(Seven months later)

The sun beat down hard and relentless on the rolling dunes, creating waves across the desert. Small gusts of wind blew swirling sheets of sand that rose and fell in impossibly perfect patterns. Jeth focused his eyes on the distant umber peaks and the valleys between them.

Then the subtle sound of sand falling to his right. A tiny reptile head, the same dusty color as the mound it peeked out of, slithered from its hiding place. The snake wound sidelong and sidled up against Jeth’s long bow, set down next to him. It was small. A viper with plenty of growing to do.

“Hey there, little fella,” Jeth said.

He snatched the snake up, quick and precise, and held it below the jaw as it wound its body around his forearm. It was unlikely the little viper would produce much venom at this age, but he couldn’t be too sure. He slid down the dune a few feet and let it go. It lifted its head, mouth opening wide in a silent threat. Jeth couldn’t help but chuckle. “You’re a real menace, now aren’t you?” It disappeared in a flash to safety under the sand.

Scampering back to the top of the dune, Jeth lowered to his stomach once again. When he adjusted his eyes back to the distant hills, a palanquin of blue silk and gold appeared on the horizon. Finally.

“I see them,” he called out before taking his bow in hand.

A head popped up from behind a ridge twenty strides away. Keeping low, Olivier rushed to Jeth’s side. “Where?”

Jeth pointed out the palanquin in the distance. The box was being carried on two horizontal brass poles, tied to two camels being led by two camel pullers. One at the front, the other at the rear. Ten mounted escorts rode at the sides.

“Those are Herrani warriors. This has to be the Saf.”

“They’re too far away. It could just be a mirage,” said Olivier.

“Trust me, Oli.” He raised an eyebrow and cocked his head.

“Right. It’s about damn time.” Olivier shifted uncomfortably in his sweat-stained uniform.

Jeth couldn’t agree more. Donning blue and white buttoned tailcoats and tan wrap-around head scarves the desert folk often wore had allowed the soldiers to blend in with the sandy terrain while keeping the sun from frying their scalps. But he wasn’t used to wearing this much clothing back in the tepid old-growth forests of Fae’ren Province, let alone in an arid desert climate. They had spent two excruciating days sitting in wait for the party that was now coming toward them.

“I’ll notify the others.” Olivier went over the dune’s ridge and disappeared down into the rift where four other soldiers were hiding. Jeth took an arrow from his quiver, strapped to his lower back, and waited for the palanquin to get within range.

The entourage became even clearer as they descended the first dip in the sand dune. Each warrior wore charcoal-colored brigandine armor and light, wide-legged pants with leather shin guards bound up to their knees. Massive, curved swords hung at their sides. He counted nine males and one female. The Herrani allowed women to fight in their armies if they wanted, but this was the first he’d encountered since enlisting. The thought of her up against one of their men made him queasy.

Olivier returned. “Everyone is ready and out of sight. We take out the biggest threats first, and in the confusion, Baird and Tobin are going to rush them. They’ll chase them further down the dune where Loche and the Major will cut them off while we cover from up here.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Jeth.

“I still don’t see why the sorcerer can’t just . . .” Olivier shook his hand in the air above his head, “put them all to sleep or something.” He brushed the wind-blown sand from his ginger mustache, only to leave more behind.

Jeth shrugged. “Apparently, the most powerful wizard in Ingleheim needs to save his energy to fight the Overlord.”

“That means it’s up to us bowmen to handle everything, as always.”

“Don’t mind. I plan on earning my keep.”

“Why?” Olivier scoffed as he got his bow ready. “So the urlings will see you as their equal? Keep dreaming, my Fae’ren friend. You can single handedly win Del’Cabria the war like the Great Gershlon before you, and they still won’t let you near their women.”

“Pfft. Urling women don’t do much for me, anyway. They’re so strange looking, I mean . . . what’s the point of having such long pointy ears if they don’t give them a hearing advantage?”

The palanquin disappeared between the dunes. Jeth hoped it would reappear on top of the next ridge in a few moments.

“I don’t know, I kind of like them,” Olivier said. “Besides, there’s more to a woman than her ears, for Deity’s sake.”

“Yeah, like her eyes. Why are theirs so far apart?”

