Chapter the Seventh
Jaul shook his head, but that served only to aggravate his headache. Holy hell, he thought to himself. Everything hurts. He opened his eyes, and the barrage of colors and images that assailed him made him instantly regret his decision. What the bloody hell is going on? He was lying on the floor, looking up at a huge hole in a beamed ceiling. Stars twinkled on a clear night sky. The warm southern evenings that he was still not used to even after all these years felt oppressive and damp, hanging in the still air like a wet blanket. He curled his fingers reflexively and was dismayed to learn that his sword was not in his hand. He reached around blindly for it but found nothing.
A low moan brought his attention to the other person in the room. His head felt like it weighed a couple of dozen pounds, but he turned it to the left anyways and looked at his companion. Tabi, he remembered. She was in the room when everything went to hell. What happened? There was that gods-cursed mage, and Captain Zaman…. Uncertainty and confusion clouded his memory. Well, he had more immediate concerns than what had happened. Like finding out how badly he was hurt, and looking after his companions. A quick and cursory inspection did not reveal any major cuts or broken limbs. His chest was sore; he suspected there might be a few broken ribs under his skin, but he could not be sure. His right shoulder throbbed and his arm was unresponsive; dislocated, no doubt. He did not relish the thought of popping it back into place.
“Lass,” he tried to say, but all that came out was a rasp. His throat was sore and ragged; it felt like someone had stuffed it with cotton. And set it on fire. He needed water. Water would be nice, he thought to himself, but then again, so would a couple of whores and a tankard of ale. Wishing for fire won’t kindle a flame. He steeled himself and tried to sit up. Muscles, sore from use and abuse, protested his decision by reminding him how much they could hurt, but Jaul paid no attention. He had been hurt before. Nothing is more painful than watching a fellow soldier die, he reminded himself as he forced himself into a sitting position. His head swam and the room started to darken, but Jaul grabbed hold of his lucidity with a snarl and refused to let go. In a few moments the feeling of vertigo passed, and he grinned at the small victory, only to find that even his teeth hurt.
Dust and ash and bits of what was probably the ceiling at one time cloaked him and littered the rest of the room. The room was dark, but the glow of the moon illuminated most of what he needed to see, or so he hoped. Tabi lay a few feet from him, crumpled against the remains of what he thought might have been furniture in the not too distant past. The remains of the Aeyn that had tried to save them were splattered against the far wall. There seemed to be a few pieces of him left that were big enough to bury, he supposed.
“Aaaagh!” the mage shrieked, viscous fluid and spittle soaring from his lips and on to Zaman’s face. The man’s fingers tightened around his captain’s face. “Dead God’s balls, Cap’n! What’s going on?” Jaul screamed, but his voice was distant even to his own ears, like the sound of a fading echo. Even as the words left his lips, he heard Tabi draw her rapier, the ringing of steel against steel remind him to do the same. “To your right!” he heard her yell, and as he turned he saw the shadow. It was a patch of black darkness so deep as to make the rest of the room seem well-lit. A brilliant flash of light erupted from that blackness, and Jaul watched in amazement as a blue arc of light lanced towards the supine mage, only to be deflected towards the ceiling, which exploded in a hail of burning cinders and stone.
Tabi shrieked in pain as falling remains of the ceiling struck her. She threw herself into a roll to dodge the falling debris and managed to draw a knife from her boot at the same time, landing squarely between their cloaked opponent and the captain. Zaman was holding his head in both of his hands, as though trying to prevent it from exploding. The mage had released Zaman’s face, and was struggling to stand up. Jaul saw Tabi’s eyes widen and spun himself to the left at the warning, striking out blindly with his sword as he assumed a defensive stance. Even as he did, he saw Tabi drop into a defensive crouch, sword in one hand and dagger in the other. Her scowl was a thing of beauty, and Jaul could see that that she was about to launch herself at their unseen enemy.
The mage had finally made it to his feet. Incomprehensible words escaped from the man’s suppurated lips, hurling either epitaphs or incantations; Jaul had no idea until he saw the blackness glow with a green nimbus. There was a crackling sound, and out of nowhere their enemy appeared, howling deeply in what Jaul hoped was agony.
Jaul had been afraid many times in the recent past. It was not uncommon for a soldier that faced the embrace of the Keeper on a regular basis. A healthy emotion, he told his squads, as long as it reminds you to keep alive. But do not let it paralyze you, for that is the day you die. But on this day, at this moment, Jaul had almost been paralyzed by fear. What stood before him was not a man, but some sort of beast from a forgotten nightmare that the thanked the gods he had never remembered.
It stood nine feet tall, and was muscled to make sure those nine feet moved with the savagery and strength of a hellhound. Even covered in a dark cloak and a cowl that shrouded his face, the monster exuded both mass and strength and an unnatural anatomy. Thick arms that were jointed at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, defied the imagination with another joint midway between the shoulder and the elbow. The arms swung wildly as the creature invoked another incantation, or so Jaul assumed, given that the beast was not under immediate attack, nor did it handle any sort of weapon. Mage, Jaul thought to himself, and then everything turned white. Painfully so.
Jaul’s world was on fire. There was only pain. He felt his flesh shriveling and crisping in the white heat of whatever fell magic the monster before him had cast. The hair on his arms and face and head flared and was scorched away into ashes. He screamed and felt flames flow down his throat and into his lungs, searing him from within.
An instant later, the pain was gone. Jaul nearly fainted with relief. He looked at his arms and was astounded to find his flesh whole and unburned. The human Aeyn, twisted and broken though he was, had overcome whatever spell their enemy had cast. Perhaps it had been some sort of illusion, although the pain he had experienced seemed real enough.
