Chapter the First
Smoke rose from the Ratters District like a cloud with a distorted sense of direction. Dark and pallid, it burgeoned with the timbre of blackened wood and human flesh instead of rain. Underneath this cloud, the district itself shuddered from the destruction and desecration that had been visited upon it the night before. The streets, which only yesterday were filled with hawkers, thieves, patrons, and the occasional KingsGuard, were now lifeless, strewn with charred and broken corpses and dead animals and the detritus of a sudden and ferocious eruption of violence. The smaller streets that fed into the main boulevard were blocked by debris and trash; a failed attempt by residents to protect their families by blocking ingress into their homes. Their efforts were rewarded in the ruin of bodies that littered the streets, the sun slowly desiccating the remains that had not been destroyed by sorcerous fire and the trampling of feet. At the western end of the district, the river that cut through the city like a glass knife ran afoul with bodies bloated with water and the refuse of a shattered world. Its calm and tepid waters were hot on this day, having tasted the blood of untold hundreds or thousands. At every turn in the river and in those places where the current ran close to shore, corpses of the luckless piled up against the paved embankment, challenging flotsam that was once a home or clothes or even weapons. Many wanted for an arm or a leg, and others simply were limbs and nothing more.
“How many dead do we have so far? How many thousands? Do we even know?”
Zaman turned to the grizzled High Commander of the 101st Mounted Regiment. “Does it even matter, Sir? The Ratter’s District is in flames. They are all either dead, burned, or drowned in the river.” He turned his head and spat, narrowly missing a stray dog that seemed to have survived the previous day’s unfortunate business relatively intact. Even in the best of times, Ratters was no more than a cesspool of crime and desperation, and these were certainly not the best of times. “Anyone left is going to run like hell for the hills. That or they’re scattered inside the rest of the city. That’s twenty thousand souls either dead or displaced.”
The small cadre of senior officers rustled uneasily at the words. Even the horses were apprehensive; despite being battle-hardened, many stomped anxiously and snorted at the sight and smell of so much death. The scale of the destruction was staggering, given that less than a day had passed since the unprovoked attack had commenced and subsequent riot and flight had ended. Twenty thousand was maybe a third of the city’s total population. Twenty thousand people compressed into a space not meant for even a quarter of that, but destitution bred density in any city where men walked and spent coin. Well, density and houses of worship. Where echoes the sound of small coins changing hands, so too does the footfalls of priests, thieves, and beggars, many times being one and the same. Ahead, a smoldering house of sin canted maniacally to one side, trying to collapse but unable to do so. The charred remains of drapes hung in tatters out of windows shattered by the unknown assailants that had laid waste to this part of the city. It was small wonder that a troop would find their way near about where brothels and alehouses clustered despite the scenes of devastation; soldiers might not care much for the trappings of civilian life, but they were drawn to women and wine like flies to a midden heap.
Zaman grimaced as his horse nickered and pawed at the ground with his front foot. He was a gelding, and one he had picked out in a hurry as they were ordered to proceed to the city of Rahimeyyen in all haste. Zaman could feel the horse’s anxiety emanate from his thick mane. Not that he was surprised; the sweet smell of charred flesh hung heavily in the air. A deep breath and you could find yourself salivating, even though you knew that smell was a dead man torched by an unnatural fire. Sickening, but your body did not care for what your mind knew to be true. In this, we are little more than animals, Zaman thought as the sun beat down upon his brow. He swept the sweat from his forehead with the back of a hand. The day had only started, and already the sweltering heat was fast becoming unbearable. Though we might know better, the beast within us knows only hunger. Hunger, and blood.
“I want to know what happened here, Zaman,” the High Commander ordered. His gelding predictably took a few steps back at the hardness in the High Commander’s voice. “Send in a few squads to reconnoiter Ratters. I want to know the number dead as close as we can tell it. I want to know how many have fled, and where. I want to know who they are and whence they came. Set up a perimeter near Hangman’s Square and we’ll use that as an operations base. Salvage any survivors and bring them there. Be easy with them, Sirs. The blood seen in this day is not easily forgot by a man used to wielding a butcher’s knife, or for a woman who lost her butcher husband. Captain Zaman, I want know what happened here. I want to know who did this. I want to know how it happened. I want to know now. You have three hours.
“Saleh, get your mages together and tell me what in the name of the Dead God could do this. There is no way you can burn down a quarter of a city and slaughter half its residents in a day without some use of Sihr. I want to know the bastards who did this and how they did what they did. And I want to make sure they’re nowhere near us. If you find any resistance, native or otherwise, crush it. I don’t want any prisoners.” The High Commander looked at his men, and they understood his words. Given the nature and swiftness of the violence visited upon the Ratters district, any mage prisoners represented the potential for a catastrophic loss of life. These were no ordinary mages.
