The Spinning Wheel

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          The lone warrior atop the overhanging outcrop had been lying in wait since dawn. She had traversed the savanna in the early hours of the morning, when most predators were still asleep. But now, her skin glistened, and her breathing slowed. She reached for her waterskin, but withdrew when she heard an unusual bird call.
          Down below, a single file of barbarians navigated the treacherous ravine. One tribesman, whose shoulders were adorned with a lion’s hide, caught her attention.
          The second call was faint, but distinct.
She exhaled, pinched the arrow’s fletching, and crouched on one knee. In one fluid motion, she stood up, hooked her fingers onto the thickened string, and pulled it taut.
          Khali was exposed, but she had to take the risk. This was her only chance. Success or failure, she would never see her family again. A light breeze picked up, cooling her damp skin. Her thoughts drifted as she savored the moment.
          Suddenly, a warning cry assaulted her senses. The hair on her arms stood on end. Heat rushed up her ears. Shit! She scanned the over-scaled gully. Several members of the enemy tribe were already slumped on the ground, with feathered shafts protruding from their bodies.
          Terep. He had somehow noticed her folly and began raining down defensive fire. Those dead bodies were likely spear-throwers that had intended to kill her.
          There, further up the path, two tribesmen trailed a third. It was him! Their coward of a leader. Khali released two arrows in quick succession, and then plunged forward in pursuit.

          The Chieftain, who's bodyguards had been neutralized, was cowering between two boulders when Khali jumped into the tight space. She readied another arrow.
          “Please,” the man begged, sinking to his knees. “Spare me! I’ll give you anything!”
          “I only want one thing,” Khali said, her features steeled.
          “Name it!” he said. “Precious stones, livestock, slaves—”
          “Your life,” she said and stepped forward, expecting the pathetic man to get down on all fours. But instead, he just grinned slyly.
          Khali frowned. “Why do you smile?”
          He licked his lips. “You would've made an excellent whore.”
          “What are you talking about?!” she screamed, and aimed the arrow at his eye. “Tell me now!” Her arm quivered with strain and rage.
          “You have been betrayed,” he sneered, enunciating each word.
          Her heart sank. Oba Dar! That senile old man sold us out
          “It wasn't your King,” he said.
          “Who—” a sharp pain sliced into her back, her knees gave way and her body collapsed. As she lay there in a crimson pool, a figure walked up and squatted next to her.
          “Terep, brother,” she gasped. “Why?”
          “I’m sorry, Khali,” he said. “They have my family.”
          Khali coughed, blood spluttered out. “Then avenge... me,” she demanded before everything went black.

