(This story is in the same continuity as, and set some time after, Sand in Black and White.)
Koetun brought her torch across the surface of the old ruin’s interior walls. Its flame-light made the relief carvings of lions, bulls, and kings visible, their shadows dancing at the edges. She was looking at the inscriptions to try to find their old secrets, but all clues to any stores of magic knowledge were lost. Someone had come and damaged the stone, destroying whatever message was once made long ago.
It’s just like the Qafila-buldan ruins from before, she thought, dreading the implications. She pushed her braids back behind her ear with the hand that bore the softly-glowing golden ring, as she strained in the dark tunnel to see in the poor light. Beside her Ajen stood peering through the darkness, scimitar drawn at the ready, but relaxed in his confidence. The muscular man, an elemental aether genie, leaned against the wall, wearing a vest but no shirt, and yawned casually.
“Any luck?” he asked. She hesitated. She was trying not to find what she knew would be there. And as she passed the light over the stone carvings, she saw it: a bare spot where the inscriptions, lost secrets of ancient Menurabi, were now truly lost, and a circular marking carved over it instead. She pulled out a mid-sized book from her traveler’s bag, holding it in both hands, and recited magic words; her eyes glowed, and in her field of vision, the magical forces of the world were laid bare and visible. The arcane mark shone a dark blue and was indeed a glyph of a solar eclipse with a stylized zigzag, either lightning coming down or a toothy maw of darkness swallowing the sun.
“Damn it,” she said.
“… Yeah,” she replied.
She closed the book grimly. Upon inspection they found that practically all of the rest of the ruins were also defaced. She walked past the dry monuments and their halls and structures of angular sharp corners and geometry, finding precious metal finery ignored but nearly all written records destroyed. The Light Gate of Old Menurabi, which many scholars numbered as an ancient wonder of the world, had been vandalized and damaged. She found some areas where she could take rubbings of the wall texts, written in the old form of the Midbaric language only scholars now know, but she could tell they would likely be of little use to her. No spells of magic: likely only tribute or calendar information from civilizations past.
Ajen pocketed some of the gold and gems without instruction.
“Shame about the lore,” he remarked. “That’s, what, the fifth temple and magical scripture site we’ve come across that was desecrated by Kiana?”
“All in one year…” Koetun replied softly, bitterly. She stowed the few scrolls they found that had not been burned. “That woman…”
They gathered up the things, Ajen’s strength carrying heavy bags of precious objects, and Koetun’s satchel light of findings but her mind weighed down with worry, as they left the old Gate across the sands to the caravan routes.
+ + +
“That should have put enough distance between us and the conjuring,” Koetun said, resting. Ajen put down the heavy bags of travel food and several now-full drinking horns.
“I doubt that Black Sandstorm would chase us down, from across whatever expanse of desert it flies, just to find us for your use of such a low-level spell,” Ajen remarked.
Koetun did not look up as she sat on the sand. “Would you want to risk it?” she asked, absentmindedly rubbing the golden ring on her hand. Ajen tensed.
“…No, I suppose not.”
Though they had no shelter from the blistering sun, they rested, having been walking for several hours. Carrying their supplies to trek through the desert had not made the journey any easier. As they recuperated, Ajen watched the sand-gulls as they flew overhead like buzzards, riding thermals, periodically diving into the ground to pull loose some poor sand-fish as they swam near the surface of the dunes; a giant rohk flew among them higher up. Koetun instead continued to look over the scrolls from the Gate, finding no magic but instead some pieces of historical record, significant to some academic perhaps, even if only as a copy.
“Perhaps it’s not a total loss,” she said aloud, mostly trying to convince herself. “I know a scholar who might be willing to pay for this.”
“Your friend in the Order of the White Sand?” Ajen asked, looking on at the sand-gulls fishing nearby.
“No, a historian, not one of the magi. It could help us recover our travel expenses, or close to it. It would be nice to at least break even,” she said, forgetting about the gold she would make a profit on from sale, her sad mind fixed on knowledge now lost forever.
Suddenly the sand-gulls scattered. Ajen turned his gaze to the nearby sand, and saw it shifting back and forth, as if from the wake of some swimming creature beneath.
Something large, and headed their way.
“Something’s coming,” he alerted her, drawing his scimitar and rising up off the ground, hovering a little in the air, as genies can. Koetun looked up from her reading, and hastily put it away, fumbling around in her bag for a weapon.
The sand suddenly lay still. There was no sign of the thing. Koetun continued to search through her things, looking around distractedly for the creature. “What is it?”
Suddenly, the sand near her burst forth, and she was face-to-face with the toothy maw of a great sand shark. It snapped at her, but she spun and deflected the blow. It bit only her loose desert clothes, but held firm as it dived back down, dragging her into its nearby quicksand. She became submerged, partly buried, but with her head and an arm above ground.
“Pull me out!” she said, reaching up to Ajen. The ring on her hand glowed brightly as she commanded him. He grabbed her and lifted, but she was buried and stuck.
“I can see it coming back around,” he said.
“Then get me out!”
“You don’t need to be so bossy,” he said wincing under her words, scimitar ready. As the large shark, nearly eighteen feet long, approached, the sand began to rumble and vibrate, then flow as water does, around the creature. It swam deftly through sand, cruising closer towards them. As it suddenly rushed, fin protruding the surface, the sand around Koetun was looser, and he pulled her free while coming down with the scimitar. As the shark leaped it met the sharp curve of that blade, and with a bloody gash it recoiled: wounded, dazed and scared.
