Firewood was precious in the desert, but the blackened ruins of Vekaura offered a plentiful supply of charred timbers to hurl on bonfires. The city had been a blasted ruin when the Sandthrashers rode through the ruins of its walls, its streets empty, its people vanished.
None of them knew for sure who had razed it, but the captives they’d taken on the Marrowmark road told lurid tales of ancient gods whose anger had burned the city to ash and glass.
Raz Bloodmane didn’t believe that, not really.
Stories in Shurima were the currency of the oasis, the payment of the campfire—living things that grew and twisted with every retelling. No tale could pass from lips to ears without each teller adding some grisly detail, some exaggeration to make it their own.
Gods do not walk the sands, only men and monsters.
The Sandthrashers were a little of both.
A reaver band of bloodthirsty warriors mounted on giant sauren lizards, they terrorized the dust roads of the Sai-Kahleek for coin, and hunted Shakkal marauders in the Valley of Song for amusement. With temperatures dropping in the south, their Preystalker, Sai-Surtha, had led the warband into the warmer north to raid the caravans in search of the newly risen capital in the heart of the great desert.
Such caravans were ripe with fat merchants and priests, the desperate, and the gullible. Those foolish enough to believe that anhad arisen from his tomb to reclaim his lost empire rather than an earthquake had exposed a buried city.
The Sandthrashers were ambush predators, erupting from desert storms to raid in a frenzy of snapping jaws and stabbing spears. Any who fought back were hacked apart, and those that surrendered were fed to their hungry mounts.
Raz grinned as the tethered sauren snapped and growled at the edge of the firelight—giant, reptilian beasts with long, razor-toothed jaws and flanks armored in sun-baked scales. Their ridged bellies hung low to the ground, worn hard by the sand, tails thrashing the dust that lay thick in this cursed city.
Ghosts lurked everywhere in the ruins; echoes of the dying were freighted on the cold wind whistling through shattered stones, and silhouettes burned onto the walls like painted shadows.
Something had happened here, something bad.
Sai-Surtha tossed a splintered roof beam onto the main fire. Sparks flew into the night sky, coiling in firefly spirals before the reaver band’s leader. Raz was strong, but even he would have struggled to lift that beam. Yet the skull-masked vastaya hefted the heavy timber like it was a twig, its enormous weight nothing to his inhuman physique.
Raz watched the sparks flicker briefly in the darkness before fading, sensing a significance that hung just out of reach.
“Why do you look up?” asked Anukta, following his gaze.
The scaled plates of her heavy armor rasped together as she moved, and her shaven head, bare but for a crimson mohawk, glistened with sweat. Her facial tattoos gleamed like exposed bone in the firelight.
“The sparks,” he said. “They burn so bright, then fade to nothing in the blink of an eye.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just thought it might be significant. Like it meant something.”
“You are a sage now? Like Ngozi?”
“No,” said Raz, “not like him. But the sparks, they live, burn, and then are gone. Like us, like life. We are the sparks.”
Anukta laughed, the ivory hoops punched through her ears shaking like drunken moons. “You are right, not like Ngozi at all. He was truly clever. You are just a loud fool.”
Anger turned Raz’s features ruddy, and Anukta’s expression showed she knew she’d gone too far. Her head dropped and she fell to one knee, arms crossed over her chest, thumbs snapping to her palms.
“Forgive me, Raz Bloodmane,” she said, knowing that as Sai-Surtha’s second-in-command, he could have her thrown into the long, tooth-filled mouths of the sauren pack.
Or worse, fed to Ma’kara, the apex mount of Sai-Surtha.
The sauren was a colossal beast, forty feet long and ridged with razored scales from its tail to its three enormous heads. Each elongated jaw was large enough to swallow a horse and teeming with hooked teeth stained rust-brown with blood.
“This is the night before a hunt,” said Raz. “On such a night, only road-meat dies. Don’t make me change that custom.”
Anukta nodded and rose, turning to where the latest captives huddled in the smashed remains of a grain store. They’d taken them on the northern dune roads from Kenethet, men and women claiming they were on a pilgrimage south to see the new emperor. Four had already been devoured by the sauren, and the five that remained were scrawny-looking things, hardly a morsel for the beasts. Well, four of them were—the fifth was an older man with a city dweller’s skin, a full set of teeth, and a girth that told Raz he’d never gone hungry.