“For someone with such good eyesight, you can’t see real beauty when it’s right in front of you.” Olivier chortled.

“It’s not that they’re not beautiful, just no more than human women. If the urlings didn’t keep them so far out of reach from men like us—not that I blame them—they wouldn’t seem so great. If you want the next best thing, get yourself a Fae. They look a little like urlings but with smaller ears, and there’re no laws against them cozying up to a human every now and again, just as long as you treat them nice.”

“You’re speaking from experience, I take it?”

Jeth chuckled. “More from outside observation. Fae women don’t touch fellas like me.”

“Why? Because you’re a scrawny varmint who doesn’t treat them nice?” Olivier said snidely.

“I’m not scrawny, and I do treat them nice . . . or I mean, I would. . . .” Jeth paused, not wanting to divulge his life story while waiting for their targets to get in range. “I’ve got a girl in Ludesa Province . . . if things go right out here, that is.”

Memories of Lady Hanalei’s soft red hair and mischievous green eyes drifted through Jeth’s mind.

“Ah, say no more.” Olivier patted him on the back, shaking sand loose from the folds in his scarf. “There is nothing like the ladies back home, I tell you. I got one waiting for me there myself.”

“Then, let’s get this mission over with so we can return to them, aye?” Jeth said, patting Olivier on the back in turn. If she hasn’t agreed to marry someone else while you’re gone, otherwise these last seven months will have been for nothing. He pushed the thought from his mind.

The palanquin’s golden tip lumbered up the next ridge. He wiped the beads of sweat from his brow and tucked a wayward lock of matted brown hair back under his head scarf.

Olivier harrumphed in good spirits. “If this doesn’t turn into a suicide mission you mean, then yes.”

The palanquin began to make its descent down the second dune.

“Guess we’ll see, won’t we? Our targets are in range.”

“Alright.” Olivier picked up his bow and ran back to his vantage point.

Jeth nocked an arrow and drew it back on his bowstring. He honed his eyesight, bringing the front Herrani warrior into stark focus apart from the others. His eagle-like vision and his total control of it came in handy in identifying targets, almost as if he were peering through a spyglass.

“I got the shot. Prepare to take out the big fella on the right after I get the one on the left,” he shouted over to Olivier.

“Right,” Olivier returned and took aim.

The dry desert heat could no longer be felt as Jeth blocked out all other senses save sight. He and the target were all that existed. With a deep breath, he exhaled and let the arrow fly. It cleanly pierced the warrior’s forehead, knocking him off his saddle with scarcely a sound.

Before the Saf ’s entourage could react to the first death, Olivier’s arrow zipped through the air and hit its target in the armored shoulder.

“Dammit!” he griped.

Jeth already had his second arrow nocked and shot the warrior in the side of the neck, finishing the job.

“Don’t steal my kills!” Olivier spat.

“Sorry—hey, there goes Grunt Number One and Grunt Number Two.” Jeth brought Olivier’s attention down to Baird and Tobin, rushing out to attack.

Tobin expertly dodged a sword swipe from one of the warriors before finding an opening and thrusting his spear through the man’s side. Baird, on the other hand, didn’t wait for an opening. He drove his into the horse’s neck, killing it first before impaling the female rider trapped underneath. The horse’s agonizing screech ripped through Jeth’s ears, and he had to scale back his hearing to concentrate. The urling doesn’t fight fair, but at least he’s effective. He couldn’t help but grimace.

The pullers tried to direct the camels as far from the violence as possible only to find Major Faron and Master Loche approaching from the other side. Two more Herrani warriors from behind the palanquin rode to meet them, where they clashed tulwar to long sword.

A dismounted warrior rose from the sand where Tobin had left him. “Hey, Tobin’s man is getting away . . . he’s coming in behind Loche.”

“Got him.” Olivier aimed and released in a single movement, hitting the Herrani in the throat, the older swordsman left unaware of the danger he had scantily avoided. “We’re still outnumbered down there.”

“Not for long,” Jeth said.

He shot off another arrow to take out one of the warriors surrounding Baird, but those fighting Faron and Loche were moving about too sporadically for Jeth to fix his aim on any one.

