The heat was a mask against Ransu’s copper skin when he staggered into the hell he defended. Peat smoke boiled slowly over the red-lit cavern, a quarry-turned-infirmary, and scraped Ransu’s throat as he breathed. In front of him, down a ramp, a gallery-shaped pit spanned two hundred feet where men had once bled beneath the lash as they excavated granite. Behind Ransu, distant rumbles from Dakahl Rock’s war drums beat against his back. The infirmary pulsed with the sound like a thing living, but it was a place of dead rock and dying men.
“Cheers to Death.” Ransu’s brothers greeted him and taunted the god Death in the same breath. Descending the quarry ramp, Ransu raised the two picks he’d tied together to fill his massive grip, saluting. Pain spiked from bite holes in his side, but Ransu—broken chains jingling from the slave shackles around his wrists—pushed his picks as high as his seven-foot frame would carry them.
As he weaved his way to a bench, midwives who served as healers paused their work to touch him. Ransu’s lips stirred, too tired to return their smiles, and he found a seat against a cratered wall which rose to a fractured, domed ceiling. When he sat, his chin hit his chest. His gaze dropped to his chain shirt. There, he stared at the trog blood that had congealed between his links.
“Child, must you wear them?” Mishe waded through the trog blood’s stench and, crinkling her flat nose, picked a jellied piece of trog from Ransu’s dreadlocks. They fell past ropes of muscles that tightened around shoulders three times as wide as Mishe.
“I see the toll it takes, killing trogs,” Mishe said, unlacing his mail. “Those children caged in their bellies, their souls hostage. You have to believe the gods will find a way to save them. They always find a way, child.”
“I know,” Ransu lied. The gods were gone, but Ransu lacked the heart to burden her, or anyone, with that secret.
“You know, but you come back looking like you bathed in trog guts. Maybe you think you can wash the toll away with their blood. Maybe all this blood heavies the price.”
“Maybe they’re just sticky inside and out.” Ransu didn’t smile. It was a black humor that had him, bitterness risen from a bottomless hole that swallowed prayers whispered to deaf gods over dying friends. The Age of Chaos had come, and with its arrival, the gods had their own battles to fight. Humanity would have to win theirs alone—or lose them. No amount of trog blood could wash that truth away, and Ransu didn’t care whether blood heavied the price. Dakahl’s fiends and blackhearts, the Fallen, had no gods to fear. So be it! Let these monsters die with the fear of Ransu booming through their hearts.
Mishe looked at him, and bright eyes strained against heavy wrinkles on her face. She slid her hand over his patchy beard until her thumb rested beside his large, hooded eyes. She smiled, gazing into another world. “You have a dreamer’s eyes, like my boy had. Half in this world, half in another. His father liked to say it was a wise man’s gaze, but he was just a boy. You’re tall as a god, but you’re just a boy.”
Mishe never treated him as if he raised mountains or parted seas, and he loved her for that respite. Ransu sighed and some of the tension rolled out of his shoulders.
“I’m okay, Mishe,” he said.
She blinked and pulled her hand back, apologizing as she left him. She limped to get an iron that roasted in one of the braziers marching in soot-stained pairs down the middle of the infirmary.
Holding the boiled linen that Mishe had left against the bite in his side, Ransu surveyed his brothers by peat’s red glow. A quarter of them glistened with fever on makeshift litters, their wounds smelling like poisonous, sweet lotus in a stagnant swamp. Another quarter howled, in turn, through clenched teeth as their weeping wounds sizzled beneath midwives’ red irons. Others cleaned and sharpened weapons, or they smiled grimly into shadow, waiting to return to the battlefront. Once, Dakahl had made them slaves, but they’d been reborn beneath their father’s heel, determined to unmake their maker. They were the Sons of Dakahl.
Clearing dreadlocks from his face, Ransu turned his survey to the breach in Dakahl—the Serpent’s stronghold in the desert beneath a mountain. Before the rebellion, Sons had tunneled two lanes along a granite outcrop for its removal. The outcrop ran for a mile, but Sons had continued digging, in secret, until they had reached the mountain’s natural tunnels that led to freedom.
Ransu couldn’t see the lanes because the rubble wall they’d constructed as the last defensive line blocked his view, but those lanes were hot lines through his awareness. Without them, the stronghold was impregnable. It was not only the one way out, it was the only feasible way in, so Ransu had to hold them until Anhor and her jinns arrived from fighting the army that Dakahl had sent south to intercept her. If he could, if Anhor’s army even survived to storm the fortress, Dakahl would be ruined and its remaining slaves would be freed.
Too many ifs, but Ransu held to them when Mishe returned with the searing iron. When strong arms braced him and the quarry disappeared in a white nova of agony, he pushed furrows through the hard dirt with his heels and held to them. Pain filled him until there wasn’t room for loss, rage, or despair; yet, Ransu filled the world with a scream and held to them.