He let her down onto the firm earth, safe as the predator retreated fast into the sand and away from them. They could see its fin above the surface as it left, until a great shadow descended; a rohk had swooped down, as a sand-gull on sand-fish, and bodily lifted the great shark out of the sand and into the sky. They watched the enormous bird, feral and wild, unlike the allied rohk couriers of Wahid and Polaris City, as it perched on an outcropping and tore into its prize.
They stood in amazement of the display. “Perhaps we should push on for the city,” Koetun suggested while dusting herself off. “I like it where I don’t have to be reminded that I’m not at the top of the food chain.”
Ajen nodded, heading over to pick up their supplies. “Fine by me.”
+ + +
Koetun leaned down close into the sand. The wind wasn’t blowing here as hard as it was nearby, which explained the footprints that she was investigating, and why they seemed alone on the dune.
“Someone with a disheveled gait,” she assessed. “I think they were dragging a leg”.
“And they were barefoot,” Ajen added, “even on these burning sands”. They looked around, climbing up the dune, finding no other footprints, whisked away by the blowing wind, but instead an odd bump, marring the otherwise smooth shape of a typical dune’s crest. Ajen went over to it curiously, and emerging from underneath came a clawed hand, flailing about, attached to a screaming, snarling body. In an instant Ajen cut down the half-buried person, and by the time Koetun came over to the sound she heard, she could see the desiccated form was already bleeding streams of sand from where the taught skin was slashed.
She cursed. “… Ghouls.”
“There’s just one of them,” Ajen said, hovering a little higher as he said it to scout that, indeed, there appeared to be only one.
“There’s rarely just one,” she remarked, inspecting the now truly lifeless body. The skin was still mostly intact, with minimal wear and tear, but bore patterns of scarification and tattoos on his body. She had seen these before, as the sand-people (some species of human-like beings endemic to these deserts) regularly practiced such body markings to denote tribal belonging. She also found his broken leg, both calf bones cracked messily and partly twisted, and doubtless the cause of his hobbling seen in the tracks, and his being stuck in and beneath blowing sand.
“Our boy’s not from around here,” she told Ajen as he floated down to earth without any warning of other ghouls.
“How can you tell?”
“The markings aren’t local, I mean they’re not of the tribes that are local, even though they’re not often seen. His have too many whorls and re-curved dotted lines, rather than the wide painted lines and right angles seen on the locals here.”
“So he wandered from somewhere else,” Ajen inferred.
“And yet the corpse is fairly fresh.” Koetun added.
Ajen raised an eyebrow. “Well you saw me kill him…”
“No, I mean he died and became a ghoul somewhat recently – maybe in the last week or so, a month at most.”
“I’m a bit disturbed that you would know so much about what dead bodies in different states look like, master,” Ajen said tensely.
She shrugged, looking him in the face with a mild frown, having no defense. “Necromancy is one of the magical traditions that are possible, which is my study. I do not care for mastery of the Black Force, but it’s good to be able to recognize it when I see it.”
Ajen nodded. “So tell me, then: what was he doing out here?”
She turned, remembering the direction of the ghoul’s tracks up the dune, and beheld the sight now finally in the distance; his path was parallel to their own. The walls of the great city of Wahid were visible through the shimmer of the desert heat.
“I can venture a guess …” she said, recalling that there is rarely just one ghoul.
+ + +
Night did not affect the city, mostly. The intensity of the bazaars’ trade lessened in the dark, to be sure, but the raucous rumbling of coin and culture gave way the more intimate and whispered business best done in shadows. Women would call to men from streets, as hooded figures slithered to and fro with unheard footsteps, mostly watching, only very rarely killing. Other unscrupulous trades persisted in the dark and behind the backs of disciplined and vigilant, if sleepy and finite watchmen. A typical evening, as had in any age in any city of such a size.
Koetun took this opportunity to relieve herself of their wares, the gold and like procured in the vaults of the Light Gate. She was pleased to wrest from the traders a sum to make more than a profit, but being a woman of some foresight and discipline stowed the wealth for some time later (“for a rainy day,” times more common metaphorically here in the deserts than literally, especially in the excavation and occasional grave-robbing employ as she had).
It was thus not until morning that she was able to make contact with her more reputable associates, her scholar friend in the Order of the White Sand, who would trade modestly for the scrolls she unearthed. But a warning, for free, she also gave him.
“If you can, bring to the attention of those who should hear it that a ghoul was seen wandering the wastes,” she told him. After explanation, he seemed at first unconcerned.
“Are there not always those things shambling through the sands?” the scholar asked. “They do not die of thirst or the heat, so it is small wonder you saw just one in all your journey.”
“There’s rarely just one,” she remarked. As a magical scholar she knew he did not need reminding of one of the most basic facts about ghouls: their condition seemed contagious. Though some insisted being a ghoul was some communicable disease, Koetun held that anyone whose life is ruined and cut short by horrible violence could rise as that kind of undead monstrosity. Being savaged by a ghoul was a potent enough way for just that, and so one ghoul could become many easily if left unchecked.
Especially in a dense city, as an example.
Convinced, the White Sand sorcerer bowed, saying, “I will pass this information along, for caution’s sake. And thank you again for the scrolls.”
