The battlefield was silent.
Bodies lay strewn across the blood-soaked ground, corpses of enemies intertwined like lovers. Thousands upon thousands of men who had once been the pride of their nations—strong and loyal soldiers—were now reduced to carrion. With death they had lost all dignity, all purpose. It no longer mattered who they had fought for, or how deeply they had believed in their causes. The ravens that were gathering over the battlefi eld cared nothing for such human niceties.
Silently, Colivar walked among the corpses. The battle had not brought him as much pleasure as it should have. The heady intoxication he had once experienced when he caused men to turn against their brothers, back when the sport was still new to him, was now dulled by familiarity.
All these men had died at his call or at the call of some other Magister.Oh, they’d thought they were dying to serve their kings—giving up their lives for a cause that was worthy of sacrifice—but the sorcerers knew better. By now the leaders who had ordered this confl ict were dead, along with all their counselors. Perhaps their heirs as well. It might not even have been Colivar’s opponent who had killed them all. Human confl ict on this scale drew Magisters like flies. What greater exercise of power was there, than to cast an entire nation into chaos? Few could resist such temptation.
While Colivar’s blood still became heated at the thought of such a contest—that perverse spark within him would probably never die—his human soul, a distant and wounded thing, remained cold. The kind of events that had once moved him to ecstasy no longer had that power. Did that mean that the ancient wounds were healing at last? Was it a sign that his humanity, rent to pieces by madness so many years ago, was slowly pulling itself back together? Or were the fi nal fragments of his battered soul simply expiring from sheer exhaustion, starved to death by this cold, callous existence? If so, what would he become when they were finally gone? Uncomfortable questions, to be sure.
“This has to end.” The voice came from behind him, shattering his reverie. “You know that.”
The sudden awareness of another man so close to him triggered Colivar’s most primitive territorial instincts. Whipping about, he called forth enough soulfi re to defend himself from any manner of assault—or to launch an attack himself—and held it at the ready while he took stock of his visitor. That the man was a Magister himself was immediately apparent, from his bearing if not his dress. Hatred keened inside Colivar’s brain, primitive impulses surging through his veins with undeniable force. Drivethe invader away! Tear him to pieces if he will not flee! If Colivar had been a weaker Magister he might have lost the connection to his human self entirely at that moment and launched himself at the intruder like an animal. The sensation of what it was like to tear open an enemy’s neck with razor-sharp teeth was not so distant in his past that he had forgotten it. Even as he struggled to fight back the tide of bestial instinct, part of him longed to surrender to it.
But finally, with effort, he recovered enough self- control to shape human words again. “Why are you here?” he demanded. His voice sounded strange in his ears, hoarse and halting. He did not talk much to anyone these days. “What do you want?”
“To speak with you,” the stranger said calmly. If he felt the same territorial passions coursing through his veins he showed no sign of it. “Nothing more.”
Magisters rarely socialized with one another. Once they were no longer students, but had fully established their independent identities, the territorial instinct in them became too strong to allow for it. Each sorcerer ent his own way in life, and if the paths of two should happen to cross, thousands of morati might die as they competed for supremacy. Whole kingdoms had been swallowed up by such rivalries, knights and princes waging war for causes they believed to be their own, when in fact their hearts were manifesting the territorial rage of the sorcerers who controlled them. Not that it mattered what morati believed. Even if such men had known the truth, they could not have resisted.
But . . . a strange Magister was here now, in his domain, and Colivar had managed to resist the immediate impulse to destroy him. Perhaps the recent battle had drained his inner beast of strength, at least enough to make civilized discourse possible. It was an interesting concept. Perhaps worth exploring further.
He absorbed back into himself the power that he had conjured. No doubt the stranger knew how quickly he could summon it again if need be. “Speak,” he said hoarsely.
The stranger was a tall man, solidly built, with fine wrinkles about his eyes and a hint of gray at his temples. Which might mean that he had undergone First Transition while in his 30s or 40s and ceased to age physically at that point. Or it might mean that he had been a gangly youth, or even an elderly cripple, who was now using his power to provide himself with more attractive fl esh. There was no way to know. Using one’s power to find out a Magister’s true appearance—or true age, or true anything—was considered a mortal offense.
