The second book in the Masters & Mages series that started with Cold Iron, from the master of fantasy Miles Cameron.
As is usual in the life of a soldier, almost nothing was as Val al-Dun had been promised.
He might have wished to spit in disgust, but the desert wind and the grit in his mouth made it unwise. Instead, he stood in his stirrups and looked back up his column.
“Why have we stopped?” one of the Agha asked.
The Agha were the Disciple’s inner circle: the Exalted Ones.
The Agha were strange figures who never seemed to look with their eyes and always knew… things. Most, but not all of them, wore robes of scarlet. This one, masked in white, had robes so red that in the brilliant sun it appeared to have a life of their own, billowing and turning around the Agha like a living embodiment of light.
In his head, Val al-Dun called them “they” because… they never seemed like single people, single souls. Even their voices betrayed some sort of alliance, fragile at best.
They were terrifying in their harmony.
Val al-Dun had learnt not to roll his eyes or give any appearance of insolence. Four days before, the Disciple had stopped in the middle of a salt flat and had not moved for hours; no explanation had been offered.
The Disciple and its Agha never explained anything. The road from Stephion had cost the column three consecutive commanders who had failed to understand the Disciple’s needs.
Val al-Dun hadn’t even been an officer when the Master summoned the militia, but half a dozen of his seniors stared without blinking into the void now, their heads removed for various failures. The road behind them was thick with corpses of the sowars who had disobeyed orders or simply failed to keep up. It had become worse since they reached the cursed Kuh Desert. Val al-Dun was a survivor; he’d watched the errors made by his predecessors and tried to learn; he was determined to survive this debacle if he could.
“Exalted One,” he said carefully, “the Masran guides we were promised have not been provided. The horses and camels need water, Exalted One. I have my best people looking for water.”
All around them, the Safian Tufenchis were sitting in the small shade of their saddle blankets, with their camels or horses crouched in the sun. The better troopers had put sunshades over their animals’ heads, but there was always some lazy bastard…
Hussan, his havildar, approached.
“People need a rest,” he said, very quietly.
Val al-Dun never took his eyes off the Agha in front of him.
“If it serves your will, Exalted One, we will have a two hour rest.”
Hussan blanched under his heavy beard. Val al-Dun had a moment to reflect that the execution of six senior officers had its merits; discipline was improving. The Tufenchis were regular troops of the now-fallen Safian Empire, but they were really just expert militia; six hundred mile forays on camelback were not their usual fare.
And Val al-Dun had to protect them. They were his neighbours and his kin—some his friends, some not, but very few of them were what the Pure called “True Believers”—and Val al-Dun was aware of just how expendable they were held to be. His Ghole had been chosen because they were not trusted. He understood that. The Master and his Disciples were not so very different from the run of other rulers: demanding, capricious, and probably fallible.
“We do not have time to look for water,” the Agha said in its odd, high-pitched, flat voice.
“Exalted One, if we do not find water, my people will die. Today; perhaps tomorrow morning.”
Val al-Dun waited for the sword. The Agha were inhuman—so fast that they could not be faced in combat. He had seen his former chief, Nafir Khan, killed. It had been so fast that he hadn’t even seen the sword drawn.
I probably won’t even know, Val al-Dun thought. I wonder if I’ll be able to see when my head hits the sand.
And Nafir Khan had been a veteran bandit chief, Beglerbeg of five hundred sabres; a deadly man. He’d told the Agha what he thought…
The Agha didn’t move.
“We must be at the Black Pyramid,” it said. “Tonight.”
Val al-Dun looked at the stones and gravel at his feet, so different from the high, arid desert of his home. This was a disgusting desert, all dirty stone and grit. Not clean.
It is difficult to debate with a being that does not look at you and has no facial expression.
“Exalted One, I beg of you one hour in which to find water.”
“No,” the Agha said. “We march.”
It inclined its head slightly, to indicate that the interview was at an end. The Agha turned fluidly, red robes swirling, and walked back to the covered palanquin carried by four camels.
“Hussan!” Val al-Dun called.
Hussan was helping one of the youngest and most inexperienced of their Tufenchis to arrange her sun-screen. The havildar shrugged and came back, his riding boots raising small puffs of the deadly grit.
“Great Khan?” he asked with mock reverence.
“We ride. It is an order.”
“Blessings be on the Exalted One,” Hussan took a very small sip of water and held it in his mouth, then swallowed. Then he roared, “On your feet! Ready to ride in two minutes! Listen for the drum!”
Mikal, the kettle drummer, was an old man—a true veteran, with the scars of a life of violence on his face, his arms, and his soul. He stripped his sunshade, stowed it expertly, and had his camel on its feet in three motions. He was already mounted, his sticks in his hand. Mikal had a foreign barbarian’s face and a badly set nose that seemed to go diagonally across his scarred face. His blue eyes were like a burning reprimand for the incompetence of others.
Kati, the youngest, was serving in place of an older brother who was necessary to push a plough. She was too small to mount a camel easily, she didn’t know how to live off the land, and every time she stopped, she scattered her kit over the entire desert. She looked ridiculous with a jezzail that seemed twice as tall as she. On the other hand, she was Hussan’s third cousin, and everyone liked her. She was a cheerful mite, and smart, and Hussan said she had training in the Ruhani, the world beyond. Ferenhu training in foreign magik.
They had lost one hundred and twenty-six men and women crossing the lower Stai, the gritty desert that divided Safi from Masr. Val al-Dun had been a bandit most of his life, and he wondered to himself why he had decided to try and keep the rest alive. Something had changed in him.
“March,” he said to Mikal, and the old man slammed his sticks into the huge drums on either side of the camel: bam-bam. Bam-bam.
The people might have cursed, if their mouths hadn’t been so dry.
They moved off.
“We don’t know where we’re going,” Hussan said quietly.
