Time slowed to a crawl as Manal and Mala lay prone behind a cluster of large rocks. Manal and Mala lay motionless, waiting for the group of mercenaries to leave. The pair had been evading roving squads of mercenaries for three days, ever since crossing into the country of Zof. This had proven difficult, as Zof's terrain was not conducive to hiding.
Like all the world's countries, Zof was a dry and arid land. Its landscape consisted of long flat expanses of stone and hard packed soil that descended into shallow gullies filled with sand. As they'd journeyed across Zof, Manal and Mala had been faced with two choices. They could travel across the flat expanses and risk being easily spotted by scouts, or they could travel through the gullies and risk turning a corner and running into an enemy. Ultimately, they had chosen the former, as the gullies turned out to be full of roving mercenaries.
Manal and Mala had heard the mercenary group’s voices as they'd approached the gully. Taking cover behind the cluster of rocks, Manal and Mala listened to the mercenaries idly converse. Manal and Mala soon learned that the group was waiting on the return of a few scouts. Not wanting to risk running into the returning scouts, Manal and Mala had decided to stay hidden and wait for the mercenaries to leave. Manal wasn't worried about the mercenaries looking up and seeing them so much as he was worried that Mala would give their position away.
There was very little Manal knew for sure about Mala, even though the two had been traveling companions for several months. Two things about Mala he did know for certain were that she hated criminals of all types and she was obsessed with finding a man named Ceirote. Manal had no idea who this Ceirote was, but Mala spoke of him often, and always with her voice filled with hatred. The focus of their travels together so far had been to track down Ceirote.
Manal knew not what Ceirote had done to Mala. The only thing Manal knew for certain was that Ceirote was responsible for Mala taking up her current nomadic lifestyle. Mala never volunteered much about herself, rarely even spoke unless it was necessary, and Manal did not pry. He too was a nomad, and he understood holding on to one's secrets and guarding one's past. Manal did not wish to share why he himself was in self-imposed exile, and so he did not press Mala for details of her own past.
The two were traveling across Zof, on their way to the country of Modjo. Word was that Ceirote had recently been spotted in Modjo, though Manal had no idea exactly where Mala received her information. While he chose to spend his free time in quiet contemplation, Mala would often venture off into the night or out into the streets, always bringing back news of Ceirote's whereabouts and activities. Manal wasn't sure if Mala had contacts throughout the world with whom she was corresponding, but the information received always turned out to be accurate. Several times they'd come close to catching up with Ceirote, only to instead find the chaos, despair, and destruction he had left in his wake.
Although it was possible Mala had contacts who were feeding her information, Manal thought it was more likely that she was receiving the information from the spirits. Manal and Mala lived in a world where everything, from the mightiest God to the lowliest pebble, possessed a spirit. The strongest of the spirits, the Divine spirits, belonged to Gods and Goddesses. Next came the Demigods and Demigoddesses, each of whom possessed Greater spirits. Next came living things, who possessed Mortal spirits. Finally, the Lesser spirits were bound to inanimate objects such as rocks, tools, or weapons. The Divine and Greater spirits were Deities to those born with Mortal or Lesser spirits.
Spirits were a part of every aspect of life. To varying degrees, the worship of the Gods was the cornerstone of each living being's daily routine. Most simply worshiped and paid tribute to the Gods. Others, who were called paladins, sought to earn favor from the Deities. This favor was earned through action and deed, done in the name of the Deity whom the paladin hoped to impress. Then there were clerics, people like Manal, who had dedicated their lives to the service of a singular Deity.
Manal was an Avitshu, the highest rank a cleric could achieve. Manal had dedicated his life and spirit to the eternal service of the Monsoon God Mussan, Harbinger of the Deluge. Manal wore a holy talisman, through which he could call upon and channel the power of Mussan. The Monsoon God's clerics, through their Patron's power, brought rain down from the sky. They were tasked by their Patron to bring rain to areas of the world favored by their God. Even with the power of Mussan, producing the rain came at a cost. The waters gathered into clouds by the clerics had to be taken from elsewhere. To provide life-giving water to one area of the arid planet meant depriving another area of it. As such, Mussan was considered a balancing force and all mortals were wary of his displeasure.
It was not enough to simply be connected to a Deity. In order to channel divine energy, cast spells, or perform spiritual feats, a being needed to be born with the gift of theurgy. Manal was a theurgist and within a few days of meeting Mala, he had realized she too possessed the gift of theurgy. Mala could communicate with and control sand spirits, though she lacked the discipline and discretion of a cleric or the dedication and aspirations of a paladin. Manal knew Mala worshiped the Sand Goddess Valu, the Lady Above, but she was not pious. Mala used her connection to Valu solely to settle her score with Ceirote.
