Sheol left the northlands in the season of fire, riding south to where the grasslands faded into stone and dust, and ancient cities slumbered through ages. She crossed the wastes under the red star, until she found a road through the desolation and followed it to where it might go. The lands were without water or leaf, and she lived on the milk and blood of her horse until she left it behind her, dead in the cold of night. On foot she continued, past sand-robed ruins and wind-bitten pillars, over dusty beds where water once flowed, and past black-shaded chasms where no sun shone.
After many days, the dead road led her through a low, blasted valley and into rocky hills. By night, she came to a wide, still lake, too vast to see across. The moon shone down upon the leaden water, and mist covered the surface like the breath of ghosts.
Sheol lay down her saddlebags, drank deep of the cold water, filled her waterskin until it burgeoned. She washed the dust of long travel from her face, and then she rose and followed the shore star-ward, seeking a sign of man in this desolate place.
The moon was high, and the mist shrouded the lake and the land all around her, when she came upon a row of ancient pillars, broken with age. They marched across her path and into the water, where their stone grew mired and slick with water plants and the slime of gray mud. She passed the pillars and soon saw other marks of faded and broken civilization. And at midnight, when the moon was bright and small above, she found the stair.
It was ancient, of the same white stone, cracked with ages and smooth with wear. It rose from the gray water and ascended into the mist to her right, and to what it led she could not see. It bemused her, this old broad stair leading down and under the water; yet it was disquieting. The lower steps, lapped by the waters, were covered with slime and festooned with foul growths. She thought she could see there the marks of passage, as though some water monster had indeed climbed up from cold deeps into the world of men. Sheol looked up, and saw lights there at what must be the top, the flickering of torchlight.
Now the stillness of the night was menacing, and the low mist a threat. Sheol gripped her spear more tightly and set her feet upon the smooth stone. Every sense keened, she climbed through layers of mist up into the dark, and the moon glimmered bright upon the stone. Sound came to her from far off – a deep, low drumming, like the pounding of a heart. The mist parted before her in tatters and whirls, and she came to the top. Here was a terrace so old that its palace had long since collapsed into ruin. An iron brazier stood to either side, and the fire glowed gold upon the fog and chased it back. Broken pillars set in rows held up a roof no longer there, and between two of them a man was chained, his arms bound to the pillars so that he hung between them, head down. The drums sounded again, a long, distant note.
Sheol put down her saddle and at the sound the man looked up, startled, a look of terrible fear etched on his face. At the sight of her he seemed confused, and he stood straight against his bonds.
"Who are you? You do not dare come into the cursed place," he said. He was young, with a young man's voice.
Sheol tossed her head; her golden hair in its snake-locks tapped her shoulders. "I am Sheol Mari Kesht-In-Anu. Who are you that waits here alone?"
He stood straighter with pride that seemed ill-placed. "I am Ashir, Prince of the city of Iblis."
Sheol looked around her. "This is a poor city, and your subjects do not treat you well."
Prince Ashir looked offended. "Iblis is a great city, and I am here by my own will."
Sheol touched his chains with her spear-tip. "Your will needs chains to keep you?" She spat to one side. "Your will is poor, too."
His stare became angry then, and his eyes very pretty. He would have spoken, but in the silence they both heard the waters lap more loudly at the base of the stair. The Prince's eyes widened with fear once again, he seemed barely able to keep his feet for trembling. "They are coming!" he said in a hiss. "If you would live, then flee this place and hide yourself until the moon is gone, and then take yourself away from this land as quickly as you can!"
Sheol watched the stair, trying to see through the mist. "Who is coming?"
"The Ku! They come from the lake, the Children of the Ku to devour me!" He shut his eyes tightly. "I will not look upon them!" Again the waters splashed and slapped unseen, and then there was a louder sound, as though something heaved itself up to the surface from the depths below.