He spun his horse around, back towards the fortified barracks that once housed the city’s southern garrison, now a citadel of ashes and wailing wives, many with children in tow. “First report in one hour from you, Saleh. And you have until sunset to tell me what the hell happened to the city where the Obverse King was born. The rest of you - I want the rest of the Ratters locked down. Dismissed.”
Ash fell gently from the sky, carpeting the northwest corner of the city and the remains of homes and places of worship with the cremated flesh and pulverized bones of its former inhabitants. Zaman snorted and hacked again, hoping that whatever it was that stung his eyes and blocked up his nose was not the residue of a person. Bad enough that this strange silence extended in all directions far as the eye could see or the ear could hear; with this ash fall, it was as though the unnatural stillness was a result of this blanket of slag.
He had not walked these streets in years, not since he left Rahimeyyen hidden under a supply wagon tied to an Army infantry division. One would suppose that fifteen years would encourage some sort of alteration in the tenor or the design of a city, but the Ratters District remained inviolate. It did until yesterday, in any case. Nevertheless, Zaman could still see echoes of the slums in which he had grown up; the narrow streets were scorched clean of the refuse that was the hallmark of a teeming shantytown, and alleyways that would be cast in shadows and haunted by the most unsavory of characters were exposed to sunlight for the first time in memory, given that any building that stood more than twice the span of a man had been set ablaze and had lost its upper levels. Where cutthroats and rapists once hid now was a scattering of ashes and metal shards, melted into misshapen pieces of indecipherable affluence.
Zaman trudged on. He had originally planned to head to Hangman’s Square to ensure the progress of his men was satisfactory. Which it would not be, of course, but that was to be expected. There was too much to do and too few bodies to do it, but when had that not been the case for any operation demanded in such circumstances? His men were no fools, but this was simply too much for most men to grasp. Himself included. However, word had arrived that Saleh wanted to see him at a shop somewhere near the edge of violence; evidently, the leader of the Sihr battalion had found something of consequence that needed to be dissussed with Zaman.
The heat had not let up. If anything, it had gotten worse. Zaman dripped from every pore. His usually stiff military uniform was soaked with perspiration, and had been so for the last three hours. The afternoon sun was responsible for a sweltering heat that braised everything it touched. In the distance, he could see the relatively unscathed stone and glass buildings of the Westeral District that lay across the river shimmering in the midday temperatures. It seemed that wealth protected you from random and unmitigated acts of extreme violence just as well as it did from the prying eyes of the tax collector. Too bad it could not buy you a cool breeze or a cold glass of water. Not in this city, anyways. Not unless you knew a Fire Aeyn that knew how to invert his Sihr, and not unless you could avoid soiling your pants when asking him to cool your drink. Zaman struck out on both counts.
The command center had been erected on the northeastern corner of Hangman’s Square. On an ordinary day, the square would be teeming with hundreds of people. Shopkeepers would have wares sat upon benches and stalls right outside their stores, and cafés would pull out eaves and set up tables for hungry patrons or thirsty travelers. Tents and tables would litter the grounds around the center of the square, with hawkers selling everything from imitation dragonglass swords that would shatter if they ever traded blows with good steel to meat pies so toxic that only a battled hardened local could eat them without fear of the runs. Zaman knew this place well; he has whiled away many an afternoon in this place, stealing meat pies and persecuting the other children that frequented this place to entertain themselves or to merely waste time away from the eyes of mothers and other unsavory characters.
Towards the center of the space was the namesake of the square; a hangman’s gallows. Three upright teak poles were mounted into a scaffolded stage that was set in an unusual triangular position. Heavy oak crossbeams ran from one pole to the next, three in total, to create a wood triangle supported at each corner by one of the upright poles. When a group of misfortunates were fated to hang from these gallows, it was referred to as “riding the three legged nag.” The nooses that had once hung across the crossbeams had long since rotted off, and rusted padlocks from ages past sat rotting on the copper-banded hatches that once served as the gates to death for many a convicted criminal. In the days of mass public hangings, up to nine convicted men could be hung at once, three from each beam, all with the pull of a lever. Once that lever was pulled, nine trapdoors would drop open, and nine bodies would fall a foot into the stage. Nine bodies would fall, and if The Dead God was watching, nine necks would snap. If not, then the crowd cheered and hooted as those unlucky souls kicked and twisted their way into a strangled death. Those poor fools could not find serenity even in dying, Zaman thought to himself as he looked at the remains of the gallows. This life is hard, and sometimes death is harder still.