“That’s right,” Val al-Dun said.
He stayed at the head of the column, setting the slow pace he thought would keep everyone, people and animals, alive. They crossed a sparkling gravel flat full of some sort of jewel-like stone, and his troopers were too tired to behave like children and investigate. Then they came to dunes—the first decent, clean desert they’d seen in days—and Val al-Dun, whose scouts were all somewhere, had to ride ahead himself. He found them a track along the back of two great dunes and then cut back, the whole column, six hundred animals, following like a great snake.
His mare was flagging. Thera was the best horse in the column, and when she was failing, that meant other horses were near death.
He was running out of choices, and the line of dunes was going to cut them off from his scouts. He was too tired to waste time on curses, although it did occur to him to speak his mind to the Agha and die with a clear conscience.
“Fuck it,” he said to Hussan. “Keep going.”
He turned his horse’s head and put her at the back of the dune.
Thera was brave, and she wove her way up the back to the great dune, her hooves almost silent, quick and sure. When she crested the top he reined her in and she stood, trembling slightly but apparently unmoved by her exertion, and he loved her.
Below him, the long snake of the column turned again, almost backtracking to pass along the back of yet another great dune.
But he had chosen well, and from the top of his dune he could see a line of hills, perhaps a psang to the south and west. And he could see that the line of dunes was not so wide; indeed, they’d chosen a reasonable place to cross the dune belt. He nodded, and took a sip from his canteen.
“Come, best beloved, and let us see if we can live to the ending of this day,” he said to his mare.
He dismounted, and together they slid down the front face of the dune. They were cautious, and still they spilled a dozen sand-slides as they went. Val al-Dun stood in a pool of hot sand at the base of the dune, with more tumbling down. He had to mount ignominiously and Thera had to leap clear to save them.
Before they rejoined the column, he gave her the rest of his canteen.
Then he led his people off to the left.
Hussan raised an eyebrow.
“I know what I’m doing,” Val al-Dun said.
“I’ve heard that before,” Hussan said.
Late afternoon. The heat was dissipating quickly, and the range of low hills was fully visible as they moved across a psang-wide salt flat. The salt was thickly crusted and made for easy travelling, but it got into everything—eyes and mouths parched from six days without water.
Val al-Dun became a brutal bully. He didn’t bother to cajole—he struck, he cursed, and he pushed. Now he rode at the rear of his column while Hussan led them to a gap in the distant hills. The salt flat was like a frying pan; the sun beat down and reflected back up.
Kati’s camel had stopped moving. Val al-Dun turned Thera under him and his katir sank two inches into the haunch of the stricken camel. The beast leapt forward with an indignant roar.
“Keep moving, little witch,” he spat.
Kati hunched, miserable and very small, but her beast continued to move across the salt.
Less than an hour later, two of his best men, old criminals like himself, cantered back to the column. They had big sacks of water on their horses and they shared them.
Draivash looked his part; a greasy velvet khaftan and a pair of silver puffers couldn’t hide his small stature and fox-like face.
“Water,” he said. “Maybe an hour. Good water. Best thing in this fucking wasteland.”
“But our Masran guides?” Val al-Dun asked.
Draivash shook his head. “Bethuin tracks at the well. Days old.”
Bethuin were the old nomad tribes of the south. They had no particular allegiances and it was unwise to provoke them. There were Bethuin throughout Safi, but they spoke another language and they tended to stay in the remotest wilderness. “As secret as a Bethuin” was a Safian saying.
Val al-Dun shrugged. “Fuck,” seemed an appropriate reply.
He gave his mare two cups of water and then left her to take a breath or two while he walked back to the palanquin. Four white camels carried a litter as big as a small castle.
All four of the Agha were there, as usual. Val al-Dun had never seen who—or what—was in the litter.
“Exalted One,” Val al-Dun called out.
The scarlet-clad inhuman stalked across the sand towards him. The same one? A different one?
“Speak,” it said.
“Exalted One, our scouts have found water. However, we have no contact with anyone from Masr.”
Again, Val al-Dun waited for the sword.
The Agha was, as usual, completely unmoving, shaven, beardless head bare in the late-afternoon sun.
“We must be at the Black Pyramid tonight,” the Agha said. Again.
“Exalted One, I need more information. What time tonight? Can you guide us?”
Val al-Dun almost cringed. He’d never asked one of them a direct question.
A few heartbeats passed.
“Do you not feel the Black Pyramid, Val al-Dun?” it asked.
It knew his name.
“No,” he said. It was the simple truth.
A few heartbeats, and then a few more. A breeze touched them; some grit flew like a small banner of smoke.
“Ahh,” it said. A simple nod. “Go to your water, and we will guide you to the Pyramid.”
Val al-Dun walked up his column, trying not to think.
Midnight, or close enough. A full moon hung out over the desert, but the column was cresting the line of barren hills. They’d had an hour’s rest and their fill of water.
The full moon lit the valley at their feet.
A long, sparkling, spilt-ink ribbon of river ran from far in the east towards the west. They rode through blasted stone hills, as if fire and lightning had formed them, but at their feet were green fields and pastures of late-summer grass. Trees lined the distant riverbank; the black water was wider than any river that Val al-Dun had ever seen. The Azurnil. The Great River—the Mother of Rivers.
On their side, the north bank, stood a city. Even at midnight, it was well enough lit to seem to glow along the river, and brilliant boats and illuminated barges cruised on the inky waters of the river. Val al-Dun assumed it was Al-Khaire, the great city of Masr. Its vastness made the size of his raiding force a joke. The city seemed to fill the plain at their feet; he could smell the smoke from a psang away.
A single bridge crossed the river, a needle of stone across the black ink ribbon.
