The mountains had grown from a blurred, uneven line on the horizon to a recognisable part of the landscape by the time the sun sank beneath the western horizon. As the sky darkened from the yellow-tinged blue of late afternoon to the deep crimson of evening, the skimmer’s crew part-furled the sails and unlinked the capstan. We would keep moving until full dark, but it was too hazardous to maintain full speed in the gathering gloom.
Tamar, the scarred, red-haired woman who had spent most of the day at the capstan, lit rushlights and passed them to Mei to place in sconces around the gunwales. The lookout, Gerreth, a lad perhaps a couple of years older than Mei, with the coppery skin and jet-black hair of a Draji, called out how far he could still see every few minutes. At last, he announced that he could no longer see more than a few yards beyond the skimmer’s prow, and Enamdis ordered the sails fully furled and the locking bars inserted through the hull and into the wheels to prevent the vessel from shifting during the night.
Anyone who had not already armed themselves took weapons from the pile Mei had left nestled between the door to Neren’s cabin and the stairs up to the quarterdeck. We had all eaten and drunk our water rations while the skimmer was still moving, so we could now give our full attention to keeping watch for the attack we all hoped desperately would not come.
Neren approached, his face grim. “I want you up on the quarterdeck, you and Bayl and Mei and Tamar. It’s more easily defensible than the main deck.”
I opened my mouth to protest. Though I had no intention of telling him who – and what – I really was, I did not want to be treated as some fragile, helpless waif. Even without using so much magic that it marked me as a defiler, I could still fight. Deep in my soul, I knew I needed to prove to myself that I could kill the vile filth that had so horribly violated me less than two days before.
But he didn’t even give me the chance to speak. “Ysuun,” he said, his voice low and patient, “you are our healer. Once the fight is over, how many of my crew survive their wounds may depend upon your skills. I do not seek to spare you danger for your own sake, but for the sake of us all.”
I saw the sense in that. Had I been thinking rationally, I would have come to the same conclusion. Still, I hoped I would at least have the chance to bathe the blades of my lotulis in sand devil blood. Oh, how I wanted to see them suffer even a fraction of the pain they had inflicted on me!
The quarterdeck was almost square, but it narrowed slightly with the curve of the skimmer’s hull, from almost 15 feet abeam at its forward extent, where two sets of narrow steps led up from the main deck with the skimmer’s wheel between them, to a little over 10 feet abaft. The mizzenmast stood at the dead centre of the quarterdeck, and it was at its base that Mei had piled half a dozen quivers of arrows and two crates filled with bandages, dried herbs, potion fruit, suturing kits, splints and other tools of the healer’s trade.
The girl herself was stringing a small but powerful-looking recurved bow constructed from layers of horn and wood. Tamar sat beside her, leaning against one of the medical crates with her long, bare legs stretched out before her, adjusting the straps of her leather and chitin breastplate. A pair of matching carrikals lay beside her, their bone blades razor-sharp. The red-haired woman looked up as Bayl and I approached, and her scarred face creased into a scowl.
“I hope you know how to fight,” she said, her voice harsh. “My sister, Dragon take her, pops out squalling brats faster than the Queen of Raam. I joined this crew to get away from having to look after useless children, so you’d better not turn out to be one.”
“You talking to me or her?” Bayl drawled.
Tamar let out a bark of laughter. “Just don’t get in my way, gladiator! I’ll take the port stairs. You can have the starboard.”
Bayl shrugged, then nodded toward the woman’s axes. “Never much liked carrikals. Too slow for my way of fighting. But those two are fine workmanship.”
Tamar grinned happily, and for a moment I realised she must have been quite beautiful before someone or something tore her face to shreds. “These are my babies,” she chuckled. “Well, they’re the closest I ever want to having kids, anyway.” She plucked one from the deck and tossed it to Bayl.
He caught it deftly and whirled it through several practice swings. “Well-balanced. Yeah, I could see this doing some damage.” He handed it back to her. “I’ll stick with this, though,” he said, patting the alhulak tied around his waist.
“Does your kilt fall down when you untie that?” Tamar asked, a mischievous glint in her eyes.
Bayl harrumphed in mock umbrage and stumped across to take his place at the head of the starboard steps. Mei stifled a giggle, then made a rapid series of hand gestures, her slender fingers moving faster than my eyes could follow. Tamar guffawed.