Ransu woke to the stink of his burnt flesh filling his mouth, startled by a boy’s battle cry. Waving a chipped dagger as he fought imaginary foes. Nefan skipped out of the lanes, leading the recently liberated iron miners and the Daughters of the Sun who’d remained. When news about Anhor’s army—outnumbered three to one by Dakahl’s soldiers—had reached the rebellion, most Daughters and fighting slaves raced to help Anhor. But knowing the Sons were too few to hold the tunnels, they’d promised to free the miners on the north end of the mountain before they left.
Ransu moved to greet the iron miners. The infirmary’s vault dropped to the low ceiling more characteristic of mining as Ransu neared the makeshift gate. The gate was an opening in the rubble wall shored up by sled-boards set between the rollers they’d used to haul granite. Nefan sped through the gate, slapping Ransu’s arm before another Son called the boy. Behind Nefan, Marhea rode in on an arrogant wind, victory’s light dancing in the Iibyan’s emerald eyes. She knew the gods were gone too, but she joked with her sisters about tall trees and tall boys.
Her cheer irked Ransu, but he swallowed the dust in his mouth and said nothing. Though once bed slaves and gladiators who’d enjoyed the most privilege among Dakahl’s slaves, the Daughters had been the first to rebel, and Marhea had been one of the first to lead them.
“Cheers to Death. I’m Kalis.” An ebon man with sagging flesh around one eye broke away from the newcomers. He offered a forearm forked with fat veins for Ransu to clasp. Kalis bore a soldier’s tattoo on his scalp, and when he spoke, Ransu imagined that before slavery, Kalis’ baritone had boomed across many battlefields.
“What can you tell us,” Kalis asked, “as far as tactics?”
“Kill the jinnlings,” Ransu said. “We’ve counted six.”
“Six dark jinns? World below,” he swore.
“Dark jinns marched south,” Ransu said. “Jinnlings are the apprentices they left behind. Mostly, they poison our minds and break bones, but one’s strong enough to conjure fire. An Atephan; ebon skin; scar, right here: we call him the Demon.”
Kalis nodded, repeating the Demon’s name. They continued to talk tactics while they crossed the infirmary toward the ramp: how to use a canine trog’s bite reflex to break its neck, the safest way to weather a rumy trog’s charge. When Marhea joined them, Ransu arched his brow at her spear arm which hung in a sling. Her back had been torn open to the shoulder blade, and though she hailed from a race of pale, desert warriors, Ransu didn’t imagine their one-armed fighters were any less a liability.
“I need one arm only, for throwing these,” she said, brutalizing Ransu’s language. She shouldered a tarred sack filled with canines’ chakrams, S-shaped throwing discs with keen, silvery edges.
“Help Mishe if you want to stay useful,” Ransu said.
“I’m able as any warrior.”
“Are you?” Ransu seized Marhea by her throat, spun her, and trapped her against his chest. “Were I a canine, you’d be breathing bubbles.”
“Release me,” Marhea hissed.
“You’re a liability.”
“Your point’s made, Ransu,” said Elise, the first Daughter to draw sai. They’d mastered the pronged blades in Dakahl’s gladiator rings. “Don’t make us make ours.”
Ransu released Marhea, but as he mounted the ramp, she shouted his name. He turned, cursed, and ducked before her chakram whistled over his dreads. He touched them, expecting one to fall off. Marhea stalked up the ramp and thrust her face near Ransu’s, her thin lips flattening over clenched teeth. When she glared up at him, short, brown hair fell back exposing freckles and proud cheeks shaped like saucers.
“I was warrior at ten. First man I killed, broke my ribs and cut my throat before I did it.” She raised her chin, showing a shiny scar just shy of the pulse visibly beating at her neck. “We’re over-numbered, and I am able. I go.”
Her breath cooled on Ransu’s throat while the infirmary waited. As haughty and irksome as he found her, Marhea’s certain demise wilted Ransu, and that angered him. He had no right to mourn her, not more than he mourned the Sons that Ransu had known would die when he convinced them to rebel.
“Cheers to Death, Iibyan.” Ransu tapped his picks against her chest and continued up the ramp. On the catwalk. Mishe stopped sweeping to cradle him with a look. Before she breathed a word, she froze.
Sentries cried alarm.
A part of Ransu denied the alarm, for Dakahl’s war drums still rumbled in the distance—the battle for Dakahl’s stone quarry couldn’t reach the infirmary this soon! They needed time, but when Ransu bolted into the tunnels, two Sons rounded the corner running. Dark clouds tumbled after them like a black sandstorm. From the strange clouds rolled the wet growls of the dog-headed trogs called canines. Ransu couldn’t see the bound faces, but as the billows swelled and the light waned, he could feel the children—like heat off a furnace—trapped in each trog’s stomach, their faces twisted in voiceless screams.
“They come in black clouds!”