It was expected then (but only partly) when a man, officially-dressed in clean stark white cotton and a high turban, approached them later in the day with summons from the court of the Shah.
“I’ve never met a shah,” Ajen remarked.
“Well, I certainly haven’t, either,” Koetun added as they walked through the city streets, escorted by the official. “All I know is to pay the utmost respect to him and his retinue: he is a very powerful man, the ruler of Wahid, and likely the major power in most all of Ramil, certainly for many leagues.”
“I wonder if he might be entertained by some magic show,” the genie thought aloud.
“It’s business about the ghoul, I’m sure; please don’t embarrass me,” she said, the ring on her finger glowing warm.
“Oh course,” Ajen answered curtly under her command.
Their escort showed them, lady and genie, past a series of guards, who seemed serious and formidable and taller than Ajen was. Beyond the stone path and an interior wall’s archway, they beheld a most splendid sight – a garden with flowers; fountains of flowing, crystal-clear water; and decorated with shiny brass cages of colorful exotic birds, resting in the shade of trees, lattice, and arches. Tiles of splendid color and sublime geometry decorated the walls and floors, and in the patterns there seemed to be jewels or colored glass, such that one may walk on rainbows. That such a wondrous garden could be made (and sustained) in a desert such as those that Koetun spent much of her time in during expeditions … she had to assure herself that she had not died and been carried by the angels of God to Paradise. There was more living greenery in one place than she had ever seen, and none of them were desert weeds, and all was arranged in such perfect symmetry as to impress upon anyone that it was, indeed, designed to be a heaven made on earth.
She nearly forgot herself when she was introduced to a man, Al-Sidh, who was a lower adviser to the shah. They knew it was unlikely to meet the shah himself, and recognized that he was not the portly if humbly-dressed sovereign of the city-state. He was thinner, bearded and wore an elaborate turban, and Koetun noticed the rings set with sapphires on his right hand as she shook it in greeting.
After introductions and pleasantries, he asked, “My sources inform me you had a run-in with a ghoul,” and after hearing the story from the both of them first-hand rather than second-hand, Al-Sidh nodded, and asked, “Is there anything else about this that you can tell me?”
“There was our expedition to the Light Gate of Old Menurabi,” Ajen offered.
“Yes,” he said, “where you procured the scrolls for our Order of the White Sand scholars, of course.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Was there anything else you found in the ruins: were there any more ghouls lurking there?”
“No, sir,” Koetun replied, “just the one on the dune was all we saw.”
“Was there any other dark thing out that way?”
Koetun’s face must have betrayed her worry, for Al-Sidh nodded, understanding without her needing to respond. “Please tell me about it.”
She and Ajen shared a look. She said, “We found very little lore or records in that place, especially any that was magical, as much of the scrolls were simply burnt, or in some cases the writing on the walls were defaced. But we did see a marking,” she added, and she pulled from her bag an example, a wall rubbing from earlier, handing it to the adviser with both hands so he could inspect it. His gaze traced the circle of the eclipse, and the line of the zigzag bolt or maw.
His frown was telling. “I take it this is not the first time you’ve seen this?”
“No, sir, we’ve seen it at least five times in the last twelve months or so, at one excavation, er, exploration site or another.”
Al-Sidh nodded, his assessment of both it and her complete, and returned the rubbing sample. “You are not the first to have seen it,” he revealed to her. “The shah’s men have as well, first in places far distant, and more recently in places near, as though drawing closer. One of those places matches the geography of the sand-people and the ghoul’s patterns as you described. In many places, ghouls have been responsible for both loss of life and ruin lately. Some reports say they are accompanied by a winged monster or by a floating beastly head; others say by a woman.”
Koetun flinched at this last bit of revealed intelligence, and Al-Sidh noticed. “We know of this woman,” Ajen offered. “Her name is Kianasadeh, and she is friend to the div,” the genie said, voice tensing like taught wire, and Al-Sidh sensed this as well.
“Kiana and I … she and I have some history,” Koetun said vaguely, absentmindedly rubbing the golden ring on her hand. Ajen nodded sternly in agreement, but added nothing.
“Well,” Al-Sidh said, breaking the silence, “if she is friend to the div and associate of monsters and ghouls, she is then doubtlessly some criminal, or perhaps monster, herself.”
“She is very much like the div,” Koetun shared. “Monstrous, yes, but also proud, and spiteful. She feels a compulsion to destroy, and the more beautiful the better.”
“Especially,” Ajen added, “if a genie has had any hand in that thing’s creation.”
Al-Sidh nodded, understanding, and looked around at the splendor of the shah’s garden, which in the desert any would be certain was nothing short of a miracle.
“Then I think I see her intent,” he concluded.
+ + +
It was some days later after midnight, by the spy-glass of a scout on Wahid’s walls, that the first of the ghouls was spotted approaching the city. Upon the crest of the hill a dozen of them were moving about, charging down the sand dune towards the gates.
Taking heed of intelligence the shah had ordered to withdraw all shops that would establish themselves outside the gates at night, to the grumbling of many. “Those merchants will be pleased, and alive, that they complied,” a guard captain said, and he ordered his tower-guard to shoot the approaching ghouls. As one crossbow was emptied another garrison-member would pass a fresh crossbow forward and reload, keeping up a steady barrage to repel the invaders. And though the rabble was small they had shields; ghouls are not mindless undead, but retain some sense of reasoning, even if it was always directed towards ruin and slaughter. Several defended themselves all the way to the gates. They then hammered on the doors, making a terrible racket.