Of course, most executions now happened in the river. Some city administrator years past found the idea of public executions that involved strangling men to be a potentially unsavory sight for children. When executions were called for now, a boulder was unceremoniously chained to a criminal’s leg and he was thrown over the side of Testament Bridge, the largest of the three bridges that connected the seedy Ratters District and the upscale Westeral. Every six months, surveyors were sent underneath the bridge to clear out any obstructions for ships and those few hardy and reckless adventurers that dared to swim in the brackish waters. Consequently, the gibbets in Hangman’s Square stood unused for many years and had become an unofficial if somewhat macabre play structure for children and a sitting place for their gossiping mothers.
Even the intense heat of Sihr-inspired fire was unable to reduce the teak poles to ashes, although they were burned down to less than half their original height and scorched beyond recognition. Blackened stumps stood the height of a man, the tops ending in uneven spires of black offal. The scaffolding itself was reduced to cinders; the only remnants of the structure that could be identified were the copper coils that once banded the trap doors, now heated and warped beyond repair. Within the ashes, an occasional padlock shackle could be seen, some twisted by the unnatural heat of the inferno that had concussed the square and the rest of the Ratters District.
Already the square was beginning to fill. Only three hours since his orders went out to his sergeants to round up survivors in Hangman’s Square and the steady trickle of dispossessed and abused people that started this morning had turned into a stream. As residents staggered in, they were accosted by soldiers that would take their name and other particular information, after which they would be taken to a field hospital where they would be seen by a healer. Most of the wounds the healers had seen were, thankfully, no more than cuts and bruises, with an occasional broken bone or a major laceration in sight. Zaman supposed it had something to do with the swiftness and punishing ferocity of the violence that was unleashed against them; people simply did not survive the first onslaught of Sihr and the sword. They did not have a chance to cultivate injuries which one day would have reminded them that memories of pain were a gift of survival.
So far they were congregating along the far edges of the square, where stores and eateries had stood before the events of yesterday. Voices were no more than a muted hum and faces were drawn and pensive. Even the way that these few survivors moved was inhibited and ill at ease, as though they did not want to attract any undue attention to themselves by some unseen agency. In the spaces and alleys between buildings, children played with each other or called for their mothers or simply sat and wept. Zaman was hard pressed to find an ash-smudged face that lacked a trail of tears.
As Zaman crossed the square, he saw the troop sergeant walking towards him. Jaul was a grizzled veteran of a dozen or more campaigns. Stocky and heavily built, Jaul was the epitome of the kind of soldier that you did not want to cross blades with. From his wide and heavily knotted neck down to his prodigious gut, Jaul was all muscle. Jaul was so wide that it was difficult to tell where his chest ended and his gut began, but Zaman had seen him with bare hands take down a man half his age armed with a blade. He moved with a speed that belied his girth and his gray hair. Jaul was a career sergeant; one of those soldiers that didn’t care for the paperwork and politicking of senior leadership but nevertheless knew how to get a soldier to throw himself in front a hail of arrows.
Zaman carefully blanked his face. As a rule, he never wanted his soldiers to know what he was thinking or feeling when getting a report. Unless he was angry, of course. Angry was always for public disclosure. In the one hundred thousand years of human existence, no one had come up with a better way to motivate a subordinate than the time honored tradition of expressing rage and aggravation. It was good that some things in this world remained constant.
“Sergeant Jaul,” Zaman said by way of a greeting. Jaul fell in step next to him. “I’m headed over to the Wilted Rose. I understand that Saleh has set up shop there. You can join me and give me your update as we walk.”
“Aye, Cap’n.” The stocky Northerner grimaced, his sweat dampened shirt stretching as it struggled to keep in the man’s meaty shoulders. Despite twenty or more years here in the south, it was clear that Jaul still hated the sticky and blistering warmth of a Southern summer. Zaman could scarcely blame him; he had grown up here and detested the mugginess today just as fervently as he did when he had a teat in his mouth. Wine, women, and your skill with a sword get better with time. Too bad we can’t say the same for these accursed summers.
“I just met with my corporals and it don’t look good. You can probably tell it, Cap’n. The Ratters District is finished. It’ll take His Royal Majesticness the next twenty bloody years to make this place stink as bad as it used to. Those sons of goats didn’t even spare the whores or the little ‘uns. I ain’t ever seen nothin’ like it. Everything knocked down, people burnt to ash… it’s the biggest bowl of shit soup I ever seen.” He cleared his throat. “Sir,” he added as an afterthought, clearly without remorse. “We’re digging some people out of their homes, or what’s left of ‘em, at least. Found a couple of stragglers hiding in alleys and the like. Walking wounded and the like. Bunch o’ kids as well, little ’uns all over the place. No ma, no pa. We sent the children and the injured over here.” The sergeant gestured towards Hangman’s Square.
Zaman sighed inwardly. Kids were always an aggravation. They had no business playing about and making noises in a place of war and death. Something inside him knotted for a moment, but he crushed it pitilessly. They too are the walking wounded, yet they shall never be healed. His look was blank and hard. There was no compassion in this world, not even for orphans. “Any idea of what happened yet? What the target of the attack was?”
