by Christopher Valin
Darkness descended quickly upon Ekauw, as it always did. Vu’mar paused briefly to light a torch, then continued on his way. It would be a couple of hours until the second moon rose, and until then it would be too dark to continue through the dense jungle. Despite his exhaustion, rest was not an option. If he were not the first to reach the totem, all would be lost.
Besides, he was used to undergoing extreme hardship. Vu’mar had been an ordinary soldier, but rose quickly through the ranks of the Ekauwan army. During the War against the Nowauke, he had become an unstoppable killing machine. The Nowauke had telepathic abilities that could cause even the bravest Ekauwan to flee in terror, or even impale himself on his own blade. According to legend, Ekauwans had also once possessed this ability, and during the War it was discovered that some still had this latent mind power. After some training from a captured Nowauke who turned against his own people, many of these soldiers were able to develop their gift enough to withstand the psychic attacks. A few even gained the ability to inflict the same mental tortures on their enemies.
Vu’mar was one of those few.
Because he was also a magnificent warrior in physical combat—unlike most of the others with the Gift—he swiftly became a great hero. The Nowauke had come to depend far too much on their psychic abilities, so when confronted with even a small group of Ekauwan warriors who were able to fight back—those who became known as the Darkstars—carnage ensued.
That is not to say it was easy. Vu’mar emerged from the Psychic War both physically and mentally scarred. His mind became an open wound, and he had to shut down his Gift completely or face certain madness. Though the thoughts of others would often slip through his damaged mental barriers, he could not allow his own power to be released, or he might completely lose control.
Worse, his chances of attracting a mate were reduced to nothing. Even as a revered hero, the females of his race found him far too frightening. Although none dared mention anything to his face, others could not help but avert their eyes when confronted by his war-torn features.
His only hope lay in his reward for becoming the greatest hero of the War: He became a Disciple of the Watch, a member of the Sovereign’s elite imperial guard. The honor was normally only bestowed upon noble-born males who had been bred to the task and trained from birth. But when the Sovereign agreed to grant any request by Vu’mar as a reward for his greatest victory—the one that finally ended the long war—he asked only to be able to serve as one of her loyal defenders. Still, he was not allowed by the bureaucratic parchment-pushers to have one of the more notable duties guarding the Sovereign herself. Instead, his job was to watch over a ceremonial totem used in the competition to choose the Sovereign’s consort-protector. The object was pyramid-shaped and covered in symbols, and basically served as the objective to be sought out and, if necessary, fought for, then returned to the Sovereign. Although guarding it was considered a menial task, the fact that the totem’s altar was in the throne room of the Imperial Temple did allow him to be in the presence of the Sovereign for long periods of time.
Best of all, the ornate ceremonial helmet he wore while on duty covered his face almost completely.