“You heard my words.” The man’s voice was quiet but compelling, in the manner of one who knows he does not need volume to make his point. “This has to end.” A sharp, sweeping gesture encompassed the battlefield, as well as Colivar and the whole world beyond him. “All this.”
“You mean . . . the war?”
“I mean what we bring to it. Our excesses. Our internecine violence. The price that the morati world pays for our boundless self- indulgence.”
The corner of Colivar’s mouth twitched. “So we should be more . . . considerate?”
“No. Simply more practical.”
“For the sake of the morati?”
The stranger’s eyes narrowed. “Once there were great kingdoms scattered across the earth. What is there now? Chaos. Barbarism. Barely a memory of great things and no energy left to restore them. Is that the world we wish to live in?”
“We were not the ones who caused the First Kingdoms to fall,” Colivar pointed out.
“No. But we keep them from being rebuilt.” The stranger’s eyes were clear and bright, the pale blue color of arctic ice. It awakened shadows of memories in Colivar that he would rather forget. “Do you not wish to see the great towers rise up once more? To live in the kind of world that the First Kings once enjoyed? We, who feed upon death, will never create such things ourselves. We are too obsessed with destruction, too blinded by our instinctive hatred for one another. And in our madness we are dragging the morati down with us. Soon there will be nothing left in them that is capable of greatness. And that will be a loss for us all.”
How arrogant this man was, Colivar thought, to lecture another Magister as if he were a schoolchild! In another time and place he might have been infuriated by such behavior. It might even have caused him forget his self- control and end this interview in bloodshed, as the beast inside cried out for him to do. But there were other emotions stirring inside him also, strange and disturbing emotions, that spoke to his more human side. And so he denied the beast sovereignty. For now.
The stranger was right about the future of civilization, of course. No Magister knew that better than Colivar. He alone understood the full measure of what mankind had lost. He yearned for that ancient world in a way none of the others could possibly comprehend. He also understood enough of the Magisters’ true nature to know that mankind would never reach those heights of greatness again. The Souleaters had simply destroyed too much. And now the Magisters were here. Mankind might recover from the fi rst plague, but the second was far more dangerous.
“We are predators,” he said harshly. “Not caretakers.”
“And what good will that distinction do us when the world is swallowed up by chaos? For that is where it’s headed right now; you know that. It may bleed but slowly from the wounds we have dealt it thus far, but it bleeds nonetheless. We must stanch the wound while healing is still possible. Else our very world will slip through our fi ngers, and not all the sorcery in existence will be able to restore it.”
“You care about the morati,” Colivar challenged. Not because he believed the stranger really did, but to stir up his inner beast and put him off his guard. Accusing any Magister of human compassion was a powerful insult. He was curious to see how this one would respond.
But the stranger did not flinch. “And you were once willing to die for them, Colivar. Or so the legends suggest. Is that true? Did the welfare of the common man once mean that much to you?”
Memories—true memories!—came welling up from the darkness where he had buried them long ago. They had been rent to pieces by the madness and suffocated by years of neglect, but even in their damaged and disjointed state they still had the power to shake him to the depths of his soul.
He looked away from the stranger, not wanting to meet his eyes, and gazed out over the battlefield. Ravens had come down to earth and begun to pick at the flesh of the fallen. Some of the solders were not quite dead yet, but they were too wounded to fi ght the birds off. Colivar was closer kin to those ravens, he knew, than to the morati. He accepted that. The beast that was within him would have it no other way. Once, long ago, he had tried to deny it, to pretend that he was still human. But the beast was a part of his soul now, wedded to him by his own willing submission, and was not so easily banished.
If you understood the true source of our power, he thought, you would not question me thus.