His assistance this time would prove unnecessary. A Herrani’s throat was slashed near to the bone and another’s skull cracked. The older camel puller tried to join the fight, but soon had his torso run through with a spear. The soldiers dispatched all who remained, leaving only the rear puller standing. The young man dashed to the front camel, but Tobin restrained him in a bear maul. Baird stuck his spear into the sand and strode to the halted palanquin with his chest goosed.

Olivier threw down his bow and stretched his arms behind his head. “There. Our job is done. All the warriors are dead, and Baird’s got the bride.”

Baird climbed the brass poles and reached into the palanquin. As soon as he put his head behind the silk curtain, he went flying back out and landed flat on his ass.

“I wouldn’t say that yet,” Jeth quipped.

A young, white haired woman, draped in sheer blue silks, face covered up to her eyes in a glittering veil, and armed with a tulwar, sprang from the palanquin. As Baird attempted to get up, she tackled him, sat herself astride him, and raised her blade high, preparing to drive it through his chest. Loche grabbed her by the arm from behind and pulled her off. She spun around and sliced open his forearm, then kicked him away. Baird rolled to his spear, yanked it from the ground, and came at the woman.

“Do not hurt her!” Faron warned.

Spinning around, the Saf slashed at Baird. The blade bit into the wooden shaft of his spear that he used to block her attacks. The big urling held the weapon crossways and gave it a good spin, wrenching her weapon from her hands before pushing her hard with the shaft. The Saf gasped for air, then fell backward and rolled up to her feet with a burst.

Baird came at her again, but this time, she was ready. She grabbed hold of his spear, brought herself close, and kneed him hard in the groin. Now it was Baird gasping for air as he released his weapon to her and collapsed to his knees. With his own spear, the Saf whacked him across the head and proceeded to wail on the other surrounding men.

Major Faron sliced the spear in two with one swing of his sword, knocking both pieces from her hands. Jeth watched in awe as the now unarmed Herrani woman leaped and rolled away from each soldier’s advances, the blue silk tails of her top billowing behind her, creating a spectacularly elegant image amongst the chaos.

Tobin tried to trap her from behind with the shaft of his spear, but she elbowed him in his sunburnt face and flipped him overhead. Faron came at her again. The Saf kicked up her tulwar from the ground to her hand, then cast the sand into Faron’s face with a flick of the blade. Jeth laughed out loud, more out of disbelief than in humor.

All four men circled the woman. She stood in a defensive stance, breathing hard, her steel pointed out. As Faron began to speak low, Jeth honed his hearing to listen in. “. . . not going to hurt you. Put the sword down and cooperate.”

It then dawned on Jeth, a non-violent way to end this.

He nocked an arrow.

“What are you doing?” Olivier said with a start.

Jeth shut the world out again as he focused on the Saf ’s silk tails trailing along the ground behind her. He let go of the bow string. The arrow pierced through her garments and into the sand at a diagonal. She gasped and spun around, stared at the arrow as if unsure what to think and gave the tails a tug. The men capitalized on her confusion and all advanced at once. She roared and swung her sword, but Faron blocked it and disarmed her. From there, they subdued her while she attacked only with curses.

“Great shot!” Olivier exclaimed, jogging over to Jeth.

Faron forced the Saf to her knees while Tobin went to tie her wrists and ankles. She looked around furiously before settling her gaze on the two archers at the top of the dune. Rage blazed through her pale blue eyes. They were her only visible facial feature, yet they had the power to make Jeth’s spine tingle. He grinned and waved, but his gesture only increased the severity of her angered stare.

“Hah! Now there’s a woman who will never touch you.” Olivier slapped him on the back before sliding down the dune. Jeth chuckled and gulped thereafter.

By the time he reached the rest of the task force, the palanquin had been taken down from the camels, and the Saf ’s hands were tied to one of them. Her feet were bound together, so she had to sit sideways between the two humps. He had never seen a Herrani woman this close before. The ones he’d come across were from the poorer villages, wrapped head to toe in robes to protect their skin as they worked in the glaring sun. The Saf, however, wore sheer fabrics adorned with glittering garnets but left much of her honey brown skin exposed. His gaze poured over her ample bosom and drew down to her exposed midriff. It was only seconds before her furious glare found him again and he immediately averted his eyes.

