Prologue

 

Na’ilah had not told Ohrl what had happened during the months before her arrival in Brúnn. She had not told him of her waking nightmares set deep in the heart of Johsala, the ancient stronghold of Husam al-Din. In those visions she could sense the dead armies gathering in the shadows, abandoned beneath the great temple where the priests had laid Husam to rest. It was a sign al-Din’s return was near, and that she would have no time to waste in seeking the stones of power.

          The dead soldiers’ shrieks of hollow misery echoed in the emptiness of her dreams, yet to Na’ilah, their voices called her by name, baying for her to lead them once again into battle and blood. There were few who had awoken, their spirits frail, yet Na’ilah knew the strength of the dead army was undeniably building. To give them hope, she poured her mind into the abyss, and allowed her soul to be seen.

          At first she felt their touch like the press of soft damp fingers, searching blindly for a breach in the imprisoning walls. As their probing pads slipped across her skin, their awareness grew. Desperate to force their release, their violent rage erupted against Na’ilah’s mind. They tore at her, their unseen claws shredding her skin, and in the depths of night Na’ilah screamed, as Baeta helplessly watched her master rake bloodied scratches across her own body.

          Plaguing Na’ilah night after night, her visions had caused her search to become desperate. To discover their source, she and Baeta set forth from the harsh desert sands for the ancient city of Johsala, once the stronghold of Husam al-Din at the height of his power. Yet when they finally breached its walls, the temple priests protecting al-Din’s tomb denied them access. The seal would stay unbroken, as it had done ever since his death, and there was nothing Na’ilah could do to change that. Determined not to fail, she conspired to enter the tomb under different circumstances. If subtle coercion would not benefit her claim, she would return with an army and tear down the temple walls.

          Bereft of any real governance over the desert tribes, Johsala sought protection and aid from Sira’an, the great city that presided high and safe upon the Flatlands, far across the Inner Sea to the northwest. Qhabir Ha’amturah, a man much loved by all under his protection, ruled Sira’an yet he was undermined by four men, whose desire for power Na’ilah knew she must twist to her cause.

          Na’ilah and Baeta at once set sail from Burhgat, the great port west of Johsala, crossing the Inner Sea to Sira’an. Na’ilah knew she had little time to break the will of these four men, for soon the snows of Hejveld would melt, and no longer block her passage north. It would be there that she would seek the source of her most troubling visions. Visions of a power buried deep within the mountains, a power that would once again unite the dead armies of al-Din.

 

*

 

          The dark chasms of night swallowed the city of Sira’an. People slept uneasily behind locked shutters, and the normally buoyant streets were quiet. In the northern sector of the city, a row boat cleaved its way across the great lake. A damp mist shrouded its silhouette, the boat revealed only as the dim glow of a towering stone lighthouse swept over it, and then it was lost, claimed once again by the darkness.

          Upon the boat, three heavily cloaked figures drifted toward the lighthouse base, and to a roughly hewn set of steps leading from the water’s edge. The oarsman stood as they approached. He stepped out of the boat, and lashed it to an iron ring staked to the rock.

          “I will wait for you within the mist,” he said, keeping his voice low. “You are expected here, but do not hope to return. I will only come for you under my leader’s command.”

          Na’ilah shot an irritated glance at him from deep within her hood. Although softly spoken, his words carried a warning she could not deny. She ignored his outstretched hand and stepped ashore. Above her the black silhouette of the lighthouse aimed menacingly toward a limitless starry sky.

          I must have their allegiance, Na’ilah thought as she felt the warmth of the second cloaked figure press against her shoulder.

          “We risk much by exposing ourselves,” Baeta whispered, shifting nervously upon the stone. “Are you sure we can trust these men?”

          Na’ilah turned to examine Baeta’s resolve, then stole a glance at the boat as it retreated once more into the gloom.

          “The world is changing, Baeta. These men desire power. It is at their fingertips, but they do not have the strength to grasp it. Trust is not the issue. They will fear me when the time comes, but until then, they must do what I need them to do of their own free will. We must force that chance before their desire fades. Come, there is much to do.”

          Na’ilah strode forward, her face deeply shadowed beneath her hood, and halted before a weathered door. She was about to knock when a heavy bolt was withdrawn from inside, the dull clunk swallowed in the heavy mist. The door pushed open toward them.

          “This way, quickly,” a gruff voice said from the blackness beyond. As the two women moved inside, they saw a featureless figure examine the surrounding waters, before turning to seal them inside.

          They heard the figure shuffle past in the darkness, before the ignition of a dull ochre firelight sent sharp shadows across the man’s face. He eyed them momentarily, and then gestured for them to follow.

          Na’ilah and Baeta were led down a dank corridor. Moisture glistened off the stone under the firelight’s glow, and they could smell the damp as though the mists covering the lake seeped inside and clung to the walls. They were guided deeper underground, through tunnels and winding stairs, until Na’ilah was sure they were well below the level of the sea. She felt an uncomfortable trickle of sweat run down her back, realising this was a prison to which she may not have a key.