Throughout their journey across Zof, Manal and Mala had been evading small groups of mercenaries belonging to the Zarzorid Gang. Manal could tell that Mala wanted to attack the mercenaries, but he managed to convince her to stay hidden. Both Manal and Mala knew what it was like to be hunted. There were many who wished to capture Manal and pervert the oath he had taken to Mussan. These men wanted Manal to bring rain to their kingdoms and countries, even if these monsoons had not been willed by Mussan. Manal believed that even if captured, he would be able to resist his tormentors and uphold his oath, but he had wavered before to a lesser degree, and didn't relish the idea of his resolve again being tested. So, during their travels, Manal always did his best to make sure he and Mala avoided confrontation whenever possible.
Often, Mala acquiesced to Manal's wishes, but there were times when she could not help but break from hiding and engage those criminals, evil-doers, and mercenaries the pair happened upon. Unlike Manal, Mala gloried in her ability to turn the hunters into the prey. Manal could sense the blood-lust rising in Mala and hoped that the mercenaries would move along before she chose to act on it.
Manal found the mercenary movements they’d observed out of the ordinary. The Zarzorid Gang had a reputation for being opportunists. Normally, they would lay hidden in one spot, spent a few days robbing merchants and travelers, and then they would move on to a new location. Yet, the movements Manal had observed were highly organized, and the Zarzorid Gang seemed to be acting closer to soldiers than thieves. Manal did not know under whose employ the Zarzorid Gang were currently under, but it was obvious both from the level of organization and the quality of their weapons, mounts, and equipment, that the Zarzorid Gang was being backed by someone wealthy and powerful.
As they lay hidden, waiting on the mercenaries to move along, the wind happened to shift slightly. As the wind passed over Manal's skin, it brought with it a scent he instantly recognized. Cold sweat broke out over Manal's body, his muscles tensed, and his body stiffened as he breathed in the smell of marigolds. The scent of marigold threw Manal's mind inexorably toward memories of his childhood.
Manal had been born in Zoha, a country who shared its southern border with Zof. His had been a quiet and peaceful life, until the armies of the Marigold Kingdom had invaded Zoha. The citizens of the Marigold Kingdom all worshiped Ouro, the Demigoddess of Bounty, whose sigil was the marigold blossom. To honor their Matron, the soldiers of the Marigold Kingdom adorned themselves with marigold flowers. The sweet smell of the blossoms mixing with the scent of blood and death formed the borders of one of Manal's earliest memories and cast a pall over the happiness he had felt while growing up.
The armies of the Marigold Kingdom attacked Manal's village one morning. Everyone of able body in the village took up arms but the Marigold Kingdom's forces outnumbered them and were better equipped for battle. Manal and his mother had hidden in a small shed as the Marigold Kingdom's forces cut their way through the village. Manal had watched as his father was taken down by a barrage of arrows. His sword was knocked from his hand as he fell, and the blade clattered across the ground, coming to rest within Manal's reach.
Peeking out from the doorway of the shed, Manal's eyes had fallen on the sword. He knew he should pick it up and join in the village's defense. Young though he was, Manal recognized the sword as his means to achieve glory. Honor demanded that he pick up the sword and avenge his father, even if it meant his own death. Yet, on that day so many years ago, Manal had been paralyzed by fear. The scent of the flowers worn by the invading army was strong. When combined with the stench of blood, smoke, and shit, it formed a sickly-sweet smell that burned Manal’s nostrils and made him wretch. After casting one final glance at the sword, Manal buried his face in his mother's shoulder and wept.
Manal tried to return to his senses, but the scent of marigolds still clung to his nostrils and plagued his mind with painful memories. Manal realized he could hear the sound of hooves. At first, he thought it was because the mercenaries were finally moving on, until he remembered that within the gully, the sand would muffle the sound of hooves. Manal realized then that the hooves were coming from up-wind of their position. The smell of marigolds was stronger than ever, and Manal struggled to keep himself from dropping back into memories of his past.
Below, the mercenaries had mounted their horses and were preparing to slip away along the gully. Suddenly, Mala drew her scimitar and leapt into the gully. She landed on one of the horses, directly behind its rider. With one fluid motion Mala sliced open the mercenary's throat and knocked his body from the horse. Of the other two mercenaries, one continued to flee while the other wheeled his horse around. Mala extended her closed fist and calling upon the sand spirits that hovered unseen around her, pointed her finger at the mercenary.
The spirits shot forward, gathering sand as they closed the distance between Mala and the mercenary. By the time the spirits reached the mercenary, they had gathered a large mass of sand that resembled a snake being borne through the air by invisible wings. The sand struck the mercenary in the face. He choked as the spirits forced the sand up through his nostrils and down his throat. Mala rode over to the mercenary and caught his spear as it tumbled from his hand. Once the mercenary had suffocated, the spirits returned to Mala and the sand fell straight down to the floor of the gully. Mala turned her horse back around and rode it to the center of the gully as a rider crested the opposite slope.