“That one,” he said, and Anukta hauled the man to his feet. His face was pale with fear, and Raz saw none of the other captives seemed to mind him being taken.
“Please, don’t kill me,” said the man, with the boneless accent of the northern coasts. “I have money. I can get you much money. Please, gods, don’t feed me to the beasts!”
“You’re too well fed to be a pilgrim,” said Raz, poking the man’s ample belly.
“A pilgrim? No, no, I... I am...”
Anukta jabbed the tip of her spear into his back. “You’re what? Out with it, fool!”
“I am Ordan Stilava, Arch-Patriarch of the Melierax Temple of Bel'zhun,” said the man between heaving breaths. “I’ll get you anything you want. Just, please don’t kill me.”
“A priest, huh?” said Raz, leaning in close and relishing the smell of fear washing off the man in waves. “I heard priests were pious servants of the gods. People to admire. You do not look like a man to admire, Ordan Stilava.”
“Kill him,” said one of the remaining captives. “And make it slow.”
Raz shrugged. “It looks like your companions don’t much like you either.”
“He is a fat pig who took our money and said he would lead us south to!” spat the woman. “He feasted while we went hungry. When we begged for food, his guards beat us. Another day and he would have left us to starve to death in the Sai.”
Raz knelt by the woman—wolf-lean with skin the color of dusk and fire in her eyes.
“And who are you?”
“I am Dalia, proud daughter of sand and sun.”
“Water and shade to you, Dalia,” said Raz. “Show me your palms.”
She held out her hands, bound at the wrist by rough ropes.
He ran his fingertips around hardened patches of skin on her palm and along the edges of her thumb.
“You’re no pilgrim either,” said Raz. “These are sword calluses.”
She pulled her hands back.
“What were you? Caravan guard, tomb-robber, mercenary?”
“All three in my time.”
Raz jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “You think I should feed him to the sauren?”
“Yes. Feet first.”
Raz laughed and drew his knife, a bone-bladed gutter he’d carved from one of Khesu’s splintered teeth. His sauren wasn’t nearly as big as Ma’kara and only had one head, but its teeth were just as long and just as sharp.
“I like this one,” he said to Anukta, sawing the serrated edge of his blade through Dalia’s bindings. “Come.”
She rose to her feet as Raz turned and dragged the protesting Ordan Stilava away.“Do as he says and you might live,” said Anukta with a lopsided grin.
The sauren saw him coming, and the rumbling in their throats intensified as they saw he brought them more meat. They strained at their chain-leashes, inward-facing spikes driving into the softer skin at their throats the harder they pulled. Khesu watched him and opened its jaws wide in expectation of feeding.
“Soon, my friend,” said Raz. “Soon.”
The wood of Vekaura burned with the blood-red glow of a desert sunset, a good omen for tomorrow’s ride. Its light illuminated the rest of the Sandthrashers, twenty-three warriors lounging on stacked debris, blocks of stone, and benches dragged from the ruins to form a makeshift arena around the fire. Clad in a mix of light fabrics, furs, and boiled sauren-scale armor, they feasted on the last of the plunder from their most recent raid: salted skallashi meat and strong liquor made from fermented Eka’Sul milk.
Armed with curved tulwars and tooth-bladed spears, they were men and women whose names were a terror to caravans snaking across the dust roads of the Sai. Years of plunder and killing in the harshest of climes had made them tough and merciless, capricious and boastful, and none more so than Sai-Surtha.
The Preystalker sat atop a throne of stacked blocks burned to glass by some unimaginable heat. Half again as tall as Raz, their war-chief was a vastaya from the east, massively built with a boulder-like leonine head and a body swollen with muscle. He wore his thick mane long, each braid woven with steel cords and talismans he claimed were magic.
Sai-Surtha’s yellow-slitted eyes narrowed as he saw Raz approaching.
“What do you bring me, Raz Bloodmane?” said the Preystalker.
