Kalai came from the night like a shadow among the towers and ancient domes of the city. Maracanda slumbered around her, but always an uneasy sleep in the hot nights of summer when the wind blew from the sea with a scent of blood and incense. Ships thronged the fabled harbor, unseen eyes looked down from high windows, and in a thousand courts and corners intrigue blossomed like the flowers of death in the tiger-haunted gardens of the Heresiarch, slumbering in his white tower that rose over all.
She moved easily through the dark, wrapped in her black silken shroud that billowed around her pale body like smoke. Beneath it she wore the straps of the harness which held her weapons and her tools. Her black hair was caught in coils of braid that trailed behind her like serpents, and those of lesser purpose who looked on her quickly looked away. She had the wide black eyes of the Nagai – the old race – and wise men feared to cross her path or touch her shadow.
Through the busy night markets she slipped like a serpent through the high grass. Past the stalls of dyers and rugmakers, through the rich smells of spice merchants and the traders in exotic woods and resins. She walked undisturbed down the wide street lined by the houses of the wealthy trade lords, walled and guarded and beautiful as the oases of dreams. Her veil covered her face, and none who saw her could have delineated her features.
She vanished, then, from sight, and was not seen or remarked on. None saw her climb the hundred stairs to the gate of the Gods, and she passed within the winding Road of Temples no more substantial than a wisp of smoke. Such was her skill, for Kalai was a killer schooled in ancient and secret arts. She killed for gold, and none escaped her, but tonight she was not intent on death. Tonight she sought to take something more material than a life. She halted in the black shadows of a wide plaza, and she looked across the open stone to the temple of Shahenah, the Serpent God. The oldest god in the city, whose temple was said to have stood before men ever came to the city and gave it name.
It was a great building hewn from green stone such as no man ever found on the shores of the great lake. It shone in the moonlight like lizard skin, and mist drifted from the cracks in the foundation of it, so that it seemed to breathe out smoke. The pillars at the gate were carven in the likeness of coiled serpents, watchful and still. Ancient, like the temple itself.
Kalai gathered herself. On her back were tattooed the nine forms of power, and now she moved her hand in the secret knots and gestures, building her strength, coiling inside her like a serpent lashed around her very core. She breathed in, deeply, and became invisible to mortal eyes. She crossed the moonlit courtyard, and set foot upon the ancient stair.
The guards who watched the temple gates from behind their reptilian masks did not see her, and she walked unharmed among the great serpents that slithered along the pillars of the colonnade that crossed the inner gardens. Only her shadow could be seen, and she kept within other shadows, so there was no mark to show her passage. At last she was within, among the stonework of such antiquity that none could read the words etched upon the deep green walls – a language older than the mind of man that adorned the reliefs of serpents and serpent-men.
She stepped down into a hall, and now she moved more carefully. Here she might find priests schooled in the old ways, or other guardians with more than human eyes. She heard footfalls, and slipped behind a crimson hanging, moving as a gust of the night wind. She held still, not even breathing, as two priests in their golden and black robes strode down the hall, escorted by two guards in scaled armor.
When the guards passed her place of concealment, they neither saw nor heard her move. She was between them, no more than a flicker in the torchlight, and her dagger was in her hand. It bore the head of a serpent on the pommel, and the steel was marked by a scale pattern, as though it were forged from a black serpent. The slightest cut delivered the deadly venom that lived still inside the metal, forged into it when man was but a primitive lurking in the primal wilderness.
The guards stiffened, and she caught their harnesses as they slumped, trying to breathe through paralyzed lips. With the skill of long training, she pulled them into the shadows. It all transpired so quickly that an observer might have missed it if he but blinked slowly.
One of the priests glanced back, saw the guards were absent, and had time to draw breath to cry out when Kalai was before him. She drove two fingers into his throat and crushed it. A second blow to his chest splintered his ribs and stopped his heart with the force of the strike. He crumpled and she turned upon the other one, touched his chin in warning with a single finger, and he gave no sign, his eyes wide with terror behind his headdress.