The guards outnumbered the ghouls, and had the wall besides; they knew they could make short work of them. What they did not expect was an attack from behind.
In the creeping dark of twilight, from passages unseen into the city, several ghouls had slipped into Wahid. They set themselves, scattered but strong, to the task of murder, and those they killed became ghouls themselves. If they had begun with four, there were then eight, and then nearly a score, and then over almost three dozen, and so on, until people couldn’t help but notice them. The guards’ attention split to both sides of the wall, they failed to notice the approach of a monster on dark wings, which perched atop a tower and then pounced on the captain as his subordinates fought about.
The div was over six feet tall, with an emaciated body, bare concave stomach, and the black wings of a vulture. Its slavering head was that of a jackal, teeth barred from a lack of lips, and eyes mad with obvious hunger. It grabbed the captain he had landed on bodily with one clawed hand, and pulled his head off with the other, and in peeling away the helmet swallowed the head whole – hair, eyes and all, the div’s jaws unhinging like a serpent. Its stomach bulged out round from the shape of the skull, but then crushed itself back down to empty hunger with a crunching sound.
“More …” it growled. The demon was now six-and-a-half feet tall, and lashed out to grab another victim.
In the chaos that ensued, ghouls ran in the streets, and the gate was forced open. The horns and bells of alarm were sounding ceaselessly throughout the city, the night merchants and people running for shelter. Koetun and Ajen were holed up in their small apartment at the time until a ghoul invaded their home, smashing down the door, where it received a quick decapitation from Ajen’s scimitar, spilling its sand-blood on the floor.
“We must join the fight!” Ajen said to Koetun.
“I’m no fighter!” Koetun cried back from the corner of the room, curled away. “That’s why I have you! Let the guard handle this!”
The yowling screech came overhead on dark wings. The flying div had taken to picking off fleeing civilians, and was now grown nearly eight feet tall and stockier. Its screams of delight, filling those who heard it with terror and screams of their own, sounded as a jackal’s howl, a vulture’s squawk, and a snake’s hiss all mixed together. Several ghouls ran about beneath its shadow, forcing themselves into hastily barricaded businesses and houses.
“We must accept that we have to defend ourselves here, at least,” Ajen said, “or take the fight to them”. He kept his eyes on the feasting div, even as he effortlessly cut down a ghoul that was charging him. Already Ajen was rising up into the air, his face a grimace, the ancient animosity between div and genie being a living tradition.
“Don’t you dare leave me to fight that thing! You protect me!” Koetun commanded with her pointed finger, golden ring glowing bright as she spoke. Ajen instantly landed and came to her side.
Suddenly, he picked her up and before she could object was carrying her in his strong arms, flying through the air. “What are you doing?!” she demanded.
“I am protecting you, keeping you close to me, and going forth to defend this city, which is both of our homes.”
“No!” she protested, looking down; normally she liked to fly with him, but she never liked being in fights. “Put me down!”
“Where? Not among the ghouls, certainly. Unless you mean to run and leave the city to their ruin.”
“… And hers,” she said, pointing. Ajen followed her finger, and broke off from his pursuit of the faster aerial div. Back towards the city gates a figure was walking among the ghouls; they did not assail her, though there were dozens of them about her within reach. She pulled back her cloak’s hood, and as the ghouls rushed past she closed her eyes, raised her arms up slowly, palms open, and breathed deep, listening with a smile to the sounds of destruction and screaming in the city. Two small horns, concealed in her hair, had sprouted, curling and twisting from their hidden mode into full monstrous form. Kianasadeh opened her slit-pupil eyes, and her smile revealed sharp teeth.
Ajen landed nearby in an alleyway, and set Koetun down. Wordlessly, they looked at each other; Koetun put a finger to her lips, and made a soft shushing, and Ajen nodded, transforming into a wisp of wind, sword and all, and was gone.
The ghouls had left Kianasadeh behind, where she stood in the arch of the now abandoned gates. While the fighting happened elsewhere, she looked at the gate’s decorative surface, covered in beautiful lines of geometry and interwoven patterns. At her touch the lines unraveled, and though the stone was unharmed its artful surface lost its splendor, becoming plain bare rough rock.
Ajen materialized behind her from thin air and swung fast with his blade. In the next instant though, she was away, a good jaunt distant to the side with a flash of shadow.
Kianasadeh smiled. “Did you think I would expect no opposition?” she asked, her voice both smooth and charming while also sharp-edged and cutting. She flicked the air with her finger, and an outward ripple of black outlined a sphere of dark magic around her, which had saved her from the sneak attack. “I should have expected you’d be here, dear friend,” she said to Koetun, “And I already see you brought your slave with you.”
Both winced under her words, as Koetun emerged from the shadow of the alleyway. Behind her was a summoned water elemental, which suddenly flowed around her in a surging wave towards the div-spawn sorceress. As it drew close she sidestepped again, instantly moving several feet distant in a flash of shadow, and again as Ajen charged in with his scimitar. Kianasadeh stood in the archway of the city against the three of them, and from there entered more ghouls and div.