“Fresh meat,” cried Raz, taking Ordan Stilava from Anukta. “A soul rich with deceit and ripe with arrogance.”
“Ma’kara’s favorite,” said Sai-Surtha, reaching out and running a clawed hand across his mount’s nearest head. The sauren grumbled and hissed, its three jaws opening wide. Raz saw scraps of rotten meat between yellowed fangs, gullets pink and glistening in the firelight. Its many eyes, like pits of tar, flashed in hunger. The beast had devoured the lion’s share of the captives already, but its appetite was never-ending.
Ma’kara was an apex predator, and all other beasts must wait until its hunger was sated.
Raz pushed Ordan Stilava into the battle circle beside the bonfire. Its edges were marked with skulls, and the sand within was red and sticky. Ordan Stilava fell hard, scrambling to his knees before Sai-Surtha with his bloodied hands clasped before him as if in prayer.
“Please, mighty lord, don’t kill me!” he wailed.
The Sandthrashers laughed and Ma’kara pulled taut, eager to rip open this fulsome sweetmeat. Sai-Surtha pulled it back with a jerk of the chain-leash, but the beast’s hunger to feast on the patriarch was undimmed.
“Make sport of him, Raz Bloodmane!” ordered Sai-Surtha. “Entertain us!”
Ordan Stilava tried to rise, but Raz kicked him in the back. Raz lifted his arms high, slowly turning in a circle with a wide grin plastered across his face.
“Brothers and sisters!” he cried. “Our desert bounty is all but spent. The time is upon us to hunt!”
Cheers echoed from the blasted walls of the city. Fists and spears punched the air, accompanied by the bellows of the sauren.
“Caravans from the east and north ply the dust roads in search of water and shade!” he yelled, strutting around the circle. “But what shall they find?”
“Death!” roared the Sandthrashers.
Raz cupped a hand to his ear and leaned forward.
“Again!” demanded Raz.
“Death! Death! Death!”
Raz grinned and held up a hand for quiet. A stillness fell across Vekaura, broken only by the heavy crackle of the bonfire and the heaving sobs of Ordan Stilava.
“Yes,” he said. “Death comes to them, as it comes to us all. But before the Jackal takes us into the Sunless Lands, we will spill the blood of our enemies and take what was once theirs. This world demands strength and punishes weakness, so I offer this blood to you all!”
They roared as Raz crossed to Ordan Stilava and cut the rope at his wrists.
The man sobbed in gratitude, but the smile fell from his face when Raz pressed the serrated knife into his hands.
“What? I don’t...”
“You are free to go,” said Raz.
“Free?” said Stilava, sudden hope in his eyes. “Really?”
“Upon my oath. All you have to do is step out of the circle and I will let you go.”
Raz grinned as he saw the understanding of what was on offer dawn on Stilava. He stepped away and spread his arms wide, turning his back on the trembling captive.
Knowing he would never get another chance, Stilava ran at Raz with the dagger upraised.
At the last instant, Raz swayed aside from the blade, spinning and thundering his fist into Stilava’s face. The man went down like a hamstrung beast, the dagger flying from his grip.
“Up,” said Raz, kicking it across the sand to him.
“Please,” said Stilava, ignoring the weapon. “You said I was free.” His face was wet with tears and snot, blood pouring over his lips from his broken nose.
Raz lifted Stilava to his feet and again pressed the knife into his hands. He leaned in and whispered in his ear. “These are your last moments in this world,” he hissed. “The gods are watching—is this how you want to meet them? Weeping and soiled? Give them a show and they might look kindly upon your soul!”
Hate hardened in Stilava’s eyes, and Raz leapt back as the priest stabbed the blade for his belly.
Another thrust, high for his throat. Raz batted the strike aside with his bare hands, spinning away as Stilava slashed wildly like a maniac. The man had no skill and had clearly never handled a knife beyond slicing fine cuts of meat on his plate.
“That’s it!” laughed Raz, easily dodging the clumsy attacks. “Come on, gut me!”
Behind Stilava, Raz saw Khesu’s head come up and heard the constant rumbling in the beast’s throat rise to something else entirely. He blocked an overhand cut with his armored forearm, and sent a pumping jab into Stilava’s belly.