As Ransu rushed back into the infirmary, Kalis barked order into a swarm of chaos, directing Sons to haul the wounded to the lanes behind the wall.
Mishe, grabbing at her bad leg, hobbled down the ramp.
Ransu scooped her under his arm, and they raced the clouds. The storm was faster. It crashed over them, snarling in his ears and clawing at his eyes. Stunned, blind, Ransu tripped.
Mishe slipped from his grasp, crying his name. Claws scraped the catwalk. Knowing the canines’ noses would guide them to their kill, Ransu felt doom settling over himself and Mishe like a smothering shroud.
He reached toward Mishe’s scream, but instead of getting a grip on her, he stubbed his finger on her head. Her hands fluttered like moths off Ransu’s elbow before they tightened desperately around his forearm. Then she was gone.
A canine snatched her, and the sound of Mishe’s bones crackling punched the breath from him. For a moment, Ransu couldn’t move. Canines blew by; they brushed him, yet they didn’t tear out his throat. Enraged by the reprieve, he roared and lunged. His picks missed, but he slammed into a speeding canine.
The two reeled. The ramp slipped from beneath Ransu’s toes, and his arms leapt around the only anchor there, the canine. The trog yelping, Ransu cursing, they tipped off the ramp and jarred against the ground.
Stars flared in Ransu’s head, warping the ringing dark. Hot jaws chomped on his armored forearm, and cool slobber splashed on his bare face. Ransu hugged the beast’s neck, groping with his free arm. The thing was hairless and slippery, but Ransu braced and broke its neck.
The snap seemed to signal the storm’s retreat, for clouds pulled back like a black sheet yanked off the infirmary, revealing carnage. Daughters and Sons lay chewed and contorted between splintered benches. Beneath overturned braziers, canines twitched and burned. They looked like hairless gorillas with odd, elongated torsos and the heads of thick-jawed dogs. Canines were fast on all fours, and they could butcher standing on two feet, so they could’ve easily overrun the infirmary in the dark if not for their inherent gluttony. From the ramp to the rubble wall, they’d abandoned their assault to feast.
Sons abandoned the wall, shouting and charging as they rushed through the gateway to avenge their brothers.
Ransu staggered to his feet, alone.
As one, six canines who’d straggled to feed dropped their meals and turned on him. Gray ears flattened above sickle teeth. As they rose to stand on two feet, sleek skins stretched across long trunks, and flat muscles rippled. They wore crescent blades on their backs, and the violence of drawing swords shook strings of bloody spit from hungry chops.
They were monsters, but Ransu killed monsters. The deformed faces caged beneath each trog’s ribs, however, ran his blood backward. The children tried to scream, but silence emptied from bloated lips.
Ransu tore his gaze from one whose eye swam in a swollen socket that leaked red tears. He steeled himself and charged. Bulling and dodging his way through, he blocked three blades and staved a canine’s skull.
The trog and the child trapped in it died.
Ransu hardened himself again. Bellowing a ragged challenge, shoving the dead canine like a shield to clear his way. Ransu vaulted a claw and raced down the corridor his archers opened. Chakrams glided after him, whining as they missed.
Ahead, Marhea raced with two Daughters to help. Yelling for Ransu to drop, Marhea cocked a chakram.
He dove, twisted to face a pouncing canine. Its fangs gleamed pink. They gnashed with a clunk when Marhea’s chakram thunked into its chest, and then the beast piled into Ransu’s swinging picks.
As Ransu lay pressed beneath softening flesh, horror galloped through him, for the bound child squirmed against Ransu’s belly. Its final breath sliced through his mail shirt; the child’s soul died with the trog. Ransu hardened himself—and shattered.
He shoved the trog aside and smashed its head again. His picks rose and dropped, dripped and crunched, over and over. It wasn’t enough. He punched to feel it squish. He drowned in its slaughter until someone yelled his name. Clawing his way out of the deep to see who, Ransu choked on his gasp when Marhea tackled him. A chakram whirred over their scalps.
Marhea flopped off him, moaning while clutching her bandages. Ransu raised and turned cold. The chakram meant for him had hit Elise in her throat. Blood spilled over and under the disc as Elise sank in one of her sister’s arms, gulping breath she couldn’t swallow.
She died before they could drag her behind the wall. Crouched in its shadow, Marhea reached over Elise’s corpse to shake Ransu’s gory mail. “For this, she died. So you could beat corpse.” She head-butted him, hauling on his links and breaking his nose.
“She died because they killed her, not me!” Ransu’s shout sprayed blood on Kalis who’d wedged himself between Ransu and Marhea. “What do you know—”
“I know.” Marhea shoved Kalis out of their way and tilted her face to Ransu’s, defiant. Her face hardened to speckled sandstone. Then her emerald eyes softened, and Ransu flinched from falling into them. They reminded him that she did know—the gods had abandoned the world.
