First in a series - War of the Sands War of the Sands 1 A lone figure moved swiftly through the sandy streets of Leto. Its footfalls were muffled in the earth and it was ignored by the ears of anyone around, for above the low brick rooftops of the city the sky burned in molten clouds of crimson fire. Roaring and cracking could be heard as the sky churned in its fiery agony. The lone figure continued to run; now down this street, now up a stairway onto a rooftop. As it stood upon that height it stopped and looked out across the city. The palace grounds, many miles away, burned with a brilliant flame and the smoke and fire filled the night sky. No star could be seen and the moonlight could not break through the thick blanket of soot. The only light came from the decaying destruction of those regal buildings. The figure stared at the palaces for quite some time before dropping back down to the sandy street. The figure struck the floor with both feet and in an instant broke into a run towards the palaces. The night did not seem to take any notice of the figure, its robes flowing behind it. It swiftly turned corners and leaped over obstacles with a soundless otherworldly grace. Over a hill it ran and down the other side. Presently, it came to a narrow alleyway and in the moment of its entry through that inescapably ravine three other cloaked figures dropped behind it. It whirled around and drew its long iron blade. The others also drew blades of their own. The figures stood for a time, locked in a battle of caution. A cat, having just slept through a long, warm afternoon arose, and jumped from its bed atop an old wooden box. It moseyed across the floor to the old door that opened onto the street. It stretched and pushed against the door. The sound of the door opening disrupted the figures’ concentration, and they instantly turned to see from whence the intruding sound had come. Instantly, the first figure swung its sword and two of its foes fell to the ground. The third foe raised its foil and parried the first sword. Metal crashed with metal and the foe lunged forward. The figure with its blade shining bright held out its sword and the third figure was skewered through the chest. The third and final foe quaked and trembled as it lay on the ground. The figure loomed over it and with its sword removed its foe’s head. The figure picked up the severed head by the hair. The face stared back at it with empty black eyes. Tattoos and figures of ancient legend covered its barbaric face and upon its forehead was emblazoned, into the skin, the mark of an unknown god. The figure recoiled and tossed the head onto the sandy floor. It looked around and then removed its own hood. To any passerby, it would have been strange to see this hooded assassin as it removed its disguise and revealed the face of a beautiful woman. But there was no one nearby except for the small yellow cat that came out from the shadows of the porch and walked over to the woman. But the woman was gone, as she leapt again into a run, down the alley, and towards the burning palace grounds. The night was aglow as flames licked the alabaster walls of the ancient palace. And everywhere the shadows cast the ghastly shapes of the arsons. Tall men clad in steel torched the walls with fiery siphons. And in the midst of them was a great dragon, like the old worms of lore, it was as tall as a tree and covered in thick scaly mail. Its head was at the end of a long serpentine neck and upon its head was set many horned crowns. And perched upon its back was a tall man. Clad in steel, he sat proud in his saddle. And as Iduna approached from the concealment of the palm trees, he shouted orders to his troops. His voice was harsh and gravelly. He spoke in Lähinic, but it was a dialect Iduna did not understand well. “Igsnata Paladalia, Matara placata in Ignsiam.” The captain said, “Thura! Mukra!” Iduna emerged from the shade of the palms and drew her sword. The cracking of the enormous fire shattered the stone of that primeval building and rained down in clouds of debris. The tall captain astride the firedrake turned to Iduna. “Get back.” He said holding out his gauntleted hand. Iduna continued to approach him. “This does not concern you, woman, go back to your home” Iduna came now to where the dragon stood. “This was my home.” She said and instantly drew her blade from the recesses of her robes. The captain was shocked, but drew his blade swiftly from its sheath. The blade was long and curved and glowed red in the light of the inferno. The dragon bellowed at the sight of the swords and screamed at Iduna. But its rider dismounted and the dragon left. The captain was tall, and in his dark face his eyes cut through Iduna. “So you are the one who escaped my men,” the man shouted, “All of the palace guard is dead now, Leto is nearly mine.” Iduna stood her ground, “Then you must be the leader of this. I had heard your name was Tindible. Am I right? You were closest to the Emperor, his chief of Lieutenants, High Prince of Allyanna.” “Tindible has been dead for years.” He said, “I am Zaphad, the Grand Enki. Your friends are all gone now, Leto is finally ours. The Jesireh order will control this city from now on.” Zaphad shouted an order and several soldiers rushed at Iduna. She slew two of them and leapt away from the others. Her agility obviously surprised them as she dodged their swords and cut them down from behind and whirled back to decapitate three more. She parried a blade and then leapt onto the opponent and stabbed downward into its neck. She leaped backwards and flipped back onto her feet. The other foes stepped back as her blade was held out ready for them. “Foolish cowards!” Zaphad yelled and pushed his way through them to where Iduna stood. He raised his sword but Iduna parried. She thrust forward but he dodged to the side. His blade fell upon the empty ground as she leapt upwards into the air and landed back several feet away on the back of a horse. She kicked it and it sped away. Zaphad rose and watched as his opponent withdrew into the night. “After her!” He yelled to his troops. And several soldiers mounted upon camel bounded after her. Iduna went into a gallope as she rode through the streets of Leto. The riders were hot on her tail as she bounded over abandoned carts and ducked under clotheslines that crossed the streets in a seemingly chaotic web. She took her horse swiftly around a corner and down a long street. As she passed by the abandoned apartment buildings and ruined shops she saw that ahead of her the street stopped in a dead end. A high wall of crumbling debris. She turned her head and saw that the riders were right behind her. She jumped off and drew her sword. She landed on the sidewalk but the camels and soldiers were gone. “Where did they go?” She wondered. A thick smoke had filled the street, but it was not from the palace, this smoke was clean and thin and in the midst of it she saw a man, a small man, with hat. “They are gone!” the old man laughed. “Malagigi! You should get somewhere safer!” Then the old man disappeared and Iduna found herself alone in the abandoned street with her horse.