None of it mattered, not the sand storm that raged through the desert around him, not the fact that it all had to happen in the stark daylight instead of the black of night, not the sheer numbers he would face, or the overwhelming odds he stood vying against. The only thing that mattered now was getting to her.
Xaxamire gripped the lip of the chariot and saw the gate to the city loom above him. He pointed with the rod in his hand and barked out his command. The power he wielded rushed up his body from his toes to his palm and shot, unremorseful, from the rod. The deafening blast rocked the world around him, bringing his ears to ringing as the massive gate exploded. A wave of steel and wood blew into the city beyond. The arch cracked and stone rumbled down from the parapets. But Xaxamire and his Ramblers were already through.
In seconds, mounted warriors raced the streets behind them, fighting to get to them, unsure of who they were or what their cause. But Xaxamire could not let them catch him. He shouted his command and the five stallions before him kicked to a higher fever, picking up speed and leaving all others in the dust, save his Ramblers.
He turned to Hendon, who whipped the horses mercilessly. “Do not let up. We have no time.”
“Yes, master,” his greatest servant said. The man growled and turned them down the twisting narrows of the streets of the nation’s capitol. They trampled men, women, and children who were not fast enough to get out of the way. Xaxamire did not care. All that mattered was her.
He tossed a look behind him to find his Ramblers keeping pace. Ishtay, and the lion she rode upon, rushed behind him. The massive beast ran freely, seeming almost to float with its grace, as it raced the road. Its black mane rippled, glossy in the wind, and it bellowed a loud roar every now and then as Xaxamire had commanded it to. Its fury would send most of the citizens fleeing.
Xaxamire turned to Tyson, who rode at pace beside the chariot. The mount Xaxamire had trained and bred for the man had died months before, but it would not forsake its master. The horse’s corpse kept pace, its rotting flesh straining for higher levels of speed.
Kelleck’s mighty hyena snarled and spit as it ran. It loosed a horrible laugh as it rushed beside the lion. Kelleck lay stretched across its back, nearly laying on his chest, with his hands tight on the reins and his feet kicked behind him. The massive creature he rode sent shivers up Xaxamire’s spine, as he knew it to be dark and malevolent.
“Now!” he snarled at Kelleck, and the man nodded. He jerked his grip to the left and the hyena howled as it turned a corner and rushed away. Ishtay loosed a terrible battle scream and her lion turned to follow. The beast scratched for purchase as it changed course, and loosed another deafening roar as it disappeared into the hustle of the screaming city. Xaxamire looked to the roofs, seeing Sarc and his terrifying mount scrambling over the tops of the buildings, and he growled.
“We are nearly there, master!” Hendon yelled. “They will be ready for us.”
“They will be ready for you, Hendon. You must hold,” Xaxamire said.
“We will, master.” When they rounded the corner and reached the castle, the gates were shut to them, and the streets outside, filled with warriors. Xaxamire spit out a spell, which told him they stood now before five hundred fighting men. Xaxamire looked to Tyson, skidding to a stop on his dead horse. Sarc rushed down the side of the building on the fifteen-foot-long fire ant he rode, and looked at the massive Hendon, pulling his bow from the mount it sat upon while he drove, and Xaxamire looked at the hundreds of warriors before him.
He liked these odds.
With the screaming of a spell, he burst into flames and shot forward over the heads of all the warriors who stood to defy him. He slammed into the gate as it burst into flames, punching a hole through its middle with his outstretched fist. He landed in the courtyard beyond amidst dozens of mounted riders. With a stomp of his foot and a screaming of a spell, every horse burst into flames and screamed in terror and pain. The lives of these innocent beasts did not matter, only she did. The courtyard broke into mayhem and he spoke another spell and lifted into the air.
Arrows rained through the air around him, striking his brass armor and his thick, linen robe. They did nothing to him.
Mundane weapons had no effect on his men or himself. Not today.
He found the balcony of the queen and alighted on it gently. He looked at the door as four men stepped out of it. They wore blue robes too heavy and warm for the desert they lived in. Their bone white, pasty skin showed no signs of touch from the sun of the nation of Syphere. They pulled weapons that glowed with blue fire, and fanned out in a semicircle as they slowly, cautiously approached.
“Your master will not dare to meet me himself,” Xaxamire spit. “He sends out his corpses to do his work for him.”
The men looked at him with yellowed eyes and said nothing. Frost escaped their mouths when they spoke words of power. From the tips of the blades they lowered, four streams of blue flame shot forward. With a word and a grunt, Xaxamire blocked them with a weak dome that rippled as it began to buckle. He shouted, surging forth his power as the dome expanded. It began to crumple up on itself, and he knew he had no time. He shoved more of his power into the barrier, knowing he was using too much of his magical energy to keep it up, as their cold flame fought against it. With a great expression of power, he wrapped them in the dome, and their ice cold flames devoured them all. He stepped forward, but stumbled and caught himself with his rod.
