The land stretched out before them endlessly, turning from the sere yellow of the plains to the deep red of the desert. Around them the last few trees stood stunted and bent by the wind, and the last channel of the river lay like a rope of red mud, with scarcely a trickle of water down the center like blood. There were fourteen men in this company of mercenaries: twelve soldiers, one officer, and their prisoner.
The officer was a centenary named Malthus, and he did not like what he saw. On the maps this arm of the desert was narrow, and it would only take a few days to cross it. Even here he could make out the shadows of the stark hills in the north that marked the far southern edge of the Jeweled Kingdoms. They were close, and they needed every moment.
He looked at his men and saw they were weary but still steady. They sweated in their leather armor and bronze-crowned helms, but their grip on their spears was firm, and they eyes told no fear. The pack animals bore food in plenty, and there was enough water in their skins for the crossing, if they were cautious. His men were hard, lean border men. They did not shrink from a long march.
Malthus looked backward, over the hills and the golden-grass plains behind them, and he saw there still the plume of dust. The Jhagars were perhaps a day behind them, and they would gain quickly on their horses. He and his men were afoot, and they were at a terrible disadvantage in this country. If they tried to push west toward the coast, around the spit of barren wasteland, they would be overtaken. There was no way to know how many men were in pursuit, and he could not risk losing his captive.
Now he looked at the man who caused all this trouble. He was taller than Malthus or most of his men. His skin was a dark, reddish shade, like his fellow nomads, and his hair was black. The sides of his head were shaved and tattooed, only the center growing long and braided. A heavy beam lay across his shoulders, his arms hooked over it and bound in place with heavy leather thongs. He was naked save for a loincloth, and his body bore bruises and the marks of the whip.
When Malthus looked at him, the prisoner lifted his head, and then Malthus had to force himself not to shudder at the sight of those black, blank eyes. This was Vha Shar, the war-shaman of the Jhagar horsemen, and he made Malthus flesh creep.
“You will not wish to go into the desert,” Vha Shar said, his voice unnaturally deep and jagged, like broken obsidian. “Not in this place.”
One of his guards raised his whip to strike, but Malthus held up a hand to stay him. “Tell me what you know of this desert,” he said.
In answer, Vha Shar grinned, showing his teeth filed down to keen points. “My people will not follow you into this place, but that is only because you will never come out again, if you enter.”
Malthus took two steps to stand before the man, and struck him across the face with his fist. As always, the blow seemed not to bother the lean nomad, as he only smiled and let blood run down his chin. He spat onto the parched earth. “That desert is a place of death, and if you tread those sands, you will never leave. It is the foulest place upon the earth.”
“Then you will be well-received,” Malthus said. “Muzzle him if he speaks,” he ordered the two men tasked with driving the prisoner. Then he gave a last glance at the dust plume far behind them, up to the white sky, and then he led his men down the long slope toward the shimmering wasteland.
The heat of the day rose, and they struggled on through the blazing sun and the shifting sands. Men sweated and struggled on, pulling on the halters of the pack mules to keep them from becoming mired in the sand. Malthus had to pull off his helm so he could continuously wipe sweat from his eyes. The sun slashed down on them all with murderous heat, and it seemed much worse out in the sands. There was no blade of grass, no shelter from the sun, nothing but barren red sand and rock.
Malthus kept rigid water discipline, snarling at his men when they drank too much. He had crossed deserts before, but he had never seen anything quite like this. The air shimmered from the heat, and it seemed to burn on his skin wherever it touched. The distortion in the air was so bad he could no longer see the distant hills, and he had to watch the shadows to make sure they did not lose their way and circle in this hellish place.
Vha Shar laughed as they forced him along, and no amount of blows would silence him. He staggered in his bonds, his ankles hobbled together, and blood ran from his lips from the many blows that cut them against his sharp teeth.
It was mid-day before they saw the first ruin, and Malthus stared at it for a long moment before he realized it was not a trick of the desert air. Pillars reached up from the sands, broken and jagged, and he saw the half-buried remains of a stairway rising along the side of a long dune. It was hard to believe that any order of civilization could have lived in such a place as this.
They struggled on over the dunes as the day grew longer, and as they sweated and panted in the intense heat, men began to falter. The pack animals were staggering and moaning as if in pain, and the men were barely on their feet. Malthus knew the air would turn frigid once the sun was gone, and he searched for a place to camp where they might be sheltered from wind, as well as other menaces that might lurk in this forsaken place.
