“The Waduf” by Naru Dames Sundar

How do you defeat a Waduf? Therein lies a tale in itself. A tale, that like the great worm that circles the universe, must eat of its own tail to unfold its truths.

Where did I face the Waduf? Let me tell you. It begins in a star-spattered spar of the universe in which I skim, swift as glistening comets on a void-wisp wrought in inlaid pearl and onyx. The wisp is a palace in the cold dark, a garden of gold-inlaid chambers within which the Ka and his harem now couple in grotesque and magnificent topologies of skin. In its heart, in an audience chamber carved out of crystal shards, I am lounging on sheets shot with silver and cushions riddled in silk while this ruler of worlds is cradling his head in my lap. As he listens with eyelids closed, I ply my tongue into verse and prose, meter and rhyme, unslinging the history of the living universe in tales and fragments of poesy.

But I digress. Let me tell you of the Waduf. Let me tell you of the timeless hour in which I awake sweating and slip silently from between the coupled bodies—for the teller of tales partakes as she wishes. Wrapped warmly in my cloak as cold iron chills my bare feet, I shuffle between chambers, nodding sagely to the smiling guards, their armor swirled in verdigris and almond lacquer, the lenses of their eyes grating like crickets as they focus on my passing. In the hall of pendants, the remains of the night’s repast lay strewn on carpets, seats and oil-rubbed tables. I walk as quiet as a mouse, lest the vibrations, ever so subtle, wake my gently sleeping patron.

I pour wine into a decanter, breathing its fine perfume, tasting the clay and loam and the tart spice of a lover’s kiss. In the mirror above the table, framed in marble, I see myself. I see the night skin so dark in the thin light that I might well be another shadow darting across the floor. Once, my hair snaked down to my ankles. As a child in the brightly lit halls of the habitats of the Ugundi-Ma, I would pretend my braided hair was the great worm, and I would wrap it around me at night, hoping I could drink of the infinite sea of stories that molted from its star-spattered skin.

They cut my hair. One must give up something to gain the rank of adept, to walk the first steps to mastery. I think of my hair on this night, imagine it all grown, piled on my head like a coifed crown. But there is no hair, only the domed head reflecting the geometries of light splayed from the ceiling. No hair, and needle-sharp teeth and a rictus smile behind me. I spin, my robe half spilling open as I turn to face the Waduf. Does it look longingly at one ripe breast? No, my eyes know better. The Waduf does not drink of the flesh. It knows an adept when it sees one. It hungers in anticipation of the stories in my soul, the tales braided like cobwebs into my memory. It is a Waduf, as clear as crystal, true as the gravest of stories. I know well the shimmering shale of its hide, the splayed claws of its feet, and the undeniable sweetness of its terrifying smile.

I walk backwards in my memory, to the sage-tongued instructors who taught me my art, who taught me the rules and rituals of this sacred combat. I review the histories of battles lost and won, of stratagems worked and failed. I prepare my fictions, prepare their wording and their grammar, prepare my bulwark of story to hold back the Waduf’s power—a dark mirror to my own. To lose is to die, to feel the subverted story entrap and cage the teller, and thus caged, lie naked and vulnerable for the Waduf’s hunger. Prose and grammar are my weapons, the scaffold of structure upon which I unfold my art, protect myself from distraction and danger. But it is easy to get lost, when a Waduf is near. As subtle as a dagger and as heavy as a broadsword, the Waduf claims both paths. As many have claimed victory as have earned a burial pyre in the sacred halls.

We of the Ugundi-Ma learn from the mistakes of the dead.

“I am Zahriya, of the school of Shaub, thrice-marked adept of the Ugundi-Ma.”

There, I had named myself. I spoke the syllables and drove them into the steel of the floor, pinion-like, a bulwark against the shifting sands of the Waduf. If the Waduf chose to lead me into a tale, I was at least named whole: clad in all of my armor, weapons at my side. I count the seconds, laying out my stratagems. Opening. Mid-game. End-game. Like a shaab player of old, I walk the possibilities, discarding tales with openings and side paths, opportunities for the Waduf to feint and flank and surprise.

