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 Final Wave
(CW: blood, gore, major character death)
Yugten’s drum smoothed their way.
With the flash of the rings around her neck, watchmen obeyed Tamella’s every order. Even some of the drum chiefs cooperated. In the face of advancing chaos, they were more willing to give up any remaining grains of leadership for the flickering hope of safety.
Within a few hours, they’d established a perimeter of evacuated platforms, their streets barricaded and their bridges cut. They’d scrapped together a moment to plan, to breathe.
But they couldn’t rest for long.
Amastan sat on the top of a barricade, one that would be moved into place to block the road and slow the bound once they left this platform, watching and directing the preparations around him and trying to ignore the smoke curling into the sky. People were in line at the pumphouse to go below and fill their water skins while others gathered supplies from the nearby buildings. They’d need everything they could carry if they were going to survive on the sands for any amount of time. A few days or a few weeks – it was impossible to know. But they’d reclaim the city. They had to.
But first they had to leave. Ghadid’s unique structure had made it unassailable and unconquerable for centuries, but that same structure was now a death trap. Each platform only had three or four bridges, three or four ways on or off. So far, they’d used that to their advantage to corral and contain the bound. But every bridge they cut or burned was another escape route gone. The man controlling the bound only had to wait for them to back themselves into a corner, then he could overwhelm them in a flood of monsters.
Amastan couldn’t let that happen. While they’d cut most of the bridges, there was still a run of untouched ones that would lead them north, to the closest carriage station. Unfortunately, between them and that station were still several platforms teeming with bound. Amastan had to find a way to clear those platforms and get everyone who had survived so far, who had listened, who had been rescued, who had trusted him to gather in these few, safe platforms, to the sands and safety.
“We have to burn it.”
Amastan started but didn’t turn. He hadn’t noticed Menna approach, but then, she’d always been as silent as a kite. Now she settled onto the barricade next to him, her expression guarded.
“I mean the city, of course,” she continued. “Unless you had another plan for clearing out the bound? Because they’re not going to go away, ‘Stan.”
“No,” admitted Amastan. “I’d come to the same conclusion. I’d only hoped someone else would say it first.”
“What would you do without me,” said Menna. “Then I’m saying it: if we just leave, the bound will follow us down as easily as they came up. Even if we behead every single one of them, we still need to do something about their jaan.”
“But it’s blasphemy,” said Amastan dully.
Menna hit his arm. “Don’t you dare.”
Amastan gestured at the expanse of the city. “I haven’t been able to figure out how. It’s too many platforms, too many people, too many bound–”
“There you go, overthinking it like usual,” interrupted Menna. “We just need a committed crew. And I’ve got one.” At Amastan’s surprise, she laughed. “What, you think you’re the only one planning here? You’ve got enough on your hands. Just get everyone to the sands. Let me handle this. I can take on a little more blasphemy.”
Menna winced, looking away. “Don’t thank me yet. We’ve got a long night ahead of us. And then…”
She trailed off and the bustle below rushed in to fill her silence. Amastan waited, hands in his lap, feeling the weight of whatever Menna was wrestling with, if not it’s shape. After a while, she took a deep breath and let it out in a long woosh.
“Look, ‘Stan,” she said, her voice pitched low, her words just between them. “There’s something I need to tell you.” She stared at her hands, her fingers fidgeting with the air. “I think… I know how this magic is being transmitted. And it’s not going to stop once we reach the sands.”
“Why not?” asked Amastan, even though he had never hoped the solution would be that simple. He’d just planned on dealing with it later.
She pulled her gaze from her hands and met his eyes. “It’s the water.”
Amastan felt his understanding melt and come together into one cohesive whole. The corpses, the crypts, the dead, the other cities –
“Not just the water,” he breathed. “The aquifer itself.”
Menna nodded grimly.
“We can’t tell anyone,” he added.
“They would panic,” agreed Menna. “It’s why I hesitated to tell you until I was sure. It’s too late to save anyone from it, but if word got out, people would still try to avoid drinking any water.”