Sheol took the armored vambrace from her saddlebag and strapped it onto her left arm, she donned her bronze helm and tied it tight under her jaw, and then she set both hands to her spear and waited, listening. The Prince opened his eyes and saw her still there. He would have spoken but she dug the spear-haft into his belly and made him silent. More splashing came from below, and he shut his eyes and turned away. The drums sounded again, and Sheol heard footfalls on the white stone stair.
She crouched, ready, as the sounds ascended. A foul odor of black water and decay crept through the air, and the mist seemed to gather in front of her until it was almost a wall. A light glowed through the fog, and then another, blue lights like witch-fire an arm's reach over her head, and then she knew them for eyes glowing in the mist. She heard a hiss, and a great breath was drawn, and then it came for her out of the moon-cursed fog.
Sheol had but a moment to see the shape, half again as tall as she and hulking, all over glistening with wet and slime. The form was frilled and spined, a crest upon the hunched shoulders and on the massive jagged skull, gaping deep with teeth clear as glass. It came for her, eyes glowing blue, hooked claws on webbed and malformed hands reaching. But she was a daughter of a fierce people, with the marks of lion claws on her skin, and she was not afraid.
With her battle-scream she drove her spear between the reaching arms and felt it bite. She jerked it back and stabbed again. A taloned hand slashed for her and she scored it with her speartip, darted forward when it recoiled and thrust in. The acid stink of its blood was like poison that stung her eyes. It gaped its endless mouth and wailed like a mare, slashed at her and sent her sprawling, cutting her flesh with the sharp scales of its skin. She was up again as it came for her, her spear flicking out and sinking deep into its foul body. It rushed upon her and the haft caught against a pillar. The weapon bent double and snapped, flinging Sheol aside with splinters in her hands.
The beast wailed again, clawing at the broken spear embedded in its body. Black blood poured onto the stones. Sheol got to her feet and ripped out her sword, the iron blade like stone in the moonlight. She gripped the bronze hilt in both hands and watched her foe, waiting. It turned on her and she darted left behind the man-tall brazier, and when the creature lunged she kicked the worked iron tripod over into it. Burning oil splashed and it shrieked, flailing against the blue flames. It would have fled back to the waters, but Sheol was ready.
As it turned she lunged, hacked down and cut into the back of its leg. Black blood sprayed and it fell to one knee. It turned to strike at her, smashed her back with a burning arm. She fetched against a pillar and grunted, then came back. The monster was crawling for the edge of the stair, trailing burning oil and ichor. Sheol leaped onto the thing and chopped down with both hands on her sword. The scaled skin was tough, and it took three powerful blows to hack through its neck. The body convulsed and the misshapen head rolled down the steps all the way to the water, where she heard it splash. Reeking blood followed it down in a river.
Sheol stepped back from the twitching body, snorting the burning stench out of her nostrils. She turned to the Prince, still chained in place, and his eyes were wide in shock and amazement. She jerked loose the thongs that held her helmet in place and pulled it free, stood gasping for breath in the sallow moonlight.
Prince Ashir lowered his head, dark hair hanging almost to the ground. "You fool," he said. "What have you done?"
The city of Iblis stood beside the gray lake of Kurion, her stones raised one upon the other over ages until the city was like a mountain built by human hands, each new tower and palace built on top of the one before. Sheol walked through the wide streets beside the dark beauty of Prince Ashir, and the morning crowds parted and stared as they passed. The streets girdled round and then climbed wide, polished stairs to the higher streets, and by the time they reached the highest places where the palace of the King spired over all, there was a great crowd following them. They seemed much amazed to see their Prince alive again, and more amazed at Sheol herself. These people were smaller and darker than she, and they marveled at her golden hair and her long limbs. Among them she saw no women bearing arms, and so knew this was another amazement to them.
They entered the pillared and polished halls, and Sheol was pleased to see how rich and beautiful it was within. Everywhere carved statues and idols loomed, and every wall was marked with relief or painted with scenes of splendor from an ancient past. Guards in purple cloaks and gold-gilt armor led them into the high hall, where Sarjan – the King of Iblis – waited to meet his son.