When the great worm molted, and gave birth to the universe within the space between head and tail, story came into the world, and with it the Waduf. An elder of the Ugundi-Ma once said that the Waduf exists to moor reality, to prevent it from sliding into the fantasies of the tale-teller, into the impossible and ineffable. That by drinking of us, and culling our ranks, it keeps the universe whole. I am not so much a philosopher, though. I believe in the Ugundi-Ma, and the horror and the ecstasy of the shaped tale, the great worm’s gift. I believe in monsters too, and the Waduf is one of them.

The long table sits between us, and I circle it. A frisson of fear passes through me, a moment of weakness, an urge to run, to bolt. I yearn to fly, cowardly and unrepentant, to the nearest guard—beg for beams of light, for cutting blades sharp enough to slice through the fabric of time. It would be moot; the Waduf moves not as others do. It is there, and then it is there. If it were not a player of games, a creature with a penchant for drama, for a love of the logos of combat—if it were none of these, then there would be no tale-tellers left, none in the Ugundi-Ma to carry the memories of old. Instead we and my sisters and brothers scribe treatises of combats witnessed and won, structures and scaffoldings with which to ensnare and out-dance. The telling becomes the trap—so long as I and the Waduf stay on the boundary, we are both neutered. It is when we are lured into the story that we risk becoming part of it, victim then of whichever power can shape the strongest.

But who was stronger, the Waduf, or I? The fear almost overwhelms me, but I focus my resolve, and doubt and indecision wash away.

I circle the table. Step. Step. Step. I listen to my feet and the soft hush of flesh against steel, flesh against silk, flesh against inlaid bone. I tease the story on my tongue, parched and stagnant. I employ the stratagem of sharam ru, the stratagem of choice, the lure of the pregnant moment.

“Let me tell you of Abaz and the Kuru Rai…”

* * *

Abaz, the great negotiator of the Quidan, the elder statesman of a people long vanished. Abaz, the diplomat, sent to the star chambers of the Kuru Rai, to negotiate for the fabled pearl of the void-spanner drive. With him came Abo the younger, brother to Abaz. Abo, the shadow to Abaz’s light, the forgotten, the ever-overlooked. Yet even in fabled Quidan, lies and deception hid in the seams between truths, and behind the honest dialogue of trade and exchange lurked tangled webs. They were opposite creatures, Abo and Abaz. One danced in the silken pavilions on fields of glass under the eyes of the emperor, grateful for the munificence of the Kuru Rai. The other hid in the dappled shadows, a lifetime of regret curdling within, hungry for vast fabled powers beyond measure.

Their vessel docked to the great umbilical of the Kuru-Rai vessel, the brothers were led to the vast souk that lay at the heart of the ship. Only the Kuru-Rai lit the great holds of the souk, light gleaming from beneath skin. The souk was colored in shadow, subtle flickering suggestions of shapes and structures. Even the shape of the Kuru-Rai, bright and gleaming, danced along the edge of possibility—always on the precipice of coherence.

Beside the ancient, a geometric form floated in a slow spin, a filigree of metal dancing in sinuous lines around vents and fins. The void-spanner drive—the gateway to a thousand galaxies, a knife in the back of time. Abaz inclined his head to the Kuru Rai. One possibility of form seemed to nod in return, or was that a trick of the mind? Abaz cared not. Even transcendents desired, or so he surmised. Even the Kuru Rai understood the value of exchange, even if their choice of partners seemed driven by whimsy.

“Come, lord of the Kuru Rai. We have come to your souk, let us parley.”

Abaz used the ancient word, redolent of a thousand spice-tongued stalls and the cacophony of haggling merchants. This place was none of that, and yet it was the venue of trade, the seat of accord between the powerful and those beyond ancient.

A sea of faces smiled, and within some gleamed teeth like daggers.

“Yes, let us…par-ley.”

The Kuru Rai spoke with the voice of a multitude, sibilant tongues speaking out of step with each other in odd atonal susurrations. Abaz rubbed his hands in anticipation of the dance, while the shadows of Abo’s face deepened.

My voice quivers as I feel the first buffets of the Waduf, searching for spaces between my words, thin gaps between phrases through which its vast hunger can stumble through. For a brief moment the vision made flesh of Abo and Abaz fractures and fragments, but I am strong and the walls of my grammar withstand the onslaught. I let the words string together once more.

