For the first time in his life, Teriahi laid one foot upon the summit of Amun’s Mount. His leg wobbled under the burden of nervous shame the instant his leather sandal contacted the sandstone. Only royalty and priests could set a single step atop this ancient plateau, the first outcropping of land the Creator had drawn up from the floodwaters of primordial chaos. Any mortal commoner, even a captain of the armies like himself, would profane this hallowed ground with his mere presence. So had maintained generations upon generations of tradition.
Nonetheless, desperate times called for desperate measures. And seldom before had times been so desperate for the people of Kush. Amun, in all his divine wisdom, must have understood that. And indeed, despite Teriahi’s worst fears, the Creator had not dissolved his leg or inflicted any other punishment for his trespassing. He sighed in relief.
His soldiers marched behind him, some equipped with gleaming bronze spears and ox-hide shields, others with the bows and quivers of arrows that were the pride of the Kushite nation. The hides of lions and leopards, the ruling predators of the desert, fluttered in the wind over their linen loincloths. They would need all the bravery of those beasts, and then some more, for the battle that awaited them.
After them followed a procession of priests with shaven heads and leopard-skin mantles, beating frame drums and chanting hymns to Amun as they ascended the steps carved into the Mount’s side. They formed a circle around an alabaster altar that stood in the precise center of the summit, burning its brightest white under Ra’s late morning sunlight. Their leader Seb, the wizened High Priest, cast an anxious glance at Teriahi even as he sang beside his followers.
Teriahi winked with a smile. Deep inside, he shared the High Priest’s doubts, but this was his strategy they were carrying out. He had to display some form of confidence.
Four Egyptian slaves, whose deep mahogany-brown skin was one shade lighter than the pure ebony of most Kushites, hauled a tied-up calf onto the altar. These youths would have been captured in one of the many skirmishes between Egypt and Kush, and many in the royal council had insisted that it was Egyptian sorcery at work that periled the kingdom now. But they would first have to lure the peril in to find that out. Teriahi watched as the slaves cut open the calf’s flank with a sacrificial knife, putting it out of its lowing misery, and letting the blood and entrails leak onto the altar and stink up to the heavens.
They waited. The priests continued their drumming and chanting, aided by the Egyptians rattling their sistra, while Teriahi and his soldiers crouched behind the limestone columns that ringed around the altar. The solar barge of Ra sailed to its zenith in the sky, burning almost as hot as the flames that had bombarded Kush and devoured so many men, women, and children. Including Teriahi’s own.
Even hotter burned the pain of his losses, and his desire for vengeance.
Gold glimmered in the cloudless sky, and a shrill screeching roar answered the priests’ summoning chants. Teriahi unslung his bow and fetched an arrow. The priests silenced their music to scatter back from the altar, but his heart thumped much as their drums had.
With a whooshing dive, and a sweep of giant bat-like wings that could have blown the braided hair off everyone’s scalps, the peril of Kush landed before the altar on Amun’s Mount.
It craned its serpent’s neck downward to sniff the gutted calf with a crocodilian snout, swishing its spiny lizard’s tail behind. Its scaly armor shimmered bright gold and blue as it bent down to gorge on the carcass, tugging away strips of flesh which it swallowed whole. The horns twisting from its head were those of a gazelle, and the claws of its hind feet resembled a falcon’s. The whole beast must have been built from the parts of other animals, as if someone had mixed them together in a sorcerous recipe. It was, as the councilors had claimed, the spawn of hybrid magic.
Teriahi placed his arrow against the grip of his bow and pulled the string with slow, silent care. He aligned the arrow’s barbed head with the spot above the creature’s eye, aiming for the brain. The bow wavered in his sweating palms, and the string creaked in his fingers. The stone of the column Teriahi leaned against chilled his skin worse than midnight.
He let go. The arrow flew into the base of the creature’s horn.
The pupil in its reptilian eye shrank to a tiny slit, and the beast released a shrieking cry that pierced through Teriahi’s eardrums. Throwing up its wings and pushing itself back into the sky, it sprayed from its maw a torrent of fiery venom that descended all over the plateau. Men screamed out their lives beneath the roar of the flames that consumed them. Even Teriahi himself had his skin seared off in streaks across his body.
He collapsed onto his knees wincing from the pain that gnawed away at his strength. What remained of his soldiers volleyed their arrows and spears at the monster as it flew in a circle overhead, continuing to decimate their ranks with more jets of fire. The entire summit of Amun’s Mount had turned black with charred rock and burnt corpses.
That reptilian demon could not desecrate such sacred ground and get away with it. Nor could Teriahi let it wipe out the fine generation of soldiers who had served beside him, much less all the other people of Kush. He had already seen too many lives taken away from him.
Somehow, he had to put out the brute’s fire. Or stop it from coming out in the first place.
With tears pouring from his eyes, Teriahi forced himself back onto his feet and slipped out another arrow from his quiver. He drew it back against his bow while the flying monster veered to face him, jaws agape with a roar. The roof of its mouth swelled aglow with fire.
Again, Teriahi let go. This time, the arrow struck the beast right in its swollen gland.
The explosion engulfed its head with the very flames it had used to destroy so many of its victims. Shrieking shriller than before, it thrashed and squirmed like a fish on a harpoon, swatting its wings, as the burning spread all over its body. Once the fire had covered the entire creature, it crashed down onto the Mount as an enormous skeleton of blackened bones that splintered on impact.
Sweaty and racked with pain and exhaustion, Teriahi heaved out a deep breath. “What in the name of the gods was that?”
Seb, High Priest of Amun, laid a hand on his shoulder. He smiled with the half of his face that hadn’t been singed off. “I believe that is a dragon, a monster created through hybrid magic. But I know not whom it was that sent it after us, or why.”
With a sizzling hiss, the dragon’s bones dissolved into streams of smoke. In their place lay the naked body of a man with tawny brown skin, a color too light for a typical Egyptian or Kushite. With his hooked nose and thick beard of loosely curled black hair, he appeared to have come from one of the easterly races, such as the Arabs, Canaanites, or Babylonians. Yet branded into his shoulder was a string of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
“He must have been a slave of the Egyptians,” Seb said. “Probably a sorcerer working at the Pharaoh’s behest.”
“Then we know whom we will fight next,” Teriahi said, clenching his fists.
The easterner’s chest rose with a groan, and he opened his eyes with a few blinks. Teriahi grinned. If his people could capture this man as the Egyptians had captured him, they could find a use for him too. Once a terrible peril of Kush, he could become its strongest ally.