The man hinged at the waist, winded, but he held on to the knife this time.
Raz risked a glance over at Sai-Surtha, and saw the Preystalker on his feet, looking back toward the city gates. Raz turned and saw something move in the shadows beyond the light of the bonfire. The sheen of gold glittered in the darkness, and though the shape moved like a man, it was surely too large for anything human.
Then something was arcing through the air.
Raz followed the object as it sailed overhead and landed at the edge of the fire.
The warriors around the circle shouted in alarm and reached for their weapons as the sauren pack scented blood and yanked at their chain-leashes in a frenzy.
Raz’s mouth fell open as he recognized the warrior he’d tasked with watching the city’s western gate. Uksem Heartsplitter.
Or, rather, half of him.
Uksem lay in a rapidly expanding pool of blood as catastrophic amounts pumped from where his body had been bitten in two. Impossibly, his eyes blinked and his fingers clawed the sand, as if he hadn’t accepted he was dead.
Raz took a step toward Uksem, then cried out as pain flared in his side.
Distracted, Raz had made for an easy target, but it was a poor strike, ill-aimed and with no strength behind it. Instead of penetrating a vital organ, it had sliced over the skin of his hip.
Raz spun to see the man stumble backward beyond the edges of the battle circle with a wild grin on his face and Raz’s knife held out before him.
“I’m free!” said Stilava. “I got out of the circle—you have to let me go! You said!”
Raz shook his head. He didn’t have time for this foolishness. Not now.
Ordan Stilava turned around in time to see the giant sauren surge forward with its fanged jaws spread wide. They snapped shut and the Arch-Patriarch was no more. Only his footprints in the sand and the mist of blood in the air remained to mark his presence.
Raz put the man from his mind as the shadow at the edge of the city advanced into the firelight. The breath caught in his throat.
Gods do not walk the sands, only men and monsters...
How wrong he had been—how fundamentally, entirely wrong.
walked upright like a man, but there the similarities ended.
Hunched, yet still half a head taller than Sai-Surtha, with a thick tail dragging behind it.
Clad in dust-caked armor of dull gold and rusted bronze.
Eyes of jaundiced yellow, rugose flesh of green and ochre.
Blood drooling between dagger-like teeth in red ropes.
Its mighty head was bowed, the crocodilian snout sniffing for fresh meat.
Raz knew this creature. He’d seen hislikeness carved into sunken temple walls, had etched it into the blade of his own spear.
He’d heard his name spoken in hushed whispers around the oases.
The eyeless makhru, the wandering true-speakers who were said to talk with the spirits of the ancients, told cautionary tales of this god’s exploits to warn against unchecked aggression.
“The herald of Azir...” said Anukta, her head held high in awed wonder.
“...” said Dalia.
The giant snapped his head toward her at the name, sliding a huge crescent blade from his back. Such a weapon could cleave a skallashi in two.
“Where. Is. He?” demanded the god.
His voice was rasping and dry, raw from an eternity of screaming.
Despite the sheer power of the god’s presence, Dalia remained unbowed, defiant in the face of his unimaginable power.
In contrast, the sauren pressed their bellies to the sand, eyes rolled back in submission and the low rumbling in their throats stilled. Even Ma’kara lowered its three-headed body to the ground, something Raz never dreamed he’d see.
He forgot the pain in his side as he resisted the urge to drop in awe alongside them. His lip curled in contempt as he saw the Sandthrashers gathered around the battle circle were kneeling.
Submission was for the weak; respect was only ever earned in blood.
The creature stalked forward as though oblivious to the warriors’ presence. Only when Sai-Surtha descended from his throne did he deign to look up and acknowledge them.
“I am Sai-Surtha, Preystalker of the Sandthrashers,” said the vastaya, unhooking his sauren-scale shield from Ma’kara’s saddle. “How is it you dare to enter my city and kill blood of my blood?”
Renekton looked around at the ruins, blinking, as if only now seeing its devastation.
“This is your city?” he said.
“For tonight it is,” said Sai-Surtha, drawing his falcata, a blade almost the equal of the god’s weapon, and stepping into the battle circle.
