I didn't think what I was doing could be called tomb robbing, for there were no bodies to be found. Just layers of dust and sand, accumulated over a hundred years of abandonment, covering what furniture remained intact with a blanket of grime. It sat in thick piles in archways and along the edges of the narrow corridors, where the wind echoed mournfully along the pale stones before dying away completely. There were no traps here, no wards, just the feel of old magic. Mages had built this place, yet there were no defenses. This civilization had fallen quickly, then. Yet, there were no bodies. Not even bones. I expected there to be at least bones.
There were riches to be had here. I found them scattered about, there, in a room I thought must have belonged to a woman, again in a vault, and some littered among other personal effects left as if the owners would return tomorrow. I took a gold bracelet for myself, but nothing more. Gold was heavy, and I was here for a different sort of treasure. I found mosaics on the walls, still intact, the sort I would expect in such a modest palace. The town itself was small and half-buried by the sand. I thought the settlement had the look of a border keep, perhaps, for I did not dare venture very far into the desert. This city was empty of life. The open sands were not. This was why I traveled light, and alone. The professors had said I wouldn't survive the expedition.
They said I couldn't do a lot of things. Sometimes it was because I was a woman. Sometimes it was because I was once a mercenary. I enjoyed proving them wrong.
I found the library on the third floor of the building. The glass in the narrow windows had survived, thankfully, and the books remained sheltered from the elements. I took as many as I could fit in my pack, the ones in the best condition. The parchment felt like goat hide and the binding was leather and wood. They would survive even in the wetter climate of my country. The writing was foreign but there were pictures, the paint still clear after all these years. On one end of the library, I found a sealed door, the wood covered in runes. The markings were unfamiliar, but the structure was not. The principles of magic are constant across cultures. There was something beyond here that only people keyed to the door could open. Given time, I could force my way in, and I did consider doing just that. However, it was almost midday now, and I had no desire to spend the night anywhere close to the city. I'd already encountered one swarm and I had no desire to repeat the experience. The sooner I got out of the desert, the sooner I'd be safe.
I hadn't occasion to use my sword yet. They hadn't gotten that close. I killed them at a distance, while they were still indistinct forms moving across the dunes. I didn't have the courage to go look at the bodies, after, assuming I'd left any. The professors often complained that I lacked finesse. I thought that vice came in handy here. Yet, for all my power, killing the swarm left me down half my runes. The underside of my forearms were scattered with the red lines of burns that each rune had left behind. The rest were crimson-black, waiting to be used. I'd cut them into my skin and each time one burned away, I set it back up as soon as the skin healed. Magic was not for the weak.
I made my way back out of the city, drawing up my hood to shield myself from the sun. The swarms were active at anytime of the day, which had made for a very stressful journey. There was no period of safety, no moment when I could relax and know they wouldn't come for me. We knew so little of these creatures, save that they appeared about a century ago and wiped out whatever kingdom existed in the desert. We had no record of its name. Our own history of before that time was non-existent. We did not even know what the swarms were, for no one had gotten close enough to see and live. Just that they were perhaps the size of a grown man and traveled in packs, sometimes so thick that they outnumbered the armies of my own kingdom. I think if they hadn't stopped at the edge of the desert, humanity would have been wiped out.
That was why I was here. To find what records I could. To see if they could be translated and perhaps we could learn of the swarm's origins.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the abinni. They'd appeared three years ago, heralded by new stars in the sky that came and went. We did not know what they were. We'd had no contact with them, save for brief sightings on the edge of the desert. We did not even know what their name was, and we named them after the sky-hound, Abinni, that was visible in the sky during the months they appeared. They'd made no move to leave the desert. They were killing the swarms, to the point a single human could enter and survive an attack by a single swarm, given liberal application of mage-fire, of course. We had not yet contacted them, as we feared they would turn their attention towards conquering us after they finished with the desert. The abinni were an army. We knew this much. I had been instructed to avoid them. So far I was lucky enough to not encounter them.
