Sorry it’s a bit late today! Hopefully it is worth the wait.
Find previous chapters here.
Deep buzzing builds slowly. At first, it’s like a hundred hornets far off. I hear it between footfalls, since the thud of my feet as I run drowns it out with each step.
But it keeps getting louder.
“Don’t look back,” Forziel yells. “It’ll slow you down.”
Savi, paces ahead of me, shouts encouragement to Nihae. She bobs in the corner of my eye, head down, bent forward.
The deep buzz grows.
It’s moments until the aivenkaites will reach us. How many must it take to set the whole desert rolling? Dozens–maybe even a hundred. In the tight tunnel under the palace, Savi and I were hard pressed to fight six off–and they were constrained by the bodies they possessed.
A wave of panic blinds me. We’re all going to die. I careen forward without sight.
A few paces. My ears start ringing. I squeeze my eyes shut.
Then a calm washes over me. My eyes fly open. My straining lungs drag in a gulp of air. I’m deaf now to fear.
I don’t have time to ponder why. The rising sun burns pure white ahead, just to the left. It sparks of Saviayr’s sword.
“Faster,” Forziel calls.
“Mama, get in front of me,” Savi barks, voice strained.
“Aia-ni, ouni-hae,” Nhardah shouts at the sky. “My Aia, save them.”
The buzz is as loud as the crack of waves against Ira’s cliffs in a storm.
Each thud of my heart echoes through my body.
The desert underfoot hardens. Wind has swept the sand from the bedrock here and carved sculptures into the rock jutting out of the ground. I fly past a towering amber monolith.
The sound is no longer a buzz but a roar.
My fingers tighten around Luemikaroeth. My mouth goes dry.
The pillar of limestone beside me moves.
I swing the sword, following it with a shout and my whole body. Metal bites into moving rock. The spire explodes. Gravel rains around me.
The ground lurches. I stab between my feet, and the dirt cracks with a scream.
More screams. The aivenkaites are everywhere. Flying sand and pebbles blind me. I swing, slash, stab, hack.
A rock hand claws my skirt and pulls. I fall. My elbows smack the ground first, and the air is gone from my lungs, but I can’t linger. By Aia’s grace alone Luemikaroeth remains in my hand.
I kick, twist to my back, and slash the sword across my skirt. The fabric flies away from the aivenkaite’s hand.
My neck jerks back as something yanks my head. Savi shouts my name over the aivenkaites’ cacophony. Before I can react, the being is gone, an unholy shriek deafening my ears.
Savi is there, chest heaving, coated in dust turned to mud by the sweat running down his face. Our eyes meet.
A bolt of sand hurtles toward his back. “Duck!” I cry.
Luemikaroeth cuts through the aivenkaite.
For two heartbeats, there is no attack. We lurch toward Nhardah, Nihae, and Forziel’s retreating backs. “Keep moving,” Nhardah orders. He runs on the heels of the other two, a barrier between them and the aivenkaites.
Then three more aivenkaites reach us. All else but the instinct to fight disappears.
No matter how many we cut, more keep coming. My arm is burning. My eyes sting. I feel my attacks starting to weaken. With the next swing at a falling pillar of stone, I barely raise Luemikaroeth in time.
This can’t go on much longer.
Savi cries out. I drive my sword through a rock ten times my height. He’s in trouble. I have to get to him.
“Aia-hae,” I scream in the storm of dust and rock and evil spirits.
I’m dimly aware of Savi inching back beside me. I try to follow, best as I can.
For a second, the dust clears. Savi’s holding one arm close to his chest. Blood trails down his cheek.
“Run,” Nhardah’s voice comes from a long way off.
I grab Savi and turn after Nhardah’s voice. Have to run. Have to keep going.
But the air has turned to sludge. Air drags against my limbs, like riptides trying to pull me under. With all my strength, I drag Luemikaroeth in front of me. It’s like trying to stir wet adobe with a straw. The blade meets no resistance, but my arm can hardly move.