The portly horse master Roscoe came out of hiding with the team’s mounts. He transferred some of their heavier gear onto the other camel’s back, along with the Saf ’s belongings, including silken pillows, clothing, and accessories, as well as her weapon. The young puller’s life was spared so he could manage the camels. Olivier who was also the field medic, went to bind and treat Loche’s wounded arm with alcohol. The old man ground his teeth in pain.

“You’re lucky, sir,” Olivier said. “The gash isn’t too deep. It should heal on its own well enough.”

“I sure hope you’re right, lad.” Loche took a swig of the liquor himself and wiped the excess drops from his graying stubble. “I’ve had plenty of cuts and scrapes in my day, but this one stings worse than a fair lady’s rebuff.”

“That’s probably the alcohol.” Olivier took the flask from Loche’s hand and placed it back in his medical bag.

Loche waved him along, muttering a thank you, and went to review his maps.

The Mage from Ingleheim, Meister Melikheil, rode up on his white steed. He wore dark desert robes over his tailcoat and vest, yet he didn’t appear uncomfortable in the heat. Jeth stared at him, one part with wonder and another with nervous caution. The man’s imposing presence set shivers down his spine on the best of days. He spent most of his time meditating and standing watch over nothing in particular, staring out into empty spaces with an air of superiority like a conqueror acquiring great nations in his mind. Although, what do you expect from a man whose people worship an active volcano.

“Master Loche, how far is the nearest watering hole?” Faron asked the navigator.

Tobin turned from readying his mount to scoff to his fellow spearman beside him. “A watering hole? Near these dust mounds? Hardly.”

Loche pointed to his maps and said, “If we keep heading northwest, we will reach Sunil territory by nightfall. It’s relatively neutral ground and a little less destitute. There’s a lake formed by runoff from the Serpentine River.”

“Finish watering your horses, soldiers. We have a long trek ahead of us. Tobin, keep an eye on the hostage.” Faron mounted his bay gelding and went to the front of the party.

“I’ll keep two eyes on her, Major.” Tobin winked at the girl who narrowed her own eyes in disgust.

“And if she tries anything, I’ll keep more than my eyes on her,” Baird added. He took her pant leg and rubbed the sheer fabric between his fingers. The Saf kicked him square in the face with both feet.

Baird staggered back, clutching a bloody nose. Olivier shook his head and went to tend to it, but Baird jerked away from him and turned back to the captive. “Bitch! How would you like to be tied to the underside of that camel!”

“Stand down, soldier!” the Major called down the line.

Melikheil nudged his horse away from the men. The epitome of disdain.

“Aye, Major.” Baird spat blood onto the sand.

When the Major turned away, Olivier held a handkerchief out to Baird. He snatched it, wiped the blood from his long hook nose, and stormed off. Olivier made a face and Jeth couldn’t stop himself from snickering.

Baird spun right back around. “What are you laughing at, bowman?”

“Definitely not you getting knocked about the head for the third time today, that’s for sure.” He cringed. Why can’t you say nothing for a change? Nothing is always better.

“You need to learn to shut that filthy gob of yours.”

“You know, I was just thinking that. . . .” he replied with a nervous chuckle.

“I will quite enjoy wiping that shit-eating grin off your face, Fae scum,” growled Baird as he took steps toward him.

Fae scum? No, Fae are the pointed ear people of Fae’ren. I have round ears.”

“You dare correct me?” Baird seized Jeth by the scruff.

“I just mean, if you’re going to insult me, do it right, that’s all.” He winced again. Take the urling oaf’s advice and shut your gob!

“Don’t bother with him,” said Tobin. “Nothing can offend a Fae’ren. Despite all our efforts to civilize them, they remain shameless. One cannot insult something with no shame.”

“Immune to insults? What about sound beatings?” Baird raised his fist, and Jeth flinched. This time his mouth stayed shut. A punch in the face was preferable to being caught fighting an urling way above his station, regardless who started the brawl.

“Sir Baird, you shouldn’t over exert yourself after that blow you took to the gonads. Are you sure you don’t need me to take a look at them for you?” Oli, always with the perfect timing.

“Excuse me?” Baird let Jeth go and stared at Olivier like he had just told him the sky was brown.

“He’s a medic,” said Jeth, readjusting his scarf. “He wants to make sure your balls are all right.”