“Traë,” he heard the human mage croak, and another flash of blinding energy filled the room. When it dissipated, Captain Zaman was gone. The enemy mage howled incoherently.
Jaul was not one to waste an opportunity. He took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes shut tightly, trying to clear his pain-addled head. No time to think. Those that thought first on the battlefield died first as well, as he was wont to say to his men. Praying that the sudden cessation of magic had disoriented the enemy mage, he launched himself forward, his sword swinging in an offensive posture known simply as form number four. His sword dipped at the last moment and went for his opponent’s calf. The fact that his opponent had two calves instead of one nearly made him break his swing in surprise, but he plowed through, throttling the surprise and jolt of disgust and fear that raced through him. The guttural exclamation of rage and pain from the beast before him was music to his soul. The leg buckled, but the mage did not fall. Instead, he leaned back and rested the weight of his leg on his back calf. At that instant, Jaul felt something wrap around his chest and squeeze. The air rushed out of him and he fell to the ground, his sword clattering against the floor.
A knife decorated the huge barrel chest of the Traë mage, and Jaul felt the bindings around him dissolve. Tabi, he thought in a daze. I owe that girl drink. The mage roared again, but it was not the death-cry that Jaul had expected to hear. Instead, the Traë pulled the knife from his chest and threw it back at Tabi. Blood spurted from his wound but the alien mage seemed unaffected. The knife flew true and punched Tabi in the shoulder with such speed that it spun her around and knocked her off of her feet.
Jaul was already staggering to his own feet, even as the huge Traë turned towards him. Jaul saw a broken lattice of muscles and tendons hanging from his sheared front calf. Already the flow of blood had begun to slow, much to Jaul’s dismay. He reached for the twin knives he kept as his side, certain that he would not be able to recover his sword before the mage before him sent him to meet the Keeper. His only hope was keeping him tied up long enough for the human Aeyn to save them. With his right hand, he threw his dagger directly for the face of the mage hid underneath the cowl. At the same time, he threw himself at the mage, hoping to slide his other dagger between some ribs and puncture a lung or the heart or some other organ that the Traë might possess.
He need not have bothered. The mage did not even need to move; the knife that Jaul had flung skittered uselessly to one side as it crashed into some sort of invisible obstacle. Jaul himself crashed into it heavily head first. It felt like a wall made of stone or brick; he slammed into it with the full force of his two hundred and fifty pounds moving at a solid sprint. The impact knocked him nearly senseless. His leading shoulder burst into pain and the shock of the impact travelled down the length of his arm. He hit the ground bodily and thought nearly fled. Tabi, he thought to himself, and forced himself to stay lucid. He tried to roll away from the mage’s feet – no, hooves; the three that remained – with limited success. His vision swam as he clung desperately to consciousness. Tabi. If I die, so too will she.
Another colossal explosion of light illuminated the room, forcing his eyes shut. He quailed, wondering what new unnatural menace they faced, but this was a construction of the human Aeyn. The Traë mage stumbled, and then fell to the floor. His fingers exploded and blood spurted violently from where his fingertips used to be. At that same moment, Jaul saw liquid burst violently from the hooded head of the Traë mage. A scream turned into a gurgle, and the Traë began to writhe and shake as his blood escaped from every available orifice. Errant flecks made their way to Jaul, and he felt hot Traë blood burn and blister the skin it landed upon.
Jaul winced, remembering the end of the battle. He had thought the Traë mage finished, and yet the bastard had struck back even in his death throes. An impenetrable wall of black had erupted from the dying mage moments from the end, slamming into the human Aeyn with inhuman force. The human did not even have the time to scream as his body was squashed against the wall he stood before, reducing him to nothing more than pulp and bile. Even in this darkness, Jaul could make out the few pieces of him that were still recognizable; a left arm and the lower part of one leg escaped the savagery, a solace only for his next of kin that would have pieces of his body to commit to the earth. If ever he could find them. Jaul had no idea who the Aeyn was or who his next of kin might be. He shuddered and speculated if he would ever be able to step on a bug without thinking of this mage that had saved him and Tabi.
Jaul tried to swallow and failed. His throat was too dry, too cracked and damaged from the magics that have swallowed the room. Or maybe it had been from screaming. It was hard to tell. Only in your last moments do you find out who you are, he thought to himself, ashamed. Terror had threatened to consume him.
He had not felt such fear since his first melee so many decades ago as a young man in the North. It had been a moonlit night in the dead of winter, so cold that a man’s breath would freeze into small particles of ice on his beard that needed to be chipped away every few minutes. They were raiding a neighboring clan for horses and women, and Jaul had been honored and proud beyond words to have been selected to accompany the raiding party. Pride, aye, until the first time he heard the sound of steel clashing with steel in truth, rather than the practices he had with his companions as he trained. And then that pride turned to fear. Fear that it would be his blood that sizzled as it hit the snow right before it froze into dark red patches that would stain the landscape until the thaw of the coming spring. He was frozen, paralyzed by fear, even as one of the heavy curved sabers of the defenders swept towards him from above to separate his head from his neck. At the last moment, one of the more experienced fighters blocked the slash and pulled Jaul away from certain death.
Laugh, he told the young Jaul, who had nearly soiled himself. Do not fear that last embrace; it comes for us all. Laugh at the Keeper as he chases you. You are no rabbit, boy! Make that bastard sweat! Laughing, the fighter turned back and threw himself into the fray once more, his sword a dizzying arc of death as it danced through the defenses and bodies of his enemies. Ashamed, Jaul followed suit, drawing his own sword and sure that he was going to meet his death on this day. He refused to die a coward.