“Blame them, then.” Ransu left her squatting over Elise, mounted the wall, and threw himself into the nearest clump of trogs. The war drums had arrived, and they boomed like world-ending thunder. Ransu shouted over them, cursing Death and then laughing at how little courage that required in this new age. The god of decay and destruction couldn’t hear him.
But few knew that. Sons flocked to his laughter and embraced Ransu’s battle call. They waded through rivers of heat and snarling flesh until the rumies—giant, ram-headed trogs with four arms—rampaged into the infirmary. They lowered their horns, charged, and the Sons of Dakahl buckled.
They counted less than a hundred when archers covered their retreat through the lanes.
Defeat thickened the dust where the lanes ended in a slump-floored cave. Daughters dropped with Sons to rest among the wounded, and Ransu, squatting before one of three tunnels, gazed past bowls of peat that lit the way to escape. While he stared, whispered prayers burned his ears. Closing his eyes, he wrung the shattered chains on his shackles until his hands ached. He wanted to tell them the truth about their faith, to scream at them to stop praying for what they had to do themselves. Ransu opened his eyes as Kalis knelt beside him and met the old soldier’s sagging eye.
“We should fall south and join Anhor,” Kalis suggested in a low rumble.
“No,” Ransu said.
“If we charge back,” Marhea said, “we get bottled in lanes and butchered. South, we have help. We start again, then.”
“Assume the Fallen scour the mountain for our exit,” Kalis said. “If we give them too much time, they’ll crush us between hammer and anvil.”
“And when time goes out, they’ve their cloud, now,” Marhea said. “They tested it with canines. Next, maybe they send krakes, and krakes won’t stop to feast.”
“Three real problems.” Ransu looked from the lit tunnel to the dark ones, grasping at solutions. “These tunnels lead somewhere. Maybe a thin wall to dig another way in.”
“For all we know, they lead to hell,” Kalis said. “The Fallen will find us already cooked.”
“Let them. That’s fewer hands to seal these lanes.” Ransu grasped Kalis’ nape and shook him, as brothers did to stir the spirit. “Kalis, we’re not going to hell. But if we do, we’ll bronze the Serpent’s tongue next to Death’s balls before we return.”
Several straightened and grinned.
“I want Anhor’s help, but she could be crushed beneath Dakahl’s armies, and we wouldn’t know until we marched into them. Salvation for the slaves trapped in Dakahl lies not in the heavens or in Anhor, but here.” Ransu swept his picks to include their weapons. Pounding a Sons’ chest, he said, “Dakahl’s destruction lies there.”
“Destruction and death, die and kill—that’s all you think,” Marhea said. “You’ll not burn us with your demons—”
“Dakahl will wall these lanes up with the bones of our dead! We’ve one shot—I feel it. We can slay this beast. This monster that stole your sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, and made them hate us.” Many of the jinnlings and soldiers had been culled from captives and turned against their families, Ransu’s little brother among them. “Our most innocent, they rape their souls…” Ransu rocked his head back to gaze at the ceiling. The gods were busy fighting their war; could they not at least send strength? “They tear the souls out of our children to make their trogs.
“Go south if your heart takes you. I don’t know where these tunnels lead or what to do, but I do know we can’t do anything from out there.” Ransu studied his brothers. They would follow him down strange tunnels or back through the lanes, wielding rocks if they didn’t have picks. He wished they wouldn’t follow, for he’d never lead them home.
“Bring a torch if you’re coming with me.”
Ransu mulled it over as canines’ howls hurried them through tunnels of eroded quartz. Only the Demon commanded enough power to conjure the dark storm. He’d be in the rear, far from harm, so Ransu needed to get fighters behind the canines. Marhea suggested they use the dead-end side passages that veined their pebbly path, but Kalis insisted canines would smell anyone hiding in those narrows.
“Then what?” a gray-bearded Son named Tem grumbled. He glared with his good eye at his child, another Son, on a stretcher. “All hundred of us gonna wade through a thousand trogs, blackhearts, and krakes?”
“For now, we rest.” Ransu laid Nefan, who slept, in the daylight that slanted through natural vents in the ceiling. The rays whispered of a warmth few had felt in months. The canines’ howls, however, chorused a cold dirge, so that Ransu hovered near Nefan, as though the boy might be snatched away like Mishe. Worry for the boy conjured the canines’ pursuit in Ransu’s mind—their sleek bodies pumping in the dark, earth ripping beneath their thick claws.
He felt them shooting by him in the infirmary, cloaked in their black clouds, and he massaged his throat. How had he survived on the ramp when Mishe had died? It had been as if the canines hadn’t known he’d stood among them. Ransu froze—staring at the trog blood tightening on his skin. They hadn’t known he was there. “The blood.”
Kalis stopped talking with Marhea.
“They couldn”t smell me through their blood.”