“Then you must know where he is,” said Renekton, joining Sai-Surtha in the circle as though this were some pre-ordained rite. “Rulers must know all, see all! All the whispering liars. Honeyed words and falsehoods. I heard them. No one listened. No one ever listens to Renekton...”
Raz backed away, joining Anukta and Dalia beyond the reach of the circling warriors. Renekton’s words made no sense, and he had no desire to be nearer to these giants than was necessary.
“Who is it you seek?” asked Sai-Surtha, the falcata spinning in his grip.
“The betrayer!” bellowed Renekton, the corded muscles at his neck spasming. “My faithless! Tell me where he is or you will know agony.”
Sai-Surtha laughed, a booming sound that echoed from the toppled walls of Vekaura. The Preystalker was a being of colossal appetites, and took his pleasures wherever he found them. Raz saw him eyeing Renekton’s physique, his hunter’s eye seeking out weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
“The Jackal?” said Sai-Surtha. “?”
Renekton flinched at the name of his legendary brother, as though the sound of it caused him great pain. His grip on his crescent blade slipped and he pressed a clawed hand to his brow at some unknowable madness.
“Do not speak his name,” warned Renekton, the dry rasp of his voice low and dangerous like the threat of an approaching sandstorm. “He was here, I know it. The magical spoor of the Ascended lies across this place, but goes no farther. They made war here, my brother and he who whispered in the darkness. The desert sands called to me, and the muttering winds told me of his coming. Now tell me where he is or die!”
“And if I had that knowledge, what would you offer in return?”
“Nothing at all, but maybe I won’t rip you apart.”
Sai-Surtha shook his head and made a quarter turn, drawing his falcata back over his right shoulder and extending his shield before him.
Renekton laughed, the sound terrible and melancholy all in one.
“You think you can stand against me? I am Ascended. A god to your kind!”
“I’ve always wanted to kill a god,” said the Preystalker, brandishing a blade engraved with runic sigils and hung with fetishes cut from the dead. “And if it must be a maddened, broken one, then so be it.” He hammered the blade against the vivid crimson of his breastplate and said, “I took this sword from a tomb in the Endless Plain and prised this armor from the skeleton of the ancient warrior who bore it. He was about your size. I will kill you with the craft of your own kind.”
Renekton roared in fury and launched himself at Sai-Surtha. He lashed his crescent blade into the Preystalker’s shield, drawing splintered scales.
Sai-Surtha’s return strike knocked the fury from his attack. Renekton stumbled and the Preystalker ripped his falcata into his ribs, drawing oil-black blood. Renekton struck back, but carved only shield again.
“You deny my vengeance while you squat in this ruin of his making!” he roared.
Another blow. Renekton staggered, then spun, head lowered. Keeping his distance.
Raz saw a newfound respect in the god’s eyes.
He’d struck expecting an easy kill, but Sai-Surtha was a fighter of incredible power and skill, with weapons and armor to match Renekton’s. The Sandthrashers were no longer on their knees, but punching the air with their weapons and chanting the name of their war-leader.
Sai-Surtha lunged, driving his toothed shield into Renekton’s shoulder and face. Renekton threw him off, and leapt aside, faster than ought to have been possible for a being his size. His tail lashed out, but Sai-Surtha ducked and pressed his advantage. He broke Renekton’s guard with his shield and body-slammed him across the battle circle.
Renekton fell into the fire and rolled. Flames licked his flesh black and sparks flew into the darkness. He shook his crocodilian head and spat, blood dripping from his fangs.
“You know where he is!” Renekton bellowed. “I see his liar’s face looking out through your eyes. Tell me!”
Sai-Surtha came at him again with another lunge, carving a chunk of golden armor from Renekton’s flank. Instead of retreating, Renekton surged and hammered a series of rapid slashes down on Sai-Surtha. The Preystalker blocked the first, but the second and third tore into his furred flesh. The fighters’ blades spun and swooped, a blur of silver and bronze ringing against each other in a lethal dance.
Renekton circled left. Sai-Surtha went right. Both were bloodied and winded.
The Preystalker struck first, a low, ankle-slicing blow—Renekton parried, then spun around to deliver a stinging cut that splintered the golden plates of his opponent’s shoulder guards.
