The guards regarded Daian with no particular interest when she rode through the gate they were supposedly guarding. The towers were ugly, slapped together from some unwholesome mixture of mud, straw, and bricks that appeared on the verge of total dissolution. Daian’s eyes swept over murder holes in the walls as she passed under a rusting portcullis. Older, sturdier stone construction was visible through the holes, propping up the layers of rotten clay that covered it.
The buildings within the walls were newer construction and thus in better repair, but they were flimsy, ramshackle things. They almost appeared as though they would provide better shelter after they were torn down. The city folk were apparently aware of this fact, clogging the narrow, dusty streets with their ragged bodies. They paid Daian no more overt attention than the guards had, but she pressed through the crowd at the head of a wake of silence, feeling their eyes on her back.
It was a bad idea to ride blindly through unknown neighborhoods, but it was a worse one to reveal her confusion by asking random strangers for help, so she pointed the horse’s nose towards the center of the city. Gradually the crowds diminished and the dust gave way to a paved boulevard. Somewhat relieved by the change, Daian nudged her horse towards the side of the road and hailed a passer-by.
“Pardon me, sir.” The man watched her for some time before speaking.
“What do you want?”
“I am in need of magical assistance, where can I find a magician?”
He choked on laughter and smirked at her.
The man pointed in the direction she was already riding. “There, barbarian. There you will find your magician!”
Daian eyed him as he continued on his interrupted journey, still laughing. Other pedestrians were watching her, expressions unreadable. Unnerved, she tapped the horse lightly and continued her ride. The boulevard widened into a plaza lined with drooping palm trees, overshadowed by the massive bulk of the Old Palace. Daian smiled at the old structure, pleased to see that it survived and even appeared in good repair.
Alert guards accosted her at the gate this time, and she smiled at them benevolently.
“Are you here for an audience, outlander?”
“Yes, I require some assistance.”
The man smiled darkly. “Well, then you’ve come to the right place.” He waved to a servant. “I am afraid you will have to leave your horse behind; they are not permitted within the walls.”
Daian dismounted without quibble.
“Take her to the audience at once,” the guard ordered the servant. The boy placed the palms of his hands together and bowed, gesturing for Daian to follow. It was a long walk, across more pavements lined with yet more palm trees, and up an imposing staircase clearly designed to test the stamina and determination of potential supplicants. Daian trotted up the stairs without real strain and approached the marble throne at the crest. The seated man jumped noticeably and one of a dozen bodyguards grasped the hilt of his sword significantly. Daian decided it was prudent to halt.
“An outlander?” the seated man asked, glancing to an advisor that stood nearby. The advisor shrugged.
“It is customary to make obeisance to His Lordship, outlander,” the advisor rebuked Daian mildly. She bowed politely.
“Is it a man or a woman, do you think?” the lord continued in an undertone to his flunky. Not waiting for an answer, he turned to address Daian himself. “Welcome to Beserrib, outlander. What news have you of the rest of the world?”
“Precious little, I fear, and what I do know is not good. I must ask a favor from you.”
“I need the assistance of your magician.”
The lord’s eyes widened. “I-I beg your pardon?”
Daian blinked. “If your magician isn’t available, I’m sure any one would do, as long as they’re reasonably competent . . . is something wrong?” Everyone in the audience chamber stared at Daian, white-faced with shock.
“You . . . you . . . who has allowed this filth into my presence?!” the lord bellowed. His advisor made a preemptory gesture and the mass of bodyguards charged. Daian scowled and drew her sword, dodging the first warrior and regarding him with some disgust as he lost his balance and tumbled down the stairs. Shaking her head, she batted another sword aside and decapitated its owner. Turning slightly, she claimed an arm and ripped open another’s guts. A sword hit her armor and rebounded wildly. These bodyguards weren’t bad, but fighting Daian they had one crucial disadvantage.
They were human.
Daian was not, or at least, not completely. She was a great deal closer than Nimerone, closer than most magic-changed folk, in fact. Not a hint of her warped nature was readily identifiable to any of the senses. At least, until someone decided to attack.
Her lip curled slightly as she continued fighting the bodyguards, paying more attention to her own thoughts than to the frenzied activity surrounding her. Fighting them disgusted her; they were too stupid to change tactics and too suicidal to surrender. At least they didn’t try to run. Daian kicked the last bodyguard’s corpse aside and glared at the lord, who was fleeing for a side passage with the remains of his retinue. Without thinking, she shifted her grip on the hilt and threw. The lord dropped like a stone.
“I’d stop, now, if I were you,” she spat. Courtiers shrank away from her advance. “An unprovoked attack was bad enough. I most strongly advise you not to try to escape.”
“What do you want from us, demon?!” the advisor wailed. Daian reclaimed her sword casually from the lord’s corpse.
“I need the assistance of a magician!”
The courtiers cringed. “Oh demon, there are no magicians in the city! They are cursed, cursed, executed for their crimes!”
“Well, where can I find one, then?”
“There!” the advisor pointed towards the throne. Daian glanced at it and returned her glare to him, tempted to kill him out of sheer frustration. He shrank further away from her, still pointing, and she climbed up to the throne for a better look. Then she stopped, instantly dizzy. Behind the throne, the platform simply ended. Beyond it, there was nothing. The ground dropped away in a sheer wall, all else was sky and drifting mist.
“Out there?!” Daian demanded.
Daian wiped her sword on the throne hangings and sheathed it. Then, she stepped to the edge and spread her arms.
“Wait!” the advisor wailed one last time.
“What is it?”
“You’ve killed the prophet! Who will rule us now?”
“No one, if you’re lucky,” she told him, and leapt out, into space.
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