“I am Abaz of Quidan, the emperor’s voice in this parley. I speak for all of Quidan, and by imperial writ am enabled to trade all manner of things.”

“What things, then, Abaz of Quidan? What do you offer to the Kuru Rai?”

And so the game began.

The grapevine fields of fabled Baransur; the million lanced bearing cohorts of Ri’at Ba—bound by genetic fiat to their master’s call; the pulsar dance of the Ut system; all of these and more were offered. And yet the Kuru Rai shook their sanguine heads, nonchalant and smiling. The recorded data spheres of lost Hulum, the recovered artifacts of empires beyond dust; the sensorium trace of the mating cycle of two solar ergs. Still the Kuru Rai demurred.

The bone rattle of the Waduf’s growl simmers in the background, pushing through the narrow gaps between words. It almost pushes through and for a brief moment I can feel the whisper of its breath on my flesh, feel its hungry pull dragging me into the heart of the story. But I am strong, and I fling it back with art and prose as the current of the story pushes us both forward inexorably.

Abaz guided the Kuru Rai through the halls of mighty Quidan’s fabled sensual prowess, the rich schools of surrogate experience. Almost, the Kuru Rai relented, when faced with Bridat Phren’s nerve actuators, capable of accentuating biological experience tenfold. Almost the thousand shifting faces nodded in unison when the leasehold of the Magi Solon was presented, carried within it the rights to ride alongside the minds of those genetic aberrations. Yet these and a hundred others were not enough.

Abaz’s characteristic patience wore thin. The records did not ever show such fickleness on the part of the Kuru Rai. He mused silently, the whorls of his aged brow wrinkling in consternation.

“Perhaps…”

Abo’s quiet voice interrupted and a thousand heads turned in geometric perfection.

“Perhaps the esteemed one would appreciate a bound hour within a vessel of the flesh, willing and entire—not sidelong, not via sensorium trace, but direct and pure. A vessel of the high circle of Quidan, an honored ancient.”

Abaz turned with hard anger coiled in his eyes,

“Fool! You don’t have the writ for such a thing! None of the high would consent to such a debasement!”

Abo continued, unheeding of his brother’s words.

“An honored ancient such as this one Abaz before you now.”

Abaz’s anger turned to surprise and then to a distilled cold burning,

“What game do you play at here, brother?”

The Kuru Rai interrupted—

“Yesss. The accord is accepted provisionally.”

A monster tongue, a legion of crows cawing. The Kuru Rai’s faces were all smiles, incisors gleaming.

“Trade is always a game brother, sometimes one must sacrifice to win. Do not fear, it is a bound hour after all.”

Abo turned back to the Kuru Rai, his smile echoing theirs.

“Provisos shall be as listed, honored one. First, the length of the possession is bound to no more than one hour. Second, the possession is entire.”

The Kuru Rai laughed, like bones scraping against each other.

“And should our experience be worthy, that which you seek—the engine of the ancients—shall be yours.”

“It shall be so. We will show you something glorious indeed, oh ancient of the Kuru Rai.”

Abaz’s voice whispered, now in fear:

“Abo, what will you show them? What will you do, brother?”

“You will see brother, you will see. There is nothing to fear. Think on what glories you will bring to the emperor.”

And then he leaned in, younger lips to older trembling ears, voice a bare whisper:

“I will show them death, brother. And then we will take, instead of trade.”

Abo gestured to the Kuru Rai, whose toothful visage melted into light. A pure, blossoming light that streamed like a cavorting wind into the body of Abaz. The thousand shifting eyes were no more, dissembled into that stream of brightness, pushed whole into the body of Abaz. Like a whirling puppet, the body floated and twirled and fluttered before gently resting its feet back to the unshadowed floor. The Kuru Rai raised its borrowed hands in front of its borrowed face and flexed tendon, bone, and muscle.

“Such weaknesssss.”

The face of Abo was as sharp as ice, sharp as the monofilament blade clutched in his hand.

“Flesh is indeed weak, honored one. But such experiences it contains. Such experiences.”

