In celebration – and anticipation – of the third and final book in the Chronicles of Ghadid series, I’m sharing an in-world novella that takes place sometime during the events of the second book, The Impossible Contract.
That said, if you haven’t read The Impossible Contract: stop. Do not pass go. Do not progress forward. Warning warning, danger danger. Turn back. Read book two first. Then come back. You will thank me.
There are four parts to this novella and I will be sharing them in the days leading up to The Unconquered City’s release (June 16th!!).
Today, I present:
The Third Wave
(CW: blood, gore, major character death)
It was exactly like talking to a wall, if that wall had eyes. Amastan stood at the Circle’s center, trying to guess at the expressions obscured by tagels. Each drum chief wore theirs high, colorful fabric concealing everything but a narrow swath of skin around their eyes. They sat with legs tucked under and hands in their laps, so still that they could have been statues.
Those statues watched him, silent and inscrutable, as he finished explaining what he’d done – and why. The why was more important than the what, because the what had all but dragged him here at the hands of several watchmen, had put him on this trial, could see him executed. The why might save the city, if he could only explain it perfectly.
Amastan folded his hands in front of him, wrist gripping wrist, his explanation fading into a silence as impenetrable as stone. Fabric rustled as the drum chiefs shifted. When one finally spoke, it was as if someone had dropped their kettle in the street.
“What is your profession, sa?”
The voice that asked was rasping and thin and it took another moment for Amastan to pinpoint its source: Drum Chief Ilatig, wearing a yellow wrap rimmed in flames embroidered with black and blue thread. Ilatig was the eldest drum chief and by far the most traditional.
“Historian,” said Amastan, trying to imbue the single word with more importance than he felt.
Drum Chief Ilatig leaned forward. “And what training, pray tell, does a historian have in the matter of jaan? Why does a marabi not stand before us with these explanations?”
“You only accused me, sai.”
“From your own account, you were the one who gave the order.” Ilatig spread his hands, the ends of his sleeves brushing across his knees. “But you have no expertise in this matter. Why should we believe you?”
“Because I’m a historian, sai,” said Amastan. “This has happened before.”
“When?” pressed Ilatig. “Where? And why haven’t we heard about it?”
“Several centuries ago, in a village outside of Na Tay Khet–”
But Ilatig waved a hand dismissively. “Long ago and far away. You will excuse us if we require more evidence than centuries-old hearsay to excuse such blasphemies.”
“You saw the evidence with your own eyes.” Amastan’s fingers tightened around his wrists, yearning for the comforting wood of his cane. “Our own dead woke and attacked us. Their jaan have been bound to their bodies, something only an en-marabi can do. Something only an en-marabi has ever done, once, which is why we must look to past events–”
“Yes, yes,” interrupted a second drum chief, her voice a snap across the room. No one moved, but Amastan recognized that voice all on its own: Drum Chief Basil. “So you said. But you’re forgetting: what we saw were walking corpses. That oddity alone doesn’t excuse such blasphemy as beheading and burning the bodies before the seven-year rite. You have ripped the possibility of peace and an afterlife from countless of our own – our mothers, our fathers, our children and friends – and you stand here before us claiming that this is all the work of a monster that we tell our children about to keep them in line?” Her words gradually sharpened until they were a knife at Amastan’s throat, even though she hadn’t moved. “What can you possibly say to justify your actions?”
Amastan swallowed, his chest filling with a paralyzing cold. His ankle had begun to ache from being forced to stand so long, but he’d left his cane at home so he would appear stronger, more reliable. That had been a mistake.
He’d avoided any mention of his first run-in with the en-marabi and the dead that wouldn’t die, how he’d broken his ankle in the first place. He hadn’t wanted to risk lying; unlike Thana, he was very bad at it. If only she were here instead. She was better at the people part of things than he, and even a roomful of upset drum chiefs couldn’t shake her confidence.
The shadows behind the sitting drum chiefs that had been stuffy with old tapestries and flickering firelight shifted. Moved. Coalesced into another person, this one with hair recently shorn close, her wrap a muted green, and a teasing smirk on her lips: Thana. Amastan wasn’t sure if she was an apparition or hallucination, but even the ghost of her presence loosened the fear in his chest.
Thana rolled her eyes skyward and pressed her fingers against the bridge of her nose. G-d save us from these insufferable gnats, she said, lips never moving. How’d you get yourself into this mess, ‘Stan? Oh right – me. She dropped her hands and flashed him a reassuring smile. You’re doing fine. You don’t have to lie – just tell them a version of the truth. What you think is your weakness is your strength.
Amastan blinked and Thana was gone, nothing left of her but the shadows that still looked vaguely person-shaped. His eyes itched; the watchmen had summoned him at dawn after he’d been up most of the night helping with the fires. Soot stained his hands like blood and his body ached with exhaustion. It was no surprise he was starting to see things. But – a version of the truth…
Amastan looked at the drum chiefs and took a breath. “A few weeks ago, I saw a man fall from the second floor of Idir’s inn and get back up, completely unhurt. Then he attacked me.”
He sketched out a truth that was close enough to his real experiences and what Thana had told him that it didn’t feel like a lie. It was true, after all, that he’d escaped the man who had attacked him, but he’d been hurt. The rest became simple substitutions: instead of Thana going to the healers and finding similar monsters, it had been him. Instead of Thana talking to Salid and learning about the men’s true nature, he had learned the terrible truth.
“…the charm maker recognized the marks in the men’s skin,” said Amastan. “He’d seen the same thing in a history about en-marab. When he looked into it, he discovered that those marks had been created by a specific en-marabi, a man who had performed both similar and far worse atrocities. When Drum Chief Yugten’s slave woke after her death, we realized either that this en-marabi was somehow, impossibly, alive or someone was copying his work. Either way, we knew we had to be prepared.”
“For what?” pressed Drum Chief Basil.
“The en-marabi’s work had a clear progression,” said Amastan. “We’ve already seen the crude markings on the flesh of men, and the slave was the first instance of an unmarked victim. According to history, the next step was an entire village emptied of its people. So we met and we planned and we realized that if the dead are a danger, then the crypts would need to be contained at some point. Honestly, none of us thought it would be so soon, nor all of them at once.”
