Every morning a longhorn wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest panthera or it will be killed. Every morning a panthera wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest longhorn or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a longhorn or a panthera. When the sun comes up, you better start running.
It was an old proverb, but Imani knew it well. He wiped something hot and metallic out of his eyes. It could have been blood; his or a clansman, or it could have been whatever passes for blood among the Siad Ruh. It didn’t matter, he could see again, and he staggered to his feet with the help of his hunting spear.
It was dawn, and although it had been light for several hours, the sun was only just beginning to creep out from behind the jagged mountains ahead of them. The largest, Sky Stone Peak, and the fortress that dwelled beneath it, was their goal. The Siad Ruh came from here, and it was down to these few hundred souls to stop them.
Another lumbered towards him, its face a horrid, twisted death mask, leathered by the heat. It moved in a sickening fashion, like its leg was broken but couldn’t feel it. One arm was a wicked hook of metal and flesh, somehow growing from the elbow where its hand should have been.
Imani gulped down his exhaustion and hurled his spear. It sailed through the air, puncturing its brittle chest. The thing staggered but kept coming, hook held high, scrambling up the scree of the outcrop Imani stood on. He glanced at the flintlock in his other hand that the offworlders had given him. With all his faltering strength, he levelled the pistol at the charging abomination and yanked the trigger with two fingers.
For a fleeting moment, he held the power of a volcano in his hand. It bucked hard, wrenching from his grasp. A tongue of flame roared from the gun, accompanied by an explosion of light and smoke.
The shot punched through the Siad Ruh’s shoulder, exploding it like rotten fruit. A split second later, the ragged shards of dried flesh and metal bone ignited. The fire spread in an instant, immolating the unholy creature like wildfire. Fiery chunks sloughed from its frame like wax. The worst part was it’s utter silence, still as the grave, as it cremated in front of him. The only sound was the hissing and crackling of burning skin.
He gasped for air. The smell of rancid cooked flesh filled his nose and mouth. He looked around, trying to take stock of the carnage. He and several hundred others had marched the length of the capital heartland for this moment. A scant few hundred Thole clansmen from all across Brimstone, displaced and desperate, their families butchered and their homes burned by the Siad Ruh. Many of the enemy had taken the forms of those they had killed, but he knew it wasn’t them. Not any more.
They stood on the lip of a dried riverbank, the great, featureless steppes stretching out in front of them. The sun was low, but its heat could already be felt, and the long morning shadows were ebbing away under blood and sand. Between them and Sky Stone Peak was a carpet of Siad Ruh, tumbling from their rocky hiding places and pulling themselves out of the ground.
To the right, the King and his serpent-helmeted Royal Guard held a line, firing down into the morass in well-practised salvos that sounded like rolling thunder. To his left, dozens of armoured Panthera guard were advancing forwards in phalanx, shields locked, breaking only to strike out with their deadly claw-staffs. With Imani, in the centre, were the Thole faithful. Over a hundred clansmen from as many different clans, giving their all in defense of the Heartland.
Several Siad Ruh broke through the central line of the faithful and lumbered up the ridge towards him. Imani fought back the self-doubt that had been creeping, summoned all the courage he had remaining and bellowed a war cant in his clan tongue, followed by a rallying cry.
“Sons of the Dragon! We sing with fire!” He staggered down the loose rock as best he could, pistol raised. He was within striking distance of the nearest creature, let out another roar and squeezed the trigger.
It clicked impotently in his hand. He stared at it in disbelief. One of the beasts was on him now, a pair of sickle blades raised above its head. Imani raised his spear weakly in response.
The creature’s head separated from its body with enough force to toss it over the fighting and out of sight. One of Marshall Tusker’s Panthera Guard stepped into view, shoulder barging another back down the ridge where it was set upon by the faithful. The Panthera Guard was a mountain of a main, glistening in the dawn light with sweat and blood.
From behind his lion mask, he called out to Imani. “One shot, brother!”
As the lion-headed man returned to his shield wall, Imani looked about him in horror. They were less than half the number they were when they arrived, and the tide of Siad Ruh seemed to be only growing. Their task was never going to be easy, and he wasn’t sure he expected to return from it – lure the creatures from their lair so the offworlders can sneak in and destroy Sky Stone Peak. He prayed they were moving swiftly, and making good of every moment bought with Thole blood.
A thousand curses on the noble houses, this was their fight too! If only-
His thoughts were cut short. The shriek of a thousand banshees filled the air, followed by a thunderous blast and a tidal wave of flame. The sea of creatures in front of them turned to fire, as though a hundred volcanoes had erupted beneath them. The explosion was immense, knocking most of the faithful to the ground. Something had immolated legions of the Siad Ruh, and Imani was sure they were next. He looked around, panicked.
“It’s the lady of the shouting mountains!” He heard someone cheer. He spun about, trying to find this sorcerous woman the Panthera Guard were shouting about.
Stepping out of an adjacent riverbank came a hulking beast of blue metal, walking on two legs like a man, but five times as tall. A box on its back was smoking, half filled with red arrowheads. Its hands were weapons of steel from which fire and fury poured. It made the noise of the whole Royal Guard salvo with every heavy metal footfall.
“It doesn’t look much like a lady!” Imani shouted, a mix of relief and sheer terror.
“It’s a lady on the inside!” Someone shouted back. Imani paused. That didn’t make any sense either. Whatever the case, Imani redoubled the grip on his spear and watched the metal beast for its next move.
It hunkered down, and prefaced by the banshee wail, the rest of the arrowheads flew from their quiver, propelled through the sky by long trails of fire. When they struck the Siad Ruh horde, it swallowed hundreds of them in the conflagration.
The smoke slowly cleared. The Thole were coughing and spluttering from the sand and dust that had been thrown up. The lady of the shouting mountains was nowhere to be seen, but her throaty growls could be heard rolling across the ridge.
Imani looked out across the throng of dead and burning Siad Ruh that now littered the steppes. The Thole were regrouping, looking around for leadership. In the distance, Imani spotted a large, heavy figure standing on a column of stone. It was wide and its head set in the centre of its chest. Its body rippled, like it was changing while Imani watched it. It was moving its arms in erratic motions, but the shambling Siad Ruh were moving completely in time with it. It must be a leader of some sort – the head of the snake.
Although the numbers were still greatly in their favour, the Siad Ruh were disparate and scattered. Now was the time to strike.
He grasped his spear firmly in both hands, set his sights on the leader beast, and started running.