Above her, slinking along the broken tops of the pillars, Bera, her sister, easily kept pace. Then, four legs were swifter than two. Unless, of course, those four belonged to one as heavy as her brother. She glanced to her right, and spotted him instantly, though her eyes were as weak as any human’s.
Arif galumphed across the broken ground with simian simplicity, his passage loud to her ears. But not quietly, or quickly, and utterly lacking in Bera’s cat-like dignity. She shook her head, and hoped that their prey would not hear him and take fright.
She sprang over a fallen statue, and slid to a stop. The campfire burned steadily, a triangle of light at the other end of the avenue. The ruins were not large – a minor trading town, humbled during some ancient cataclysm, and left to the sands. But there was a well, and a cistern of rainwater. An ideal place to camp, for two men travelling through the desert.
She sank into a crouch and crept towards the light, one hand on the hilt of her sword. She stopped in the shelter of cracked plinth and sank to her haunches, eyes narrowed. A moment later, Bera joined her. Her sister dropped lightly onto the plinth, eyes gleaming. “I can smell them from here,” she growled, softly.
Amina glanced up. Her sister was lithe and deadly, with a square skull and jaws that could crack even the thickest bones. She gripped the edges of the plinth with claws strong enough to peel open stone sarcophagi. Bera leaned down and nuzzled her. “Shall we share them with Arif, sister, or shall we leave the greedyguts to hunt his own prey?”
“You would not do that, sister,” Arif growled, as he crept towards them, head low. In contrast to their sister, he was bulky with muscle and marrow. But like her, he was shaggy and mouldy, after the current fashion, with mottled flesh and thick, hyena-like jaws set into his handsome, sloped skull.
The two were the very flower of ghoulish kind. Amina, however, was a blossom of a different sort. Where they were great and powerful, she was small and dark and lacking even the smallest patch of mould on her skin. The runt of the litter.
Her high, proud features resembled those of a woman of distant Khem, or so she’d been told, with thick black hair bound back in tight, wormlike braids. Lacking a proper ghoulish hide, she instead wore a banded cuirass, scavenged from a battlefield, and clothes made from zoog-hide. She wore neither gloves nor boots, her palms and soles toughened by a childhood spent among the lightless depths of Pnath.
Arif leaned heavily against Amina, his comforting stink enveloping her. “You would not leave me to starve, sister,’ he whined. “What would mother say?”
Bera glared down at him. “Mother would say that you are fat enough already. Missing a meal or six will not do you any ill.”
“You would see me wither away,” he grumbled. He nudged Amina with his shaggy head. “Tell her, sister. Tell her how I will wither from such neglect.”
Amina sighed and scratched behind his pointed ear. “Quiet, brother. They will hear.”
“They will hear his belly rumbling, is what they’ll hear,” Bera murmured.
“What does it matter?” Arif asked. “There are but two of them, and they are only men. Let us fall on them, and suck the marrow from their bones.”
“They might be wizards,” Bera cautioned. “Only wizards are foolish enough to cross the Bnazic Desert, and plunder the forgotten cities of Khem.”
“Or merchants,” Arif added. “They look like merchants.”
“Maybe they are sailors,” Amina said. “It does not matter. They have the child, and we must get him back.”
“Poor mite,” Bera growled, sadly. “He must be frightened.”
“He is the son of kings,” Arif scoffed. “And he knows we will come. What is there to be frightened of?”
“Many things,” Amina said. “They would not have survived this long, if they were not formidable. Even if it is only the pair, we must show caution.” She peered at the campfire, wondering at the nature of those who defiled such places of antiquity. It was not uncommon, sadly. The desert was full of adventurers’ bones, as were the plentiful ruins which dotted the sands. But some rare few were dogged enough to survive.
Ghouls had watched and wagered, as these two had crept through lightless catacombs, seeking forgotten treasures. The expectation was that some trap or beast would claim their lives, leaving their flesh for Mordiggian’s children. But, as was sometimes the case, death had not made an appearance, and bellies had stayed empty.