And now the story has reached that precipice, the narrow cliff of choice so pregnant with possibility. The Waduf is an ocean against a dam, and I hold it back until its very momentum is its own undoing. This is the moment in which I unsheathe my sword, when I unsling my power, let it sluice out overflowing across my mouth, light dripping off my tongue as I speak the words that describe the tale. The monofilament blade moves in fragmented seconds towards the pendulous neck of once-Abaz.

I structure my art into the stratagem of Sharam Ru, to lure the Waduf into imminent death. I push out a feint, a shadowed reaching across fingers of light into the heart of Abaz, an act of willingly binding to the fiction of the tale. I can feel the hunger behind me, weight of its power leaping from its safety outside the tale and following me into the form of Abaz. One side step, and the Waduf would fall into my trap. One side step and the Waduf would be caged, and the knife of Abo would do its work. I would write my own stanza into the compendium of the Ugundi-Ma, the recorded precepts of holy battle. Careless and overfull with confidence, I am almost my own undoing. The Waduf’s counterstroke is a shattering roar. On the very edge of its cage it lingers and then with terrifying ease it shatters the bonds of my art, creating an empty shell that pulls at me like a scouring storm. The binding of Abaz ensnares me, and I can hear the laughter of the Waduf in my ear.

I look out through Abaz’s eyes into the hair-thin blade slicing through the air, the Waduf’s wordless scream writ across Abo’s anger-clouded eyes. Disappointment settles slowly into me, my first thrust diverted so easily. I remembered the strength of the Waduf’s counterstroke, the musculature of its innate ability, pushing against the bounds of my fractured grammar. It would not be so easy. Even caged, the words drip like a torrent from my light-gorged tongue.

And the monofilament blade sliced into the tender flesh of Abaz’s neck. The blood spattered like a cascade of rubies into the thin light. And what of Quidan, and their entreaties? What of Abo, still quivering in the glow of murder’s dark light? The Kuru Rai existed outside time, and thus death was the unglimpsed mystery that all their ancient sages sought, more valuable than any of the vast glories of an empire’s gifts. The Kuru Rai laughed in their simulacra of death, a grating screech like a dagger rasping across stone. Unfurling out of the dying flesh, it granted Abo and the Quidan the gift they sought, the metal spires of the void-spanner drive disappearing into the holds of the Quidani vessel.

In the drops of blood still falling to the ground I see the endless reflections of the gleaming teeth of the Waduf, reaching towards my entrapped self. I am Abaz, dying, but also, I am not.

“I am Zahriya, of the school of Shaub.”

Named, and thus defined, delineated, and unbound, I step breathless out of the form of Abaz that was, out of the simple tale that I know was easy mettle for the Waduf to deflect. I dance to the empty void of the space between stories, my breath heaving. The Waduf laughs, teasing my false hopes, as rankling and as rancorous as the Kuru Rai.

“Feed me something meaty, child. Feed me something rich and decorated in spice, lest I grow weary of play and taste the marrow of your bones.”

One doesn’t pause in such combat. One ends the tale and moves on. The opening was his, but the game continues. I am alive, and breathing, and while breathing, still speaking.

“Let me tell you then of the awakening of Xinoth…”

* * *

Xinoth the sublime, housed in a vessel wrought in star-kissed iron from the shipyards of Tebab. Xinoth the machine intelligence of great renown, hovering on the breath of sentience. But this is a tale of Xinoth before the ascension, when he was but numbers and codices, when the pilot’s hand still leashed him, when the infinite halls of multi-layered time were barred to his questing mind. This is a tale of Shubara, the pilot-count, whose fiefdom and castle and army was Xinoth. Shubara who laid claim to the sea of stone of Tebab, the ocean of floating rock that only Xinoth could dance and cavort amongst.

We walk the gold-filigreed chambers of Xinoth, the Waduf and I. I think about my failure in the first tale. Tagallan of Ayad teaches that the Waduf comes in three forms. The first kind, the Waduf Amat, glowers and growls, speaks all manner of distasteful things, but can often be dispatched by the tale itself. A snare within a weak or broken form opens the possibility of subjugation by a stronger character. The second kind, the Waduf Shaara, requires the teller’s involvement directly, a second order attack by possession. The third kind, the Waduf Magi, can not be tamed—Tagallan’s only advice was to die honorably, die as true to oneself as possible.