Jaul paused for a moment to rub grimy lips with a soot-covered hand. “I dunno, Cap’n. This don’t feel right to me. It’s all kinds o’ wrong. I would’a expected to see men killed by swords or knives or a cudgel to the head, but I hadn’t seen not a one with a knife in the back or a sword through the gut. We got people burned bad, legs burnt off, corpses cooked black as the inside o’ your hairy ass, some crushing deaths too from falling timber and stone, but not a body we seen been done in by honest steel. Even with all the panic and people running outta here once the fighting started, you would’a ‘spected to see someone get antsy and pick a fight, or stab another man for his coin, but I ain’t seen it yet.” He shook his head, clearly surprised. “And the damage we all seen – it don’t make no sense neither. It don’t look like it started at once place and then moved to another. Looks like to me some mage just started blastin’ away with his Sihr without so much as a thought. Like he gone mad with bloodlust.” The older man scowled at his commanding officer. “And no bloody bodies of anything that looks like it’s not one of our own, yer Captainhood. We’ve been looking everywhere for foreigners or invaders or one of those Fire Aeyn bastards, but there’s nothing.”
Zaman was silent as he considered the words. As they walked, he felt a slight peculiarity at a lack of an expected clipped report of heels clicking on cobblestones. Even on an empty street, there was always some sort of noise. Chirping birds, buzzing insects, or even the gurgle of sewage as it ran down canals embedded alongside the streets. But there was none of that here. The ash, an inch or more deep, muffled any sounds that his boots could have made on the boulevard, which itself was in no good state. Cobblestones lay strewn about everywhere, and dirt lay exposed in gaps across the street. In some places, entire sections of the street were torn up and piled up against a wall or the entrance to a building or whatever the wishes of the gods of chance that proscribed these things. And then there was the scorched earth, the burned buildings, and the charred corpses that littered only the sides of the streets, as if a giant wind had come and swept the rubbish of human remains from the path that fire had sanctified. Memories of fire, a legacy in blood and ash that this earth and stone will soon not forget. “How are the survivors?”
Jaul shook his head. “I haven’t seen much of them. I hear that we didn’t see any signs of rape in the women survivors.”
A surprising note to a surprising day. In urban combat arenas, you could always count on two things; looting and rape. The attack might have been too quick and focused for looting, but it was a rarity for an invading army not to have taken a few moments to spill their seed into the women of the vanquished before cutting their throats.
Jaul hitched up his pants. “That midget whore from ‘The Painted Veil’ made it, ’case you wanted to know,” he commented. “The men are all dropping copper to the Dead God’s house in thanks.”
Zaman looked at Jaul with a blank face, although he smiled inwardly. “Very good, Sergeant.”
“I heard that our new private Short Stack put in a silver ha’penny.”
“Very well – “
“If you come by tonight, we’re havin’ a little party for her. Everything after the fifth bell is taken, so unless you’re willin’ to share, you’ll have to come early if you want – “
“That’ll be all, Sergeant.”
“I’m just sayin’.”
Zaman sighed. His forthcoming response was, however, interrupted by a runner. A young boy ran up to them, breathless with the speed with which he had run. The boy scarcely managed a salute to Zaman before he bent over, hands on his knees, in an attempt to try and catch his breath, his tousled hair falling over his head and covering his face. “Captain sir, Sergeant Jaul,” he gasped, doubled over with his hands still on his knees, “Corporal Tabi found a survivor, an Aeyn…. She said to hurry. Cobbler’s Street, all the way down to the end. They’s at a store called ‘The Broken Heel.’”
“Where the bloody hell is Cobbler’s Street?” Jaul growled, cuffing the boy on the back of the head. “And stand up, you’re not trying to lick yer own balls, are you? Get up!” Another cuff followed the boy, who staggered during his attempt to straighten himself out.
“I know where it is, Sergeant. It’s not too far away, we can ride and get there in minutes. Let’s go. What’s your name, boy?”
“Rafi, sir,” he replied, rubbing the black of his head and glaring daggers at the sergeant.
“Rafi, I want you to catch your breath. Count to a hundred – quickly, mind you – and then find Captain Saleh and give him the same message. You’ll find him at the wharf north of Testament Bridge, at an inn called ‘The Wilted Rose.’ You ride with him back here if he doesn’t know the way, understand? I want you off just as soon as you can breathe.” He turned his attention back to his Sergeant. Let’s move.”
Rafi did not escape a third cuff to the back of the head. “And count fast, if you don’t want a cracked head tonight, “Jaul added. “Bloody Rafi. What kind o’ name is that? Why aren’t you counting? Count out loud! By twos, you bloody goat! Faster!”