“Where do you two get off speaking to me this way?”

“Soldiers!” barked Faron. “Mount up and move out!”

“Major, these humans need to be reminded of their place.”

“All of you stop prattling on like petulant children and get back on your bloody horses!” He narrowed his severe gaze at all four men, his angular features tautening and his lips forming a hard, thin line.

“Aye, Major,” the soldiers said in unison. Baird flashed both Jeth and Olivier a dirty look and then climbed his mount.

As the task force rode, the bowmen fell farthest back while the spearmen rode in the middle with the camels. The swordsmen, horse master, and sorcerer rode up front. The Ingle Mage moved his hands about, pulling at the air as if playing an imaginary harp. A mist began to form and lift as clouds above the soldiers’ heads. Sprinkles of water coated Jeth’s sweat-stained skin as he rode underneath them. For all the unease the Ingle Mage brought, it was all worth it for his water magic ability alone.

“Thanks for your help back there, Oli,” Jeth said.

“Don’t mention it. Boys like Baird and Tobin need to be corrected sometimes . . . too bad that often results in a beating for those doing the correcting.”

“Not sure I understand your methods, though. Talking about a man’s testicles wouldn’t be my first choice to diffuse a situation.”

“As a medical professional, I was legitimately concerned for the poor man’s injury.” Olivier laughed.

“It’s nice to know that our balls are safe in your hands.”

Olivier’s freckled face started to redden as he cleared his throat. “Alright, that’s enough now.”

“I’d let you examine my balls, Oli.” He grinned. He always got a kick out of how easy it was to embarrass Del’Cabrians, even the human variety from Ludesa Province.

“I should’ve let Baird knock you around a bit. It would do you some good.”

“I’d let you treat my wounds,” he said, feigning offense.

“I’ll give you some wounds if you don’t shut it.”

The two men got their laughs out as Tobin and Baird kept glancing behind them.

The sand gave way to dry, rocky plains as the task force came upon the Sunil territory. Towering sandstone formations materialized in the horizon, an otherworldly backdrop that could never be reached no matter how long they rode toward it. The temperature cooled considerably as the sun started to set, but the winds only picked up speed.

Jeth welcomed the change of climate and took the opportunity to remove his headwear, allowing his brown fairy locks to tumble down to his shoulders. He dropped his reins and let his horse follow the herd unguided as he wrapped a few of the front strands from either side around the others and carefully tied them together to keep the matted sets from flailing in the wind.

As Loche had indicated, the task force came upon the watering hole around nightfall. The small basin was located at the center of an expansive arena of red castle-shaped cliffs, hoodoos, and plateaus.

The men all dismounted and started making camp for the night. “Jeth. You take first watch.” Faron said, passing him by with a crate of supplies in hand. Jeth rejoiced inside at not having to help with the tedious nightly routine and took off to the top of the highest reachable plateau he could find. From there he had an excellent view of the Sunil Tribe Lands.

The sun set, and a brilliant yellow light streaked across the entire horizon. Out from the desert edge, the clouds shifted from yellow to the brightest oranges he had ever seen, a disquieting sight. He was trapped in this barren landscape, so dry and hot that the sky burst into flames each night.

“All there is out here is death,” he whispered to himself. For a split second, he felt a longing for the sights and smells of his forest home, but pushed those sentiments back down where they belonged. “There’s no going back. It’s not your home anymore.”

When the sun had sunk beneath the earth, the night swallowed up all but the stars. The one full moon and the second crescent moon emitted just enough light that he could possibly make out travelers below, but there were none.

A few hours later, Olivier joined him on the plateau with two oil lamps. “You should go get some gruel before it’s gone,” he said.

Jeth’s stomach growled audibly at the very mention of food. “Thanks. Good luck seeing anything out there.” He started off toward the path.

“Jeth, wait!” His friend held out the second lamp to him, brows cinched with a smirk on his face. “You’ll need this to light your way . . . ?”

“Oh, right, thanks.” Jeth took it from Olivier and made his way back to camp. As valuable as his eyesight was for seeing long distances, it didn’t help him much in the dark.

When he arrived at the pot of bean stew brewing above the fire pit, he had to scrape the last bits from the bottom. On his way to find a seat, Baird accidentally on purpose bumped him, knocking his bowl to the ground.