“God, place light in my heart,” the chanting began, from nearby. “Magnify for me light, and make me light. Give my light beyond light!” the sorcerers of the Order of White Sand chanted, and the entrance to the city flooded with the brilliant golden light of the Sun, filling the night. It overflowed from the bodies of the magi, washing over the city in cascades and drowning and crushing ghouls as it went. When the light receded, most but not all of the ghouls were gone, leaving only a small number of div remaining, shouting in pain.
“What awesome magic …” Koetun marveled. She looked to Kianasadeh and her widening smile.
As the fighting broke between the chanting White Sand sorcerers and the cursing div, cutting some of each other down with displays of magic brilliant or foul, Koetun stood back. Ajen was thick in the fighting, sword slashing in close to several div, leaping acrobatically off walls and somersaulting through the air. His blade came down sheathed in magical freezing waters on one div, splitting it down the middle before it could slay a city guardsmen, as they were regrouping.
“Ajen, come!” Koetun suddenly commanded, and she had him carry her to the top of the wall. As they landed she picked up a dropped spy-glass from the body of a headless guardsmen, and she looked out upon the desert, saying, “Kiana must have planned this.”
“Obviously: we know she is allied to the div, and knows how to command the ghouls …”
“No, I mean the way the White Sands responded. That was an incredible display of magic: she meant to draw them out.” She cursed briefly, and recited a spell, her eyes flashing dark blue before turning nearly all black, returning to look out on the night. “There, now I can see …” and she sighed, spying a second contingent of ghouls and div set to come over the dunes and into the city. Already the hundreds stirred, armed and making preparations. “More there, closing in; indeed, it was quite a great display of magic,” she said, still searching.
Realization dawning, Ajen began, “… And great uses of magic …”
“… draw the Black Sandstorm there,” Koetun confirmed, seeing through the dark of night the approaching clouds of anti-magical dust, and the dreaded, seemingly intelligent sphere of black mineral looming, stalking, at its core.
“We’ll have no chance.”
They looked down at the battle before them. Currently the city guard, with the White Sands, were holding, but they would be overwhelmed by the coming second wave and the storm. They descended from the wall and pulled aside a guardsman and a lady sorcerer in white.
“We have to warn the shah about the approaching Black Storm,” Koetun told her.
“We know about the storm!” the White Sands scholar responded. “And the shah does too; the wash of light is clearly magical, and we are all prepared to garrison until the storm’s passing.”
“But there’s more ghouls and div coming too, with the storm!” Ajen added. “The shah has to send out whatever reserves he has left.”
“The shah cannot sacrifice his royal guard,” the guard lieutenant cried, explaining, “if they seek to ruin the garden or the city, so be it; but if the ruling family falls, the city will never recover. And the guard is already spread completely, throughout the city. There are no more!”
After a moment of thought, the sorceress said, “There is one last chance: The shah, or his genie-servant, can call for allies from beyond to appear for battle. It is a thing of great cost to summon the Sun Chargers, though, and a ritual that can only be done in grave national emergencies.”
Ajen suddenly chopped down a ghoul that had snuck up near them, kicking the sandy corpse away. “I think this qualifies!” he cried.
She nodded in agreement. “Then we must make haste,” the lieutenant said, “and we’ll have to cut a path through the city to get to the shah so he can begin.”
“There’s no time,” Koetun said, “the city’s crawling with horrors. … But Ajen can fly you there.”
He looked at her. “Are you sure? Do you not wish for me to stay and protect you?”
“Do you see a faster way? Unless you can have her appear there instantly?”
“…You know I cannot …”
“Then unless you do it and she gets there fast to have these Sun Chargers summoned, the whole city will be defenseless when more ghouls and div come with the sandstorm.” She put her ringed hand over her fist, and told Ajen directly, “It is my wish that you safely take this White Sands sorceress to the shah, so his audience can being the ritual to defend our city.” The ring glowed brightly as she spoke.
“Your wish is my command,” he said with a bow, and sheathing his sword picked the lady up gently and began to float into the air. “Protect her for me, please,” he told the guardsman, who nodded, and quickly they were away.
Koetun and the lieutenant moved off a way, finding a building which had been ransacked and already flushed by the ghouls. “What do you plan to do?” he asked her.
“Hide,” she said simply, sitting in the corner on the floor, away from the windows.
He looked back in the direction of the sounds of battle. “Don’t you want to fight?”
“No, and I can’t!” she replied in a hushed voice. “I’m no fighter, I’m a scholar of magic, an archaeologist! And in a few minutes the Black Sandstorm will be here: any abjuration I might defend myself with will be dispelled, and while it’s near I can’t cast besides. And since I can’t fight, all I can do is run and hide …”
“And you can’t even manage that!” a deep voice guffawed.
Floating down from the ceiling was a div, or part of one: a floating beastly head, like a monkey’s head with ram horns and a lion’s black mane. It grinned, sharp teeth bare, as the lieutenant drew his sword. He slashed at the head, but being a small airborne thing it wove around his sword-swing, and floated around to his neck, biting down hard. As he screamed and fell dead, Koetun shot off a magical pressurized stream of icy water. The head was blasted up to the ceiling, and was stuck there in a frozen coating of icicle and rime.
