“Lightning Strikes” by Lindsey Duncan

“Lightning Strikes” by Lindsey Duncan

Storm-clouds gathered over the city of Calrhayas, immense hands catching the smoke from fires below. In her training, Diyesari had learned of diviners who could read the future in fallen ash; there was too much here to interpret, and only one possible answer.

She crouched against a bathhouse wall. The winds carried more than mute portents, too grim to read; they assaulted her with the scent of iron and stone-dust. They carried, too, the voices of the barbarians — harsh, braying — and the merciless tramp of their hooves.

Somewhere in this death-realm was her sister Astynome. In other times, Diyesari might not have worried: an initiate of Chimene would be protected by the goddess. But from the augurs’ tower, she had seen the barbarians storm the temple, and the goddess silent above…

“The gods still hear us,” the chief augur had said, clasping her shoulder. “They will respond in their own way. Leave now.”

She had stiffened under his hand. She wanted desperately to do just that, but she could not bear to flee when her mentors stood their ground. “I cannot — ”

“You remember the sign. Only the sparrow escaped the snake.”

But people were not birds, and signs could be misread…these were protests she dared not voice. “Please,” she whispered, “come with me. If not for yourselves, then for my sister. I cannot find her without you.”

He kissed her brow. “The gods will show you.”

So Diyesari had fled, down the winding staircase that was customarily used by slaves. With each step, she heard the crack of wood and bone; with every bend, she heard another scream. Fear propelled her into the shadows where she now knelt.

Astynome, with a smile like sunlight and a mind as fair as that of her goddess. It was unimaginable she was not alive. Even though the whole Domain might fall with Calrhayas, scattered to the winds, the two sisters would survive.

If the gods still heard, they were no longer listening.

Diyesari saw the peculiar softness in the distant clouds that meant rain and strained in search of lightning. Her mentor’s lectures flooded her head with symbology and circumstances. If the day before had been clear, multiple strikes in succession had a different meaning than amidst other storms…but yesterday seemed like a lifetime ago, and she saw no hint of the hand of Arius, the sky-god.

Silently, she prayed, forgetting no one, not even the small deities, the queen of witches and the patron of doorways. She could give no offerings — it seemed unworthy to make promises she had no idea if she would be able to keep. Let me find Astynome, she thought.

Thunder grunted over the fallen city. Across the street, she saw a shattered wall mural, chunks bashed away. It was of astonishing craftsmanship. Had it been undamaged, she would have sworn by her ability to walk through the archway and vanish into that other place.

Diyesari blinked back tears and knew she couldn’t stay in hiding. If there was no sign, she would have to leave. Show me the way, Arius, Lightning-Bringer, First King…

The sky lit up like noon, a vivid spear cutting through the clouds from right to left. The direction of bad omens. She held her breath, but even as her gut wrenched, the glow forked in mid-air and grounded on the south side of the city.

Come here: a sign from her god. Someone else might have noted the lightning, but who else would be following it? She drew herself up with a determination borne of having no other options and darted across the street. Scraggly sunlight hair pulled out of her hair-band and clung to her brow.

She did not know the city as well as she once had, the winding streets a memory. An augur, even a junior, did not wander Calrhayas like a commoner. They were too important. One word from her superiors that lightning had been seen and the city stopped; all public venues shut down, the courts went out of session, and the aristocrats waited for the word from on high.

Avoid the marketplaces and the open thoroughfares; they would be death-traps. She pressed to the walls until she found herself at the mouth of an alley. She burrowed into darkness with a sense of relief, squeezing through the space between buildings.

A voice roared. She froze, back flat to the plaster. It took her a second to realize the barbarian was past her on the street, pawing through the belongings of a wealthy citizen. His powerful equine flanks steamed with sweat and blood, both horse and human halves equally naked.

She stared as he trampled the finery into the mud, leaving it for worthless. Only when he was gone could she make her legs move again.

Dimly, she knew she was heading deeper into the city, when the only hope of escape was somewhere outside. The thought of Astynome kept her going. She was the only thing left, with both their parents perished on the field.