“And they’d get sick and die and add to our problems anyway,” said Amastan. He frowned. “You’ve known for a while. You kept this from me.”
Menna started to protest, then pressed her lips tight and looked at her hands again.
Amastan sighed. “But what could I have done? You’re right – our other problems are more pressing. You have told no one else?”
“Only Salid. We’ve been trying to figure out how to break it. I have to admit, this might be beyond me.”
“Nothing is beyond you,” said Amastan.
“Right,” said Menna brightly, but it seemed to sharp, too forced.
“The important thing right now is getting down to the sands. After that, we’ll deal with any other problems when they arise.” Amastan watched the bustling crowd below, his chest tight. “Who’s your committed crew?”
Menna counted off on her fingers. “Salid, Zdan, Usaten, and Illi.”
“Salid and Zdan aren’t cousins, and Usaten and Illi aren’t done with their training.”
Menna shrugged. “I’m not a cousin, either. Not really. And you need all the fighters you can get. We won’t need to fight, we’ll just need to be fast.”
“Yes,” said Amastan. “We won’t be able to wait for you. We can only clear the platforms ahead of us. We won’t be able to help you or come back for you. You’ll be on your own.”
“Not the first time. You focus on getting everyone out of here. I’ll focus on making sure we can return.”
“I trust you.”
Menna smiled. “I know.”
A drumbeat thudded to life below, echoing through the streets like a pulse. It was time.
Menna slipped to the road, then offered her hand to Amastan. He ignored it, trying to slide down the barrier on his own. He almost managed it, but then his ankle gave as he landed and he stumbled, slamming his knee hard into the stones. Pain spiked through his leg and he bit his tongue hard enough to taste copper and salt.
As he dragged himself upright, a fresh rush of exhaustion threatened to pull him back down. He’d been pushing himself too much, too fast. If he wasn’t careful, he’d reinjure his ankle and set his healing back days, if not weeks. Then he’d be useless.
“You’ve got to take care of yourself,” said a soft, familiar voice.
Thiyya materialized out of the crowd, her healer’s blue wrap muted in the darkness. She led a donkey, it’s long ears flicking this way and that, picking up on the ambient panic. She held its lead out.
“Here,” she said. “I thought you could use this. We’ve got to get it out of the city, anyway.”
Amastan shook his head. “Someone else will need it more than me.”
Menna had hung back as Thiyya approached, but now she grabbed the lead from the healer and pressed it into Amastan’s hand. “Don’t be thick, ‘Stan.”
“You need this,” said Thiyya. “And we need you. You’ve already done so much; we can’t risk losing you now.” She put one hand on her hip. “If you won’t listen to reason, at least listen to your healer. You’re not doing those injuries any good, limping as fast as you can from here to there. Get on the donkey, Amastan. Healer’s orders.”
Amastan looked at the lead in his hand and swallowed his reluctance. Thiyya was right. He had to see this through, which meant leaning on others when he could and not letting his pride get in the way. He turned to the donkey, which was prancing in place, shedding unease with each step. It’s nostrils flared and its eyes darted back and forth. Could it smell the bound nearby? Or just the fear thick in the air?
“You okay?” asked Menna.
Amastan started to answer before realizing Menna wasn’t talking to him. He pulled himself onto the donkey’s back while trying not to listen.
“As okay as I can be,” answered Thiyya.
Menna reached out and took Thiyya’s hand, holding it between hers like it was precious. “Keep an eye on him for me, all right?”
“Menna.” Thiyya made the name both a warning and a plea. “What are you going to do?”
“What I have to.” Menna squeezed, then dropped Thiyya’s hand.
“And ‘Stan – you keep your sister safe, all right?” Menna gave them both a playful smirk. “Don’t make my jaani haunt you.”
But Menna had already slipped away, letting the crowd cover her tracks. Thiyya started after her, but Amastan goaded the donkey into movement and the clop of its hooves drew her back. When caught up to him, her eyes were bright with accusations and tears.
