King knows that prophecy will come for him, eventually. He fears a hero will rise.”
Omar rubbed his chin, still studying the papers. “What sort of prophecies have been made about the Night King?”
Belik shook his head. “I have no idea. He’s kept them well under wraps, if there are any.”
“Then what use is any of this to us?”
“Most chosen ones share certain characteristics,” Belik replied. “We may not know who will rise to destroy the Night King, but we can create as many candidates as possible. Put the numbers in our favor.”
The three of them shared a long glance. Finally, the woman sighed. “Create candidates how, Mr. Belik?”
“Professor,” Belik said. He stood and pulled a few papers from the pile. He held them up and continued, as though he were lecturing students again. “I have the entire plan outlined here. The first place to start is with the Night King’s commanders. His generals, overlords, and advisors. Start at the top and work your way down. Scour their histories; interrogate their households, if you can. We’re looking for any illegitimate children who have been swept under the rug, hidden away. Particularly children who don’t know their own parentage—even a legitimate child will work, if they somehow don’t know their origins.”
“That would be nearly impossible to trace,” Omar said.
“Do your best. And we should learn the commanders’ schedules—find out if any of them have any whores they favor, or concubines or slaves. If one of them becomes pregnant, get her away by any means possible.”
“This is absurd,” the woman interrupted. “We can’t control these commanders. For all we know, none of them have any illegitimate children. To say nothing of lost or forgotten ones.”
“I said it was the first place to start. Pay attention. Next is half-breeds.”
The rebellion leaders shared an uncertain glance. “Halfers? Why?”
“Most chosen ones are half-breeds,” Belik said, pointing to the relevant pages in their hands. “Since the elves worship the Night King, half-elves would be ideal for our situation. But others might do. The important thing is that they be unusual. Outcast. Not accepted by either culture. Chosen ones are usually outliers.”
Omar seemed uncomfortable. “There aren’t a lot of halfers around. Most of them are just left out in the cold after they’re born.”
“So scour the streets for them, take them in before they freeze!” Belik took a breath and tried to moderate his tone. “And we can make more. You must have funding of some sort—hire whores. Give them a bounty for any half-breeds they birth.”
The woman scoffed. “You want to pay whores to have children?”
“Yes. We should keep an eye on any orphans we can, too.”
“What are we supposed to do . . . stake out orphanages?”
“We should build orphanages. As many as we can.”
“We can’t afford to build orphanages!”
“They won’t cost much—we don’t want them to be good orphanages. A miserable childhood is the crucible that creates heroes. Keep an eye out for anything unusual among the children—strange scars or birthmarks, odd hair or eyes, an unexpected predilection for magic, a . . . a particular talent for music! It could be anything.”
The woman shook her head. She looked as though her stomach was unsettled. “I don’t like this.”
“That’s . . .” Belik let out a calming breath. “Yes, all right. It is . . . unconventional. But it is our best chance at overthrowing the Night King.”
Omar looked over the papers, grimacing. “Even if this could work, it will take decades at the least.”
“And you thought your little hit-and-run sabotages would work so quickly?” Belik jabbed a finger at the papers. “This is how dark lords are brought down. A chosen one will come. Even if we have to make one.”
FIVE YEARS LATER
Belik rubbed his eyes beneath his bifocals and squinted at his papers. He missed his office at the university; keeping track of research and ongoing projects had been so much easier when he’d had chalkboards and easels, when he could cover his office walls with pages and look over everything all at once. But with the rebellion, he had to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. He could leave nothing behind—they couldn’t allow the Night King to get wind of their plans.
“Professor, you might want to see this.”
Belik glanced up and adjusted his glasses. Karesh stood in the doorway with a folded message. It reminded him of the university; she’d been his assistant then, too.
“It’s about FHE-11,” she said.
He flipped through his pages as she approached. Female half-elf number eleven. Sisha, by name. Daughter of a whore and a minor elf nobleman. He’d allowed the woman to raise the daughter herself for the first few years, but only because he’d known that the woman’s health problems would take her before too long. The girl had been sent to an orphanage where she was the only halfer, was mistreated by the staff and other orphans alike, and even showed signs of magical talent. One of his favorite candidates.
