The storm raged for nine days, and when it ended, it cast Scylla and what remained of her crew upon a black island ringed with jagged rocks. Exhausted men lay half-dead at the oars as the sea heaved them up, and then there was a terrible ripping and spears of glassine stone tore through the hull, impaling flesh and wood alike. The ship foundered, water sweeping the decks as another wave heaved them up, and then they were cast down upon the black deadly shore in a cascade of blood and brine as the ship sheared apart.
Scylla struck the water, already struggling for the shore. The rocks were sharp as swords, and she was glad of her armor that ground the bitter points to pieces. The water was only waist-deep here, and she found her feet and struggled inland. Men foundered about her, and she caught those she could and helped drag them from the waves, all but hurling them shoreward.
She trod upon a beach of black sand, and her sandals crunched on the broken rock. Her sword hung at her side, and her bronze breastplate still gleamed in the half-light, but she had little else. The remains of the ship were crushed upon the rocks by the incoming tide, and pieces of it washed about her knees. She spat into the water and looked about her, counting. She had six men alive. After a desperate battle and then what seemed an age of the raging storm, this was what she came to. She had no knowledge of where she was, nor even what place this might be. The sky was still heavy with clouds, and lightning flickered far away to the west.
The waves seethed past her legs as they drew back, and she saw she stood not only upon volcanic rock, but on bones. The beach was embedded with hundreds of bones, bleached by sun and turned green by the water, they were exposed when the waves withdrew, hands and ribs and empty skulls looking up at the pitiless sky.
“Gods, what place is this?” Thalus said, coming up beside her. The old sailor was hard and bent as a piece of sun-dried wood, and his one blind eye stared milky as he looked down at the bones underfoot. “We are washed on an evil shore.”
“Gather whatever you can find from the wreck,” she said. A spear drifted on the waves and she caught it up. “Weapons, water, wine, any food that’s fit to eat. We may need all of it.” She climbed out of the surf, slapped sand from her tattooed thighs and looked inland. “No way to tell where we are or what we may find, or not find.”
“Our lives will be short enough if we don’t find fresh water,” he said, but he turned to do what she ordered. Men knew better than to question Scylla. She stabbed her spear into the sand, hunted through the bone-strewn shallows and found a helm. It was old and crusted green with corrosion, but a few knocks found it still solid. She took a handful of the harsh black sand and started grinding the scale off it as she looked inland. By the failing light she saw only barren hills and a few scrubby trees fading away into the middle distance. A haze hung over the higher parts of the island, like mist, though there could be no mist in this weather.
Her men foraged along the shoreline, gathering whatever they could find, making a pile just beyond the reach of the waves. Scylla thought it was strange there were no crabs on the shore, so sea-stars or weeds. The shore was barren and dead, filled with bones. Her men muttered oaths against evil as they scavenged the remains of the wreck.
She waded through the water, found a shield and hefted it. One strap was loose, but it was better than nothing. There was grit in her sandals and the helm she’d found was ill-fitting. Her braided hair served to pad it somewhat, but it still reeked of saltwater. Without a strap it would not stay on well. She hoped she did not need it.
“Ware!” one of the men shouted. Scylla looked up, jogged down the beach and jumped onto the rock beside him. He pointed and she saw. Out to sea, beneath the lowering clouds, she saw a ship. Black-hulled, it had a square-rigged sail so dark a red it was like dried blood on iron, and she knew what hands drove it onward.
“They followed us,” the man said. “The Hybori followed us.” He sounded weary and afraid. Well he might. They had battled the sea-raiders for three days in the storm, before the waves and wind grew too strong even for those wild men. The Hybori worshiped a storm-god, and so they always attacked under the shadow of a tempest if they could. The flash of lightning drove them to unceasing fury.
Scylla looked up at the broken mast of her ship jutting from the rocks, her own white sails fluttering from it like a banner. They would see it, and they would come to finish what they had begun. She knew one war-galley bore as many as a hundred men. There was no telling how many remained on this one.
“Gather what you can, carry what you can,” she said. “Arm yourselves, take what war-gear you find. We go inland. If we can find a draw or a narrow defile we can stand them off. If we stay here they will overwhelm us. If we get off the shore they may not even come. Hurry!” She jumped down from the rock and took up the spear she had stabbed into the sand. “Move or you will all die!”