“A historian and a charm maker,” mused Basil.
“So you stopped these ‘bound’,” said Ilatig. “And you may have saved our city – I’ll grant you that. But your blasphemy still stands. The jaan of those dead are now lost and they will never be able to cross over. How can you justify depriving the dead of their right to peace?”
“We cannot risk that they will attack again–”
“Yes, and these were the same dead that the marab had been quieting for weeks or months or even years. Yet that didn’t keep them from climbing out of their tombs and their crypt and killing marab and attacking citizens. Decapitation stopped them in the moment, but would you risk Ghadid on the assumption that it will stop them forever? We still haven’t found who is causing this, let alone what.”
“And,” crackled another voice from the side, “I assume you are in charge of finding this perpetrator, too.”
Amastan didn’t need to turn to know Drum Chief Yugten had spoken, the oldest and most respected drum chief in the Circle. “Yes.”
“That then, is precisely the problem,” continued Yugten, his voice like dry leaves rasping in an off-season glasshouse “It is not your place to ‘save’ our city, interpreting that as you see fit. You will only cause more harm. You are here to answer for your crimes, not decide our future actions.”
Amastan grit his teeth. “Then hopefully you will decide the correct future actions. Our city – our lives – depend on it. This crypt was the first and it will not be the last.”
Several drum chiefs whispered behind his back while the ones before him shifted uneasily. One tilted their head, considering him anew. Amastan bore their gazes better than he bore their questions, but the silence didn’t last long enough.
“What will happen next?” asked Basil.
Amastan let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Ideally? Nothing. If we are lucky, that crypt was the first and last. If we are blessed by G-d, then that was the last we’ll see of the bound. Unfortunately, there is every reason to suspect that will not be the last. The other crypts will rise and we will need to be prepared for them. We will need to undertake the same extreme measures. And even then, we don’t know who – or what – is behind all this. And until we do, we will remain in danger. We must remain vigilant.” Amastan paused to take a breath and his bearings. When no one shouted their indignation, he pressed on. “I didn’t come here today just to answer your summons, sai. I came to ask for your support. For Ghadid’s support. If this spreads to the other crypts, we will need to work together like never before.”
“And what, exactly, are you asking for?” asked Ilatig, voice cold.
Amastan hesitated, his gaze slipping between the sitting drum chiefs to the back wall. But this time, Thana didn’t appear. This wasn’t her fight.
“Until we figure out how the threat is spread, we will need to monitor the rest of the crypts closely. We’ll need watchmen patrols to spot potential incidents before they escalate. We’ll need weapons. Every citizen should be armed.” Murmuring broke out anew among the drum chiefs. Amastan raised his voice and kept going. “More important than any of that, we’ll need to follow a new protocol for handling the recently deceased. The marab must sever the head and burn the body immediately after death. Ideally, we’ll do the same to the other crypts before they have a chance to rise. With the time that will give us, the marab will need to get to work on creating a cure. If, and only if, we do all of that, then we will have nothing to fear. Sai.”
Each moment that the silence lasted stretched Amastan’s remaining nerves to their breaking paint. Finally, the drum chiefs shifted and Ilatig said, “You are asking us to commit nothing less than blasphemy on the slight chance that there will be more of these… bound, did you call them? But you said yourself that you can’t be sure any of these dire things you’ve outlined will come to be. Meanwhile, what you ask of us will only make our people angry. If you believe someone is behind these blasphemous deeds, why not use our scant resources to find them instead?”
Because my cousin is already hunting them across the sands, thought Amastan. Out loud, he said, “We’re looking, sai, but the likelihood that we’ll find the culprit before they strike again is low. Everything indicates that another crypt will be affected soon, if it hasn’t happened while we waste words. We need to prepare for what is coming now, before it’s too late.”
“You speak of armed guards, shuttered trade, and forcing our marab to commit blasphemy,” said Basil carefully, calmly. “Do you have any idea how this will make us look, sa?”
“After what happened last night, you will look in control of an otherwise uncontrollable situation. But only if you follow every precaution.” Amastan shifted his weight, trying to lessen the throbbing pain in his ankle. “Ghadid isn’t stupid. They know something is wrong. By acting decisively, you’ll maintain trust. But if you falter and let this happen again–”
A new voice cut him off, this one crisp and clear. “We’ve heard enough, sa. It’s time for us to deliberate. Watchmen, escort the accused outside and hold him until we’ve made our decision.”
Two watchmen grabbed Amastan’s arms. Amastan didn’t try to resist, but said, “There’s no need to hold me, sai. I’ll wait peacefully.”
A chuckle cracked like knuckles and Amastan pinpointed the drum chief it was coming from: one wearing an orange tagel, laced with turquoise. Drum Chief Talal.
“In case you’ve forgotten, you are on trial for blasphemy, the penalty for which is death.” Talal’s eyes caught the torchlight, their flames dancing in his eyes like delight. “So forgive us if we take precautions against you running.”
“I won’t run, sai,” said Amastan. “Because if you don’t act, there won’t be anywhere to run to.”
In the end, the Circle acquitted Amastan of blasphemy.
They also agreed to increase watchmen patrols and ready some to assist the marab in the event of another crypt uprising. But they stopped well short of taking any meaningful precautions or authorizing the blasphemous practices Amastan had insisted on. It was nowhere near enough, but after being forced to stand outside the Circle’s meeting room for several hours while the drum chiefs debated his future and the city’s, it had been more that Amastan had expected.
It was on him and his cousins now more than ever to make sure it was enough.
In the following week, the rest of the dead woke. With the watchmen helping, it became almost routine to block the streets and dispatch the bound. But they were stopped short of burning the bodies. For every corpse returned to its tomb, Amastan’s anxiety ratcheted up higher. So, too, did his determination to find the cause of this and, if possible, a cure.