“Get your head on together.” Marhea pounded Ransu’s chest, concern—possibly for his sanity—showing through her frown. Her scowl deepened when Ransu explained why he could hide in a side passage, and get behind the Fallen.
“You don’t know they’re not smelling you,” she said.
“He makes sense, though,” Kalis said.
“I hide with him, in case he’s wrong,” Marhea said.
If Ransu were wrong, he’d get her killed. If he were right, she’d get him killed. So they argued until Kalis pulled Ransu’s arm, his eyes rimmed with alarm. The howls had ceased.
Every eye turned, and behind them, ebon billows tumbled around a bend. Twenty fighters formed three lines, withdrawing slowly to check the canines’ advance. Marhea grabbed Nefan and ran with the rest to regroup as far away as the twenty’s blood would buy the next line of defenders. Ransu backed deep into a rocky narrow before the black swallowed him.
It shrieked and slapped at him as canines shot past the opening, snarls crackling in their throats. A woman screamed, and battle added its clamor to the storm while Ransu waited for a canine to catch his scent. Straining his ears against the storm, he listened for a careless chakram scraping rock, a creeping claw grinding dirt. He started to hope when he heard only the storm and battle.
He hoped, but he couldn’t relax. As battle grew distant, krakes—the Serpent’s reptilian spawn—sped by the opening. Ransu knew them by their stench, like curdled milk, but he didn’t know if trog blood mattered with them. Krakes had a cold intelligence that trogs lacked. The cunning reptiles, as a matter of course, might sweep the tunnel’s offshoots.
Ransu reversed the grip of his lead hand and turned sideways, so he had room to thrust his picks. His manacle banged rock, scraping.
A screech that pealed like fierce hawks and rusted hinges tore into the narrow as krakes rushed toward him.
In the golden fields of the Undying Lands, gods died. While the Serpent’s Fallen prepared to subjugate men in the mortal world, ara’angeid boiled like tar from cracks in Entropy’s prison in heaven. Ara’angeid: it meant, in the First Tongue, the end.
When the end began, gods made swamps of smoking blood from their dead, but the ara’angeid were inexhaustible. Where one fell, two smaller rose; from two, rose four; then again—smaller and smaller until they were tinier than dust, until they rode the gods’ very breath to destroy them from their insides.
It was the Age of Chaos. Entropy would lay heaven to ruin and seal what gods survived in a prison beneath his throne.
One god, called many names, tended a white lotus. The flower waned in a pond choked with ash which fell from the sky so thickly it seemed air and light had broken out with blight. The Gardener slid the stem between the middle fingers of one hand, cupping the bulb, and it spread its petals rising to face its father. With his other hand, he stirred the pond’s sludge, and clean water bubbled up to relieve the lotus.
It offered its heady fragrance in thanks, a brief relief from the burnt, powdery smells of a dying realm, but the Father found no solace. He cast a resigned eye to the wheat field that surrounded his favorite clearing where once golden stalks as tall as trees now bowed and cracked beneath sooty drifts.
With a sigh, he returned to his work. Ash choked the pond once more.
“Time to go, brother,” came a voice from above. It rumbled like wildfire.
“Have you come to drag me off then?” The Creator, called many names, didn’t look up.
“Divest me? You’ll find that difficult.”
“Must I take your power? Will you not give obedience to your king and do your duty?”
“What is the duty of a father to all he’s created?”
“The age has turned. You cannot save this land.”
“There are lands that can be—”
Heat washed over the Gardener who shielded the lotus with both hands.
“It’s no wonder young gods rebel when you profane my rule.”
The Father finally looked up from his work. Above, the sun-god shone like a star in the falling black, but the ashes drank his light, spilling more shadow. The flakes nearest his golden skin curled and flared red. It seemed the sky burned down around him.
“They rebel because we promised humankind we’d reward those who keep our commandments.”
“That age has passed.”
“And the last time that age passed there wasn’t a man or woman left the Serpent didn’t transform into something else. Krakes, foulings… worse things than trogs.
“I betrayed their faith. Not again.”
“The Halls hold ten-thousand,” the King said. “I gathered the Chosen; we’ve saved those we can—”
“We did not promise ten-thousand!”
“So what will you do? Pour the power we need to survive here into the mortal realm, for what? In ten millennia, they will have used it all, and they will curse you for abandoning them in five more, for their memories run short. Meanwhile, the shell of your godhood will watch here as even the Halls fall.
“Are you not the father of all you’ve created here too? If you do this, others will follow. It will truly be the end, here—for now, through the next age, and forever. You will trade one creation for another.”
The Creator’s hands trembled around the lotus, and he pulled them away lest they tear the bulb. Would there were ears to hear gods’ prayers! How could a father choose among his children who would live or die? The Chosen and ascended souls of eons deserved their promised reward as much as the mortals below. He wouldn’t assure their destruction for the guilt of another age.