“There may once have been a morati named Colivar, who cared about this world.” He kept his voice carefully neutral, so that this stranger would not guess at the maelstrom of emotion that his words had inspired. “Perhaps he would even have been willing to offer up his life for it. But that man is dead now.” He turned back to the intruder. “We are what we are. Not all the sorcery in the world can change that.”
“No,” the visitor agreed. It was maddening to Colivar how calm he was. Was this man’s inner beast weaker than his own, or was it just better disciplined? He had always wondered what the others of his kind experienced. Were their internal battles less fi erce than his, because they were farther removed from the source? Or did they just hide them better? “Sorcery cannot change it.”
“Something more powerful than sorcery. Something that the morati, ironically enough, understand the value of . . . though we have forgotten it.” He let Colivar consider that for a moment, then said, very quietly, “Law.”
Colivar drew in a sharp breath. “You mean . . . what? Rules of engagement?”
“No. Those are for wartime. This must be something more basic. More primal. Something to help us curb our darker instincts when they arise, so that open warfare will no longer be necessary. Or at least . . .” A dry smile flickered across his lips. “Not quite so often.”
“We are not morati,” he said harshly.
“No . . . but that does not mean we cannot learn from their accomplishments. Rule of law is what separates the morati from the beasts. Perhaps it can do the same for us.”
But a Magister’s beast is part of his soul, Colivar thought darkly. Divide the two, and you destroy both halves. This stranger did not understand that, of course. None of the other Magisters did.
And he was not about to explain it to them. “How do you propose to enforce these laws?” he demanded. Trying to focus upon the stranger’s words, rather than the memories they conjured. “What manner of authority do you think that Magisters will accept?”
“Common accord would be required.”
For a moment Colivar was speechless. Finally he managed, “An agreement by . . . all of us?“
The stranger bowed his head.
“Even the morati could not manage such unanimity.”
“We are greater than the morati, are we not?”
Colivar shook his head in amazement. “There are some who would call you mad for even suggesting such a thing.”
“Whereas I prefer to think of myself as practical.”
We are incapable even of talking face-to-face with our own kind without bestial instincts taking control of us. What kind of law do you envision for us? How do you propose to punish transgressors?
But those words died on his lips, unvoiced. Because the suggestion, mad as it was, struck a chord deep within him. A human chord. And for a moment—just a moment—the beast within him was quiet, and he could think with unexpected clarity.
“This was your idea?” he managed at last.
The stranger shook his head. “Not mine alone. But few are capable of spreading the word as effectively as I, so I volunteered. The task requires . . .” A faint smile quirked his lips. “. . . unusual self- control.”
What if all the others join together in this project, Colivar thought suddenly, and I alone cannot? He was suddenly acutely aware of the chasm that separated him from all the others of his kind. If this stranger knew the truth about him, would he have come here with the same offer? Would he even want Colivar to be part of this project?
“It will take a very long time,” he challenged.
“Perhaps. But time is the one thing we have in abundance, is it not?”
“And the ultimate goal is . . . what? To bring us all together in one great assembly, so that we can collaborate on a set of rules?” He laughed harshly. “We would tear each other to pieces before the fi rst word was set on paper.”
“Ah.” A smile flickered across the stranger’s face; it was a cold and humorless expression. “But you see, that is the difference between you and me. I believe that Magisters can rise above their bloodier instincts, if they are convinced of the need to do so. Maybe someday, if we are determined enough, it may even be possible for a number of us to come together like civilized men and discuss matters of common interest without our darker instincts interfering. That would be a thing to marvel at, wouldn’t it?”
“You really believe that establishing a set of rules can all make this possible?”
The stranger said solemnly, “It is not the law itself that will have power, Colivar. It is what we must become in order to establish it.”
Ravens cawed in the distance. Somewhere amidst the bodies, unseen, a dying man groaned. Colivar shut his eyes and focused upon the sounds, trying to sort out the storm of emotions in his soul. He felt as if he were at a crossroads, peering into the darkness, trying to make out any hint of the terrain up ahead, to choose his way. But both paths were shrouded in fog, their features indiscernible. One must step forward in blind faith or not go forward at all.
