* * *
The morning sun peeked through tall trees, glowing orange and casting long shadows across the shallow valley. Crepuscular rays shone across the sky, crowning the great orb as it greeted all in attendance. The longest of shadows from the tallest tree crept across the gently swaying grass. The scene was idyllic, sung about in song and described by poets. The air shimmered and leaves fluttered too and fro as if the needs and actions of man were insignificant. The presence of the green blades was out of place, but no one cared. Armor gleamed in the sunlight and soldiers swayed with the grass. The perfection of the day was hypnotic. Their sole purpose today was not to point out a break in reality, but to die. As the shadow reached a predetermined spot on the field, the perfection was broken by the thunderous sound of stomping feet marching as a single unit.
Over the top of a small rise in the field of green grass and clover marched a massive army. A man of indeterminate age, but who had obviously spent a significant portion of his life in the endless ocean of sand rode atop a horse of pure darkness. Tendrils and wisps of smoke emanated from the horse. The man glanced over his armored shoulder and smiled. Directly behind him marched thirty legions of men. Their mismatched armor and weapons told a tale of disparate groups coming together under the banner of the man atop the dark horse. Only a marching chant and a dull black smoke indicated that these men were a single force. The man withdrew a great brass sword – clockwork movement glinting in the sun. At the sight of the gleaming weapon, the army cheered and yelped, quickening their pace.
“It is your destiny, Rashid,” a feminine voice whispered in the ear of the man atop the horse of smoke. Rashid’s smile grew wider, bearing his teeth. A low growl escaped from deep in his throat.
“Are you speaking to me, Mi’Lord?” a flaxen-haired boy asked his master as he walked next to him, clutching a giant leather scabbard. This boy was the only one wearing no armor, for armor would slow him as he rushed beside the dark horse.
“Silence, sword bearer,” Rashid responded blankly, looking straight ahead.
“It is your destiny, Rashid,” the voice continued to whisper.
“Really? How could it be?” Rashid asked the heavens. It wasn’t the multitudes of gods he asked, but a singular one. “I lead an army of thousands of men! I know nothing of the enemy, their weapons or…”
Rashid stopped speaking as the sword bearer stared, eyes wide, mouth agape. The boy saw his master, but he also saw the spectral form of Marquis Oya, bastion of change and revered servant to the Lord of Wind.
“Kanoni save me,” stuttered the boy.
Rashid’s smile transformed. It was no longer the smile of a man drunk on his own importance, but the lecherous leer of a man about to select his nightly conquest.
Rashid swung his great sword at his sword bearer. The young boy was cleaved in two from his shoulder to his gut. He fell forward, mid step and landed on the leather scabbard. Entrails and blood covered the masterful leatherwork. “Kanoni is dead!” Shouted Rashid as the boy’s blood ran down Rashid’s arm from the sword, the clockwork mechanism whirling and advancing, the blood failing to effect its movement.
The army marched on, perfectly aligned in formation. The thunderous sound of armored steps echoing off trees in the distance was louder than the men’s cheers and hollars as they marched over the fallen boy and his leather scabbard. Like the blood on the clockwork sword, a fallen comrade did not impede their march.
* * *
On the far end of the shallow valley, others were gathering in huge, intimidating numbers of troops clad in suits of brightly shining armor. The armor didn’t reflect the morning light, but appeared to glow from the inside. They marched loyally behind a man atop a horse the color of stone. Next to him was a girl of seventeen with golden blond hair and black robes draped over her armor.
“How much longer until we meet them, Piper?” the man asked.
A tight smile formed on Piper’s lips, she answered. “Not long, Sabiti, not long at all.”
“And we can defeat Rashid’s army?” Sabiti retorted.
“You doubt me?” she screeched.
“Doubt?” replied Sabiti, his voice level. “I doubt all who have not experienced the touch of Mistress Osun.” Sabiti’s eyes rolled up as he recalled his own experiences with Mistress Osun. He shuddered as he recalled her touch. Her breath filled him with purpose. She propositioned him repeatedly, but he was devout. His vows against pleasures of the flesh had guided him in his years studying and living ‘The Way.’ Only Mistress Osun had been able to help him see the fallacy of his order.
Mistress Osun finally stopped her offers as Sabiti continuously rebuffed her touch, her advances. When he made love to Piper under the tent of animal hides at night, he swore she morphed into the form of Osun, the deity of beauty, love, fertility and the divinity of rivers. Piper didn’t become Osun, but he was keenly aware of her presence. Each coupling exhausted him entirely. He told himself it was his advanced age, but ever since he chose his new path, Mistress Osun had granted him vitality. It wasn’t just the vitality of youth, but a longing in his soul. A vitality he knew was his responsibility to spread the worship of Osun into the known world.
Piper ignored Sabiti’s dismissal of her loyalty and instead looked to the rapidly approaching army, their shouts and steps thundering. She ignored the desire of running home and stepped one foot in front of the other. She wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but as she peered over her shoulder at Sabiti’s army, she wondered who would be victorious at the Gates of Dawn.
Next: The Settlement