“Real nice, Baird.”

“Sometimes the man on watch misses out on dinner. . . . Ever so sorry.” Baird brushed past him to take a seat by the fire, leaving Jeth staring down at his fallen dinner. Most of it should still be good, he thought. With shrugging sigh, he recovered what he could from the ground.

“Oh look, he’s going to eat it anyway,” Baird jeered. “I keep forgetting that dirt is a delicacy where he’s from.”

Roscoe snickered as he slurped down his stew, making such revolting smacks, Jeth was forced to scale back his hearing. The camel puller, mending the camels’ saddle blankets, made eye contact with him as if to say—Are you going to take that from them? Aren’t you supposed to be one of them—?At least, that’s what he imagined the young Herrani was thinking.

A myriad of backhanded responses were at the ready, but Loche was sitting there already giving him a reprimanding eye. Swallowing hard, he plunked himself down on the rocks opposite of Baird and Roscoe and shoved a spoonful of stew in his mouth to ensure that no words would come out of it.

Roscoe snorted through his pig-like nose. “How do you find it, Fae’ren?”

He gave a broad grin, his mouth full. “It’s your best batch yet, Roscoe.” The grit of it made him want to gag. “In fact, it could use more sand.” He took some from below the rock he sat on, daintily sprinkled it into his stew and followed up with another bite. The jarring crunch of the particulates was unpleasant, but it was worth it just to witness the disgusted look on Baird’s face. Roscoe snorted with laughter and shook his head.

“You’re lucky you’re proficient with that bow. Otherwise, they’d have you cleaning out the chamber pots at the prisoner of war camps with the rest of your ilk,” Baird huffed.

“Luck has nothing to do with how proficient one is with a bow, just as it’s not with your spear,” said Loche. He had finished eating and was now sitting by the water basin cleaning and redressing his wound. It had swelled considerably since they set out from the dunes. A hint of rot hung in the air. That’s not good.

“Of course, Master Loche, all I meant was . . .” Baird stammered.

Loche pointed to Jeth with his thumb. “This lad here might be the best archer this army has. Pay respect where respect is due, will you?”

An awkward hush fell over the campfire. Flames popping under the cast iron pot were the only replies Loche received. The swordsman returned to wrapping the bandages around his arm, his teeth grinding and eyes watering.

“You need help with that, sir?” Baird’s voice was demure.

“It’ll be fine. Needs more alcohol. Excuse me, lads.” Loche rose to his feet with a groan, nodded to Baird and Roscoe—not Jeth or the puller—and lumbered toward the tent he shared with Faron.

The remaining three men ate in silence. Jeth couldn’t bear to finish his stew now that the jest was over. “Where’s Tobin?” he asked, trying to break the tension Loche left behind.

Sir Tobin,” Baird corrected, “is guarding the desert bitch.” He motioned his head toward one of the far tents behind him.

“Tell me, Sir Baird.” Jeth made a slight bowing motion with his head. “Do you call every woman you come across bitches or just the ones that kick you in the face?”

Baird put down his stew, jaw tight, but Loche’s warning must have had some effect on him. He didn’t move to attack this time.

“That white-haired vixen is a daughter of our enemy, the most wicked sorcerer of our age. Don’t think for a moment she wouldn’t cut our throats in our sleep if she had the chance. Desert people possess reptilian blood, you know? They can’t be trusted.”

“Sure, but Fae’ren have the blood of fairies and urlings the blood of the ashray. Most of us can trace our lineage back to some ancient being or other, so what’s the difference?”

“For one thing, the ashray are pure, enlightened beings, the naja are savage beasts, and fairies probably don’t exist.”

Jeth snorted into his bowl. “Alright then.” Don’t ask the Fae’ren sitting right next to you or anything, he thought.

Baird continued is haughty rant. “Del’Cabrian ladies are dignified and carry themselves with poise. They dress modestly and strive to be pure in the eyes of the Deities That Cannot Be Named. Now, recall how the Saf was about to present herself to her betrothed?”

“Doesn’t leave much to the imagination,” Roscoe said as he licked his bowl clean.