He frowned as Karesh offered him the paper. “She wasn’t killed, was she?” They’d lost too many children over the years. Half-breed orphans had high mortality rates.
“No, she’s fine, it seems.”
Belik unfolded the message and then shot to his feet. “She was adopted? Who allowed this?”
“Her orphanage wasn’t one of ours, professor. We only have one asset there, and they couldn’t prevent it.”
“We know where they live?”
“Take me there. Let’s have a look.” Belik snatched his overcoat and cane. “Who in the fifth hell adopts a halfer girl from a ramshackle orphanage?” he muttered under his breath.
Karesh led him down to the street, where they hailed a two-wheel cab. They were dressed in the dull grays of minor government officiants—just important-looking enough to avoid most harassment, but not important enough to warrant attention.
Their route took them past the altars, which were blessedly silent at the moment. The next sacrifice was still half an hour away. Rows of cages behind the altar held slaves awaiting the knife. Most were humans, but a few elves who had failed their King and a smattering of other races shared those pens, too. They were watched over by the Black Guard, rotting armored corpses with glowing red eyes.
Karesh averted her eyes, as most people did around the altars. But Belik knew he didn’t have that luxury. He scanned the faces in the cages, searching for children. It would be dangerous, foolhardy even, to try to rescue someone from those cages—but if he could find a child who had seen their parents sacrificed, the risk might be worth it. But children were rare in the cages these days. He suspected few of them survived the labor camps to be brought here.
To Belik’s surprise, FHE-11’s new home was across the river to the north. It wasn’t exactly an opulent part of the city, but nor was it impoverished. He and Karesh disembarked near an apothecary. From there, she led him down an alley and into a ramshackle building out of view of the street. He huffed up several flights of stairs to the attic, where one of their operatives sat beside a boarded-up window, peering out through a gap with a pair of binoculars.
“You can see their house from here, sir,” he said, handing over the binoculars. “They’re just starting dinner.”
Belik peered at the house, a two-story with a small garden at the rear. Through the window, he could see FHE-11 sitting at a table, gesturing with her utensils between bites of food. A human serving woman dished more food onto her plate. An elf man sat at the head of the table, chuckling.
“Who is he?” Belik asked.
“A medic in the military,” Karesh replied. “A sergeant, I think.”
“An officer? Hmm.” He watched a moment longer, and was surprised to see the human woman take a seat at the table. “Wait, I thought that woman was a servant.”
“His wife, sir,” their operative replied.
“He married a human? That’s career suicide.”
Beside him, Karesh shrugged. “There’s no explaining love.”
Belik snorted. No explaining love, perhaps, but he could certainly explain the societal expectations among elven officers, the stigma against intercourse with humans, let alone marriage. The confluence of unlikely events required to land this child in this family . . .
“This is impossible,” he muttered.
Karesh nodded. “Should we remove her from the list, professor?”
Belik shook his head. “No. No, this is just a setback. She’s too solid a candidate to give up so easily.” He pondered a moment. “. . . we can turn this to our advantage.”
Karesh and the operative exchanged a glance. “. . . how, sir?”
Belik glared at them. “You know damn well how.”
Belik watched the shadowed house through the broken window. Any minute now, FHE-11 and her adoptive parents would return from the military parade. He’d waited six months for this moment. Just long enough for the girl to get attached, for her new life to begin to feel real. Long enough that the loss would really mean something.
Soft footsteps sounded on the stairs. “The men are in place, professor,” Karesh said. She seemed subdued, but she understood the necessity. It was why he’d chosen her to aid in his undertaking—she’d been an exemplary assistant at the university, and she remained so now. Focused. Professional.
