Alone on a cliff overlooking the Jukan fortress, Dasha removed her eclectic armor of leather and polished metal. A warm wind ruffled her spotted fur. Obsidian eyes captured the valley before her, watching for a fiery signal.
The sunset at her back transformed the sky into a giant, lavish theater. Yet onlookers from the valley below would not recognize her silhouette among the high, jumbled crags. Neither could she make out individual Juka upon the fortress walls or amid the sea of roofs surrounding it. The only movement inside the city came from waking lanterns. Cook fires smudged the sky with bitter plumes. The evening air rolled around the valley in a mild, temperate breeze, late autumn's denial of the oncoming cold.
The Meer warrior crouched on a smooth-topped boulder, her armor in a neat pile beside her. She did not need it at the moment. No Jukan patrols came this far up the rocky slopes. The only inhabitants of these dry mountains were tribes of gibbering humans, whose crude weapons posed her no threat. Clothed in the wind, she called on the spirits of the exalted ancestors to guide her through this pivotal night. Once the Juka ignited the signal torch below, the trial of two races would begin.
The spirits came to Dasha as a tingle in her belly. The sensation fanned out to her limbs and face, a suffusion of power and tranquility. She welcomed the presence. The ancestors comprised the wisest of the Meer, those elders who had crafted long, fruitful lives and then passed on to a purer state. From their ethereal city of crystal spires they watched the baser realms, aiding young spirits who trod the earth and trees. Dasha was grateful for their help. Though she was an esteemed warrior and officer, her life had spanned less than two hundred solstices. She was still too fleshbound to know enlightenment. If she were to die tonight, her spirit would return in a new Meer body and continue the lessons of material existence. Only with the passage of centuries would she join her exalted ancestors in the holy spires of the afterlife.
Of course, Dasha did not plan to die tonight. She would face the mightiest of Jukan warriors and extract from him an explanation. The Jukan army had destroyed the forest home of the Meer. She would learn why her enemies had betrayed their own traditions of honor. The ancient balance of Juka and Meer depended on the answer.
A new light blinked in the city. Atop a high tower of the stone-walled fortress appeared a single, starlike flame. Dasha's heart quickened. That was the signal. Warlord Kabur had agreed to her proposition. He would arrive within an hour.
Blessed with the guidance of the eternal ancestors, she collected her armor in a satchel and crept off into the twilight.
When Dasha had lived in the old forest, dusk had fallen like long, dark eyelashes. She would miss that restful sight. Here in the mountains the night rolled in like an avalanche of shadows, swallowing up boulders and scrub. She slid without a sound through the labyrinthine gloom. Her destination was a cave pressed between two jagged rocks, where the calm breeze whistled. In the ground before the cave opening she stuck a crossbow quarrel. Then she walked into the cool, black entrance and began to don her gear. As she did so, she reviewed her knowledge of the enemy she had fought for a century.
The Juka were a brutal race, hard of flesh and hard of will. Though sophisticated in their skills and culture, they hungered most of all to enjoy life's infinite sensations. This sublime urge for pleasure was crowned by a roaring lust for combat. The Jukan clans fought each other with unrelenting fervor. And when a single clan came to dominate the others, the united Juka would turn their aggression toward the neighboring society of the Meer. The wars between the two races echoed through legend and history.
Yet unlike the Meer, the Juka did not enjoy the privilege of reincarnation. These jade-skinned warriors passed through the world only once, bound for the Great Hall of Honor if they died with distinction, bound for oblivion if they died in disgrace. And so the Juka absorbed themselves in the pursuit of glory and honor. At the core of their society lay a tradition of unshakable virtues, of courage and honesty and respect for one's enemy. Their souls depended on strict adherence to this code. The Juka called it the Way, as if there were no other.
The Jukan army had trampled the Way when they burned the Meer forest to the ground. Their mysterious new lord, the strangely-named Exodus, had commanded them to do so. But Dasha knew the Juka could neither be persuaded nor coerced into dishonor. Foul sorcery alone could account for the drastic change. She intended to confirm her suspicion by speaking to Warlord Kabur himself. Only with this knowledge could the Meer proceed with their just revenge.
Thankfully the ancestors brought calm to Dasha's mind, for her blood burned to meet the general who had destroyed her people's ancient home.