The men were faltering when they crested a rise and came into sight of a long, low building, half-encased in the red sand. Lines of pillars flanked a long-buried road, and they staggered down it until they could pass under the dead arch and escape at last from the punishing sunlight. Men fell out and collapsed against the walls, gasping for breath, forcing themselves to drink sparingly from their waterskins. For a long time there was no sound except for the panting of exhausted men, and the low sounds of agony made by the mules.
Malthus caught his breath and allowed himself two blessed mouthfuls of water. Then he ordered the men to water the four pack mules and set up a camp site. In here they could stoke a fire if they needed one without being seen. They didn’t have very much wood, so he would see if it was necessary.
He had the prisoner marched to a pillar and saw him lashed to it by his neck, so any effort to free himself would only result in strangulation. They gave him a sip of water, but no food. With his arms lashed to the bar over his neck, he could not even wipe the dust from his face. With his inhuman eyes, he glared at Malthus, and it unnerved him.
“What was this place?” Malthus said. When he got no reply he kicked Vha Shar in the side hard enough to make him grunt. “What do you know?”
The Jhagar looked up at him with his deadly eyes, like the eyes of vulture or a carrion worm. Slowly, he smiled, his lips pulling back from his dagger teeth. “I know more than you. A man who fights for pay in silver, and not for blood.”
Malthus kicked him again, harder. “Tell me what I want to know. I have been paid in silver to deliver you alive, so that you may be properly tortured to death by your enemies. I do not have to deliver all of you.” He put his boot on the man’s shin and leaned on it.
Vha Shar hissed, but he understood the threat. He spat to one side, his mouth bloody and caked with sand. “You wish to know, I will tell you. But you will not sleep better from the knowing.”
His black eyes narrowed to slits, glittering in the last light of the day. “This was not always a desert, son of empire. Once this land was fertile as any other, and more than most. A people dwelled here, the ancestors of my own race. They were not nomads - they were a great people. They built temples and palaces, like the one you see now, all around us.” He looked up to the roof, the carvings upon the stone worn down, shapeless with the brutal ages.
“But a curse came upon this place. A curse of blood.” Vha Shar showed his teeth. “They say the sun turned red in the sky, and from among the inhabitants of this land, rose a host of demons. In a day, and a single night, one from each household was made over into a devil of the night, a creature that lived in darkness, and drank hot blood from savaged throats.”
He licked his parched lips. “There was no warning, no signs given. Mother or son, father or daughter, prince or beggar. Those chosen turned upon the others and began to devour them, and there was a great flight, an exodus from this place, as those who still lived fought to escape. They fled to other lands, and left their homeland to rot, and burn under the accursed sun.”
Malthus kicked him again. “I didn’t ask for legends, charlatan. You may have your savage kinsmen worshiping you with your stories, but I am not a fool.” He drew his sword and held it up to the fading light caught it. “If something lurks in this place that is a danger to my men, then you had best tell me.”
Vha Shar spat blood on Malthus’ boot. “You threaten with an empty hand, mercenary. I know your bidding is to return me alive. You will risk no harm to my hide so long as it can be exchanged for silver.” He laughed. “Here you will find only death.”
Malthus kicked him in the guts one more time, left the man gasping and coughing, and he stalked back to where his men were building a fire so they might cook their dinner. He ordered the wood saved for another night, and left them grumbling and eating cold rations. He set a guard on the prisoner, and made sure to detail watches through the night. He walked to where the edge of starlight fell across the threshold of the ruins, and he looked out into the desert as night deepened. There was not a single sound of life.
He woke to the flesh-crawling screams of the Jhagar as they rushed into the attack. He had been dozing, his back to a pillar, and now he was on his feet in a moment as the raiders burst into the dark temple with torches high and swords and axes ready for slaughter. It seemed their desire to recover their shaman had overcome their fear of this place.
Malthus had been a soldier all his life, and so for him there was no hesitation between sleep and battle. A horseman swept at him, sword coming down to sever his head, and he ducked low under it, methodically hacked off one of the horse’s legs, and then jumped aside as beast and rider crashed to the floor in a spray of blood and screams. The rider struggled away from his flailing mount, and Malthus leaped on him. His sword-point crunched through the back of the man’s head and silenced him.