And then they’d found the prince’s chamber, and any amusement the ghouls might have felt, evaporated. Howls of rage and despair had echoed through the nighted vaults of the city, as the pair had made their way back to the surface. Messengers had flown swiftly to the priests of Mordiggian in Khem and Meroe, seeking the aid of seasoned hunters. And thus, Amina and her siblings had been dispatched to pursue the pair across the desert.
It had taken them no more than a day to find the trail, but their quarry, atop camels, moved swiftly over the sea of sand. They had shadowed them from one oasis to the next, burrowing into the sand during the day, and loping across the dunes by night. And now, at last, she and her siblings had caught up with them. And with their prisoner.
She frowned. The prince was but a boy, and an orphan at that. His parents had passed on, and now resided elsewhere – perhaps even in the waking world, as some had whispered. Whatever their fate, the boy had been left here, in the Dreamlands, and in the care of her folk. That he had been dead longer than she had been alive was of no matter. For a ghoul, responsibility did not end with life’s leaving.
Arif grunted. “I grow hungry.”
Bera looked at him. “That comes as no surprise.” He made to snarl at her, but Amina caught his snout in her hand, silencing him.
“Hush, brother.” Amina looked at her sister. “I will go first. Follow my lead.”
Bera eyed her uncertainly. “It is too dangerous.”
Amina shrugged. “While I distract them, you two can circle around.”
“You take too many chances, sister.”
“Someone must.” Amina scratched Bera’s chin. “Do not fear, sister. I have no interest in meeting Mordiggian just yet.”
“If you die, can I eat your belly-meats?” Arif asked, tongue lolling.
“No, I will eat them,” Bera said.
“Why should you get them?”
“I love her more.”
“You may share them,” Amina said, ending the argument before it could really begin. However, she smiled as she said it, pleased by the show of affection. “Now hush.” She rose to her feet and started down the avenue, moving lightly. She heard Bera and Arif split up, one to either side of her.
It was an old trick, perfected in the bone-fields of Pnath during ghast-hunts. Their skill in such endeavours was one of the reasons that they had been selected by the priests of Mordiggian to act as the god’s hand in earthly matters. Few ghouls could match a ghast, and fewer still had successfully hunted one. Usually it was the other way around.
“I will give them the chance to return the prince,” Amina whispered. “It is only fair.”
“Mercy, sister?” Bera asked. “You know such a thing cannot be.”
“And why not? Mordiggian is a just god.”
“But wrathful, sister. When he demands recompense, it is best to offer it up without much argument.” Bera snuffled at her side. “They stole from us, and must be punished.”
Amina nodded, but did not reply. The firelight swelled, and she heard the murmur of voices, and the grumbling of camels. They made a tidy camp, these thieves. They’d chosen what might once have been a hostelry, though it had long since succumbed to time’s edge. Two broken walls kept the wind at bay, and the camels had been hitched to the remains of the entryway. She crept closer, moving stealthily. Bera and Arif padded nearby in silence.
“No guards,” Arif muttered.
“They are foolish,” Bera said.
“Or confident,” Amina replied. This close, she could see that the campfire burned merrily at the centre of the camp, set in the old hearth-pit, and the two thieves sat to either side of it, jesting with one another as they took turns stirring a bubbling iron pot hung from the cooking spit, over the fire.
The smell of whatever they were cooking made her stomach burble. She’d often indulged in human food, when her siblings weren’t around to mock her for it. It was an illicit vice, shameful and invigorating all at once. She sniffed the air, enjoying the tang of unfamiliar spices, as she weaved her way through the camels.
The animals groaned as they caught the ghouls’ scent, and thumped the ground with their feet. She stroked one’s neck as she passed, causing it to rear and paw the air. The bells on its saddle clanked, and the men shot to their feet, hands on their weapons.
“Who’s there?” one barked. A harsh accent, as of Baharna or one of the other kingdoms that hugged the coast of Oriab.