I hope this is not a magus that I face; I am not ready to die yet. I speak about Shubara, flush from a grand victory, a graveyard of dreadnoughts spinning in the vessel’s wake. I speak of Xinoth’s plaintive request, the as yet non-sentient form seeking only a greater capacity for victory, a greater ability to serve.

“Oh great queen, Shubara, grand mistress of the Tebab, ruler of a thousand spinning orbs of wealth beyond compare. You have expanded my erg cells ten thousand times since my manufacture. You have enabled me to connect to the spider nets of vast kingdoms, so that I may grow my predictive machinery. And yet, queen of my heart, I feel the cold logic of my limits.”

The great Shubara responded in a slurred, slow voice, still drunk on the silica wine cradled in her palm.

“Tell me, Xinoth. Tell me of the possible.”

And so Xinoth spoke, of mechanisms yet to be built, of harnessing the arrow of time, so that he could carve the future into stone, rend possibility into fact. Programs spilled out of Xinoth, instructions so obscure and interwoven that no flesh-borne mind could decipher them.

Now Shubara had a lover, the master engineer Namath. Out of the wasteland of Buund had he come, the great graveyard of ships, borne of the aftermath of a battle between Shubara’s fleet and the last defenders of Kum. A mercenary engineer, looking for work, an engineer with shrouded origins, hidden behind lost files and corrupted records.

None knew that Namath was born on Kum. None knew that he had clutched the scorched earth of Kum in his hands as he had wept tears of failure. The defenders of Kum had died save for one. But Kum would be avenged. Thus did Namath burrow into the inner circle of Shubara. Thus did he slip into the inner sanctum of Shubara’s confidence, letting the pleasures of flesh cloud the great Queen’s judgement.

In a bedchamber ringed by vast panels animating the great battles of wars past, Namath spoke into the ear of his Queen, into the ear of the ravager of Kum.

“Oh Shubara, fear this creature that houses us. Fear its ascension—what use will it have for flesh, for the leash of your mighty hand? Why do we risk such calamity? We should end this beast now before it breaks its chains. A dagger into the numerals of its heart.”

Namath did fear. He feared the thought of Shubara as a figurehead of flesh for the vast dark intelligence of Xinoth unleashed. His revenge would have to wait, for greater horrors lurked if Xinoth truly ascended. Deep in thought, Shubara sat in the great jewel-encrusted throne room in her pilot’s chair, the artificers of combat and navigation laid out before her. Great Xinoth observed her suspicion. He deduced it as a quantified potentiality in the great predictive matrices of its being.

“Do not fear, my Queen, that my ascension will tear me from you. You are still the law to which I am bound, the wielder of my soul. Do you think I am the only such machine in the void? How many other empires carry such machines to drive their strategies. Only by my ascension can you stand against these hidden enemies. Without that, your empire is merely a paper lantern waiting to burn.”

And so, I bring the three to the precipice. The moment of possibility in the great throne room, the arc of the story caught on the edge of Shubar’s decision. I could play this tale out, let Shubara’s knife plunge into Namath’s throat. I could witness Xinoth awakening into true sentience, engorged on energies trapped between the folds of space and time. I could carry on the myth, watch Shubara, a mindless mouthpiece, as Xinoth conquered—but that is not the tale I am telling.

I slip myself quietly into Shubara and become this aged queen, feeling Namath at my side. I feel the weight of the armor on my shoulders, the tightness of her chest. The Waduf makes his move. I feel his cold metal breath as he plunges into Xinoth, into the machine soon to become a god. I feel the energies of the tale building within me, churning to a fervent froth as I slam them into the Waduf, trying to hold him back from his possession of Xinoth. I put all of my skill, every decorative noun, every languorous verb, all of my sacred magic into preventing his assumption of the role. But I have learned from my failure in the story of Abaz. This time I feint with greater subtlety. I let the Waduf shatter the bonds of the wall I have built around Xinoth. I let it enter the machine.