The two soldiers broke into a run, gunning for the sentry post where the horses were held. “That Rafi is a good lad,” the husky sergeant commented as they ran. Notwithstanding the pace, Zaman could not see any evidence of strain on the big man’s face. Well, he had seen the sergeant run a lot faster for a lot longer. Despite the man’s sheer mass, it seemed that Jaul was incapable of failing at any expression of physical endurance or strength. “A couple of more years and the boy’ll have some hair on his stones, and I’ll attach him to one of Tabi’s squads as a private. Hello the post! Two horses!”
“Where did you find him?” Zaman asked as one of the boys manning the station brought around two horses. With the condition of the streets and the close quarters in Ratters District, horses were not the best mode of transportation. However, Cobbler’s Street was not far away, and a couple of major boulevards would lead there. Zaman hoped those streets were traversable by horse.
“Qual Arath, during the ship builder’s rebellion last year. The boy saw his ma’s throat get cut and his da beat to death afore his eyes. Poor bastard. Didn’t talk near abouts a month after we picked him up. I thought he was going to just disappear one day, but one of the squads adopted him. They got him hoppin’ around doing odds an’ ends, and once he started talking they made him a runner.”
“Ah, shit.” Zaman said. He stopped listening as he mounted his horse. There was only so much misery a commander was capable of absorbing. Every stride a soldier takes is drenched in sorrow. And for every soldier the story remained the same. The characters changed, but there was no new invention of tragedy or pain or heartbreak. There was no new tale of death or suffering. For millennia past, these were the tools that shaped and honed a soldier. These were the tools that hardened the steel that was his soul and sharpened the edge that was his rage. As a soldier, pain was your mentor. It could only make you stronger. But a man had only to manage his own.
Jaul kept talking as they rode, but his voice faded into a muted hum. The pace that Zaman set ate up the shattered streets and the broken tenements that had the misfortune to line them. The bodies faded from his sight and turned into so much litter that should have lined the streets. He passed the boulevards and narrow alleys of his youth, and unbidden memories surfaced as monstrous tentacles might from the murky depths of the sea. It was amazing, he reflected, how time could weather away mountains and bring low the mightiest of citadels, but some memories only sharpened as the years went by. They passed an alley where he had been assaulted by a gang for stealing an apple on their turf. A little further ahead, and there were the remains of a stairwell where he had stolen his first furtive kisses, and where he had returned to mope and curse the gods for her faithlessness when he saw her holding hands with a rival. A few more streets and down a couple of alleys, and Zaman was sure he could find where he had witnessed his first stabbing and robbery; a drunk that had allegedly cheated at dice and was relieved of his winnings by disgruntled losers. It was hard not to remember the first time you smelled hot blood spilling on cobblestones, the moans that followed it, or the pathetic cries for help as life slowly bled away. The way a man tried to move in order to escape his impending death but could only twitch and convulse, no longer the master of his own body. Or the gradual acceptance of the inevitable, a resentful capitulation to the long goodnight, instigated by weakness and confusion. Or the terrorizing fear that engulfed a fleeing ten-year-old boy after watching the lights dim in the eyes of a dying man. Yes, these memories were hard not to remember. Or perhaps they were simply hard to forget.
‘The Broken Heel’ wasn’t much to look at, despite how much of the damage that had obliterated Cobbler’s Street seemed to have miraculously missed it. It was clear that much of the destruction that had devastated the Ratters District had had a culmination of sorts here on this street; this had been the sight of a major battle. It was the first location within Ratters District that Zaman had seen that bore tell-tale signs of actual combat, rather than the haphazard ruin that had been randomly visited upon the rest of the area. Scorch marks discolored the cobblestones on the streets, or least the ones that had not been pulled up by some titanic force and thrown against the shops and buildings that once lined the street. The frontage to nearly every building that was left standing was damaged; many buildings simply had their front façades ripped off as though a cloth patch had been torn from an old pair of pants. Others stood in ruin, with statues or fountains or a wall of earth thrown through them, looking like nothing less than victims of a tantrum flung by a puerile colossus. The street itself lay in shambles, with puddles of filthy water pooling in depressions and crevices.
Zaman and Jaul dismounted and approached two soldiers that had been evidently left outside to guard the building. Neither of the men looked anything but bored; whatever action had occur here had passed. Thankfully, no doubt. The only think a solider wanted to see less than this kind of violence was a newborn in the hands of his woman. “Oye, soldier, give me the status,” Jaul called to them as they walked towards them. “What’s going on in there?”
“What situation? Nobody ever tells us nothing,” the taller one said, scratching an armpit vigorously as he looked over the two visitors. His uniform drooped on his skeletal frame, and a shaggy mane of oddly dirt-colored hair fell from his emaciated face and down the nape of his neck which too was dirt-colored but for more obvious reasons. “We was just told to stand here and make sure no one comes in.” His short sword hung at his side, slightly askew.