Diyesari stumbled under a cramped colonnade that belonged to one of the old-city stoas. Calrhayas was only the latest city to occupy this spot; before then, their ancestors had built city-kingdoms, disorganized, fractious. Just as the Age of Legends had ended in volcanic fire, the ancestors had given way to the Domain of the present.

She scanned her surroundings. This was the part of the city the lightning had struck, but where? Her eyes were drawn to the decrepit arch of an amphitheater, another relic reused when it wasn’t being pirated for stone. Where else?

She waited until she couldn’t hear hoofbeats, then sprinted to the archway. The dark corridor came out in the middle row of carved benches. The amphitheater extended several rows above her and dropped to a stage floor below.

Diyesari felt it first, a tingling readiness that passed through her bones, then a scent like fire, but clearer than any forge burned. She looked down.

Part of the sand floor was blasted away, smoothed into smoking glass. In the center of the depression lay a sword of a luminous metal she had never seen before. Her eyes widened at the sight of the hilt. It was shaped like a lightning bolt.

She stood motionless, confused, disheartened, overwhelmed. She had asked for one thing — had she been given another? One could not complain to the gods.

“I don’t understand,” she murmured.

The sky flickered, but the light came from behind the clouds; no answers there. She made up her mind in a rush. She was no warrior, but any weapon was better than none, and it might give her a chance — a small one — if she ran into barbarians. Had the blade been meant for anyone else, surely they would have arrived by now.

Her footsteps rang hollow off the walls. She lowered herself from the last row. She approached cautiously, standing at the edge of the pool of glass. She pulled up her skirt and wrapped it around one hand, still expecting to be burned through the cloth.

Diyesari bent to touch the hilt. It slid neatly into her hand, the jags from the lightning bolt fitting perfectly around her fingers. Impossibly, it was cool to the touch. She stood and backed up — and the skies flashed again.

She screamed, heedless of the danger, as her world turned white and her veins caught fire. She dropped to her knees, gibbering a prayer for forgiveness, too panicked to drop the sword. She went mute, however, when she realized there was no pain.

Her body tingled with awareness. Her hand tightened on the weapon of its own accord, a subtle turn that seemed to know its nuances. Then the lightning bolt faded, and she was left blinking into gold and green after-images.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

She gathered herself and stood, finding the sword surprisingly light in her hands. She managed to thrust it through her belt in a way she hoped would make it easy to draw and climbed out.

Where to look for Astynome? If she had left the city, not even the guidance of the gods would find her. There were countless corners where she might hide, but in other attacks, the barbarians had made a special effort to capture their priests.

Diyesari stepped out of the tunnel and froze. Three barbarian soldiers trotted up the street, moving from door to door in search of those who might be in hiding. She jumped back, but not quickly enough.

Dark eyes focused on her. “Halt, you!”

The three came around in a drumroll of hooves. Diyesari stumbled backwards, then remembered there was no other way out of the amphitheater.

She pulled the sword from her belt, the points of the bolt sliding naturally around her fingers again. It was the only part that felt natural, though she moved without thinking into a braced stance, one foot slightly back, the blade held across her body.

The barbarians were armed with shortswords. They surrounded her, kicking up dust. Her heart shouted at her to flee, to drop and cover her face.

They towered over her. The barbarian in the center had thick veins of silver in his hair; another was dapple-gray, smaller than his companions. They mocked her amongst themselves in a thick, braying tongue; evidently, they spoke the same language of the tribes’ varied dozens. The small one extended his sword-arm and poked at her contemptuously.

She stumbled to one side, her arm coming up in a defensive gesture. They laughed, goading each other on. Even armed, she was only a diversion to them.

Pride flickered in her. She was an augur of Calrhayas — a junior one, but an augur. She could not possibly win, but she could account for herself.

When the dapple-gray barbarian took his next turn, lazily thrusting for her shoulder, she swung her blade at his in an attempt to knock it aside. Something changed between the thought and the execution. The blade firmed in her hand; her body bent around with unaccustomed ease, and she hit the smaller sword firmly. Before she could think, she stepped forward into the hole in his guard and connected with his hip.

