Young Zhaleh waited in the light of the lanterns, watching the cerise shades in the sky fade into hues of black. Beyond the outskirts of her village, she waited for her kin, for anyone who had escaped as she had before, leaving everything behind. Lifting her gaze toward the heavens, her eyes settled on the full moon, bathing the dunes in eerie brilliance.
The chilly wind almost blew away the scent of her burning village. From this sacred ground, the suffering of her kin was like a distant wail into the Golden Desert. Bathing in the lanterns'; warding glow, a sense of disconnection distanced her from the world beyond her burning light. This was not the deliverance that her father promised, but a purgatory from which there was no escape.
It was a nightmare she could not awake from, living every instance of horror from the last several hours.
From the height of the largest dune, the lanterns; bright glow warded the Ulkin beasts away. It was the reason that slavers raiding her village abandoned Zhaleh to her fate. There was no doubt in her mind the raiders knew where she waited. Yet the thought of navigating the dunes without infinite light seemed to give them great hesitance.
Alert, Zhaleh climbed out of the sand, a hunting bow clasped in her shivering hands. She swept her emerald eyes over the dunes below like a hawk eager for the kill. She noticed a lone torch blazing against the night, and several dark shapes huddled together around its flickering fire.
Zhaleh did not hesitate, her fingers tightening around her bow with renewed purpose. She plucked an arrow from her quiver, nocking it on her bow. Lifting her aim and taking the direction of the wind into account, she loosed her first arrow toward the dark shapes.
Their voices came creeping out of the starlit gloom. Unfamiliar, their accents were an amalgamation of rough barbaric tongues, eloquent speech of the higher languages, and everything in between. She noticed chain mail glinting in the moonlight, hidden underneath robes of cream and crimson.
Warriors of the Carth Dominion, Zhaleh realized, braving the dunes for her.
Her arrow fell upon the Zar warriors without warning, finding purchase in the throat of the one guiding the unit forward. Stifling a gasp, Zhaleh surprised herself with her unerring accuracy. The warrior staggered in his march, his comrades crying out in alarm when he collapsed into the sands. His Zar brethren scrambled to recover the burning torch buried in the sand with him.
She nocked another arrow on her bow, taking aim at the first warrior to pull the torch out of the dunes. She let the arrow sail once more. Curving the shot in such a way that it bent in an arc back toward the earth. The arrow descended over her mark's round shield. Lifting the torch out of the sands, it struck the Zar straight through the chest, toppling him where he stood.
The Zar'qin, translating to slave warriors in the Carthite tongue, huddled around each other. They interlocked their shields into an impregnable wall, protecting them from waist to helmet. One of their comrades secured their burning torch again, but this time Zhaleh could not kill him outright. Her arrows pinged off their shield wall, harmless, as they came racing up the dune toward her.
She backpedaled from the dune's edge, cold fear seizing her by the heart when she came back into the light of the lanterns. She readied her bow for a final, desperate stand. Yet, when the Zar came charging into the light, breaking their shield wall after cresting the dune to come face to face with their assailant, her body froze.
The warriors in their unit were from across a variety of sundered realms and conquered lands. Each wore their scars plain on their skin, woven over their faces and across their limbs like decades-old tapestries. Studying their mixed expressions, some of the Zar'qin halted, surprised their enemy was only a young girl. Horrified, she realized others did not seem to care. One of them stormed toward her, their hands unsheathing their swords.
A grizzled voice, scarred and hoarse from decades of ceaseless war, she imagined, locked the entire Zar unit in place. A scarred brute of a man shoved his way from the rear lines to the fore of the unit. He was twice the size of his comrades, his scars as long as they were wide. It was as if someone had taken a great cleaver to certain areas of his arms and face, but had proven unable to land a solid blow hard enough to harm him.
He said, "Stay your blades."
"Adofo," One of the Zar voiced his challenge. "She killed two of our own! We should put her to death without question."
"We're burning her village, young Magar," Adofo replied. "You were no different when the Zar'qin proved victorious on the walls of Sarune, even for a brief while." The scarred giant turned his gaze to Zhaleh. He watched her, impressed by something he found within her. "She's scared. That should come as no surprise for any in our line of work."