They pressed inland under the lowering night. The clouds above began to tatter and come apart, and the stars shone through. Scylla had no time to try and judge their position. She led them in among the barren rocks and the stunted, knotted trees. Only the spear in her fist gave her confidence. The terrain was rough, and the men stumbled and struggled as they followed her, sweating under the burdens they carried.
They saw no sign of human life. No ruins nor shelters nor roads. The place was desolate, and as the moon rose hollow and white, they looked on a landscape as forbidding as it was alien. They might be the only men to ever set foot upon this island, save for the harvest of bones upon the stygian shore. That did not lead to pleasant thoughts.
Scylla climbed a ridge, using her spear as a staff to climb the barren rock until she could look back toward the shore. It was all dark, only the light of moon and stars to show the way back. But she saw there in the night a trail of flaming torches wending through the blackness, and she cursed. The Hybori were following, and by the flame she counted perhaps forty of them. If they could not avoid them, they had to find a place where the enemy had to come at them a few at a time, then perhaps they could spend enough blood to make them turn aside. She doubted it, but it was all that remained to them, lest the island claim their bones as well.
“Maybe they won’t find us,” Thalus said. “Who can track us through the dark over this rock?”
“They can,” she said. “Sit and wait for them if you like.”
The men were stumbling with weariness now. They had battled the storm too long without rest, and now they could barely go on. Even if they found a place to make a stand, they could not fight very long. The burden of blood would fall on Scylla, and she knew it. They were sailors, she was a Gorgon, born and bred for war. She slowed, and they did as well, thinking to rest.
“No,” she said. “Keep going. I will try and lead them off, and then kill as many as I can.”
They stopped, breathing hard, pale and exhausted in the moonlight, and then they moved on. Thalus stopped and looked at her a moment, then he nodded and walked away. They moved off among the rocks, and were quickly gone. Scylla did not see any tell-tale marks on the earth, but then she was no tracker. She needed a clear sign to bring the enemy after her.
Grimly, she cut her arm with the edge of the spear-point and let the blood fall upon the earth. In the moonlight, it looked black as tar. She made a trail of the drops that fell, leading to the side, and she slipped between two towers of rock and led away. She stopped to smear blood here and there as she threaded in among the boulders as they grew larger and closer together. It was like a maze, and she kept sight of the moon so she would not go in circles.
The ground sloped upward, and she climbed, making sure to leave a trail of blood as she went, to lead the enemy after her. They were closer now. She could not see them, but she smelled the smoke of their torches on the wind from the sea. She ascended a rocky slope like a stair, and then she realized it was a stair. She stopped, gazed up at the star-filled sky, and shadows loomed over her. Now she saw they were not stones, but skulls.
An enormous bestial skull lay on the side of the path, beside the wide, crumbled steps. It was so great she could never have reached the top of it. The sockets of the eyes were big enough for her to climb inside, and the long saber fangs were tall as a man. She froze in place, looking at it. She turned her head and looked and saw that many of what she had supposed were boulders in the pale moonlight were bones, or bore the shape of bones.
She climbed, until she stood before the great skull. Her hand shook as she reached out and touched it, felt the smooth and unmistakable texture of bone. This was no stone idol carved in the shape of a skull, it was the remnant of some fallen beast greater than any she had ever seen or heard tale of. She ran her hand over the smooth expanse of one fang, longer than her body. What a monster it must have been.
Up the steps, the slope ended and there stood what had been pillars, now crumbled and broken with time. This marked the entrance to something, and she would soon see what. With a bloodthirsty smile she smeared her blood across the teeth of the dead beast, and she left it there as a taunt, or a warning. She climbed the last of the steps and stood looking down into a dark valley hewn from blackened stone. Turning back, she saw the scattered glow of the torches of the Hybori, and she stabbed her spear at the night sky and bellowed. Her voice was trained on a dozen battlefields, and her war-cry echoed back from the stars like the roar of a lioness.
She watched, waiting, until she was sure the torches were coming toward her, and then she laughed and leaped down into the black vale, leaving her trail of blood behind her. Let them come.
The valley was dark and narrow, filled with a tangle of boulders and fallen stone. In the moonlight it had the look of a plundered grave-yard, and then she realized it was just that. Monoliths of stone, carved with glyphs all but worn away, lay broken and fallen all around her. The earth was covered with the slabs of black stone that had once covered sunken crypts, now broken open and scattered. And every tomb was far, far larger than what a man would need.
A mist seeped from the black earth, clinging low to the ground. When she looked into the graves, she saw the bones of giants decked in corroded finery. Bronze had turned green, silver to black. Only gold still shone here and there. The dead had been twice the size of men, at least. The smallest of them would have towered over her.