And there, on the other side, placed like a jewel of jet in the moonlit darkness, was the Black Pyramid. It rested in a setting of four pale pyramids around it, and beyond them, on the south side of the river, the fertile plain was covered in pyramids—perhaps twenty of them, or more, their shapes lost in the darkness. The four guardians of the Black Pyramid were ancient; so ancient that three of them had lost most of their brilliant marble cladding, and they appeared as pale blobs in the moonlight. The fourth was like a beacon, and Val al-Dun looked away and back, twice, to see if it was lit from within, and still he could not decide.
The Black Pyramid itself appeared like a primal form; the outline, in as much as it could be seen in moonlight, appeared perfect and smooth, and reflected no light.
Then the column passed over the crest, and low, scrubby trees began to obscure the magnificent view. The scarlet Agha led them down the steep, rocky slope. It seemed unconcerned by mortal concerns like tracks or trails. The whole column passed down a slope of broken shale, losing two horses and a middle-aged woman in the process. Val al-Dun bit his lip until it bled, but then they were through the shale and moving on a track that turned into a road.
Somewhere off to the left, a fire was lit, and a high-pitched gong began to sound.
“Exalted One, that is an alarm,” Val al-Dun said.
It said nothing, but continued to stride into the darkness, red robes flowing like moving blood.
“We will have to fight,” Val al-Dun said.
“Yes,” it said.
And later, he asked, with the boldness of desperation, “How will we cross the river?”
“The Disciple will provide,” the Agha said.
“Exalted One, we lack the numbers to seize the bridge.”
Even if we could break in one of the gates.
“You are wise in your many fears. Nonetheless, all will be accomplished.”
Fuck, Val al-Dun thought.
Two hours later, the column had halted at the riverside. They had brushed aside a patrol—local militia, or suchlike. Hussan had dealt with them, and a dozen ravens were gorging on the result.
Val al-Dun dismounted, and took the time to empty the sand and grit out of his riding boots. He used river water to rinse his spare turban-cloth, to wash his face and hands.
Then he felt something change. It was not something he saw, or heard, exactly, but he became aware of the presence, the change. He turned, dropping his towel, to see Kati prostrate on her face, and all the rest of his troopers dropping, and he threw himself on the ground.
The light from the open door of the palanquin was blinding. He’d felt the light as well as seen it. He lay on the packed mud of the riverbank and covered his eyes.
The light grew.
He tried to pray to the Lady. He’d always liked the Lady, and the Thunderer, although he wasn’t sure what he believed.
The light emanating from the Disciple was so bright that it penetrated his eyelids, like a bright dawn fills the room of a man with a hangover. He forced himself to remain perfectly still. At a remove, he heard the mortal sound of shoes or sandals slapping on the packed mud.
He tried to pray.
Ah, my child, said the Voice. You have done well, and you have nothing to fear. You have brought us to the banks of the Black River. Be calm, my child.
The feet clapped on the ground, and stopped.
There was a pulse, as if all the world flashed into the void for one brief instant and then reasserted itself.
Hurry, mortals. This will not last for eternity. The voice in his head was not his own.
The light was gone. In its place was a flat, featureless bridge. It was not apparent what material formed the bridge; the surface was matt, and in the dark appeared to be the same colour as the surrounding mud banks. The bridge had no visible supports and was not arched.
Val al-Dun sprang to his feet.
“On your feet!” he called. His first attempt came out as a hiss; his throat was tight with fear. “On your feet!” he roared.
Hussan had his horse by the bridle, and he had a hand on Kati’s elbow, and behind them, Mikal had his camel moving. Men and women were dusting the dirt from their garments and groaning as they flung themselves into their saddles.
Hussan approached him. “Are you all right?” he asked. “It… talked to you.”
Val al-Dun blinked. “Still hungry, thirsty, tired, and frustrated,” he muttered. “So I reckon I’m fine.”
“There’s soldiers behind us. Draivash says there’re sixty, maybe eighty of them.”
As if to punctuate Hussan’s statement, there was a scattering of shots off to the north.
“Take all of Draivash’s kin and all your own,” Val al-Dun said. “Keep them off the bridge until we’re well out, and then come yourselves. Don’t die here. No one is going to accomplish much chasing us over this bridge.”
He walked over to the palanquin, which was now dark and silent.
“Exalted One,” he called out.
Three of the scarlet people stood silently. The fourth whirled.
“Speak, Khan,” it said.
Val al-Dun had never been addressed as “Khan” and he was taken aback. Nevertheless, he bowed his head.
“Will we return from the far bank by this wonderful bridge?” he asked. “Should I hold the bridgehead?”
He stood, head bowed, for so long that he began to wonder if he’d been heard.
“We will not return,” it said.
Perfect, Val al-Dun thought. We are dog meat. One-way trip. I knew it.
The palanquin began to move, and the four Agha went with it. The bridge that the Disciple had made was just wide enough for the four camels, and yet the Agha walked swiftly, as if unaware that their feet were as close to the edge as the width of a boy’s belt.
The rest of the Tufenchis were arrayed, and they crossed in order: Val al-Dun’s kin, the Safians, in the lead. They were hard-pressed to keep up with the palanquin, which moved so quickly that the column began to spread out, and Val al-Dun cursed. He had enough water in his mouth to curse, now.
The crossing was as strange as every other part of the journey. The river was flat and the surface moved swiftly in the moonlight, and the low bridge passed a mere handspan above the surface of the water, so that looking at the water could be disorienting. The bridge itself did not vibrate or make noise, or sway.
A third of the way across, Val al-Dun heard a burst of firing behind him. He halted and listened, and then watched. He could see figures on horseback hurrying towards him. He waited.
Then a scream, and another. And then the sound of hooves pounding.
Suddenly the air itself seemed to pulse with Ruhani. The flickers of light were like pulses of summer lightning, and the whole structure on which they stood seemed to vibrate like the skin of a drumhead struck by one of Mikal’s sticks.