As the city fell over the horizon behind me, the last of the flat-topped roofs vanishing into the shimmering line that divided earth from sky, my luck ran out. I could see figures appearing over the crest of the next dune and for a moment, my heart seized up with terror that it was another swarm. What I saw did little to reassure me. Humanoid, but not swarm. They did not move like the swarm. They were staggered out from each other, ranged like skirmishers, set to harry an enemy's flank and then peel away when the enemy turned to match. The swarm attacked as a rolling mass, once so numerous that each pack was an army and more. The ones I'd encountered numbered perhaps in the dozen or so, and I could pick out the details of their lopsided, four-legged stride, like giant hounds. These creatures walked on two legs, their strides even.
I'd never seen the abinni. I had only heard the stories. But, even with my ignorance, I had no doubt as to what these were. No one else would send an army out here into the desert. I could not let them see me.
There was a scrub tree not too far behind me. I made for this and near its roots, I dropped to the ground flat on my stomach. My clothing was colored similarly to sand and I had a rune prepared for this sort of situation. I whispered the trigger for it, felt the power flare up in my veins, like a coal had been lit there in my heart. The rune burned in turn, so hot I bit my lip, fighting pain with pain. Then I felt the air around me grow cold and heavy, like a shroud over my prone body. Unless they had mages of their own, I would be effectively invisible. Disguised so, and confident in my own power, I settled in to watch.
They had units, I realized. Even though they did not move in formation like I was accustomed to, from my mercenary days, they did have an internal cohesion. Each unit numbered at perhaps twenty or thirty, the individual soldiers keeping a yard's distance from the other. And each unit kept a wider distance than that from the other. I could identify the ones that protected the flank, the heavy units in the center. Behind them swept a number of craft over the edge of the dune and my heart beat faster at the sight of them. They glistened like dull metal, bronze in hue, and they were wedge-shaped with flat lines and irregular angles at the joins of these panels. There was no obvious means of transport – no horses – yet they slipped over the dunes like ships. Inverted ships, perhaps, and without sails. There was only open space between their bellies and the ground. I felt a sense of wonder at this, for while I knew in principle the magic that would be involved, my own people had yet to figure out a way to make such an application feasible. The soldiers, in turn, were also strangely attired. They wore armor, but it was not like any I'd worn. Close-fitting, in shades of pale gray, and their helmets had no obvious opening from which to see through. Just a black line across where the eyes should be. I did not see swords either, just stocky things they held in both hands.
And stranger still, I realized as they drew nearer to my position, I did not sense magic. Not anywhere. Not even from their gliding vessels. I was frightened at that. Truly frightened. I could not hope to understand what it was these people were.
It seemed, at first, that they would pass me by. They were angling away from me, but as I watched, two of their people peeled away from the unit on the left flank. I saw as they turned that they had tails, long and thin like a whip, and that their legs were jointed twice more than a human's own. Their helmets had curves, near the brow, that seemed to resemble horns. I felt myself go tense, my body and mind preparing to fight. The two were definitely moving for the tree I hid under. People experienced this anticipation in different ways - for me, I grew cold. Emotion died, and I acted with a detachment that made me feel I was external to myself. Watching the violence.
I did not feel the presence of magic, and yet the two creatures moved with purpose, as if they knew where I was. They were close enough that I could see details. The sand that clung to their armor. How it seemed to have armored plates, but that they were supple and moved with their bodies. They had three toes and three fingers on their hands, the arms long. I could not hear them speak, but it seemed they were communicating somehow, for one hung back while the other ducked under the low branches of the tree, seemingly intent on my position. I could not move without breaking the spell.
The abinni paused just before where I lay. Looked about a moment. My mouth was dry. Then he lunged down and I grabbed for my sword in instinct, my fingers closing on the hilt just as its hands closed on the back of my tunic. I was lifted clear off my feet and for a moment the creature held me there like that, then my sword cleared my scabbard and it let go, dropping me to the ground and stepping back out of my range. I landed on my feet and turned my faltering balance into a charge, trusting momentum to get my feet back under me. I swung, a high one-handed blow that was meant to force the creature to retreat. I did not intend to kill them but nor did I want to be taken prisoner.