          Their guide opened a final door, and they entered a small chamber furnished by a long wooden table. Firelights hung above four seated men, casting an amber halo against concealing cloaks pulled heavily over their faces. Baeta and Na’ilah were ushered into the centre of the room, at which point their guide returned to the door, and locked it shut.

          “Remove your hoods,” said a strong voice, coming from the man seated second from the left. The voice was rich with age, and its low rumble echoed in the chamber as though the very stone itself spoke. Na’ilah slowly slid her hood from her head, her long black hair tied in one long tail that she brushed to one side. Her piercing brown eyes set fiercely against her skin, still deeply tanned from life spent under the desert sun. Beside her, Baeta cautiously followed Na’ilah’s lead, her flowing blonde hair still a vision of beauty, her smooth pale skin glowing under the firelight.

          “You have come with news of the eastern tribes,” the man said. “You have come to warn us that they begin to disband, that their loyalty to Sira’an is not as strong as we think, have you not?”

          Na’ilah’s eyes narrowed. The man set before her dared to presume her claims, and in part he was right, yet he was not the only one to have spies in the city.

          “The tribes are unsettled, Sattah. Your leash upon their water reserve has them bound to the city no matter what, but that is not what compels their loyalty.”

          The four men fidgeted. Na’ilah had used the leader’s real name, thought unknown beyond this council. She suppressed a smile, the corners of her mouth twitching, for although Baeta’s information had been gleaned at some cost, it was about to prove invaluable.

          “And you, Qasin,” she said, turning to the hooded frame in the left hand chair. “Your profiteering will not save you when the uprising begins. The blood money you sleep on has not gained you one ounce of protection, nor will it do so until you have absolute rule of the desert tribes.”

          The third man abruptly stood, casting his hood from his face. His head was shaven, his brown weathered skin deeply pitted and scarred.

          “The tribes bow to our armies. We would crush any who dare stand against us.” He eyed Na’ilah, before pointing a thick, hairy finger at her. “You should look to your own safety. You are not among friends here.”

          He was calmed by a gentle touch upon his arm by the man beside him, sitting quietly in the fourth chair.

          “Sit down Za’im, before you do yourself an injury.”

          Za’im stared at his hooded colleague, then tore his arm from his hold, sitting back down in frustration. The fourth man rose, and slowly slid his hood from his head. With eyes set into a chiselled face enriched by a refined black beard, he stared calculatingly at Na’ilah.

          “It appears our council is no longer secret. I need not remind you that should we wish it, we will leave you here to be devoured by the lake. You will meet your maker in our dungeons.” His voice softened. “Though I would pray for your swift return in another life.” He touched his heart with his fingertips and bowed politely to Na’ilah.

          “Your prayers would be welcomed, Kha’atib, but it is not for my soul that your thoughts should linger.” Na’ilah courteously returned his bow, before turning her attention to Sattah.

          “You assume correctly. I have come to warn you of unrest among the eastern tribes, but not for the reason you suspect. For generations they have given their allegiance to Sira’an, through need and faith. While the seat of religious power indeed lies within this city, its heart is not within your walls. The sands are at last beginning to shift. The River beneath the Desert begins to flow, and your hold upon the tribes will soon fail.”

          Sattah lifted his hood. “What are you talking about? You know as well as I do that without the Qhabir’s consent, the eastern tribes would have no water from our wells. Their deserts would turn to dust and the tribes along with it. They bleed us dry, yet what do we get in return? If I had my way they’d all be left to rot.”

          “Then it is fitting that you are not in control of this city, Sattah, nor of its people.” Stung by the comment, Sattah waved Na’ilah away in anger. Only Kha’atib remained standing, curiosity etched upon his face.

          “The River beneath the Desert? You use the term set out in the scrolls of Hateeb.” At the mention of the scrolls, Sattah, Za’im and Qasin scoffed, but Kha’atib quickly raised his hand to silence them.

          “Whether you believe the scrolls to be the ancient doctrine, or merely a corruptive manipulation of beliefs, the nomads of the eastern deserts swear wholly by its law, and any change in its relevance should be met with great severity.”

          He took a measured breath and walked around the table until he stood face to face with Na’ilah.

          “What have you seen?”

          She bowed slightly, thanking the spiritual leader of Sira’an for his understanding. “The Tears of the Desert have begun to shed, and after centuries they at last grace the Sea of Souls.”

          With his back turned from the other council members, only Na’ilah could see how visibly shaken Kha’atib was by this news, before he turned for his seat, resting his chin upon linked fingers as he sat.

          “What is the meaning of this, priest?” Qasin asked of Kha’atib. When no response came, Na’ilah stepped forward to answer in his place.

          “Al-Dumua qa’Diya,” she said in the ancient tongue. “The Tears of the Desert. The Tears are the life force that remains of those who have fallen over the ages, and have been consumed by the sands. It is told that an underground river once carried the tears to Bakhr min-Ruh, the lost Sea of Souls. Only in the great temple of Johsala does a connection exist between our world and that sea. The cup that sits in the well has been dry ever since the city lost its leader, and the people Husam al-Din left behind by were abandoned. It was by his rule that the tribes were united, and it is his name that bears the heart of the tribes’ faith.”