“She’ll be all right,” he said, knowing the truth of it at the same time he felt her fear and pain. Thiyya and Menna had been together, once. Even though that once was now a long time ago and he’d never learned what had happened between them, Amastan understood how feelings persisted, how you could still care deeply about a person who had hurt you.
Thiyya glanced up at him, opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated and shut it again. She patted the donkey’s side instead and together they walked in silence. The evacuees parted around them, making room even as they shot him curious – and occasionally envious – glances. Under his tagel, Amastan burned with embarrassment. But his sister stayed by his side and he was grateful for that.
Tamella and his cousins had gathered before the last bridge between them and the bound. Planks and chairs and tables were stacked on the other side of the bridge, blocking both the way and the view beyond. But Hamma was on a nearby roof, relaying what she saw.
“–ten, no twelve, of the sand-blighted things, all just standing there. Like they’re waiting for some sign. It’s unnerving.”
Amastan dismounted. Five heads turned toward him. Yaluz was nearest, spinning a dagger around her fingers. Ziri and Dihya were stationed on either side of the bridge. Tamella stood between them, one hand on the hilt of her sword. She clucked her tongue at him.
“Don’t even think about it, Amastan.”
“I can fight–”
But Tamella was already shaking her head. “How long will you last? How long will I last, if I have to watch out for you? No, Amastan. You’ve fought enough. You’re needed here, to lead.”
“I’m no leader.”
Tamella raised an eyebrow. “Then what have you been doing these past few weeks?”
Amastan frowned, but he had no answer for that.
Tamella closed the gap between them, any semblance of amusement gone in an instant. She took the drum from around her neck and slid it over Amastan’s head. “You need to lead and you need to live. You’re going to find my husband and you’re going to take his hand and get him through this chaotic mess. You’re going to save all these people.” She gestured expansively. “You’re going to lead them to safety and, when the streets are free of those monsters, you’re going to help them rebuild.”
“You’re not going to die,” insisted Amastan.
“I will,” said Tamella with a tight smile. “I’m not immortal. I don’t plan on dying today, but facing these demons, there’s every chance – well, I need to know someone will survive this and find my daughter. And that someone is going to be you, Amastan. You’re going to rebuild Ghadid and you’re going to find Thana and you’re going to take care of her. These demons are no match for the Serpent, but I need to be certain that you will live and find Thana.” She lowered her voice to a hiss. “That’s my revenge, Amastan: live.”
“They’re rousing,” called Hamma, dropping down from the roof. “Something’s got them agitated. If we’re going to do this, now’s a good time.”
Tamella nodded without breaking eye contact with Amastan. “Everybody remember the plan?”
A chorus of affirmatives came from the cousins. The plan, the plan he’d come up with, was deceptively simple. Stick together. Clear the platform. Signal Barag, who would remove the barricade with Ziri and usher the evacuees across. Heal those who were hurt. Move to the next.
Tamella grinned. “All right.” She turned and unsheathed her sword. “Let’s go!”
Amastan watched as his cousins surged over the barricade, feeling helpless and alone, even with his sister at his side. They could do this. They would do this.
They had to.
That was all that stood between them and the carriage station and freedom. Amastan waited, his fingers tight around his donkey’s lead, a hundred voices murmuring at his back, and stared at the barricade as if he could see through it. He couldn’t, but from the steady thwack and thud of weapons beyond, he knew that everything was proceeding as it should.
His plan had gone off without a hitch. His cousins had been able to clear each platform, letting the evacuees advance closer and closer to safety. Smoke stirred the air, thickening as Menna and her crew set more and more platforms alight. They were going to be all right. They were going to make it.
A hand waved over the barricade: the platform beyond was clear. Amastan hardly even needed to gesture anymore; the nearest evacuees knew the drill. They began dismantling the chairs and the tables, tearing apart the barricade.
“That’s it, then,” said Barag, standing near the donkey’s shoulder. “After this platform, we’re at the carriage station and we’re on our way down.”
“We’ll still have to hold off any bound that attack,” warned Amastan. “But that should be a lot easier.”