He did not die. If anything, he found out how good a fighter he actually was. All of the training his father and his brothers had given him fell into place, and his dance was less deadly than only a few of the men that managed to survive that night. The heavy padding of his muscles made each bite of his blade a killing stoke, and men fled rather than do battle with him. On the way back he was flushed with pride and exertion and the beating of his heart; they had lost six men to their enemy’s twenty; he had killed four by himself. They brought back half a dozen horses, although no women were stolen that night. But that night he wept in his bed for that first torrent of fear that had nearly killed him. When his mother found him in his bed with wetness staining his cheeks, she held him close for a moment, whispering quiet words of comfort into his ears. And then she slapped him, reminding him that he was a man of the North.
Jaul stood up slowly, desperately trying not to fall. His arm still dangled uselessly at his side, numb to all the world. He tried to swallow again, and was partially successful this time. His throat managed to close and he felt fire and pain inside his throat. Slowly, carefully, he made his way to the moaning Tabi who lay crumpled on her side. “Tabi,” he croaked again, his voice incomprehensible to his own ears. He leaned over and tried to help her up, but only succeeded in knocking himself over. Pain exploded in his damaged arm and he clamped his teeth together tightly as he fell all over Tabi; nevertheless, a grunt of pain escaped him. But sensation returned to his arm, and he moved his fingers experimentally. The fall had popped his shoulder back into place. A small stroke of luck, he supposed; he just wished that his luck did not come at the price of such pain.
He felt something round and hard pressing against his hip. Alarmed, he rolled out of the way, thinking that he was crushing Tabi’s head, but Jaul’s luck held out; it was her canteen. A quick shake found some water at the bottom. He groped desperately at the cap, yanking it off and dropping it in his haste to remove it. The water that touched his lips was warm and salty to the taste, but never had it been more welcome; Jaul drank greedily before he remembered Tabi. He stopped himself from finishing the bottle with difficulty.
“Tabi,” he tried for a third time, and this time the word could be understood, if barely. His throat was still inflamed and raw, but at least he could speak. He felt energized, from both the unexpected luck of the drink as well as from the energy it instilled in him. “Get yer ass up, lass.” He pushed her over to her back to get a better look at her.
The knife in her shoulder was deep, pinning her uniform into her flesh with a vengeance. From how well it held in place, Jaul was sure that it was wedged in bone. It would take a healer to remove that; he was not going to touch it. Bruises and lacerations covered her face and arms, and an ugly welt scarred the skin under the tattered remains of her shirt. “A needle in the arm’s all you have, woman. I’ve gotten worse for stealing kisses from my sister. Quit yer bitchin and get up.” He was rewarded with another groan.
“’Ere you go, lass,” he said a little less gruffly, crawling closer to her and cupping the back of her head. He tilted it forward a little bit and poured some water into it. She coughed, spitting up some of the precious fluid, but her eyes widened when she realized what was happening. He saw her throat contract convulsively and she drank greedily from her canteen, so much so that Jaul felt a pang of guilt for drinking as much as he did. No help for it now.
When the last drop was gone, he felt her drop her head back in his hand. “Gods! What happened, Sergeant? Where’s Zaman? What happened to that gods-forsaken beast that attacked us?”
“Easy lass,” he said gently. “That demon mage is dead, killed by the hand of the Aeyn that Zaman was speaking to. As to the Cap’n, I don’t know. There was a white light and Zaman disappeared.” He shook his head. “That human Aeyn died too, and none too well by the looks of it. But he saved us, all right.”
“Aye, that wasn’t a squad mage. Oh bloody hell my shoulder hurts.” She winced in pain as she stopped trying to move around. “That’s a knife there in my shoulder, eh?”
“Better in your shoulder than in mine. We need to get you you out of here. You need a healer if you ever want to use that arm again. We need to get back to Cap’n Saleh and tell him what in the nine hells went down in here.”
“What about those two fools outside?” she asked.
Jaul shook his head. “Dead, probably. They must ’o heard the ruckus in here, and I know those boys. Fools they are, but I don’t have cowards in my squads. Can ye walk, girl, or must I carry you?”
“Only if you want to play catch with your stones when on the way home,” she responded. “But help me up. Is there any more water?”
“Let’s find some,” he suggested, and struggled to his feet. “This is going to hurt some,” he warned, and pulled her up by her uninjured arm, trying his best to minimize excess movement of her body. She cried out anyways, and when she finally stood up, her face was pale and bathed in sweat. She leaned heavily against him, the sour smell of her sweat and fear mingling with the scent of death that infused the room. The two of them staggered out of the remains of the kitchen and made their way towards the front door. Jaul found an overturned chair that he straightened with a foot and free hand and sat Tabi down on it carefully. She was panting with exertion by the time she slumped against the chair. “Hurts,” she mumbled, and Jaul was afraid that she was losing consciousness.
He took a quick look outside to see if either of his men was still around. The horses that he and Captain Zaman had ridden were gone. Maggs was on the ground, or what was left of him, at least. It looked like someone had planted a blastshell inside him and let it explode. Entrails and unidentifiable chunks of flesh decorated the grounds and the brutalized façade of the building. Maggs’s head, still connected to his neck and part of one shoulder, lay in the street in front of the Broken Heel, a look of stupid surprise locked into his visage for eternity. Of Short Stack there was no sign. He hoped the private got away. Only a madman would have stayed after seeing what happened to Maggs.