The King was not an old man, but there was gray in his beard and his belly was fat. There seemed little hair under his crown, and his gaze was watery and tired. He did not stand to embrace his son, but seemed moved nonetheless. Sheol he regarded with unease, which grew as Ashir related the story of the battle. The crowd in the throne room stirred more and more fearfully as Ashir told how the water monster died, and how its severed head now lay deep under the waters of the lake.
King Sarjan gestured her to come closer. "You are of the Jann, my child?"
"I am," she said. There was more stirring, as among these people the name of the Jann was a fearful legend.
"I thank you for returning my son to me," the King said. "Though I fear you have but prolonged our despair."
A thin man with dark designs painted upon his shaved skull darted from the crowd. "You have brought ruin upon us!" he shouted, stabbing his finger at her. "You have defiled a holy sacrifice and shed the blood of the Ku! You have assured that doom will come upon us!"
Sheol set her hand on her sword. "I have slain a monster. If there are more, I will slay them as well."
"Blasphemy!" the man said, eyes wide and staring. "More? You cannot imagine! The Ku are alive! And their vengeance will be terrible!" The priest turned to the King. "We must be swift! We must make atonement for this outrage! Did I not ordain a sacrifice to the children of the moon? This one has undone all!" He pointed again at Sheol in a way she did not like. "She must be taken to the stair! Bound and chained to the stone! A sacrifice fit for --" His voice was cut off in a shriek. Sheol's sword hissed out and cut half through his neck so quick that few in that hall even saw the blade until the priest's body sprawled on the polished floor. Courtiers screamed as the body twitched and blood gushed out.
The King sat frozen, eyes wide in shock, and the Prince cursed softly under his breath. Sheol held her sword ready at her side, and blood ran from the tip to puddle on the floor. "I'll be taken nowhere, and bound to nothing." She looked at the assembled, her golden eyes flashing challenge to them all. "But fear no doom. And fear no soft-bellied priests. Tell me of what you fear. Tell me of this thing you call the Ku."
Sheol was shown to rooms, given food and drink by wary-eyed slaves. She bathed herself for the first time in weeks. There were scented oils for her skin and an ivory comb for her hair. Serving girls young as new leaves bound her scant wounds, plucked the locks from her hair, combed it and bound it up again with gold rings. They rubbed her scarred and tattooed skin until it shone and brought her soft new linens and clean silks. She would not wear the garments they left for her and dressed in her leggings and sword-belt, took a bolt of white silk and made a loin-cloth of it. She made them bring her oil and sat in a beam of sun beside the wide window, cleaning her iron sword. The edge was notched from the lake-monster's neck bones. Sheol took the whetstone from her saddlebags and ground at the blade in the quiet.
Servants scattered, guards entered the room, and the King and his son Ashir followed behind them. Sheol nodded, and the guards stiffened, for she did not bow. Her kind did not bow to any other blood, and she would not. The Prince seemed angry, his eyes darting side to side. Sheol drew her stone down the edge of the sword and the guards flinched from the sound. They were afraid of her, and that pleased her.
King Sarjan seemed to notice none of this; he seemed only weary. Servants brought a gilded chair and he sat, arranging his silk robes around him with his old hands. His eyes were heavy-lidded and dim. He gestured and a goblet was pressed into his hand, filled with wine. He drank, mopped red from the corners of his mouth, and sighed a long breath.
"The Ku were an ancient people," he said without ceremony. "They lived upon the site of this very city in their own city, built of white stone. They hid from the sun and worshipped the moon, lighting blue were-fires and raising their voices in praise of their White Goddess by night." He paused for more wine. His hand shook, and Sheol saw that he was already very drunk. He stared at the floor for a long time before he spoke again.
"Our ancestors came to this land and conquered the Ku. We tore down their temples and broke their idols, we slew the warriors and threw their bodies into the waters, and the women and children we took for slaves. This was a thousand years ago, in the earliest times. Our King took a Princess of the Ku for his wife, and she bore him a son and a daughter. He had another wife, one of our people, from before the time of conquest. She was jealous of the children of the new wife, for she herself was barren, and had no children to give the King. She poisoned the children, and cast the blame upon their mother for the deed." The King sighed again, rubbed at his red nose with one hand.