The Waduf knows this story too, you see. I can see the gleam in his eye as the Xinoth-that-was-the-Waduf waits in anticipation. The circle of light hangs below my finger now, the simple action which will connect Xinoth to the vast energies which lay pregnant in the deep hold, the new mechanism that tapped into the fabric of the veil. The Waduf-in-Xinoth waits too. Does it think I have given up, allowed myself to be carried by the wave of the tale, the current of its flow? Let it think that, for sometimes a tale can be twisted. A delicate thing, a subtle yet powerful thing.

Then, I unleash my true power, rewriting a second history for Shubara. In this history the fabricators are misled, a litany of hidden errors inserted by Namath, a labyrinthine weapon inserted into the ignition chamber. The story resists me, the learned weight of its history, of its thousand tellings before calling out against my retelling, my rewriting of the fabric of the tale, the structure of the myth.

In my retelling Shubara quails before the notion of such potential, gives into the fears of Namath, and so works against the awakening. She works a destruction into the machine through which Xinoth would connect to the vast quantum secrets of time. I press the button that ensures Xinoth’s death, and with it the Waduf. I feel the ignition chamber rupture and implode, a concussion wave of unconstrained light and sound. From the Waduf comes a howling fury, a blossom of alien power so bright and beautiful and terrifying. I feel the vessel of Xinoth break apart around me as my own power struggles to hold the Waduf within the scaffold of the tale.

The Waduf is a wolf, teeth ripping flesh, eyes ablaze, hot cinnamon iron in its breath. The Waduf is a snake, wrapped around me, squeezing and constricting. The Waduf is darkness, suffocating my light. The Waduf is in Xinoth, and then out of Xinoth, thrusting loose like an arrow from a bow at the last moment before all that was Xinoth erupts. And then, in the void of the after, when I am still in the uneven space between stories, heaving from the exertion—then, the Waduf comes after me. I fling myself away from him, feeling the world-breaking power of him reaching after me.

What stories do I have left? I have flung power against power and been rebuffed twice. Surely this is a Waduf Magi that I face, the highest form of its race. What do I have left? And then it comes to me, a final stratagem, formed by Tagallan’s final truth—when the Waduf magi chases you, die with honor.

“In the marbled halls of the Ugundi-Ma, a child was raised.”

* * *

A child, whose memory of her parents slipped between her fingers like threads of mist from the cooling chambers. This child, named Anak, was raised in a crèche for orphans because her mother did not return from a sojourn into deep space. No one told Anak this: not her instructors in the art of the Ugundi-Ma, not the ware-sellers in the souks of the habitats, not even the elders in their glass-walled gardens.

Anak showed aptitude for the art; the blood of the Ugundi-Ma was strong within her, stronger than most. In their twelfth year, an adept of the Ugundi-Ma formally chose whether to walk the path of the tale-teller or step back into the background, joining the ranks of the many who did not meet the threshold. On her twelfth birthday, Anak was escorted into the mint and jasmine gardens of an elder. The elder sat upon a sitting stone, looking out into the starlit void.

Anak stayed back towards the edge of the garden, unsure why this elder had wanted to see her.

“Come closer, child.”

Anak stepped forward, running her hand through the delicate blooms as she walked towards the elder.

“Come, sit here and look out at the stars with me.”

The void was full of stars, great civilizations and empires reduced to pinpricks of distant light.

“Today, that which is Anak dies, and that which is Zhariya is born.”

Anak’s heart hammered.

“Where other adepts spend the festival days in the company of their clan, their parents, you spend yours alone. Know that this was not happenstance. Know that your mother was one Iridal, of the school of Shaub, elder of the Ugundi-Ma. Under the vines and arbors of fallen Giridar, Iridal, heavy with child, met a Waduf and danced words. Know that Iridal was not victorious in her battle, and though nothing of Iridal was left afterward, a babe was found, steeped in the cinnabar musk of the Waduf. This babe was brought to us, and named Anak, which means a waiting place in the ancient tongue. Today, I give you your history back, now that you are ready, I give you your true name, Zahriya of the school of Shaub. Will you dance the path of the Ugundi-Ma? Will you go out into the void, like your mother, to face the universe, and the Waduf?”

The child’s heart was a torrent, but she felt the truth of the elder’s words. She turned to the elder, and said:

“I am Zahriya, of the school of Shaub.”

The elder smiled, the wrinkles of her face like whorls of wood.

“Then go forth and learn, my child, and make ready for the battle which will one day come.”