I just wished the sand devils would show up, if they were ever going to. The tension of waiting was starting to bring back memories from two nights ago. Despite the growing chill of the desert night, I felt rivulets of sweat sliding icily across my skin.
Below us on the main deck, the rest of the crew stood evenly spaced around the rail. Most of the rushlights had been extinguished, and the rest would be put out as soon as the moons were in the sky. The crew would sleep two at a time, for an hour each, while the rest stayed on watch. They’d doubtless be weary the next day, but better weary than dead or captured by sand devils.
Enamdis and Neren stood beneath the mainmast, Enamdis with her gouge in her hands and Neren leaning on a plain wooden staff. He had given no clue as to his talents. He was obviously no warrior, but it is never wise to underestimate a practitioner of the Way. Alone among us all, he had donned no armour; he still wore only his pale grey jubba.
The hours crawled by like years as we waited. Tamar managed to get an hour’s rest somewhere near midnight, but Mei shook her head when the red-haired woman suggested she do the same. Bayl did not need to sleep, of course, and I knew I could not. Enamdis – and, to my surprise, Neren too – also remained awake.
The night was far from silent. Though there were fewer beasts living here in the sandy wastes than there had been last night in the badlands, and fewer still that would venture abroad by night, even the faintest sound could echo for miles across the dunes. I found I was grinding my teeth to stop myself from crying out at every hiss and roar. Mei nuzzled closer to me where we sat at the foot of the mizzenmast, half-covered by a woollen blanket. I smiled at the girl, grateful for her silent understanding. Somehow, I knew she had suffered more than the loss of her tongue. I did not want to think that any of my sister templars could have subjected a mere child to anything resembling what the sand devils had done to me, but I felt a strange kinship with Mei nonetheless.
Suddenly, there came a gasping cry from the maindeck. Mei and I shot to our feet, I grasping the haft of my lotulis, Mei snatching up her bow and nocking a flint-headed arrow to the string.
One of the crew was down, clutching at the hilt of a throwing knife jutting from his chest, a dark pool quickly growing on the deck beneath him. It was Gerreth. I was about to rush down from the quarterdeck, though I knew he was already beyond my abilities as a healer. But Bayl cried out a warning and I saw a kirre-horn grapnel sail over the rail and catch tight against the gunwale. Then another, and another. Within moments, a dozen or more black-clad figures swarmed onto the main deck, slashing at the crew with scimitars that gleamed in the moonlight. Not for the first time, I wondered how the sand devils could amass enough iron to make so many weapons. Surely it could not all have come from raiding trade caravans?
But Neren’s crew were skilled fighters. The first half-dozen sand devils to set foot upon the main deck died within moments, their skulls or ribcages smashed with stone-headed maces, run through the throat or belly with spears, or hacked down with axes and flaked-obsidian swords. Mei’s first arrow took a sand devil through the neck as he advanced upon Neren and Enamdis. The half-giant glanced in our direction and grinned.
But three of the crew were down too. Gerreth was dead. Larech, the big man who I thought must be half-mul, had taken a deep gash to the leg and had staggered back to where Neren and Enamdis stood. The Gulgan woman, Chanya, lay face-down, dark limbs sprawled like a ragdoll, still clutching her spear in one hand. I could see no wound on her and hoped she had merely been knocked senseless by a glancing blow.
With a snarl, Enamdis rushed forward into the gap left by Gerreth and Larech, swinging her gouge like an axe. Her first swing lopped the goat-horned head from one sand devil woman in a shower of blood. Her second ripped the guts from a male, leaving him writhing in agony on the blood-soaked deck. The half-giant woman slammed her foot into the next face to appear over the rail, breaking the attacker’s nose and hurling him shrieking from his rope, then thrust her weapon’s wicked spike into the throat of the next, sending that one too plummeting to her death on the hard stone roadway twenty-five feet below. Enamdis howled and laughed with sheer joy as she killed. I wasn’t sure whether to be heartened or revolted, but I could see Bayl was even more in love with her than ever.
Mei sent another shaft into the fray, felling the well-muscled sand devil who had dragged Chanya’s unconscious body to the rail, obviously intending to hand her down to his companions so that she could be carried off to a hideous fate.