It caught my sword instead. Just put up a hand, grabbed the blade, and pulled, adding its own strength to the momentum of my swing. I was almost brought off my feet, but I kept my balance, barely, grabbing the sword hilt with both hands and I staggered sideways, digging in my heels to gain some ground. I pulled in turn, trying to pry the sword out of the creature's armored hand. What kind of armor did they have that allowed this? It gave one more wrench, almost contemptuously, and this time I let it take the sword. I stepped back instead, and called to fore a trigger for one of my runes. I raised two fingers to direct the spell. Then I hesitated.
Magic would escalate this, and they weren't exactly trying to kill me, were they? I hadn't been sent here to be a soldier.
Regardless of my hesitance, they seemed to recognize the gesture. The closer one dropped my sword and dove at me. I just closed my eyes and braced myself, then I was carried off my feet and slammed to the ground, landing on my back. My pack dug into my spine. The abinni's weight was immense, and I felt a knee dig into my ribs, making it difficult to breathe. A hand closed over my dominant wrist, holding it above my head and to the ground, the other arm went across my neck, pressing hard enough that I could barely speak. They knew how to subdue mages, at least. I forced myself to go limp. A smart mercenary knows when to give.
"Yield, " I gasped. The pressure increased until I couldn't speak at all. I would black out at this rate. Maybe that was their intent.
I heard the crunch of footsteps on thin soil. The other one was approaching and I heard it pick up my sword, the metal scraping on the ground. The abinni holding me down did not move, the front of its helmet like obsidian. I could not understand how there was no magic here. Finally, only after my struggling remained conspicuously absent, I felt the pressure against my neck relent, enough that I could speak again.
"I yield, " I coughed. "No more spells. I yield."
The creature let me up, slowly. I saw how it stayed close, ready to pin me again if need be. But I didn't try anything, just dusted myself off and checked the contents of my pack. The books didn't appear damaged. When I looked up again, the one was holding my sword out to me. I took it, confused, and sheathed it at my side. Then it gestured that I follow it, and I did. Walking between them, they led me into the heart of their army.
I could not help but stare. I was so unfamiliar with this and I could not understand how anything worked without magic. We were met by an abinni that removed its helmet as it grew near. There were some additional markings on its uniform, across the upper arm, but nothing more. I could only assume that it was a captain of some sort. Its face was narrow and flat, the nose mere slits, the lips similarly subtle. The skin was the color of ash and it sported a set of horns that curved from the top of the head back over the crest. It had no hair and the pupil of its eyes was large. It was also very tall. I didn't even come up to the shoulder, not on any of them.
It said something, eyes turning in the direction of the two that had escorted me. They both turned and made to return to their unit. I hissed and pressed a thumb to my forearm, finding the rune that another mage had put there. He'd insisted I take it. Just in case. It was a not a spell I could cast myself – on account of my lack of finesse – so he had burned it there with both his and my blood. It triggered the same as any other spell and I was surprised that I barely felt it take hold inside my mind. I exhaled, unsteady, unnerved by the thought of magic that was not my own being worked on me.
Still. I had to admit he'd been right in that this was useful.
“I'm not a spy,” I told the captain, “nor am I a scout.”
“You speak our language,” it replied in surprise. It was male, I thought. The magic that burned in my mind supplied that small tidbit. I'd receive little else other than language and some general knowledge of cultural norms here.
“No. I just have a spell. It'll last until this time tomorrow.”
“They thought you were a mage.” He sounded contemplative.
“I am.” I paused. “My name is Thecca. I'm not... supposed to be speaking with you.”
His tail twitched in amusement. I would be in my friend's debt now, I realized. His spell was going to be invaluable here.
“You have no orders on how to handle this. I understand. Walk with me, Thecca. You are not our prisoner, but I would like to speak with you.”