Nhardah’s voice spurs us forward. I struggle a couple steps more.
Then the air lets go, followed by a hurricane of damp wind. I’m soaked. Escaped hairs are plastered to my face, and what remains of my skirt drips.
I glance over my shoulder. A cloud of dust and rock rises anew. It launches itself at us. But more dirt lurches in its way. The cloud bends back and writhes.
I hear a familiar language chanted by the wind.
“The kaites,” I tell Savi. He’s already dragging me away.
Debris litters the uneven ground. My sandal catches on a stone. I pitch forward. Savi’s grip on my arm tightens, so only my knees hit the ground. I’m up and running again before I feel the sting of scraped skin.
We dodge rock towers–these ones stationary. Nihae, Forziel, and Nhardah have disappeared. Savi stumbles but keeps going.
Then we crest a short hill. The ground slopes down to a vast, blue river. The other three wave at us from the bank. We half-run, half-slide down in a cascade of loose rock and dust.
“Can you swim?” Forziel asks.
I nod, but Nihae and Savi shake their heads.
Nhardah pushes them into the river anyways. “Then you’re about to learn. Hold onto the rest of us and don’t struggle.”
The aivenkaites scream loud behind us, their cries shaking the ground. My hairs stand on end. Without another thought, I plunge into the slow-moving river.
The water stings my scraped knees, but soothes the rest of my skin. Nhardah’s arm is around Savi’s chest. He easily tows my husband toward the far bank. I reach for Nihae. “Keep an arm over my shoulder,” I tell her.
She does, with a little too much force.
“Not quite so tight,” I gasp.
Nihae relaxes enough that I can breathe easily. I lean into the water and kick us forward. I haven’t swum in years, though, not since the kaites sent me home. It’s easy to remember, but I’m not strong enough to support us both. “Forziel?” I gulp. “A little help?”
Nihae tenses, which only makes it harder. “What’s wrong?” Her voice shakes.
I struggle for air and to keep us afloat.
Forziel’s head pops up on the other side of Nihae. “Gotcha,” he says, far too cheerful for someone just attacked by aivenkaites after running through the desert for hours.
“Rai?” Nihae asks.
“We’re going to be fine,” I tell her, though I don’t fully believe it. “I just needed some help swimming. It’s been a while.”
I can’t begrudge Forziel his energy. With his help, we manage to kick to the far shore. Nhardah and Savi wait there, clutching their knees and dripping.
I drag the hand holding Luemikaroeth over my brow. Thank Aia that fordue metal doesn’t rust. I have nothing to dry the sword.
Forziel stamps his feet, sending water splashing out of his sandals. “C’mon,” he says. “This way.”
I have no idea where he’s leading us. He heads downstream, along the riverbank. We’re trying to get to the capital in the north, so the direction doesn’t make sense. I’m far too tired to care, though. Nhardah’s following Forziel, so it must be okay. I squeeze Nihae’s arm and nod, too drained to smile at her. Her eyes are blank, her cheeks dragged down by exhaustion and grief. Savi steers Nihae forward with a hand on her back.
I trudge after Forziel. “Aivenkaites don’t like rivers,” he explains, though no one asked. “Running water’s too clean, and there’s ‘most always kaites there looking for Maraian babies. If they want to do real damage, they’ll avoid the rivers, so we’re safest here as we would be anywhere.”
Forziel continues prattling on, but I’m too tired to follow his train of thought. His voice becomes a background hum as the bank rises and we have to walk one at a time between river and cliff. When the sun is high enough that the cliffs no longer shelter us from its unrelenting heat, Forziel points out a dark recess in the cliffside. “We can rest in there.”
We squeeze through a narrow gap into a thick, damp shadow that is blessedly cooler than the air outside. My knees buckle. Luemikaroeth clatters to the ground a heartbeat before I follow.
In an instant, I’m asleep.