The sun god alit on the pond’s bank. Dark eyes like collapsed stars drew the Father toward the King’s truth. “Come, brother. We would only torment them with false hope while sacrificing the hope of Eternity.”
The Father took a last look at his blighted land, turned to follow the King, and an idea, a chance to save heaven and men, stopped him. “No. Hope cannot be false while it lives.”
“I am your king.” Hot wind that moaned with men’s unanswered prayers wrapped around the sun-god, scattering ash and embers. Eleven more gods, the king’s cohort, appeared before landing in the clearing. “Do not force this.”
The Creator sealed his lips, and gathered his power. The land began to tremble.
Screeching krakes rushed into Ransu’s narrow, and he immediately started climbing. Braced between walls, Ransu listened as krakes clawed at the rock beneath him, searching. They hissed and spat, seeming to conspire, and Ransu waited to hear them climb. They didn’t. A screech outside the narrow drew them, and their feet scrabbled over the rocky floor as they hurried to catch up to the battle.
Ransu finally exhaled when the storm vanished like a magician’s trick, relieved to find himself alone except he wasn’t alone. Slowly, to keep his chains quiet, he climbed down and prowled to the edge of his nook.
One way, three krakes guarded the way they’d come, sweeping the dirt impatiently with their tails. Dust covered their black scales, and frosted, crescent nails twitched at their sides. Behind two more krakes, a short sprint to Ransu’s left, a rumy thumped back and forth. It burst with muscles, so much so that its brawn ripped through the skin on its four arms in wet, pink clusters. Thankful to the shadows that hid the soul in the rumy’s belly, Ransu turned toward two jinnlings standing between the rumy and the krakes. His gaze settled on the boy with the scar down his forearm. The Demon.
The scar glistened like an asp against the Demon’s black skin as he gestured furiously, lost in the trance jinnlings entered to re-gather their power. His mate scrutinized everything that ticked and floated in the barren tunnel, poised to unleash his power should even a mote drift off kilter. Fear, joy, and lust charged Ransu’s skin.
Cheers to Death. Ransu hurled a rock and raced it to its target. The watchful jinnling lashed out with his hands, shadow warping around his fingers, but then he had to duck the rock. He recovered on the points of Ransu’s picks. Broken chains ringing like tomb bells, Ransu whirled to kill the Demon, but not before two krakes tackled Ransu, raking and hissing. He heaved them aside and dove clear of the rumy who charged.
It smacked the wall, horns-first. Ransu rushed the Demon, bowling a krake before the two he’d thrown pounced on his back. Their nails slipped through gaps in his mail while their feet raked his legs, slicing a gash in his thigh. Gasping through his teeth, Ransu hurled one into its friend. The other, he rammed against the wall and crushed.
The krakes who remained spread to protect the Demon whose gestures began to slow. Gristle popped between mammoth bones as the rumy got up and flexed its four arms, pink muscles ripping through more skin. Reaching behind its pauldrons, it hauled out a two-headed axe broad enough to crowd Ransu’s grave.
It swung twice; Ransu sidestepped and ducked. Pain lanced through his leg where a krake had opened Ransu’s thigh, and Ransu stumbled into the giant who caught him with its lower arms, snatching him into the air. When it snatched him. Ransu heaved with the momentum, catapulting his picks into its groin.
The rumy’s knees knocked and gave up. Braying as if it were on fire, the rumy hit the ground with Ransu’s picks wedged between its legs, scattering rocks with its impact.
Weaponless, Ransu looked up as the Demon finished gathering. The jinnling’s hands hovered before eyes still glazed with power. Ransu dragged the trog’s axe off the ground, and krakes halted to eye its vast curve. Ransu watched the Demon who’d soon add fire to the fray, cooking the flesh off Ransu’s bones. Swinging the axe in an orbit, Ransu hurled it with a prayer that just one god was listening.
Krakes tore at him as soon as the axe flew. The Demon blinked, free from his trance, and the axe hit him with its flat rather than its edge, knocking him over but not out. Prayer soured to a curse. Ransu cracked a krake’s head on a spike in the wall, and charged.
The Demon sat up, palm to his jaw. As his eyes cleared, his face smoothed with murder. His lip curled over a broken tooth, and his hands raced to conjure doom. The motes around him flared, transforming into swirling embers. Ransu leapt. He flew and landed his heels in the Demon’s chest. Bones cracked, and the boy tumbled like sparking coals hurled from a bucket. Before the Demon could wheeze in enough breath to groan, Ransu dropped on top of him and snapped the Demon’s neck.
Grabbing the axe, he lurched to his feet with a battle cry that sent the last two krakes running. They disappeared around a corner, and Ransu dropped back to the ground where he paused to ache, to feel the life that burned through his limbs. Before he climbed to his feet, he tried to staunch his wounds with dirt, but by the time he staggered after the krakes, past his dead friends, toward battle’s distant bells, Ransu’s blood painted his feet.