She was panting, she realized. From fear, yes, but also from exertion: the only way a spell that low-level should be that strenuous was if the Black Sandstorm was already here…
As the wind kicked up outside, she also heard footsteps approaching. “My dear friend,” the slicing voice purred, “I thought I heard you here.”
+ + +
“Don’t worry, ma’am, I’ve got you,” Ajen insisted.
“It’s just … we’re so high up, and going so fast!”
“Well, we need to outpace the storm.”
“Of course,” she said. “There, the gardens!”
They began their descent, when rising up from a nearby building the winged jackal-div emerged. It had grown to great size now, over 12 feet tall, muscular, and portly, as if a fat wrestler. It moved sluggishly through the air, but still had the look of furious hunger in its eyes as it ascended toward them.
“More meat!” it gleefully exclaimed.
“What is that thing?!”
“A kind of div who knows no end to its gluttony,” Ajen explained, sidestepping the monster. Even carrying his precious charge, he was faster than the beast, apparently sedate from its heavy meals of human heads. Ajen fought the urge to engage it in battle, the racial hatred between the two species of spirits being great; but his mind remained dutifully focused on the task at hand that he was commanded to.
As they approached the palace they felt as though passing through the surface of water, cool and momentarily refreshing, if for a moment, and saw above their heads light blue ripples expand and expose the shape of a great hemisphere. The pursuing div landed heavily on this unseen magical dome, and was repelled from the shah’s abode, flying off lethargically, cursing, or biding its time.
Ignoring this, Ajen carried the scholar, swift as wind, over the heads of the palace guards. He halted short of the shah’s chambers, the entrance guarded by genies larger and more powerful than himself, each of their spears with a blade bigger than a man.
“Please, protectors, grant us admittance to the court,” the lady entreated. “I represent the Order of White Sand, and have come swiftly from the battle at the main gates of the city. We come with dire warning, and tactics to reverse our fortunes.”
“The shah and his ministers are in war council now, safe from the fighting,” one of the guard-genies replied. The other added, “If you tell us of your news, they shall be transmitted, and accounted for.”
“We don’t have time for middle-men!” Ajen cried. “The Black Sandstorm is coming, with an army of ghouls and div through the open gate. You can see the dust clouds approaching!” The guard-genies looked up to the skies, and saw that it was true.
“I wish to plead with the shah to mobilize the Sun Chargers, before the Black Sandstorm makes activating the magic needed impossible.”
Understanding that time was essential, the two genies looked at each other in agreement. “Come inside, both of you,” the junior guard bade, and they entered as the senior guard stayed on watch, spear held firm in both fists.
Ajen pulled his thoughts from the splendor of the building’s marvelous interior, which despite the lack of greenery still put to shame the heavenly garden he beheld earlier, a comparison obvious despite all his thoughts being elsewhere. Quickly they all hustled with admittance into the war chamber, where there was the shah, dressed plainly save for his battle-armor, which was sensible, serviceable, and not at all for style; and he was accompanied by advisers, court mages, and family, who all seemed equally alert and concerned about the slaughter and ruin unraveling Wahid.
“Your highness,” the bowing junior genie-guard began, “news has come from the main gate, by way of this lady scholar from the Order of White Sand.”
She nodded, repeating her message: “Your Highness, the main gate lies open, and the guard scattered throughout the city. The Order of the White Sand has intervened with magic to greatly reduce the ghouls; however, a second contingent, along with additional div, already approach, and our powerful spell has drawn the Black Sandstorm to our city – it approaches soon. At your discretion, Your Highness, I respectfully recommend the summoning of the Sun Chargers to defend the city, and with haste, for once the storm is upon us, our ability to cast the spell will be negated.
At first the shah said nothing. There was quick discussion among his war-cabinet, whose job was to keep the city-state defended, and also the court mages, which included more than one White Sands member. Sensing, somehow, from the chaos of talk back and forth, the direction that the conversation was headed, the shah held up an open palm, and all became silent.
“Yes, see it is done,” the shah said plainly, but with the gravity of a mountain.
Hastily in a side courtyard, clear of any exotic plants or garden-pleasantries, a brass dome was unlocked and lifted off a wide mosaic. Ajen, along with two other genies and about ten men and women, lifted it away, revealing a circle of ceramic tiles nearly thirty feet across. The sun-pattern lines were intricate and interwoven, mostly in strait lines but also concentric circles and wide arcs, but five of the orange-and-yellow tiles were missing. These the court sorcerers produced, having been kept secure elsewhere, and as priests began chanting a sacred hymn the tiles were placed quickly into their unique key-like slots.
“I hope this works,” Ajen said to the White Sands lady, watching.
“It can only be performed once every one hundred years, and so the shah will only have the ritual done if he believes he will not need it later.”
Ajen nodded, agreeing, “If not now, there may not be a later for Ramil.”
He felt the first stinging of black sand at his neck, and the light of the mosaic began to dim. In a frantic crescendo, the ritual was complete, and the lines flashed strong with golden light, ceramic tiles turning molten and creating a widening circle of pure fire. Just as the storm reached them and struck, flames beginning to contract as its mortal magic waned, a peri, an angel of fire, flew out of the pit, and widened it again. As her magic, not of mortal origin, maintained the circle, blazing men in armor of brass and riding steeds of flame charged out of the glowing disk in the ground. The stout riders’ hair and beards were flames, and as they carried their spears and blades in hand they glowed with scalding heat, as though pulled fresh from a forge. As the hooves of their ash-black war-steeds sparked on the ground they rode into formations and lines, awaiting the orders of their peri commander. More came riding, until there were two platoons and they were fifty strong.