He went back into the store, hoping to find a bottle of wine or the discarded canteen of a soldier. Tabi was leaning back in the chair, eyes closed and breath shallow. She turned towards him as he walked in but said nothing. He made his way back to the kitchen; if he was going to find water or wine, that would be the place to find it. Truth be told, he also wanted to get a look at that dead Traë as well. Tabi was in no shape to go exploring, and she was his primary concern, but a second to look at the beast that had nearly killed them would not hurt.
There were no discarded canteens, and all of the bottles that Jaul came across had been shattered by the previous violence. A barrel of water immediately outside the back door had a dead rat floating in a dirty sheen of ash and dirt. Jaul was thirsty but not that thirsty. He made his way back inside to check the body of the Traë. Maybe that monster carried something to drink.
The carcass of the dead Traë was just as huge and imposing in death as it was in life, if somewhat less lethal. A black, viscid fluid that Jaul could only assume to be blood pooled thickly around the still-covered head and the hands of the mage. The short, stubby fingertips of the Traë had been blown apart as his blood had exploded out of his extremities. Jaul remembered the feel of hot blood of the Traë on his skin as those the tips of the Traë’s fingers had exploded; he could still feel the burn marks on his arms and face. He wondered what sort of deadly Sihr the human mage had used to destroy this Traë mage. Whatever it had been, it was impressive.
The leg that Jaul had managed to damage lay twisted on the floor at an odd angle, given the inhuman knee joints of the Traë. The front calf had been severed from the stumpy hoof that attached to it with his sword thrust, but Jaul remembered how the bleeding had seemed to slow unnaturally. Such a blow would have incapacitated a human, but this Traë took it in stride. He was still able to fight despite having lost one of his limbs. More than a few minutes had passed between the amputation and the Traë’s dead at the hands of the human Aeyn; the Traë must have slowed or stopped the flow of blood somehow, otherwise he would have bled to death in the meanwhile.
Jaul hooked the edge of his boot against the caul that hooded the Traë’s massive head and pulled it down, only for it to catch against some unseen edge. With a sigh he kneeled carefully, mindful of his bruised ribs and the throb in his arm. He unhooked the trailing edge of the rough black cloth and exposed the face of the Traë.
If there had been any attempt on his part to humanize the monster that lay before him, such thoughts fled now.
Dark, iridescent skin was wrapped tightly against ridges of muscles and bones. At first he thought the skin scaled like that of a lizard, but as he looked more closely he found that it was a thick leather, greased with an oily film that reeked of a bitterness he could not identify. The light in the room, dim as it was, still glittered against the skin with a variegation of colors, although darker and more sinister hues dominated the expanse of skin. And that was the least of the strangeness.
At first glance, he thought that perhaps the battle had damaged or partially crushed the beast’s skull, but scrutiny revealed a naturally sloped forehead counterweighted by what seemed to be a skull unnaturally engorged behind the ears and through the back of the head. Short and dense hair that resembled fur more than human locks adorned the crown and sides of the skull; it was a dark blue in color, and Jaul could not tell if the color was natural or the result of dye.
Both of the creature’s eyes had exploded, blown out by whatever deadly magic the human mage had used. Jaul could see the crusted remains of the eyes covering the Traë’s cheeks. More blood had escaped from the bulbous nose and leaked down upon heavy lips that were trapped in a snarl by either death or the musculature of the Traë’s face.
The unseen edge that had prevented Jaul from exposing the mage’s face was the most surprising of all. Twin tusks extended from the Traë’s skull, where the head met the jaw, and extended out like a spider’s pincers. Fascinated, Jaul ran his fingers over the points of one of the tusks and could feel where the mage had filed and sharpened it to a point. It was solid, thick around as two thumbs; Jaul was sure that it could be used to impale anything that strayed too close to the face. His fingers traced intricate sigils carved into the tusks; a supplication for the benediction from some unseen god, no doubt. Whatever it was for, fearsome came to mind.
The body of the monster was as alien as its face. Of particular interest to Jaul was the extra joint on the arms of the Traë; it looked like the beast had two elbows, except that the upper one rested opposite to the other. Jaul recalled the complex and dizzying acrobatics of the arms as the mage had struggled to call forth its magic; he wondered how a human would fare against such a beast on the battlefield. Put a sword in the hands of one of these Traë and no man alive would be prepared to defend against it. All of their sword forms would have to be retooled for this new enemy. Spears, Jaul thought to himself clinically. Spears and arrows. Step near a beast with such power and dexterity and you can only pray for a quick death.
He had already seen the split calves of the beast when his sword cut through one of them. A closer inspection reminded him of the shock he had felt to find not two but four feet on the beast. Not feet; hooves. The Traë had two knees on each leg that sat opposite to each other, giving amazing dexterity to the monster. It looked like the two calves could move in opposites to each other, ensuring that upsetting the creature’s balance would be almost impossible to accomplish. They were thickly muscled, although the back one seemed to be thicker than the front, suggesting to Jaul that most of the weight was on the rear calf. He filed that away for future reference.
“Jaul!” he heard Tabi’s voice call out from the other room. “What happened to you?”
“Coming,” he called. Fool girl has me mixed up with her latest love. “Looking for water,” he added.
“Take a look at that beast that attacked us,” she called back. He grimaced. Women!
He walked back to where Tabi was sitting. “Aye, I did,” he replied, “and I fear what this portends. The beast is fell.”
Her smile was ironic, but not offensively so. “Really,” she stressed comically. “The blade in my shoulder agrees with you.”