He spent his waking hours with the charm maker, combing through the books Salid had and the books he’d borrowed and the books he’d “found.” He would have spent more time with Menna, but his closest cousin shoed him away every time he stopped by her small, one-room home, a feverish intensity to her gaze and her wrap increasingly disorganized and dirty. During one brief visit, there were brownish red spatters dried on her gray sleeves – blood, if he hadn’t known better.
Then, one day, the strained quiet that had filled the city since the first crypt had emptied cracked. The blood and soot was scrubbed from the stones, the barricades dismantled. People began to leave their homes. Another week, and it was as if the attacks had never happened. In two, Ghadid pulsed again with its healthy rhythm.
Even the dread that had gripped Amastan’s heart for those first few days, that first week, began to ease. He had more good days when he barely needed his cane than not. His dizziness and fatigue faded and, even though Dihya still refused to spare with him, he could hold a sword without shaking.
It was enough to give him hope. Enough to make him wonder if the drum chiefs had been right, if he had been too careful, too paranoid.
At night, he sat on a roof at the eastern edge of the city and watched the first edges of dusk thicken fully into night, as the unwavering stretch of sand faded from pale brown to gray to black. He watched and he waited.
Thana was out there, somewhere. She should have reached Na Tay Khet by now. If all had gone well, she’d finished her contract and was already on her way back. Amastan smiled. The stories she’d have when she returned. And she would return.
He just had to keep Ghadid safe until then.
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
They came at dusk. Amastan sat on the roof’s edge as he’d been doing for the last two weeks, watching the pylons’ shadows stretch further and further with the setting sun. A twitch of movement to the north caught his attention. As the light faded from the world, he stared and what he’d hoped he’d seen, what he’d dreaded, and willed the sands to give up their secret.
They came together like spilled sand: a mass of scuttling shadows scrambling across the sands like too many large ants. Hope spiked in his chest: a caravan? But the movement was too chaotic and caravans never arrived after dusk.
The hope fled, replaced by a growing dread. The shadows crept closer, their numbers easily in the dozens, with however many more hidden by the darkness. They didn’t approach from the east as a caravan might, either, nor the west as the Azali would, but from the northwest – from the direction of the other cities in the Crescent.
Amastan felt the world drop away. He’d planned for everything, every contingency, every possibility… but this. They’d been so focused on the danger within their own walls and crypts, they’d never once thought to reach out to the other cities.
Amastan slipped from the roof with as much grace as he could muster. He picked up his cane that he’d leaned against the wall and half walked, half shuffled as quickly as he could. It still took him longer than he’d like to walk several neighborhoods and arrive at the too-familiar red door. He took a moment to gather his breath, ignoring the stitch shooting pain up his side.
He was struck by a strong sense of déjà vu as he lifted his fist to knock. The last time he’d searched out this particular door after sunset, he’d found a body.
He knocked. The door swung open immediately and Tamella peered at him, her expression grim.
“It’s happening,” he said.
“Can’t you come to me with something positive, for once?” Tamella shook her head. “Which neighborhood?”
“They’re not in Ghadid.”
Tamella pursed her lips. “Amastan,” she said with a note of warning.
“They’re coming across the sands, but they’ll be here soon.”
Amastan stepped past her and into the familiar space beyond. The room smelled of old vellum, dust, and dried ink: a safety and past he ached for. Barag sat at his table on the side of the room claimed by shelves upon shelves of scrolls. He was watching Amastan with ink-stained fingers and a pen still in hand and weariness visible despite his tagel.
Next to the hearth stood a girl, her braids just brushing her shoulders. The firelight on her face and her overly serious expression sent a shock of cold through Amastan’s chest and across his skin. For a second, two moments over a decade apart overlapped and then only one remained and Amastan could breathe again, could pick out the differences in height, in dress, in posture.
In another moment, this girl looked nothing like his memory of Thana. For one, her braids were longer, tied back with a length of green ribbon that matched her wrap. For another, her features were rounder, more youthful, her skin several shades darker and her nose sharper. But her eagerness was the same.
“Illi,” said Tamella. “Go. Tell everyone to meet here.”
“And run as fast as you can,” added Amastan.
Illi gave Amastan a withering look, but placed her fist over her heart. Then she was gone, slipping through the door like a gust of wind. Tamella pulled a chair from Barag’s side of the room to the hearth and settled in, sliding a dagger from its sheathe to let it dangle between her legs.
“You’d better be wrong.”
“I hope so.”
Tamella studied her blade, turning it this way and that. “The sands. What does that mean – that they’re coming from the iluk caravans?”
“The other cities,” said Amastan. “We should have realized we weren’t the only ones affected. If they didn’t know about the crypts…” He trailed off, unable to give voice to the too-real fear clawing at his throat.
“They wouldn’t have known what was going on, not in time to stop it,” finished Tamella. “They’d have been overwhelmed. Let enough of those things loose in a city and eventually there would be too many of them to win. No one would survive.” She tapped the blade against her knee, then straightened and pointed it at Amastan. “They can’t get up here. They can’t climb cables.”
“I don’t know what they can’t do,” said Amastan. “I think we should assume the worst.”
“We can secure the carriages.”
“We need to do more than that. We’ve got to barricade the carriage stations, block them off completely. Then we’ll take them as they come up.”
“What is this, Amastan?” asked Tamella, her sand-pale eyes boring into him. “Is this what you let my daughter tackle alone?”
“No. This is worse.”
The door slammed open and Menna stumbled into the room. She gave them an apologetic half-smile, then carefully shut the door. She wore her marabi gray, but her belt held a long sword, two daggers, and several leather pouches. A wildness whirled about her, a barely contained excitement that made Amastan wary.
Menna crossed to the hearth and poured herself a cup of tea. “What’s the plan, ‘Stan?”
“I’ll explain once everyone gets here.”
Menna shrugged and leaned against the wall while Tamella spun her dagger, staring into space. Thankfully, they didn’t have long to wait.
Ziri arrived next, his large ax strapped across his back, a half dozen daggers hanging off his belt. Dihya and Azulay walked through the door within seconds of each other and immediately began trading verbal jabs. Usaten slipped in after them, long and lean and silent as a cat. Hamma sauntered in a few minutes later, her unstrung bow under her arm and a quiver of arrows slung over her shoulder. Yaluz was at her elbow, a whetstone in one hand and a curved sickle in the other, her lips pressed tight as she focused on sharpening while she walked.
