* * *
“Seek not roads well traveled.”
Octavius leaned back and regarded the young man standing at his desk. The cave was dark, absent of light, except by candles.
The young man cleared his throat. “Did you hear me, Octavius?”
Octavius leaned forward, steepling his gnarled fingers. “I heard you Rashid.”
“And your response?” Rashid prodded.
“I’m ascertaining if you truly comprehend my response and the ramifications.”
Rashid bowed deeply at the waist. “I’m ready, Master.”
Octavius picked up a crooked staff leaning against his desk. He leaned against it as he rose, and stroked his long white beard with his free hand. “Very well.”
Rashid stood to his full height, shoulders squared, head held high.
“Seek paths left untraveled, my son.”
A fragment of metal tied to the top of the staff gleamed in the dim torchlight. A ring worn by Rashid matched both the metal’s consistency and brilliance. He cried out as the intensity overcame him. Dropping to his knees, he grasped his ringed hand by the wrist, tears streaming. He continued to hold his hand firm until the ritual was complete. “Master…” He wept, cradling his agony close to his chest.
Rashid witnessed sadness in Octavius’ eyes. Octavius watched as his pupil writhed on the stone floor. He watched in disbelief as Rashid gripped the gleaming metal between his teeth and slid it off his finger. Once freed from flesh, the ring struck the cave floor and bounced twice before resting – dull and tarnished brass.
Octavius sunk to his chair. “Great Goddess, I feared this result,” he said quietly.
Rashid looked up, his bloodshot eyes pleading. “Master, I…”
Octavius sighed. “You are no longer my ward, Rashid.” Octavius’ eyes focused on the spots on the ground where the ring bounced. Each spot had transformed from solid rock to lifeless sand. Rashid followed his former Master’s gaze and followed it to the ring. He reached for it.
“Stop!” bellowed Octavius.
Rashid froze, mid reach. His heart raced and he felt a shiver. He looked to Octavius and saw anger for the first time in the twenty years he had studied with him.
“You were well aware of the ritual.” Octavius rose, quicker than the time previous. “It was crucial it be allowed to complete.” His voice softened. “You are no longer of the brotherhood.” Octavius touched the metal of his staff to the sandy spots and they reverted to rock. “May the Goddess, Kanoni, watch over you in your future endeavors.”
Octavius turned his back to the still weeping Rashid. He walked away, stopping only long enough to gaze at the stained glass figure of a beautiful woman with intricate brass clockwork wings outstretched. His eyes followed her arm and to the sword of smoke over her head. “Goddess Kanoni taught us compassion. You may stay until first light.” Octavius strode through the threshold to his antechamber leaving Rashid alone with the brass ring and his thoughts.
Rashid stood shakily, stepped over the ring and walked out through the cave. Outside, he looked back at his home for the last twenty years. He knew every plank of wood, every stone. He knew every dribble of water against rock and wood, remembering frozen water forming icicles when winter visited the desert. He turned and left the cave for the endless sands.
* * *
“Why the sadness, my friend?”
Rashid looked at a figure approaching through the heavy smoke of the tavern. “I’ll trouble no one with my tale. Begone and remain a friend.” Rashid lifted the pewter mug to his lips, yearning for the amber liquid, but before he could drink, the approaching figure emerged from the smoke. A woman stood defiantly against his warning. The woman, not a woman, thought Rashid, but a girl, sat across from him and watched him lower the mug to the rough hewn table. Her skin was as pale as the fields of sand and her hair was as black as the densest smoke. Lips the color of rusted metal.
“Perhaps a beautiful face may relieve my sadness.”
The woman smiled. “I don’t think it’s sadness that brought you here.” She gently picked up Rashid’s hand and rubbed her thumb over black stains appearing to emanate where a ring should’ve been. “Your heart is like the endless sand,” she whispered. “Cold, lifeless and coarse.”
Rashid yanked his hand back and held it to his chest. “Perhaps a beautiful face is not what I need.” He stood on wavering legs.
The woman stood and leaned over the table. “The brotherhood is but one way,” she whispered. She nodded to his stained finger. “A malignant mark to remind you of this.”
Rashid fell to the floor. “I cannot wash this stain from my skin!”
The woman walked around the table and knelt over Rashid. “I will make you whole again.”
Rashid stared up as the woman opened her mouth and inhaled deeply, taking in smoke from the room. She leaned down and kissed Rashid on his stained finger. When she withdrew, her lips were the color of obsidian. The stain appeared to waft away as smoke. Rashid blinked and her lips returned to a pale orange-red.
“Who are you?”
The woman smiled. “I have many names.” She rose and extended a hand to Rashid. “You may call me Marquis Oya, bastion of change and revered servant to the Lord of Wind.”
Rashid shrunk from her gaze.
“I have chosen you, Rashid. You will wield my sword and lead my legions into battle against the Orthodoxy. Take my hand and cast off the stigma of the brotherhood. Wash the sorrow from your skin and ecome whole again.”
Rashid grasped her outstretched hand. She pulled him to his feet. Rashid swore he saw the smoke in the room form a pair of wings. She pulled him into an embrace and the smoke-wings surrounded them both.
* * *
Octavius bolted upright his body covered in sweat. He rarely dreamt, but that night his dreams were filled with darkness. He saw Kanoni and her clockwork wings locked in battle with a woman with wings of black smoke. In the distance he saw his former pupil, Rashid, lead an army of thirty legions. He rode atop a horse of smoke and wielded a sword of brass.
Octavius stumbled from his bed and crawled to his study. He lurched forward, beard dragging on the ground until the ring was only an outstretched arm away. He watched in horror as the ring turned from brass to sand then to smoke. The smoke adhered to the shape of Rashid’s ring in the still air of the cave. A single word formed in his mind. He was compelled to speak it aloud.
“Oya,” he whispered and his breath blew away the smoke-ring.
Next: Mistress Osun