"The Ku Princess was tortured so horribly that even her accuser could not bear to see what had been done to her. But still she would not confess. She was taken to the old stair at the edge of the water, and before they cast her in to drown she pronounced a curse upon all our people. She said she would return, and would become the monster they had made her. She would dwell in darkness for a thousand years and mother a race of monsters. In the thousandth year she would return, and the line of our kings would be broken." He sighed again, and seemed almost to sleep.
Sheol thought on this. "And you believe this tale?"
The King nodded sleepily. "How can I not? Every night for twenty days, the moon arises and horror stalks my city. Children snatched from their nurseries, their mothers ripped to pieces, men's heads torn off and left at the top of the stair like an offering. It is plain." He looked up at her then, and his fear was terrible to see. "The Ku are alive! The Princess did as she foretold. All these long ages she has hidden below, spawning her brood of monsters, she is become Ninhursag, mother of blood, and now they are returned. My son. . . ." he gestured at Ashir. "My son gave himself as a sacrifice. With his death, the line is broken. With his death, the curse is fulfilled, and no others need die." Ashir put his hand on his father's shoulder, and the King placed his own hand over it. "But you . . . you have defied the curse, and slain one of her children." His eyes widened, shot with red. "Her wrath will be terrible."
Sheol stood, sword in her hand, and the guards tensed. She laughed. "Not so terrible as mine." She shook her head. "Old man, you are a fool. You would give the monster your own son rather than fight, and all you will have bought is a slow death."
"But the curse!" the King's voice was thin and weak. "The curse! Nothing can save us from it."
Sheol spat on the floor. "Iron seems to do well enough, if you are not too feeble to use it."
"Curse you!" the King said, shaking, weeping. "Curse you, you have doomed us all."
Sheol waited for the moon. The palace steps were smooth and wide, straight from the broad avenue to where she stood between the pillars. Her bow was in her hands, arrows in the quiver at her back. A new spear lay at her feet, and her helm was strapped tight. The city was quiet as death, every soul hidden behind barred doors and darkened windows. The sky was a tapestry of stars, and the soft shimmer of the moon just edged over the towers and domes of the ancient city of Iblis.
Prince Ashir came out of the archway into the moonlight. He wore armor worked with gold and carried a straight spear. Sheol looked at him, snorted. "Why are you here?"
He unslung his round shield and set its edge on the ground. "I came to wait with you, for what may come."
"You? Last night you waited for the monster to come and devour you, tonight you are a warrior? Now you will fight what you could not even look on?" Sheol plucked her bowstring.
"All my life Father spoke of the return of the Ku. He knew the legends, and counted the years, and listened to the priests. He told me the Ku were invulnerable, that not matter what we did they would destroy us. That it was fated."
Sheol looked out over the dreaming city. "There is no fate."
"Perhaps," Ashir said. "Perhaps not. But the Ku are not invulnerable, that I have seen. Whatever their Dark Mother sends against us, I will help you face."
"You have heard too many stories, Prince," Sheol said. "Better you hid yourself away with your father and his wine cup. This will not be a night for glory." She pointed. "It comes."
A mist was rising, slithering around the corners of the ancient city, filling the close alleys and climbing the smooth walls. It filled the broad street below, curled about the feet of the pillars and the carved marble robes of the statues. Sheol took an arrow from her quiver and set it to her bowstring, stepped down three steps and stood very still. "Prepare yourself," she said.
The sounds of water came then, here, so high above the surface of the lake. The sound of rushing and splashing and pouring over stones came up the long street. The mist covered everything, and Sheol could see nothing, but from the sound, the whole of the courtyard below might have been filled with cold dark water. They heard movement in the unseen waves. Ashir stepped back and swore an oath to old gods as the mist below filled with witch lights. Two by two they lit up, buried in the fog, pale blue lights, many upon many.