Val al-Dun turned his horse and began to organise a rearguard out of a handful of Zand tribesmen he had. But the precaution was unnecessary; Hussan was with him before he’d ordered the Zand to dismount.
Hussan was all but whimpering with pain, and he was a tough man. Val al-Dun got his spare turban from his saddlebag and tied Hussan’s right arm, shattered by a musket ball, tightly against his chest after examining it.
“More than a hundred,” Hussan said.
Draivash shook his head. “Some kind of maguv. We lost people when they…” The bandit lacked words. “They used sorcery against us!”
“They broke off a piece of this bridge,” Hussan muttered.
“Sweet Lady,” Val al-Dun muttered.
“They’ll kill you for that,” Hussan said.
“Boss, we need to get our arses back to robbing caravans,” Draivash spat.
Even as he spoke, Draivash was loading the long jezzail slung across his back.
“Keep moving,” Val al-Dun said.
“I can drop a few,” Draivash said.
Val al-Dun shook his head. “All we have is speed. See to your cousin.”
He pushed forward along the column, avoiding falling into the water or pushing others, moving carefully, obscurely happy to see the small form of Kati still alive. Now he was a different kind of leader; he slapped backs and teased, prodded, mocked, joked. Among the Safians, he was with family—distant cousins and his brother’s strait-laced sons. It was impossible to be the “father of fear” to his own; they needed to be cajoled and flattered.
He went to the small woman, Kati.
“Your cousins say you can work the foreign sorcery,” he said.
She shrugged, her eyes bright under her veils. “It is forbidden.”
“Nonetheless,” he said.
I need some help here, girl.
She made a motion with her head, mostly lost in the darkness and the veils, but he took it to mean that she was aware.
“If my poor skills can help family, I will do what can be done,” she said cautiously.
Val al-Dun nodded. “Good,” he snapped.
He left her and went to the front, kept them moving, trying not to look out at the inky water that flowed so unnaturally under the unnatural bridge. He tried not to wonder what would happen if a floating tree struck the construction, and he tried not to imagine what some Masran Magos had done to the whole construct.
And then the whole bridge moved again—this time a sudden shock. Twenty Tufenchis fell in and drowned. His brother’s second son fell so close that he leant from his horse, but the man was gone in a gulp and a swirl. Choked screams told of other drownings. One young man was saved when his brother grabbed his hair and held him until other arms dragged him back onto the bridge.
“Hang on!” Val al-Dun roared.
He dismounted and received a painful kick from Thera, who was terrified, her ears laid back like a cat’s.
“What in all the hells?” asked Namud, his sister’s eldest. Many Safians worshipped the old stone gods, and their endless hells. Not openly. Never openly.
“Lie down,” Val al-Dun called. “Get your animals down!”
He could feel the bridge move. Back behind them, there was a ripple of white fire and a pulse of power. Even he felt it, and he was renowned among his acquaintances for his lack of attunement to the immaterial.
The bridge tilted, and then righted itself. More screams.
Val al-Dun gritted his teeth. He was on his knees, his arms around the neck of his mare.
He made himself raise his head.
The bridge was moving fast. He could only gauge by the lamplights of the distant city and the passing of the moon across the sky, but the whole bridge appeared to be moving across the surface of the river, as if it was held at one end and the current was…
Like a real bridge, he thought.
He’d once seen the pontoon bridge across the summertime Effrathes give way at one end, with catastrophic results.
“We’re going to hit hard!” he yelled. “Hold on to your mount!”
Again, your fears make you wise. Again, the voice in his head was not his own.
They struck. The non-material surface was neither slick nor rough, and the shock of the strike knocked people and animals flat. Men and women went into the water, but this was shallow, muddy water, and fewer were lost, although once the first horses went in, the kuramax struck, their pointed, reptilian heads and savage rows of teeth gleaming in the light of two moons.
The first one hit like an explosion of flesh, and it was so fast that a small horse and its rider vanished in the froth of mud and blood in the moonlight.
There was more than one kuramax.
The horror of it hit his tired Tufenchis and they panicked. Riders went off the wrong side of the bridge; a few leapt their weary mounts onto the slippery mud of the far bank. Further up the remnant of the bridge, most of the Zand and the Tarkars and the Ugrs made it onto a stone breakwater. But at the end where the Safians were, there were reptilian monsters in the mud and the actual bank was ten long paces away.
Val al-Dun kept his wits together. He pushed men and women off to the left, where the magikal bridge rested on stone. He screamed, and used the flat of his sword.
So he had his sword in his hand when the kuramax came for him. He saw the snout a moment before it opened, and the eyes. His cut severed the last five fingers of its reaching mouth, taking away the cruel incisors and leaving it gushing blood. The great jaws snapped shut on empty air, and Thera pounded a panicked hind-hoof into the thing as it darted away.
Even in moonlight, it left a slick of its oily, alien blood on the surface as it dived away. The water around them was churning. Men and animals were dying. The smell of the rotten river mud churned up by the ambush was like the vomit of a god of death.
Val al-Dun looked to his right and saw the palanquin, still facing the mudflats.
He ran to the nearest white camel. There stood the inscrutable figure of an Agha, its usually pristine robes spattered with mud.
“This way!” he screamed at it.
Yes. Go with him.
“Why don’t you help us?” he screamed.
He could no longer control himself. The darkness was full of monsters now; there was fighting on the bank above them.
We must save ourselves for the contest.
Suddenly one of the Agha detached itself from the palanquin. From its robes it produced two swords of white fire, and it leapt into the water.
The palanquin turned and made its way towards the stone embankment, a hundred paces distant.
Light now illuminated the carnage under the water—the light of the Agha’s two swords. Where it was, colour was: brown like river mud and sudden starts of scarlet, robes and blood flowing freely in the dark water.