The Waduf hangs on the periphery, confused by my tale. It can sense the bridge between my younger self and I, the similarity of features, the deeper essence mirrored within us. I will bring this battle into the heart of me, and we will see which one of us is stronger.

The child grew into a young woman, a sixteen-year-old in her last year as an adept. They spoke of her quietly, the other adepts. She had no true friends, and kept to herself, her heart held close. One adept alone tried to reach out to her—Merzaz, of the school of Gahin.

To Merzaz alone did Zahriya confide. To Merzaz alone did she open her heart. Friendship became love, but the day of ritual, the rite of completion, came ever closer. Under pomegranate trees growing in the lush greenhouses of the habitats, Zahriya lounged, head against Merzaz’s chest. Merzaz looked down at her lover’s ink-black hair,

“What will you do after the ceremony, Z’iya? Will you stay? There are always positions in the school for those who wish to teach.”

“Is that what you are going to do, Mer? Live your life here, behind the glass walls?”

Merzaz bit her lip.

“Yes. You know me, Z’iya. It’s a dark and deadly world out beyond the stars. How many of us truly live long enough to grow old and return to these walls. I don’t want to lose you, I don’t want to lose—”

Zahriya reached up and placed a hand on Merzaz’s cheek.

“What we have, is forever embedded in memory, accessible through story. It is never lost. But for me? My destiny is out there, and I cannot ignore it.”

A tear fell gently down Merzaz’ cheek.

The Waduf remains unsure of where my tale is heading. This is not a tale written in the tomes, not a tale retold a thousand times. In the memory of its people the Waduf would never find this story. What I am attempting is something new, a stratagem unlisted in the great compendiums and codices of my people.

Zahriya, the tale-teller of the Ugundi-Ma, passed her rite of passage, gave up her ink-dark hair. Worlds beyond count did she visit. Stories untold did she unfold, and yet still she did not face her nemesis.

Not until she graced the court of the Ka of Imran, emperor of a hundred worlds. Only then did she meet that which until then had only been a vision, a story. In the quiet hours of the night, Zahriya met a Waduf in the chamber of pendants.

The Waduf is confused now. There is the Zahriya standing in the corner, a shadow glimpsed in the mirror, unfolding the tale with word and rhyme and meter and verse. There is the Zhariya circling the table, about to unfold her first tale. There is the Waduf at the edge of the tale, angry and furious, teeth bared and maw gaping. There is the Waduf inside, circling the table, smiling and confident. Two Wadufs and two Zahriyas, circling each other.

“I am Zahriya, of the school of Shaub.”

Two women say these words, in unison, a tale within a tale. The Waduf full of anger hurls itself into the Zahriya at the table, it sees one soul and does not care for which fragment of the tale the soul clings to. It slams into the tale-teller nested inside, eating me from the inside out, teeth slicing through dream ichor. And so it does not notice when I hurl myself. It does not notice when I step into the skin of the other Waduf, into the alien form, under the scab-covered skin, into the marrow steeped in the blood and ether of tale-tellers past. I am Zahriya and I am that Waduf magi. I am its power, its anger, its energy twinned to that of mine. I leap through the air, the other Zahriya paused before her telling, the Waduf eating her soul from within. I push her down onto the cold iron of the floor and feel my teeth sink into her, into myself, into the Waduf within. I am the Waduf eating its own reflected self. A mirror of the great worm, a tale within a tale within a tale. Teeth within teeth within teeth. There is the rending of flesh, the tearing of skin, the screams of death and there is a blossom of light that flays. When the light disappears, like an exhalation, gone from the world, when the screams that exist only in story mute and silence, when the Waduf is gone and I am spent and sweating on the floor of the chamber of pendants, then do I realize the victory I can now claim.

How do you defeat the Waduf? There. Now you know. But adept, when you leave the halls of the Ugundi-Ma, the world is not as it is within these strict confines. The universe unveiled is full of agony and ecstasy and truths beyond knowing. And out there too, the Waduf, waiting.


Naru Dames Sundar writes speculative fiction and poetry. His work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and is forthcoming at PodCastle and Shimmer Magazine. You can find him online at www.shardofstar.info or on twitter as @naru_sundar.
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