All the assumptions he had made about his power—about his very soul!—were being challenged by this man. But what if his assumptions had been wrong? What if the other sorcerers, born in a simpler time, had a clearer understanding of what their true potential was? What if they could really change things?
And what if he, unique among Magisters, could not share in that change? It was a chilling thought, that made the more sensitive parts of his anatomy want to draw up into his body out of pure dread.
But if they could succeed in this mad plan . . . just imagine the potential of it! Not only for their society in general—if the ranks of Magisters could be called that— but for his own inner struggle as well.
I could be human again, he thought with wonder. It was a dream he’d been forced to abandon long ago. Now he was being challenged to take it up again. The concept was almost too much to process.
A raven cawed in the distance. He shook his head, trying to clear it.
“What is it you want of me?” he said at last.
Though the stranger had been impassive thus far, it was clear from the way his expression eased now that he had been far from certain about where the conversation was heading. Or who would come out of it alive, should it devolve into a less civilized discourse. “Simply your agreement that the task is worth attempting. That when the time comes to enter the next stage, you will consider playing an active role. How much will be possible, of course, no man can predict. But we mean to do our best, and your support would mean much to us.”
Colivar raised an eyebrow. “Do not attempt to flatter me,” he said darkly. “That is a morati trick.”
The stranger shrugged. “Your word has much weight among our kind. That is not flattery, simply the truth.”
“Because I am more deadly than most?”
“Because you have more knowledge than most.” The sapphire eyes glittered. “Even though you hold that knowledge close to your breast.”
Colivar drew in a deep breath. What lay within his breast was the soul of a beast, coiled, waiting. Did other Magisters perceive themselves in the same way, as if every moment they were caught in a tug-of-war between their human halves and some dark, animalistic master? Or did they believe that all their violent, territorial urges were simply human emotions gone awry? There was no way to ask; Magisters did not discuss such things with one another.
He had always perceived their ignorance as a weakness. But perhaps it might open doors for them, where his own knowledge of the past had closed them.
“Very well.” Colivar nodded stiffly. “When the time comes that all the Magisters have agreed to this course—when they come together to determine what manner of law they will establish—then I will come to that place, also.” A faint smile flickered across his lips. “And I will try my best not to kill them all.”
The stranger bowed respectfully. “That is all we can ask.”
And he turned away to leave. It was, in its own way, as powerful a statement of intent as a Magister could possibly offer. He had no way to know that Colivar would not strike him down from behind as soon as his back was turned. Yet he willingly took that chance. Was it optimism that motivated him, or foolishness? Or both?
“Wait,” Colivar said.
The stranger turned back to him.
“You know my name, but you have not given me yours.” He raised an eyebrow. “Is that the way you wish to begin this cooperative effort?”
The cold blue eyes regarded him. There was power in a name, even one that was used in public circles. And there was much more power in receiving a name directly from its owner. Few Magisters would make such a gesture.
Prove how much you care about this project, Colivar thought. Prove how far you are willing to go to bring it to fruition.
“Ramirus,” the stranger said. “I am called Ramirus.”
Ravens cawed in the distance as he once more turned to leave. Thistime Colivar did not stop him.
The attack began before dawn.
Jezalya’s population was mostly asleep, trusting to its sentries to sound an alarm if trouble came calling. But no one really expected trouble. The wall surrounding the desert city was tall and strong, with centuries of witchery woven into its substance; only a fool would try to break through it. Least of all during the night, when even the fi ercest of warriors laid his weapons aside, leaving sovereignty of the sand to lizards and demons.
Outside the city Nasaan waited, studying the great wall through a spyglass. He had a small but loyal army at his command, made up of tribal warriors from the most powerful desert families. Perhaps they were not as well armored as the soldiers of Jezalya, but they were ten times as fierce, and they were bound to him by ties of blood as well as political fealty. His witches were kin to him as well, which meant that they would be willing to lay down their very lives to assure him victory. They were a whole different species from Jezalya’s witches, who provided the city’s prince with power in carefully measured doses in return for carefully measured coinage. Oh, those witches would help out with a few small tasks, and maybe even scry for trouble now and then, but only up to a point. As soon as they became convinced that Jezalya was a lost cause they would bolt like frightened rats, and not waste one precious moment of life-essence trying to save her.