The door to the room beyond opened and Charl stepped out. Xaxamire shoved his way to his feet and stared at the mightiest warrior of the king.
“Imagine my surprise that you would show up today of all days,” Charl said.
Xaxamire heard the queen cry out in effort and pain and he nodded. “Yet you still brought her to this room, knowing I would check here first.” Xaxamire shook his head. “Your arrogance will be the end of you, Charl.”
The man stepped closer. His red-orange hair stormed around his face in the growing sand storm. Xaxamire saw the man pull his sword. His off-hand cracked and broke as the flesh became ice and the hand grew three times its normal size. His skin, so pale, nearly glowed in the flying sand. Xaxamire shook his head as dizziness threatened to knock him from his feet.
“You can barely stand, Xax. I’m surprised this wind has not blown you from this balcony by now,” Charl said. Xaxamire cursed and stepped forward carefully. The sword swung and he blocked it with his rod. The large brass caps that bound both ends trembled in his hand when the sword made contact.
The two weapons squealed as they touched one another, both seeming to hate the other. Charl kicked out with his boot, catching Xaxamire in the chest. His sword sliced wide, shearing open Xaxamire’s breast to the bone. He stumbled back, catching himself on the railing of the balcony, and looking below at the fighting beyond the gate. The fire ant lifted two men in its mandibles and, with one great chomp, sliced them both in two. Sarc’s swords stormed around him, and Xaxamire noticed the sand storm was easing. He turned back to Charl, who was now nearly upon him.
The sword tip dug into Xaxamire’s neck and Charl laughed. “The great mage. The One To Be Feared, they called you. Immortal, they claimed. Driven and passionate, they warned. Here, under my blade, with little effort.” Xaxamire leaned back, arching his back and stretching out beyond the balcony railing.
“This is the time of your death, little man.” Xaxamire could feel the cold current of air rippling around Charl, could see the black evil in his eyes devouring and savoring every moment of Xaxamire’s end. The queen cried out in pain again in the room beyond, and Xaxamire growled. “Do you have anything to say?” Charl asked.
Xaxamire lifted his rod and placed the brass cap against the side of Charl’s flank. The man gripped it with his frozen hand.
“Even better,” Xaxamire said. He spit out a word and the ice chipped to nothing, exposing the hand beneath. Charl fought to wrench the rod from Xaxamire’s grip for a moment, before his face creased in agony and he released the rod. He flexed his hand and Xaxamire watched as the palm changed from dry, pale flesh to brass. The brass wave soon spread to the fingers and, in moments, the hand was encased in brass.
“This is how you die. And know that I will kill your king in much the same way,” Xaxamire said. He could not wait to see the evil man’s end. He kicked Charl aside and went to the queen.
When he reached the bed chambers of the queen, he gripped the midwife by the hair and ripped her away from the queen’s legs. A guard gripped his shoulder and he spun, hissing. The guard’s face rippled for a moment before melting and dripping down his neck and chest. Xaxamire gripped the queen in his mighty arms and hoisted her from the birthing chair. She wailed and he shook his head.
“Not here, this cannot happen here,” he said. He turned to the six other guards that stood in the room, each screwing up their courage to intercept him, and he snarled. “Come for her if you dare. She is quite out of your reach.” With that, Xaxamire laughed, a rough sound against the queen’s screams, and he stormed for the balcony. Charl was gone and Xaxamire did not like that. He had no time to investigate. He jumped over the side of the railing, his dizziness descending upon him again.
The pillow of wind he rode took him to his chariot, and he whistled for Hendon. In moments, his men were atop their mounts and the stallions were charging. He set the queen in the floor of the chariot and Hendon snapped the reins. Over the dead bodies of the castle guard they rode, as they made their way for the south end of town. City guard, and every warrior they could muster, stood before them. With explosions issuing from the end of his rod, Xaxamire sent them all flying back in waves of men and steel.
They reached the south wall, where Ishtay and Kelleck held a square near a repaired section of the wall. Xaxamire shattered it with the last of his true power. The stones broke to powder and billowed out in a great gout of dust and cloud. They rushed out and down the road, racing for Chrap, Xaxamire’s mighty city. There, they could hold. If only they could make it. He dropped to the chariot floor and, with trembling hands, caught the prince as he slide from the queen’s womb. He climbed behind her, and gathered her and her infant boy in his arms.
“I have you now, my queen.” He watched the city growing smaller in the distance. His Ramblers followed close behind, and he held her. She gripped his hand and lifted it to her mouth to kiss it. He hugged her tight.