Jordan stared intently out into the deep desert. Unease etching a map further into her sun-creased forehead, dark eyes examining the desolate dunes surrounding her small patrol.
Sand-scratched vision restlessly probing for any sign of booby-traps or ambush.
The damn Byouthi tribesmen could wait silent in the sand, immobile for days, buried inches below the surface of the desert. They emerged only when the Empire soldiers relaxed.
Once the sentries were posted and the pickets set, they would slip silently from their shallow graves to butcher as many Empire soldiers as they could, sacrificing themselves as they fought like cornered beasts until the sentries could cut them down. The bloody heathens had no honour, just ambushes and traps, death without purpose.
Their dragon riders, flyers as they were called here, had tracked her patrol all day. Well they’d been tracked since leaving the Bayathu garrison over two weeks ago, always just on the edges of the horizon watching, waiting.
Today was different. Today the flyers would swoop in close on their dragons, just into range to release volleys of arrows, then hurriedly retreat behind the dunes; constantly keeping the marching column on edge and disrupted. Doing little harm - more like they were trying to slow the march rather than looking for a fight.
Restless warrior nerves prickled her brain like angry wasps. Something big was coming, though she could see no sign of threat in the silent desert, the sands sitting placid and calm like a contoured lake rippling in the cool spring moonlight. Despite what her eyes revealed, there was a continual uncomfortable rumble deep in her gut, emanating from the black sands engulfing her. She knew the tribesmen were out there, watching and waiting for a chance to strike; hidden outside the pickets and watching every move the soldiers made, waiting for a mistake, a hole to exploit in the defences.
There would be no holes tonight.
Jordan had been posted to the Fire Province for the past five years, for the most part it had been a relatively calm tour. A few engagements with the tribesmen now and again, more harassment than real conflict and even these raids had slowed after the first couple of years as the Empire patrols became more adept at spotting the ambushes and repelling night raids. The pickets which sounded a blaring alarm well before the flyers were within arrow shot of the camp, alerted the defenders who were armed with heavy lead tipped bows in order to shower the incoming attackers, neutralising the threat before the winged lizards could rain fire on the camp.
Things were different now. The whole Province was on edge. The sea routes were completely blocked to Empire ships and the raids on Empire mines and transports were increasing each month. The Empire patrols had been doubled, both in number of soldiers per patrol and the frequency of patrols. No patrol ever left the camp now without at least one full Battle Wizard in the company.
Jordan had personally checked that all sentries were set properly. Not alone in her jitters, the entire camp felt like a pressure cooker, to the extent that even the imperturbable old warlock Hlara seemed on edge. She had for the first time in living memory gone with Jordan to check all the magical defences and alarms, lined face tight with tension.
Everything was set and perfect of course; no one was making mistakes tonight. There was no reason for concern, nothing larger than a rat could get within five hundred yards of the camp’s outer picket without her knowing, still her mind was not eased. The old warrior, used to trusting her instincts knew she would get little sleep tonight. Only two days march back to Bayathu, only then would she feel comfortable enough to rest.
The alarms, when they came, were almost a relief. The flyers came on their horse-sized dragons, swooping inches above the dark sands, keeping dunes between themselves and the sentries where they could. The well drilled defenders leapt into action at once, letting loose volleys of heavy tipped arrows at the approaching riders, while the magical defences released balls of flame from the ground when a flyer passed too close.
The riders were close enough to start showering the camp with arrows and Jordan could see the winged lizards themselves starting to glow, ready to vomit their flame onto the hapless soldiers. As usual the defences held.
The flyers were forced back into the desert under a hail of arrows and brilliant bursts as magical bolts, hurled by Hlara, struck the sand around them. The wizard’s long grey hair flew behind her as she rushed toward the flyers, silently mouthing her spells as she let fly her magic, even catching one rider directly in the chest causing rider and mount to smash into the next rising dune just out of sight. Jordan smiled to herself, nothing would survive a hit like that.
Jordan memorised the crash site, she would send a couple of soldiers to inspect the corpse in the morning to see if the rider was carrying any orders; anything that could explain the uptake in raids on the mines, or the unusual daring in openly harassing an Empire patrol. Things were worse than the Colonel believed, thought Jordan; she had to get the latest information back to Colonel Deanathi and onto the Empress.
The patrol was still two days from Bayathu, and home, after three weeks on the mining highways patrolling the desert between the cities and mines. All her soldiers were tired, dirty and frazzled. This time was much worse than ever before. Usually the flyers kept their distance from a patrol of forty heavily armed soldiers accompanied by a full Battle Wizard; that along with a new Empire magical defence system around the camps should have been deterrent enough.
Well, it was their loss if they wanted to keep throwing away lives at a defended camp, it did interrupt her sleep but, if that was the worst that happened, she would be content. Just as she turned away from the desert, she sensed rather than saw a flash of darkness from just outside her vision, near the edge of the camp, on the inside of the picket line. Staring at the spot for a long moment until she was certain there was no movement.
Attempting to extract mental burrs from tired nerves, Jordan forced herself to consider the situation clinically; the perimeter was set and sentries alert. Nothing threatening could get close to the camp, never mind past all the wards, alarms and sentries protecting it. So why was she so damn jittery?
She had been on patrol in the black desert hundreds of times and had rarely lost a soldier to the tribesmen. Not one after the first few years, she reminded himself, and she wasn’t going to start again now!
There was another flash of movement in the darkness, this time from the area behind the command tent, disturbed air seemed to tickle the corner of her eye calling the hair on her nape to full alert.
Right hand clutching for sword, Jordan whipped her eyes around to glare into the night, vainly trying to see a tell-tale ripple or mobile shadow to show the cause of alarm. Just as grateful fist clutched her weapon’s hilt, a great weight smashed into her back while exploding pain bit deep into her brain, momentarily blinding her. Before her vision was restored fully, iron hard claws cut through light riding leather armour like paper, shredding the spinal column below. Captain Jordan flopped boneless to the ground. The pain dissipated quickly, like water from an upset ewer, leaving only a strange numbness as she tried willing herself back to her feet. Only dimly aware that her body would not respond, nothing, not even a finger wiggle.
Jordan was more bemused than scared. Until the screaming started. Then her restored sight showed her soldiers gushing from their tents, only to be felled by dark forms crashing into them, followed by fountain-like bursts of blood from shredded veins and arteries. Some fell as their hamstrings were sliced, the screams silenced quickly as talons punched through their armour into chests, guts, and skulls. There was nothing but chaos all around her now, men and women were screaming in panic, slashing wildly with swords or maces at immaterial shadows that stayed just beyond reach, and still they fell, one by one surrounding Jordan with the shuddering corpses and pleading gazes of her command.
Jordan’s eyes were dimming and she knew death was near; this was perversely quite a relaxing concept right now, a fact that amused her for some reason. The last thing she saw was her soldiers strewn like children’s dolls ravaged by wolves, and there in the centre of the camp was old Hlara pitching bolts of energy and hissing magic frantically at the surrounding Demons. To Jordan’s dying eyes, they looked vaguely like Moosi but much larger; the flames and magic dispersed like smoke against the attackers as they formed a tight cordon around the wizard, closing remorselessly on her position.
That cannot be good Jordan thought dully, I need to warn Colonel Deanathi! The words crept through the embers of her brain, then faded as eyes, still open, stared at eternity.