"Come on, then!" Sheol bellowed to the darkness, drawing the bowstring to her ear. "Come closer!"
They came. Row upon row of stooped, slimy, dark-scaled shapes with glowing blue eyes climbed up the stair out of the fog. The moonlight gleamed on their glass teeth and on the dripping talons that scraped and clawed at the stone as they scrambled upwards. The stench of still water and rotten weeds was overpowering, the hiss and puff as they gaped their huge mouths was awful to hear. They came in a wave; a dozen, then two, then more than could be counted, no two alike.
Sheol sighted down her arrow and loosed, the short and powerful bow driving the shaft to the fletching in a dark-scaled belly. Adder-quick she nocked another arrow and shot, and again. She swept her bow across the front ranks, and glistening subhuman forms clutched wounds and fell to be trampled by their fellows. When they fell they gave out cries like slaughtered foals, and their acrid black blood stained the white stone. Still the rush did not slow, and when she fired her eleventh arrow she flung her bow behind her and leaped up the last three steps to take up her spear. Armored with plated bronze on arm, breast and thigh, her face hidden behind her helm, she stood ready and still like an idol of a war god cast molten in a lost age. Her war-scream echoed off the walls as she leaped to meet her enemies.
Her full weight drove the brazen spear-tip irresistibly, and she ripped deep into the front ranks. The spear flashed and thrust, and when she impaled one she lifted and flung the body sideways to dash another one aside. Left, then right she struck, spearing the stinking, slime-covered creatures and ripping them off their feet. She struck down a half-dozen, then leaped up the stair for more space and turned to strike again. Black blood splashed the air and painted the ancient stone, smoked on her spear-tip like poison.
They closed in on her, too many to stop. Their needle claws dug at her armor, scored her flesh and drew her hot red blood. Roaring, she set her spear-haft crosswise and hurled herself against them, forcing them back. Then she drew back her arm and threw her spear into the mass of them with all her power. The press of wailing things behind clambered over their fellows to reach her.
Ashir set himself to meet the charge with spear and shield, while Sheol drew her iron-bladed sword and bronze-bitted axe and met it with crushing force. The Prince was forced back among the columns, striking with his spear, desperately fending the Ku away with his shield.
Sheol was a lioness in glorious motion, axe and sword whirling around her, cleaving flesh and bone. She drove the attackers into one another, then chopped them down while they tangled together. A bulwark of dead formed before her that the Ku scrambled up and over to attack her. As they reached the top she cut them down and sent them tumbling back. Black ichor flooded the stone and made her footing slick, the stench made her eyes tear and her throat burn. She cursed and spat on the dead as her sword sent another head spinning away. The eyes of the dead ones still glowed their ghost-glow, even the eyes of the severed heads.
Then a massive shadow ripped the pile of dead apart and rose up over her, and the moon was blotted out by the terrible shape she could only half-see in the silver light and the shadows of the palace arch. Eyes glowed in a misshapen skull, fins flared and tendrils trailed behind on the stair like a train. Nine-fingered hands braced against the pillars to either side and shoved with brute power, cracking them apart. Sheol staggered away as the broken stone fell in pieces and struck the floor like hammers, gouging out pieces of the stone. Shattered splinters flew singing through the air, rattling on her armor and cutting into her neck.
Tentacles came coiling after her like serpents in a mass, and there in darkness she hacked at them with her sword. Her axe sank into soft flesh and was ripped from her hand, the thong snapping away. Then with both hands on her sword, she hewed at the tendrils. Cruel hooks upon them dug at her thigh and crumpled her armor, sank into her flesh, and she screamed. She chopped off the tentacle and ripped it away from her leg, feeling blood course down into her boot. The shadow loomed closer and she leaped onto a fallen block of stone, brought her sword down on one reaching arm. The blade bit through scales and flesh to the bone.