Last came Illi, out of breath and a sheen of sweat across her brow that was half dry by the time she reached the hearth.
His cousins gathered around the hearth, a fresh pot of tea already steeping. Barag had joined them, bringing as many cups as he could carry. Amastan took his cousins in, a full range of generations and ages. Aside from Tamella, Azulay and Dihya were the eldest; it felt like ages ago since the three of them had trained together. Ziri, Hamma, and Yaluz were all Thana’s generation, so recently turned assassins that they hardly had any blood under their fingernails. Usaten and Illi were the youngest and both still years away from their tests.
For a moment he was tempted to send Usaten and Illi away, to keep them safe. But even young, they were more capable than watchmen, and Amastan would need every pair of hands that could be spared. Besides, he wouldn’t be able to guarantee anyone’s safety if they didn’t act and act fast.
Ten pairs of eyes watched him, waiting. Ten people who trusted that he had a plan. Ten cousins who believed he could stop this, fix it, save them.
Amastan’s fingers tightened around his cane. Doubt swept through him, catching and tossing away the words he’d planned. How could they count on him when he couldn’t even fight? When he’d walked into a contract so unprepared that he’d been pulled out with a broken ankle and arm?
He wished Thana was there. She was the leader they needed, not him. But she wasn’t and he was all they were going to get. He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he’d found his words.
“Ghadid is under attack.”
There were more than a half dozen carriage stations, but Amastan didn’t want to risk spreading their already thin force any thinner. So he sent his cousins out in groups of two and three. They would just have to be quick.
Amastan went with Tamella and Illi to a station on the eastern edge. He didn’t know what to expect when they reached the station. Would there be nothing at all, because they’d been quick enough or because he’d overreacted? Or would the platform be overrun, swarming with the bound? He steeled himself to expect anything.
Despite the cool night, they passed few other people on their way, for which Amastan was grateful. Perhaps some of his warning had gotten out to their citizens after all. Aside from cluster of loudly whispering youth and a man in a red wrap, it could have been a mid-Season day.
The station was empty, the carriage locked in place for the night. Its metal cable extended over the lip of the platform and down, down to the sands below. Tamella examined the carriage while Amastan peered along the cable. Darkness obscured where it met the sand, along with any movement. He laid two fingers on the cable, but felt no vibrations, only the constant thrum of the wind.
Had he imagined the figures on the sands? Was he wasting their time, burning through the trust his cousins had in him? It’d been two weeks since their own dead had risen – could the same thing have really affected the other cities without any word or refugees finding Ghadid?
But he’d already committed to this plan, sent his cousins across the city. There was no way to know now, not until morning – or until it was too late. Amastan swallowed his doubts and helped Tamella barricade the road with barrels and boxes left behind by merchants for storing and carrying their wares. In truth, Illi did most of the shoving and lifting for him while Amastan directed.
Within an hour, the road to each carriage station had been blocked and the watchmen for those neighborhoods alerted – sometimes stirred from their beds, grumpy but willing. They believed him now that he’d been right once, but Amastan knew he was burning through any remaining good will he had with the watchmen. Even while part of him dreaded being right, an equal part of him worried he was wrong.
So when Hamma reported that she’d seen someone climbing their cable, equal parts relief and guilt flashed through him. She’d shot them in the head with an arrow and they’d slipped free, plummeting to the sands below. There’d been no further sign of them or any other bound. But if there were more, they’d be trapped behind the barriers. Amastan and his cousins could pick them off one by one.
So why did he still feel so uneasy?
It was that unease that kept him moving, sent him to check the barricades again, despite Tamella and Menna insisting he go home and rest. His cousins were already taking watch in shifts, they didn’t need him. But they didn’t know what to look for, either.
When she was unable to dissuade him, Tamella came along. The first two barricades were fine, no sign of bound. At the second, Usaten waved at him from a nearby roof before returning to his conversation with a chuckle that bounced off the streets. Amastan reached the third feeling a little foolish and more than a little exhausted. He’d go home after this one, he promised himself.
At first, he didn’t even notice anything wrong. Torches lit the street, deepening the shadows at the same time they lifted the darkness. Ahead, the road ended in a precipice of stars. Furniture and crates made up the barricade, extending inwards from both sides of the street but not quite meeting.
Amastan rubbed his eyes and looked again. Stars? Darkness gaped in the center of the barricade, a hole that shouldn’t have been there.
Tamella cursed under her breath and picked up her step. “Did they really leave it like this? Those dust-for-brains–”
But Amastan didn’t hear the rest of her sentence. He’d hurried ahead, pulse thudding too loud in his ears. The barrels and crates and boards had been peeled back piece by piece and shoved to the side. This wasn’t an oversight by his cousins; someone had made a way through. A watchman they hadn’t alerted, perhaps, or a merchant after his wares. A kid, even. Any number of innocent possibilities.
All he had to do was help Tamella close the gap. It was fine. Everything was fine.
His sandal scraped across sand. That in itself wasn’t notable. The winds carried sand even up here, and its dust coated every inch of Ghadid, seeped under windows and doors during storms. But that sand was fine and soft and swept up by eager glassmakers.
Amastan brushed his hand over the stones. Coarse sand stuck to his sweat-slick palm. Too heavy for the wind to carry this high. It had to have come off an iluk’s clothes. But the carriage was locked in place and the stones would have been swept clean hours ago.
“When you’re done staring at the ground, I could use some help with these crates,” snapped Tamella.
The streets were empty, the silence deafening. If bound had broken through, there should have been screaming. And they wouldn’t have peeled away the barricade from this side. A person in Ghadid had done this.
The scream was thin, distorted by distance and walls. Tamella dropped the board she’d been wedging into place and unsheathed her sword. She glanced at Amastan. He nodded. She climbed a barrel and disappeared over the roof’s edge.