I did as he directed and we kept pace with the army. It was leading me away from the border, but I didn't think I had much choice here. Not surrounded by soldiers like this. While none were actively shadowing us, I had no doubt that I was being watched carefully.
“I am Captain Hakure,” he said. “My soldiers tell me they treated you roughly. I apologize on their behalf. We weren't certain what we had found, for your magic hid you from our visible sight, and so my soldier decided to just pull you out and take a look.”
“How did you see me, anyway?” I couldn't keep the annoyance out of my voice. “I've used that spell countless times, in situations similar to this one.”
“We saw your body heat. Had you not hidden in the shade of the tree, we may have passed you by.”
“I did not know such a thing was possible,” I whispered.
“There's a lot of things we can do that your people cannot. Everything you see here – devoid of magic, yes? My people do not have magic. At all. We have technology instead, and at one point, humanity lived alongside us.”
I stumbled in the sand.
“I – what?”
Hakure sounded amused when he spoke next.
“We found your kind,” he said, “and we saw that you could interact with the world in a way we could not. Magic, you called it. A different kind of science to us, one we didn't know how to access. So we nurtured your people, took you with us to the stars. As our nation spread, so did yours. And you adopted some of our ways, but otherwise were left to grow as you would, using magic to do what you didn't have the technology to. Then – do you know the story of Promous?”
“Yes,” I said.
I had to think a moment to recall the details. Having spent the better part of my life as a mercenary, my formal education was lacking. I think the university tried to pretend I didn't exist most days on that account. The mercenary in their midst, demanding to be treated like an equal on account of having just as much talent with magic as any of them. I think it was why they sent me on these sorts of missions. It kept me away for long stretches at a time and I did enjoy the excitement. In addition, I was one of the few mages that was good with a sword.
“Promous stole from the gods,” I said. “He took a weapon from them, and was chained to a mountain for his crime.”
“The weapon that Promous stole was a disease,” Hakure continued. “He was real, he was one of our people. He first created this weapon and then released it against humanity. Your people. He had conspirators, on each world, and they all infected your kind. We executed them for their crimes, but it was too late. They sought to wipe out humanity, to rid ourselves of this... blight... and by the time we released a cure into the population, it was almost too late. The disease, you see, is what destroyed this kingdom, here in the desert.”
“The swarm,” I whispered. I felt cold inside.
“Yes. They were human, once.”
I wished, then, that I had something to take notes on. All this talk of stars and worlds and disease was beyond me – it had all happened over a hundred years ago, had it not? I wished one of the professors was here with me, that someone that could make sense of this, from a scholarly perspective, was here to talk with Hakure. As it was, all I could do was listen to what he told me. He said that the disease had harmed more than just the humans. Entire worlds were converted into the swarm and then they'd turned on the abinni. The civilians were not protected like his soldiers were and they died just as easy as the rest of us. Worlds were evacuated, taking to the stars in their ships while the infection burned on the surface below. It spun out of control, to a degree that not even Promous had wanted. He knew regret before he died, and Hakure sounded coldly pleased by this.
It'd taken them almost a hundred years to reclaim everything that had been lost. There were many worlds, he said. And they had to be thorough, and they had to rebuild. Ours was among the last, as the swarm appeared to be so acclimated to the desert that they couldn't leave it at this point. That gave us a measure of protection.
“You appear to be taking all of this well,” Hakure told me.
“I used to be a mercenary,” I replied, keeping my eyes on the sand beneath my feet. “The extent of thinking I'm used to doing is knowing which side is mine and which side is the one that needs to die.”
“So why are you in the desert?”
“Books.” I shrugged the pack on my shoulders up briefly to illustrate. “The university is hoping this may give us an idea of what happened a hundred years ago. I suppose they're not necessary now.”
Hakure was quiet a moment. When he spoke again, his words were careful.
“Will they believe you?” he asked gently.
“What?” I turned my head to stare up at him. I had to crane my neck quite a bit to do so.
