Captain Najh Semekh and his two soldiers formed a wall between Shaba Alemas and me. Drawn scimitars gleamed cold with starlight, while Najh's knife dripped rancid black fluid. I drew my own dagger, trying to catch Shaba's eyes, but they were hidden in pools of shadow. The sleeping roc stirred, the sound of its feathers ruffling like the canvas of a ship under sail.
Shaba raised a hand. At first I thought it in supplication to the assassin, but the words that tumbled from her mouth were more like a prayer. A calloused finger flew to her lips, shushing Najh, and suddenly all sound died away.
A wise precaution, as waking the roc would likely doom us all. Still, the magical silence did nothing to hinder the satrap's assassins, while simultaneously preventing me from using my own magic to salvage the situation. The soldiers advanced, their booted feet silent across the sand-blown floor.
Fortunately, in addition to magic, I had learned a different sort of craft at Aunt Jaffira's knee—the geometries of knife work and the weak places where a halfling's blade might bite deepest. Najh's brows lifted in surprise as I stepped forward. Perhaps he had not expected me to fight. A mere astrologer does not pose much of a threat to a trained soldier, even if that astrologer is a convicted thief.
A thief with a destiny.
I plunged my knife into the back of a soldier's knee, feeling the leather of his high boot pop like a split sausage casing. His legs buckled, and he fell hard to the floor, his mouth open in a ragged, soundless scream. I rewarded him with my fiercest grin, one I was sure that Aunt Jaffira would approve of, then acquainted his face with the sole of my boot. I imagined a satisfying crunch to accompany the spray of blood from his nose. The man sprawled senselessly upon the landing of the precarious stair.
Shaba, her blade still in its scabbard, evaded her assailant's slash and kicked hard at his ankle. He fell sideways, colliding with his comrade on the stairs, mute profanities reddening his face. Najh leapt clear of the fray, scimitar in one hand, poisoned knife in the other. His handsome face was pinched with doubt.
So much for the would-be assassins of the Pierced Rose.
One of the fallen soldiers fought to rise from the tangle of limbs and stumbled—or so I first thought. Only when several stones fell away from the edge of the landing did I realize the truth. The fragile stair was giving way. The fellow made a fruitless attempt to leap over the buckling stonework to the relative safety of the nest, but his efforts only hastened the disintegration of the stair. He and his companion vanished into the gloom below. They fell in eerie silence, and not a stone thundered or echoed at the bottom.
Najh retreated, putting his back to the wall and the gap in the floor to his right. He choked on a lungful of dust rising from the subsidence below. I turned my knife toward him. Once more, the phantom sound of sails rippled in my ears.
"Oh dear," I whispered, glancing to my left. Shaba's spell had fallen along with the soldiers.
Distracted as I was, Najh readied himself for a thrust, but a sudden resonant wind arose. The steady drawing of air prickled the hairs of my neck. A flicker of motion danced in Najh's wide stare, his eyes reflecting the danger like mirrors.
Forgetting Najh, I turned to face the peril rising behind me. A pair of hungry white moons rose into view. An enormous beak flashed like hammered brass, and at its center a pale, fleshy tongue dripped with slime. The roc stood, buffeting us with grit and a stench like a camel pit in the heat of summer.
To his credit, the assassin was only momentarily deterred. He swept his blade at my head, and when I jumped aside, he surged forward to face Shaba. She had still not drawn her sword.
"Your pacifist dreams end tonight, Shaba Alemas. There will be no more resistance within Sarenrae's church. Qadira's glory will be her own."
Shaba unbelted her sword, though she still refused to draw it from its scabbard.
"That is for Sarenrae to determine," she said.
"How about you and the halfling ask her yourself?"
"If it's all the same to both of you, I'd rather live!" I shouted.
The roc screamed its disagreement.
The great bird lunged forward, shredding stone with its black talons. The whole of the tower swayed, rolling the eggs, the Eye, and what was left of our expedition decidedly toward the shattered rim of the parapet. The roc took momentarily to the air, confused in its blindness. The Eye of Azzah broke free of the clutch of eggs and accelerated toward the edge of the tower. The heat of its passing pressed me back, but Shaba cried out and threw herself in front of the globe to try and halt its precarious slide.
Najh advanced with a triumphant smile and drove his blades at the distracted hermit.
"Burn," I commanded, spraying flames at the pouncing assassin. Caught within the roiling blast, Najh howled and dropped his sword. His charred fist retained its hold on his dagger, however, and he turned the fury of his glare upon me.
"You'll regret that, you little cur!"
I ran, but the shaking tower caused me to veer closer to the panicking roc. The beast's cries pierced my eardrums nearly as effectively as Shaba's mantra of silence. It grabbed blindly at the nest, trying to save the eggs but only making matters worse. The floor trembled and stones dropped away from the edge of the tower, clattering down the sides as they fell. The giant bird's cries grew shriller as the nest fell apart and the eggs rolled freely. I narrowly avoided a downward-flashing beak, Najh dogging my heels.
I looked up to see the blind eyes of the roc shining in the starlight. Perhaps it dimly recognized the tasty morsel running directly beneath it. The threads of its fate had nearly unraveled—the beast was old, blind, and sick. The desert air that eddied and pooled at the tips of its feathers sang to me. It could barely stay aloft.
Najh's blade swished in the air behind me, trying to sever the threads of my own destiny.