He hurried down the street as fast as his protesting ankle would take him. Most of his strength had returned over the past weeks of rest, so when he crossed the bridge to the next platform and found four bound at its center, he wasn’t completely out of breath.
Tamella had already dispatched three. Before he could free his own sword, she’d turned and cut through the neck of the fourth. It toppled with a heavy thud to the stones, as lifeless as a shattered bowl.
A man huddled, hands over his head, against one wall. Blood streaked his fingers, rolled down his arm, and spattered the stones around him, but he was breathing and alive. While Tamella crouched next to him and whispered quiet reassurances, Amastan examined the nearest decapitated body. Its clothes were tattered and stained – with blood, yes, but also with dirt and dust. As if they’d walked a long way through the sands.
The style of its wrap was different, too. The knots had been tied further back, pulling the fabric tighter and higher than was the style in Ghadid. He’d seen this style among the iluk who came to their markets. It was popular in several of the other Crescent cities.
Amastan straightened, brushing the dust from his hands. The other three wore the same style, which meant they were from the same place. A chill coiled in Amastan’s gut, a mixture of dread and certainty. He’d been right.
Tamella helped the injured man to his feet and shooed him out of the circle. While he clutched at his arm, he seemed otherwise fine. Tamella turned to Amastan, but her gaze slipped past him. Narrowed.
“You need to go back inside, sa,” she said.
A man was watching them from the shadow of a doorway, arms crossed over his chest. In the darkness, his tagel was almost black, but the torchlight caught an edge of fabric, revealing that it was, in fact, a bloody red. His eyes, as dark as the shadows, assessed them over the top of tagel tied high enough for a drum chief.
Then he dropped his arms and stepped toward them. When the light sharpened his build and picked out the gold that threaded his red wrap, recognition settled in Amastan’s throat. He’d seen this man before. This same night, yes, but again even earlier, when season had ended and the storms had rolled across the city and Amastan had infiltrated a party to kill a drum chief. There’d been other faces he hadn’t recognized that night, but he remembered them all. Especially the man in the blood red tagel who had not bothered to mingle before disappearing once the chaos started.
That this man had been there the same night the en-marabi and future mark had also made his first appearance was not a coincidence lost on Amastan. What are the chances of two en-marab, he’d asked Salid.
That chance now became their reality.
The man lifted his clenched fist and blood dripped from between his fingers. His tagel fluttered with soundless words. A necklace Amastan hadn’t noticed before sucked in the light around them and glowed with a flickering resonance.
Then the dead poured over the rooftop at his back.
Amastan didn’t have time for panic. He grabbed Tamella’s arm and, ignoring the pain that shot up his ankle, ran.
The thud of bodies and feet behind them kept going on and on, like an endless storm that chased them out of the platform’s center, down the street, to the bridge. Curious and terrified faces peaked out of the windows they passed, but thankfully the doors stayed shut. If they had any sense, the people here would lock their doors and hide until the worst was past. Amastan could only hope they did, because that was the only way any of them would survive this.
On the other side of the bridge, Amastan let go of Tamella’s hand and pivoted, sucking in a breath as pain stabbed up his leg. But worse than the pain was the sight on the platform they’d just left, which was worse than he’d let himself imagine. Bound surged through the street, clothing in tatters, bodies twisted with desiccation and injury, eyes dead. Most were intent on him and Thana, but the sound of glass breaking cracked across the gap, followed by a scream.
Amastan checked his impulse to run back across the bridge. Two cousins alone couldn’t stop that many bound, even if one of them wasn’t still nursing an old injury. Going back would be suicide.
Amastan ran his fingers along his belt until he found a small, reinforced skin. Freeing it, he undid the knot at its neck and released a pungent odor: torch oil.
Tamella had slid to a stop further down the street, finally realizing Amastan wasn’t with her. “What’re you doing?” she snapped.
Amastan poured the oil over the bridge’s wooden slats, then stepped back onto firm ground and freed the striker from his belt. The bound were feet from the bridge and showing no sign of stopping. His sweat-slick fingers fumbled the striker. He took a breath and tried again. A spark fell. Touched the oil-soaked wood. The world took a breath.
Then flames whooshed up, tall and fierce. The heat pushed him back even as a hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled.
The bound reached the bridge. The one in front stopped, almost alive again as flames danced across its eyes. But the bound behind it didn’t stop. They pushed forward, shoving the first into and through the fire. Its clothing caught in a rush of heat and air, but that didn’t stop it. Burning hands reached for Amastan.
A thin shaft sprouted in the bound’s eye. It tumbled sideways off the bridge, a blur of flashing light that fell and fell and fell until it hit the sand far below and finally went out. Its abrupt departure shook the bridge, tumbling the bound standing on it. Another fell forward and through the fire, but the rest fell back.
Tamella shoved Amastan out of the way. Her sword cut the air and the bound’s neck, sent its head spinning across the stones. Tamella kicked the body over the platform’s edge. But more bound were surging across the bridge, unconcerned by the flames. The wood cracked and creaked, but it wasn’t giving up, not yet.
An arm waved wildly over the roof’s edge. Amastan sheathed his sword, stuck his cane through his belt, and found the first handhold. Tamella stayed on the ground and guarded his back, dispatching any bound who chanced too near. Amastan hadn’t scaled a wall in weeks, not since he’d broken his ankle and arm. He doubted he should be doing so now, but he gritted his teeth through the pain and forced himself to keep moving.
A hand extended into his field of view. He took it. Someone pulled him the rest of the way up. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. He allowed himself a moment of gasping pain before standing. He looked up, then up again, into Ziri’s gentle gaze. The larger man’s brown tagel was spattered with blood, but otherwise he appeared fine.
Behind him, Tamella climbed over the lip of the roof. Hamma was inches from her, leaning out as she shot another arrow into the bound below. Then –
The bound still on the bridge vanished in a puff of flames and smoke as the wood finally gave way. A few more toppled over the side of the platform, but the rest pushed back, proving they had some sense of self preservation, if small. Hamma picked off two more on their side, notching and firing in quick succession. Then she slipped the bow over her shoulder and gave them a tight-lipped smile.