From inside, the cave mouth was a slash of fading colors. The light vanished when an enormous shape filled the gap. Dasha flinched. A deep voice boomed, "I should not be surprised by this gesture of yours. Single combat is the only hope you have left for victory."
Warlord Kabur brought a lantern into the cave. His other hand clutched the crossbow quarrel. It looked small in his grip. Kabur was a giant of a warrior even among his strapping race. Robust armor of steel and gold padding accentuated his size. Like all Juka he seemed dour to her, with no nose, reptilian eyes and a small, hard mouth. But Kabur's face revealed something more, a cunning that sharpened his glance. She felt compelled to match his stare with her own.
"Yet you have come to meet me," she said, "according to the ritual of the Black Duel. I challenge you to explain your dishonorable conduct, and to atone for it."
The general grunted, "I did receive the note and silk scarf you left me. You know much of the customs of the Juka."
"I have fought your kind since before your grandfather was born. I know that the Juka have always honored the Way. And I knew that you would respect the Black Duel and meet me in secret."
Kabur's emerald lips twisted into a smirk. "I have razed the forest of yours and you still imagine that I am bound to the old codes?"
"Your grandfather and father respected duels of honor. The reputation of your clan instructs you to do the same."
"I am forging a new reputation. Victory beckons me now."
He stepped deeper inside the tall cave and away from the narrow entrance. Dasha heard the clatter of footsteps outside. She hardened her eyes. "Your soldiers will die if they interrupt us."
"There is no Black Duel to interrupt. I have come to bring you before Exodus. Much has changed among the clans, though I would not expect a Meer to understand."
And she knew then that her life was in danger. Kabur had abandoned the Way. He had accepted the challenge of single combat as a ruse to capture her. An instant later the cave filled with sound as a stream of Jukan soldiers intruded. The tips of their spears flashed in the light of Kabur's lantern.
Naturally she had accounted for such a betrayal. Without hesitation she leapt among her attackers.
Like all Meer warriors, her skill with weaponless combat overmatched the Jukas' clumsy polearms. She moved like mist around and between them, striking at the joints of their leathery bodies, crushing steel plates against veins and bones so that their own armor became a weapon against them. When the soldiers clustered together, she scattered them with quick spells that flashed away the shadows. In seconds their bodies strewed the rocky ground.
More soldiers shouted outside. Dasha caught her breath. She could not defeat an entire army, but her objective was now at hand. No Juka blocked the way to Warlord Kabur. She sprang at the giant warrior. He bellowed in response and whirled a fallen soldier's halberd in her path. She ducked its lethal blade, then latched a grip on the weapon's long haft. With a lightning move she dropped to the ground and threw Kabur deeper into the cave.
He vanished the instant he passed over a blink rune that Dasha had inscribed on the cave floor.
She followed quickly. The magic spell wrapped her in light. She appeared inside another cave, deeper within the mountain. With her boot she erased the matching rune underfoot, to prevent other Juka from coming through. Then she rose to her full, proud height, facing the startled warlord who was regaining his bearings.
They stood inside a ring of candles that defined a dueling space. A vast, dark cavern hovered around them. In the dense stillness of the underworld Dasha crossed her arms and murmured, "I invoked the Black Duel so we might talk unhindered. I intend for us to do so whether you spurn me or not."
The fluttering candlelight revealed fury in the Juka's eyes. He snapped two fists around the shaft of his halberd. "If you wanted to persuade me to fight, then you have succeeded, Dasha. By the Great Mother, I shall cut you down like I did the forest of the Meer!"
Like a storm he roared upon her with a series of attacks she did not recognize. She was forced to somersault backwards to evade the strokes of his blade. Then he prepared another charge. For a brief moment Dasha wondered if she might not have misjudged Warlord Kabur again. The exalted ancestors remained inside her, but even they had not encountered a dishonorable Juka before. Could ancient wisdom overcome this strange, black renaissance of the Jukan enemy?
Dasha grumbled to herself, Fight first, then interrogate. If he would rather die than explain his misdeeds, it shall not pain me to oblige him! And she charged as furiously as the hulking warlord himself, her eyes ablaze with a lust for revenge.
From the Britannia News Network - The Journal of Ultima Online, November 29th, 2001.