The old woman wheeled around, crafting symbols in the air, but the dark energy she summoned was extinguished by the light. The children dragged her down to the ground by the hem of her robe.
A golden doorway appeared in the air. Adta screamed frantically as the children dragged her inside. The door slammed shut, and the light began to draw in on itself, coalescing to a bright point in the center. The luminescent sphere flared blindingly for a second and then disappeared.
Pain ripped through Heider’s ribs and his legs gave out from under him.
From the floor, he looked up to see the boy they had led into the Maze. He approached from the altar, dressed in an immaculate white thawb that kicked off bright rays of illumination. There was no indication that he suffered from his experience upon the altar, nor that he had ever suffered at all. His smiling face was calm and placid. “Do you remember me, Heider?”
The warrior searched the boy’s face. “Yes,” he said, grunting at the pain. “But I do not know how.”
“You tried to save me, once,” the boy said. “You tried to save all of us.”
All at once, the floodgates of memory burst open in Heider’s mind. In his memory, he was taken back many years to the night that a band of Toth Farauni entered his tribe’s lands and killed his parents right before his eyes. He was only twelve, and helpless in the face of the assassins. His struggles were useless as they tied a rope around his neck and pulled him behind their horses, along with half a dozen other boys whose families had suffered the same fates as Heider’s.
The Toth Farauni cared only for murder. They did not work as the world’s most feared assassins because they wanted money. Instead, they collected the money merely so that they could continue doing the work they took such twisted pleasure in. Theirs were dark, loveless lives, and they could only grow their numbers by capturing boys and taking them to the training grounds in the Scorpion Flats.
Very few of the captured children survived the journey. Sometimes, none of them did. It did not matter to the Toth Farauni. They wanted only those boys who were strong enough to endure the trial. All the others served just fine as filling for stew.
Despite all his fear, something in Heider knew that he would not die that night. Some aspect of his heart knew that an uncommon strength dwelled within him. But, that same knowing part of his soul also knew that the other boys would die. Of the group, he alone had the strength to survive. It was only a suspicion on his part, but time soon proved him right.
Mile after mile, the captives grew more tired. Eventually they collapsed in exhaustion and were dragged over the desert floor by the horses. Each time one fell, Heider stopped to pick them up. But they went down more and more frequently as the night progressed, and he knew he could not save them all.
Rage filled his young heart and he ran forward, slackening the rope tied around his neck and looping it around one of the assassin’s boots. Planting his own feet firmly in the ground, he jerked back with all his strength and pulled the man from his mount. As soon as the assassin hit the ground, Heider was upon him, wrapping his wiry arm around his neck for a choke.
He put all of his energy into the attack, and was willing to die doing so, but it was all for naught. The assassin spun around, laughing wildly, and pointed a dagger softly into Heider’s stomach. At first, the laughter seemed so real and jovial that Heider believed things might turn out fortuitously, but then the other Toth Farauni, also laughing, dismounted and began cutting the children down.
The assassin held Heider in place as he tried to break free to defend his companions. “You are strong and brave,” the man said. “Such men always have a place among the Toth Farauni.”
Heider struggled to get free, but was powerless against the larger man. The last thing he would remember seeing that night were the cobalt eyes of a boy named Azyl, looking at him in terror just before a scimitar sent his head rolling through the sand. It was a face Heider had managed to block from his mind for years, until that night in the Red Servants’ chamber, when he gazed upon it again.
“I failed you,” Heider choked. “I failed all of you.”
Azyl smiled kindly. “You fought, Heider Al’ Dinaffa, just as you continue to do. I am sorry for what you have experienced tonight, but we had to test you one last time. We have been watching you from Beyond the Dunes.”
Heider hung his head and choked back tears. “But I joined them after they killed all of you. I did terrible things for them.”
“You were only a boy. Do not cast this burden upon yourself.” Azyl smiled sadly. “I am afraid we have no time to discuss these matters. I have expended a great deal of energy already to be here for this long, and I must be brief. We have come to ask you to fight for us.”
Heider took a deep breath and tried to will the moisture out of his eyes. “To fight who?”
“The Red Servants. They are trying to resurrect the Red Sultan. If he rises again, Zabian will have another war on its hands. This time, the other sultans will not be strong enough to defeat him.”
Heider winced at a shock of pain in his ribs. “What can I possibly do for you? I have nothing to compare with your power.”
“It is very taxing to perform such feats on this plane, and we have our own battle to fight Beyond the Dunes. The Red Sultan has agents everywhere.”
“What about the Order of Szuth?”
“They are powerful,” Azyl nodded, “but also corrupt, and compromised. They have fought their enemies for so long that they have begun to resemble them.”
Heider staggered to his feet. “What do you want me to do?”
“For now, go to the Twenty Oases to heal,” the boy said, voice growing more urgent as his form gradually grew dimmer. “There is a woman there name Surafa. She will help you.”
“And after the Twenty Oases?”
“Surafa is a special girl,” Azyl said. “She will explain what you are to do next.” He was fading faster, almost gone.
“Wait,” Heider said. “I need to say something.”
“There is no need for an apology.”
“Yes, there is,” Heider sobbed, his whole body quivering as he restrained emotions that he had kept locked up since he was twelve years. “Please, forgive me.”
Azyl shook his head. “I cannot forgive that which does not need to be forgiven. You have given me hope, Heider, hope that there are those left in this world that can help us fight. We will speak again, my friend.” The boy smiled, and disappeared.
A single tear ran down Heider’s face as he stared at the spot where Azyl had been. He wiped the moisture away. Clutching his ribs in one arm and gritting his teeth against the pain, he headed into the tunnel leading back to the starlit darkness of the Smuggler’s Maze.
Despite all of his injuries, despite all of his pains, Heider Al’ Dinaffa had not felt such a lightness of heart in many, many years.