The camp, badly lit by lanterns and torches, was a howling mass of blood and death in moments, horses plunging through it, screaming. Dark-skinned Jhagars with their faces painted with white skull-masks leaped from horseback and hacked down two of his men, sawed their heads off with their long swords and shrieked their war-cries.
Malthus’ men were professionals, and they reacted with speed. They formed into tight trios and fought back to back. They gladly hamstrung the rearing horses, and then met the rush of furious nomads with sword and battle axe. The stink of blood in the cold night air was like hot metal.
Malthus put his foot on the dead man’s skull and wrenched his sword free. Another nomad hurled himself to the attack, screaming, and Malthus evaded his axe-blow and then chopped off his arm. The warrior screamed and Malthus kicked him in the chest, sent him pitching backward with crushed ribs. He swept the fallen axe from the stones and rushed across the battlefield, knowing the fanatics were here for their shaman.
A huge warrior barred his way and Malthus met him sword to sword. Their blades clashed with jarring force, and then Malthus sidestepped his rush and cut off the front of his skull with a sweep of the axe. The giant staggered and Malthus spat into the open wound, hacked off the man’s leg and left him to writhe.
He reached the pillar but he was too late. The beam of wood was there, the leather strips cut away, and Vha Shar was gone. Malthus bellowed in rage and turned, seeking the escaped prisoner, but the Jhagars were already fleeing, slipping into the silver night like ghosts.
“Call out!” he commanded, and listened as the men sounded off. He had seven out of twelve, quickly found the others headless on the cold stone. Jhagars did not leave wounded behind them. They had cut down six of the nomads, and they found a seventh dragging himself away down the sand-covered steps, his entrails unspooling behind him.
Malthus came after him, treading on his dangling lights until he screamed, and then he struck off his head with one blow of the axe, the steel ringing when it struck the stone under him. He spat on the sand and cursed. “Get your sorry flesh moving,” he snarled at his men. “We can still catch him.”
“They have horses,” one man said. “We’ll never keep up.”
Malthus shoved him. “They don’t have enough horses - we killed too many, so they’ll have to ride double. It will slow them down.” He pointed to the trail in the sand. “The trail goes north. We take the horses they left and we ride after them. We push hard and we catch them by dawn. Round up the horses, take all the water you can and kill the mules we don’t need. Now!”
They rounded up five horses, and so Malthus took one while the other men had to double up. He decided to lighten the mules’ loads and bring them along, and they pushed north into the wasteland within an hour. The moon was up and the stars were afire, and so the land was transformed from a crimson hell into a place of silver, graceful and beautiful. The enemy trail was easy to see, but it was not long before Malthus began to believe he was being deceived. Northward led deeper into the desert, toward the kingdoms, while the Jhagars would wish to go back south toward their homeland.
He decided they were intending to double back once they had thrown him off the trail, and he thought they must have some cache of food or water hidden along the way. To the east the land became rougher and rockier, and it would make harder going for tired mounts. He rode in silence, agonizing for a long time, and then he turned west and drove his men among the silver dunes. He gambled that the horsemen would curve around to the west before turning south again. He meant to cut them off.
His men and the animals were weary, and the night wind was cold as graves. He kept his helm snugged down over his head, a cloth across his nose and mouth to protect against the bitter chill. The men were mostly silent, save when they cursed the slow-footed mules. Every time they crested a dune, Malthus took a sighting, trying to see some indication that he was right. He looked for the signs of passage, hoofprints in the sand.
They rode through the night, wounds stiffening and cold biting their skin, tired and hungry. The moon set, and all the light was from the scatter of stars across the sky, frozen eyes watching from an endless deep. The wind stilled, until it was so quiet the hiss of shifting sands under their feet seemed loud as the march of armies.
The screams came to them over the sand dunes, echoing so they sounded close enough to make the men flinch. Malthus drew off his helm and turned his head side to side, judging direction, and then he pointed and they rode toward the sound. The shrieks were hideous to hear, and the mules and horses shied away, shaking their heads, and yet even the animals made no sound. Malthus led them onward as the screams began to thin away. Four voices, then three, then only two. One by one they were choked off into deathlike silence.
It was just over the dune. Malthus got down from his horse and motioned for his men to do likewise. They hobbled the animals with leather strips to keep them from fleeing. Screams echoed from the perfect sky in the stillness, screams without words, or any meaning save horror.