The shadow reeled away, blood pouring from the wound, and Sheol sprang after it. She could barely see from blood in her eyes, from the sting of it, but there was flesh in front of her and she drove her blade into it to the hilt, and again and again. Foul breath billowed over her and she struck blindly and furiously, felt the sword jar in her grip again and again. A blow swept her off her feet and she struck the floor hard, rolled over and wiped at her eyes to try to clear them.
A terrible wailing rose to the moon, a wordless cry that echoed over the city, shivering the walls. Sheol could not clear her vision, ripped her helmet straps loose and pulled it off, wiped the blood from her stinging eyes. When she blinked away the tears, everything was still.
Sheol stood, her left leg bloody and stinging. A thousand aches assailed her at once and she turned aside, vomited and spat. The stench was awful, almost impossible to bear.
The entry to the palace was a ruin. The pillars broken, stones fallen from the arch above. The stair and the plaza were littered with the corpses of the Ku and drowned in their blood. Of the great creature there was no sign but for some writhing bits of tentacles and a foul and discolored trail of blood and flesh that led back down the steps and into the mist. As she watched, the mist itself began to recede, creeping back to the places it belonged, back to the cold haunt of the lake.
She started at a sound beside her and turned to see Prince Ashir struggle to his feet. His spear was lost and his armor painted with black blood. But he lived. She clapped him on the shoulder and drew him upright. "You see?" she said, gasping for breath. "No fate. Only will, and iron." She held up her battered and twisted sword, notched and stained with ichor, she flung it away. "And even iron is weak."
Guards rushed from inside the palace, stopping to stare and gag at the carnage. They covered their faces and retched behind their cloaks. "Majesty!" one croaked, holding high a torch. "Majesty, are you here?"
Ashir turned to meet them. "Why do you call me 'majesty'?" he demanded. "My father is King." He paused, a look of horror on his face. "What has happened?"
Here in the heart of the palace no light from moon or stars could reach. Behind thick walls and heavy barred doors the King's rooms were guarded by a score of men against all the terrors of the night. He had not dreamed death would find him here. By torchlight, the scene was dark and bloody to see. The guards lay strewn across the floor, their blood and entrails mixed with shattered stone and ripped tapestries. Black blood as well as red stained the floors, and all trailed down into the great hole burst up through the center of the chamber, that dark maw leading into forgotten ruins and the cold, depths below.
The King's body was gone, and only his head remained. It lay on the floor upright in a welter of red, the eyes open and staring, sunken in death. The beard and hair were soaked in blood. Ashir turned away at the sight of it, pale and trembling. Sheol spat into the ragged pit. "Fool," she said.
"Who is a fool?" demanded a pallid guard.
"I am," she said. "I waited for their attack to come and I met it without. Spent my blood on it while they struck here." She kicked stones over the edge, listened for them and heard nothing but distant water dripping.
The guard turned and bowed to Ashir. "My King, what is your command?"
"My command?" Ashir looked thin and beaten, dark circles around his eyes. Blood from the Ku still painted his arms. "How can any man oppose this? How can I do anything but flee?"
"My King, the city --"
"We must all flee!" The new King cried. "Every man and woman, every child and elder must leave this accursed city! We must --"
Sheol drew back her armored fist and cuffed him to his knees, he cried out and put a hand to his face, the guards stared, not daring to speak to her.
"Be silent; you chatter like an old man. And for a moment I thought you brave enough to be a king."
"You will obey me," she said, looking into his eyes. He was still for a long moment, meeting her gaze, and then he bowed his head.
She turned away from him. "Bring me rope, and torches. And you," she said to the guard. "Give me your sword."
"You cannot mean to go down into that pit," Ashir said.
"Oh I mean to. I will go and find this Dark Mother where she dwells. Her children bleed and die, I'll see if she does as well."
They brought her rope, and a new sword, and she climbed down into that well of darkness. She held the iron torch in one hand, and the rope with the other, and slid down carefully into shadow. The light of the hole, ringed with frightened faces, grew smaller and smaller, until it was no more than a pale eye peering down upon her. Now she was alone, dropping through ages of time. Around her the torch lit a globe of red, and by it she saw the stonework piled one era upon another, one palace built atop the one below.
