Chapter no 26

We Free the Stars (Sands of Arawiya, 2)

“Don’t move,” Seif commanded from the center of the bridge as Zafira sifted through Baba’s stories for details about marids. They were amphibious and fed on blood. They had the bodies of women and tails like fish and—

“They see better beneath the surface,” Seif murmured.

From the corner of Zafira’s eye, she caught more flashes in the blue-green water as the creatures circled below them, followed by a voice distorted beneath the strait. Her horse strained against her grip, sensing danger and ignoring her soft words. It wasn’t the sun that sent a trickle of perspiration down her neck.

Then a deathly silence befell their surroundings. The waters stilled, and the horses calmed.

Zafira’s exhale shook with relief. Ahead of them, Seif relaxed. His fingers brushed the leather satchel strapped to his side, feeling for the faint pulse of the heart. Only then did fear grip her. For the heart, the most powerful artifact in Arawiya, was also its most feeble.

“Yalla,” Seif murmured without turning back, and the three of them crept forward again, dragging the horses along. Zafira winced as each clop of their hooves resonated like the snap of a bowstring.

A splash rippled the water to her left. She and Kifah shared a glance but didn’t stop moving. Seif was nearly across, and nothing else mattered.

Another splash.

The heart, the heart, the heart.

She couldn’t even swim. She couldn’t swim any more than she could survive a marid’s gnashing jaws, but all that mattered was the heart.

Zafira yelped when something slammed against the underwater supports. The bridge groaned. She gripped the moldered railing, her own heart thrumming loud enough for two.

Kifah whispered, “Our horses.”

As if spurred by her voice, one threw back its head, yanking the reins. The other stamped its feet. The air thickened with their sudden snorts and protests. The water stirred with renewed fervor. Khara. Muffled shrieks drowned out Zafira’s pounding pulse.

“Run!” Seif called over the clamor.

“Are you mad?” Kifah snapped as he took off, sheathing his scythes and pulling his horse with him. She cursed beneath her breath. “At least ride the daama thing!”

He was leaving them. Zafira had expected nothing less from a safi like him. All that matters is the heart, she reminded herself, but skies, it wouldn’t hurt to show some concern.

Seif stopped and turned, and her fear returned with a vengeance when she saw the heart against his side within reach of whatever might lunge from the waters at any given moment.

“Go!” Kifah yelled. “Now is not the time to be considerate, safi.”

His pale eyes flashed, but he turned toward the shore. Too late.

Something dark moved by his feet. Hands, hair—a face. He stopped when it leaped from the water, hissing and snarling and swallowing every last drop of air in Zafira’s lungs. A marid, though she could see little of it. Spindly arms lunged,

blued by life beneath the surface, and clawed hands tore across the white wood, reaching for Seif. He whipped his scythes from their sheaths, murmuring to his horse, the only calm one of the lot.

Before they could run to him, a face came up against Kifah’s, eyes wide and gaunt, hair clumped and dripping, dark mouth parted in a soundless scream, emanating a terrible hunger. Zafira couldn’t breathe.

The marid was roughly the size and shape of a human, except for the tail thrashing in lieu of legs.

Kifah shouted and dropped her spear, stumbling back into her horse.

Unleashing turmoil.

The horse screamed. It rammed into the rails of the bridge, cracking them, blinded by terror before it found direction and headed straight toward Alderamin. Straight for Seif. Water sloshed onto the bridge as more marids threw themselves against it.

In her mind’s eye, Zafira saw only the pulsing red of the si’lah heart, fading to silence, crumbling to dust.

Her own horse lifted itself on its hind legs and neighed, turning for Sultan’s Keep as two of the marids leaped from either side of the bridge with ear-shattering shrieks.

Blood splattered Zafira’s face, hot and sudden. In the split- beat it took to level her bow, the marids tore open the horse’s body, its innards spilling free.

Seif shouted above the clamor. Zafira whirled with a dry heave and spotted another marid crawling for Kifah. She fired an arrow with shaky hands, heaving again when it struck close to the monster’s webbed fingers. It turned to her with wide, hungering eyes.

“Kifah!” Zafira lurched for Kifah’s spear, tossed it to her, and leaped away from an arm reaching blindly through a

missing slat of the bridge. She fired another arrow as the marid began crawling to her, and she feared her heart would flee from her chest and into its gaping mouth. The marid screamed as it retreated back into the strait.

Water sloshed at her boots. She felt halved—worried for herself, worried for the si’lah heart. The bridge groaned again. Beneath the din, Zafira heard a sound worse than any other: a heaving splinter.

“The bridge!” she cried.

Seif’s horse frenzied, but the safi kept it safe, the heart clutched to his side. His scythes flashed as quickly as the marids’ razor-sharp gills in the water, and a mess of blue blood stickied the space around him.

Zafira fired another arrow. The monsters were swarming now, more than she could count, dragging themselves up the Sultan’s Keep end of the bridge as the entire construction dipped. Their tails thrashed in shades of azure too beautiful for their horrible faces. She swallowed bile as her horse slid wetly toward the water, blood smearing, guts trailing.

Zafira and Kifah sprinted for Seif, who was barely paces from the Alder shore. Another beam snapped, and the three of them stumbled. Seif’s horse panicked, kicking its hind legs, and the bridge sank another handbreadth. Kifah yanked Zafira away from a swipe of a marid arm, so thin and sickly blue, she almost didn’t see it.

The end of the bridge was in sight—seven paces. Five.

Zafira’s stomach dropped.

“Seif!” she yelled as a marid clawed at his right. “The heart!”

And then the bridge collapsed, swallowing her words and everything else upon it.

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