“The legends speak of you as a mighty war-god,” said Sai-Surtha between heaving gulps of air. “They tell how you took that blade from a dead king of Icathia. How you broke its haft as you broke his army.” Sai-Surtha shook his head. “How low you have fallen, how lost you have become.”
Renekton growled and charged. Sai-Surtha met his first strike with his shield, and countered his second with his falcata. A third he parried, a fourth he turned aside in a squealing slide of ancient steel that threw off jade sparks.
A tearing bite ripped into Sai-Surtha’s shoulder, and the Preystalker threw back his head with a howl of pain. A tail lash drew blood from his chest. Both fighters backed off, bleeding from their many wounds.
Renekton grinned, his teeth red with Sai-Surtha’s blood. “All that keeps you alive are stolen magics. Without them, you would be dead already.”
“And yet still I stand,” said Sai-Surtha with a mocking bow.
Renekton spun his crescent blade from hand to hand, then seized it in a double-handed grip to hack down at Sai-Surtha. The Preystalker blocked the blade with his shield, driven to his knees by the force of the blow.
He rolled past Renekton and raked his falcata across his thigh.
The god stumbled away, blood pouring down his leg.
Watching from beyond the circle, Raz willed Sai-Surtha to finish the fight, to step in and deliver the killing blow.
The fighters closed again, blades ringing like funeral bells. Sai-Surtha’s shield broke apart and Renekton’s armor hung from him in tattered strips of gold. Renekton stomped in, and the tip of his ancient blade sliced deep into Sai-Surtha’s cheek.
The leader of the Sandthrashers spat teeth and fractured Renekton’s ribs with a two-handed hammerblow.
Renekton was staggered by its ferocity, by pain one of his kind had likely not known in centuries. His stance faltered and his yellowed eyes clouded as though reliving jagged memories and visions of triumphs and deaths long since consigned to the dust of history.
“Please!” bellowed Renekton. “Brother! He is too strong! It must be done!”
The words were meaningless, but, sensing an opening, Sai-Surtha swung for Renekton’s throat. The crescent blade lifted to parry, too late and too slow. The falcata tore Renekton’s face open from jaw to temple. He grunted in pain and swung wildly with his blade.
A clumsy blow, but it split armor and lacerated Sai-Surtha’s side.
Undaunted by the injury, the vastaya struck again, hacking his blade through Renekton’s wrist, leaving it hanging by a shred of sinew.
Renekton threw his head back and roared as Sai-Surtha pulled him in tight and drove the length of his blade through his foe’s heart.
The Sandthrashers cheered, and Raz threw his arms up in triumph.
The two fighters stood for a moment as though embracing, the tip of Sai-Surtha’s falcata jutting from Renekton’s spine. Dark blood streamed from the blade, hissing as it turned the sand beneath to glass.
Renekton rested his torn cheek on Sai-Surtha’s shoulder.
“All you had to do was tell me where my brother was,” he said. “But now it is too late.”
“Too late for what?” said Sai-Surtha, ripping his blade clear and stepping away.
“For you to live,” said Renekton.
A pale emerald glow built within the god, running through his flesh in forking lines of searing light. The sand lifted from the battle circle, surrounding Renekton in spinning loops of dust as he rose to his full height.
This was not the hunched figure who’d entered Vekaura, and Raz saw the true face of the ancient god as his form swelled with long-forgotten magic, his dimensions stretching with power harnessed from the sun itself. His wounds sealed, the skin reforming without scar and pulsing with radiant vitality. The blood spilling from his torn scales turned from black to vivid red before lifting from his body in floating ruby droplets. His clawed hand, twisting on its sinewed thread, re-fused to knitting bone as the gold and bronze of his torn armor flowed like lustrous wax to renew itself and regain its luster.
Eyes that were once jaundiced yellow now burned with the light of newborn stars, clear where before they had been clouded with madness. Every warrior around the battle dropped back to their knees in willing supplication. Even Raz, who knelt to no man, felt no shame in bowing before such a being.
He felt the power that had wrought this creature pulsing in searing waves.