He snarled and reared backwards. A flash of silver made her spin, ducking out of the way as the older barbarian came at her. The third pressed in as well, and her world dissolved into a forest of metal.

Her body moved by foreign instinct, a power she had no time to question. She parried here, blocked there, swung low as her ruined skirts flapped free. She realized quickly the tunnel provided her an advantage: the barbarians were bulkier than she, less able to dart aside, unable to dig her out from under the archway as long as she could stand.

She ached, her arms throbbing in time with her heart. Her head turned a second too late. The tip of the dapple-gray’s short sword ripped her cheek. She felt blood pouring down the side of her face, the ooze somehow more uncomfortable than the pain — that was too much to think about, too intense to recognize. Her sword snapped up inside his, panic giving her extra strength. He jerked in surprise, and the blade went spinning free.

Before she could think about it, she drove in, blindly. She barely recognized the sickening resistance of flesh and muscle as she hit him above the stomach. She staggered backwards, numb hands coming together to pull the sword free.

In a haze, she faced the other two. They bellowed, then were upon her. The silver-haired barbarian bashed her to the wall with his flank. She dropped, half-stunned, and rolled away. A well-aimed hoof staved inches from her ear. She screamed and lashed out sideways. Equine limbs stepped over the blow.

Diyesari crouched, not daring to rise. She tried to remember what she knew about horse anatomy from her father’s work in the legion. She might be crushed, but they couldn’t rear without exposing their bellies.

She focused on the limbs of the smaller barbarian. She ducked a low jab and rolled forward, slashing up at a group of muscles in both limbs. The sword clattered under her body and rolled with her; she fetched up on the far side of the tunnel, breathing heavily.

The barbarian collapsed forward, hamstrung, a shocked nicker thrust up from his lungs. His older companion stared hard, then spun and galloped away.

She swayed, clutching the rock for balance. Relief made her too dizzy to focus; it was the only thing that kept her from throwing up. She pulled herself upright and advanced on the barbarian as he tried to stand. He lifted his blade to counter her; one, two, and three blows, and it dropped out of his hand. She kicked it away and almost fell over it.

Quavering, she lifted the tip to his throat. “Captives,” she demanded in a voice she did not recognize. “Where are the captives?” She used the trade tongue, a language common to the civilized world.

The barbarian spat. “In one of your bathhouses. The big one.”

He must mean the court bathhouse. She stepped past him, averting her eyes from his fallen comrade. She tried to clean off the blade and succeeded only in ruining her skirt; she wiped at her face, but the blood kept flowing.

Arius had given her a blade and the skill to wield it, but he had not taken away the pain of battle. That she had to bear herself. She had no doubt worse was ahead.

The bathhouse. The prisoners. A chance to free not just Astynome, but other Domain citizens. An augur’s last work. Hope and fear coursed through her.

There were few patrols, easily avoided. Now that the battle was won, the barbarians seemed to view hunting down the remnant as a game, not a necessity. Diyesari kept her body down and her eyes focused.

By the time she reached the inner city, her cheek had stopped bleeding and the strain in her muscles was an accustomed part of her. The barbarians had a perimeter around the court bathhouse, a massive two-story structure with internal vents that allowed heat to rise onto the second floor. Creeping closer, she saw an abandoned archery cart spilled across the street. If she positioned herself just right, the guards might not be able to see below the waist.

She slapped road-dust on her face and hair to darken them, wincing when it touched her cheek. She snuck around the side of the building until she could scamper close to the cart. She pushed herself up on her toes, trying to look as close to barbarian height as possible. She still felt small.

“What goes on?” she called in trade tongue. In their own tribes, the barbarians spoke their particular dialects, but in vast hordes like this one, the trade tongue was used for short-hand.

The two guards barely looked her way — the battle was won, and these weren’t looking for the enemy. “All clear,” one said. “The cowards would rather run than fight.”

“Our great shardan just chose his sacrifices,” the other said. It was a barbarian word meaning wizard.