“Ya ijit, what’s the situation inside that building you’re guarding, or are you just laying about? What, you need something to do? I got all kinds of shit that needs doin’. Get yer ass at attention, there’s an officer on deck!”
“No, no,” the solider replied hastily, throwing up the messiest salute that Zaman had ever seen, directed at the sergeant instead of Zaman. “Me and Maggs here is guarding here this door and looking out for the Captain. “We’re s’posed to tell him to get in there quick, because they got one of them magicking bastards in there about to kiss the Keeper.”
“Then move yer ass outta the way, Short Stack. I got the Cap’n right here. And quit scratching your pit like you got a pair of balls up there.”
“Oye, Sarge, Corporal Tabi is in there too, not too happy by the looks of it,” the shorter Maggs said. “We heard a lot of screaming going on a few minutes back and it got real quiet.”
“Aye, if you don’t shut it, the only screamin’ around here is gonna be comin’ from you two. I didn’t walk a thousand miles south and over a mountain to listen to you two fools talk. Make a hole for his exalted Captainness. An’ shut yer hole.” Grinning, the two stepped apart and saluted as Zaman walked passed them and followed Jaul into the building. He ignored them, as usual for someone of his rank. The only time a private had the honor of speaking to him is if he made a blunder. A big blunder. And that conversation only went one way. He worked his way through the traumatized door that hung limply on a remaining bolt and into the partial darkness of within.
“Captain Saleh, is that you?” he heard a woman’s voice call from the back. The air was thick with ash and dust, with broken chairs and other debris scattered across the room haphazardly. Instruments of what Zaman suspected were of the cobbler’s trade littered the floor and the counters, but there were no signs of a Sihr assault; no scorch marks against the furniture, no piles of ashes or charred bones that were once a man, no bodies looking as though they had been drowned or flash frozen. The sooty aroma that seemed to be a parcel of the city was less intense in here, as though the raging inferno that tried to consume the district had somehow spared this building its wrath.
“Corporal Tabi, Captain Saleh has not yet arrived. It’s just me, Captain Zaman, and my troop sergeant, Jaul.” Zaman made his way across the room, trying not to trip over broken pieces of furniture hidden in the shadows that lay scattered across the floor. “We’re coming back. Is your prisoner still alive? Is he secure?”
“Aye, but barely,” Zaman heard as he walked across a threshold into what appeared to be a kitchen. Tabi was standing against a wall, leaning with her arms crossed. Long and lean, Tabi had the grace and fierceness of a jungle cat. But men quickly learned that approaching her with anything outside the bounds of Army minutiae would result in a beating. In one case, a stabbing. Nevertheless, men continued to try, and some women did as well. It was hard not to, when you looked that lithe, perfectly formed body, even if it was covered in a boiled leather vest. Her chain skirt stopped just above her knees, but her infantry greaves protected the rest of her legs. The rapier, her weapon of choice, was sheathed at her side, the complex hand guard at odds with the austere look of her uniform. She stood at attention as Zaman walked in. Tabi saluted, and Zaman returned the gesture perfunctorily. “I was hoping that you were Captain Saleh or a healer,” she said. “He’s not going to last much longer. I gave him some water, but there’s nothing else I can do.”
“Do we know who he is?” Zaman asked.
“No sir,” she responded. “He’s in no condition to talk, and the locals refuse to come and see him after the first woman I brought in here ran out screaming. They wouldn’t know who he was, anyways, Captain. These battle mages, whoever they were, used their Sihr to shadow themselves. We can’t make heads or tails of who they were or what they looked like. Citizens report only shadows moving through the city, wreaking havoc wherever they turned or pointed.”
Zaman felt a shudder pass through him. The use of Sihr was one of those things that one could never really get used to. The idea of wraiths floating through a city in the scores or hundreds, wreaking death with a will as implacable and intolerant as a force of nature, was difficult for any man to tolerate. No amount of skill with the sword or cunning with wit could save you from that; only the Dead God’s grace, and His whore of a mistress, chance.
“Who were they fighting?” Zaman queried. “Whither were they bound?”
“By all accounts, each other, sir. I’ll be damned if I can tell you any more than that. They came out of nowhere and started killing each other. Looks like the city just got in the way.” Corporal Tabi glowered in irritation, clearly put out with the lack of information. She had been annoyed since Zaman first saw her. But then again, she usually had a hard glare affixed to what one would think would be soft features. On someone with less of a military bearing it could conceivably be called a pout, but even a thought like that in her presence could result in a blow to the face. Or a boot between the legs, in one unfortunate incident involving an ill-conceived comment and a private with the brains the Dead God gave a rat. Her uniform was, against all odds, still impeccable, and sweat was merely a light sheen against her olive skin.
Zaman ruminated quietly for a moment, trying to make sense of it all. “Damn,” he finally responded. “We don’t know anything more than those two fools outside, do we?”