“And you said I’d never have reason to shoot a bow,” she said to Tamella.
“Under any sane circumstances, you wouldn’t,” returned Tamella.
Hamma shrugged. Then her smile dropped like the bridge. “We’ve got to hurry. Those demons got through the north barricade. Azulay and Dihya were there to stop them, but… one got Az’. We took him to Illi’s home–it was closest–and got him a healer, but he’s lost a lot of blood. He’s gone into shock.”
Hamma might as well have punched Amastan in the stomach. He took a shuddering breath to clear his head.
“Take us there.”
Blood drenched the front of Thiyya’s blue wrap, darkening it to a glossy black. Sweat dribbled down her forehead., but she didn’t bother wiping it away A blue haze seeped around both her and Azulay, but the calm Amastan associated with healing magic was missing. Azulay was choking, his body heaving under Thiyya’s light touch. His throat had been torn open and its jagged edges fluttered with each gasp as the healer tried to hold his skin together. Blood pulsed fresh across the table they’d laid him on, running down its legs and puddling on the stone floor.
All at once, his body heaved upward from the table, only to thud back down and go still. The blue haze deepened and Thiyya’s hands went to his wrist, his chest, the other side of his neck. The water in the bowl at her feet was only half gone. Thiyya leaned over Azulay and put her hands on his chest. She pushed, hard. The haze pulsed. She pushed again. Something cracked. Azulay didn’t move. Thiyya pushed again.
Menna alone in the crowd of watching cousins moved. Put a hand on the healer’s arm. “Thiyya.”
Thiyya pushed again, ignoring her. The blue was slipping off of Azulay now, the bowl almost empty.
She let her arms drop. Her body shuddered, threatening to break. She closed Azulay’s eyes, her fingers trailing blue. The haze dissipated all at once, as if blown away. Metal clattered on the stones. They all turned to look, several cousins, including Amastan, reaching for a weapon.
Dihya had dropped her ax. She sank to her knees next to it, a keening moan coming from between her closed lips. Her hands opened and closed as if trying to hold onto something, but they found nothing.
Amastan could only stand and stare at the body, at his cousins. The room felt suddenly too small for all of them and their grief, the fire in the hearth too hot, the sharp scent of tea mixing with blood and death into a nauseating blend. But he didn’t dare seek relief outside.
Nothing felt real. That wasn’t Azulay’s body on the table, that wasn’t his blood on the floor, on Thiyya’s hands, smeared across Ziri’s wrap and spattered on Dihya’s face. Only an hour earlier, Azulay had listened to Amastan’s plan, had been eager to stop the bound, had been boosting about how many he’d get. According to Ziri, they’d doubled back to check their work. A kid had pulled apart their barricade and bound were already swarming up the cable. They’d tried to stop them. Azulay had just gotten a little too close.
Thiyya’s fingers found the end of a bright yellow salas that was entwined in her hair, a symbol of one of the many lives she’d saved. But before she could pull it free, Menna closed her fingers around Thiyya’s, stopping her.
“It was too late,” Menna said. “He was past saving.”
But Thiyya shook her head and yanked the yellow salas free. “I failed him.”
She tied it around Azulay’s wrist, then stood, the water bowl clutched to her chest. Her gaze flicked across the assembled family, found Amastan’s, and fell to the floor. Menna patted Thiyya gently, if awkwardly, on the back. When Thiyya stepped away, Menna stayed where she was, hands fumbling with her sleeves, watching Thiyya with a mixture of pity and regret and pain.
Amastan glanced around the room, too. All of his cousins were varying shades of stricken. Tamella dabbed at her eyes while tears rolled freely from Ziri’s, staining his tagel. Illi sharpened her dagger over and over again at the table while her mother made a fresh pot of tea, even though no one had touched the first one. Yaluz hugged her knees on the floor and Usaten checked the window every few seconds. Hamma sat, still as stone, and stared at the body. Salid stood like a shadow in the corner, hesitant to intrude on the family’s pain.
“We failed him,” said Hamma, voice hollow. “He shouldn’t have been fighting these monsters. None of us are any match for them. None of us have trained for this.”
Dihya regarded Amastan with red-rimmed eyes. “She’s right. This isn’t our job. Why should we sacrifice ourselves for this city? We’re cousins, not – not watchmen or guards or soldiers. The drum chiefs should be handling this. Not us. Not Azulay.”
Amastan shook his head. “They refuse to handle it. Which means that this is our job. We help Ghadid when no one else can, we’ve been training for this our entire lives.”
Dihya made a spitting noise. “This? You trained with us, ‘Stan – I know you didn’t learn how to stop the dead.”
“Not stop the dead,” said Amastan. “Protect the living. Protect Ghadid. This family was originally a part of Ghadid’s militia and when the city forgot why it needed a militia, we continued to protect Ghadid from itself. We’re the first and last line of defense. Right now, we’re all that stands between Ghadid and the bound. Do you really think the drum chiefs will act in time to save this city and its people?”
Dihya slowly got to her feet. “Why should I care about any of them?”
Tamella clucked her tongue. “Because you swore to, when you passed your test and became one of us. That was part of your oath. So if you’re not ready or willing to lay down your life for this city, then lay down your weapons and walk away. But if you do, you can no longer say you’re a Basbowen.” She looked around the room, her gaze finding each cousin in turn and piercing them through. “That goes for all of you.”
The cousins shifted and avoided looking at one another. Dihya met Tamella’s gaze, her lips pressed tight. After a moment, she picked up her ax.
“I’m not doing this for Ghadid. I’m doing this for Azulay.” She turned to Amastan. “How do I stop him from turning into one of those – things?”
Amastan cleared his throat. He glanced to Salid, then Menna for reassurance, but was met with a red-eyed stare. “When the marab quiet a jaani, they treat the body’s head. It’s my understanding that the jaani is tethered to the head. Which means–”
But Dihya cut him off with a nod. “I understand.”
She spread her feet. Hefted her ax. Menna made a noise in the back of her throat and turned away. Thiyya braced herself on Menna’s arm. Dihya raised the ax above her head. Hamma started to say something. Dihya swung.