Her heart fluttered. “Who did he choose?”

They exchanged looks, but didn’t seem to find her interest unusual. “Who can tell? Some gut-heavy tribe leaders. A woman warrior. Two of the young god-followers — what are they called?”

The other shrugged. “Don’t know. One of them had weird eyes. One green -”

One brown, Diyesari finished silently, her throat clutching. Astynome. “Who cares about their eyes?” she interrupted with feigned impatience. “Where’s it taking place?”

Again, they paused, and she thought she had gone too far, but then the answer came. “The shardan intends to use their place of power. Steal their magic from them.”

She slipped away; they paid no attention. Her eyes darted to the High Courthouse adjacent — it had to be the place of power they meant. She considered its upper floors. The barbarians didn’t care for stairs, unable to navigate them with ease. She might be relatively safe while she got a better view.

Armed with that plan, she crept to the walls. Her head brushed the painted elbow of some ancient law-maker as she edged around to the servants’ entrance and the cramped stairs. Once on the second floor, she relaxed, working her way towards the front.

The voices of barbarians, indistinct. She paused halfway to the next door. It led to the balcony over the public entry hall. It was the only way she knew to the assembly chamber, where the shardan would surely take his captives — but there was no way to cross unseen.

The click of hooves on the steps, carefully laid, cut into her decision. She turned to hide, but her foot caught on the corner of a storage crate, and she tumbled forward. The lid jostled free, revealing beeswax candles.

“What are you doing up there?” A guttural voice, unlovely alto, framed the question.

“Securing the upper floor,” she responded, her heart hammering. She only hoped the woman didn’t detect her accent. “They may be cowards, but they climb well.”

“Found anything?” The voice advanced until Diyesari could see the top of a head, dark hair shorn in layers over a square brow. She pulled back until she was out of sight.

“Nothing.” Diyesari held her breath and took the chance. “But I worry what would happen if the sacrifice were interrupted.”

The woman snorted scornfully. “You do not know shardan Saqal, or you would not worry. He has the blessing of each voice of nature and he wields them well. Even if something were to happen, I would carry on for him.” One hoof stamped. “These land-greedy fowl with their clipped wings cannot hurt us.”

I would carry on for him? Diyesari knew she was speaking to the chief wizard’s apprentice, and she quailed. The wise thing to do would be to announce she was continuing her search and escape while she was undiscovered, but if an apprentice was similar to an augur, the woman knew things.

“I know they are protective of their god-followers,” she said, careful to use the same words the guards had. “There’s nothing they could do to interfere with the sacrifice?”

A weighted silence ensued. Finally, the woman said, her tone softer, “Not unless they knew our ways.”

Diyesari stiffened. She couldn’t think of anything else to say that would not sound obvious. “I almost feel sorry for them.”

“Do not.” A gentle clack as the barbarian maneuvered down the stairs, but she halted again. “If they were worthy of saving, someone might challenge the shardan. Fight him for their lives.”

With that, she was gone.

Diyesari’s hand fell on the blade hilt in the stillness, lingering. It had been a message. The question had given her away — but the apprentice had decided not to reveal her, and had even offered her a course of action. Or was it a trap? Would the barbarians really stand aside and let her challenge the shardan?

She had no choice. She couldn’t turn back now, and the captives had no other rescuer — however slim her chances. She drew the sword and closed her eyes, savoring the breath drawn into her lungs, the play of color that formed behind her eyelids, even the sweat and blood that caked her skin. She prayed to the gods to preserve her, meticulously remembering each name. Then she said goodbye.

She opened her eyes and descended to the balcony. Broad stairs led down to the main floor; at the far end of the balcony, an arch led to the galleries above the assembly chamber. Six barbarians stood at intervals in the public hall, and they turned as one.

“I come to challenge the shardan,” she said in a thin, wavering voice. “I demand to face him in the way of your people for the lives of your captives.”