Then a trio of sand devils, larger than their kin and clad in armour formed from pieces of barbed cilops carapace rather than the form-fitting black leather worn by the rest, leaped over the rail together and barrelled towards Neren.
Bayl called out a warning, but Enamdis was still at the rail at the other side of the skimmer, hewing through the ropes up which the sand devils still swarmed, and everyone else on the main deck had their hands full just staying alive. Neren was on his own.
The young noble seemed unconcerned, though. He had not even switched his staff to both hands to wield it defensively, but continued to lean upon it as if it were a walking stick. The three sand devils were almost upon him.
Unaccountably, they stopped dead and staggered back, as though they had run into an invisible wall. Only then did Neren even deign to look at them. There seemed to be a faint nimbus of silver light about his head. The young noble moved his staff, almost imperceptibly, and one of the sand devils jerked upright and seemed to jump three feet or so into the air. He hung there for a moment, struggling feebly against unseen bonds, then, with bone-shattering force, smashed sideways into his fellows, sending all three sprawling to the deck.
One of the three surged to her feet and leaped at Neren with an almost animal growl. But she ran straight past him, as though he had vanished from her sight. The look of surprise on her brutish face was almost comical, but it quickly twisted into agony as Larech ran her through from behind. Even wounded, his great strength easily drove the obsidian head of his spear through chitin, leather and flesh alike. He finished her off with a second thrust through her heart as she lay writhing and gasping on the deck.
The other two lived only a moment longer. Neren picked them up with his mind and, with a flick of his staff, sent them hurtling through the air to vanish over the skimmer’s rail, their screams cut off abruptly as their bodies smashed against the stone roadway.
But I had allowed myself to be distracted. Several sand devils had fought their way through to the foot of the stairs leading up to the quarterdeck. Bayl and Tamar flexed their muscles and settled into fighting stances as the horned figures surged up the steps, howling like wild beasts.
Mei’s arrows whistled past me and sank hungrily into the sand devils’ unarmoured throats. But then I saw one of the rearmost attackers throw something that flashed as it streaked toward me, past me... I heard a wet thud and a wordless cry, and turned to see Mei falling to her knees, the bow tumbling from her hand. The throwing knife had embedded itself in the upper part of her left thigh, and blood poured from the wound, glistening black against her pale flesh. She stared past me, her grey eyes wide and unfocussed in shock.
Ignoring the sounds of battle, which seemed entirely too close for comfort, I dashed to the girl’s side, supporting her with one arm as she sank to the deck. I studied her wound in dismay. The blade had severed the artery feeding her leg. Her life was spilling out, far too quickly for any mere surgeon to save her life.
I glanced behind me. Bayl and Tamar were fighting desperately, but they were being driven back towards me one step at a time. Bayl’s alhulak was everywhere at once, its kirre-horn tines ripping open throats and bellies without mercy. I saw him grab one sand devil who had almost slipped past him, hurling the fiend back down the stairs. Tamar seemed almost to be dancing rather than fighting, but there was no doubting the brutal efficiency of her fighting style. Her bare legs flashed in the moonlight as she span and leaped, her twin carrikals carving crimson arcs through the air.
Had I had the time to think rationally, I would have let Mei die. I owed her nothing. But my mind was not functioning on any rational basis. Sending my senses outward, beyond my mortal flesh, I felt the girl’s desperately flickering life-force, the stronger, steadier flame of Bayl’s, the flashing, fiery fury of Tamar, and the roiling, black, hate-fuelled souls of the sand devils. Then, below me, I felt something else: the passive green glow of plant life. Without hesitation, I tore the life away from whatever it was below me, shaped it, forced it to submit to my will. I placed my hand on Mei’s bloody thigh. She whimpered in pain, but she was too weak by now to struggle. With my other hand, I pulled the dagger free, its barbed edge tearing the girl’s tender flesh. As her blood spurted thickly from the awful wound, I poured every last shred of the life I had stolen into her trembling body.
There was a blinding flash of green-white light and I found myself flat on my back, my hand throbbing as if scalded. Mei lay very still. Her blood covered the deck; we were both soaked in it, and, for one terrible moment, I thought I had failed. But her wound was gone, with not even a scar to mark her smooth, pale skin. She was unconscious, but her chest moved with the breath of life.
