The first djinn emerged in the night sky: a whirlwind topped with a simulacrum of Khalid himself. Knife-sharp grains of sand spun upward, pulled by the centrifugal force of the air that formed the construct’s lower half. Khalid swallowed down bile as he looked at his creation. The djinn’s outstretched arms were frozen in a gesture of welcome, but its unblinking eyes were indifferent to the suffering it was about to cause.
If only he could create a living construct, he wouldn’t be forced to watch oversized statues of himself wreaking destruction. Before Sabha, he used to revel in the fact that his enemy would know he had been the mage who had killed them. Now, the sight of his giant face in the sky made him sick.
Two more djinni coalesced, dragging roiling storms of colored lightning behind them like fringed capes. Malik shut the spellbook, words of congratulations on his lips. But his face fell, his compliments silenced before they could be uttered. Khalid’s heart rate sped up as he followed his vizier’s gaze.
The three djinni should have been flying north over the dunes to the enemy encampment, spinning tornados of wind and lightning beneath them. Instead, the constructs hung suspended in midair, their lower whirlwinds frozen into a stillness as eerie as their unmoving humanoid tops.
A rush of air rippled Khalid’s headscarf and robe, but the desert was suddenly silent. He could no longer hear the rasp of wind over sand.
Eurus, Khalid realized, his grim fear sinking into actual dread.
The glimmering white-gold outline of a woman’s face emerged in front of the djinni.
Khalid swallowed as she pressed her lips against one statue-like face before dissipating back into air.
Khalid waved Malik back to the assembled guard. “Go,” he said. “Back to camp.”
But Malik pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with him. “No one can contend against the air itself, Amir. It won’t matter if we stay or go.”
That’s an unfortunate truth, Khalid thought. For all they knew, Eurus existed within the very air they drew into their lungs. She was everywhere but only rarely took physical form.
Humans, even other faeries, were typically beneath her notice.
“Your djinni still don’t live.”
The East Wind’s soft voice was impossible to locate, though they all spun around to look for her. Eurus was air, an elemental faerie born billions of years ago when the Earth’s atmosphere formed.
“Why are you here?” Khalid called, his voice overly loud in the stillness.
Eurus, as the East Wind liked to be called, manifested into a shadowed figure floating cross-legged as if atop a flying carpet. But of course, Eurus didn’t need any support to defeat gravity.
Khalid’s face covering blew off, and he caught the red headcloth before responding.
“You told me war didn’t interest you anymore.”
“Your djinni interest me.” The elemental faerie’s voice hovered in the air around him, pressing against him like the atmospheric warning of an approaching sandstorm.
“I’m no via-enchanter to cast spells on living things, Lady Eurus,” Khalid reminded her.
The fae demanded honesty, and he’d told her this many times already. “I don’t know how to make a djinn draw breath.”
“You were working hard to modify your spells,” Eurus said. “At least until your sisters convinced you to claim the Sahara for your al-Saaqib tribe.”
“I have a duty to protect the desert’s people. I can’t play with spell designs while we remain under threat,” Khalid said — then cursed himself when he realized he’d given her an opening.
She pounced. “I am more dangerous than five thousand battlemages. Bargain with me. I can steal your enemies’ breath. Blow their ships back from your shores. I can keep your lands safe from the predators while you perfect your djinn spells.”
“I’m no via-enchanter, Lady Eurus,” Khalid repeated. “I spent decades and only managed to integrate biomarkers into the design.”
His gaze flickered up. Six vacant eyes that matched his own stared down at him in impotent stillness. Eurus’s magick held his unreleased djinni captive. He needed her to let them fly. Let Khalid kill his enemy.
“You see how well I can keep you safe,” Eurus said, glancing upward as well. “Even from your own spells.”
Khalid hated how tempting her offer was now. Everyone else had perished at Sabha. It had been a Pyrrhic victory, but a victory nonetheless. If she didn’t release his djinni, this battle would end in an actual defeat.
There was nothing worse than defeat.
“Do not surrender, Al-Amir,” Malik whispered. “With or without the djinni, we will prevail!”
“Surrender? Who said anything about surrender? I’ll be your hired hand, Amir Khalid ibn Hawwa al-Saaqib!” Eurus’s voice hung slyly in the air as she fluttered down into a full bow, her thin frame splayed across the sand before him.
Khalid stared down at the elemental faerie. No sane person made a bargain with a faerie, but then, no sane faerie stalked a human.