She ripped the crested mask from his face and threw it away, revealing his young, frightened face and the coiled braids worked close to his skull in the manner of all the priests of the serpent god. She did not threaten him with her dagger, for she did not need to. “Listen closely to me, priest,” she said in her low voice. “I shall ask you one question, and you shall answer. If you answer true, you will survive to tell of me, though you should not. Do you understand?”
He nodded, slowly and trembling. He knew her for an assassin by her garb, and how many of her kind had the eyes of the Nagai? Only one. Only her. “Good,” she said. “The priests of Shahenah went forth into the marshes beyond the lake. There they entered a hidden place, known only to a few, and they dragged something up from the black waters with chains and ropes. They brought it back to the city under cover of night, and they have hidden it here, in this temple.” She leaned close so he might look into her eyes, black with no glimmer of light in them. “Tell me where it lies.”
The heart of the temple was a narthex of black shadows and ancient stone, and here the lamps burned with green fire and the air was heavy with the scent of serpents. Scaled forms crawled and slithered in every shadow, hung encoiled upon every carving and statue. A monumental silence enshrouded the place, deep and abiding. Here there was the great altar, and upon it now rested the weed-encrusted chest dragged up from the waters of ageless decay.
The high priest bowed before it, hands lifted, his scarred head bent so that the ritual cuts upon his scalp shone in the deep green light. His guards stood back from him, not daring to set foot upon the polished sacred floor of the final mystery. He touched the stone surface of the chest, running loving hands over the carved shapes obscured by mud and covered over with the filth of ages. He brushed at it, clearing away the weeds and creeping snails, revealing the words written there in the ancient lost tongue of a dead race.
Kalai drew off her black shroud and stepped into sight in her killing finery. The black straps that held her knives and her poisons, the armored vambraces and arm-rings that were her only armor, and the black veil that hid her face save for her bottomless eyes. The guards saw her and drew their long, curved swords, the steel embedded with golden verses in the mantras of the serpent faith. The sound of the swords was a singing note in the dark shrine, and the high priest turned from his muttered invocations and stood, looking on her. His ritual scars made his face and head into an inhuman mask.
“You,” he said. “I know you. The killer. The one of ancient blood.” He stretched out his hands. “I called on you to join us. I said you are of the bloodline of the Nagai, the chosen of Shahenah. Now you have come.” He looked at her hand. “You come with blade in hand, to kill for gold.”
“Not for gold,” she said, drawing closer. “I come for that which you brought up from the swamps. I come for that. Give it to me and I shall depart.”
He laughed. “Give you this?” He laid a hand on the cask. “This is a great treasure. It will contain the liturgy of the great serpent god. It will illuminate his glory.”
“Fool,” she said. “Your god is but a memory of the true gods of my ancestors, lost beneath time. Men came to this land and slaughtered the true race, and now you bow and pray to their memory. I will not leave secrets of the Nagai in the hands of a charlatan who will use them to aggrandize his own vision of a god made in his image. I will reclaim the heritage of my race. Stand aside or I will kill you.”
He gestured and his guards came for her. “You will not find my bodyguards easy prey. They imbibe the black milk of the serpent fang. No venom will slay them, and no blade will pierce their skin. Face them if you dare.”
Kalai moved with her blade of serpent steel in her hand like a flicker of poisoned light. They closed on her with their swords ready, bodies guarded by mail and their faces hidden behind masks. They were devotees of the ancient sword arts, able to fight and kill in total darkness. She heard their breathing, controlled and even. They were not afraid of her, deep in their battle-trance. But she did not need fear.
The first one cut at her and she threw her silken shawl in the path of his sword, vanished like smoke as the deadly edge cut through. They stood poised, senses keened. This was a supreme test of their skills, for even though they did not need to see her, they depended on the sounds she made to follow her motions, and she made almost none. There was a moment when nothing moved, no sound and no breath.