It was so fast that Val al-Dun had trouble following the action. But he pushed his kin up onto the stone, still warm from a day in the sun, and glanced back to see the Agha climbing out of the water, the scarlet robes of billowing silk now stretched across it like wet kelp. It had taken wounds. It moved, not with unnatural grace, but like an old, old person forced to climb steps.
That was all in one glance. Because at the top of the stone embankment, Hussan was dead, and chaos reigned.
The night was lit by a volley—a single pulse of fire—and another half a dozen of his Tufenchis were corpses. Val al-Dun couldn’t even see the Masran enemy; but he was out of options. There was only one possible answer.
“Brothers and sisters!” he called. “On me! At them!”
He looked for Mikal, and the old man was there—mounted, alive, sticks poised.
“Charge!” Val al-Dun barked, putting all his fear and anger into that one word.
Bam-bam. Bam-bam. Bam-bam. Bam-bam.
The noise was like thunder.
Perhaps forty of his people were mounted and ready. Dozens more had lost their mounts, and when they charged, they were an undisciplined, desperate mob.
The invisible Masrans greeted them with a disciplined volley. The crash of fire betrayed them, close, under some sort of baraka cloak that hid them.
Women fell. Men screamed. Horses thrashed, but the one explosion of musketry was not enough to stop their desperation. They crashed into the Masrans, and it was hand to hand with mere men—shaven-headed men in black kilts who stood in four neat ranks and fought silently and with great determination.
Val al-Dun found himself deep in the Masran ranks, facing a rank of men with long spears all reaching for Thera. He leant so far back in his saddle that his back touched her rump. His katir flicked up to twitch one spear aside and he was under them. He took a blow to the head from a shaft, and another to his right arm, and his sword was gone in the darkness. Thera was his weapon, and she turned, her jaws and hooves savage, and the men of Masr—soldier-priests, as he later learnt—stood and died.
A pulse of red fire lit the night. It fell on a shield of white, and on some of the Tufenchis, who burned like screaming torches. The shield rose from the palanquin on the dark stone behind them, and the surviving Safians learned to stay within its white net. And the palanquin unloosed its own storm of white fire on the soldier-priests. Finally another Agha came forward into the chaos of fire and shadow and produced two swords of fire.
It threw itself into the fight.
The soldier-priests did not break and run, and neither did the Tufenchis, but the katir and buckler were better weapons in the darkness than the matchlock butt and the spear, and the men of Masr died.
They died hard, and they focused their attacks on the Agha, who, covered in mud and gore, waded into their ranks. In the end, the soldier-priests died, but they took the Agha with them. It lay still, sightless eyes open as in life, limbless in the moonlight.
Val al-Dun was covered in small wounds, but when he dismounted, Thera was untouched. He kissed her, and closed his eyes.
We must keep moving. Dawn is close.
He was close to refusal. But after all, why had he come at all?
Because I was never offered a choice. Serve or die, he thought.
He gathered his survivors. There were a hundred of his own dead mixed in with the Masran soldiers, their combined fluids making the gravel both slick and sticky, and another forty dead in muddy water. Two Aghas were dead, if dead was the correct word. The one that had attacked the monsters in the water was floating in the reeds at the very edge of the moving water, scarlet robes now black. The limbless one lay where it had been hacked to pieces by the Masrans.
We must go now, my Khan. Dawn is close.
Val al-Dun looked at the corpses of his friends and family, and he couldn’t allow himself to think that this was for nothing. He couldn’t let that thought go deep. Instead he found the Magos, or maybe he was the chief priest. His skin was mostly burnt off, and his charred skull seemed to wear an evil smile, as if mocking his endeavours, but what had attracted Val al-Dun was the ring with four big keys on the man’s belt. They were still warm, but they weren’t melted. He took them, and the black obsidian dagger the man wore.
“On me!” he called, his voice rough.
They followed him, even Kati, without complaint. Or comment. They had reached the point where there was nothing but the shared sense of fatigue and despair.
After less than half a psang, the river path became a stone walkway above an embankment down to the river. On the landward side, a stone wall towered above them, perhaps as high as two tall men. At the corner was a tower, perhaps three storeys high. Beyond the tower, the stone walkway continued along the riverside to a vanishing point.
Someone in the tower had a carabin. He fired at long range, and hit a horse.
Something was swelling in Val al-Dun. Perhaps it was the thought that Thera might die here. Somehow, that was worse than his own death. She was a servant, a loyal servant, and deserved better than this.
He touched his heels to the horse and leant forward, and she responded with all her usual heart. She burst forward, before the sniper could shoot again.
Behind him, half a dozen of his people dismounted. They took their long jezzails and began pelting the tower.
He stayed low and let Thera work her muscular magik. They flew along the smooth stone of the riverside road until her iron-shod hooves struck sparks that showed in the darkness.
Thera passed the tower and her hooves clacked away along the stone road. The stone was a dark basalt, veined in white—featureless, well jointed, without any apparent mortar.
Val al-Dun was no longer in the saddle. It was a bandit trick; he’d never done a running dismount in the dark, onto stone. Both of his booted feet hurt, but he was there, in the shadow of the tower’s doorway. His horse clattered away into the night, and he wished her well.
The sniper fired again. And then again. So there were at least two—maybe four.
The tower door was locked. But the second key, the browned iron one, fitted it well enough.
The keys made noise, and night is silent. Far out in the desert, he heard a hyaena, and then another.
The carabin fired again.
He turned the key. It grated, and squealed, and he burst into the tower with a puffer in one hand and his katir drawn, to find the ground floor empty, a single room with a set of steps leading up.
He ran for the steps.
A black-kilted Masran shot at him from the head of the stairs, and missed, the smoke from his discharge hanging in the thick warm air.
The steps seemed to go on forever. But Val al-Dun had stormed a building before, and he knew he needed his puffer for the second man.
