The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (5 page)

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
10.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The fighting was a nightmare of bronze and blood. Weapons flashed in and out of Tau’s sight; he fought wildly, yelled himself hoarse, received a shallow but biting cut to the leg, and was pulled back by Nkiru, his father’s second-in-command. Tau tried to thank him, but the older warrior had moved on, his sword swinging at anything not Chosen.

Tau spotted his father and Jabari, and, slowed by his weakened leg, he pushed his way back to the front lines. Tendaji was beside him, until he wasn’t, the bitter fighting splitting them up.

Afraid of being separated from the Ihagu, Tau tried to get closer to his father and slipped. He went down and was nearly trampled by the press of women and men trying to kill one another. He pushed himself to a knee, the head of a spear whizzed past his ear, and, blindly, he punched his sword at the spear holder, missing his mark but coming close enough to make the fighter curse and fall back into the clot of hedeni.

He scrambled to his feet and glanced down at what had made him fall. It was Tendaji, his head crushed. Tau’s stomach lurched and he stumbled away from the body, bumping into one of Aren’s men, who sliced him across the arm with an errant swing.

The cut was not a bad one, but Tau’s arm lit up in a line of pain. He hissed at the sting of it and found he was taking rapid, shallow breaths that didn’t help at all. His sight also seemed to be going, his vision closing in at the edges with black and red.

Panicked, in pain, and afraid he was going blind, he pushed back and away from the thickest fighting. He was about to flee, run down the mountainside with the townspeople, when a hedena attacked the Ihagu beside him.

The Ihagu was wrestling a hatchet from another raider and didn’t see the spear coming for his spine. He’d die without even knowing what killed him. Tau tried to call out a warning as he leapt forward, but nothing came out. His voice was gone.

He crashed into the spear-wielding savage and they went down, struggling, teeth bared, growling; then a sword flashed over Tau’s shoulder and into the hedena’s cheek, tearing the man’s face in two. The hedena gurgled, scrabbled at him, and went limp as Aren took Tau’s arm, hauling him to his feet.

“Back,” his father said, his sword point dragging in the dirt. “Their attack is failing.”

Tau, blood and muck coating him, looked for the man he’d tried to save. He found him nearby, on the ground and dead. Tau stared at the body. It didn’t make sense. He’d been alive a breath ago.

“The Ihashe and Indlovu are here,” his father told him. “Goddess be praised.”

Tau looked past the skirmish seething around him, and out there among the savages, he saw them—the might of the Chosen military.

Battling the hedeni were Ihashe, the elite fighters drafted from the Lesser castes, and Indlovu, the larger and more powerful Noble caste warriors. They all fought fiercely, but the main prong of the Chosen counterattack was led by a giant. He wore bronze-plated leather armor painted red and black. He had a shield on one arm and a shining bronze sword in the other hand. He was an Enraged Ingonyama.

The Ingonyama was close to twice Tau’s height, his arms bulging with muscle, and he moved faster than should have been possible for someone his size. He fought like a god.

“Hold the line,” Tau’s father ordered the Ihagu. “The military are here!”

In the time it took Aren to speak, the Ingonyama had cut his way through an entire line of hedeni, whipping his sword around hard enough to slice through two men in a single blow. Three more savages attacked and he belted the first away with his shield, kicked the next in the chest, and with the pommel of his sword, cracked the third’s skull like it was a rotten nut.

“Everyone, toward the Gifted! Move!” shouted Tau’s father, and the Ihagu beat a hasty retreat, running to the grouping of women in black robes near the cliffs.

“Incredible,” Jabari said, pointing to the Ingonyama. “He’s incredible.”

As kids, they would play at being Ingonyama, and Tau hadn’t forgotten Jabari’s heartbreak when Lekan, catching them at it, taunted his younger brother with the truth. Jabari’s blood, like that of all Petty Nobles and lower castes, was too weak to enrage.

“Faster!” said Aren, yanking on Tau’s gambeson.

They were near enough to the Gifted that Tau could see them, though not well. There were eight of them, in their traditional coal-black and flowing robes, and they were guarded by a ring of warriors. The Gifted had their hoods up, and the gold necklaces they all wore shimmered with light from the hamlet’s guttering fires.

Having reached a measure of safety, Aren’s men let their exhaustion take hold. Some dropped to their knees, and one scrawny Ihagu sat on the ground, staring at nothing. The man beside him had his sword up, as if expecting his companions to turn on him.

Tau sought out the Ingonyama. He was there, in what was left of Daba, destroying all he faced. Around him, his Indlovu dealt death like it was a choreographed dance. They, along with the Ingonyama, were the Chosen’s most devastating fighters.

