The Garden of Stones - By Mark T. Barnes


“Why do we invent the monster as a metaphor? Surely all we need do is witness our own cruelty to each other to see the real face of evil.”—from The Darkness Without by Sedefke, inventor, explorer, and philosopher, 751st Year of the Awakened Empire

Late summer, day 309 of the 495th Year of the Shrīanese Federation

“We going to die today?” Shar asked. The war-chanter looked out across the battlefield with hawklike intensity, her sharp features stern.

“I’ve got other plans,” Indris murmured. The jetsam of violence littered the golden grass of Amber Lake, where warriors, sunlight rippling on their armor, unleashed havoc. Above, the sky was dotted with the raggedy shadows of carrion birds, tiny beside the wind-frigates’ hulls, which flickered with pearlescent light. “Maybe tomorrow?”

“One more night of revelry then? Nice. I could use a drink and a man to play with. Today hasn’t been one of our better ones.”

“Sorry if this little war’s inconvenienced you in any way,” Indris drawled. “I’ll try to schedule the next one with you in mind.”

“Would you? Really? That’s nice, dear.” She scraped dried blood from her scaled-glass armor. “Shame Hayden and Omen aren’t here.”

“Hopefully they’re long gone by now.”

Indris had known waiting too long in Amnon was a mistake, yet the man Indris had sworn to protect had refused to leave his ancestral seat. The truth will be known, Far-ad-din, one of the six rahns of the Great Houses of Shrīan, had said. Only the innocent could muster such self-deception. This battle was the veneer over a coup, and Far-ad-din knew it, yet he played his part in the drama in the hope the truth would see him freed. Accused of treason, of trafficking in the forbidden relics he was supposed to protect, and of sedition, Far-ad-din had gambled much by staying. It appeared he might well lose everything. The least Indris could do was try to ensure the man kept his life. It was why he had withdrawn from the battle rather being in the mix. Far-ad-din had wanted Indris close, just in case. If the man had not been his father-in-law, Indris doubted all the guilt in the world would have made him bear witness to Far-ad-din’s demise.

Indris turned to look at Shar where she leaned on her long serill blade, the sword made of drake-fired glass, harder and lighter than steel. Like Far-ad-din, she was one of the Seethe—the declining race known as the Wind Masters. Shar cast a shrewd glance across the battlefield, large whiteless eyes citrine bright in the sun. She absently tugged at the feathers braided in the supple quills that passed for her hair—fine as strands of silk in all the colors of dawn. Swearing under her breath at the tide of battle, she sensed his scrutiny and turned to him.


“Nothing,” he replied, keeping the worry from his voice. Indris had lost many friends in many fights, yet the thought of losing Shar after all they had been through was too much. “We can still walk away from this, if we can get Far-ad-din and his heir out of here.”

“Good luck with that,” Shar muttered.

Indris surveyed the many-colored banners of the six Great Houses and the Hundred Families arrayed against them, hanging limp and listless in the thick air. The long summer grasses of Amber Lake wavered like golden water in the haze. To the east across the Anqorat River, the wetlands of the Rōmarq shone like a blue mirror, smeared green-gray with reeds and the patchwork reflection of clouds.

The armies assembled by the Great Houses and those loyal to them lined the hills east of the wind-rippled grasses of Amber Lake. They were the Avān. His own people. Like Humans, yet not. Made by the Seethe millennia ago to be their servants. Not their usurpers. In their ornate armor of bronze-shod steel plates, with their long curved swords and crescent-moon axes, they were terrifying.

The day had not turned out as expected. The Arbiter of the Change, the government’s chosen representative to manage the conflict, had planned for the battle to be fought between two champions, the winner deciding the outcome. Indris had volunteered to fight for Far-ad-din, confident he could defeat, without killing, whatever champion was sent against him. But there were those among the Great Houses unwilling to risk all on a single combat, and instead horns had pealed, splitting the air, as the first wave of the Avān army had thundered across the field. Iphyri, giant men with the heads, legs, and tails of