The musketeer swung his heavy weapon at Val al-Dun and he covered the blow, his sabre braced by the pistol in his left hand. The blade flexed under the heavy musket butt, but the sword didn’t break. Then Val al-Dun was in close, the curved blade flaying the half-naked man until the point found his adversary’s throat.
Even as the man fell off his sword, Val al-Dun shot the second sniper with the puffer. It was a hasty shot, under the dying man’s outstretched arms. The wounded man’s return shot with the carabin only finished Val al-Dun’s work, striking the musketeer in the middle of the back. The Safian dragged himself past his victim, pushing the dying man to the floor with his puffer, and already trying to engage the third man.
There were too many of them.
Their swords were short, and broad, and the hand guards on their short stabbing swords were not sufficient to protect their hands from his expert cuts, and they weren’t very well trained. That, and the brilliant sihr light that illuminated the second storey, was all that kept him alive. He cut and cut and covered and cut, and it was ugly, but he put both men down, hacking their hands until their fingers failed and then cutting… wrestling…
He stood and bled, and panted.
One of the men he’d killed was a mere boy.
Outside, there was a dramatic change in the light. Val al-Dun moved to one of the riverside firing slits, carefully avoiding the ones that faced his own friends. He could hear that they were still shooting at the well-lit embrasures. He thought that it would be stupid to get hit with one of Draivash’s rifle balls.
He looked out.
Al-Khaire, the great city of Masr, was on fire.
He almost choked. There were sheets of flame. He’d never seen anything like the fire, as if it was a live thing, feeding off the darkness. Tongues and banners of flame leapt hundreds of feet into the air, as if fire elementals were dancing on the wreckage of the works of man.
The flames lit the waterfront below him, and he could see loyal Thera standing patiently, a little further along the stone road. Then, out of the back loopholes, he could see the mighty pyramids. The black one thrust up like a mountain, its front side firelit and still utterly black, so that the ground around it and the sides of the four guardian pyramids reflected the death of Al-Khaire, but the great pyramid was… black.
He went slowly past his corpses, and down the steep steps to the lower floor, and then out into the firelit darkness. He noted another door in the back of the tower, and he opened it.
In a night full of astonishing sights, he saw another. A flat plain ran from the door to the base of the Black Pyramid, but it was dotted irregularly with stelae of stone, some black, some white, some veined or marble or even iron. One was bronze. They were different heights and sizes and they were unevenly placed, but the ground between the stelae was gravelled in white marble, and as flat as the maidan where he played polo at home.
But almost every stele was surrounded by a nimbus of light—red or blue or green, sometimes pure gold. Some of the magelights were very bright; a few were very dim. It was all eversher, deep magik, to him. He made the sign of the Lady, and backed into the tower and then went to the door.
Draivash almost killed him. The scarred bandit with the crooked nose was just slipping in, dagger high.
The two men faced each other for one heartbeat. Val al-Dun hoped his comrade never noticed that his finger had pulled the trigger of his empty puffer.
“You live! You were born to be hanged, you bastard,” Draivash said, and embraced him.
“More lives than the Peacock of Shahinshah,” muttered Mikal, who, despite his age, was the second man in the storming party.
“Where are the Agha?” Val al-Dun asked.
His men, and some of the tribal levy, were already climbing the stairs.
“Gold!” shouted Draivash.
Nothing could stop the frenzy of looting, nor did Val al-Dun have any interest in trying. He slipped out into the orange night and found the palanquin at the very foot of the stone road, the great white camels standing silently, their strange eyes glowing with the reflection of the holocaust across the river.
Two of the Agha stood, scarlet robes whispering in the wind. The city was burning so fiercely that a cross-river wind had come up, feeding the rising column of fire and smoke.
“Exalted Ones, I have found a door into—”
Yes. You have done very well. Hide your eyes. Turn and go, and we will follow you.
“Exalted One, there is… magik.” He shrugged.
Fear no baraka. I am here.
A great blast of heat reached them across the river, and the sound of screams—thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands of screams.
Only minutes remain. Go!
He had no choice now, but to go. He managed to find the sense to order Kati and a dozen other of the smallest and youngest of his troopers to hold the horses. He went back through the tower, and then, without much conscious thought, he went through the back door and into the gardens of stone and metal. Tens of thousands of grave markers, rolling away in perfect disharmony to the south and to the west.
Every one of them guarded by a spell.
There were perhaps sixty of his people still following. He was pleased that he was leaving most of his own band of robbers in the tower, looting, and all his kin. Draivash might survive to work his evil on the world—a safe, petty evil that harmed only a few people at a time.
Unlike the blaze of living light behind him, now illuminating the fields of stone. Because in the death of Al-Khaire across the river, Val al-Dun read the future, and the intention of his lords and masters.
With the courage of absolute despair, he walked across the gravel, and through the spheres of coloured light that marked the charms and cantrips and watchful curses of a thousand generations. He had very little contact with the hermetical world, but the power of these old spells touched his mind like the brush of skeletal fingers on a living man’s skin.
Dyar, one of the jezzailis, turned and began to scream, his high-pitched screams short and terrible. He tottered a few steps and fell, his mouth, ears, nose vomiting maggots. Then his screams became choked sobs, and then he was gone, and there was only a heaving, man-shaped mass of larvae writhing…
Another man, one of the Zand, paused, puzzled. Then he seemed to bend down, and in one horrible moment realisation dawned that his bones were melting. He collapsed like a deflated water bag, unable to draw breath or scream. His last sounds were liquid, and lacked even the resonance of human despair.
Val al-Dun forced his eyes to look to the front. He found a door along a wall to his right, and he made for it. It was the only entrance he could see. The Black Pyramid, half a thousand paces away, gave his eyes nothing—no door, no recess, no shadow or reflection.