The carriage came around the corner. It stopped before the house, and the family disembarked. As the carriage rolled away, shadows approached the three figures in the darkness. Rebels, all of them, but dressed in the uniforms of the Night King’s military. They knew their script—they were here to punish the officer and his wife for their “unnatural” marriage. The fight would escalate. The couple would die. The girl would be left alone in the darkness as the assailants retreated into the night, and she would know the Night King’s regime for what it was.
She could be the one, Belik reminded himself as the shadows surrounded the family. She could save them all.
Then he saw a glimmer, the smallest flash, of red light from the center of the shadowed gathering. “What was that?” he muttered.
Karesh peered through the binoculars. “I don’t know. I can’t see it from here.”
And then more red lights appeared down the street, streaking through the darkness. Karesh gasped, and Belik realized what they were. The glowing eyes of Black Guard soldiers, more than a dozen of them.
“No!” Karesh said, dropping the binoculars. She turned to run for the stairs, but Belik caught her arm. “I have to get our men out of there,” she snapped.
Belik clung to her as she tried to shake him free. “It’s too late,” he whispered, watching through the boarded window as the Black Guard descended on their men. He lifted the binoculars—one lens now cracked—and spotted FHE-11 and her parents. They were up against the wall, flanked by three of those abominations. Whole and hale. He cursed.
“A summoning stone,” Karesh muttered, leaning against the wall. She slid down to sit on the floor. “He had a summoning stone. He called the Black Guard.”
“He’s too low ranked to have a stone.” Had they been mistaken? Was this officer more important than they’d realized? But even if he were . . . the nearest guardhouse was several minutes away, and no Black Guard were quartered there. Where had those things come from?
“Our men are down,” he whispered.
“Did any escape?” Karesh replied.
Belik counted the shadowed bodies in the street. “No.”
“Are any alive?”
“I don’t think so.” He watched as the girl and her parents retreated into their home. The Black Guard took up position around the house. A few minutes later, he spotted movement down the street. “The military is here.”
“They’ll scout the area, interrogate the neighbors,” Karesh said. “We should wait here.”
An hour they waited, while the military puttered around. Finally, once the Black Guard had retreated and most of the soldiers with them, they ventured out of hiding. Only three soldiers remained; two patrolling the street in front of the house, one interviewing an old woman beneath the lamp on the street corner. Belik leaned on Karesh’s arm, playing the role of the doddering grandfather on his granddaughter’s arm, pretending they were late customers just leaving the apothecary. He glanced briefly at the soldier and the old woman, just as she glanced his way. Their eyes met, and he froze.
“No,” he whispered. “Chorai?”
The woman stared at him. The lamplight illuminated her face—dark of skin, freckled, tightly curled hair that stuck out as far as the brim of her hat. Her face was more wrinkled than he remembered, but her eyes were just as bright as they were at the university. Professor Chorai, head of ancient religious studies.
“Belik,” she whispered, stepping toward him. “I thought you . . . the fire at the university . . .”
“I thought the same,” he said, his voice suddenly hoarse.
The soldier moved to follow, but she waved him back. Belik did not miss the gesture. His mind began to whirl. The impossible adoption, the summoning stone, the Black Guard. He clutched Karesh’s arm to keep from falling as the truth struck him.
“Chorai . . . you’re working for them?”
For a moment, just a moment, he thought he saw shame in her eyes. No, not true shame . . . chagrin. Like a child caught misbehaving. But then her brow furrowed. She glanced down the street at FHE-11’s house, glanced at him, at Karesh. A slow grin broke out on her face as she shook her head.
“Belik. You clever bastard. All this time, I couldn’t believe how many half-breeds the city was suddenly producing, all the orphanages . . . I thought it was just fallout of the coup, of the sacrifices . . . I thought I was fighting against fate, against some unknown prophecy . . . but it was you wasn’t it? You’re trying to . . . to breed yourself a bloody hero of prophecy!”
“A chosen one,” he snapped without thinking. Gods, how they’d argued over the terminology, all those years . . . “Chorai, I thought you were dead, and now . . . you’re working to keep a dark lord in power?”
Chorai lifted her chin, defiant. “You didn’t think he came up with the idea to burn the university on his own, did you?”