“I’m glad to see that you humor has not fled, even if your good sense has,” he replied deprecatingly. “Let us leave this place and find you a healer. I fear for your arm. And we needs find Captain Saleh and let him know what happened here. We also need to get this Traë body into the hands of our scholars, that we might know what to expect when we face them on the field.”
“Traë,” she murmered to herself. “Words from fairytales and the warnings of mothers.”
“Yes,” Jaul responded more harshly than he intended. “Come to life, to bring us death. There’s no hiding behind your mother’s skirts in this tale, girl. They come for blood.”
“I wager I know that better than you,” she said sharply, “given that the knife was sheathed in my flesh and not yours.”
He grunted. “Did you see what happened to the human Aeyn, lass? Thank whatever gods you pray to that you only took a knife to the shoulder. They will bury him in a bucket, if anyone ever gets around to it.”
She snorted. “You must have me mixed up with your last lover. If I needed your advice, I’d tell you what to say.” Jaul’s look was incredulous. He spluttered, but she went on before he had a chance to speak. “Help me up. We have to find the High Commander and tell him of this.” She paused for a moment, considering. “Let us make our way to the Wilted Rose. Captain Saleh will know what to do.”
“Aye,” he growled. The man who could best a woman at her own game had yet to be born. “Let’s go.”
The Wilted Rose was not what Jaul had expected. Immediately outside the hostel, there was a scene of controlled chaos. There were a hundred or more men outside, scattered across the street and the adjoining square, rushing about with papers and reports and the occasional glare. A veritable camp had been set up, with tents and other shelters dotting the square. As they walked into the pseudo-camp, they were accosted by a half dozen mages or more, who instantly took Tabi from him to tend to her wounds.
“Find Captain Saleh,” she requested softly as she was towed away on a stretcher. “He will be in the Wilted Rose. Tell him what happened.” Her voice was weak with strain.
“I need not a slip of girl to tell me what to do,” he said gruffly, but the apprehension in his voice belied the curtness of his words. In the hours it had taken for the two to cross through the devastation of the Ratters District to the relative wealth of the Westeral Quarter, Tabi’s health had degenerated. She was pale. Even though her skin was hot, she did not sweat. She had stopped walking only minutes into their trek, and despite her protestations, Jaul had carried her in his arms. Initially, the pain had been too great for her, and she had subsisted in a state of semiconscious agony, but gradually her arm and shoulder had numbed and her state of dazed agony was replaced with inchoate ramblings. By the time they reached the site where Saleh was camped, Jaul was afraid he might lose her. She had regressed too quickly; perhaps there was poison on that blade inside her, slowly making its way through her blood and into her heart. Or maybe it was cursed by whatever god those accursed Traë worshiped. He did not know, but he feared the worst. He wondered if he should have taken a chance and tried to make his way to Hangman’s Square, but it made no difference now; without horses, it would have taken just as long to make it back to his own camp as it did to make it over Testament Bridge and over into the Westeral Quarter. And at Saleh’s camp, he could be assured of the best Aeyn healers that would care for Tabi.
Saleh’s Aeyn encampment had cleared most of the civilians out of the area; he could see throngs of men and women crowding the barriers the army had erected at the main streets leading into the square, many of them holding handkerchiefs to their faces. Ash still coated most of the ground and the roofs of the buildings in the area, but the rampant and unforgiving destruction of the Ratters district was not to be seen here. As he walked up to the Wilted Rose, he saw the leader of the Aeyn Corps arguing with a tall, gaunt gentleman wearing a finely cut suit who was gesticulating wildly.
“And what of my custom?” Jaul overheard as he walked up to the captain. “Will you reimburse me for the loss of food and drink? What if your men break something? How will I be compensated?”
“I will break your head, and how does that sound to you?” Jaul growled at the man as he joined them. He could not abide a man that thought of profit before the welfare of his men. “The Crown can compensate you a couple o’ coppers for all it’s worth, merchant. Get you out of here and let men do their work.” He put his hand on the man’s chest and shoved him back, nearly throwing him into the sump that ran alongside the street, but Jaul had already discarded the man from his mind by that time. “Cap’n,” he said by way of greeting, nodding to the hard, angular man that stood before him. He thought he saw a smile twitch at the ends of those mustachioed lips, but he might have been mistaken. Saleh was not known for his sense of humor. He was not known to even have a sense of humor, actually. He had probably saved that buffoon of a merchant from a beating. Or worse.
Despite his middling height, Saleh was an imposing figure of a man. He radiated both a strong military bearing and ruthless competency that was admired by his superiors and feared by those that reported to him. The man looked like he was carved from granite, which was unusual for most mages. Maybe it had something to do with being able to move things with Sihr rather than the strength of your back, but most mages Jaul had known ended up either soft and fat, or soft and skinny. Saleh, and the men who fought for him, were exceptions. They were renowned for the deadly skill with both Sihr and the sword. There was no other military organization feared more than his cadre of a few score of men, known to the rest of the world as the Left Hand.
“Jaul, is it not?” he asked urbanely. Jaul remembered that Saleh was known not just for his skill with Sihr and his martial abilities, but also had a reputation of a genteel sophisticate, versed in good wine, good women, and good manners. Despite the heat and dust, the man’s clothes were spotless and without wrinkles. In any other soldier and Jaul would have disdained such abstemiousness, but with Saleh it was a part of his charm. He had heard that Saleh had once demanded that the entire Aeyn corps change their colors from green to black in order to disguise the color of any blood that might splatter upon them.
Jaul nodded. “Aye, Cap’n. I come from Cap’n Zaman’s regiment, the Iron Fist. I have news for you, Sir.”