“If you return from the desert and speak of other worlds, diseases that can be made like you make arrows, and ships that sail among the stars... all without magic – will they believe you?”
I had not thought of it like that. I was quiet for a long moment.
“Give them the books,” Hakure said, “and nothing else. My people will handle that, when the time comes. And it will come. You have mages in your population and your kind is valuable to us. We worked side-by-side, once, mage and scientist.”
I thought of the sealed door back in the palace. I wondered what lay inside.
“I want you to stay through the night,” he continued. “Let us see the books you took. We can scan them into record so that even if the original is destroyed, we'll have a copy somewhere. In the morning, I'll have one of my units escort you to the border. I can also give you a beacon that if activated, will tell us where you are. If you return to the desert for more books, we'll ensure you come and go safely.”
“That would be appreciated,” I sighed. “I used up half my runes on just a dozen swarm.”
I turned my arms over so that he might see the burn marks. He said they could fix that, and they did, that evening. I sat there in the sand as the abinni made camp around me, putting up low tents faster than I was accustomed to seeing soldiers do so. Another abinni spread something across the burn marks that was cold and made the pain go away. It'd be better in a day, he told me, rather than the days or even week it took to usually heal. I could cut in new runes by tomorrow night.
My books had been taken away for this scanning process Hakure spoke of. I didn't have the heart to ask for details. There was too much here that I already didn't understand. Part of me was intrigued, however, and I wondered what it would be like to work alongside them. In their ships in the sky. I made my bed outside, refusing the offer of shelter, and I lay on my back and stared up at the stars until I fell asleep. I dreamed of flying.
We were attacked in the night. I woke to the sound of the dying. I had never heard a swarm before. Their cries were no longer human. It was a broken sound, like someone had taken a human voice and twisted it around and around until it no longer resembled anything alive. I was on my feet and had my sword out before my mind could even process the noise. The desert was dark around me, but I could see pinpoints of light here and there, and a pop of noise that hurt my ears with each flash. Cursing, I made my way towards where I could hear the dying swarm. I was, after all, a soldier. Instinct carried me.
They were crashing upon the front line of the abinni soldiers like the ocean tide. I could see them clearly now, up close. Like hounds, they were, but also human. Naked, their bodies covered in chitinous plates or slick scales, oily in the moonlight. The heads were bulbous, the faces obscured by pockets of distorted muscle, the eyes were so sunken I could not discern what they'd become in appearance. I only saw shadow. The limbs were jointed wrong, backwards or like a ball, and their hands and feet were hooked into claws. Some had tails. Others had wings, non-functional flaps of skin that they used when they leapt. I saw them hit the abinni, mindless ferocity, and the abinni were using those weapons they carried to throw them back. The swarm seemed unable to hurt them. No wonder they walked so fearlessly into the desert.
I focused and brought up two fingers. Uttered the trigger for the spell and gestured. Fire scythed through the swarm, leaping into existence out of the air, and it left behind an open line of charred bodies and twitching husks. I doubted the surviving swarm even noticed. My arm burned with a fire of its own as the rune expended itself and left behind its mark. I triggered a second spell, and more swarm burned away in an instant. Then, one leapt, up over the heads of the abinni front line, and came for me.
I met it with my sword. It made no effort to evade, just rushed headlong at me, and I extended the blade directly into its chest. There was a brief moment of resistance, then the sword sank into the skin like popping an overripe grape. Still, the swarm came at me, legs clawing at the ground, forearms reaching for my body. I shoved on the sword, throwing it back, letting go of the weapon and leaving it stuck inside its chest. It twitched on the ground, still trying to reach me even as it bled out. Then one of the abinni stepped up to my side and raised its weapon. There was a noise – sharp enough that my ears rung – and the swarm jerked violently and went still. I carefully stepped forwards and retrieved my sword. The blood left behind on the edge was black.
“Captain wants you back into the middle of camp,” the soldier said to me, speaking through its helmet.
“Too bad,” I replied. “I'm a soldier too. This is what I do.”