This was a being that demanded awe, a god-warrior of such potency that no legend could ever hope to capture his true majesty.
The falcata fell from Sai-Surtha’s grip, useless against this towering monster.
Renekton’s restored hand reached out and hoisted Sai-Surtha from the ground, lifting him like a man holding the runt of the litter by the scruff of its neck.
“Little mortal,” said Renekton, his voice echoing from the shattered walls of the city. “I am an Ascended being. I have crushed armies, torn down cities, sealed the gates and set them to flame. I laid waste to the world uncounted ages ago, and you thought to stand against me?”
With a dismissive flick of his wrist, Renekton tossed the body of Sai-Surtha toward Ma’kara. The great sauren’s heads came up and their jaws snapped shut.
Raz winced at the sound of crunching bone and ripping flesh as the three heads tore their former master to scraps.
Renekton bent to retrieve the Preystalker’s falcata, its impressive size like a toy sword in his hands.
“Who claims this blade now?”
Raz felt every eye upon him, the Sandthrashers looking to him as Sai-Surtha’s second in command. The blood felt cold and sluggish in his body, like cooled fat clogging his veins. He let out a shuddering breath, knowing that to take the falcata would be death.
He rose to his feet and stepped forward, his dreams of one day leading the Sandthrashers now ashes in his mouth.
“Sai-Surtha is dead by your hands,” he said. “The blade is yours. You are now the Preystalker of the Sandthrashers.”
“My time of leading blade-hosts is long passed,” said Renekton, and Raz thought he saw a depthless well of melancholy flicker within the fire of his eyes. “I desire no army, nor crave followers as I will seek the scent of my brother beyond these walls. You would do well to be far from these lands when I find him.”
The god-warrior threw Sai-Surtha’s falcata toward Raz. It landed, point first, in the sand, quivering slightly.
“Your leader,” said Renekton, stepping from the circle towards him. “Did he know anything of my brother or did he die for nothing?”
“I know not what he knew,” said Raz, pulling the sword from the sand and holding it out before him in offered challenge.
“What are you doing?” asked Renekton.
“If you are going to kill me, then I will give a show you won’t soon forget,” said Raz. “I will make you work to claim my soul.”
Renekton laughed and shook his mighty head.
“You are less than nothing to me,” he said. “I seek the heart of a god. I merely pass this blade to you as a sign of your ascension to, what did you call it? Preystalker, yes, that was it. You are now the Preystalker.”
Raz lowered the sword, looking from its blade to the warriors gathered around him.
He could ask for no greater sign of favor than the word of this god.
“Lord Renekton,” said a voice, and Raz turned to see Dalia slowly rising to her feet beside Anukta. “On our journey south, the man who enslaved us spoke of an order of scribes who sought a sunken library. It is said to be hidden in the cliffs beyond Zirima. I do not know if there is any truth to this, but if the tales of your learned brother are true, then perhaps he too might seek out such a place...”
Renekton sighed, his eyes taking on the faraway look of a mind lost in bitter memories.
“Knowledge was ever his passion,” he said. “Once we almost shed blood over my thirst to destroy a great library of an enemy city...”
Renekton turned and strode back the way he had come, passing once again to shadow.
As darkness swallowed the ancient being, it seemed his form diminished from its towering, lustrous god-form, returning to the hunched and forlorn wanderer lost to madness who had first entered Vekaura.
With Renekton gone, Raz turned to Dalia and Anukta.
“You want to live?” he asked Dalia, bending to retrieve his tooth-bladed knife from the blood-drenched ground where Ordan Stilava had been devoured.
“I do,” she said.
Raz handed her the weapon and nodded toward the hissing, reptilian form of Khesu.
“I made this from one of its teeth,” he said. “If it lets you ride it, you’re one of us.”
She nodded, and Raz was pleased at the lack of fear he saw.
“So what are you going to ride?” said Anukta.
Raz sheathed Sai-Surtha’s falcata in a leather loop at his back.
He locked eyes with the middle head of Ma’kara and rolled his shoulders. Ragged scraps of flesh dangled from the creature’s barbed teeth, and it watched him approach with hostile eyes.“Right,” said Raz, “we can do this the easy way or the hard way...”