As he grew colder and weaker, the murmur of battle changed. More yelps and reptilian squeals than people’s cries echoed through the tunnel, and the noise grew louder—a retreat.
Ransu slumped inside an offshoot as the Fallen raced by and bled a while before Kalis found him. He helped Ransu out of the narrow where hands tugged and seated him, undressed and tended him.
Ransu commanded his eyes to focus after fading in and out a few times. “How many?”
“Thirty-three dead,” Kalis said. “Damn krakes slipped past us, slaughtered five midwives…
“But we have the blood,” Kalis said. “Now that we know it works, we’ll slip past them.”
Ransu looked from the midwife who had him tracking her finger to the Sons and Daughters who were smearing each other with trog blood. The blood would ruin the canines’ hunt, but it wouldn’t get anyone back inside Dakahl. With half the fifty left who were in fighting condition bleeding into fresh bandages, attrition would kill them. They needed Anhor to retake the infirmary. Ransu whispered when he voiced this, for it sounded too much like defeat.
“Then forget the infirmary,” Kalis said. “Humor me: the bulk of Dakahl fights Anhor in the south. Here, Dakahl strains between fortifying the infirmary against our return, hunting us, and policing the hundreds of slaves in Dakahl’s villages.”
“Dakahl’s spread thin.” Ransu perked.
“I think thin enough to knock on their front door and see who’s home. Push for a village, arm the slaves—”
“Ransu.” The midwife gaped, pointing.
Ransu looked at the gouges in his chest. Slowly, one unpuckered and closed, healing.
Ransu shot to his feet. Disbelief swept the crowd; they wanted to see it again, and so did Ransu. Light-headed, he marveled as a gash across his ribs healed.
“Gods,” Tem said. A tear dripped from his good eye. Ransu blinked tears too, for what else could it be but the gods? Light glowed in this dark age. A miracle.
Relief took Ransu by surprise. hitting him in a bowling flood. Arms caught him, embraced him; grown men kissed him.
“Kalis!” Ransu said.
The old soldier’s face surged from the crowd, roaring laughter.
“Let’s see who’s home,” Ransu crowed.
They slipped into the desert, which surrounded the mountain, and entered Dakahl through the front entry that yawned in the rock. Past a warren drowning in the stink of empty krake nests, Ransu peeked around a bend in the tunnel. Above, the rock gave way to a grate that served as a ceiling for any who approached the iron gate beneath Dakahl’s gatehouse and a catwalk for the guards who manned the fortification. Behind Ransu, Nefan trembled as he smoothed the Demon’s black robes. Marhea rubbed Nefan’s hands, and then she passed them to Ransu who stared at the healthy skin on his own fingers before taking them.
It had taken an hour for Ransu’s wounds to heal, after which he’d cut his palm. He’d needed to know whether the miracle would repeat itself. Though he’d healed again, Ransu wondered about the limits of his gift. Would it suddenly end? Would enough abuse kill him? Did he want to live if everyone else died? If Nefan crumpled beneath crossbows’ fire because Ransu had asked him to play at manhood? Certainly, the boy had a man’s courage, but as Nefan moved toward the gate, foreboding hollowed Ransu’s gut.
“Lord Apprentice!” Shadows darkened murder holes in the ceiling where blackhearts scuffled to their feet. Nefan hesitated, and Ransu squeezed his picks, willing the boy on.
“The rebels fled south,” Nefan said, “I’ve come for reinforcements.”
“My Lord, we’ve no men to spare. Let the desert kill—”
“You dare direct me!” Nefan stepped forward. “Open this gate before I open it. Then I’ll float up there and… open you!”
Ransu flexed his toes for the coming sprint while a guard trampled the stairs to unbar the gate. The wait proved too long for Nefan’s nerve. The gate swung open, Nefan stumbled with his hand caught inside his robes. The hesitation was brief, but it was enough to alert the guard. Nefan untangled his dagger from his robes, thrust it, and crashed into the blackheart’s fist.
Alarm exploding overhead, Ransu flew for the gate.
Nefan hit the ground, wailed, and lunged, pinning the gateman’s leg. The guard ran Nefan through.
He roared at the dead man who fumbled to get the gate closed. Before Ransu reached him, a bolt knocked Ransu sideways. He banged into the gate as the bar clanged into place, but the impact shoved the guard down. Falling, himself, Ransu jammed his picks between the grating and yanked the bar off its rack before he hit the ground. Three more bolts hammered into his back and side. The gate blew open before the Sons’ charging tide.
“Cheers…” Nefan said. His head lolled, and dirty blood stained his smile. Shielding Nefan with his body, Ransu nodded, but he fought the urge to scream, no.
Strong hands dragged them; Ransu bumped in and out of consciousness. In his waking moments pain, dust, and shouts confused him. He strained to see if he was healing, but nothing worked—his head wouldn’t move, his eyes wouldn’t focus.