She touched a stone floor and let go of the rope, stood in cool darkness, feeling wind move past her face in rhythm, like cold breath. Now she was in a labyrinth under the palace, under the hills, under the city. Here was a world no man above knew at all. She took her sword in hand and raised the torch over her head to cast the light as far as she could, and she moved into the unseen halls of the Dark Mother. Water ran down the walls in secret rivers, dripped and trickled. She smelled the carrion stench of the lake. She made her way through dark tunnels until the space around her opened out and she gazed upon the arched halls and chambers of the old palace, far below the sun and hidden from it.
The stone was green, slimed with growth and wet. Water dripped from the vaulted roof and tapped on the floor. Sheol passed under an archway and descended a stair, pacing over cracked stone. She crossed a gallery and a pillared colonnade, a thin stream flowing down the center to form a pool where white fungal growths floated. Her torch faded, and before she could light another she saw light ahead. A dim green radiance shone from beyond the gallery's end, casting long shadows through the pillars. Sheol dropped the guttered torch and advanced slow, both hands on her sword, ready.
Between the pillars the light glimmered, like moonlight on the water reflected back. She stepped through and looked down upon a strange and terrible scene. It was a kind of amphitheatre, with half-circle tiers of shallow steps leading down to a great pool, and the pool glowed with that pale and sickly green. The pillars that rose from the water and the walls that arched up to an unseen nexus were covered with skulls - hundreds of them, perhaps thousands. Some were old, some new, some human, some not so. They were held by a white film from the water slowly flowing down, leaving its residue behind like salt.
In the water stood a woman. She was slight as Sheol was tall and broad, and white as she was dusky. Her hair was white as the moon itself and her eyes were black and featureless as those of anything that had never seen the sun. There was a cold, pure beauty to her, like a statue, naked as a goddess. She stood in the green water to her white hips and trailed her hands in the water. She looked up as Sheol entered the chamber, and she smiled a perfect smile.
Sheol kept her hands firm on her sword-hilt, came down three steps closer to the water. She never took her eyes from the woman. The Dark Mother. Ninhursag, Queen of the Ku.
"You come here stinking with the blood of my daughters," said the white thing, her lips barely moving, as if her face were a mask. "You come for my blood, at the command of the men of Iblis. How low that you should bow to slay your sisters."
"You are no sister of mine. I am Sheol Kesht In-Anu. I am daughter of the Jinn, of the line of the Mazikeen. Fire and wind are ancestors, and iron is my only sister."
"And yet you serve those who would be your masters. To slay what they cannot. To face what they fear." The Dark Mother slid closer through the water, sending gentle ripples over the surface. Sheol could see her hands were long and white and webbed. The white face was bloodless, the dark eyes empty.
Sheol tossed her locks back from her face. "I serve no one. I have come here to stay, and I will kill you for that. This will be my city, and I will be Queen here."
"They will master you, they will chain you and rape you and make awful children grow in your belly." The Queen's voice was low and emotionless, fluted as though there were two of her speaking. Try as she might, Sheol could see no teeth.
"They will not," she said.
"They will, they will master you and chain you. And all you wished for will be dead as the children they sire on your flesh."
"Poisoned them, didn't you?" Sheol said, slipping to one side at a movement in the water near the edge. "Your children. They were right about you."
"My children? I will show you my children," said the Dark Mother. "See what they made of me." And her face opened, the skin of her mouth split open, the flesh unstitched up and over her brow, and her face yawned wide to reveal the ringed teeth and the splayed mandibles with tusks hooked and dripping. She surged out of the water like a great white worm, white tendrils unfurling from her back. To her sides clung the rows of her half-grown offspring, folded and curled where they clung to her scales. They cried in tiny voices and fell away into the green water as their mother hurled her bulk onto the marble stair and lashed for Sheol like a striking cobra.