Tau glanced at Jabari, who had found water and was drinking, spilling much of it. It was hard to believe that nothing more than a test and time separated the optimistic young Noble from being a full-blooded Indlovu. Jabari would test soon, and if he passed, he’d become an initiate of their citadel, train for three cycles, then go to war as one of them.

Tau’s father wanted the Lessers’ equivalent for him. He wanted Tau to test for the Ihashe, train at the closer of the two fighting schools reserved for Lessers, and serve in the military, just like he had. Aren’s service was what made it possible for him, a Low Common, to lead their fief’s Ihagu.

Before Tau was born, his father had trained to be an Ihashe and had fought as one, serving the military’s mandatory six cycles. It was in his final cycle of service that he met and fell in love with Imani Tafari, a beautiful, strong-willed High Common. He wooed her, and with his service complete, they ran away to Kerem, to escape her father’s wrath at the poor match.

In Kerem, Aren’s Ihashe background was valuable and he was made second-in-command of Umbusi Onai’s Ihagu. His wife did even better, landing a position in the keep.

Tau was born soon after, but in the first few cycles of his life, Imani grew weary of living like a Common. She left Aren. She left Tau too.

With the woman he loved lost to him, Aren gave himself over to two things: raising Tau and being the best fighter in the fief. In time, he came to lead the Ihagu, and when Jabari was old enough, the umbusi asked Aren to train him.

After Lekan, her firstborn, failed his testing, she couldn’t afford to hire an Indlovu teacher for Jabari. Tau’s father, though a large step down from an Indlovu, was the next best thing. Aren accepted without hesitation. Teaching Jabari meant he’d have time to train Tau as well.

Tau knew it was the best Aren could do to give him a solid start toward a good future, but in a burning hamlet, surrounded by the dead and dying, he was having a difficult time believing there was anything good about the violent path his father had prepared for him.

Zuri would have sucked her teeth, rolling her eyes at him. Since becoming a handmaiden, she had little time and less patience for Tau’s bouts of self-pity. Still, a smile would have followed the eye roll, and that would make everything better. She always made everything better, he thought, as a horn sounded across the flats, snatching him away from her memory and returning him to the nightmare of Daba.

At the far edge of the hamlet, a hedena held a horn. He blew it again, three short blasts followed by a longer one, and Tau prayed it was a call to retreat. Something felt wrong, though. It was the man beside the horn blower.

“What is it?” asked Jabari, startling Tau. He hadn’t heard him approach.

“The man beside the one blowing the horn,” Tau said. “I think that’s their inkokeli.”

“What does he look like?”

“He’s tall, almost the height of a Petty Noble, and well built. He’s wearing more than they usually do, and he’s carrying one of those bone spears. He’s… he’s burned, not just cursed. It looks like he’s been through a fire. Half his face is a ruin.”

“They aren’t leaving.”

Jabari was right. They weren’t. They were doing the opposite.

The hedeni, hearing the horn’s notes, came together but did not rush the barricade or the military men facing them. As one, they attacked the Enraged Ingonyama, ignoring the fighters around him.

“Stop them, Amara!” the Gifted nearest to Tau said to another black-robed woman.

The one named Amara lifted her hands, aiming past Tau at the charging hedeni. “They’re too far. It’ll splash,” she said.

“Try, damn you!” said the first Gifted, and Amara did.

Energy, like pulsing waves of heat, began to radiate from her fingers, thickening as it flew out and away. Enervation, Tau thought with wonder, before the edge of it struck him and the world disappeared.


Once, when he was younger, Tau climbed down the cliffs of Kerem to the beach below. He was with several other boys, and one of them dared him to go into the ocean, up to his waist. He said no and they called him a coward.

Tau made it four strides in and, with the water swirling around his knees, was swept off his feet and dragged out.

He was sucked under, pummeled and crushed by the ocean’s fury. He lived only because it was low tide and the water so close to the beach was shallow. The other boys had made a chain of arms to reach him, pulling him from the churning swell.

Being blasted by the Gifted felt like drowning in the ocean. It was as if Tau’s body was being dashed to pieces while the world around him warped and spun, and when the spinning stopped, things got worse.

Tau saw Daba, but everything was different. The colors had been torn away, leaving the hamlet, earth, and sky in shades of gray. An unnatural wind buffeted him, shrieking, burying the other sounds, while impenetrable mists obscured anything farther than twenty strides away.

