The armies of Meru moved with the night, traveling ancient paths beside the swollen river in full flood. The sky was clear and the stars were bright as glass, lighting the way through the scrubland. Trees grew in the risen waters, their roots arching up from the mud like the legs of crouching animals, their trunks twisted and hardened by the long dry season even as their leaves uncurled like hands.
Utuzan rode at the heart of his army, shrouded and hooded even against the light of the stars. His power caused a pillar of fire to go before them, lighting the way for man and beast alike. The Heart of Anatu glowed in his hand, pulsing with the power he had embraced when he was only a boy. It led him and followed him and whispered to him, so that he knew the power of his goddess was with him.
Close around him rode the nomads of the desert, those who had become his followers. More and more had come in from the waste lands, willing to pledge their swords and their blood to the Black Flame. They had ancestral tales of the lands of the old empire, and they remembered in their legends the time when the Sea of Xis had made the desert a paradise. They believed they were the descendents of the people of Kithara, and they might indeed be – Utuzan himself did not know.
What mattered now was they believed in him, and in the future of conquest and power he promised. Thirty thousand of them rode beneath his banner, and their arrows and spears would carve a path through these lands. He knew what kind of weapon they were, for even in his day there had been those who lived on the edges of the empire. Men who spurned to plant or reap, who lived only by pillage and war. They were a sword in his hand to strike at those who stood before him.