“Nothing that can’t wait for a meal and a bath,” he responded, glancing at Jaul unclean dishabille. “Get yourself fed and cleaned up and meet me in my rooms in two hours, Sergeant. I will send a scribe. Please have a report ready for me when you arrive.”
Jaul ducked his head. “Yessir.” He paused a moment, thinking. “Cap’n, one request?” He waited for a nod from Saleh. “There was a corporal attached to your regiment that was with me. Tabi. Can you make sure she receives whatever it is that she needs?”
Saleh frowned. “Is she injured?” When Jaul nodded, he replied “You need not ask. Few things in this regiment are as imperative to us as the well-being of our wounded. She will receive the treatment that she needs, as well as the comforts that befit one wounded in the line of fire. She is one of us, after all.”
Jaul nodded, impressed. “Thank you, sir. Her name is Tabi. She displayed courage far beyond the call of duty.”
“I will commit her name to memory,” Saleh assured him. “Courage in the face of adversity is always remembered.” He waved over one of the many functionaries that roamed the street. “You!” he called out to a boy covered in prepubescent acne. The boy hurried over as though the blackest hounds of death pursued him. “Find this man a room and a bath. And a meal. Once he is ready, bring him to my chambers.” Without waiting for a response, Saleh tuned back to Jaul. “I await your report, Sergeant,” he said. “I would not urge you to hurry, but get your ass in gear.”
It did not take long for Jaul to find himself soaking in a hot bath inside the Wilted Rose. He inhaled deeply, letting the smelling salts permeate his lungs as the scalding waters relaxed and soothed his battered muscles. Less than an hour ago, he had been subject to a meal of exhilarating proportions; roasted duck, potatoes, and some sort of barley soup that both filled him and warmed him. Needs I become a mage, he thought to himself, if this is how they eat. He would be as fat as the mages he scorned in no time.
A squad mage had offered to heal him with Sihr but Jaul had refused. Even though his wounds were more than just an inconvenience, Jaul did not have the time required to recuperate that Healing would demand; depending on the severity of the injury, Healing could render a person senseless from less than an hour to over a week. Even though the healing itself was instantaneous, the body needed time to recover from the trauma of both the injury and then the unnatural and rapid repair of the damage that Sihr would accomplish. The few hours he had before making his report to Saleh were too valuable to be thrown away in slumber. He had already spent over an hour with Saleh’s troop scribe; a short, wiry man with ink-stained fingers, spectacles, and a demeanor as serious as a case of the clap. The man fit a scribe’s typecast so well that Jaul had thought it a joke.
“A forbidding account,” the man had said without inflection. “I will be sure to provide this report to Captain Saleh as soon as possible.” Jaul wondered if the man had ever been with a woman; he was as dry and flavorless as the blank paper he wrote upon. The scribe tossed sand on the page to dry up any excess ink. He waited a moment before shaking off the scroll. “Thank you for your time and your patience, sergeant.”
Jaul grimaced in the tub that he sat in, remembering his incredulity. The small man had squeezed every detail out of him. He had threatened to take the head off of the small man at least three times, annoyed at his constant questions. Do you recall how or when the Traë entered the room? Did the odor of the Traë change after it died? How did you know it was a male and not a female? That last question almost cost the fool scribe his life.
Jaul had just begun to relax when a young man walked into the baths. The boy, no more than ten or eleven, looked away. “Sergeant Jaul,” he said, his eyes and face averted in an exaggerated manner, “Page Threestones reporting.”
Threestones? Jaul was tempted to ask, but thought better of it. “You know where the Left Hand is encamped, son?” he asked.
The boy’s eyes widened. “You’re with the Iron Fist,” he said incredulously. “I mean yessir. Over in the Ratters District, Sergeant.” Her shuffled to the side, trying to distance himself from the naked man in front of him.
“Never seen a pair of stones before, boy?” Jaul asked the shamefaced boy, who only reddened in response. The boy was a bugger for sure, even if he did not know it. “No matter. Go to Hangman’s Square and tell the officer on duty that Sergeant Jaul lives and is in Captain Saleh’s encampment. They should expect me by dawn.”
The boy nodded, still looking in any direction other than Jaul’s. “Aye, sergeant. Anything else?”
“Grow some hair on your balls, son. Don’t fear who you are.” Gulping, the boy fled without another word. Jaul hoped what he said would help the boy, if only a bit. He sighed deeply. Unlikely that it would matter much. He adjusted himself in the copper tub that he reposed in; his cheeks were getting uncomfortably warm. The lower ones, anyways.
Twenty minutes later, Jaul was ready to go. Any longer and he would fall asleep in the tub. He raised himself slowly, his muscles slack and loose. An earlier scrubbing had left his skin a little red but clean and refreshed. He pulled his towel off the hook and dried himself off, looking at himself in the large, ornate mirror that rested against one of the walls. Damn paunch looks like it’s getting bigger, he thought sourly. He slapped his gut and was pleased to note that despite its girth, it remained firm and hard. Ah, what does it matter? The lasses, they love a well fed man.
Another page was waiting for him outside. “Another one o’ you cockroaches?” he asked the boy, who looked less than ten years old. “Your mothers are churning you out faster than we can find shit for you to do.” He threw his damp towel at the boy’s head, nearly knocking the spindly child over. “Where’s me room, boy?”
It did not take long for Jaul to get dressed. Thankfully, whoever was responsible for his clothes had the foresight to find clothes that would not result in a beating. The fit was loose and cut simply; a leather doublet over breeches, with boots that laced up just short of his knees. A bit warm for Southern summers, but serviceable nevertheless. Jaul strapped his heavy longsword to his side and made his way to Captain Saleh’s chambers.