Barag patted the donkey’s side. He glanced back at the long line of evacuees, at the flicker of far-off flames, at the smoke obscuring the sky. Amastan couldn’t see the stars anymore, couldn’t be sure what time it was, only that they existed in some point between dusk and dawn. It felt like the night would never end.
But it must and it would. They would get through this.
Amastan and Barag led the first evacuees across the second to last bridge. The platform beyond was empty. At the beginning of this long march, Amastan had expected bodies to litter the street, but his cousins were nothing if not thorough. They’d piled the bodies off on side streets and back alleys and now around corners and streets, Amastan caught the warm light of the fires.
When Menna came over the edge of the roof, Amastan nearly had a heart attack. She fell with all the grace of a sack of sand, but not because she was injured. She was carrying an angry, writhing girl: Illi.
Menna stumbled under her burden but didn’t let go. Illi let out a piercing shriek, clawing at Menna’s shoulders, hands, arms. Menna looked like she’d been through fire and hell – her wrap was torn and smeared with soot and sweat and blood and there was a wild look in her eyes. Amastan was glad Thiyya had peeled away earlier to take care of some hurt evacuees. The people around Amastan faltered and slowed.
“No!” snapped Menna. “You’ve gotta keep going.” Her gaze snapped to Amastan’s. “They’ve gotta go faster. They’re coming–he’s coming–”
“Let me go,” snarled Illi, trying to scratch at Menna’s arms.
“What’s going on?” asked Tamella, appearing at the edge of the crowd.
Illi went still. “They’re still back there, they’re trapped, we have to help them.”
“We were overwhelmed,” said Menna. “Someone’s controlling them. The bound ambushed us. We–” her voice broke, faltered, “–Usaten didn’t–”
“Where’s Salid?” asked Amastan, fear clawing at his throat.
“He’s catching up.” Menna gestured at Illi as best as she could when she was holding the younger girl over her shoulder with both hands. “I had to drag Illi away. The bound kept coming but she wouldn’t leave.”
“Because we need to find them,” said Illi. “My parents–”
“I came to warn you,” interrupted Menna. “The man–whoever he is–he’s bringing the bound here. All of them. He must’ve figured out what we were up to. We don’t have much time.”
The evacuees around her were stirring and a murmur was passing down the line as quick as a sneeze. If they weren’t careful, they’d have a full-on panic soon.
“Can we not discuss this here?” hissed Amastan, voice low.
Tamella glanced around, then put her hand on Barag’s shoulder. “Warmth of my fire, I trust you’ll keep everybody in order.”
Barag grimaced but nodded. “You know me. Full of order.”
Amastan followed Tamella and Menna away from the line of people. When they were nearly to the platform’s center, Tamella held up a hand and turned to Menna.
“Put her down.”
Menna slid Illi off her shoulder and set her on her feet. Illi immediately tried to run, but Tamella had her arm. No matter how Illi twisted or pulled, Tamella’s grip stayed firm.
“Stop that,” said Tamella firmly. “I’ll let you go and you can run back if you want to and get yourself killed, but you will listen first. I chose you for a reason. You’re smart. Which means you know you can’t go back. You know if your parents haven’t found a way to join the rest of the evacuees, it’s too late. You know you’re being foolish. You are upset and angry and grieving and if you think you’re alone there, you’re even more foolish than I thought. Bottle that anger, Illi. You can mourn later. You can do anything you want later–yell at Menna, fight me, work your grief into a weapon. But that means surviving, and that means staying with us. You can’t do anything for your parents. They’re dead. But you can live.”
Illi slowly stopped struggling. When Tamella finished, she let go. Illi didn’t move. She also didn’t meet Tamella’s gaze.
A cough came from the platform’s circle, gentle and almost polite. Tamella’s head whipped up. Across the circle, standing on the other side, was a man, all in red. Amastan’s chest filled with a heavy chill.
“Oh shards,” said Menna.
The man stood with his arms crossed, a pale sphere hanging from his neck. It glowed with a thin, feeble light no brighter than the stars.