The barbarians murmured amongst themselves, hesitating. Then the door to the assembly chamber below opened, and the apprentice stepped out. She was smaller than Diyesari had expected, but tough and wiry with an ebon hide and long white scars near her tail. She wore only a cloak, no shirt or breastplate, a thing that would normally have shocked the augur.

“Himalis,” one barbarian said, “this human -”

The apprentice snapped her fingers. “She may come.”

Feeling naked, Diyesari descended the steps and followed Himalis through the door. To either side stood ceremonial gold-tipped spears, normally hung with the flag of whichever counselor had been selected as chair that day; they were bare.

They entered the assembly chamber. It was carved of polished marble. Even the chaos of the invaders had not done much to mar it. The galleries looked down from above; the domed ceiling opened at the pinnacle to the stormy sky.

Barbarian soldiers watched from the room’s circuit. Laid out in an unsettling mandala on the floor were the captives, their hands bound underneath them, their bodies loose with poison and eyes misty and staring. There were eight of them, a number that must mean something in the barbarians’ strange religion, and at the north-facing arm of the figure lay Astynome, bunched against a corpulent aristocrat and a fellow initiate.

Rage welled up in Diyesari, not just at the sight of her sister, but for the entire circle, ritually bound, and everyone else she had no hope of helping. Her eyes lifted to where the shardan stood.

He was a thick, powerful figure with mud-hued flanks and coppered skin; he wore a cloak of silver fox-fur. Even without torches burning, he glowed with malevolent brilliance.

“You. Human.” He barked the word, his voice rough and rumbling. “What do you want?”

“I challenge you for the lives of these captives.” Her heart rode high in her throat.

His eyes raked over her form dispassionately. “You have nothing to offer. There is no challenge without — how would you say it? — a wager.”

Diyesari swallowed. “I -”

“Anything you have, I can take off your cold body,” he said. “So is the fate of every city-dweller.”

“The sword.” The words escaped her before she could think better of them. “This sword was cast with ore from the heavens. It cannot be taken from me; it can only be given willingly.” She had no idea if it was true, but she put forth the bluff with breath held. “You could not make or steal a sword like this.”

Saqal inspected the blade with steel eyes. He nodded once, curtly. “I accept your challenge.” He drew his sword, a full-length blade too heavy for one hand. His hooves resounded across the chamber as he approached her. “Himalis. Witness.”

“Cross your blades,” the apprentice instructed, clearly for the augur’s benefit. Diyesari hastened to comply. “We call the earth to witness. We call the flames to witness.”

She saw Saqal shift his stance, and realized the fight must begin when the count was done. She shivered and braced herself. Four threads of nature, then it would begin.

“We call the winds to witness. We call the waters to witness.”

The wizard made no sound, his blade scything away from hers and returning with unnatural speed. Despite herself, Diyesari yelped as she ducked the blow, but the same reflexes brought her about into a crouch and the blade ready for parrying. She thrust at his shoulder; he sidestepped.

She spun as he slashed low. Their blades met with a snarling clang. She shuddered at the force behind his arm, nearly knocked backwards, but pure stubbornness kept her steady. Saqal snorted with surprise and came at her again.

She ducked him, evaded, parried his blows and felt the shock of each one as she looked for an opening. She heard a murmur from the barbarians. None of them had expected the small city-dweller to be more than a moment’s diversion.

Diyesari took a risk and stepped into his guard, tagging him short of the elbow. She had to jerk back before she could follow through, but the hit brought a blush of hope to her cheeks.

Saqal narrowed his eyes. He snarled something in his native tongue, and a tangible wave of force rose from the earth below. His body rippled with it, and then it was gone. Before she could guess at its purpose, he lunged in, and she scurried to block the blow.

The impact was like a boulder coming down a mountain. She tumbled backwards, knocked from her feet. Somehow, her sword moved with her, and she brought it up to counter his following stroke. He glanced it aside with a casual swat of his hand.

Even the light connection made her muscles scream. She almost lost her grip. She rolled out of the way of the descending blade and fought to pull one knee underneath her, breath coming in spurts. Her head rang like the metal.