“Well, let’s see him,” Jaul growled. “What are we waiting for? He takin’ a nap?”
She crooked her head, gesturing to a corner. Zaman looked and saw a misshapen lump covered in what seemed to be some sort of burlap. “It’s an oven in here. Why did you cover him?” he asked her.
“He’s hard to look at, Captain. Not exactly easy on the eyes.”
Zaman nodded. “Sergeant, if you would be so kind?”
Jaul stepped up to the man on the floor and unceremoniously pulled the burlap cloth off him with one quick yank. The heavy cloth dragged across protuberances across the mage’s body and then snagged on the floor, and Jaul let it drop. “Holy hell,” he breathed.
Zaman had, many years ago, worked with a Aeyn that had been the unfortunate victim of bahd’. The man had been a newly-raised Air-aspected Aeyn attached to a reconnaissance squad that Zaman was leading. The six of them had stumbled over perhaps fifty enemy combatants during the Eleven Day War. Turac, the squad Aeyn, had in a panic unleashed a blind wave of Sihr, driving razor-sharp blades of Air that no eyes could see through everything in front of him. The devastation was terrible to behold. Bodies went flying, and the anguished screams of men and animals filled the air. Trees were felled indiscriminately, dropping in all directions, crushing anything underneath not already butchered by the unseen blades that a man could not hope to defend against. In blind terror, men ran in all directions, but there was no escape from the scythe that husked down each man in its path. Hands, feet, heads, arms, and anything else imaginable was severed and fell into a revolting jumble of cast-off fragments and blood on the forest floor. In mere moments, the air was bitter with the smell of blood and human waste. Turac butchered every last man, leaving some of them in three or four pieces, and two of Zaman’s own men as well who had already engaged the enemy.
The price Turac paid for his haste and panic was appalling to witness. Even with Zaman’s limited understanding of how Sihr worked, he knew like every other schoolboy that Sihr demanded balance. The balance for Air was Earth. Whatever Turac was supposed to do to maintain that balance failed, and Sihr took its price from his flesh. Bahd’ was when an aspect of Sihr exacted a penalty against you for failing to provide enough of a counterbalance to whatever aspect that was being cast. Zaman watched in horror as Turac arched his back and stiffened, his bones partially petrified. His fingernails hardened and turned the gray of dust and fell from his hands, and his hair stiffened and fell out like so many spines, only they were made of clay. Zaman watched Turac’s face helplessly and raptly as thin webs of stone spread out like infection and fossilized where skin used to be. His facial muscles writhed and bunched, wrapping themselves around his new features and the new substance of his face. Turac’s left eye blinked freakishly for a moment, and then the gray sheen of Earth took that as well, trapping it forever incompletely open. Turac’s right arm hardened in place and his fingers turned first to stone and then to sand, ending halfway up his forearm in a jagged, bloodless stump of dull stone. His mouth opened and for a moment Zaman was sure he would see Turac’s lips or tongue turn to ash, but instead the Aeyn let out a scream from deep inside his body, reverberating with an anguish that seemed as though Turac’s soul itself had turned to stone as well. The scream kept on, until Zaman wondered what Turac had inside him that could sustain such a long and harsh cry, when suddenly it stopped and Turac toppled over, the remains his right arm hitting the ground and impaling itself and the rest of his body in the earth.
This man was much worse. In the end, Turac was able to talk, after a fashion. He could feed himself somewhat, and he had the ability to process his food and eliminate waste. His breathing was always labored, which Turac always blamed on the petrification of parts of his lungs and his chest cavity. True, he lost one leg because blood stopped flowing to the limb; later it was discovered that his one of his blood channels had hardened and prevented the flow of blood. But for the most part, Turac was still a functional, if horribly disfigured and physically disabled person.
This man had no such hope. Supine upon the floor, he looked more like the monstrous conjuration by a perverse and bitter god than he did a man. A drowned conjuration, from the looks of it. Fire Breathers that suffered from bahd’ always ended up with repulsive Water-aspected side effects like swollen, distended body parts and cracked, watery lips. Nevertheless, what happened to this man was difficult to stomach. Both of his eyes had burst, as though the pressure of the vitreous liquids within could no longer be held by that thin skein of flesh that made up the eye. His broken and shattered cheeks were covered with a jellied ooze of blood and water that dripped down his bloated lips and off his stubble covered chin. The parts of his face that had not been marred by dust and ash and the contusions of combat were pallid, an ashen gray that made the blue of his lips and fingers all the more gravid. Suppurating sores pockmarked his skin, weeping congealed fluids with abandon. Water oozed from every cavity, and from his mouth it was a constant stream of spittle that had soaked the tattered remnants of his shirt. The man’s face was crushed beyond belief, and yet the stream of fluid from the mass of flesh and the cavities that were once his nose was incessant. The stench that he gave off was unendurable; the dying man reeked of drowning and blood and the meaningless travails that each creature that walks this earth must suffer through. Most of his body was, mercifully, hidden in shadows, but Zaman could see joints and sockets that no other man could claim. Unless that man had been thrown against a wall with the force of a maddened god and lived to speak of it.