He stared at her. At this . . . this stranger. “Why, Chorai?”
She pursed her lips. “They were going to pass me up again, you know. They were going to make you dean over the history department, when I had been there longer, when I had more discoveries to my name, more research . . .” She took a slow breath, wild-eyed. “Well, now their university is gone. Now I get to found my own university, decide who I want in charge. And all I have to do is keep the Night King from falling.”
“You can’t do it, Chorai. You can’t stop fate!”
“If you can help fate, then I can fight it! I will adopt every last orphan myself if I have to—there will be no hero of prophecy!”
“Professor,” Karesh whispered. She tugged at his arm. He saw the two soldiers down the street approaching. The one behind Chorai had his hand on the trigger of his rifle, wary.
“Karesh?” Chorai laughed. “Still working for this bastard, after all these years?” She shook her head. “You chose the wrong horse, dear.” She gestured to Belik. “Take them!”
“Professor, run!” Karesh shouted. She shoved him down the street. Her pistol was already raised. The shot rang through the darkness. Behind Chorai, the soldier collapsed. Belik saw Karesh dive for his rifle, saw her roll to her knees, rifle ready. Her shot hit one of the other soldiers just as one of theirs hit her.
The last Belik saw of her before he rounded the corner was her staggering to her feet, charging the final soldier with bayonet at the ready.
Belik staggered into the rendezvous alley, dizzy, chest heaving. He’d dropped his cane at some point in his mad dash, he’d fallen into the gutter, landed on his knee . . . it throbbed now, swollen and tender.
“Professor!” Omar jumped forward and caught Belik before he fell. “Yala’s teats . . . what happened?”
“We lost . . .” Belik muttered. He let Omar guide him to a crate against the wall.
“How? Where . . . is it only you?”
“Only me. It’s all . . . everything is worse than we knew.”
In gasped half-sentences, Belik related what had happened. “She knows all the history, she knows the patterns. She knows what we’re trying to do.”
Omar knelt beside him, face grim, hands folded. “Can her plan work? Could she stop fate?”
Belik leaned against the brick wall and stared up at the black night sky. Slowly, his mind began to right itself. He had always been a logical man, calm and collected. Even now, his mind was working through the problem.
“No. No, it won’t work. A regime like this one, a creature like the Night King, a ruler who feeds off of sacrifices . . . it will always produce orphans. It spawns sorrow and tragedy. She can’t stop that by placing a few orphans in homes, by protecting some families.”
“What’s to stop her from just . . . wiping out all the orphans?”
“We should be so lucky. She’d never catch every last one, and whichever survived? Almost certain to be our chosen one. But she knows that. She won’t do it. She’ll work in the other direction, try to . . . to distract fate’s eye from what’s going on here. But fate is on our side—even if we can do nothing but counter her efforts, the rest will fall into place.”
ANOTHER FIVE YEARS LATER
Belik nodded to the girl who brought his beet soup—a half-elf. She smiled and curtsied and hurried back to the kitchen. Sights like her were common these days. Though it was rarely spoken of publicly, most members of the military knew that soldiers in mixed marriages were favored for advancement, and that their superiors looked favorably upon adoption. Many soldiers had risen higher in the service faster than expected, and now many of them were retiring and using their wages to open little places like this with their families.
He raised a spoonful to his lips and then paused. Chorai settled into the seat opposite him, smiling. He glanced out the window. Black Guards had taken up positions beside the door. Most likely there were more out back. Possibly even up on the roof.
“I suspected you couldn’t resist coming out of hiding today,” Chorai said. She wore a self-satisfied little smile. “Good morning, professor.”
He lowered his eyes and sipped his soup. “Professor.”
“It’s ‘dean,’ now, actually,” she replied.
Belik snorted. “How is your little puppet show going?”
“If you mean the university, it is about to graduate its first class of students.”
“Mmm. And how much hand did your master have in their learning? How much were they not allowed to learn?”