He found himself running. He was detached by terror and by despair—and above both, a sort of anger that his people were dying, and his masters were so remote, so alien, that he couldn’t understand their goals. But the flames of the city across the water told him something that he, a hardened killer, had not wanted to know. A prince’s greed was different from a bandit’s in order of magnitude, but the Disciple and his Agha were…
His mind closed around the word. Evil. A word bandits generally shunned.
He shook his head as if to clear it.
The gate was of old wood, black with age. A low altar stood to one side: white marble, deeply stained an old brown on top.
The golden key fitted in the keyhole, and he turned it. He was not acting on his own volition—he was the tool of another consciousness—and that relieved him of anxiety and yet filled him with violation, dread, and bitter rage.
His hands were swift and sure.
The gates opened.
A long corridor stretched to his right and left, running north back towards the river, as could be seen by the light of burning Al-Khaire in the distance, and to his left, magelight and running figures. The magelight was too bright and too white and it seemed harsh.
He turned to the left and began to walk forward like an old farmer walking into a storm. His people came with him, weapons in hand.
The corridor was huge—wide enough for ten abreast, with a stone roof of the same veined dark basalt from which the tower and waterfront had been built, but inside the corridor, everything was carved in fine bas-relief. Some of it was painted or gilded; red, ivory, black and gold were the only colours, lit with the harsh white of the distant magelights. The carvings were very strange: eagles and daemons and ravens and bulls seemed to make war with armies of men without heads.
He felt the moment when the Disciple followed into the magnificent corridor. The supernatural white light of the Disciple’s presence warred with the brilliant white of the magelight. Where the two whites met and fought, stone cracked and paint boiled, and more of his people died, their skin flayed away or desiccated or burst asunder from inside.
He stopped moving forward. The grip on his mind was gone.
He looked up.
Ahead of him, perhaps fifty paces away, were men and women—perhaps twenty of them, or even fewer. He knew that they were Souliotes because he had seen Souliote caravan guards.
“Stop!” commanded a bearded badmash with two gold earrings and a long rifle like a Safian jezzail.
Val al-Dun stopped. But one of the Agha brushed by him, flowing down the overlit corridor with the grace of a nautch dancer.
The Agha stopped and raised its arms.
“Run,” it said, its voice sibilant. “We are here to save the world, and you are in our way. Stay, and you will all die.”
“Fire!” roared the badmash, and his band of Souliote mercenaries vanished in a cloud of powder smoke.
Val al-Dun watched, unbelieving, as the Agha was ripped to shreds by thirty muskets. It fell, and thrashed. And stopped moving.
The Souliotes had vanished behind a veil of golden light.
Val al-Dun had not known, until that moment, that the Agha could be killed so easily.
No! I am too close to fail!
The unbearable light passed him. He fell on his face, at least in part because he expected another lethal volley of musketry. But the Disciple went forward, and stood like a pillar of perfected light.
The golden veil pulsed through a series of colours.
And went black.
The man revealed by the collapse of his shields turned to ash before Val al-Dun could fully recognise what he was looking at. But the Souliote and his companions were gone.
The Disciple went on down the corridor.
Val al-Dun lay on his arms for a while longer, until the spots in front of his eyes died away and he could see in the now-darkened corridor.
He looked back, and saw his people, watching him.
“I…” he began, and his will was taken. Again.
I need you it said. The voice was no longer inside his head. Now it was his voice. It had seized his being.
He fought this time, for a while, but it dragged him through the litter of charred and broken corpses and up a long set of steps—wide, magnificent black steps, under a great golden roof with images of eagles and ravens worked in repoussé, over and over, the ravens enamelled in black glass. He had lots of time to look at them, and at the glyphs of spells set into the gold, because he paid no other attention to his mortal frame. It was a puppet, and he was like a passenger in a chariot, carried by runaway horses.
He climbed. At the top of the steps, set between two pillars of jet-black marble as big around as two men are tall. Towering above him into the darkness was a great gate—the entrance of the Black Pyramid.
He might have paused, but he was not controlling the horse, his body, and he went forward.
To his right and left came his surviving troopers. And he couldn’t open his lips to tell them to go back.
He took a candle-flicker’s worth of comfort that he had left his best friends looting the tower.
And then he began to climb the winding stair.
He went up.
It was a nightmare—black stone, the very heart of darkness, the very absence of light—and he was not able to control anything. He watched, and there was nothing to see. He listened, and the only sounds were his own footsteps, his laboured breathing, and his people on the steps behind him, and he had not one iota of control over any of it.
His sweat rolled down his chest, down his face; he climbed and climbed, his feet sure in a stygian black.
At his back, Fama, one of the veteran women of the Tufenchis, spoke to him, long and low, and again. He couldn’t understand her words; perhaps he was losing control even of hearing. Or he was fading in and out, as the WILL driving him rode over his own…
“Are you insane?” she screamed. Her voice rang and echoed in the winding stair.
He turned, and in perfect darkness, he felt his sword cut her neck. Fama fell away with a gurgle and he was climbing again, climbing forever into the dark.
Now there was a faint light ahead. Gradually, as the stair wound, it went from a glimmer to a palpable light, and eventually resolved into the brightness of his lord, standing in a pillar of white fire.
He couldn’t even turn his eyes away.
They were in the very top of the pyramid, in a room that dwarfed them, the walls joining into the ceiling above them.
The Disciple stood by a plinth of black rock. The rock was covered in deep cut runes and glyphs, and the whole of the inward sloping walls, and all of it was lit, if black can be a colour of light. It was not a scene that Val al-Dun could ever remember accurately.
And the Disciple seemed to speak from within him, even though it was no longer in him.
Where is it? screamed the Disciple.
Its anger was palpable; heat flowed off it, and Val al-Dun threw himself to the floor, his tie to the Disciple’s will broken by the instant requirements of self-preservation.