Adofo's squinting glare brightened out of nowhere, alight with an idea. "Or, if you're so bold, Magar, why don't you subdue her yourself? Go ahead, test her limits at your peril. You have my approval."
Magar did not hesitate, removing his hand from the hilt of his blade when he swept forward. He made to strike Zhaleh with a reverse sweep of his hand, hoping to humiliate her in front of his comrades. He wanted to prove something, she realized, that she was nothing more than a woman.
Zhaleh blocked his strike with a raised forearm, smashing her white-knuckled fist hard across the bridge of his nose. Beneath the strength of her tensed muscles, she felt the cartilage crunch to an awkward angle. Blood sprayed from Magar's broken nose just when Zhaleh swept a powerful kick into the side of his left knee.
She dived after the Zar warrior when he toppled like a pile of stone. Catching him by the neck in a choking grapple, Magar tore himself free with several savage elbows into her flank. Zhaleh released her grip, lashing out with a ferocious kick straight to Magar's temple when he made to stand. She watched him topple back into the sand.
Adofo was the first to wheeze with hysterical laughter, chortling at Magar with the rest of the Zar'qin as he struggled to find his feet in the dune sand. Their commander held a hand over his gut, cackling when he raised his other to halt the fight.
"Girl, that's enough!" He said, "Serves you right for trying to beat a young woman. I had a feeling there was strength in her. She strikes harder than most young males her age. I'll give her that! Well done, a good bout of entertainment, at the very least."
Adofo sobered and called out to the young girl in their midst. "What is your name?"
Zhaleh let her silence speak volumes.
Adofo's expression took on a more serious aspect. He insisted, "Zhaleh, isn't it?"
She froze, horrified by the forbidden knowledge he possessed.
"Listen, young Zhaleh." Adofo extended his hand in offering to her, saying, "the reality of this situation is that you have three options to choose from. I could have my Zar subdue you by force, and have them drag you in chains into the Dominion of Carth. I think after the beating you've given Magar, all of us here like you enough that we'd rather not have our hands forced. The other option is that you can take my hand, and we can journey toward your new home together, where I'll put in a kind word for you with our masters. If you desire to see your father again, this is the best option for you.
"The third option is that you&#38;#39;ll starve out here in the desert on your own. Not much of an option, sadly."
Zhaleh studied Adofo's scarred features for any sign of deception. She knew, as much as he did, that she had little choice. The Dominion of Carth and their Zar legions with it now enslaved her village. She should choose death, she thought. She had no way of knowing if Adofo spoke the truth about him. Yet her desire to keep living made her eager to uncover the truth behind his words.
Cautious, Zhaleh approached Adofo, reaching out and taking his hand in acceptance.
Adofo smiled, nodding. "An excellent decision. I'm glad you're as sharp of mind as strong of body. The Zar'qin Guard will put you to good use in our ranks. You'll not regret the chance for adventure and living a life free of the mundane toils of the others in the Zar caste. Now, let's be off. Zar'qin, move out!"
Warriors lifted their voices in their hundreds, snapping Zhaleh back into awareness. Resting where she stood, she leaned against Adofo's flank, head nestled on his shoulder, whilst she rested her eyes for the last hour. Her brethren's combined shouts snapped Zhaleh wide awake, quaking the debris crumbling down around them into the city streets.
Zarnite war cries deafened her, spilling around the clustered unit of Zar'qin Guard as their warriors came charging out of the smoke wreathed flames. Pushing herself off Adofo, Zhaleh reclaimed her shield and morning star off the ground. Adofo chortled aloud at her, assuming a defensive stance as a hundred elite warriors came charging into the shield wall.
The ensuing battle became a blur around her. Zhaleh defended herself, striking only when she was certain her morning star would find its mark. Every connection of kinetic force was like a jolt of lightning to her system, rousing her out of the waking dream. She rained down several hacking blows on a Zarnite, trying his best to break through the shield wall. Each impact resounded with the sound of steel scales breaking, flesh tearing, and bone breaking.
Beside her, Adofo threw his bulk into the enemy, battering an armored brute down onto his knees. Hacking his blade downward, he severed the foe&#38;#39;s head from his shoulders in one blow.