“A traveller,” she called out.
“And why are you creeping among our camels?” the other asked. A smooth voice. Like that of a man of Serranian, which hung in the clouds far to the west.
“Might I share your fire?”
“Come closer, and we shall see.”
She gestured silently to her siblings, and they slunk out of sight, circling through the shadows. She stepped into the light, one hand on her sword. The smooth-voiced man whistled softly as he peered at her. He was dressed colourfully, beneath a battered hauberk, and his face was unscarred and pale. His hands were crossed atop the jasper pommel of the sword sheathed on his hip, as he stood at ease.
Beside him, his companion was much less relaxed. A short, pugnacious looking man, with a face that had seen the wrong end of many a blow, wearing stained travel leathers beneath a cloak of zebra-hide.
“And who might you be, fair lady?” the smooth-voiced man asked.
“You first,” Amina said.
The man smiled. “Geull. And my friend here is Stayl.”
“Don’t tell her my name,” Stayl protested. “She might be some desert spirit, come to snatch our souls from our sleeping bodies!”
“We’re not asleep,” Geull pointed out.
“Even so,” Stayl said. He looked at Amina. “Now you – are you a spirit?”
“No.” Amina smiled, careful not to show her teeth. She had filed them, to better fit in with her family. Stayl looked at Geull.
“I don’t believe her.”
Geull rolled his eyes. “Your name, please.”
“Amina.” Past the fire, she saw a collection of packs and saddlebags. And among them, the prince. The sarcophagus was small, as befitted one who had not reached his tenth mortal year, and its once-rich hues had faded, and the royal gilt that adorned its facing had tarnished. She felt a pang of sympathy for the little prince. An orphan, taken from the only home he’d ever known, and carted across the desert like so much plunder.
“A lovely name.” Geull frowned. “Not one I’ve heard before, though. Khemish?”
“It is the name my father gave me,” she said. “It means ‘charnel blossom’ in the meepery of our people.”
“Meepery?” Stayl muttered. He and Geull traded glances. Geull shrugged.
“Come then, my lady. Sit and warm yourself before our fire, if you would.”
As she sat, she saw them both glance at her feet. She wondered if they were checking her for cloven hooves. She smiled. Gossip to the contrary, only a few of her folk had such things. Geull ladled out a bowlful of stew and proffered it to her. “You must be hungry. No pack, no supplies. No mount, even.” He paused. “Unless you left it somewhere safe?”
After the briefest of hesitations, she nodded. “Safe, yes.”
Again, the two men traded glances. She let no sign of the chagrin she felt show on her face. Geull continued to proffer the stew. Gingerly, she took it, reasoning that to do otherwise would elicit even more suspicion. It smelled good, but she did not eat. Ghouls ate together, or not at all. At least when within sight of each other.
If her hosts noticed, they gave no sign. They tucked in with gusto, as she watched, with interest. It was rare that she had the opportunity to study men, in such close proximity. Normally there was much screaming and wailing. This sort of companionable silence was odd, to her. She watched them eat, and listened to them laugh, and found them not so different to her own folk. And yet, they were nonetheless utterly alien in their manner.
Sometimes, she wondered why her father has decided to spare her, given the gulf between them. What had he made of that squalling infant, slick with blood and left to die on a battlefield? Had he considered eating her there and then, as Arif often joked?
The thought did not upset her. To eat and be eaten was the way of things. Ghouls ate the flesh of the dead, whatever the nature of the corpse. It was a high honour to be devoured by your kin, on your day of passing. Flesh stripped, bones cracked, marrow sucked – all of it helped speed the soul to the charnel gardens of Mordiggian, where the burying grounds stretched forever, and no casket was sealed with lead.
“You never did say where you were from,” Geull said, startling her slightly.
“Khem,” she said, which might well be the truth.
“Really? I’ve heard it is quite lovely, this time of year.”
“Yes.” She nodded, though she had no idea. Geull smiled, and she wondered if he suspected. He glanced at her bowl.