Then Kalai manifested from the darkness like a shadow come to life, and her knives flashed in the gloom. The warriors whirled to counter her, and steel met ringing steel. Their blows were precise, elegant and cruel, and yet her speed was a match for them, evading their strokes or parrying their blows with dagger or armored vambrace. Sparks leaped in the shadows as they fought in a sudden whirl of motion and deadly intent.
They outnumbered her, but she fought with her whole body, not only her blades. They battled across the smooth temple floor, and then she was flanked and a singing blow dashed her knife from her hand. Reacting with a speed the eye could not follow she spun, feinted high and then slammed an open-handed blow into the warrior’s helm. He staggered and she took the moment thus bought to snatch a vial of powder from her belt. As the other guard closed in she turned, threw the powder in his face, and then vanished again.
He flailed, coughing, spitting, reeling back from her. The other guard righted himself in time for her to appear behind him and drive her serpent steel blade through the slit in his helm and into his eye. She jerked it forth and black blood followed in a torrent that coursed down his chest. He staggered, and she saw his limbs stiffen with the onset of the venom. The black milk of the serpent god was not proof against the deadliness of the ancient steel.
“Their skin may be impervious,” she said, facing the last man. “But not their eyes.” The other guard still spat and coughed, clawing through the face of his helm, and she struck him on the side of the neck with a precise blow that crushed bones and crumpled the steel of his armor. He fell and lay still, and she faced the high priest over his corpse. “And you are not invulnerable either, foolish man.”
He fell back from her, behind the graven altar. “I am not immortal, but my god preserves me, and his guardians will bar your path.” He drew a vial of yellow liquid from under his robe, and she thought he meant to swallow poison, but instead he hurled it behind him, at the place where a carved idol stood against the wall of the shrine, and the vial burst open in a cloud of hissing vapor. “Now you shall taste the wrath of the serpent!”
Kalai bared her teeth. “I am her wrath.” She held up the serpent dagger and blood dripped smoking from the tip of it. She stepped closer to the altar, and the looming statue moved.
She stepped back and stared as there came a terrible rending, creaking sound, and then the bronze skin of the statue tore apart and fell in shattered fragments to the floor, and in place of a cold idol stood a figure pale white and covered by a glimmering phosphorescence that clung to it like witch-fire. It came down from the dais and stood there, towering and luminant, with hollow eyes and lips drawn back from the long teeth in a rictus of hungry unlife. Four arms branched from the shoulders, fingers curling as the hands grasped for the warmth of blood.
“Behold, assassin!” the priest shouted, eyes wild with the power he had called upon. “The guardian of the shrine! The revenant of the true Nagai brought forth to slay and accurse your heresy!”
The revenant bent and picked up the swords that had adorned the idol, and stood before her with one in each clawed hand. Kalai saw the form was female, despite the ages of decay and the shriveled armor that hung on the skeletal frame. This was one of the lost priestesses of her race, now enslaved here to a mortal who made his own corrupted version of her faith to serve his ends and glut his own lusts for power and flesh. It made fury course in her veins to see it.
Kalai sheathed her serpent dagger, for no venom would harm such a creature as this. Even as it closed upon her she fell back and lifted a sword from one of the fallen guards. She whirled it in her hands and felt the balance and weight. It was the very finest Alashian steel; she knew it would not break easily.
The spectre yawned its jaws wide and loosed a howl that shook the very walls as it charged upon her, blades whirling in the dark. Kalai remembered her swordmaster’s lessons, focused her will, and met that rush with her own. There in the innermost nave of the temple the fury of the unliving collided with pure, burning skill, and the steel sang a deadly song. The blades lashed for her together, then in tandem. Kalai knew every trick and gambit, knew the weaknesses of so many swords in play at once. She flickered like a candleflame, twisting and parrying, using the swords to block each other, forcing the revenant to get in her own way.
Kalai fought with her teeth gritted together, concentrating all her will. The undead drove her back across the chamber, and then she slipped aside and let it chase her back in a wide circle, the ring of steel continuous. She was breathing hard, her arms already afire, and she knew that soon enough she would make a mistake she could not recover from, and then she would be ripped apart. She had no time for counter or disarm, only a neverending stream of blocks and parries, and if she missed one, the penalty would be death.
