Chapter 4

Caiatl loathed the crawling pace of the court. She despised the tricky voices of courtiers and generals vying for attention and resources. Sorting out their tedious requests was like fetching lost scraping sticks from the bottom of a mud-wallow.

But one day, a general came to her with a clear complaint. "The stench from Umun'arath's rooms permeates the entire east wing of the palace. My lovers choke on toxic fumes simply walking through the halls."

Surprised she hadn't heard about it before, Caiatl dismissed him with a promise to investigate the Evocate-General's chambers.

Later that day, she found that the first of Umun's rooms, usually kept tidy with military precision, was changed. Her two war tables were covered in papers and tomes unrecognizable to Caiatl. The room stank of death and poison. Strange symbols were drawn on the ground in ash.

In the far corner of the room, with the restraints they used for captives aboard their prison ships, a living Hive Thrall was held in suspension, drooling and chattering.

"Umun," Caiatl said, astonished. "What's happening here?"

Umun turned from one of her war tables where she studied a book that looked to be bound with mottled flesh. "Princess," she said, pleased. "Good. I thought to call you, but I've been so engrossed. Come see the future of the Cabal army."

Caiatl approached, intent on looking at Umun instead of the Thrall.

"They don't fear pain," Umun said. Perverse admiration crept into her voice. "They don't fear death."

"Soldiers who don't know pain or fear are useless," Caiatl said, eyeing the Evocate-General. "'It is the knowledge of death and the will to defy it that together breed bravery.' You taught me those texts."

"We must move beyond them," Umun muttered, watching the Thrall tilt its grotesque face in response to their voices. "With each swing of the sword, the universe grows smaller, Caiatl. The competition fiercer. If we don't learn a new way, we'll be cut down with the rest." Her voice went quiet. "We must accept new gods, or we'll perish."

The Thrall began to thrash, sudden and violent.

Caiatl watched.

"I am ordering you to step down from the council," she said after a long silence.