Friday, September 16, 2011


I command you to storm Soma's walls on the first day of the month of Light before the sun has set. Do this, holding fast to your faith, and you will be delivered to victory. Yussef touched two fingers to his breastplate, engraved with the twin faces of the Divided God, behind which he had placed his father's letter between armor and quilting. A son must obey his father. Cannons thundered to his either side, pounding the walls of Soma. From where he stood in the gathering dusk on the crest of his war-camp's earthworks, Yussef could see the city's dead defenders taking cover behind crumbling crenelations. His own men, he knew, were nervous. They feared assaulting the breach. They feared the dead. He glanced to the left where Bobek, towering over the lines in his horned helm and bearskin cloak, commanded the flank. To the right was Nephru, hidden somewhere within a clot of officers and bodyguards, and in the van was iron-willed Horus with his hammer in hand and his ankylosaurs, hooded and leashed, beside him. A light rain had begun to fall. The saurians stirred, the bone clubs at the ends of their tails swinging back and forth like pendulums.

“The Divided God will smile on us,” said Yussef, more to himself than to the soldiers standing around him in the softening earth. He signaled his standard bearers with a raised fist and the legionary standards, displaying the army's twin-masked sigil, dipped forward as the brass peal of horns rose to drown out the throaty roaring of the cannons. “For the gods!” cried Yussef, freeing his sword from its sheath as he broke into a run. The lines surged forward, the earth shaking beneath the boots of more than fifteen thousand men. Yussef felt as though he might be jolted skyward by the thunder of his army's swift advance. His legs devoured distance, pulling him closer and closer to the breach. The cannons had fallen silent and it seemed that his breath rasping in his ears was the only sound. All else was dull vibration and the slap of the rain against bare skin. Pikes and axes bristled in the breach, and from dead sockets eyes of gold stared out at nothing.

Like a wave breaking on the sand Yussef and his men closed with Soma's dead defenders. Swords hacked rotten flesh, crushed mail, split leather, splintered bone. With his scimitar Yussef turned aside an ax's spike seeking for his heart. His riposte laid open his attacker's cheek, but the silent abomination seemed not to notice. The lines surged around them and Yussef struck blindly. No room for technique in the mad, thundering press. Skulls burst. Blades squealed against armor. The men of the Floating Empire of Eternal Peace tested their faith against the dumb courage of the dead. Grey limbs rose and fell like pistons. Crescent axes stove in helms and hewed limbs. Yussef screamed wordless rage at his enemies as the tide of battle jostled him forward into their grasping arms. He hacked the head from one, then lopped the arm from another dead soldier and rocked clumsily back on his heels as the creature's remaining fist slammed into his jaw. Father, he thought as he fell back, broken teeth rattling in his mouth. You promised we would have victory.

The ax took him in the back without warning. He never saw its wielder. Numbness swallowed his lower half and his legs folded like cloth, dumping him into the cool mud. He spat blood, dragged himself with claw-crooked hands in amongst the milling feet and stamping boots. Legs swung like girders all around him. He squirmed like a snake until someone stepped over him and the pain made colored flowers burst before his eyes. He rolled over, still screaming. An ankylosaur blundered past, trumpeting in agony as alchemist's fire ate at its armored back. Its huge tail swung like a scythe over where Yussef lay and a soldier was smashed, his ribs staved in like kindling. Yussef sucked in a breath and wiped snot from his chin. He was cold below the waist and his left leg was twisted strangely.


An iron ball-bearing fell from thin air and landed between Yussef's feet with a dull, final splat. A figure dressed in white appeared a moment later a meter from where he lay bleeding in the mud. Rain soaked the Shah's flowing robes in an instant, but Ahmad Levi seemed not to notice. He stood over his son like a colossus, his golden eyes trained on the breach in Soma's walls where the dead had congregated like locusts.  Other alchemists might have worn a dozen different reagent rings, but the Shah of Five Thousand Years wore only one. A band of plain gold encircled his right index finger, and in his left hand he held another ball-bearing the size of a ripe orange. The Shah of Five Thousand Years pivoted on his left foot, wound his arm and flung the ball-bearing overhand at the walls where the disorganized remnants of Yussef's charge were being beaten back through the breach by Soma's defenders. The spears and axes of the dead rose and fell with terrible predictability, hacking through flesh, cloth, armor and bone. Men screamed for their mothers in the churned and bloody mud in the shadow of Soma's walls. The ball-bearing struck the wall.

It did not seem possible that so great a thing might move without a sound, but it was so. In a heartbeat the fractured wall was gone, the city laid bare behind the clustered dead. Soma's domes and low stone houses clustered like a treasure trove of jewels between the cradling horns of the pass. Yussef drew in a sharp breath, tasting his own blood and the rain-soaked earth. His father stood over him, robes flapping in a sudden gale. The men stared at him even as their implacable, unliving foes, unfazed by the miracle that had occurred, continued to butcher them. Then, a hundred meters above the embattled forces, the wall reappeared. Like an avalanche from nowhere, like a thunderbolt of inert stone, it fell from the sky in a vast crumbling cascade of limestone sheathing and quarried granite. Jagged spars of stone the size of hadrosaurs plummeted in amongst the dead and the men of the Empire, smashing living flesh and rotten with equal disregard. It sounded as though the world would end. Yussef covered his eyes as blood and rock dust washed over him in waves.

When his ears ceased their ringing he was being helped to his feet by Mustafa Horus. The one-armed General was saying something to him, shouting in his ear, but it sounded like the barking of dogs. The field before them was a hell of broken bodies and smashed stone. Bedraggled crows hopped among the dead, picking at pulped flesh. Ahmed Levi stood alone, serene amidst the chaos. Before him was a gaunt, bearded man with cadaverous cheeks and dull black eyes.  He was escorted by two of the dead, their halberds planted in the mud like standards to his either side. “Horus,” said Yussef, sagging against the older man's shoulder. “Did we win? Is the city ours?”

“We were victorious, my Prince,” said the General. His face was pale and there was blood on his side where his armor had been punctured by a spear's point. “The Shah negotiates with the master of the city. Soon, we will move in to occupy.”

“Good,” said Yussef. He swallowed. “Get me to a surgeon.”

“At once, your Highness. Can you walk?”

“Send for a stretcher.” Blood dribbled down his chin as he coughed, clutching at his old friend for support. “I can't feel my legs.”

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