I am Emaje Bul. I am Bilawa. I was letting those two truths flow out and over me every few seconds. I was born in the Bilawa Lands and could travel almost anywhere. No one could come to the Bilawa dimension, not even the Matrons. I was in a trance here in Shadow, dream-like, watching. To the east of me were visions of craft landing, and voices raised, and the forming of words and the gift of life and fire. I could see it all, warming and filling my consciousness. I had to retrieve my truths. I was firing my known truths off every ten steps of my time in Shadow, and every ten seconds that I was on top of my current perch. Being in Shadow for long periods could eat away at the knowing and sanity of the most skilled Usuiku, and those who knew of the gift considered me a fair Usuiku, Shadow Walker. Still, my mind faced all of the same vulnerabilities as every other human Shadow Walker, and so, I reminded myself of my name and my people, yet again. I drew out both facts. Tasted each in word and thought, and sent them running away. I was whole.
I had entered this Shadow space from a broad corner of the Shiftcraft that I had been a passenger on, flying at about 900 drops per thirty standard. I had activated my Shout and made the leap as soon as security forces from Bahir had begun making their rounds in earnest. I had seen the fracas coming. I had felt it, and the Shadow began calling my attention. A group of five soldiers from Bahir, monitoring the craft, had been performing a sweep. One of the five had been a Mage, and he had discovered a passenger wearing a veil. The Mage spoke a word of Power and ripped the veil away. The passenger was an undocumented Shifter. This one was a woman, and a Mongoose. I couldn’t see any plans she had to get to Bahir other than desperation and hope. She began her Shift, tearing at the armor of the front two soldiers, baring tooth and claw, just before the one Duhuman soldier with the security force extended their hand, it transforming into something like a minigun, and fired off a single burst of pulsing rounds which tore through the Shifter. She was torn nearly in half. There were a few screams from other passengers. There was an army of averted gazes. There was the whirring of gears as the Repurposer opened its maw in the middle of the Shiftcraft and appeared to swallow the broken body whole. There were still another twenty drops to Bahir. Far too long.
I had taken a series of steps back toward the Shadow while all of this was happening. It had taken mere seconds. A commotion. A roar. Life ending. The nanites flowing frantically through my body and over my suit had surged upward, obscuring any recording or scrying of my movements. I didn’t have much time. The distraction stoked by that quick breath of violence would soon pass. I needed to be off this shuttle when it did. I waited for the chorus of sounds to return to something like their normal levels and uttered my Shout. It drew the Shadow to me, the dark opening to me like a tunnel around a bend. One of the benefits of taking a Shift into regions like Bahir is the anxiety of all those traveling, and how it generally led to beings shutting themselves off to anything save what was going to get them to their destinations alive, and something resembling safe in the process. There were passengers who had seen me step into Shadow, no doubt. They would admit this if braced by an Inquisitor, or faced with death or profit. But in these confines, and with security patrols now stalking the craft? Silence, for nearly all aboard this craft, was the only sure covering in the cold.
When I had first been given this assignment by Layna, my handler, she would say, I had explored every image and synth that I could find in the Amhara Region. Since the Waking, it was a region generally left to its own devices. Very few of its residents had ascended to the Citadels, floating cities, above Earth. I had never been curious enough to explore why that may have been. Perhaps the region had offended the Black Gods. All of what had formerly been Kenya, Eritrea, and Ethiopia were re-formed into what was now Bahir State. Even here from my place in the Shadow, approaching its borders in hushed tones, I could see why so many had been drawn to the nation-state.
The city of Bahir was massive and brilliantly lit. It was nestled in the hands of what appeared to be a sleeping colossus. That had been Loaja. She was an emissary of the Great Goddess of the tides. She had torn Bahir from the Earth itself, lifted it in her massive hands skyward, and held it there. She had been kneeling when she had done this, and was there still. Her skin remained a black so profound and complete, one was left to wonder if the night itself had been birthed by her. There was movement all over her skin, what appeared to be stars being born and dying. Strange, eldritch creatures peering back out at the world away from her body. Her hair was a wild riot as black as her skin, wreathed by an ocean of colors flowing in every conceivable direction. She had done her time in battle following the Waking, and she had tallied many scalps. She had journeyed across Afriq and stopped at Bahir. Lifted it in her hands. Kneeled. She had not moved since. Many Gods and Powers had left or fled Earth altogether. We had learned after the Waking that anything, any being, could die on this plain of existence. Gods and man bore that in common.