“Astounding!” Ajen remarked, beholding their full battlement and ranks. Just when the company seemed assembled under the pelting sand, sorcerers and priests running for shelter from the magic-stripping winds, two mighty bolts of flame erupted from the circle as it closed. Only they were not lifeless fires: each spread its wings and cried aloud the shriek of mighty hawks, for they were phoenixes, divine rohks of living fire. Ajen would later learn they were special, for when a phoenix dies, it is immortal and reborn in a burst of fire, but this one was reborn by chance as twins, each a legendary captain of the Sun Chargers know together as the One Reborn As Two.
The holy host assembled, the peri stepped forward before the shah. She was a woman with ash-black skin and angel wings and short hair of flames, and she was clad in armor of heated steel that glowed like gold. She kissed the shad, sheltered from the sandstorm by his genies, on the cheeks. Behind her the twin phoenixes had landed with their platoons, heads low to await orders. With a voice that was high like anvil-struck metal and melodic like bells, the peri bade, “Your highness, we come at your command.”
Wasting no time, the shah replied, “There are div and ghouls in my city, bringing ruin and the Black Sandstorm. I want them eliminated.”
With a penitent acceptance, the peri smiled, and said, “Your wish is my command.” She drew her blade and let cry the roar of a blast furnace from within her, not the voice of a lady but of a crusader, and on horseback or wings the Sun Chargers followed her out into the city, carrying light and cleansing flames as they went.
Ghouls were trod upon where the Sun Chargers rode, and impaled until their sandy blood melted into twisted glass from the heat of the riders’ spears, their sterilized charred bodies shattering on the streets. Divs regrouped to stand strong in solidarity against the charges, hurling dark magic and hexes at their foes, some of whom fell; one large and cunning contingent was only routed by the double strike of the phoenixes’ fiery breath, where an entire building was destroyed, flames extinguished by the blowing sand.
Ajen himself, though a lesser genie than those that protected the shah and his family and court, threw himself into battle. Koetun’s command fulfilled, he was free to pursue the div that had flown about the city devouring so many. He found it hiding from the sun-flames of the Chargers, despite his great size, in a small restaurant, biding its time.
When they saw each other they were drawn together instantly into battle. “It has been an age since I have had the head of a genie to eat!” it roared. “Though I don’t think one so puny can sate my hunger.”
Ajen slashed at it with his scimitar, cutting a shallow wound in its portly belly. “You will not get the chance!” They slashed at each other back and forth, blade and claws, until their blood mingled with the howling dust. The winds made flight difficult, even for a genie with wind magic unbound from the earth, and the div’s wings were often buffeted by gusts. The black anti-magic sand, though harmless to their magic as spirits, still stung the eyes and cut into their wounds.
Ajen caught a blast of sand in his face, and was blinded for a moment. The div took his opportunity and barreled into him, slamming him down on a fragile rooftop that collapsed under the impact. They were both inside now, the slavering jackal-headed beast sitting on Ajen, weighing him down with his grotesque hairy gut. As Ajen tried to come down with his sword, it gloated with its animal-like cackle as it caught him by the wrist. The div put his other hand on Ajen’s throat, working its way up to twist his head off; Ajen could feel the inhuman strength in the monster’s grip, and had no way to free himself.
“For all the help you tried to give others,” the beast said, “and you can’t even save yourself.”
The room suddenly erupted with fire, as if daylight had dawned through the hole in the roof and poured down an entire bonfire. He smelled the seared flesh and burnt fat of the monster, and as it recoiled in pain and let fly an animal yowl, he saw the peri above him, wings and hand aflame from the bolt of fire. She was descending now with her white-hot spear, and Ajen rose up on him with his scimitar, and the two stabbed the div from each direction through its torso, where it bled out and died.
Rising into the air, the genie and the fire angel shared a glance. Though he was a mess of claw-cuts and blood, whatever grime of war fell on her angelic face was burned away by her nature. Just as he was about to speak to the smiling peri, a familiar glow pulled his attention away.
“Ajen,” he heard whimpered.
The peri watched him become as a lightning bolt, and go streaking across the sky.
+ + +
Kianasadeh’s outline was black, even against the dark of night and the storm blowing outside the door-frame. She stalked in, eyes following her in the dark; Koetun realized that her own ability to see in the dark, a magical spell, was fading fast with the approaching storm, whose anti-magic sand both suppressed nearby magic and could permanently strip away a person’s powers.
Kianasadeh looked up at the div, the head stuck frozen to the ceiling, with the ice around it melting, dripping in the night’s heat. She let out a sigh. “I can blame you for that, at least. And I suppose you’re not totally incompetent as a magician. Not that it matters now,” remarking about the storm.
Koetun drew her dagger, a weapon of last resort, and Kianasadeh paused and smirked.
“You’re no fighter, dear friend …”
“You’re not my friend!” Koetun shouted, standing up. “You lied to me: you feigned niceness to get close to the tome, and destroyed it. It was priceless, and entrusted to the White Sands; its magic could have been a step closer to getting rid of this damned sandstorm … you used me to get to it, and they kicked me out too!”