Val al-Dun peered from under his crossed arms, through the veil of his turban, and saw another Masran priest, his feather-cloak charred, standing revealed, unbowed. He was tall and very thin, with skin the colour of old wood. He wore a black linen kilt criss-crossed with esoteric patterns, and was muscled like an Ellene statue despite his age.
“It is not here, blasphemer. It is gone.” The priest spoke flawless Safiri.
YOU LIE! roared the Disciple, and his rage exploded.
Light, fire, ice and earth passed through the air; waves of heat and cold reached Val al-Dun.
Stand aside. You have failed.
“I will never surrender my charge,” the priest said. “If you continue on this path, you will destroy the world.”
I will save the world.
“Any fool can say as much,” the priest said.
His staff whirled through the air so fast that it seemed to make a perfect wheel, and the Disciple’s torrent of sorcery fell into that wheel and vanished.
If you continue to resist, I will release all of them. You hear me? All of them!
The priest was silent.
You know I am right.
“I know that you have destroyed my city and everyone I love,” the priest said. “And I know what you came for. It is gone.”
The whirling staff stopped. A great pulse of blue, like a gout of ball lightning, formed at the tip and then rolled down the room with the slow inevitability of the rising moon.
The column of white was outlined in blue fire.
And then the priest and his blue fire were gone.
NOW. WE WILL HAVE IT NOW.
An arm of white fire came from the Disciple. It took Yeshua, a Zand Tufenchis, and put him across the plinth, and smashed in his skull.
There was a scream, as if a human child had seen her mother murdered. A tender, despairing scream from the stone itself.
Where is it? Where is it?
The black plinth shattered. Shards and flakes of stone blew throughout the chamber, flaying flesh and wrecking the chests and boxes of scrolls and treasures.
Too late, the Disciple whispered in his head. It had gone from anger to fear.
A breeze began to blow from above. When Val al-Dun looked up, he realised that the top of the pyramid was gone, and that he was in full control of his body.
Unearthly laughter rang in his ears, and a voice speaking in Masri. And another voice, deep and malevolent, and wicked in its amusement.
The Disciple lashed the room with power.
What have you done? Where is it? Give it to me!
Val al-Dun’s left side was lacerated by the plinth’s detonation, and his ears rang. The moment he understood that he was again the captain of his own ship, he rolled for the head of the stairs, stumbling to his feet when he’d put one of the huge altars between his frail body and the white light of the Disciple.
He looked back. A dozen of his people were with him. The rest seemed frozen, and the white arm of fire had taken another, dragging the unresponsive victim towards yet another black plinth.
The rage of the Disciple was so vast that it drowned his own. And as he started down the steps, he saw the arm of white fire seize the last of the Agha, where it stood, two white-fire swords in its two hands.
OH YES said the amused, horrible voice.
Val al-Dun didn’t care. He ran down into the darkness. He went down and down. Perhaps there were gods, and a Lady, because he didn’t fall; he didn’t trip on the corpse of Fama; he didn’t roll to his death on the thousand steps. He stayed on the outside, broader treads, and he thought as little as he could. Then, his knees like water, he was under the golden roof of the portico, passing under the black archway, and it was as if a mighty curse had been lifted from his soul.
The breeze had become a wind, and it raced through the corridors and the tunnel. And despite his failing strength and his empty lungs, he sprinted down the corridor, leaping the charred corpse and running for the gate.
It was still open. A Zand lay on the threshold, one of his Tufenchis, and the doors could not close on his corpse.
Val al-Dun passed through into the clean air of the desert night, and found himself in the garden of magiks—the long lines of grave stelae lit orange and yellow in the death throes of the city burning across the river. To his right, the Black Pyramid towered…
And yet, from the very apex a white fire seemed to sear the heavens.
The world seemed to blink. Existence itself seemed…
He was aware that he was floating in burning metal, in hell. Daemons were pulling him in two, while some sort of monster rubbed him with bone chips, grating away his flesh and muscle. He screamed…
“Got him,” Draivash said.
He lay on a smooth stone floor. It took him time to recognise that he was lying in the black tower that he had stormed, what seemed like a lifetime ago. There was blood still dripping between the upper storey floorboards and falling in wet pops close to his head.
I am alive, he thought.
“Khan?” a voice asked, close to him. “Does he live?”
“I do,” Val al-Dun answered.
“Now blessed be the Lady and the Eagle and any other god or friend of man who can hear me,” Mikal said. “We need you. The world is ending.”
Outside, on the stone road, the youths still had the horses.
He tried to herd his thoughts into any semblance of a plan. The bridge would be gone, and home was on the other side of the river. He stumbled to his feet, his side a battlefield of lacerated flesh, his head pounding, and got a hand on the door frame.
Kati had Thera by her reins, and her feed bag was over her head.
He looked around. There were, all told, fewer than ten hands of them left, and only two hands had been in the pyramid. They were easily identifiable, as they were all burnt and abraded by flying stone.
“We will ride west,” he managed. “We can steal boats in the Delta.”
“Oh, gods,” said one of the Safians outside, and he fell on his knees.
Even as he spoke, the air seemed to fill with energy. Hair stood on end. The horses snapped their heads up. Every loaded musket fired, as the energy built and burst into light and static charge.
The sun was rising from the rim of the world, a ball of red fire in the east, and when the first tongue of the red light touched the Black Pyramid…
The charge blew out of the air; a fine black powder seemed to precipitate. For a moment, everything hung in the balance…
And then they heard the crack. The sound, like a lightning strike, seemed too close, and then they saw it.
The Black Pyramid began to split. The split was difficult to follow at first. It raced from a barely visible flaw in the perfect darkness at the very apex to an ever widening chasm. A third of the apparently solid stone suddenly subsided into the earth, as if a great chasm had opened. The dark life seemed to pass out of the thing, so that it was merely black, instead of the living, breathing heart of black.
Val al-Dun thought he heard the Disciple scream in terror.