Or so Nasaan’s spies had assured him, after months of reconnaissance.
A pale blue light began to spread along the eastern horizon, harbinger of dawn. Inside the city, Nasaan knew, people were just starting to stir. The grand market at the heart of Jezalya would open as soon as the sky was light, so the most ambitious vendors were already laying out their wares, lining up fresh vegetables and strips of newly slaughtered flesh in neat rows to entice buyers. Wagons were beginning to move up and down the narrow streets, transporting goods from one place to another in anticipation of a new day’s business. Merchants who had sheltered in Jezalya for the night were gathering their parties together, preparing to return to the road. And along the top of the great wall sentries watched the sky lighten, unutterably bored. Once more, a night had passed without incident. They were not surprised. War was a creature of daylight, and if trouble came, it would not be on their watch.
There was not yet enough light to see by, but Nasaan’s spyglass had been bewitched so that it would magnify what little there was, facilitating his reconaissance. He could see sentries walking along the top of the wall, their eyes scanning the barren plain that surrounded Jezalya. Nasaan tensed as one man looked his way, but his witches had crafted spells to keep the enemy from seeing him or his people, and apparently those were more effective than whatever spells Jezalya was using to watch for trouble.
His men were clearly anxious to begin the fi ghting, but it would do no good to rush the city’s outer wall prematurely, Nasaan knew. His strategy inside the city must play out before he and his men could make their move. Otherwise they would be held at bay by the same great wall that had defeated greater armies in the past. Such a barrier could not be conquered from the outside.
With a whispered word he cautioned his men to stillness, and waited. One of the sentries’ lanterns suddenly went dark. Nasaan stiffened. A few seconds passed; then the light returned, and whoever held the lantern now bobbed it up and down: once, twice, three times.
There was no alarm sounding yet. No noise of combat from inside the city, carried to them on the dry desert wind. Nasaan held his breath, his hand closing tightly about his reins. The more that his agents in Jezalya could accomplish by stealth and trickery, as a prelude to all- out battle, the better it would be for everyone.
No man can breach the walls of my city,Jezalya’s ruler had bragged. The words had been meant as a deterrent, but instead Nasaan had accepted them as a personal challenge. That was the day that he had known it was his destiny to claim the prosperous trade city for his own. Not with brute warfare, charging against the great wall as so many armies had done in the past, struggling to mount ladders and climb ropes while the city’s warriors rained down hot oil and burning arrows on their heads. No. Such a strategy was doomed to failure before it began. But a few dozen men inside Jezalya could accomplish more than a thousand men on the outside, if the desert gods favored their mission.
And Nasaan was on good terms with his gods.
What was the name of the city’s ruler, anyway? Dervash? Dervastis? Son of a chieftain from a minor tribe that few men respected. It was amazing that the city had accepted the rule of such a man, given the weakness of his family line. Nasaan carried the blood of ancient kings in his veins, and with it the spark of their greatness.
Jezalya deserved such a leader.
Slowly, torturously, the massive gates fi nally began to swing open. Nasaan could see a wave of anticipation sweep through the ranks of his men as they tensed in their saddles, preparing to ride forward. Not yet, he thought. Raising his hand to signal them to hold their ground, cautioning them to have patience for a few moments longer. Not yet! His small army was positioned much closer to Jezalya than would have been possible during the day; his witches had drawn upon night’s own darkness to augment their protective magics. But the greatest risk of the operation would be in its first moments of aggressive action, a mad dash across open the open plain to the city’s entrance. Not even all his witches acting in unison could obscure something like that. They needed to wait until Nasaan’s men inside the city had fi nished their job and controlled Jezalya’s main gate. If Nasaan’s men tried to storm the gate before that had been accomplished. . . well, it would be one hell of a bloody mess, that was certain.