Life dimmed then darkened. When he woke next, Marhea swam through his vision. She was bleeding and swollen and smiling.
“Anhor’s here,” she said. “We’ve won. Ransu, they’re here.”
“Ransu.” Keara had said the night the krakes had come to Fig Village and stolen Ransu’s life. She traced the tops of his heavy eyelids before she spoke again, and he in turn caressed the freckles on her cinnamon cheeks. “Can I hear your poem again?” she asked. “ The one about my eyes.”
Ransu breathed in the sight of her a moment longer before he began. Her eyes were perfect for star-gazers to spend nights under, but his poem praised more than them. It revered the divine Sun that shined both in the sky and in her smile. It cherished the green life of spring that slumbered three seasons in her kisses.
“My gentle giant sees so much in me.” Keara laid against Ransu. She felt delicate in his embrace. Holding her, he felt fragile himself.
“I’ve a surprise for you.” Keara kissed his eyelids and climbed from the loft. When she returned, she posed inside the stable’s door, hiding something behind her back. “Ta-dah!” She spun a pirouette and waved a papyrus sheaf. “For your poems.”
Her grin slipped. Behind her in the night, the staccato of the village’s sentry drum shattered the Fig’s peace. The Fig hadn’t heard that alarm in a century, since Iibyan tribes had spilled from the desert with iron spears. Frowning, puzzled, Keara stepped to the edge of the lamplight by the door.
“Keara, get away from the door.” Ransu clambered down the ladder. He’d heard that Iibyans killed the women they didn’t rape, but when a screech rent the night, Ransu knew things worse than Iibyans lurked outside. With the dread lurking in his chest, Ransu again called her away from the door; but there she stood, transfixed.
A stench like curdled milk rolled into the stable—Ransu would never forget that stink. Then Keara cried Ransu’s name, and krakes flooded through the door in a tide of black scales. One snatched her, flexing its nails against her throat.
“Don’t—please! Don’t hurt her.” Ransu said. “What do you want?”
A krake thrust its curved nail at the ground, pointing. “Kneeeezs,” it hissed, and flickered its forked tongue over its blunt snout.
Ransu dropped to his knees. He let the monsters claw and kick him, prayed that if he howled loud enough, it would sate them—that he could die for both himself and Keara. But they’d beat him until his ears swelled shut and the ringing drowned out Keara’s screams.
They’d hurt him until his eyes had bruised shut and Ransu couldn’t see her. Though in his nightmares, Ransu always saw her. He always wept as the starlight died in her eyes.
Ransu woke in one of the small quarries, healed. His eyes opened to rosy light and to peat smoke escaping through cracks in the ceiling like spirits rising to heaven. While he’d slept, someone had washed the blood from his skin and removed the manacles from his wrists. Straddling a low bench next to him, Marhea turned the broken shackles in her hands. She dropped them once he woke, and lamplight danced to the faint music of distant celebration, turning emerald pirouettes in Marhea’s eyes.
“Anhor’s jinns healed me,” she said, when Ransu frowned, confused by her smooth, freckled cheeks. The last time he’d seen her, bruises and cuts had puffed her face. “They healed everyone. Except you.”
“Alive,” Marhea said, ladling gritty water for Ransu. “Anhor came, and they rained forked fire that shook Dakahl.”
Just then, the quarry shuddered. “That’s them,” she said. “They raze Dakahl’s citadels and forges. Your monster is dead.”
Ransu waited for peace, but it didn’t come. Dakahl had been destroyed and its inmates freed. Satisfaction suffused him, but he sensed it would wane with the day.
“Sorry about Elise,” Ransu said. “I’ve always been sorry.”
Marhea shook her head, as if he hadn’t needed to apologize, but then she nodded in acceptance. The quarry shook again as a citadel or its like rumbled to ruin. The celebration swelled with cheers, and quiet grew around Marhea and Ransu until it burst.
“Who is Keara?” Marhea blurted. “You shouted her name while you dreamed.”
Ransu’s jaw tightened around the story.
“There’s too much hurt in you,” Marhea said. “Makes me feel stupid. People see you, and they fill with their hopes… when it’s quiet, I wish I could fill you.” She smiled tightly before she changed the subject.
“They’re calling you slave-king, you know,” she said. “King of hundreds who held against thousands.”
“We held, but we haven’t won.” That’s why peace eluded him. They’d won a battle in a war whose ashes would shadow the sky for millennia. The Age of Chaos. While gods battled for creation, fiends sowed the earth with flame and sorrow. Ransu’s miracle proved humanity wasn’t alone, but the gods no longer guarded human destiny.
“They celebrate out there because they think they’re going home,” Ransu said. “That I’ll lead them home. You know better than any, I’ll only lead them to Death.”
“Then cheers.” Marhea kissed him. Her cool lips were like peace.