Sheol was quick, and her sword struck at the reaching jaws. Blood sprayed and she twisted aside, but she was not so quick as that. The hideous jaws clamped on her arm and teeth scraped on her armor. Coils clamped around her, and in a heartbeat she was ripped off her feet and under the surface of the pool. She struggled, tore her arm free in a cloud of blood and stabbed with her iron blade again and again, darkening the water. In the green-clouded swirl the jaws lunged at her again and this time her sword snapped off, sheared away by the glassine teeth.
They descended, the pool was a deep funnel, the sides roughened by ages of unclean waters leaving their traces behind, and the bones of thousands lay encrusted all around her. Skeletal hands reached for help that would never come, ribcages trailed the tatters of rotted armor. There, as the water darkened, Sheol saw the hilt of a sword grasped in a long-dead hand, the wood and leather long rotted to bare iron. Desperate, she reached for it, felt her hands close over the finger-bones that still gripped it and crush them to powder. A convulsion of the Dark Mother's pale body pulled her down and the blade of the weapon ripped free of the stone.
There, in the darkness beneath everything, Sheol fought her great battle, unseen. The long blade stabbed down again and again, tearing through white flesh. Tentacles coiled around her, sinking their hooks in, and she fought free, shearing through them with long draws of the heavy blade. The water swarmed with the Queen's young, and they fastened themselves upon Sheol's flesh, bit and tore, sucked her blood from her veins.
White hands reached out for her, and Sheol rammed the sword in, feeling it pierce. Black blood filled the water, and suddenly the Dark Mother was pulling away from her, struggling to be free. Sheol hooked her fingers into the scaly meat and was pulled along, battered against the walls as the monster dove deep, thrashing through pitch-black caverns of lightless water filled with the bones of the dead.
Then they were free, in wider waters, and Sheol was loose; she kicked up, her lungs burning, and she broke the surface under the glow of the setting moon. She was in the gray lake, gasping and bloodied. She seized the small monsters that clung to her and ripped them loose, crushed them in her hands until the ichor ran between her fingers.
With a heave the white form of Ninhursag broke the surface and Sheol struggled to get space to fight, both hands twined on the long sword in her hand. But the Dark Mother was not coming to slay her. Instead she swam to shore, faltering from her wounds, trailing black in the water. Sheol followed her, blind in the deep fog, until the white stair rose before her, ascending from the lake into the mist. The Queen crawled from the water and began to drag herself up the steps, groaning, bleeding, trailing her ruin behind her.
Sheol followed, her own wounds burning at the black blood in the cold water. But Sheol did not believe in Gods of sun or Goddesses of moon, she believed in will, and her own never failed. She reached the stair and staggered up from the water, dragging the heavy sword, the blade dark with years. The monster shied from her, slithering up towards the top, rivers of black blood behind her.
They reached the top together, and the Dark Mother stretched out her hands to the fading moon. Her face was awful to see, the pale beauty split by the maw where translucent teeth flexed and gnashed. A wail came from within her chest, blood pouring from the wounds Sheol had made. The Queen of the Ku cried out for her Goddess to save her. Sheol seized the white hair in her left hand and struck with her sword, cutting through half the Queen's neck with a stroke. Blood poured out in a libation, and with another blow she severed the monstrous head and the pallid body sagged and slid back down into the lake where the cold waters closed over it forever.
The mist rose, lifting off the water in a mass, like an island in the still air. Sheol held her dark sword in one hand, and with the other held aloft her twitching, shuddering prize. No faith but will, she swore to the dark. No sister but iron. And no Goddess, but I alone.
She left that place, left the head on the cold stone like an offering. She returned through the gates of the great city of Iblis to the palace of King Ashir, and no one dared to speak when she seated herself upon the ivory throne and named herself their Queen. Thus the line of the kings of Iblis was broken, as was foretold. And Sheol of the Jann made herself a Queen in an ancient city. The stars changed, and wars brewed in distant lands to the south. Sheol, with a deposed King to warm her bed, sat many nights watching the moon, the dark sword from below keened and bright again, waiting.