But the night was far from over. How had so many sand devils tracked us, over miles of rock and sand, without us seeing any sign of them? I knew now that, had we not encountered Neren and his silt skimmer, Bayl and I would have stood no chance. There were enough of these fiends that we could not even have fought well enough that they were forced to slay us. They would have taken us alive to face night after night of hellish torture.
And that might still have been our fate. Bayl was bleeding from dozens of cuts to his chest and arms. Tamar was wounded too, and I could see she was exhausted. Each step of her bloody dance was just a little slower than the last.
Still shaking from the after-effects of my defiling, I hefted my lotulis and began drawing more magic from whatever lived in the cargo hold below. I had already revealed myself as a sorceress in healing Mei. There was no longer much point in trying to avoid using my magic. If Neren and his crew objected to having a defiler aboard, I hoped that at least an obvious display of destructive power would render them too intimidated to express their disapproval.
Perhaps Fate requires one life to pay for another. Or perhaps it was my fault, in that I spent too long checking that Mei was indeed still among the living. Perhaps, if Tamar had not worked the skimmer’s capstan for so long, she would not have started the battle already tired. Such grasping for meaning is pointless, yet the fact that I cannot stop myself from wondering reminds me that, no matter what I have done in the name of necessity, I am still human.
Tamar pulled her remaining carrikal from a sand devil’s chest. The other lay between her bare feet, clotted with blood and hair, the jawbone that formed its blades shattered. The red-haired woman spun to avoid a scimitar slash that would have opened her throat. She seemed to be moving in slow motion. She saw the fiend grinning at her, his fangs gleaming in Ral’s sickly light, but she was already off-balance. The scimitar plunged savagely through her belly, doubling her over, forcing a gasp of agony from her lungs. Blood sprayed as the blade burst through her leather-clad back. With a surge of sorrow, I saw that it had severed the woman’s spine.
Her graceful dancer’s legs folded under her as the sand devil wrenched his bloody blade free. Tamar sprawled on the deck, her carrikal falling from her hand. I thought the sand devils would merely surge over her to attack me, but the red-haired woman’s defiance had driven them into a bestial rage. Dark shapes swarmed around her body, scimitars rising and falling again and again, sending showers of crimson droplets into the air amidst the hideous sounds of a butcher’s shop. The fiends howled in ecstasy as they brandished pieces of Tamar’s dismembered body.
But my rage at the gruesome spectacle eclipsed their savage bloodlust just as it overwhelmed my own terror. I was filled with power, with life stolen from the green things below me in the hold. My lotulis spun in the air before me, the runes carved into its haft coruscating with livid crimson energy. With a Word, I crushed the will of the foremost sand devil, destroying the fiend’s mind and sending him reeling to hurl himself over the rail to his death. With a second Word, I drove two more to their knees, blood spilling from their eyes, ears, mouths and nostrils. My third Word slew the sand devil who held Tamar’s dripping, severed head, splitting his crimson skin open so that his lifeblood gushed forth in a torrent, mixing with Tamar’s as it soaked the deck.
Bayl had finished off his last foe, snapping her neck almost casually before hurling her spasming body over the rail. Now, he threw himself across the quarterdeck, hammering his fist into one sand devil’s stomach and wrapping his alhulak around the neck of another.
My lotulis scythed the head from one foe, before sinking its razor-sharp tines deep into the chest of his neighbour. But my rage was undimmed. They had died too quickly, almost without pain, and they deserved so much worse for what they had done – to me, and to Gerreth and Tamar, and almost to Mei. The next sand devil to draw my wrath died much more fittingly, as my spinning lotulis took off both her arms at the shoulders before slicing her open from crotch to sternum. She died writhing in her own blood and entrails. I do not clearly remember what I did to the rest – Bayl grew very pale and silent the one time I asked him about it – but I still feel no pity for them. If I could have made them suffer even more terribly, I would have done so joyously.
I was only dimly aware that the fighting had already ceased below us on the main deck. Only when Neren appeared, Enamdis looming over his shoulder, did I realise that it was all over and that we had survived. The last of my magic spent, my lotulis hung in the air for a moment, unmoving, then clattered to the deck. Exhausted, I sank into Bayl’s arms.