This prize is worth bloodshed, he thought. And he whispered a final prayer to the god of war under his breath, promising to build him a great new temple in the heart of Jezalya if the battle went well.
And then, at last, the gates of the city were fully open. The massive armored doors would not close quickly or easily, Nasaan knew; his first objective had been accomplished, and all of it without raising the city’s alarm. So far so good.
But there was no way to manage the next phase of the invasion without alerting his target. Hiding a host of warriors from sight when they were moving stealthily in the depths of night, keeping to cover whenever possible, was one thing; masking the charge of an attacking horde riding noisily across open ground was another. Better to abandon witchery entirely, now, and claim whatever advantage speed and fury could buy them.
A tense silence fell over the armed company, punctuated only by the impatient snuffi ng of a few horses. They, too, could feel the tension simmering in the air. But no one was going to move without Nasaan’s command.
And then his hand fell. And with a war cry so terrible it would surely strike fear into the hearts of the enemy, his men kicked their horses into sudden motion. Thundering across the dry earth, the beating hooves raised clouds of dust so thick that it seemed as if a sandstorm were bearing down upon the city, faceless and terrible. This was not merely a human army descending upon Jezalya, but the very embodiment of the desert’s fury.
Fear us! Nasaan thought fiercely. Gripping his reins with one hand as he raised up his other arm, positioning his battle-scarred shield high enough that it would protect him from the enemy’s fire. Fear us so much that you choose surrender instead of risking slaughter at our hands. Choose life instead of death.
He had agents inside the city who would tell its leaders that this was their only choice. That they could either surrender to the tribal army and know peace, or suffer the full fury of its wrath. Nasaan himself hoped they would choose the first option—it would leave more of the city intact for him to rule—but he suspected that many of his men felt otherwise. They lusted for the aftermath of military conquest as much as they did for battle itself, hungering for the thrill of unbridled rapine and destruction that would follow a lengthier siege. Nasaan’s greatest challenge, if the city surrendered, would be to keep his own men from destroying it.
Of course, if the leaders of Jezalya did not surrender . . . then he would rule over whatever was left once his men were finished sacking the place.
A sudden sharp blow struck his shield from above. Then another. Arrows were being launched at them from the upper reaches of the wall. There weren’t as many as normally would be expected—Nasaan’s agents had apparently taken control of the nearer portions of the wall, denying Jezalya’s archers access—but still there were enough to send a thin steel rain hurtling down from the sky, lethal in its velocity. One arrow pierced through Nasaan’s upraised shield right next to his arm, gouging his bracer. Another struck a bolt on his shield with a sound like the crack of lightning and bounced off. He heard several of his warriors curse as they were struck, but no man fell, and no man faltered. They all understood the importance of getting inside the city gate before Jezalya had a chance to mobilize.
Even now the alarm must be sounding in all her barracks. The head of the night watch would be cursing his own inattention as the daylight officers staggered naked out of bed, fumbling for their armor, yelling for information. No doubt they would order the great city gate to be closed, unaware that Nasaan’s men had taken control of it.
Closer and closer to that gate Nasaan rode now, desert blood singing in his veins. Then the fi rst of his men passed through it, ululating in triumph as they entered the city. Nasaan’s agents inside Jezalya had done their job well. He glanced back over his shoulder to make sure all was well behind him—
And saw death bearing down upon him.
A vast mounted force was coming up swiftly behind his men, and it did not look friendly. Where it had come from he did not know, but its witches must have been touched by the gods, to be able to obscure the presence of so many men. Judging from the cloud of dust this new army was raising, it was several times the size of his own, and it was bearing down upon them with the speed of a sand- spawned whirlwind. The bulk of Nasaan’s strike force was about to be trapped between the great wall and this furious army. And now sounds of battle were starting to ring out from inside Jezalya’s walls; without timely reinforcement, Nasaan’s men inside the city would not stand a chance.