She stood among the bones of dead gods and looked to the valley’s entrance, saw torches there and knew her enemies were upon her. Scylla bowed her head and called on all her warrior ancestors, called on the blood of the Gorgons to run in her arms and make her strong. The Hybori were drawing near, and she gripped her spear and charged them.
They came onward in the torchlight, tall men with dark eyes and wolf hides on their shoulders. Their scaled armor glinted in the dark, and she saw the shine on their spearpoints and the bosses of their round shields. She screamed as she attacked, and they gave back from the sudden onslaught.
She leaped high for her first stroke, came down with the whole of her weight concentrated on the point of her spear. It smashed through the planks of a shield and plunged into armor and flesh. She tore it free and splintered the shield, spun and stabbed at another one, the point ripping low under his shield rim and spitting his guts. Blood stained the black earth, and they closed in on her.
All became a fury of spears and hammering shields. She met them shield to shield and sent them staggering back, caught their spear-strokes on the rim and snapped the stout hafts. She struck again and again until her own spearpoint broke off in a man’s skull. She hurled the haft in their faces and ripped her sword free. They came on her and they met in a death grip there in that charnel valley. They rushed at her and tried to bear her over with their shields in a wall, but she crashed against their line and broke it apart. She cut around her, left and right, and left two men gagging on their own blood, twisting on the ground.
There were too many of them, and they drove her back through the fallen monuments by sheer numbers. Blows fell on her shield until it was chipped and dented, her helm askew and cracked. She cast it off. The loose strap on the shield gave way and she turned, slung the edge of the shield into a man’s helm and staggered him. She leaped over an empty grave and backed against the leg of a crumbling statue, both hands on the hilt of her sword.
She shook out her serpent braids and laughed in the face of her enemies, and that made them hesitate. She held up her arms and let them see the serpent tattoos on her flesh. “Come and die, children of the storm god!” She shook her sword at the star-blazoned sky, moonlight turning the bloody iron black. “You think to face a gorgon and live? I will pull your hearts from your bodies! I will wear a mantle of your skins!”
A massive man stepped forward, and the other Hybori gave way before him. His bore no shield, only a long-handled axe that was taller than many lesser men. Sigils gleamed on the iron head as he held it up. “I am Runar! I am war-chief of the Iron Wolf Clan! I do not fear you! I will take your head and hang it from the mast of my ship!”
“Come and take it then!” Scylla gathered herself. His was taller than she, and likely stronger, but he would be slower and heavier of foot. His iron-scaled armor would protect him, and she would have to find a weakness. He came toward her, and then they all stopped as the ground shuddered underfoot.
There was a moment of silence and stillness, as they all waited for it to happen again. Scylla heard a grinding sound, something sliding and collapsing, like stone falling on itself. Then the Hybori looked past her, and up, and they howled in terror. A shadow fell across her, blotting out the silver moon, and then she did look.
A towering man-shape stood over her, dripping earth and broken stone. Its head was a great black skull, and as she looked, it turned down and fragments of fire glowed deep in the empty sockets. The broken jaw yawned wide, and it howled at them – a sound so terrible and agonizing it drove her to her knees in pain.
Three times the height of a man, the earth-covered skeleton stepped forward and one foot came down an arm’s reach from her, crushing the stone tomb into pieces. It swept down one crumbling fist, heavy with grave earth, and it smashed down amidst the Hybori, hammering two of them into bloody pulp that splattered across the valley floor. It howled again, and Scylla saw the earth encrusting the ancient bones was lit by some crawling pale fire.
Whether this was some conjuration left to guard this ancient place, or an unliving denizen risen from its grave Scylla did not know or care. The scattering Hybori were no longer her greatest threat. Now there was something far worse to worry about.
She got to her feet as the thing struck another blow, crushing in part of a cenotaph and sending jagged flinders of stone slashing through the air. Men screamed and died, and blood stained the funeral earth, and Scylla the Gorgon set both hands to her blade and cut with all her power. Her sword bit into the roots and soil, and the titan shuddered and turned to look down at her.
It howled and reached down for her, skeletal hand splayed to grasp, and she met it and hacked at it furiously. Bone splintered and snapped, and she hewed off two fingers. It bellowed and clawed at her, and she barely evaded the reaching hand. The fallen pieces fell to the earth and crumbled to dust, and then she knew it could be stopped, it could be destroyed.