There were fingers of flame and light surrounding Bahir and off in the distance. These were usually the small, wandering tribes of beings from all over Afriq, and other forsaken parts of Earth, petitioning for entry and Bahir citizenship. Other were offering themselves as labor, or slaves for Bahir royalty. Others were roving bands of predators, feeding off of the smaller, weaker tribes and vulnerable cities as they frantically tried to be effectively absorbed by one nation-state or another. The Waking had changed the fortunes of many.
The fortunes of my people, the Bilawa, were directly tied to those of the Matrons, and all those chosen as direct agents of the Black Gods. Those few were the voice of the Black Gods and Powers on Earth, and above, and in the Steppes and Ways. We Bilawa were scorned and feared by most who knew of us. We had magics, and power and tech, and mission. The Earth, for all intents and purposes, was the child of the Matrons to govern in the absence of the Black Gods. As a Usuiku, I had been detailed to surveillance, tracking, and clandestine operations. Rarely did I simply surveil or track. If Layna activated my comm and agreed to my regs and bonuses, there would be a reckoning of one kind or another for some being, Power or sovereign, so-called. I had been able to get into, and out of, most places that I needed to, and my completion rate was absurdly high. I was certain that I was the best of the Intelligence Functionals available to the Matrons, and I didn’t particularly care. I was skilled and wealthy. Those two, I did care about, deeply. I understood my role in forwarding the objective of the Matrons and tightening their grip on terra Earth. I had slipped into keeps to help and topple sovereign nations. I had assassinated identified threats. I had stolen and claimed secrets and private lies told between Powers. I had prevented and started wars. I was clear on my turn in the way of the Wheel.
Part of my success had to do with the fact that there was almost no way for any being to glance at me twice and believe me to be a Functional of any stripe. An initial glance right at me revealed a being with medium black skin, a short, neat, graying beard, large black spectacles, and a frame built for reading at the large desk I kept in my study. I affected more the professor and less the Functional. It would do. Most of the bright, growing buildings of Bahir looked rather like the one I occupied in New Dar Es. The buildings here were occupied by millions of beings. I could see a Mage school in the distance from my perch. I could see a great temple, the capitol, and crowds upon crowds of beings crowding the streets. All nation-states had been terraformed with living architecture by the Black Gods. It was the only act of benevolence on behalf of those stranded on terra Earth by their new rulers. These cities could accommodate as many residents as they held. There were also instances where, like in Kinshasa, an angry god would destroy the entire city, snuffing out all life, only to rebuild it seconds later.
I was wearing a heavy wool black suit. Black shirt, tie, and boots. It felt weightless here in Shadow. My nanites had armored it, reinforcing it. Very few Earth-made weapons would penetrate it. I needed to take all precautions, considering how heavily armed and patrolled Bahir was. Layna had indicated that she had sent in another Functional and had not heard from her in four days. I was to find out the what, and why. The Royals in Bahir were hosting some event, one which had brought dignitaries from several other nation-states, and the Matrons wanted to know why. The limited intelligence that Layna had provided for me suggested that each nation-state was required to bring tribute, and each had gladly agreed. Odd. It was scheduled for four days from her last transmission. Today. Now. From my perch heavenward I could see no fewer than twelve Mohane Giants roaming the perimeter of the Royal Keep. There were thousands of Duhumans, gleaming human/droid mixes, patrolling the streets. My Sight in the Shadow allowed me to see the wards and fetches arranged by the Mages. Why so many? Odder still was how bright the Lifesparks were in the Keep’s bottommost levels. I could barely keep my eyes focused on it. It was blinding. I imagined for a moment a god striding about down there, but that wasn’t possible. Interesting.
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