Baird looked over to the slobbering human beside him and turned up his lip in disgust. Roscoe belched. “I’m going to make sure those horses are good and pegged down for the night. See you lads in the morning.” And with that, he was gone.

Baird continued, “Desert women are all a bunch of obnoxious, self-serving whores that dare to fight as men do. I say, if they refuse to act like ladies, then I will address them accordingly.”

Bringing his attentions back to his bowl, Jeth rolled his eyes, wondering how many desert women Baird had the pleasure of meeting before he came to such a conclusion. He was satisfied with leaving the subject alone until a small male voice peeped up.

“Women of Herran have as much right to fight for their tribe as anyone else,” said the camel puller.

“Did anyone say you could speak, desert dog?” Baird snapped.

The puller cast his eyes away and continued washing the blankets, yet all the while Jeth heard the puller’s heart rate pick up at an alarming pace.

Just then, Faron burst from his tent and marched over to the campfire. “Sir Baird, you’re replacing Olivier on watch tonight. Send him to my tent immediately.”

“Aye, Major.” Baird tossed his bowl aside and went to task.

“And, Jeth,” said Faron as he walked over to him.

He stood with a start and nodded. “Yes, Major?”

“You will spend the night watching Meister Melikheil.”

Faron’s order caused a tingling sensation at the base of his spine. Since their operation began, there had been no need to guard the Mage. Why now all of the sudden?

“Come.” Faron motioned for him to follow. “As you know, our mission is to prevent the union of the Herrani and Tezkhan tribes by abducting the bride. But she also serves as our means for drawing out the Overlord to do combat with Meister Melikheil.”

“Right here at this camp?” He gulped, trotting along to keep up with the taller man’s stride.

“He intends to use his spirit magic to confirm when the Overlord will arrive. Once we know of his location, we will return to home base and leave the Saf here with him. It will be your job to monitor him while he performs his spell and report his findings back to me. Understood?”

“But how does he know Nas’Gavarr is going to—?”

“Is that clear, soldier?”

“Aye, Major.” He saluted and scurried off, only to realize that he was heading toward the Saf ’s tent. Spinning on his heels, he headed to the pavilion at the south end of camp.

Reluctantly, Jeth peered in through the flaps to find the statuesque man sitting in a chair in the center of the tent, long black hair tied back and mustache and goatee freshly trimmed. His eyes were closed, both hands placed over top his brass walking stick. Melikheil had removed his desert garb and wore his black buttoned tailcoat and cravat. He appeared even more out of place than he usually did. A cold sweat started to run down Jeth’s back.

“M-Meister?” he peeped as he stepped inside.

The Mage opened his dark eyes languidly and proceeded to stare through him like he were nothing more than an apparition. Melikheil wouldn’t answer, so he resumed. “Have you started without me?”

“No, I’m gathering essence aura to prepare,” he replied in his severe Ingle dialect. He then stood up, towering over Jeth almost twice over, hence the extra tall tent to accommodate him.

“Great . . . uh . . . Meister . . . or do you prefer Herr Wizard?” he blurted with a nervous chuckle.

Melikheil’s daunting gaze narrowed down at him as if considering whether he should crush him like a bug. Yes, let’s attempt to jest with the most powerful Mage in Ingleheim and Del’Cabria combined.

“Meister,” Melikheil stated, blunt as a hammer, then turned away, allowing Jeth to exhale. “I assume your Major informed you why you are here.” Melikheil moved the chair from the middle of the tent.

“Sort of. . . .” he said. “He told me you can track Nas’Gavarr with magic. But permission to ask how?”

Melikheil grabbed his bed roll and started laying it out on the floor. Just then, a little brown serpent, not unlike the one Jeth saw in the dunes, slithered out from beneath it, running straight into Melikheil’s boot. Without hesitation, the Mage squashed its head with the end of his staff and flicked it out of the tent.

The glint in Melikheil’s eye right then made the breath catch in Jeth’s chest.

“Yes,” he replied. “His daughter would have a rapport with him as would all his children. She would have reached out to him the moment we captured her. I will be projecting my spirit into the Spirit Chamber where I will be able to sense him.”

“Right, right.” He nodded, not having a clue what the man was talking about. “And you need me to watch you do that?”