As I tended to the wounded, nobody seemed inclined to question what had occurred on the quarterdeck. I was too weary at the time to wonder why they seemed so accepting of my use of magic.
We had lost four of the crew. Young Gerreth had never stood a chance. He had bled to death almost before the battle had even begun. And there was nothing anyone could do for Tamar other than to gather up the sad, bloody pieces of her and tie them up in a linen sheet to give her burial some semblance of dignity. Thankfully, Enamdis set herself to that grim task, for I did not wish to set foot on that bloody quarterdeck ever again. Dornal, the bearded veteran who had brought us food and drink when Bayl and I first came aboard, had taken a knife in the stomach and another across the throat, and had died almost as quickly as Gerreth, whom I later learned had been his nephew. The last to die had been Korla, a middle-aged woman from Tyr whom I’d never even exchanged a word with but who had seemed as hard and tough as the dried meat she habitually chewed. A sand devil had hamstrung her from behind, then knifed her repeatedly in the chest and throat as she lay helpless.
Larech’s leg would heal well enough without magic. The wound was deep, but clean. I stitched it closed and someone found him a crutch to get around on until he could walk on his own. Chanya’s scalp needed stitching too, but the deeper wound was to her pride. She had belonged to a warrior dagada back in Gulg, and spending most of a battle unconscious due to one unlucky blow, while her comrades fought and died around her, was almost more than she could bear.
Jak, her fellow Gulgan, would never wield his trikal again. A sand devil’s scimitar had taken off his left hand at the wrist and removed three fingers from his right. The fiend had been about to slice off Jak’s manhood, too, but had been interrupted by a gouge spike through the guts, courtesy of Enamdis. Neren reassured the crippled Gulgan that House Mentsu would look after him and his two young sons even though he could no longer crew a silt skimmer. The black-skinned man wept with gratitude as the young noble embraced him.
Enamdis and Bayl had both taken only superficial cuts and bruises, and I left them to bind each other’s wounds, ribbing each other good-naturedly over their respective kill tallies. It seemed Enamdis had slain exactly one more sand devil than Bayl, though he was inclined to dispute her number over some technicality. I was not surprised, when I turned back from stitching Chanya’s head wound, to see them locked in a passionate embrace. Surviving a battle by the skin of his teeth had always left Bayl rather amorous, and it seemed Enamdis shared this trait. I hoped they could find some comfort in each other.
“You should get some rest,” came Neren’s voice from behind me. He sounded even wearier than I felt, though he was the only person on the skimmer who seemed not to have taken even a scratch. “I think that was all of them.”
I shrugged. “If more come, we’re dead anyway. Only those two seem to have any energy left at all.” I nodded toward Enamdis and Bayl.
Neren hesitated, frowning thoughtfully. “It is none of my business, I know…”
I was too tired even to laugh. “You want to know if you should order the crew to start gathering stones now, or wait until morning?” I asked, bitterly.
He smiled. “I was merely going to inquire as to why several of the crates in my hold seem now to be filled with black ash rather than with the pomegranates we are supposed to be transporting to Nibenay. But, of course, we both know the answer to that. No, do not concern yourself. You saved Mei’s life. She, and I, are both grateful.”
“Gratitude is not usually enough to keep a defiler alive,” I said, wondering where this was leading.
“Not everyone has the same view of magic, Ysuun. I do not condone defiling, but I know that magic itself is not evil, even though it is supposedly forbidden for all save the sorcerer-kings and their templars. There are other ways of using magic, besides tearing it from the life around us…”
“But, are you not a master of the Way, Lord Neren? You are no sorcerer, surely?”
Once again, he hesitated. “There are… groups of enlightened men and women. Organisations that can train those with the gift of magic to use that gift… responsibly. And to hide it from those who would not understand.”
My spine turned to ice. “You risk much, telling me this,” I said, hoping my face and tongue did not betray the creeping horror I felt. For now I remembered what I had seen in that Temple report on House Mentsu.
He gazed into my eyes for a long moment. “Perhaps,” he said after a time. “There is much darkness in you. Even had I not witnessed what you did to those sand devils, I would have known that. Yet, still, you risked your own life to save a young girl you owed nothing to. And seeing poor Tamar give her life to protect you roused you to fury. No, I do not think you will betray me, Ysuun.” Then, without another word, he turned and walked away.