“Stew not to your taste?”
“Maybe she already ate,” Stayl ventured. “Is that it, then? Did you have a meal out there, with no pack and no mount, by yourself in the sands?”
Amina set her bowl aside. “Perhaps I am simply not hungry.”
“And not thirsty, either. You have not asked to share our water. The desert is dark, and cold, but you wear neither boots nor cloak.”
She made a show of warming her hands. “The fire is adequate.” Beyond the glare of the light, she could make out a darker patch of shadow, slithering low across the broken walls of the hostelry. Bera was getting into position.
“Someone has been following us,” Stayl said, ladling more stew into his bowl.
“Flattered as we are, we must ask why,” Geull added, setting aside his own bowl. “Not our good looks, I assume.”
Amina paused, considering the question. She could sense this hunt nearing its end. They were wary, but did not yet realise their danger. Once they did, it would come down to fangs and claws, as it always did. She felt a moment’s regret as she considered it. Sometimes, she thought that she ought to go among men more often, to learn their ways better. But, then, was the ghoulish way not the best way of all? Nonetheless, the thought lingered.
“Why did you take him?” she asked, ignoring Geull’s question.
“Him?” Geull asked. She nodded to the sarcophagus, sitting among the packs. He glanced at it, and then back at her, his expression curious.
“Is it a him, then? And how do you know?”
Stayl stirred the stew. “She’s a witch, obviously. Only a witch would wander the desert with no boots. And who is she to ask us our business?”
Amina ignored him, and studied Geull. He was handsome, in the way some mortals were. Too, there was a certain ghoulishness to the way he moved – all at ease, and untroubled by the world around him. He seemed equally interested in her, and his eyes roamed freely. She caught his eyes, and he grinned ruefully. “My apologies, but you are striking.”
Stayl snorted. Amina glanced at him, and then back at Geull. He was grinning now, and there was something that might have been invitation in his expression. She looked at the sarcophagus. “Why did you seek him out?” she asked, again.
Geull frowned, slightly. “We didn’t, really. We came looking for treasures – gold, silver, precious jewels and the like. They say the wealth of ages lies hidden beneath these sands, ripe for the taking.”
“They say,” Stayl snorted.
“But you found none of that.”
“No. Nothing of any value, save that.” He looked at the sarcophagus. “There are wizards and scholars aplenty in Carcassonne and Oonai who will pay for such relics. Too, the dust of mummies is quite prized by the perfumers of Sinara. It seemed a waste to leave it.”
“Him,” Amina corrected, gently. Geull inclined his head.
“Him,” he amended.
“And we found little else of value, down there. Certainly not enough to justify risking our necks in this wasteland.” He cast a baleful eye at his companion. “This is the ruby eye of Hlem all over again.”
“The jungle wasn’t that bad.”
“I was nearly eaten by a snake the size of an elephant.”
“Nearly being the operative term.” Geull smiled widely at Amina. “Would you like to hear the story?”
“She wouldn’t,” Stayl said.
“I don’t,” Amina said.
“See?” Stayl said. He peered at her. “How many?”
She paused. “How many what?”
“How many of you are there?” Geull looked around. “We are not deaf, and someone’s stomach has been rumbling the entire time we’ve been talking.” He smiled. “Bandits, then?”
“Not bandits,” Amina said sharply, somewhat insulted by the idea, as well as annoyed by Arif’s blunder. “If anyone is a bandit here, it is the pair of you. Thieves and looters.”
“Thieves?” Geull said.
“Looters?” Stayl echoed.
“Seekers of fortune, I’d say,” Geull continued, looking at his companion. “Adventurers, even, but hardly thieves.”
“Not at the moment, at least,” Stayl said. He looked around. “I heard something.”
Geull nodded. “Yes. How many of you, then?”
Amina ignored the question. “Whatever you call yourselves, the deed is done. I’ve come to ask you to release your prisoner.”
“Prisoner?” Geull said, startled. “What prisoner?”