Even as he cried out a warning to his men, arrows began to fly at them from behind. Those who were holding shields had not positioned them to defend against a rearguard action; arrows pierced both human and equine flesh. One horse reared up as it took two arrows in its side, nearly throwing off its rider; another went down with its rider still in the saddle, and both were trampled underfoot. One of Nasaan’s witches quickly cast a spell to protect them, but there was little she could do other than fend off the arrows one by one as they arrived. There were no natural obstacles here that could be manipulated to greater purpose, no sunlight to be angled into the enemy’s eyes, not even cloudy skies to help provide a bolt of lightning . . . only an empty, barren landscape, devoid of any tool that a witch might use to lend added force to her efforts.
As the human whirlwind bore down upon them, Nasaan’s rearmost ranks wheeled their horses about to confront it. Feverishly Nasaan prayed for the war god Alwat to favor him and his warriors as he braced to meet the enemy head- on. It was said that Alwat favored those who had the courage to fi ght against impossible odds; if so, then Nasaan’s situation right now was sure to please him.
Suddenly something massive and dark swooped down out of the sky, right over the enemy’s front line. The men attacking Nasaan seemed to falter, with no visible cause. It was a strange thing to witness, as if a wave of uncertainty were somehow rippling through the enemy ranks, man by man. Even the horses seemed to grow confused, and several stumbled, becoming dangerous obstacles to the men behind them. Never in all his life had Nasaan seen anything like it. But he was not one to question a gift from the gods. Voicing a war cry that echoed across the vast plain, he signaled for his men to charge.
Whatever the dark creature was, it hovered overhead as the battle was joined, its vast wings barely visible against the dark sky. Nasaan could not spare a moment to look up at it, but he could sense its presence overhead even as he braced himself for impact. It was watching them. Waiting. He knew that instinctively, just as he knew instinctively that this was not a natural creature, and that whatever it was doing to the enemy was not a natural act.
Steel continued to ring out against steel in the barren plain as the two armies fought, and dust arose in great plumes all about them. But there was clearly a sickness in the soul of the enemy now, and they could not stand their ground. The fi rst man Nasaan engaged seem to move lethargically and could not manage to turn aside Nasaan’s sword, nor could he swing his own powerfully enough to make his blow count. From what Nasaan could glimpse out of the corner of his eye as he dispatched the man, others were acting similarly. The enemy’s horses were stumbling about like untrained colts who had never seen a battle before. Several reared up in panic and tried to fl ee the battlefi eld, colliding with others as they did so, fostering utter chaos. All semblance of military formation among the enemy had been lost. Even as Nasaan thrust his sword into the side of a third enemy warrior, he wondered what sort of terrible power could have caused such a thing.
And then he saw a vision. Or maybe it was not a vision. Maybe there really was a woman standing in the middle of the battlefield, in a circle of utter calm. Maybe the tides of violence really did part around her like a rushing stream, without any man being consciously aware of the process.
At first glance she appeared to be a woman of the desert, with the golden skin and the finely chiseled features of a tribal princess, but her bearing proclaimed her to be something more. Her body was wrapped in layered veils of fine silk, and the long sleeves beat about her body like restive wings as men fought to their deaths on all sides of her. And her eyes! They were black and faceted, like gemstones, as inhuman as they were beautiful.
She was staring straight at him.
Nasaan knew that there were demons of the desert called djiri, wild spirits who sometimes aided tribal warriors in battle. He also knew that their help did not come without a price. Tales were told around the campfire of warriors who had been saved from the brink of death by such creatures, only to discover that that the price demanded was their firstborn child, a favored wife . . . or even their own manhood. The djiri were capricious and cruel, and notoriously unpredictable. One of Nasaan’s own ancestors had supposedly received the aid of such a demon, back when he had led his tribe in battle against the Tawara, and the ancestral songs hinted at a price so terrible that he became a broken man as a result and ultimately took his own life.