“Shit.” Zaman could not think of anything else to say. “We should put him from his misery and be done with it. No man should be forced to look like that and keep breathing.” From the corner of his eye, Zaman saw Tabi nod in agreement. He covered his mouth with a hand, repressing the urge to evacuate his stomach as he caught a whiff of the dying man’s scent.
A watery groan made its way from the form on the ground to Zaman. It bubbled and rasped with the agony of a thousand drowned sailors and the virility of a dead man.
“Looks like he’s trying to speak his mind, or what’s left of it,” Jaul commented. Zaman saw him wipe his face with a hand; despite his dismissive comment, Jaul was clearly disturbed by the condition of the mage. It was a rare moment to see Jaul disconcerted, and Zaman felt the first stirrings of a wrongness that he did not understand permeate the air. The man below tried to speak again, but his groan was weaker, and Zaman could hear the water slosh within the Aeyn’s lungs. His time was near.
Zaman kneeled over the dying Aeyn, trying to gauge what he was trying to say. He rested himself on one knee and put his hand on the man’s shoulder, trying not to flinch at the cold wetness of his skin. Sour sweat and death wafted from the dying Aeyn, assaulting Zaman’s senses. “What is it, son?” he asked gently, although the man looked like he could be Jaul’s grandfather.
Zaman felt a cold hand touch his arm. Let me ease this passing into the arms of the Keeper, Zaman thought as the corpse-like fingers struggled to find purchase, but the Aeyn had other ideas. His infirm and tentative touch reached Zaman’s face and suddenly clutched his jaw and the side of his face, squeezing painfully. “Aaaagh!” the man shrieked, viscous fluid and spittle soaring from his lips and on to Zaman’s face. The man’s fingers tightened around Zaman’s face, squeezing his skin around his eyes and the joints of his jaw painfully. Zaman tried to open his mouth to yell, but could not. His muscles rebuffed his demands to move, and Zaman remained immotile despite his efforts to pull away from the man. Panic flared when Zaman felt the tell-tale prickle of Sihr upon his skin; he was sensitive like few others to use of magic near him.
“Dead God’s balls, Cap’n! What’s going on?” he heard Jaul shout, but the voice came from a great distance, a dying echo from afar. Zaman felt himself…slipping. The already dim room began to darken, and Zaman could not tell if it was natural or not. Dumbly he thought to ask why the room was dimming, but he could not muster the effort to formulate the words. Far away, he heard steel slide from a scabbard. A woman’s voice reached him, no doubt Tabi, but he could not make out any words. A muted hum overwhelmed his hearing. The hum elevated in pitch until it became an unbearable keening shriek and Zaman thought he would go mad at the sound of it. And so it ends, he thought as he felt his mind begin to crack. The sound was breaking into his brain like a forge hammer. Into the arms of the Keeper I go, with a smile on my lips and a curse in my heart.
The prickle Zaman noticed before turned into a raging torrent of agony, blinding him, and his unresponsive lips and mouth dredged from his memory a response to pain. Zaman felt himself scream, but the madness and intensity of that shriek that echoed in his head overwhelmed him still. He could hear nothing else, not even the tormented cry of his own impending death. Hardly seems fair, he thought maniacally. A man has a right to hear himself die.
Everything stopped, and Zaman almost fell over for lack of the pain that was bracing him. Zaman pried open eyes that had been painfully shut. The resonance of the agony rippled through him; he could scarcely believe it was not there. Perhaps it was there, just lying in wait, teasing him with a moment of lucidity before annihilating what was left of his mind. Had it been seconds? Minutes? Zaman could not tell. He felt tears of relief well from his eyes.
Before him the world stood still, cast in glass and immobile as he himself had been a few seconds ago. Motes of ash were suspended before him, frozen unnaturally in the air. He took a deep breath and looked up. Jaul stood in front of him, sword in arm, his mouth open, a snarl of hate and rage on his face. Zaman could see individual beads of sweat on the man’s face, and the fear that caused those beads to extrude. Just across from Jaul, Zaman could see Tabi. Her perpetual scowl was still there, only now it was tinged with a blush of fear. She was crouched low, nearly on her knees, a knife in one hand and the rapier in the other. She looked like she was about to fling herself at whatever it was that approached, a last effort to spit in the eye of the Keeper before He claimed her. Zaman had no strength to turn around to see what they saw, nor did he care. This, he knew, was the end.
“Traë,” the dying mage croaked.
The world turned white, and then everything exploded.