So she let the thing drive her against the wall, and she pressed in among the columns where it could not bring its size or many blades to bear. A moment’s respite and Kalai sheared off one pallid arm, dry as ages. It fell to the floor and then, separated from the power that preserved it, turned to dust. The revenant did not scream or give any sign - it simply came on, cutting at her with its remaining three swords. Kalai ducked back as the steel blades bit into the stone columns, spun away.
She felt the motion behind her rather than saw it, and without thought or hesitation she drove her elbow back and felt bones splinter under the impact. The high priest cried out and fell beside her, dagger falling from his hand. “You should not come within my reach,” she hissed at him as he clutched his shattered ribs. The guardian was coming swiftly, and she swept her blade down in a vicious cut that severed his bald, scarred head.
The copper stink of blood filled the room as Kalai fell back to the altar, the unliving guardian coming for her relentlessly. There was a moment of hope that the death of the priest would end the power that animated her, but she came on, unheeding, walking through the spreading pool of blood and trailing footprints behind her.
They met again, there in the shaft of light that illuminated the altar. The guardian towered over her, swords flashing in the gloom, hammering at her guard, and Kalai met the attack, tried to counter and was cut, then cut again. She was flagging, and her enemy never would. No weariness would stay those unliving hands.
Kalai parried, countered, parried again, and then she was trapped against the altar and had nowhere else to go. With a sudden blurring power she vaulted backward and landed on the broad stone altar itself, straddling the cask that still rested there, untouched by the chaos around it. The revenant hurled all its force against her, and Kalai calculated, waited until the final moment, and then she leaped back, putting the altar between them, and the undead lashed one sword down and shattered the stone casket with a single blow.
An ivory scroll case fell from the ruin, as well as a green stone on a golden chain, and the jewel glowed with a lambent light that hurt her eyes to look at. It did more to the unliving thing coming for her. The towering spectre recoiled from the glow of that green jewel, letting out a cry like the echo of a doomed soul from the bottom of a timeless well of antiquity.
Kalai felt a pang of sorrow for her enemy. Once a proud warrior priestess of a lost age, now a hollow shell commanded by venal sorcery. She lunged for the stone and caught it up by the chain, and when she did the light grew stronger. Kalai squinted past the light and leaped back onto the altar. She thrust out the jewel at her unliving foe and the thing fell back from her, cringing behind its arms. Now Kalai knew she had been right. This was the Eye of the Serpent Goddess, and by its power the wizardry that bound the undead would be undone.
Sword in hand she leaped down from the altar and advanced on the guardian as it shrank back before her. The light of the eye was a power out of old ages, and it revealed to the shade here what she had been, and what she had become. The blaze of green light was blinding, and she walked forward until the thing was cornered against the wall, and then she pressed in closer still. It let the swords fall from its hands to strike the floor with a clangor, and then she touched the jewel to its cold white flesh and it screamed.
The cry rose up and became a shriek that pierced Kalai’s skull like an arrow. She flinched away, but she would not give ground, and then the undead spectre shriveled and collapsed into a drift of dust and crumpled armor. The flare of the gem died away until it was only a glimmer, like witch-fire in the hollow swamplands. She held it up and looked at it, turning it for a moment to try and see into the depths, where mysteries of a long-dead people might still be found.
Then Kalai shook off her reverie. This was not a place to linger. She had come for something, and now she had it – she had more than she had hoped for. She hung the stone around her neck on the long golden chain, and then she went to the altar and took up the scroll case. It was heavy, and her heart sped faster. Here in her hand might be a lost history of her people, secrets they had taken with them when the waters rose and swallowed their empire.
She put the sword down on the altar, and then snapped it in two with one blow of her hand. Let them wonder who had done this, let them wonder why. She brought the scroll to her lips and kissed it, and then she closed her eyes and vanished from the eyes of men, leaving behind blood, and broken steel, and memory.