I turned towards the remaining swarm. Judging by their numbers and the rate they were dying at, this would be over fast. The abinni had really come to save us. I almost couldn't believe it.
“Besides,” I hissed, stepping forwards and raising two fingers, “I'm a mage. Your people don't have mages.”
And I released another rune and the night sky was lit with fire.
Captain Hakure found me in the aftermath. I was too keyed up to sleep again. The abinni were piling the swarm bodies up and burning them. I remained well away from this, conscious of the pain in my arms where I'd burned away my runes. It was a good thing that Hakure had offered an escort to the border. I was in poor shape to defend myself now, but I did not regret my decision. I was overwhelmed by these creatures. I had to remind them, and myself, of what I was. What I could do. What power I had that they could not possess.
“You disobeyed my order,” he said as he approached.
“You're not my captain,” I replied, “and nor am I your prisoner, to order as you will.”
He considered this.
“Next time,” he said, “I'll make you my prisoner. We'll take your sword and bind your hands. Then you will have to do as I say.”
I crossed my arms across my chest, ignoring the points of pain that brought with it.
“Uh-huh,” I replied evenly. “And who will carry the books if my hands are tied?”
“My soldiers, of course. But come with different spells next time. You don't need to use as much of your skin for fire if we are defending you. Come. I'll have the medic see to your burns. Again.”
He sounded resigned. I wondered if he'd worked with mages in the past, from these other worlds he spoke of.
In the morning, I was given my pack back with all the books it held. Hakure gave me a token as well, a piece of something that looked like stone but felt smooth like glass. I only needed to push in the center and he'd know to come find me. He could come anywhere in the world, he said, but advised me against using it unless he could send in his soldiers and not be seen. They were not ready to leave the desert, not until the swarms were wiped out. Not until their long war was over.
I didn't think it was so much a war as a slaughter. Not that I could fault their actions. Now that I'd seen the swarm, I could not think of them as human, not even being told that they once were. They were generations removed from humanity, and even without the disease twisting their limbs they'd degenerated into beasts. Like locusts. They'd burn through my world if they ever left the desert. It was little wonder humanity had fallen elsewhere and I wondered how hard it had been for the abinni, watching us turn into beasts and fall upon each other. There seemed to be sympathy there, I thought. Like humans were some distant cousin, favored, and protected.
I started out with the sunrise, accompanied by eight of the abinni. I warned them that I would soon lose the ability to converse, and so we made all our arrangements in advance. They would see me to the border, where the desert faded away into plains of dry grass and the occasional tree. There was a town, I told them, about a day's travel out. I had provisions waiting for me there, including a horse, and would be fine on my own from there. They did not question that, the stoic practicality of soldiers.
That night, I cut new runes where I could. The abinni watched this, conversing among themselves. I could no longer understand their language so I ignored them, focused instead on my work. My blood fell into the sand at my feet and I hissed the words of power that would bind my magic into myself, watching as each delicate cut mended into a crimson-black line. The foundation of my magic. I reveled in it. This, the abinni would never have. When I was done, I washed the blood off my forearms and rolled my sleeves back down.
I'd return to the university and give them the books. I would not tell them of anything else that had happened out here in the desert. I was both a woman and a mercenary – Hakure was correct. They may believe me, but they would not want to accept what I said. I would be discredited and chased away. Someone else would be sent to ascertain the truth of the matter. And that, I knew, I could not tolerate. I did not like the desert. It was too hot and too dry and far too open for my liking. But this was a riddle, a secret that I alone had the answer to, and I found I could not give that up. I'd keep silent and return for more books, secure in my role as there were no others brave enough to go in my stead. I'd use the beacon Hakure gave me and I would learn more of their people, of our shared history. I'd learn of their ships in the sky. And someday, I would join them, and I would see these worlds for myself.
Of course, I realized with a sinking heart, this meant that I'd need to be able to communicate, without someone else drawing the rune on me all the time. Finally, after all these years, I would actually have to learn finesse in my casting.