She remembered Himalis saying, “He has the blessing of each voice of nature.” The burst of strength — he must have called on the earth.

She pushed the thought out of her head that he must have three more and darted to her feet, dashing across the chamber. He caught up to her as she reached one of the pillars. His sword slammed into it and sprayed chunks of rock.

Her eyes flicked up. She wished for a fleeting second she had time to consult the skies, but there was no advice from the gods here. The sight of the galleries set a thought to wing in her mind.

Saqal lunged. She dropped backwards, her knees shuddering as she ducked. She fled the shelter of the pillar and sprinted for the door, expecting any moment to feel her spine sliced open. She reached the archway and jagged to the left.

His laughter rolled after her, cold and mocking. She almost halted, turning her head to find him standing there, unhurried, all teeth.

She twisted until she was backing up. Her heel hit the first step in the entry hall. She climbed them by feel, the lightning-bolt sword coming up in her hands. The blood murmured in her veins, panic she had no time to heed. She reached the second floor and waited for him.

He advanced without a word and then essayed a small leap, landing on the steps with an audible crack. He climbed with surprising alacrity, and was upon her before she could calm her heart.

The blades met, resounded; but though she stiffened her shoulders with the effort of meeting him, he could not push her back. He was too far from the earth to draw its strength.

Saqal barked with ill humor. “Clever, city-dweller. Of course, you don’t have anything to do but sit and think, do you?” He lunged again.

She edged along the balcony, letting him push her, hunting for openings. She noticed his arms were too high, leaving his withers exposed. She cut in and flinched when she felt bone under her thrust.

Saqal swore. Arm and sword buffeted her, but she was too close to him and felt the flat instead of the blade. The force of it spun her away like malevolent winds. She clutched at and somehow found the stone rail.

Again, he spoke in his native tongue. This time, a flickering aura of crimson soaked into his skin. The hairs on Diyesari’s arms and neck stood up, where they weren’t plastered down with sweat or blood.

He opened his mouth wide and breathed out a gout of flame. She shrieked, trying to stop her body’s first movement and duck instead — but she could not, and the flames rushed past the sword as she tried to block the blow she had expected.

Her ears crackled with the thrum of fire as it played with her skin. The sensation was terrible, as if the sun itself were grappling her. She stumbled against the wall, trying to put out the flames. Dimly, she recognized that only her shirt was on fire. She tore it off and tossed it over the balcony.

The barbarians did not hoot, did not laugh; it was natural for them, but she felt a trickle of misery at the exposure.

“Stand down, city-dweller,” Saqal said, “and I will end you swiftly at swordpoint. You do not want to burn.”

The offer was seductive, more than she had thought possible. Her fingers throbbed, a dull ache from clasping the sword too tightly. Its presence reminded her: it was not her life to give.

“Before you can burn me,” she said, “you have to catch me.”

She darted into the galleries above the assembly chamber, knowing the stone underfoot by feel. She ducked another exhalation of fire from the shardan and tried to keep the railing between them. At best, she was delaying him. With the flame and his longer reach, there was no way she could get close.

More fire, and scorch marks on the stone. Just how hot did it burn? Was it possible…

Her thoughts were interrupted as he charged. She lost her balance and fell against the railing. Desperation made it to decision, and she dropped over the edge.

Lightning-borne reflexes fired, and she landed on her feet — with a jolt that made her burn all over again. She dashed towards the archway.

“City-dweller!” Saqal roared down at her. “Stop running.”

“Stop cheating,” she called back, and grabbed the spear on the left.

His face darkened. He backed up two steps and took a fantastic leap, landing with an explosion of hooves and struck sparks. She was already past him, already on the seventh step, already praying as he thundered towards her.

The flame, aimed unerringly upwards.

The ceremonial spear, wavering in her hand but catching the flame.

The gold melted a second before the haft. Saqal jerked his head back, but not before five drops of liquid gold ran down his throat.

The scream was like nothing she had ever heard.

She fell back, horrified despite herself. He coughed up smoke as he flurried blows over her, mindless, unending. She was lost to the rhythm of countering.