“Bloody pages everywhere,” he declared as he walked in. Jaul liked to announce himself. “Whatever it is you feed their mothers, you best stop, or we’ll have more pages than bleeding messages to carry.”
Saleh, sitting at a desk in the center of the room, raised an eyebrow. This must have been the shopkeep’s office before it had been commandeered by the Left Hand. Books and papers and bound files had been unceremoniously dumped without regard into a corner, and the huge oak desk was now covered with maps and reports. A wicked looking knife with a serrated edge stood impaled at the one end of the table. For some reason, Jaul seriously doubted that it belonged to the merchant proprietor of the establishment.
“They will be blooded soon enough,” Saleh answered calmly enough. He put down the sheath of papers he had been flipping through. “The long goodnight comes to us all.” He scowled. “Maybe sooner rather than later, if even half of what that scribe wrote is true.” He stood up and walked to a smaller table at the far end of the room. “Had this report come from most other men, I would have already ordered ten lashes for the lie, and another twenty for gross stupidity.” Saleh decanted a not so small amount of liquid into a glass. “Drink?” he solicited.
Saleh reached for another glass and poured Jaul a drink as well. He walked over to the grizzled sergeant and handed it to him. “But your reputation precedes you, sergeant. Captain Zaman has spoken of you on a number of occasions with commendation; words which frankly I am not used to hearing from him. So either you are who he says you are, or he was guilt-ridden for bedding your mother. I have already sent some men to retrieve the body of the Traë that was slain, and to determine what happened to the captain.”
Jaul nodded to the captain. “Thank you, sir. I can only submit to you that Cap’n Zaman has better taste than to bed my mother. One can only hope, I suppose,” he said thoughtfully. “Cap’n, have you any word on Tabi?”
“Your concern is commendable, Sergeant. Corporal Tabi is recovering in one of the medic tents. It was a close thing with her. It took three Aeyn to Heal her. I cannot tell you how rare it is to find a healing so complex. One for the knife wound to her shoulder, and another for the poison that had spread through her body. We needed a third Aeyn to rebuild the damage to the bones of her shoulder. Two of my Aeyn lay senseless right now, sergeant, and we are still unsure if we have driven all of the poison from her body, or if there will be any residual effects upon her mind or body. Whatever poison was upon that blade, it was nothing that we have ever seen before.” Saleh shook his head. “Not a time we can afford to lose the services of three Healers, but we do what we must. We will abide. The Left Hand is nothing if not obdurate.” The glass touched his lips and Saleh swallowed it in a single swig. “Gah! What kind of poison did this merchant keep for himself!”
Jaul gingerly took a sniff. It smelled no worse than a pair of socks after a day’s march. Shrugging, he quaffed his drink as well. It burned like fire on the way down, and Jaul was forced to reassess his impression of what he thought to be a soft, lazy merchant-owner. He could feel the drink drilling holes into his stomach.
Jaul coughed, trying not to let the tears spill from his eyes. “Aye,” he strangled, hoping his voice did not sound the way it did to himself. “I’ve a mind to find that merchant and attach him to the Iron Fist. We need men who can drink this sort of horse piss without kissing the Keeper.”
Saleh grunted and turned back to his table. “I have a report here that is pages long, and each page is more incredible than the last,” he said, papers rustling in his hands once again. “A city attacked by invisible mages. Tens of thousands dead, and as many homeless. Orphans. Indiscriminate destruction, so devastating that only one in four building is left standing in the Ratters District, and of those that do stand, only one in ten is habitable. And then there is this Aeyn that Tabi found, the one that was suffering from catastrophic badh’ effects. One that still managed to rouse himself and do battle with a Traë and save the two of you, though it cost him his life. Is all of this accurate?”
Jaul nodded in acquiescence. “Dead on balls, sir,” he agreed.
The officer was quiet, and Jaul watched the captain flip through the pages of the report. Finally, Saleh put the papers back on the desk and sigh deeply. “What is it that happened, sergeant? Do we know why a quarter of Rahimeyyen was bled out?”
Jaul shrugged uncomfortably. “Give me a sword and point me in the direction that you want men to turn to corpses, and I will give you a path where you will have to wade through blood. Give me ten men and I will burn the crops to the ground as I advance. Give me more, and I will hold the land that you might come at your leisure. I need not know why we fight in order to swing a sword, sir. In all likelihood, one answer is as useless and hollow as the next, and I’d rather not know what fool noble rages that his wife took to her bed the bastard son of a knight. We fight because we are beasts that wear the garb of men, and our hearts sing for a blood that is not our own. We pretend, but that hunger overcomes us, and then men must die. That is the why of it.”
Saleh grunted again. First time I have heard a nuanced grunt, Jaul thought to himself, but he kept his mouth shut. He may have been a sergeant for the last twenty years, but that didn’t mean he didn’t like his stripes. “Well, what you say may be true. I will leave it to our leaders and our scholars to find the truth of what you say and why this happened.” He looked over to the small bar in the corner that he had visited earlier, considering. “Tell me what you saw when you faced this Traë, sergeant. What was its demeanor? When you struck it, did it scream in pain or in rage? Could you sense any fear in it?”
Jaul shook his head slowly. “I will tell you what I know, Cap’n, but it ain’t near enough,” he said apologetically. “These bastards is tough, there’s no doubt. The one we faced as nine feet tall, and musta weighed upwards of four hundred pound. Muscled like an ox, Cap’n, but they move like a demon. The god that put those bastards together knew what he was doing.”