Kianasadeh waved off a hand, dismissively. “Ancient history,” she said. “I’m on to bigger things, now, bigger than you, certainly. Just imagine, dear: a whole city, built up tall and proud on the backs of men and genies, ruined! And, of course, I get to kill you, too. Especially since you’re powerless without your magic …” she said, her pointed finger swirling with shadowy smoke, which sputtered after only a brief moment, and died. The sandstorm howled outside.
“So are you,” Koetun dared.
“Hardly,” and she lunged, trying to grab at her. In the scuffle, she grabbed one hand, then the hand with the dagger, and it became a contest of strength. The two women fought and pushed, slamming each other against the wall and shuffling awkwardly around an overturned table. Koetun couldn’t maneuver her blade around to cut her, and Kianasadeh, though quick, was not strong enough to overcome a lady who spent most of her time climbing through underground catacombs. Neither could find an opening.
“I have a mind to take you into the storm!” Kianasadeh said, “To loose all your power, or die! Which do you fear worse?”
“You’d loose your powers too, Kiana!” Koetun retorted in the struggle.
Something staggered through the sandstorm outside, visible from the drawn-down window. “Div, come!” Kianasadeh commanded, and a muffled response came through the howling, rasping weather. Shortly a beastly thing filled the doorway: it seemed like a person, maybe a man or a woman, half-starved to death, with over-sized eyes that glowed magically and angry orange through the storm; the div’s powers unaffected by the anti-magic of the storm, even if mortal sorcerers were. The div shambled in at her command.
“Take her, and drag her into the Black Sandstorm!” she said with a cackle. The div did as commanded, trying to grab hold, but in the transfer Koetun’s hand came free, and she slashed the div with her dagger. Its sandy blood sprayed out and got in Kianasadeh’s eyes, and she recoiled. Koetun stabbed into the screaming div until it died, and by the time she turned her attention back to her other attacker, she was on top of her, eyes red with rubbing and fury. Koetun was pinned, and the dagger was taken and thrown outside into the storm.
“I may yet take you there myself,” Kianasadeh hissed. “But no, I think I’ll wait for another div to come by, for we have all night as the storm rages. And then you’ll be pitched out, with no defense.”
Koetun breathed heavily from the fighting and frustration. She struggled and fought the pin, but she couldn’t get leverage, didn’t have strength, couldn’t use magic, and lost all concentration in worry of an unseen, approaching, eventual enemy to deliver defeat. She had nothing left to give from herself.
“And to think you were once so proud.”
As her fist clenched, Koetun felt the shape of the metal band on her finger.
“Ajen,” she whimpered.
“Oh, that slave of yours!” she whispered, close in her ear. “They think they’re better than me, they all do, but you know you’re not. Not if you admit yourself to profit by what is, no doubt, slavery.”
Koetun could feel the glow in the ring. “And how do you profit?” she asked defiantly.
“Oh, I know I force others to do what they don’t want to. None of them chose to become ghouls. But I don’t care what I ruin – it’s the ruining itself that I love. That is what I have, in addition to power. What do you have?”
Like lightning Ajen burst down from the sky and through the door, pulling Kianasadeh off Koetun and slamming her into the wall by her neck.
“Trust,” Koetun replied.
+ + +
The storm passed and the Sun Chargers returned to their higher spiritual realm beyond the ken of mortal magic. It would take no less than ten years for magical craftsmen to make another summoning circle, even with the magic of the shah’s genies. In the meantime the city rebuilt and recovered from the repelled siege; in the end the shah’s garden was only modestly damaged, and more importantly to the shah there was only minimal loss of life and trade, even by the most optimistic assessments, thanks to the magic used that night.
“I think this city has seen more of the supernatural in one night than it sees in a hundred years,” Ajen remarked at the time.
“I know I have, and magic is my trade,” Koetun replied; then she was deep in thought over something of great importance to her.
Now, a few months later, Koetun had taken a break from reading the magic scrolls she was studying from the library and looked down at her amulet. It was a real White Sands amulet, and it was hers, now. She was glad that she was now finally a member, and not merely an outside consultant, but also saddened that so many had died in defense of the city. Many assured her that it was her talent in magic and archaeology and not the mere vacancies left by the dead that got her in, after Kianasadeh’s confession to her crimes had cleared Koetun’s name and standing. For Kianasadeh herself the penalty, of course, was execution. “Good riddance,” Koetun had said at the time, and she meant it, though her mind would return to the woman and pick at the issue, as the human mind does, wondering sometimes if things could have turned out different.
For now, though, she simply marveled at the amulet in her bare hand. Though the white sand inside was itself unremarkable, it meant to her that she had regained the world, after she had lost or given up much.
There was a knock on the door. “I though I might find you here,” Ajen said.
Koetun was stunned to see him, and kissing greeted him, “I didn’t expect to see you again.”
Ajen absentmindedly rubbed the golden ring on his hand. “I thought you might like some professional help on your next expedition you’re planning.”
“I never said I was planning an expedition.”
“You don’t have to say it: I know you’re planning one.”
He knew her too well. Even from the library the wasteland called to her. She smiled.
“Besides,” Ajen added with a casual shrug, “it’s not like I’m a slave or anything: I gotta earn my keep somehow, and what better work than that which I know?”
“Indeed,” she said, pulling up a chair for him to sit next to her, as she unfurled a map of the deserts throughout Ramil.