Her orders were simple: Terminate the bandits. Terminate. Terminate. The unpleasant word tortured Vari Talavara, as she crouched behind a large nezan bush waiting for her victims to arrive. She clenched her jaw; it took nearly all her willpower to keep from shaking her head in frustration. Terminate the bandits. No call for negotiation, just termination. It’s wrong! Vari tried squashing the disloyal thought with a long-winded self speech about how much damage the bandits were inflicting on the Pashumar village of Kintal. They’re bandits, they deserve what they get. Vari frowned as more thoughts swirled, increasing her frustration. But they’re not Maladarie or Devachan; they’re Morayans, just like us. They’re Onusayans! That last thought would have sent her off on a whole new direction about Onusayans being partly her people through her mother, but a slight rustle of leaves beside her interrupted the silent debate.
Vari whipped her head left and pierced Kal Minara with her narrow, blue-gray eyes. The sandy-haired young man ducked his head, taking the silent scolding in stride like he did everything. He took a great interest in examining the edge of his pair of hinazapha. His hands twitched, making Vari aware that Kal wished to twirl the blades. Another fierce flicker of her expressive eyes stilled his hands. He grinned sheepishly and turned his attention back to the path they were watching.
Still wearing an annoyed expression, Vari carefully placed one of her displaced braids back where it belonged. Touching her hair reminded Vari of its brilliant golden hue, which reminded her of how much she favored her father, which returned her thoughts to where they’d been. She was all too aware that her “good fortune” in physically favoring her Hurapian father had led to her initial acceptance among the Warlocks. She tensed but wrestled her emotions into line before they found release in movement. Vari forced her thoughts in a different direction. Why three of us? I could have handled this myself. The Masters had felt three Apprentices were necessary for the mission, yet the last bandit count, according to the Pashumar, was only twenty three. The simple answer came almost immediately to her Talavara-trained mind: Money. The Masters get to charge for three Warlocks instead of one. Vari let that thought linger a moment; it left a slightly bitter tinge to her mind.
Movement along the path caught Vari’s attention. Something felt wrong. She could just make out the forms of two-dozen or so bandits furtively moving through the woods. An icy doubt seized her. Vari opened her mouth to order Beman and Kal to stand down until she muddled through the uneasy feeling. But before she could give the order, Beman Shikara whipped up his kaladanda and fired three beams into their targets. Three bandits dropped without a sound. The other twenty-some bandits whipped out melee weapons, but they were no match for the Warlocks. Vari sensed more than saw Kal drop into a light stance to create a force shield around the bandits, essentially trapping them.
Things happened too fast for conscious thought. Vaguely aware of bandits’ surprised shouts, Vari felt Beman gather flame Jitadi to make an attack. He’ll kill them. The sudden urge to preserve the bandits’ lives seized Vari. Time seemed to stop. Vari gathered storm Jitadi faster than she’d ever done so before and held it for a split second. In that split second, Beman’s fireball ripped a devastating path through the crowd. Vari felt as if the fireball had exploded inside her own body. Swinging into a low earthly stance she flung her hands out towards the crowd of Onusayans and unleashed a storm of rain and wind. Everyone went crashing into surrounding milak trees, a tangled mass of wet, smoky beings. The entire battle had taken ten seconds at the most.
Beman, who was beside her, knew she meant to save the bandits. Confused, he swung his kaladanda her way. “What was that about?!” he demanded.
Vari didn’t bother replying. Instead, by shifting her stance slightly and generating a quick form, she created two miniature lightning globes. A quick flick of her wrists sent one careening into Beman and the other into Kal, who had also turned towards her. The globes partially dissipated before reaching her targets but enough remained to shock them into unconsciousness.
What have I done? The thought snapped Vari back to the present moment. She blinked, flicking her eyes to the dead and unconscious bodies littering the ground around her.
One bandit stirred. Vari arranged the hood of her cloak closer around her face and strode with purpose over to the young man. By this time, he’d sat up; his body shook. It took Vari a moment to recognize his weeping. Two paces from him, her steps faltered. The moonlight revealed his features to be far younger than she’d expected.
It’s a child! The thought filled her with horror and sent her eyes searching the other figures. The entire band was composed of young adults. The oldest looked to be about twenty-two and the youngest, the survivor before Vari, appeared to be about seventeen. They’re all so young! Vari cursed.
Warlocks train from childhood, Vari reasoned, but then, she decided that made the battle all the more unfair. At first, she’d thought her discomfort might be from her very un-Talavara-like thoughts, but now, the full meaning of her feelings landed on her like a physical blow. She steeled her quaking insides, refusing to let the emotions show. Vari sent a short, cold blast of air to quickly awaken the only other unburned being? The young woman gasped as she awoke. She bolted upright, but she didn’t cry. Instead, she scooted over to the young man and slipped an arm around him, drawing him close.
“Leave, and steal no more,” Vari ordered.
“We needed food,” the female bandit answered simply.
The statement caught Vari off guard. “Food? Is that all you stole?” Vari’s question was demanding, but her tone made it clear the anger wasn’t directed at the youths.
“Yes, food,” the woman repeated.
Vari wanted to believe she was lying but heard a clear ring of truth in the words.
“Go,” Vari said softly, throwing her survival kit to the two survivors.
Vari turned her back on the bandits who left as quickly as they could, drew her mahazis with deliberate slowness, and went over to Kal. There’s no going back. With her heart tearing itself to pieces over the finality of her actions, Vari sent a lightning microjolt into the ground next to Kal. He stirred and woke with a groan.
“Wake up, Kal,” Vari ordered, quietly yet firmly.
Kal eyes snapped open.? “What the Deva-”
“They stole for food, Kal,” Vari cut in. “I let the survivors go.? Now, take Beman and return to the Order,” Vari commanded.
Kal created a small personal shield around himself to ward off further attacks. He was defensive. “Have you lost your-”
“It was wrong!” Vari snapped, letting frustration enter her voice. She swallowed hard and took a second to master her emotions. She took a step backwards to let Kal have room to get up. When she spoke again her voice was even and controlled. “It was like fighting first-year Abecedarians, and the Masters knew it would be. I can’t do this anymore, Kal. I can’t be a Talavara Warlock. I won’t kill just because some rich Pashumar has a grudge against those who steal for sustenance.”
“It was a battle,” Kal said in a grave tone. “People die-”
“This was no battle,” Vari declared. “It was slaughter.” Indecision nearly made her freeze. She couldn’t return to the order as a Talavara. Though she wouldn’t consider Kal and Beman close friends, Vari had served alongside them too long to not share some connection with them.
“So, what now?” Kal asked in a tone usually reserved for battle.
After a timeless, tense second, Vari took out the black and orange sash which marked her as a second degree apprentice within the Order from its safe place on her belt. With a long look at him, Vari bowed slightly, sliced through the special embroidery she’d done to mark her allegiance to her Sainikulan, and let the pieces flutter to the ground. Then, she pivoted on her heel and walked away.
I am Vari Talavara no more.