The crunch of bone, then the ring of metal on metal, was as final as a drumbeat. A fresh wave of blood spilled from the table to the floor, but it quickly slowed to a trickle, then nothing. Azulay had already lost so much.
Dihya pulled a cloth from her belt and wiped the blood from her ax. She turned to the assembled cousins. “I’ll do the same for any of you.” Then she walked through them to the door, where she paused long enough to add, “Sorry about your table,” before leaving.
After a long moment of silence, Hamma asked, “So how do we stop these demons?”
“They’re not demons,” said Salid, speaking up for the first time. “They’re bound jaan. They’re not evil, not on their own. We need to find the en-marabi did this to them. That’s the only way they’ll be stopped.”
The man in red. Amastan could still see him clearly, bloody fist raised as the bound poured over the roof. Stupid, foolish–Amastan had planned for the mindless bound, not for someone controlling them, directing them. He took shallow breaths, thinking fast, trying to salvage the plans they’d made.
At least two barricades had been compromised. They’d already lost a chunk of time in retreat and recovery, and every second that trickled through the glass was another second that man – that en-marabi – Djet? – had to secure his foothold in their city. He had the advantage.
But he was only one man, and they were a family.
“We’ll need the whole family,” said Amastan. “Everyone, including those who didn’t pass their test, didn’t choose to be an assassin, and weren’t chosen. We need to cut the bound off and evacuate those in danger. We need to contain this. We don’t have much time – any time. So: who wants to evacuate and who wants to burn bridges?”
Amastan stood before an empty bridge. Four watchmen barred the other side, weapons drawn.
“Who told you not to let us cross?” asked Amastan.
At his back was a large group of people they’d gathered from a single neighborhood, their anxiety compounding with each second they were kept from moving forward, from fleeing. Ziri and Dihya had secured this platform for now, but the bound were only a shattered bridge away. They needed more distance and more time. They needed to cross.
“Drum Chief Yugten ordered that no one be allowed onto this platform,” said the head watchman, the sash across her chest indicating her rank. “We can’t risk the corruption spreading here.”
Beside Amastan, Salid laughed humorlessly. “It’s not spread, sai. Everyone already has it. This city is full of walking corpses, some just don’t know it yet.”
Amastan shot Salid a sharp glance. Salid shrugged as if to say, you know I’m right. He’d caught Salid and Menna exchanging tense words only to go dry as soon as anyone drew close enough to hear more than a few times. He knew they weren’t talking about him, but he also knew better than to push them. Menna was an expert in jaan and Salid knew more about en-marab than anyone else in their city. He had to trust them; they’d come to him if it concerned anything he could do.
Still, Salid’s implications were unsettling.
Twisting his cane under his fingers, Amastan said. “Look, we’re only passing through. There’s no other way across, we’ve already burned the other bridges, and the bound are on the next platform. If you don’t let us cross, we’re trapped here. These people will die.”
One of the watchmen shifted uneasily, but the others didn’t move. The head watchman shook her head. “Orders, sa.”
“Let me handle this.” Tamella shoved past Amastan. She faced the watchmen with a thin-lipped smile. “Step aside. Those are your new orders.”
When the watchman laughed, Tamella drew her sword. “I’m willing to back my claim. Is your drum chief?”
The head watchman raised an eyebrow. “Don’t be foolish, ma. You’re only one to our four, and more watchmen are within call.”
“I agree,” said Tamella. “It’s not fair at all. For you.”
“Stop it,” snapped Amastan. “We don’t need more bodies.” When Tamella didn’t sheathe her sword, he stepped in front of her and held up his empty hand. “Let me speak with your drum chief, sai. He’ll know sense.”
“Of course,” said the head watchman. “You may both see him, because I’m arresting you for threatening watchmen.”
Two watchmen darted across the bridge and seized Amastan. Tamella hissed, raising her sword, but Amastan caught her gaze and shook his head. Tamella relented as a third watchman gingerly took her arm.
“Salid,” said Amastan as the watchmen guided him across the bridge. “Keep an eye on things, will you?”
Salid pressed his fist to his chest, expression solemn. The watchmen pulled Amastan and Tamella down the street, through the platform’s circle, to a broad wooden door. They knocked and the door was opened by a slave wearing the yellow of Drum Chief Yugten. He ushered them inside and led them on quiet, bare feet to a back room. The room was sumptuously decorated in bright colors and soft fabrics, a large hearth holding a roaring fire. It was too hot, stiflingly so, but the room’s lone occupant didn’t seem to mind.
Drum Chief Yugten wore a thick wool wrap, its yellow dye so rich it was all but leaking onto the rugs around him. He held a cup of tea in his leathery hands and an expression of disinterest in his eyes.
“What’s this?” he asked in an equally leathery voice.
“These two were threatening–” began the head watchman.
“We need to cross,” interrupted Amastan. “The bound are only a platform away and there are people trapped between who are in danger. If you don’t let them cross, they’ll be overrun. They’ll die.”
Drum Chief Yugten took a sip of tea, his eyes never leaving Amastan’s. “If I let them cross, they will contaminate my neighborhood.”
“This isn’t a disease, sai,” said Amastan. “It’s not spread. Only the dead can become bound. If you let those people die, you’ll have that many more bound trying to cross your bridges. And they won’t listen politely to watchmen.”
Yugten squinted at Amastan, then he set down his tea. “You’re that man who came before the Circle a few weeks ago, spouting this same nonsense. You convinced the other drum chiefs that we should let you get away with desecrating the dead. I don’t know where you’re getting all this from,” he waved a hand in the air, “but I didn’t vote to listen to you then and I’m not about to listen now, when my own neighborhood is at stake. My watchmen saw those demons take Talal’s neighborhood. Closing the bridges saved us. I’m not about to open them and risk my people.”
“It’s not nonsense,” said Amastan. “It’s an invasion. Every person who dies becomes a part of their army. By helping us, you’re helping your people. In return, we can show your watchmen how to stop the bound.”