She stared at him, face neutral. “Kidnap any children lately, Belik?”
“No. You won that battle.”
Her smile returned.
“Though I thought that executing officials who didn’t recognize their illegitimate children was rather excessive.”
“It was effective.”
“Mmm. You can’t legislate away abusive families. Not even your master can monitor them constantly, or inspire enough fear.”
“We’ll get there.”
“Tighten your grip enough, and they’ll cut off their own arms to escape.”
“Then perhaps the world will be better off without them.” Chorai smiled at the half-elf girl when she reached the table. “Just a tea, please, dearie. Greenfold with lemon and honey.” When the girl left, Chorai gestured after her. “I don’t suppose she was one of yours?”
Belik let his gaze wander out the window. Across the street was one of his orphanages—well, his no longer, since the state had seized it.
“Waiting for something?” Chorai blinked at him, eyes wide. “Nothing is going to happen. We disarmed your bombs. Twelve in all, correct?” He nodded. “Really, Belik. Bombing orphanages. The public’s opinion of your little rebellion is waning fast enough as it is. You must be desperate, to be so petty.”
“Petty?” Belik snapped, glaring at her. The girl brought the tea, but scurried away quickly at the look on his face.
“Ah, there you are. I wondered if you still had any fight left in you.” Chorai squeezed the lemon into her tea. “Yes, petty. You said yourself that I already won that fight. And what good would it have done? Any orphans that survived would not have blamed the king. They’d have blamed you.”
Belik frowned and sipped his soup.
“Oh, don’t pout, Belik.” She leaned forward and dropped into a whisper. “There could still be a future for you, you know. My history department is in need of a dean. That position could be yours . . . if you lead us to the rest of your little rebellion.”
Belik shook his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a waving blot of blue—sunlight reflecting off of glass on a rooftop down the street. It darted into and out of view three times, and then vanished.
“One way or the other, your part in this ends here, Belik,” Chorai said. Any warmth had faded from her voice. She sipped her tea. “You can face trial . . . or you can go back to the life you once enjoyed.”
“The life I enjoyed was the study of history, Chorai. I’ve seen the empty façade your little puppet show tries to pass for history. I’m not going to peddle your propaganda. And you can talk about the public’s waning opinion of the rebellion all you want—we both know that so long as blood is running down this city’s altars, I’ll never lose that contest.”
Belik pushed his soup away and stood. Standing took some time these days, thanks to his bad knee. He needed his cane just to stay on his feet. Once he was there, he took a moment to catch his breath. “Oh . . . speaking of those altars—how many prisoners would you say are kept at each of those?”
Chorai’s eyes narrowed.
“Enough for three days at a minimum, right? One an hour, twenty-eight hours a day . . . at least eighty-four prisoners per altar. With dozens of altars around the city, that’s . . . thousands of prisoners. Thousands of people who have lived their lives in fear and forced labor . . . lots of elves who feel betrayed by their leaders, cast out for some minor error. Many of those people may have watched their families dragged off to be sacrificed, one after another . . . seems like you’ve been keeping a ready pool of potential chosen ones for me.”
“Heroes of prophecy. And there is no way you could free all those people.”
“Maybe not, if they were still guarded by your abominations.” He nodded to the Black Guards outside. “But you’ve got them out and about now, tirelessly watching over this city’s adopted children. Or out defusing bombs.” He frowned at her. “Really, Chorai, you thought I would stoop to bombing orphanages? For no reason?”
“Interesting fact about the military: it turns out that there are a lot of pureblood elves in the upper echelons who loathe being forced to promote soldiers who have mixed with the humans. And having their homes policed. Unwanted children forced upon them. In fact, they loathe it all so much that they have reconsidered their loyalty to their dark lord. General Iindosh, for one.”
Chorai’s face was hard. “If he loathes humans so much, why would he work with you?”
“Oh, he won’t, after this. But he held his nose long enough to strike your master where it would hurt most.” Belik gestured out the window, where the smoke from the burning altars could now be seen, rising in black columns around the city. “Your master will be left pretty weak, won’t he?” He dropped a few coins on the table. “Your tea’s on me today.”