Voices whispered at her, telling her she had lost — and even if she had not, this would not end before it was unbearable. What could she possibly hope to gain?

She weakened under them, eyes tearing, barely noticing the lance of pain as Saqal caught her arm, then tagged her thigh. It did not seem strange to her she should be hearing things: perhaps messengers of the gods sent to relieve her from a hopeless quest.

Messengers of the gods? Her heart pricked. The gods did not tell mortals to give up. They did not believe in odds and surrender, but in the beauty of the human soul.

She looked up sharply at Saqal, saw a fleeting smile on his lips, and understood. Earth, then fire — now air.

This time, she knew what to do. She broke from the fight again and retreated into the servant’s quarters. One of the candles crumbled easily under her fingers –

“So will you break, if you do not surrender,” a phantom voice murmured.

“It would be so easy…”

Diyesari shook them off and shoved the wax first in one ear, then the other. Blissful silence swallowed her.

This time, it was Saqal who retreated, his hoof-falls moving towards the galleries and the open dome. She followed, taking stock. The burns left by the melted gold blistered his skin; the withers strike bled more than she had expected. He was still better off than she, and she froze as she realized he had led her into a trap.

Now for the waters.

She stared him down, calm, unable to find fear, knowing somewhere she had done everything she could. There were no farewells; she had said them. Taking a deep breath, she waited.

Saqal seemed to ripple before her, blurring like a mirage. The skies, gone quiet, roared above them, and with a fierce clap of thunder, it began to rain.

It was not ordinary rain, but a supernatural downpour, slanted sideways by the wind and slashing into her. No sooner had the cold struck her skin than rain turned to ice, snow and hail abusing her tired body.

Behind the storm came the rumbling, the shadows — and the brilliant flashes of light as Arius made himself known in the skies.

Past anything else, Diyesari laughed and lifted her blade. “You’re out of tricks,” she said.

But he was not out of sword or skill, and it was all she could do to meet him. She pressed forward by habit, too stubborn to give up, too numb to remember how.

An explosion of white nearly blinded her. Cloud to ground lightning, visceral, immediate. If she was going to have a chance, she had to attack while she still had some strength left.

Saqal said something she couldn’t hear, a lazy smile surfacing. She came at him, thrusting low, as fast as she could make herself move.

The heavens flashed again.

Lightning arced through the dome — drawn by weapons and trappings of metal. When it struck the gallery, it traveled by water, leaping into the puddle by her feet, scything through her body with no pain –- not even a tingle — and into her hand. The shock made the muscles in her arm spasm, hand tightening on the blade.

Saqal brought his blade around to parry and the two met. The lightning-bolt sword flared like the sky overheard. His cracked like glass.

Diyesari threw herself forward, and the sword shattered. Before he could recover, she darted forward and poked the tip of her blade under his throat.

Carefully, she reached up and pushed the wax out of one ear. “The captives,” she whispered, “I want — ”

She saw Saqal stiffen, his eyes turning blank. He collapsed forward, a throwing knife embedded in his back.

She snapped around, bewildered, and saw Himalis facing her from the chamber below.

“Come and get your people, city-dweller,” the woman said.

Diyesari didn’t remember making her way down to the assembly chamber. Himalis helped cut the captives free; Astynome collapsed against her sister, crying into her shoulder.

“The worst is over,” Diyesari murmured. “We’ll make it.” Her heart had no strength to rise, but she could feel the slow warmth of relief in its pulse.

Himalis paused next to her. “You have done me a favor by removing him, human,” she said in a low voice. “You have my word as shardan you will have safe passage from the city.”

Diyesari looked up, blinking in surprise, but the barbarian woman moved away before she could speak.

Astynome lifted her head, mismatched eyes worried. “Where will we go?”

The augur looked down at the sword, awkwardly threaded through her belt again. “The gods are listening. The right path will strike us.”

Lindsey Duncan has had works in numerous publications, including Abyss and Apex (and reprinted in their first Best Of anthology), Leading Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy, GUD and of course Kaleidotrope.