Tamella hissed and drew her sword. “I’ll stop this.”
But before she had made it to the circle’s edge, the bound arrived. They walked down the streets opposite Amastan and his cousins and into the circle, first a dozen, then a second dozen, then more than Amastan could count. His mount shied under him, backing away even as he fought it forward. The bound were disturbingly silent. Even their steps were little more than a whisper.
As they came, the sphere around the man’s neck brightened, bathing his face and the area around him in a sickly, too-pale light. His tagel still covered most of his features, but his dark eyes were bright, calculating. Was this Djet, the man who had died and should’ve stayed dead over several hundred years ago? Or was this another en-marabi who wanted to be him? Amastan didn’t know and didn’t really care. They would stop him either way.
As the bound poured into the platform’s center, Amastan noticed more wrong with them than just their silence. All of them were bloody, covered in soot and dust, their wraps and tagels askew or gone completely. And there was something wrong with their necks. They were twisted and scarred and it looked as if –
Horror filled Amastan. These were the bound they’d decapitated, but not burned. The bound the drum chiefs had insisted on putting back into their crypts. The en-marabi had been busy: their heads had been shoved back into place, some secured by a tagel but most oozed a dark, viscous glue around the seams.
Amastan hated that he’d been right.
“Shit and dust,” said Hamma, joining them.
Ziri and Dihya were right behind her, Ziri solemn while Dihya almost looked giddy as she drew Azulay’s machete. Yaluz ghosted behind, as silent as ever, but her gaze focused, ready. Amastan counted his cousins and started counting his own weapons before he noticed that Tamella was looking at him, expectant.
He backed his mount up and turned its body so it was blocking the road. He wouldn’t join their fight, but he wouldn’t abandon them completely, either. Menna pushed Illi toward him before drawing her sword. Illi caught herself and glared up at Amastan. He offered her a hand. She ignored it and turned to face the bound. But she didn’t leave him.
Hamma notched an arrow, fired. The arrow split the skull of one of the standing bound. It toppled, fell. The man in red looked up. The sphere turned a sickly green. The man opened his hands. The mass of bound began to move.
They surged forward, now numbering near a hundred. Amastan’s cousins met them like a well-armed wall. The bound fell. More took their places. His cousins had developed an efficient method of cutting the bound down, but there were still more and more of them.
Tamella pushed forward, Dihya and Ziri at her sides, but the bound only grew denser before them. They hacked and slashed and heads rolled and bodies toppled but there were still more, always more.
Exhaustion crept into their movements.
Illi hissed and spun. A bound had broken through and now rushed them. Illi met the bound with her sword, but she only managed to push it away. It recovered unnaturally quick and was running at them again when it abruptly spun and fell, an arrow sticking out of one eye. Amastan looked up, found Hamma on the rooftop. She thudded her chest with her fist, then turned, notched, sighted, and hit another bound close to Tamella.
The voice came from behind. Amastan turned as Salid raced down the street. The older man stumbled to a stop a few feet away, his tagel loose and his chest heaving as he fought for breath. He lifted his head and his gaze slid past Amastan to the chaos beyond. He wilted.
“Oh. I’m too late.”
“Menna warned us,” said Amastan.
“Yes, of course she did.” Salid stopped next to the donkey and peered into the swirl of bodies, as if he might discern meaning from it. His eyebrows drew together in a frown. “Did she also tell you about the sphere?”
Amastan picked out the glow on the opposite side of the center, the one thing that hadn’t moved since the attack had begun. “What about the sphere?”
But even as he asked, he knew. The answer was so bright and painfully clear that he wondered how he hadn’t realized it before.
“That’s how the en-marabi is controlling these bound,” said Salid. “If we break it, we’ll sever his control. They’ll still attack, but they’ll attack him too and they should have no coordination. We’ll have a chance.”
Amastan slid from his donkey. His ankle held his weight even as he trembled a little from the accumulated exhaustion. He unsheathed his sword. “Illi – tell Tamella. They need to get that sphere.”