The rider shined as the rays of the Sun God glinted off their suit of golden armor. The rider was Lady Gulryn, Fifth Knight of the Marigold Kingdom. In her golden armor, Gulryn was an impressive sight, but Manal was most struck by her mount. He had at first taken it for a horse, but as Gulryn's mount made its way down into the gully, Manal realized the it was some type of walking plant wearing the skin of a horse. The mount's legs were made of thick vines, braided together, and ending in wooden hooves. From its forehead sprouted a horn comprised of two twisted stalks of wood that wound around one another before ending in a single sharp point.
Mala and Gulryn, both mounted, faced each other from opposite sides of the gully. Both Gulryn's mount and armor were adorned with marigold flowers. Gulryn drew a shield embossed with a marigold blossom and a lance. The lance's handle was ringed by a band of marigolds. Compared to Gulryn's splendor, Mala looked shabby. Mala wore a man's tunic and pantaloons, torn in places and crusted with dirt and dried blood. Grains of sand were stuck to each stain, and each grain contained a sand spirit. Mala wore her hair in a man's style as well. It was shaved close to her scalp on the sides of her head, but her bangs which hung long over her eyes. Mala readied her scimitar and the spear she'd taken from the mercenary. Then she flipped her hair out of her eyes with a jerk of her head and stared down Gulryn.
After the briefest of pauses, the two fighters charged one another, each pushing their mounts hard as they rode straight at each other. Mala rode forward, holding the spear as she would a lance. Seconds before she met Gulryn, Mala hefted the spear and guided her horse to the left. Mala threw the spear and then kicked her mount's flanks, compelling the horse into a dead sprint. Gulryn easily deflected the spear with her shield and then aimed her lance at Mala's chest. Just before the lance's tip struck her, Mala swung off the side of the horse. Gripping the saddle's pommel with one hand, Mala let her feet drag across the sand as her horse carried her past Gulryn. Mala swung her scimitar in a backhanded arc and its blade cut into Gulryn's vambrace, knocking the lance from her hand.
Gulryn drew her sword and both fighters wheeled their horses around and charged again. Mala called upon her sand spirits and they snatched the spear off the ground and brought it to her hand. Mala threw the spear, this time using the power of the sand spirits to propel it forward. The spear sliced through the front leg of Gulryn's mount, cutting into the twisted vines. The mount lurched forward as the leg gave way and Gulryn was thrown to the sand. Despite the bulkiness and heft of her armor, Gulryn retrieved her sword and got to her feet quickly. Mala dismounted as well and then ran at Gulryn, with the hope of striking before Gulryn regained her footing completely. The two met in a clash of swords. Mala was much faster and landed several strikes, but Gulryn's armor withstood each with a loud clang.
Still hidden above, Manal heard hooves and footsteps approaching from both sides of the gully. On his side of the gully came a troop of Zarzorid mercenaries. On the opposite side, a troop of Marigold Kingdom soldiers began to gather. Neither troop had noticed Manal yet. Each troop stood by, awaiting orders, as they watched the fierce fight between Mala and Gulryn. The two fighters locked blades and held each other’s gaze for a few moments before breaking away.
The two fighters circled one another, looking for an opening, as the two troops of soldiers looked on. Manal knew he needed to act before he was discovered, or Mala was killed by Gulryn. He was reluctant to call upon his Patron, unsure if he was even still a worthy vessel for the Monsoon God's power, but in the end, Manal decided he had no other choice. Focusing on his holy talisman, Manal used the power of his Patron to reach out with his mind. Soon a mist spirit, drawn by the Monsoon God's power, appeared by Manal's side.
Manal drew in breath and the mist spirit entered his body. As Manal exhaled, the spirit changed into a thick cloud of mist, enchanted with the power of the Monsoon God. The cloud of mist spread out around Manal, flowing through the gully and engulfing the opposite side. Through his connection to the Monsoon God, Manal was able to see through the mist, but none of the soldiers, Gulryn, or Mala could. Using the mist as a cover, Manal scrambled down into the gully and whispered into Mala's ear, so that she would know he wasn't an enemy.
Whispering to ensure he didn't give away their position within the mist, Manal urged Mala to flee with him. She was at first reluctant to leave her fight with Gulryn unfinished. However, once he mentioned Ceirote, and the fact that she couldn't find him if she were captured or killed, Mala finally agreed to retreat. By the time the mist Manal conjured had faded, he and Mala had made their escape. The two slipped away down the gully before ascending to the plain above. They hurried across the flats, trying to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the troops of enemies. After several hours, they stopped and made camp. The next day, Manal and Mala resumed their journey to Modjo.