But Yugten was already shaking his head. “By taking off their heads and burning them? No, I already saw your version of ‘helping.’ My duty is to my people.” He clapped his hands, a dozen bracelets jangling beneath the folds of his sleeves. He gestured to the watchmen. “Escort them back over the bridge whence they came. Don’t let anyone else cross.”
As the watchmen grabbed them again, Amastan said, “Your duty is to all of Ghadid, not just your neighborhood.”
Yugten scoffed. “And who are you to lecture a drum chief on their duties?”
A man who just watched his friend die, thought Amastan. Aloud, he said, “A historian. Every drum chief is duty-bound to do what’s best for the whole. And it’s the duty of the Basbowen family to take up the slack when the drum chiefs fall down on their duty.”
“Basbowen,” said Yugten, chewing the name like a dry date. “I haven’t heard that name in years. Now where…”
Yugten’s gaze slid past Amastan and his fingers spasmed. If he’d still been holding his tea cup, it would have fallen and shattered. He staggered to his feet, finger pointing like a knife.
“Watchmen! Get that woman out of here!”
Amastan looked to Tamella, expecting a sword, a knife, anything to explain Yugten’s fear, but Tamella was only smiling. She hadn’t even freed herself from the watchmen’s grip.
“You remember me,” she said with a touch of glee.
“How could you be so stupid as to let the Serpent in here?” demanded Yugten, his voice rising with fear. “She’s dangerous – a murderer, an assassin – ah!” Yugten gasped, clutching at his chest. “You’ve finally come for me!”
Tamella rolled her eyes. “I’m not here on contract, sai.”
Yugten gestured at the watchmen. “What are you standing around for, fools? Get her out of here! Lock her up in the pumphouse for now, until we can sort out how to deal with her.”
The watchman holding Amastan let go and grabbed for Tamella. But before he could, she shook her head and slipped free of the first watchman. She unsheathed her sword in a single, fluid motion and the watchmen backed away.
“Right,” she said, turning on Yugten. “Last I checked the laws, speaking to a drum chief wasn’t a crime. So no, you’re not going to lock me up in your pumphouse.” She pointed her sword at him. “But turning your back on your city – that’s a crime.”
A commotion broke out beyond the shut door. The watchmen only had time to turn and draw their swords before the door burst open and Illi entered, her breath coming in quick, sharp gasps. Her gaze tore around the room before landing on Amastan.
“The bound broke the barriers to the east. Ziri and Dihya are doing all they can, but there’re too many of them. We don’t have much time and these shards-cursed gadflies still won’t let anyone across.”
Behind her, four watchmen appeared, flustered and out of breath. Two grabbed her arms, twisting them behind her back. Illi yelped and struggled, but couldn’t get free.
“Sorry, sai,” said a watchman in the back. “We tried to stop her but she was too fast.”
“There are four of you and one very narrow bridge,” said Yugten slowly. “Are you that incompetent?”
“She jumped, sai,” said the watchman. “From one rooftop to another. Then she just kept going.”
Yugten’s wrath mellowed with astonishment. He peered at Illi anew. “Who are you?”
“Let our people through,” said Amastan. “Your people.”
Yugten wrapped his arms around himself. “No. I can’t risk it. I won’t.”
“So you’ll let them die?” asked Tamella, voice cold.
Yugten’s gaze snagged on Tamella’s sword. “Arrest that woman and get these people out of here. I’m done.”
Tamella’s laugh was as dry and humorless as the sands. “Yes, you’re done. Flee, little mouse, into the safety of your house and never dare call yourself a drum chief again. Since you are no longer willing to fulfill your responsibilities as drum chief, you are no longer fit to be a drum chief.”
Yugten sputtered, backing away. “You have gone mad, woman. Watchmen, arrest her!”
But the watchmen didn’t move. The one holding Amastan had let go and was now shifting uneasily.
“We can’t let those people die, sai,” said one watchman quietly.
“You don’t listen to her!” spat Yugten. “You obey me!”
“As a protector of this city,” continued Tamella, “I willingly take up that burden myself. With G-d as my witness, I renew my oath and the oath my family has made for every generation to protect Ghadid and rid it of corruption – ”
“Watchmen!” yelled Yugten, frantic now, backing away, hands searching for a weapon that wasn’t there. “I will see you executed if you don’t obey me!”
“ – starting with you.”
Tamella crossed the room with the swiftness of a snake, her sword tip striking the drum chief just below his chin and settling there like the threat it was. Yugten froze. Tamella flicked the tip and it caught on the chain around Yugten’s neck. Keeping the blade by his throat, Tamella leaned forward and smoothly pulled the chain over Yugten’s head.
A set of glittering rings hung from the chain, the seals that held the real power of the drum chiefs. Between the rings was a golden trinket in the shape of a drum, the miniature version of the very real drum that was passed down from generation to generation. But those drums were prone to cracking, ripping, and being destroyed. The rings and their power had persisted through centuries of storms and seasons.
Tamella slipped the chain over her head. Then she sheathed her sword and turned her back on Yugten. She pointed at the watchmen.
“You – help those people across. Illi, go with them. Tell the others we’re regrouping here.”
The watchmen placed their fists over their hearts, then left, Illi trotting right behind. That left just Amastan, Tamella, and Yugten in a room that was even smaller than it had been moments before. Tamella turned back to Yugten, her expression considering. Amastan glanced at Tamella, trying to read her intent; she’d already killed one drum chief in her lifetime. But then, so had he.
“You’re welcome to join us, sa,” said Tamella. “As long as you obey my orders.”
“I’ll take my own chances, ma.”
“Mai,” corrected Amastan. “And your own chances will be slim. The bound are coming and I’m not sure we can stop them.”
Tamella glanced at him. “We were going to stay here, Amastan.”
“I’m not sure that’s going to be enough anymore,” admitted Amastan. “If the bound are already on the next platform, then it won’t be long before they’re here, too. We’re stretched too thin. There simply aren’t enough of us. We’ll be able to hold for a while, especially with the help of those watchmen, but at some point the winds will change. We’ll be overwhelmed.”
Tamella’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Then what do you suggest?”
“We leave Ghadid.”