Illi hesitated, glancing at Amastan’s shaking arm. Amastan took a deep breath, widened his stance, and the shaking diminished.
“I’ll be fine,” he insisted.
Illi didn’t look convinced, but she nodded and then she was off, darting between the bound like a mouse through the stalks in a glasshouse. She reached Tamella and leaned close, whispering something into her ear. Whatever she said was lost in the noise.
“I can only hope that’s enough.” Salid placed his fist over his heart and bowed slightly. “Thank you. But another thing – the en-marabi’s assault interrupted our work. We didn’t finish burning the southern neighborhoods. We can’t leave that unfinished.”
Amastan didn’t glance back. “We don’t have anyone to go with you.”
“I can protect myself.”
Now Amastan turned. “No. Absolutely not. The likelihood you’ll get hurt–”
Salid held up a hand. “Every single one of us is risking our lives tonight.”
Not me, thought Amastan, but pity didn’t suit him.
“Let me do this,” continued Salid. “And afterwards, when I find you again, you can tell me how stupid I was, all right?”
A lump lodged in Amastan’s throat. “We can’t wait for you. If you’re not back in time…”
“Then I’ll find my own way down,” said Salid. “We can’t let these creatures have Ghadid. We can’t let that man have these people. It’s the only way to stop all of it.”
Amastan turned, unable to look at Salid. “Go.”
Behind him, Salid made a noise in his throat. Then footsteps retreated. Amastan focused on the fight ahead. The cousins had shifted their positions. They no longer formed a line of defense, but had become a spear with Tamella at its point. Ziri and Dihya flanked Tamella while Yaluz and Illi covered her back. They stabbed through the bound, clawing their way closer to the en-marabi, but it was like pushing against a storm.
The man stepped back and more bound filled the gap between him and the cousins. Bodies piled before him as Dihya slashed and Ziri jabbed and Tamella cut. They forced the en-marabi back, step by step. He motioned with his fingers and more bound pressed into the circle, climbing over the bodies of the dead. The bound nearest Amastan turned and surged back toward the center, all of their attention on his cousins.
Amastan lurched forward to join them, even brought his sword up, before Tamella’s order echoed in his ears: live. He wouldn’t stand a chance in this fight. It wasn’t his.
He could only watch as Hamma picked off the bound between Tamella and the en-marabi, as Dihya swung and swung and swung, as Menna whirled and Illi stabbed. Exhaustion slowed their movements and minute errors began to pile up. They couldn’t keep going forever.
Then Tamella cut down the last bound between her and the mark. Before another bound could take its place, she lunged. Her sword grazed the en-marabi’s chest, its tip snagging the chain. The metal links held for a heartbeat, then the chain snapped and the sphere fell, meeting the stones and shattering into a hundred shards of glass. Its light winked out.
Sudden silence. The bound faltered. A shudder ran through them like a breeze through a glasshouse. Ziri lowered his ax an inch. Tamella raised her sword.
Then the bound began moving again, but any order they’d had was gone. They lashed out at anything nearby, including the en-marabi. He stumbled back as bound slipped again between him and Tamella, then turned and shoved his way through them. Tamella growled, cutting through the bound as she went after the fleeing en-marabi.
The bound nearest Amastan turned on him. One grabbed for his arm as he swung his sword. He caught its neck and swung again. An arrow sprouted from its ear and the bound toppled. Amastan gave Hamma a grateful wave and then turned to rebuff the next bound.
Ziri’s gasp cut through the chaos. His ax faltered mid-swing and he tilted his head down to stare at his own stomach. A spear protruded from his gut. Behind Ziri, a confused bound jerked on the spear, yanking Ziri to his knees.
Tamella hesitated at the sound and the en-marabi claimed another foot of space between them. Her sword cut through bound instead of her mark. The en-marabi slashed his palm with a small knife. He dodged a bound, then fell to the ground and dragged his bleeding hand across the soot-stained stones, leaving a line of blood behind. Another bound lunged for him, but slammed into an invisible wall.