He called to Zhaleh, "Awoken on the eve of further fire and blood, like a demon of war! Warriors of the Zar'qin Guard, hunt the Zarnites down in the streets and in their homes! Leave none alive when the city falls!"
Zhaleh waded through the endless dead piled in Jerelian's streets. Crimson rain came pouring down on her as the melee reached its brutal conclusion. With every ounce of her strength, her spiked mace added to the red ruin. She bludgeoned a Zarnite warrior's helm, crushing his skull like so much brittle glass. As the corpse sagged to her feet, she cried out in exaltation to the Solar God.
She advanced at the head of the Lavender Guard's shield wall, her brethren cheering her triumph. Denied a moment of respite, Zhaleh breathed in a lungful of choking smog. She tasted a potent mixture of smoke, ash, and spilled blood on the billowing wind. Gulping down the tainted oxygen, her nearby brethren picked off the remaining Zarnites daring to challenge them.
Zhaleh cursed, wishing there were some escape from the haunted streets of Jerelian. Blood soaked the cobblestone for leagues, corpses beyond count littering the main roads and walkways. Jerelian city's aristocratic civilians numbered high among the dead.
Her skull still thumping from the beat of Zarna's war drums, she shuddered from her most recent memories of brutality.
Zhaleh swallowed hard, inhaling the choking scent of acrid smoke and burning flesh. As quick as her haunting assailed her, did the cries of the slaughtered fade back into the depths of her mind. She regained her composure and looked back to the roads winding through the Gardens of Enlightenment.
Faki placed an affirming hand on Zhaleh's left shoulder, and she glanced toward her second in command. Features fixed in a tight grimace, Zhaleh had not realized how high-strung he truly was until now. She could see every vein surfacing on his forearm, where his cream and crimson robes tore itself thin.
After a quick glance around the ranks, the Lavender Guard, Zhaleh's war-band, were all exhausted, but ready to explode with the fury they were famous for.
Faki said, "what a blow, crushing that Zarnite's skull. If only the Zar were all forged of such steel."
A grizzly voice, scarred from a lifetime of war, interrupted her thought before she could give voice to it. "Warriors of the Zar'qin Guard! The Zarnites break! Quick, push them out of the gardens! Break the ranks, charge! Spare none of the bite of your swords!"
Zhaleh heard herself screaming into the wind, alongside her brethren's most brutal war cries. She glanced once to Faki, who seemed dazed by the constant fighting throughout Jerelian's streets. She thought no more of him, charging headlong at the fore of the Lavender Guard.
Their combined rush quaked the fertile groves, leaving behind only a muddy mire. Zhaleh surmounted an ornate pillar, its surface grooved, and its peak wreathed in a laurel of stone. It was one of hundreds of broken structures scattered amid the destruction.
She heard the whistle of falling arrows, lifting her shield moments before a deadly rain came down on the Lavender Guard. Zar warriors, once baying for blood, cried out in shock and agony as the rain of death brought scores of them low. The impact of steel tipped, and feathered shafts hit her shield in rapid succession.
Lowering her shield enough to look around, she sighted shadowy figures loosing arrows from the dizzying heights of Jerelian's spires and palaces, positioned on the higher reaches of the Gorgo Mountain. They showered her Zar brethren with abandon, scything down those too slow to react on a moment's notice.
A war horn sounded from the other side of the garden. Zhaleh tore her gaze away from Jerelian's impossible heights, finding the Zarnite elite amassing to challenge the Lavender Guard.
Zhaleh screamed her war cries ever louder, her spiked mace tearing away both a helm and face of the first Zarnite piling into her.
"For the Zar!" Zhaleh cried, blocking a straight thrust for her abdomen on her shield. "Firstborn, Sun Caller, and God King!"
Her brethren-in-arms echoed her war cry as they piled into the combat. As blood came raining down in the heart of Jerelian, Zhaleh considered it just another day in her life. Constant battle waited with every breaking dawn, never ceasing long enough to grant her peace. Hers was the life of a slave warrior, sworn to fight and die amid the battlefield in her masters' stead.
Zhaleh fought on, her dwindling hope for better days gone with the setting sun.