“This won’t kill him. You can’t think it will.”
“Killing him isn’t my job. It never was.”
“You think this will be better, Belik?” Chorai snapped. “Setting lose an army of bloodthirsty elves? It will be civil war. No—I doubt the humans can even manage that, now. It will be a massacre. A genocide.” She drank several gulps of her tea and slammed the cup back onto its saucer.
“We’ll deal with the elves, one way or another. There are a lot of officers who won’t want their families massacred, after all. Like Ylen—the elf who owns this place? He already had to watch his parents sacrificed at the altars. I’m sure he’d do just about anything to keep that from happening again.”
The anger slipped from Chorai’s eyes. Worry replaced it. She glanced toward the kitchen.
Belik smiled. “To answer your question from earlier—yes, she is one of mine. Enjoy the tea.” He headed for the kitchen and paused in the doorway. “Would you like to know the real reason I couldn’t consider your employment offer?”
Chorai didn’t respond. She was breathing heavily, clutching her stomach.
“If I were to be a professor again, I would need an assistant. But I don’t have one anymore.”
He waved farewell and then followed Ylen and his family through the trapdoor in the kitchen, locking it behind them.
The rebellion was celebrating; or at least, those left behind in the city were celebrating, after the rest of their number had escorted the rescued slaves out to hundreds of hiding places around the country. It was quiet, for a celebration—they were still in hiding—but bottles were open, toasts were being drunk, even some dancing was happening.
Belik sat at the entrance to the chamber, waiting. Omar approached with a drink, which Belik declined.
“Why so gloomy, old man? This was a great victory. We may have won this war, right here and now!”
“We haven’t won, old man,” Belik replied. “We burned some altars. We have a host of candidates. But none of them is a chosen one. Not yet.”
Omar shook his head. “I’m going to enjoy our victory while we can. You and I don’t have long left, you know.”
Belik nodded. And he waited.
One of his spies arrived around dawn, panting from his run, with a newspaper in hand. Belik smoothed out the paper and found the headline:
Night King Declares End to Sacrifices
He blinked and reread the line. Then he hurried through the article. “Because of the obedience and faithfulness of his people” the Night King had chosen to end the sacrifices of yore, “and set to flame his own altars, so that the blood of his people could come no more upon them.” Buried near the end of the article, Belik found the truth—the Night King would subsist on animal sacrifice and “executions of duly convicted criminals.” How convenient then, that the next article described the betrayal of General Iindosh and an entire legion’s worth of the military, in “anger and protest over the discontinuation of living sacrifices.” Iindosh and his men would be hunted down and tried for treason.
Not everyone would believe it. But then, as long as most sacrifices were ending, not everyone would care. It was a bold move. Clever.
Too clever. This wasn’t the Night King’s work.
Belik slipped a hand into his pocket, where he kept a small dagger concealed. Omar had told him just to slit Chorai’s throat, but . . . he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do it. What kind of man was he, that he could order a child’s parents murdered in hopes of finding a fable, but couldn’t really bring himself to end the one woman who truly stood in his way?
He should have stabbed her. He’d known it. The poison had seemed easier. Cleaner. Less . . . personal. And now . . .
Belik sighed and set the paper aside. Chorai was still out there. She would be after him, after his potential chosen ones. Or, more likely . . . she would leave them alone. Which could be even worse. That was the eventuality he had to plan for.
One way or another, a chosen one would arise.
Copyright © 2022 by Christopher Baxter
Christopher Baxter got in trouble for reading books in class from kindergarten through high school. To stop his teachers from getting upset, he began writing stories instead (it looked like he was taking notes). He works as an editor and writer (writerinthehat.com). His short stories have appeared in the October 2016 and Spring 2018 volumes of Deep Magic E-zine, the Best of Deep Magic and Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel anthologies, and Immortal Works’ Flash Fiction Friday podcast. He is blessed with the best wife and two adorable little boys.