Dihya screamed. The bound around her fell back as she pushed through them to Ziri. She lopped the head off the bound holding the spear, then cleared a circle around Ziri as he struggled to stand. Menna and Illi were left to fight on their own, back to back in a sea of bound. Tamella was on her own.
The en-marabi straightened. Tamella stabbed forward with her sword, driving the blade into his stomach. Or she should have, but while her blade cut forward, her shoulders stopped abruptly short, as if caught in a barrier. The same one that had just rebuffed the bound.
The bound seethed and Amastan only caught what happened next in flashes between their bodies. Tamella hesitated, confused. Then the man stepped close and, in one small motion, slid his knife across her throat. The sword dropped from Tamella’s hand. Blood spilled down her front. She took a step back before falling to her knees.
Menna saw. Menna screamed. Her movements became wild. She slashed her way through the bound, but she couldn’t get to Tamella. The en-marabi stood alone in his circle of blood as the bound swarmed around him. Then Ziri surged to his feet, the spear still in his gut, and swung his ax in broad strokes. He cut a wide swath through the bound, an oncoming storm himself, heading for the en-marabi.
The en-marabi turned and fled.
The bound were broken. They still attacked, but now they struck each other as often as they tried to hit the living. Dihya waded through Ziri’s wake and scooped up Tamella. The Serpent’s body hung limp in her arms, dripping blood.
“Come on!” she snapped at Ziri.
But Ziri ignored her. He faltered and stumbled as he fought his way through the bound, following the path the en-marabi had taken.
“We’ve got healers!” yelled Dihya again, this time with a higher note to her voice.
But Ziri shook his head like a confused dog. “Not enough water,” he grunted. “You’d only be wasting what you have. I can get him. I can make him pay.”
Ziri smacked two more bound out of his way and then he stood at the mouth of the road the en-marabi had fled down. Blood stained the front and back of his wrap, but the spear was still protruding from his body, still keeping him from bleeding out. From everything he’d learned from his sister, Amastan knew Ziri should have been unconscious by now, or at least in shock. Yet somehow, he was still going. Ziri stumbled down the street, leaving a trail of blood in his wake. Amastan almost pitied the en-marabi.
“Ziri,” protested Dihya. But she let him go.
The bound milled aimlessly, stumbling into one another but no longer lashing out. Menna and Illi guarded Dihya as she crossed the circle to Amastan, but they didn’t have to do much. Dihya draped the body over the donkey’s back. Amastan helped tie it in place with trembling hands. Once the body was secured, the surviving cousins went about the grim task of clearing the platform of any straggling bound. It was much simpler now and they’d been honed to efficiency. Even exhausted, it took little time at all.
When they were done, the way was cleared for the evacuees.
They had won.
Covered in blood and silence, they fled to the sands.
The two fires complemented each other. The one, their city burning in the sky. The other, the bodies of their fallen burning on the sands. Amastan’s eyes blurred from the smoke, but he had no energy left to cry.
Others sobbed for him. Hamma squeaked and hiccuped at his side, her arms wrapped tight around her. Dihya stood far from the survivors, her back to the light. She stared south, toward the burning city. Occasionally, her shoulders shook.
Ziri hadn’t reappeared from his headlong pursuit of the en-marabi. No one could find Salid, even though Amastan could have sworn he’d seen the charm maker’s wrap in the crowd after the bound had been broken. More were missing, civilians and cousins alike, but someone else would count them and there would be time enough for mourning.
The survivors were silent, watchful. The sun rose as if this were just another day. Amastan’s fingers found the chain around his neck and felt the weight of the tiny drum. It was surprisingly heavy for such a small trinket.
Soon, they would have to leave the heat from the funeral pyre and head north. They couldn’t risk more of the bound coming from the city. Amastan hoped to make the nearest well before the sun went down that evening.
There, they would hide and wait for the fires of their city to burn down. There, they would rest and heal. There, they would count their wounds and their dead.
And at some point, they’d have to come back and rebuild.
That would come in time. Now: silence.