If the heat didn’t kill him, the scorpions would.
Zeyr drank from his canteen. The water tasted hot and stale. Above, the blazing sun beat down on his robes, and he kept moving forward, his leather footwraps pushing into the burning sands with each step. If he hadn’t come to do a job—one that needed to be done—he would’ve avoided the region entirely.
As he approached the gates, a young man raised a bow and pulled back on the string. He looked down at Zeyr from a guard tower and called to his brethren. They rushed to their positions. In seconds, a dozen men appeared with bows and throwing spears.
“State your peace, mage!” one called.
Zeyr cleared his throat. His glowing azure eyes had given him away.
“I’ve come to see Nadine,” he said. “It is of grave importance.”
With weapons still raised, the guards climbed down and opened the hardwood entrance—a rarity in the desert. It groaned as it pushed sand into a pile. Men walked out to guide Zeyr through the growing village, refusing to lower the tips of their spears.
Every face turned to him. Women paused as they washed clothes in an oasis pool. Two men stopped their board game on a table of polished soapstone. Others peeked from windows of beige homes. A child, no older than five, pulled on his mother’s hand and pointed to Zeyr.
“Momma, look, it’s a mage!” he said. “You’ve come to help us, right?”
“You could say that,” Zeyr replied. He barely spared the child a glance.
The guards led him to a decorated building surrounded by palm trees. More armed forces stood ready at the doors, dressed in leather wraps, spears in hand. They stepped aside as Zeyr approached. As the doors opened, he steeled himself for the conversation to come.
A tall woman inside spoke with her advisers. At the sight of the mage, she dismissed them, turned, and smiled. She brought up her arms as if to embrace him. Her golden bangles clinked together, and her amethyst necklace glowed a shimmering violet.
“A light-skin in my village!” she called. “Come and sit, friend. Tell me of how far you’ve travelled.” Nadine motioned to a cushioned chair. She sat down across from him and laid her arms out on the table.
“Many nights,” Zeyr said. “Through dunes no man should walk.”
Nadine laughed, as loud as thunder. “Auraq!” A servant appeared at the door. “Make our friend a drink, would you?” She turned back to Zeyr, her eyes inspecting him over. “It’s rare we have visitors out here. A mage, no less. What brings you so deep into the sands?”
Nadine smiled, and they both laughed. He could feel his guard dropping. Very few people in the world would speak with the rogue mage, and it did his soul good to talk to one. A servant brought them drinks—Nadine spoke of how the children had made the cups from clay.
Over the course of a half-hour, they spoke of whatever came to mind. Of legends of the desert—three-headed beasts and a lucky red fox. Of the world outside the sands; of countries that complained about the heat. They laughed over small things, and Zeyr had forgotten how nice it felt to converse with another human.
“So, friend,” Nadine said at last, “what brings you to the desert?”
The question jolted him back to reality. He exhaled, recalling the words he’d prepared ahead of time.
“Miles from here,” Zeyr said, “more than a week’s walk, a tribe of nomads found the ruins of an old empire. They dug out artifacts more powerful than they could understand, and when I asked for them to turn them over, they resisted. I did what had to be done.”
He lowered his voice to match the silence of the room.
“At times, terrible things must be done for the land to remain peaceful. These terrible things are far better than the cataclysms that could unfold otherwise.”
Nadine nodded. Her smile had disappeared.
“I’ve heard,” Zeyr continued, “of one artifact finding its way to this village. A necklace from eras past.” He looked at the space below her neck, where the amethyst gem glowed. “It must be kept safe. Far from the reaches of corruption.”
Any sense of camaraderie in the room vanished. Nadine leaned forward, her bangles gleaming in the light.
“You would take it from me,” she said, “knowing it is all that keeps the monstrous scorpions at bay?”
“Head north. Find men to wield weapons. Build new traps. That necklace is an artifact of destruction, and I can not let it fall into the wrong hands.” Memories flashed through his mind, one frame after another: Souls severed in two. Bodies obliterated down to ashes. Entire countries blown to ruins, shell-shocked mages left roaming across wastelands that once gave home to millions.
“Assassins will soon come to take it from you. You must give it to me today.”
“You…” Nadine stumbled over her words. She looked at the guards, then back at Zeyr. Her dark eyes locked onto his glowing ones. “You understand we can not simply move. We’ve worked too hard to be here—the desert is too unforgiving for us to build somewhere new. We have many women bearing children right now-”
“How many people are in this village?” Zeyr asked.
“One-hundred and four.”
“How many are in this region?”
Nadine narrowed her eyes.
“Now, how about the world?”
“You’ve made your point.” She stood, motioning to her two guards. They approached with their spears at the ready. “Leave before you find your head on a spike.”
“Not without the necklace-”
Zeyr stood as a guard reached for him. He stepped back. Azure lightning formed on his fingertips, and mist drifted off his eyes. He threw his hand forward—a bolt coalesced midair, crackling, striking the man’s chest. It burnt his leather armour and melted a hole within him. Hot blood dripped to the ground.
The guard fell backward, hitting the floor with a thud.
The other rushed forward to jab. His spear didn’t make it halfway through the air before Zeyr shot a second bolt of energy, leaving him to suffer the same fate as the first.
Behind the table, Nadine shouted as she took form. The gem glowed against her neck. She raised both hands in front of her and channelled the artifact’s power. The air went stale. Zeyr conjured an arcane spell shield to hide behind—there’d be no stopping it now.
His vision flashed white behind his eyelids. Violet explosions cascaded off of Nadine’s palms, blowing the table to wooden shrapnel, the cushioned chairs to shreds. Each explosion shook the building’s foundation and threatened to shatter Zeyr’s barrier—cracks formed on the cobalt waves of energy protecting him.
A second wave of explosions caved in the roof. The walls crumbled and guards shouted out as they ran from the building. Blocks of stone rained down upon Zeyr. One hit Nadine and pinned her to the ground, a second piled atop her chest, and a third broke her legs. Sunlight beamed down from the sky.
The explosions ended. Zeyr let the shield protecting him dissipate. He stepped over broken rock, then kneeled beside the village’s leader. She coughed blood as she gasped for air.
“I only wanted,” Nadine mumbled, “to protect my people.”
Zeyr reached down and grabbed the artifact from around her neck.
He tightened his grip around the gem.
The mage walked toward the village gate. He kept on edge, ready for an attack, but not a single guard approached. They were no longer fierce defenders—they were people stunned to know they faced their end. Each looked at Zeyr with wide, helpless eyes.
“What do we do now?” a woman asked. The child from earlier clutched onto her robes.
“I’d leave,” Zeyr said.
The giant scorpions would descend on the village in the days to come. There’d be no survivors without the help of magic. The child broke from his mother’s grasp and ran to the mage.
“Can we go with you?” he asked. “Please?”
Zeyr stopped. Somewhere within, in the depths of his consciousness, a remnant of compassion struck at his heart. It told him to shield the child. Safeguard the people. Forget about the rest of the world.
But he knew he couldn’t.
He walked on.
A relationship meant protecting others. Zeyr trudged through the sands and looked over the horizon. He refused to glance back at the faces of the dead. He’d worry more about who he could still save, hiding the necklace far from the reaches of mankind, favouring the lives of many over the few.
the ends would justify the means.