None of Nasaan’s men seemed to be aware that the djira was present, nor did the horses appear to see her. Yet the tide of battle parted as it approached her, like rushing water parting around an island. Men fought, bled, and died on all sides of her, but no matter how chaotic the battle became, they did not move into her space. Blood spattered across the ground not far from her feet, and clods of earth torn loose from the earth by pounding hooves came flying in her direction . . . but men and horses all turned aside as they approached, seeking bloodshed elsewhere. No living thing would come close to her.
All this Nasaan absorbed in a single instant, and then an enemy warrior engaged him, and he was fi ghting for his life once more. Not until he had dispatched the man—an easy task, given the enemy’s confusion—was he able to look back at the woman.
She was still there. Untouched by battle.
Her eyes were as black as the desert night and filled with promise. A wounded horse staggered by Nasaan. Its rider, a young man in brightly polished scale armor, took a swing at his head. Nasaan caught the blade on the edge of his shield and turned it aside easily; the man’s blow was as weak as a child’s.
She did this, he thought, as he gutted his opponent with a quick thrust and watched him tumble to the ground. Overhead the great beast was beating its wings steadily, driving dust down into Nasaan’s eyes. He blinked it away just in time to meet the attack of another assailant, decapitating the man with a single sweeping blow. Even as he did so, the man’s horse fell to its knees, so swiftly one might think it had been hamstrung.
Even without looking at her, he knew that she was smiling. He could feel her presence against his skin, cold fi ngernails of promise pricking his spine. You want Jezalya. The words were like ice against his flesh. I can give it to you. Had his ancestor experienced something like this? Had the offer of his own djira been simultaneously terrifying and seductive, casting his soul into such confusion that he could barely think straight? The touch of a desert spirit should not be cold; Nasaan knew that. But that observation was a distant thing, and his focus right now was the immediate picture. As he turned aside the blade of yet another attacker, only her offer mattered.
I can give you victory, she whispered into his brain.
If he refused her, did that mean the enemy would suddenly come back to its senses? Perhaps even gain a magical advantage in turn? The thought of his own warriors being infected with that strange mental sickness was daunting. Courage alone could not shield an army from such a power. No human effort could.
He took advantage of a moment’s respite to look out over the battlefield. His men were doing well; they had taken advantage of the enemy’s strange weakness to decimate its ranks, despite the odds against them. They might be able to carry the day even if the djira turned against them now. But time was everything inside Jezalya, and every minute they wasted made the situation more precarious for his people inside those walls. Any minute now the great gate might start to close, so that his men in the city were left isolated. He could not allow that to happen.
Gritting his teeth, he looked back at the djira. Dead men and horses were piled around her in a perfect circle, like some ghastly siege wall. Fresh blood, gleaming blackly in the dim morning light, soaked the ground surrounding her feet.
He waited until she met his eyes, then nodded.
Go, then. The words resounded in his brain as clearly as if she had spoken them aloud. Ride to Jezalya. Take the city.
For a moment he hesitated . . . but only for a moment. Then he wheeled his horse about to face the city once more, and cried out for his men to follow him. A few looked at him as though he were mad, but something in his manner must have convinced them he was not. Or else they were just willing to follow him anyway. One by one they worked their way free of the battle’s chaos to join him. Stumbling, confused, the enemy did not pursue them. The last living strength had been drained from their limbs, the last vital energy from their hearts. Whatever power the djira was using on them was truly fearsome, and Nasaan was glad he had not given her reason to turn against him.
Hooves pounding, his small army thundered toward the city, ranks reforming as they rode. This time there were fewer arrows to contend with; clearly Nasaan’s agents within Jezalya had been dealing with the guards.The gate was still open, and through it he could hear the sounds of battle—human cries and collapsing defense structures and the ringing clash of steel-on-steel—while the sun breached the eastern horizon at last, sending lances of harsh golden light spearing across the plain, crowning his men in fire as they rode.
He passed through the city gate with his sword raised, the names of his ancestors a prayer on his lips. And Alwat’s name as well, a prayer of gratitude for this improbable victory. And he rode into the fires of Hell.