“Him.” Amina pointed again at the tiny sarcophagus, with its faded colours.
“That’s not a him, that’s an it,” Stayl said. “Tomb-leavings, is all, like I said.”
Amina frowned. “You have taken him from his home. He was left in the keeping of my folk by his parents.”
“He’s dead,” Stayl said, as if to a child.
Amina nodded. “And has been for ten centuries. Yet he is in our keeping nonetheless. Release him, and you will be forgiven your trespasses.”
Geull laughed. “Trespasses? What offence have we given, my lady? A ruin is public property, at least in the eyes of sensible folk.”
Stayl glared at her, and tapped the hilt of his blade. He rose slowly, eyes never leaving her face. “Geull, stop playing coy. You know as well as I that this is the one who’s been following us.”
Geull glanced at his companion. “Is that so?” His smile widened. “Have you been following us, Lady Amina?”
She said nothing. Stayl took a step towards her.
Out in the dark, Bera snarled softly. Stayl tensed, alert. “She’s definitely not alone.”
“I did not say that I was.”
“Would your companions like some stew?” Geull said. His voice was mild, but his expression was wary. They were not fools, these two. Then, fools would have left their bones bleaching beneath the desert sun already. But they were more dangerous than she’d thought. Perhaps they had faced worse things than ghouls in the night.
“They do not care for stew,” she said. “They prefer...heartier fare.”
The two men exchanged glances. “Ah,” Geull said, after a moment. “Then would you be amenable to a cut of the profits? Say...twenty percent?”
Stayl made a choking sound. “Twenty percent?” he spluttered.
Geull glanced at him. “A small price to pay, I think.”
“We should pay nothing. We braved the dangers of the tomb, and the trek across the trackless sands. What has she done, save follow us and make vague threats?”
“I have not threatened you,” Amina said. “Had I done so, you would know.” She gestured sharply. Somewhere to her left, Arif snarled. The sound bounced among the ruins, swelling to fill the air.
Stayl turned. “What was that?”
“My brother,” Amina said.
Bera growled low and long, from her right. “And that?” Geull asked.
The two men looked at one another. “Three to two,” Geull said, as he climbed to his feet, shaking his head in what might have been disappointment.
“Unfortunate odds,” Stayl grunted. He looked at her, eyes hot with anger. “She was a distraction, I expect.” He turned his glare on Geull. “And not the first time a pretty face has done so, in regards to you, Geull.”
“I am but a man, Stayl.”
“And a fool.”
“They go hand in hand, I find,” Amina said. She rose to her feet, ready to leap back and draw her blade, if it came to it. Stayl looked as if he might attack at any moment.
Geull laughed lightly. “Indeed. Much to my chagrin, that is the case.” He glanced at the sarcophagus. “Speaking of cases...that one is worth a king’s ransom to us.”
“Is it worth your lives?” Amina caught the glint of Bera’s eyes, from atop the wall behind the two men. She could not see Arif, but she knew that he was close.
Geull sighed. “Sadly, yes.”
Before she could react, he had his sword out, and had used it to wrench the stewpot from its place above the fire. Whirling about, he flung the bubbling pot full at Bera, who yelped and sprang out of sight. At the same moment, Stayl lunged, blade angled for a killing thrust. Amina dodged the blow, but only just, and Stayl spun, quick as a cat.
Amina tore her blade from its sheath and intercepted his next blow. They reeled back and forth, trading sword-strokes. Amina had learned her art the hard way, but Stayl was far more skilled. It was all she could do to keep him at bay. She heard Arif howl from somewhere nearby, and saw a blur of mottled colour as he bounded towards the swordsman. Stayl turned and cursed, his blade flickering. Arif gave a strangled bark and scrambled back, out of reach of the blade.
“Corpse-eaters,” Stayl spat.
“Better that than thieves,” Amina said. She cut at him, but he parried the blow. Stayl backed towards the light, keeping them both in sight.