His men were white-faced, but Malthus gave them no time to savor their fears. With sword and axe in hand he led them up and over the top of the dune, and there in the emptiness there was light. A ruin like an amphitheater stood open to the sky, ringed by broken pillars and ancient statues of men from forgotten ages. At the center there was a flame, but it was no hot fire as men might create. This flame towered cold and blue up from a central firepit.
Malthus stood and watched the flickering shadows cast by the flame, like motionless arms reaching across the emptiness. He felt a coldness in him where there once might have been fear, and he heard screaming and whimpering, sounds that were almost words. It meant his quarry might still be alive, and he would not let go of him.
He went down into that cold place, and his men followed. They looked up at the human shapes of statues with unease, for the light made it seem that they moved, and in the corner of the eye shadows twisted and stalked. The smell of blood came to them, and the men hesitated, but Malthus snarled at them and they kept going, though they were sallow and slack with fear.
The center of the amphitheater was splattered with blood and pieces of flesh. Dead men were strewn across the sand-gritted stone, and they had been hacked and ripped into pieces. Their horses as well had been slaughtered, the blood black in the starlight. Malthus sneered at the foul smell of ripped bowels and drying gore. The men’s heads were on stakes, faces frozen in expressions of horror. Their mouths yawned, their eyes were empty and dead, and the ragged skin of their necks showed they had been ripped away.
Blood was scattered and tracked across the stone, and the eviscerated corpses lay strewn about the cold fire, yet there was no sign of the slayers, no sword or bloody axe. Malthus looked around, seeking ambush in the darkness but there was nothing that moved.
Beside the fire lay the naked form of Vha Shar. He lay quivering and pale, his throat bitten and blood staining the stone under him. He was too weak to move, and Malthus saw the stars reflected in his blank eyes as he trembled and gasped, his throat bubbling. His thin fingers grasped at the air.
“One of them,” he wheezed through his torn mouth, blood on his tongue. “I will be one of them. The sons. The sons of blood.”
Malthus grasped him by the hair and began to drag him away from that unearthly fire. His flesh was creeping and prickling, as if he could feel gazes on him. He looked back the way they had come, wondering if he would see shadows there, something moving. As he looked, one of the ancient statues turned and looked at him with a white face like the dead, and he shuddered.
Another one moved, and another. Malthus saw them climb down from their many places like spiders, crawling with their long arms. They had the shape of men, with long arms and long legs. They moved with a hideous grace, and his men shouted as they saw them coming. Ten of them, then more. They were taller than mortal men, with dead white faces and vast black eyes. They wore ancient armor encrusted with tarnished relics and dull jewels, and they bore long jagged swords like monstrous jawbones.
Vha Shar began to laugh, and Malthus turned and struck off his head with one cut, a convulsion of loathing. His vile head rolled away, the mouth still moving in silent laughter as the last of his blood spilled on the cold stone. Malthus put his foot on the moving face and ground it under his heel, and then his men began to scream.
The tall, pale shapes came out of the night, unfolding like sudden hands, and his men were pulled off their feet. He saw them try to fight against enemies that were impervious to sword or dagger. He saw wide mouths yawn with black teeth, and then the blood began to gush and run over the stones. The apparitions bit the heads from his men, tore them apart with hands and teeth and left them scattered and torn. He watched them hunch over the bodies, feeding with wet sounds.
Dark forms surrounded him. He saw their bottomless eyes and their long white hands. They came for him and he put his back to the cold fire, struck at them with sword and axe, saw his fiercest blows make no more impression upon their white skin than if he had struck seasoned oak. They took him and he screamed and fought. They dripped with the blood of his men as they bore him down, and he felt teeth cold like iron bite into his neck. His blood steamed in the cold night as it flowed, and he felt them drink from him, felt their cold file tongues on his flesh.
They left him there beside the cold flame, bleeding and weak, like Vha Shar. A sacrifice for the red gods who made them, or perhaps a dark enslavement still to come. He tried to move, to claw his way to shelter, but he could not move. His body was cold, his limbs heavy and slow as ice in subterranean rivers that flowed unseen. He drew marks upon the stone in his own blood, mad scrawls of terror against the coming of the day. He saw the horizon turn to silver, and then to gold. He waited for the sun to rise, and he feared it would be red.