I risked a glance over my shoulder at Shaba. She had managed to halt the Eye from its plunge, her arms wrapped around it. Her face was contorted in a rictus of pain. The heat must have been incredible, and I marveled that the hermit could maintain such a grip. The stench of cooking flesh filled the air, and I knew Shaba wouldn't be able to hold it much longer.
Then I ran straight into a wall of reeking feathers, and had no further time to contemplate Shaba's predicament. Filthy barbs snatched at my hair and plucked at my beard, entangling me in the bird's plumage. Najh had me at his mercy.
Yet fate was not so kind to Najh Semekh. With a groan like the earth itself splitting apart, Shaba rose to her feet, hefting the Eye of Azzah in her blistering hands. With a last, worshipful glance at the writing upon the stone, she hurled it at Najh.
What it must have cost her to give up that stone! And she did it for me.
The stone struck Najh across the kidneys, sending him staggering backward.
Right into the blind pecking of the roc.
Whatever the roc could see, it sensed that at least one violator of its nest was within striking distance, and the great bronze curve of its beak lunged down and plucked the would-be assassin from the floor. The attack dislodged me from the vile black feathers, and I tumbled to the ground.
To his credit, Najh made a valiant fight of it. Despite the razor-keen grip of the beak slicing into his torso, he still struggled, managing to puncture one milky eye with his poisoned blade. The roc lifted fully into the sky, blanketing the tower in a black snow of feathers. With one talon like a cage of wrought iron, it tore the assassin from its beak.
Well, most of him anyway. Much of the rest vanished into the roc's pink gullet or fell as crimson rain upon me.
But the roc was gravely injured by Najh's final blow. It wheeled in a frenzied spiral, pulverizing stones and smashing sun-rotted timbers. I struggled to rise in the heaving chaos. I cried out to Shaba to come nearer, but even as the words formed on my lips, the top of the tower gave way with a roar that drowned out even the roc's dying screech. The surge of rubble carried us all—Shaba, myself, the Eye of Azzah, and the roc itself—out into the nocturnal abyss of the Ketz sky.
A miasma of stinging dust enfolded me, choking out sight and sound and air. But I had already prepared my call to the desert winds, and they congealed beneath me in a pillar like the very breath of the dunes. I righted myself in the column of air and searched the roiling clouds for the hermit.
A fold of homespun wool, fluttering within the billowing dust, caught my eye. A ribbon of her long black hair caught the delicate glint of starlight, and in that brief flash I knew that she had never been destined to be buried in the sky like her revered Azzah. Greater things lay in store.
At my command, the desert winds shifted again, and a finger of air unwound from the body of my rescuing pillar, stretching out to catch her and slow her fall.
The rest of the debris crashed into the desert in a clangorous rumble, burying both the roc and the Eye of Azzah. We touched down atop the rubble several moments later, raising only the barest cloud of dust.
Shaba grimaced when she saw the ruin.
"The satrap nearly had his wish, halfling. You were right." She spat a muddy gob of dust.
"It pains me to be so."
Shaba crouched for long minutes without reply, sifting through the debris. Her hands were blistered from the Eye's touch, and I wondered how she could stand to move them at all. After some few minutes I grew impatient to return to the tower and see if any of the treasures in the interior remained unburied, yet I forced myself to wait. At last, she pulled a fist-sized chunk of heatstone from the pile. Only fragments of Azzah's final words remained. Shaba's expression was as shattered as the Eye.
"The Eye is destroyed," I said.
"But you're safe," she replied. I couldn't tell if it was a curse.
There was a long pause. Then at last I asked the question that hung over us. "Why did you save me, Shaba? It cost you the stone, yet you didn't hesitate."
A rare smile bloomed on her face. It was the crooked grin of someone unused to such expressions of mirth, but I decided I liked it when Shaba smiled.
"Perhaps it was your destiny, Kazzar."
I returned her smile and plucked a large black feather from between two stones. Such a treasure, even with its barbs kinked from the fall, would make a mighty pen, or perhaps adorn a fine new turban.
"We could piece the stone back together," I suggested.
"But it would take many days to gather all the fragments, while the satrap yet plots." She tumbled the fragment of the Eye in her hands. "I had hoped Azzah's stone would unify our temple, but perhaps my own words will have to serve for now."
"We can't go back to Katheer," I said. "At least not yet."
Shaba had climbed down from the rubble to the rocky sand. The sky brightened almost imperceptibly. Sarenrae's glory would rise above the horizon soon. Her hermit-priest raised an eyebrow at me.
"No, it's the best time to return. It will unbalance the conspirators. Force the satrap and his allies among the high priests to acknowledge me. I will not be intimidated. How about you, Haron esh Kazzar?"
I decided, just for that moment, to let Sarenrae's star guide my fate, and followed the priest back to where the camels waited.
Coming Next Week: A sample chapter from Liar's Blade, Tim Pratt's new darkly comic adventure about a thief and his talking sword!
Andrew Penn Romine's short stories have appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Crossed Genres, Broken Time Blues, Rigor Amortis, and the forthcoming Fungi from Innsmouth Free Press. In addition, he's contributed nonfiction articles and blogs to Lightspeed Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Inkpunks, and Functional Nerds (as the Booze Nerd). For more information, visit his website andrewpennromine.com or follow him on Twitter at @inkgorilla.
Illustration by Lane Brown.