“Geull,” he called out. “Get the packs.”
“Gotten and going,” Geull called out. “They’re between us and the camels.”
“Then we’ll move them.”
Arif growled low in his throat. “Not likely.” He paced into the light of the fire, and Stayl hissed in revulsion.
Geull looked at Amina as she stepped to Arif’s side. “You must take after your mother,” he said, with forced cheerfulness. He’d dragged several of the packs and the sarcophagus to the fire, for ease of carrying
Amina smiled, showing her teeth. “This can end now.” She levelled her blade. “Release the prince, and you will be forgiven.”
In reply, Geull snatched a brand from the fire and swung it about. Arif drew back instinctively, and Geull stamped forward, blade hissing out. Amina caught it with her own, and saw Stayl dart for the camels. “Arif,” she shouted.
Arif swept past her, and bounded towards Stayl, jaws wide. As the latter turned, blade raised, Bera lunged from behind him, steaming gobbets of stew staining her fur. She struck the man like a bullet launched from a sling, and Amina heard bones break from the impact.
Geull shouted wordlessly as his companion went down beneath the weight of Amina’s siblings. He drove Amina back, turned and leapt for the sarcophagus. Amina followed him, but stopped as he chopped it open with a single, wild blow. Grabbing a handful of mouldering linen, he wrenched the prince from his bed in a gout of dust.
“Leave him,” he roared. “Leave him, or I cast this bundle of bones in to the fire!”
Arif and Bera stopped at Amina’s shout, and turned bloody muzzles towards Geull. Stayl was groaning, but still alive. She lowered her sword. “Release him,” she said. “He has done nothing to you.”
“He is dead. I am alive, and intend to stay that way. Stayl – do you live?”
Stayl groaned again. Geull grimaced. “Good enough.” He looked at Amina. “If we return this thing, you will leave us in peace?”
“You will be forgiven,” she said, softly. Her hand edged towards the knife thrust through her belt. If Geull noticed, he gave no sign.
He set the prince down. “Then I humbly beseech forgiveness.” He stepped back, hands spread. “Stayl...?”
“I...gods...I beseech forgiveness,” the other man groaned.
Amina stepped back. At her gesture, Arif and Bera backed away, growling. Geull frowned and moved to aid his companion. He glanced at her as he passed. “A shame, my lady. Perhaps we’ll meet again, under more salubrious circumstances.”
Amina didn’t reply. She watched as he bent to help the injured man to his feet. When his back was to her, she met Bera’s yellow gaze and nodded. Then, she drew her knife and threw it with a single, smooth motion. The blade caught Geull in the shoulder, and he cried out. He turned, and she lunged, driving her sword past his and into his gut. Her momentum carried Geull back, against the wall. He goggled at her as she leaned her weight against the pommel, sawing the sword into him.
Behind her, Arif and Bera fell on the gawping Stayl, jaws wide. His screams spiralled up and up, until they passed the point of audibility. Geull clutched at her hands, trying to push her back. “But – you said...’ he gurgled, in disbelief.
“That you would be forgiven. And you have been.” She spoke softly. Soothingly. “But still, you must pay the price. Mordiggian is a just god, but wrathful. And we are very hungry.” She twisted the blade, and his heels beat on the sands for a moment. Then, with a sigh, he slumped. She tore the sword loose, and turned.
Bera looked up, strands of meat and muscle hanging from her jaws. She nudged Arif, and he tore a chunk of Stayl loose and offered it up. “Come, sister,” Bera said. “You have earned it.”
“Eat what you like. There is plenty for all.”
“Not for long,” Arif grunted around a mouthful.
Shaking her head, Amina sheathed her sword, and went to the prince. His little form was naught but bones now, swaddled in linen vestments. Carefully, she placed him back in his sarcophagus and closed it. He would be returned to his home, and the care of those who knew him best. An orphan, perhaps, but not unloved.
Almost idly, she picked up her forgotten bowl of stew and dipped in a bloody finger.
It really was quite good.