“Is that all?”
“Ha! Not even close, sir. An extra joint between the elbow and the shoulder that makes their arms move in ways no swordsman can predict. Two sets o’ legs below their knee, and hooves instead of feet. I cut one of the lower legs clean off and the bastard didn’t fall; he just moved his weight to the back calf, which looked to be the heavier one. Their skin is thick and oily, and I’ll give good odds on a cut that would bleed a man to death would just prove a bother to these beasts. Tusks curl around both sides of the jaws like pincers, two inches thick and filed to a point. Heads so misshapen that I don’t know how to describe ‘em. Take an orange and step on half o’ it, and it sorta looks like their heads. They’re right ugly beasties.”
Saleh grinned toothily. “They sound like fun.”
“Not so much when you’re on the receiving end o’ their magery,” Jaul responded with a hint of a chortle. His face turned serious as he recalled the battle. “That human Aeyn that saved our asses – you coulda asked him, except there’s nothing left of his head but a bit o’ bone an’ jelly.” He shivered despite himself. “Still, this one did not carry a blade. He was a mage, no doubt, but if he refused a blade for lack of skill or for some other reason, I know not. If he had one, the tale might have ended differently.”
“So, what seems to be a failing on their part,” Saleh mused. “Perhaps, in any case. Do their mages refuse weapons, or was this one merely an incompetent? Or maybe he had lost his weapon earlier during the battle for the city.” Saleh dismissed that line of thinking with a shake of his head. “No doubt we will find out soon enough. Tell me, do you know who that human Aeyn was or what he did to stop the Traë?” Saleh asked. “I would dearly love to know either.”
Jaul thought for a moment before answering. “As to his identity, I know not,” the graying sergeant demurred. “And for his magic, I am as unlearned in Sihr as I am in pleasing a woman. I saw what he did, but it made no sense to me.”
Saleh stifled a chuckle. “Can you think of anything the human Aeyn did that might help me?”
Jaul concentrated, trying to recall the battle. It had all happened so quickly. “I remember the Traë’s finger exploding,” Jaul recalled finally. “And then the blood of the Traë struck my face and neck, I was burned. Look,” he suggested, pointing to his jaw and neck. “You can see the blisters and burned skin. But I know not if that was the poison of the blood of the Traë, or some magic cast by the human Aeyn.”
Saleh reached up and turned Jaul face with a hand, looking at the boils. “These are heat-induced,” he said. “They are not poisoned, nor are they the result of some irritant. Not as far as I can tell, anyways. I will have to have a Healer look at that, if only to validate what I believe.” He looked at the burns more critically. “I cannot imagine a mage with the prowess necessary to boil blood in its veins,” he said finally, sounding disturbed. “Never have I heard of such finesse with Fire and Water. It would be astounding beyond belief.”
“His eyes exploded too,” Jaul added, remembering. “And I saw blood caking his upper lip and dripping from his ears.”
“Hmmmm,” Saleh murmured. “Needs I speak of this with others,” he concluded, clearly dissatisfied. “Others more learned than I in Sihr and in Fire. Perchance he merely crushed the Traë’s brain. That might be the answer as well.”
Merely? “Er, yes,” Jaul replied, trying not to sound like a boy who just learned of a woman’s chest for the first time. “Might be.”
“Know you what happened to Zaman?” Saleh asked suddenly.
“No,” Jaul replied heavily. “I do not know if he was saved by the quick wit of a human mage or reduced to ash by the rage of the Traë.” He concentrated, trying to recall what happened. His memories were a haze of ash and blood and pain. “I think it was the human Aeyn that did something,” he supposed finally, although still unsure. “I seem to recall a bright light and a pissed off Traë after the captain disappeared.”
“Leave it be that translocation has been sought for the last ten thousand years by every Aeyn in the East that ever took a breath,” Saleh said sardonically. “And yet it seems as though our famous captain had exactly that happen to him.” He laughed bitterly. “Well, why not?” he asked without his usual aplomb. “An army of Traë mages just destroyed a quarter of Rahimeyyen. Why shouldn’t some unknown Aeyn find how to boil blood in its veins and discover translocation?” He turned his head and spat on the carpet in disgust. “Damn these mages, human and Traë alike, and damn the gods as well!”
Jaul shifted uncomfortably. “I am but witness to events far greater than I,” he spoke quietly. “But I will do as I must. As I have always done.”
“Only time will tell. Time, and the blood we spill.” Saleh turned away from Jaul once again, this time looking out of a window. From his vantage point, Jaul could make out a view of the Khatos River, its banks still overrun with floating debris and body parts. The city was winding down in the evening sun, and a haze of dust and industrial ash floated lazily over the city, turning the light of the sun purple and red and orange. “I do not think this is the end. This is where it begins, and where it ends, only the Dead God knows. But it will not end well.”
Jaul could only agree. “Aye,” he said simply. “So it seems.”
“Get you back to the Iron Fist, sergeant,” Saleh said quietly. “If we area attacked again, I fear that the Iron Fist will prove a poor match for these fell magics that rent this city.” He sighed. “The Left Hand is the shield before the sword,” he intoned, reciting words that defined his company. “We will shield you from that which you cannot strike. I will assign Aeyn to each one of your squads for their protection until we have a better understanding of these Traë and the magic they use. Let us hope that tomorrow brings up better news. But I will not hold my breath in expectation. I fear the days to come will be days of blood.” The captain went silent. Jaul waited a few moments, saluted, and made his way to the door.
Time to tighten the screws, he thought to himself. It has begun.