***

          The breeze rustled her sheer dress as she stared down at the river that gave her country life. Today was her day of days. Today, the Gods would rightfully take what was theirs. She was the offering, they the rulers. Her death would unite the past and present.
          Peta turned and gazed into the temple’s darkness. As her eyes adjusted, she took in the enormous shapes inside; two statues, both with human form.
          She knelt before the larger statue. The one which had a hawk's head with a blazing disk of sun above. Ra, ruler of sky, earth, and underworld. Her thin muslin dress hiked up her thighs exposing dark, smooth skin. She stroked the stone feet, as thousands had done before, then bent forward and kissed them. A smile flitted across her lips, for she knew a secret.
          Peta stood and regarded the other statue. It was smaller, with features hastily hacked into place as a substitute for a lesser predecessor. Its face was mostly human. Amun, god of the winds and king of all gods, was an old god, but he was new as Ra’s so-called equal. She moved to walk past him when she heard the voice.
          “Never ignore the new,” advised a young man.
          Peta turned. It was her shadow, Al-Mikhi.
          “The new, the old. They’re much the same,” she responded. “But Ra is eternal.”
          “Thoughts that should never be spoken aloud. Amun is the way now.”
          “The new ways never last.”
          The man shot her a look of scorn. “They say your mother had the same contempt.”
          “And yet I never knew her.”
          Peta smoothed her robes and studied the man. If a snake could ever take human form, this would be it. He was sinuously slim with eyes that glittered like torch lights. The twin daggers at his waist, one long, one short, were like deadly fangs.
          He had been with Peta from birth, sharing her cot as a baby and her sleeping rug as a child. But now, he maintained vigil outside her bedroom door, keeping the secular world at bay. She had been trained as a sorceress, and he as a killer; or her executioner, as she now knew.
          “It is time,” he said.
          “With you, it is always time.”
          The man ignored her. “We must prepare. The ritual demands it.”
          Peta knew this, and she was prepared.
          “Come,” he ordered. “You must bathe first.”
          Peta followed. She had lived her whole life in this temple, high above the Nile. She had seen the river flood and kill, then fertilize and nourish. If Ra had an equal, then it would be Hapi, not the pretender.
          She paced behind the man. Her hips swayed, and the fabric clung to her breasts and thighs. Peta knew how men looked at her; eyes full of lust and fear, even her protector. But it was a lust unrequited. Only one could have her, and he was coming today.
          They entered a light-filled room with a bath carved out of rock in the center. Peta removed her dress and felt Al-Mikhi’s eyes on her. But he hurriedly turned, picked up a jug, and poured fragrant liquid into the stone bath. Peta stepped behind him. With her dress twisted into a rope, she looped the garment over the man’s head and jerked it down around his neck. He slipped and stumbled, his head ricocheting off the bath’s edge. She pulled tighter. The man kicked and gurgled, dazed from the blow, his twin knives useless.
          The young woman leaned in closer and murmured, “I am no sacrifice, Al-Mikhi. It is you who dies again.”

***

          The only erect structure on the rubbled landscape was the last place anyone would expect to find a sniper, and that was exactly where Major Mila Nomokonov had set up her staging area. The 26th Panzer division was exploiting this overlooked route, running supplies through to the front lines under the cover of darkness.
          The chirping of crickets saturated the ambiance. Everything was awash in a serene, whitish glow. If not for the weapon in her hands, Mila could have easily forgotten hers was a country at war. She peeked out the third floor window, then shifted focus to the background clicking. Except, it wasn't natural, and it came from inside.
          It was code: Ikami. Downstairs.
Mila froze. The name tugged at her mind, conjuring visions of blade and blood. It was happening again. She slung her rifle over her shoulder and descended slowly. As she reached the first floor she heard a noise.
          Mila cocked her TT-30 as she entered the room. “Colonel Petra Steinz.”
          “It is you!” the woman said, rising from a chair. “I wasn't sure you’d recognized the name.”
          “That name,” Mila said. “How do you know it?!”
          “I've had dreams,” Petra said. “Recurring ones. Sometimes in the African desert, other times in Egypt. I think it was your name in Osaka.”
          “And?”
          “In these dreams, we... kill each other.”
          “In my dreams,” Mila said after a brief silence, her gun still pointed at Petra. “We also kill to live.”
          “And this is our sole existence,” Petra said. “Our reason for being. There must be more.”
          “Maybe.”
          “Don't you see? We're linked.”
          “Dreams could mean anything, or nothing at all.”
          “No.” Petra wagged a finger. “This is more than a coincidence.” She paused. “You know, we don’t have to do this.”
          Mila shrugged. “Killing people?”
          “No. You know what I mean.”
          Vague memories trickled into Mila’s consciousness. Not just the African plains or the land of Pharaohs, but Greece and even China. So many places, so much death. And this person before her was always there.
          “The I kill you, you kill me routine?” Mila asked.
          Petra nodded. “It’s getting old.”
          Mila smiled. “Not for me, it isn't.”
          There were a series of far-off explosions, interspersed with gunfire, but neither flinched. Both silently analyzing the other. A distant mechanical rumbling filled the background.
          Mila’s finger tensed. “I have to stop them.”
          “I can't let you,” Petra said, and pointed her Luger at Mila.
          “I'm going to walk out. You're going to let me.”
          “You walk out, I shoot.”
          Mila laughed and stared into Fate’s eyes. “Time to spin the wheel.”