Tau could see what had to be the other men who had been standing near him, but he couldn’t make sense of what he saw. The men, all in varying degrees of distress, were glowing with golden light. Tau looked down at himself. He was glowing too, and the glow had attracted something from the mists.

The creature was hidden and indistinct, but Tau could see more than enough. It moved in a lurching run on two feet, its balance aided by club-like hands on arms so long they could touch the ground. It had a flat face, red eyes, and a slavering mouth, and its skin seemed diseased.

The monster had Tau in its crimson gaze and roared. Tau couldn’t make himself move, and it came for him, careening out of the mists, reaching for him with misshapen hands. Tau’s legs gave out, and he opened his mouth to scream, fell and kept falling, through the ground, beyond the mists, beyond its grasp.

Pulling in air, ash, and the stench of blood, Tau reeled. He was on his knees, his mind on fire as fear unlike anything he’d ever known thundered through him. He felt warm wetness soak his trews and soiled himself. He didn’t care, couldn’t care. It was enough not to collapse into the battle-churned muck.

The men around him were similarly affected, and from the corner of his eye, Tau saw that many of the hedeni were also down.

“Tau?” It was his father.

“Da?” Tau said.

“Be at ease. It’ll pass. It’ll pass.”

Tau’s head pounded, but he looked to the Gifted anyway. Amara was still pushing out the wave of twisted energy. His father had pulled him out of the way and, Tau realized, he’d done it just in time. Amara’s wave of enervation had forced Tau’s soul into the underworld, where one of its demons had almost gotten him.

His head was a muddle, but Tau thought he understood. The Gifted was trying to disable enough of the hedeni to allow the Ingonyama to flee. Her efforts weren’t enough. She’d missed too many with her powers, and the Ingonyama, bleeding from a hundred cuts, found two attackers taking the place of each one he killed.

“I can’t hit more of them,” Amara said. “I can’t!”

“He has to drop the enraging,” the other Gifted said, “or Nsia dies.”

The Gifted needn’t have worried. The Ingonyama bellowed, killed another man, and stepped back, and then there were two flashes of light. The first flared around his body, and when it vanished, so did the effects of the enraging. The man shrank into himself, diminishing in height, bulk, and strength.

The second flash of light came from farther up the flats, in the half-closed doorway of one of the abandoned homes. As if waiting for this, the horn blower fired off two sharp blasts and a group of hedeni made for the house.

The ones who remained finished off the Ingonyama. He was stabbed by spear and hatchet. They opened his belly, then cut his head from his shoulders and held it aloft.

Amara had tears in her eyes and the Gifted woman beside her cursed, raising her hands to the sky. Her robes fell back from her wrists and Tau heard the dragon roar.

It circled, the Gifted twitched her fingers, and, blowing fire, the dragon dove for the hedeni who were running for the home. The slower among them died in the inferno as the beast careened past, but the rest made it, went inside the home, and came out with what they sought. The hedeni had captured a Gifted.

“Nsia!” the Gifted communing with the dragon shouted.

Nsia, being dragged from the building, pulled something from her robes that glinted. It was a knife. There were too many for her to fight off, but it still surprised Tau when she didn’t try.

Instead, she reversed her hold on the blade and made to plunge it into her chest, but one of her attackers was too quick. He slammed a spear into her arm and the knife fell from her deadened fingers. She tried to fight then, mouth open to scream, but one of the hedeni struck her across the temple, she went limp, and they carried her off.

They rushed her toward the warlord with the burned face, and Tau checked the skies. The dragon was turning for another pass but wouldn’t make it in time. The horn blower, standing beside the warlord, lifted his instrument and blew a final note, and the hedeni retreated, ending the raid on Daba more suddenly than it had begun.

A few of the Chosen sent up a cheer. Most of the townspeople were safe, the Ihagu had held until the real military arrived, and, once again, the Chosen had beaten back their enemy. The cheer was almost loud enough to drown out the sounds of choking.

It was one of the Gifted. Not the one who had skimmed Tau with her enervating blast and not the one directing the dragon. This Gifted had stood quiet and still, surrounded by soldiers, and far from combat. She was convulsing and coughing up blood, her skin bubbling and bursting. It looked like she was being torn to pieces from the inside out. It looked like what had happened to the hedena Jabari had captured and questioned.

A soldier took hold of her and, with tenderness, helped her to the ground. The other soldiers tightened the circle around her, blocking Tau’s view. He could still hear, though. He could hear her dying, and he started toward them, thinking to help, when a hand fell on his shoulder.

“No,” his father said. “That’s Gifted business.”

“She’s dying.”

The choking Gifted had gone quiet.

“Come,” his father said. “We won.”

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
10.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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