          Kha’atib lowered his head and muttered a prayer, then turned to face the other council members. When he spoke, his voice was bathed in humility.

          “Though I lead our people in all matters of faith, I have never held belief in the return of Husam al-Din. If the tribes are made aware of this, we will have no control over them at all.”

          Sattah leaned forward. “Husam al-Din has returned? What nonsense is this? Where is your proof?” He shook his head. “That puppet has been dead for centuries, his myth a pillar to control weak minds.”

           “Husam al-Din has not returned,” Na’ilah continued, “yet signs are beginning to appear. I have not seen the Tears with my own eyes,” she said, suppressing the visions of those dead souls tearing at her mind, “but the temple has been locked and guarded. The priests have secluded themselves from any outside contact. Although they denied it, I saw fear in their eyes. They are preparing for his return.”

          She took a moment to stare at each man in turn.

          “If what I say is true, life will breathe back into the once powerful city of Johsala. What is now a splintered hive of leaderless men will overshadow everything you have created. Qasin, you will lose your grip on commerce and trade. Za’im, your loyal soldiers will desert you in the rush to join the prophetic armies of al-Din. If you threaten to cut their water, the desert tribes will turn on you and drink your blood before securing the wells within the Ji’ruk.”

          Za’im shifted in his chair but remained silent, knowing Na’ilah spoke the truth.

          “Sattah, you have the most to lose. As next in line to the Qhabir of Sira’an, you will inherit a ghost city bereft of power, and you will be forced to bow down to a new master, one whom you will have no hope to supplant. Out of all of you, Kha’atib will be the only one to profit.”

          At this the other three looked at Kha’atib, whose own face was a picture of dejection. Downcast, he spoke as though to the floor.

          “I admit to you alone that I have lost my way in guiding our people from the scrolls of Hateeb. I have strayed from the pure teachings, yet should al-Din rise again, the faith our people reserve for me will be renewed tenfold, and my guilt shall clothe me for all eternity.” His eyes hardened, then he looked mockingly at Na’ilah, his voice tinged with scorn.

          “I abandoned those ideals years ago, for there is no truth in them. The scrolls have no meaning in the world we live in. If the people choose to waste their lives subject to a false prophet, then so be it. I have chosen not to break their bond, but I will profit alongside my colleagues while the ignorant masses pray.”

          “Do not lie to me,” warned Na’ilah. “I know your kind too well. When the people turn to the White Watchers and rejoice that you have led them through eternal darkness to witness the return of al-Din, their renewed faith in you will eat you alive. You will be tormented by your own sense of worthlessness. The others may lose profits, but you will lose much more. The only way any of you can remain in power is to take control of Johsala before the tribes do. Whether or not al-Din has returned is something you can determine once you have rule over the city.”

          Sattah grunted. “Why should we believe you? A direct assault on Johsala would bring the tribes’ wrath to our gates. You have offered nothing to prove what you say.”

          “I am on my way to bring you proof of the return the tribes so desperately desire. When I do, you will understand who has power over these lands. In my absence, I suggest you prepare to take control of Johsala. If you do not, the luxuries you afford yourselves will crumble into dust.”

          “Then return when you have something measurable, not rumours and heresy,” Sattah declared as he stood. His posture was unyielding before her glare, but Na’ilah could tell he was rattled.

          “Simak!” He turned to the man clothed wholly in black who had led Na’ilah and Baeta from the boat. “Get them off this island and see them ashore. I will have no more of this insanity. This council is over.”

 

          Baeta moved closer to Na’ilah as Simak pulled a firelight from his cloak and signalled the oarsman from the lake’s edge.

          “You weren’t as subtle as I thought you would be.”

          “I don’t have time for subtleties,” Na’ilah replied sharply. “The memories of my ancestors fade in my mind. Something is drawing me beyond this city, but the knowledge that Johsala must be secured has hounded my dreams for months. I don’t know that if by taking my own mother’s life the connection between us was lost, but I fear my link to Maymunah is becoming weaker. If we do not find the stones soon, her line will be broken, and he will have won.”

          “Then where do we go?” Baeta asked, catching the oarsman’s return signal through the mist.

          Na’ilah gazed up into the night sky. “We cannot be stranded here if the collection storms come. We must find quick passage to the Hejveld plateau. Find me a ship heading for Njall. I must follow my visions of mountains covered in snow. Somewhere on that land a stone of power lies. It guides me, I can feel it.”

          She turned to face Baeta, drawing her close. “The Tears of the Desert are gathering. That was no folk story used to ignite their fear. It has begun, Baeta. Something in the mountains of Hejveld has caused the river to flow.”

          She looked out over the mist. “I will give them proof of Husam al-Din’s return. Then the desperate fools will have no choice but to march toward Johsala and secure access to the temple in my honour. In the meantime, we will push for the mountain pass through Brúnn and beyond, and I will scour the memories of my ancestors until I discover the location of al-Din’s mind.”

          She stopped talking as Simak waved them to the boat. Once they were on board, Simak shoved it into the water. She stared into his cold unwavering eyes, unable to break his gaze until the mist claimed him, and within seconds, all trace of the lighthouse was gone.