With a fierce cry echoed in a hundred throats, Ardeth leveled his sword at the oncoming scourge. His legs and arms were shaking with fatigue, exhaustion so deep as to be painful settling into his bones and spreading outward. Every breath rasped against his dry throat, barely leashed terror leeching the moisture from his lips and tongue. The cuts and slashes he had accumulated during the battle burned as sweat mingled with blood. It was only the firm placement of his feet that kept him from swaying.
Far more pressing than the signs of a body being pushed beyond its limit was the headache that was building behind his eyes and echoing in his chest. It was a pain that went beyond physical, rooted deep in the core of what made him who he was. The bond he held with Rick was digging in deep, the power of their emotions plowing through the bond. The intensity was too much, and it was causing the bond to fray at the edges. The human mind wasn't meant to deal with another person on such an intimate level for a sustained amount of time. That they were fighting for their lives while linked so tightly was only unraveling him faster.
If Ardeth wasn't given a chance to reinforce his natural shields, he would succumb to the same fate he had avoided by bonding with Rick in the first place.
The ground beneath his feet began to shake as the approaching army closed the distance. With his own death sprinting towards him, Ardeth would have tried reinforce the shields right then if he thought he had even the barest chance of succeeding. He was too tired, the edges of his mind growing numb. The heightened fear and determination that filled them both would not be shut out, the threads of similar emotion seeking each other out and binding them tighter.
He and Rick were standing on a thin slip of ground and a gaping chasm on both sides. They could fall either way, it only took one of them to lose their balance and both would be doomed. If one of them died…..they would not die alone.
It would be a cruel twist of fate that, should Ardeth die, he would take Rick with him. Earlier the sudden bloom of joy beneath snarling rage in the other man had winded Ardeth, who had felt the new emotion like a kick to the chest. Evy's face had flashed across his vision for the space of a breath, her dark curls falling over her shoulders and eyes bright with terror. Ardeth didn't know how Evy had come back to life, but he been overjoyed.
Now that joy was twisting in on itself, forming a noose around Rick's neck.
With every foot gained by the desiccated army Ardeth's terror grew. The idea that after coming so far, after enduring so much, their efforts would be sand in the wind. They would be overrun by sheer numbers. Undoubtedly they would be crushed in a matter of seconds.
Ardeth wished that he had rejected Rick's magic. If he hadn't then only his people would bear the brunt of Anubis's might. Now all hope was lost for in his own death Ardeth would take Rick with him. Anubis will have vanquished his enemies in one fell swoop, all because Ardeth had not been able to live with the tearing sorrow of his own loss.
Ardeth was choking back his own self loathing when the sight of the impending army twisted, and instead of the vengeful dead he saw a dark cavern. Flames parted to reveal a terrible creature, a horrifying blend of human greed and mindless violence. The face of a man snarled over snapping pincers that reached for him. He could almost feel the creature's hunger for blood and the dull rip of shredded flesh.
Rick was beyond thinking. With the Scorpion King close enough to feel the heat that emanated off the revolting blend of human and insect he couldn't have stopped moving if he wanted to. He threw himself to the side when a claw bigger than his head threatened to cut deep into his torso. Shrieking instincts and the sound of his wife's desperate cries mingled with the Scorpion King's roar. Training took over as his feet left the ground and he twisted into it, rolling with the force of his lunge and coming to his feet.
He didn't have room in him for terror when he saw that his panicked flight had led him to the chasm where the dead writhed, their mouths and eyes gaping maws of endless pain and hunger. Ignoring the pressure of their desire for life Rick twisted, turning his back on them to face the impending threat.
The Scorpion King filled his vision, looming closer and above until all he could see was a snarling face, mottled skin, and flashing pincers seeking vulnerable flesh. As he turned, Rick felt the sick drop in his stomach that told him he was losing his balance. Even as the Scorpion King lunged he was falling back into the reaching hands of the damned.
Reflex forced his hands up, plunging the Spear of Osiris deep into the Scorpion King's scaled belly.
Rick had heard of moments where time seemed to stop for people, and their lives flashed before their eyes. It was something he had never had the chance to experience, even counting the number of times he had stared death in the face. He was granted with that experience for the first time as he hovered over the writhing dead, but instead of seeing his life, Rick saw endless sand and a dark army plunging towards him with murder in their eyes.
Although dampened by fear and shock, the rage that had carried him this far roared to the forefront. It blazed through him, clawing through his belly and up his throat. "Go to hell! And take your friends with you!"
Tightening his hold on the spear Rick twisted it up, feeling the flesh tear and rend as internal organs gave way. The Scorpion King roared his pain and furious defeat. Rick held on for dear life as the creature's body spasmed around the spear bisecting its flesh. Rick didn't have a chance to cry out as the flesh holding him upright disintegrated into black smoke.
Ardeth knew that they had survived before he saw the air ship clear the surging sands. Rick's relief was a cool balm against the burning rage that had seized him before. It still hurt, shards of ice slicing over areas that would remain tender for days to come. The force of it had him sagging over Antar's neck, pressing his face against the stallion's coarse mane as he forced him self to breathe. But it was a welcome pain knowing that his friends had survived their victory.
Once he was sure that he could sit up straight, Ardeth coaxed Antar into an easy walk. He had been delighted to discover that the horse had survived the battle, since Ardeth had leapt off the stallion some time during the fight. He hadn't seen the stallion until after, the loyal mount picking his way through bloody sands and the dead to find him.
They walked across the top of the dune until they were easily visible from those above.
A gentle tug on the reins, all he could afford for the time being, brought Antar to a halt. His eyes followed the slow flight of the air ship as it glided higher, and he smiled upon seeing that no familiar faces were missing. All were accounted for, and soft strains of their voices drifted down to him. He could not make out the words, but he recognized the tone. Elation and exhaustion; relief that they would all live to see another day.
His eyes sought out Rick, who was leaning against the railing, watching him back. Ardeth could feel the other man's fatigue, knew that soon he would succumb to a deep sleep as his body struggled to restore the balance their bond had wreaked havoc on. Blind as Rick was to the magic that answered his call, the Westerner would only think it was due to their frantic journey and subsequent battle for survival. Ardeth had no interest in revealing the truth. Some things were better left alone, a lesson the Medjai knew well.
Rick would return to England, his family whole and safe. Given a few days rest and Ardeth would be able to erect the barrier that would keep them separate from one another. Once they were on separate continents and had the sea between them the bond would diminish. It would not break; it would merely cease to be anything more than a bare thread connecting them.
Ardeth also had no intention of telling the elders of what had transpired. Bonds such as the one he shared with O'Connell were rare. One such as theirs had not taken place for many generations, and they would want O'Connell to remain, if only so they could understand it better. It was something that Ardeth would not allow. Rick did not know what his magic had done, and Ardeth felt no need to change that. Essam would be informed; for there was little he could keep from his mentor and friend. But that was as far as it would go.
As the air ship began to glide away, Ardeth pressed his fore finger and thumb to his lips, then to his forehead in a salute. "Peace be with you, my brother."
Ardeth knew that Rick would not hear the words, but for the time being, he would feel the intent behind them. He could just make out Rick return the salute with one of his own before turning his head to look down at his wife.
Ardeth remained where he was until the air ship was nothing more than a dark spot against blue sky. He doubted that he would ever again see the man who was his Heart-Brother, but the future was a broad thing. There was no telling how Fate would choose to weave the strings that bound them together.