Screaming his war-cry, Runar of the Iron Wolf Clan leaped into the fray, and his massive axe crashed against the giant’s hip, staggering it. It reeled away, shedding earth and rocks from its misshapen frame, and the fires in its eyes blazed with wrath. Runar caught her eye, and she saw in his face the same fury of battle she felt in her blood. He nodded, and she nodded back, and then they rushed upon the monstrosity together.
They each took a leg and hacked at them like butchers, trying to cut through the layers of clinging soil to reach the bones beneath. It was not easy going, and the thing recovered with furious speed. It swept down a hand and they both leaped out of the way. Scylla struck the ground, fetched against a block of stone, and when she looked up a three-fingered fist was coming right for her. She rolled out of the way and the blow crushed the stone instead, showering her with sharp pieces that cut her arms and face.
Runar attacked while it was turned away, and it snatched up a slab from an empty tomb and turned, hurled it down on him with an unearthly cry. Scylla saw him vanish under a cascade of shattering stone, and she realized she was alone in this battle. She looked up at the feral, naked skull of the monster, and knew hacking at its legs would never bring it down in time. She had to strike at the seat of the thing’s undead life.
She ran, darting behind a broken obelisk before it could turn back and see her. She heard it roar, felt the ground shudder as it stalked her. From the shadow under the moon she knew when it was close. She took a breath, braced her shoulders against the monument, and called upon her ancestors for their strength. She was a daughter of gorgons, an outlaw, a child of queens, and in her was the blood of the strongest. Scylla set her teeth together, and then her whole body went rigid as she used all her strength.
She pushed, and pushed, and she heard the stone crack. It shuddered, and the ground shook as the monster heard and came toward her. Scylla strained until every vein and cord started from her body, until her vision went black with the effort, and then the obelisk shifted, pieces spitting from the ancient cracks. The titan loomed close, and then the monument to a fallen age broke loose and fell.
It struck the giant in the guts, and knocked it off its feet. Scylla fell gasping to the ground, looked up and saw the monster borne over by the weight of the stone, sent crashing down amidst the tombs and pillars. It roared, and she knew it was not finished. She dragged herself up, though every line of her body ached and trembled. She picked up her sword from the barren earth, and staggered to where the titan lay.
It was fallen among the ruins, heaving to get free, and as she approached it shoved the broken obelisk aside and began to rise. Scylla snarled against the pain in her body, and then she ran and leaped upon it, her feet digging into the broken soil encrusted on the immense skeleton. She ran across the ribs like deck-planks, and then the yawning broken jaw and the blazing eyes were before her. It saw her then, and she felt the full attention of the hideous unlife within it burning in the pits of its eyes.
The thing reached for her, but it was too late. She lifted her notched and battered sword to the moon, and then she struck with bone-splitting force. The blow made a terrible sound as it cracked the ancient skull apart. The thing howled again, agony filling the air and almost driving her away, but instead Scylla swung again, and again, until the skull shattered and the light in the eyes died away in a flash of fire that vanished in the moon. The broken jaw sagged away, and the skeleton collapsed into pieces, earth pouring out of it.
She fell, found herself clawing free of a pile of earth and crumbling ashes. Bones crushed to powder under her feet as she walked free of the heap that had been a nightmare out of lost ages. Dirty and exhausted, she stood under the star-filled sky, and she looked up at the pale silver moon.
She found Runar half-buried under a pile of rocks, trying to get himself free. Scylla took his axe and used it as a lever, pried the heavy slab off his legs, and helped him to his feet. They looked at one another warily for a long moment. Scylla wondered when the rest of his men would return, and what became of her own.
“Well struck,” he said in his heavy accent. “A good fight.”
“What would you say, if I asked to use your ship to get off this island?” she said.
He looked at her and laughed. “I would say my ship is short of warriors now. I have none so brave.” He looked into the dark with narrowed eyes at the absence of his men. “I would welcome you.”
“I will not go to Hybori-land,” she said. “I am no storm-follower.”
“I am outlaw, as is my clan,” Runar said. “We fare for the Sword Islands, and from there we will raid and plunder. There are said to be many hidden coves in those islands, we will make port in one, and then take the sea road for blood and gold.”
Scylla laughed. “Well, I cannot argue that.”
“Does that sound well to you?” he said.
She shrugged. “I have nothing else to do.” She looked him up and down, then back at the ruined graveyard of a forgotten race, consecrated to forgotten gods. “Let us gather my men, leave this place, and not return. What is buried here, let it remain unknown.”