“Spiritual projection is difficult and dangerous for any Mage. If my spirit roams too far from my body, it can become lost forever.” Melikheil took a seat and motioned for him to sit in the chair. “If you see me convulsing at any point, hit me as hard as you can in the chest. That should bring my spirit roaring back. Understood?”

“Convulsing, hit you, got it.”

“I’ve done this many times before. I don’t anticipate you having to do anything, but it’s hard to say how far my spirit must roam.”

“What if Nas’Gavarr doesn’t come—sends someone else to retrieve his daughter on his behalf ?”

“He won’t,” Melikheil said. “Through their rapport, he should be able to sense my spirit in her vicinity. He knows who I am. He knows what I am here to do. And he will face me.” Melikheil laid down on his back.

“Do you really think you can beat him on your own? I-I mean, not that I doubt you, it’s just . . . the Overlord is immortal and that.”

Sitting back up, Melikheil ran his tongue over his teeth. Jeth feared he was getting on the Mage’s nerves. “You are smart to doubt, young herr. No Mage in history has come up against Nas’Gavarr and lived to tell of it. However, I’m the first one who truly understands his power. No man is immortal, but some can find ways to live unnaturally long lives. Nas’Gavarr is the only Mage known to hold dominion over all three components of existence . . .”

“Essence, spirit, and flesh,” Jeth finished.

Melikheil nodded, raising a black eyebrow. “Ah, the Fae’ren people are not ignorant of magic, I see.”

Jeth shrugged. Back in Fae’ren forest, the fairies taught him about the essences of fire, water, wind, earth, light, and life force. All he remembered, however, was that some people were in tune to the auras that those essences emanated. Those people were known as Essence Mages. He didn’t know much about Spirit or Flesh Mages, only to be extremely wary of them.

“I believe Nas’Gavarr uses a combination of essence and flesh magic to keep himself alive, making him near impossible to harm,” Melikheil said.

“But you can harm him, right?”

Melikheil brought in hand his staff adorned with a sapphire clutched in the talons of a brass raven. “I have discovered how to concentrate essence aura in such a way, that I have stored years’ worth of it in this sapphire that otherwise could only have stored enough for a few days if I’d absorbed it naturally.”

“Really? How?” Jeth stared at the tiny blue gem, wide-eyed.

The Mage placed it on the ground beside him and waved a long index finger. “Enough. All you need worry about is making sure nothing happens to me or this staff while I’m out, or we are all doomed.” He laid back down, clasped his hands over his stomach, and closed his eyes.

Jeth sat and stared at Melikheil lying there in his black suit like a cadaver awaiting its funeral.

After a few moments, he whispered, “Are you projecting yet?”

There was a long silence before Melikheil uttered a curt, “No.”

“How do you even do it?”

The Meister sighed again, this time louder. “It comes by a process known as spirit breaking.”

“How do you break a spirit?” he asked, not sure if he wanted to know.

“Years of self-torture.”

Jeth said nothing after that. Was the Mage making it all up to intimidate him? People from the Mountain Ranges of Ingleheim were known to be as intimidating as they were tall, and they were certainly tall.

He managed to remain silent for the next half hour, only honing his hearing to listen to Melikheil’s strong, droning heartbeat.

Eventually, he felt brave enough to get out of his chair and walk over to the vacant Mage. There’s really no spirit in there. You’re looking at a live body with no sentience; you could probably do anything to him, and he wouldn’t be aware . . . anything but hit him in the chest. He waved his hands inches from the man’s face. “Meister. . . . Meister Melikheil . . . ? Herr Wizard?”

No reaction. You better find something to occupy yourself. It could be a long night.

He spent the remaining hours sharpening his arrowheads and repairing damaged fletching while the wind whistled through the hoodoos, and dried shrubbery rustled against the rippling canvas of the tent. He allowed his thoughts to wander along welcome memories of Lady Hanalei’s soft red hair and captivating smile. Then came the not so welcome memories. The fairies and how they callously—

“Three days,” a deep croak sounded from beside him.

“Gah!” He threw up his carving tool.

The cadaver rose from its coffin, erect and silent. Jeth’s heart pounded in his chest.

“Nas’Gavarr. . . .” Melikheil looked straight ahead at nothing. “. . . is three days from here.”

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