Alzarra went into the drowned lands on a dying horse with a broken sword, under sentence of death and a blood moon. She rode through the wastes that burned in the high summer sun and down to where the river rove deep valleys that led to the sea. Once, long ago, a great empire dreamed on those obsidian cliffs, washed away when the seas rose and devoured them, and now it was a devil's land of swamp and jungle and sinking ruins older than the memory of man.
She stood at the edge of the wastelands and looked down, seeing the land descend into a verdant green nightmare kingdom, while behind her the desert shimmered in the heat of day. Her horse was on his last breaths, head bowed and sighing, eyes glazed with pain and the extremity of weariness. She looked north, into the emptiness, and there she saw the shadow of her pursuers, closer now as they sought to ride her down. The men called the Lions of Gazan would not be easily kept from her trail, and they would not turn aside until they slew her. She had fought and wandered through many lands, but never encountered enemies so implacable.
She took the hilt-shard of her broken blade and cut her horse's throat, bore it down to the earth and drank the blood for what strength it could give her. When she stood she felt awake as she had not in days. Now life coursed in every muscle of her tall, powerful frame, even beneath the many small wounds and the skin burned dark by days of unrelenting sun. She wiped blood from her mouth and held up her left hand. Scaled to the elbow like the skin of a serpent, it was the mark that gave her another name – Dragonhand.
The jungles below her teemed with hellish life, and she laughed then. She lifted her arms and screamed her defiance at the men who followed her, and then she turned and leaped down the slope, into the tangled growth of the drowned lands, seeking the lost city of Sagatheron, which men named with fear as if they uttered the name of death.
With broken sword and long knife she cut her way through the foliage as the day went down in the west and left her in darkness. The jungle came alive with the screams and cries of primordial wilderness all around her, of the sounds of serpents and panthers and the drone of insects as long as her arm. The trees were unlike anything she had ever seen, gnarled and coiled like columns of snakes, etched with marks of claws from unknown beasts and festooned with moss that hung like cerements.
She made her way with tigerish strength, and that wolfish endurance that had already carried her for weeks across unforgiving lands. Declared outlaw by the Gazan, she resolved to flee to one place where even the brave dared not go. She would see if they followed, and what she might find in this accursed place.
Rain came, and she breathed deep the moist air, feeling life come back to her flesh after endless deserts. Water sluiced down the hillsides and made streams and then rivers that coursed with mud and rocks. Twice she was swept off her feet, and twice she caught herself after bruising impacts against massive trees. Grimly, in spite of pain and exhaustion beyond the comprehension of most men, she fought on through the night.
At last came a splitting peal of lightning and a torrent that washed her away and sent her coursing down the muddy banks to finally crash into a reed-choked mire, the surface of the water thick with sickly purple flowers and spreading weeds. Alzarra struggled to the surface, spitting out foul-tasting water, and fought through the clinging plants to the bank. Only then, in the flicker of lightning, did she see the bank move.
She thrashed back through the water as the thing that lay there rose up, turning a heavy reptilian head and watching her with eyes that glowed. Something like a spined fish and something like a saurian form long dead from the world, it surged in the water and snapped at her with jaws wide enough to split her in half. The surge of it's motion washed her back, and she went under the water as it lunged again, the bulk of it crushing her down.
The knife in her scaled hand drove up and stabbed deep into the flesh of it, and the thing threshed away from her, its blood stinging her eyes as she fought free and broke the surface. The slashing rain tormented the water and lightning crazed the heavens above the leaning canopy of the trees. Those jaws came for her again and she hacked at them with knife and broken sword, driving it back with furious blows. It bellowed, a sound so deep it shook the water around her, and then it rushed with all the power of its massive body.
Jaws closed on her and she braced them open with her body, arms and legs straining to hold them open, glassine teeth snapping under her blades. The rush bore them both backward until it pushed her up onto the shore, scouring a path through thick mud as it clawed at the bank, trying to force her into its jaws to crush and rend and devour. Sharp teeth gashed her thighs and shoulders, and she felt its dagger tongue slashing at her legs, ripping through her boots.
Alzarra braced her scaled hand against it to hold back the jaws and stabbed in the broken flinder of her blade with all her strength. She struck again, and again, and then she pierced the glowing eye and the thing bellowed and spat her forth as ichor ran down over her blade and gouted into the water.
She clawed at the mud, trying to get her feet under her, but she was deep in the mire. The vile humor on her sword glowed in the dark as she fought through the muck until she could fling herself across a fallen tree. The thunder screamed overhead and the beast came for her a final time.
It crushed through the mud and lunged with jaws yawning wide, and as it reached her in its fury it impaled itself on the broken branches of the tree and blood poured over her. It screamed, the fetor of its breath like opening graves, but she stabbed her blades in under its jaw and ripped them out in a torrent of red that poured over her and then washed into the rain. The beast twisted, snapped at her, and buried its teeth in the wood with a sound like planks tearing apart. It twisted as if it would rise, then sagged into the mere one last time, a hulk of slaughtered meat.
Gasping, mastering the pain of a dozen new wounds, Alzarra dragged herself from the log and crawled until she found ground that was solid enough to walk on. She staggered to her feet, glad to let the downpour wash away the blood and the muck as she turned and fought her way once more into the ageless forest.
The jungle was a maze of twisted trees and treacherous swamp, filled with clouds of bloodthirsty flies, immense serpents, and spiders that screamed in human voices when they leaped upon her. For three days she saw few signs of the fabled black cities, and then here and there some signs emerged from the stygian jungle. An ebon obelisk, an obsidian altar among the tumbled pillars of some cyclopean temple, and then, at last, she stepped from the steaming forest and looked on Sagatheron, the City of the Accursed.
It was silent as the graves it guarded, and all of gleaming black stone cracked and broken with age. Vines grew upon the ruins, winding the pillars in veils of green and poisonous violet flowers that dripped with death. Alzarra stepped over vines thick as her waist as she made her way into the dark heart of that ancient city. She looked on the coiled, serpentine shapes carven on the dead walls and felt a kinship stir within her, a feeling of the familiar she could not shunt aside. Dirty, battered, and half-naked, she walked down streets that had not known the tread of a human foot in a thousand years.
At the center of the city, within a wide plaza fraught with thorny vines and flowers that moved of their own accord, stood a tower black as the void behind the stars. It rose against the overcast sky implacable and silent, inimical in its very presence. That anything raised by the hand of man could stand so after so long seemed to hint at gods or powers which were unknown.
It drew her, the shadow of it looming up against the green of the forest and the heavy sky. She saw the marks of flood-tides on the stone, where the rainy seasons inundated this place, a last echo of the wrath of dead gods. She crossed until she stood beneath it and looked up, seeing the unmarked sides, the way no vine or creeper trespassed upon the threshold. She saw no mortar, and no boundaries of stone. The tower rose whole and complete, as if it stood when the very world was made.
Arches stood open around the base, yawning black as the eyes of a skull. She moved toward them, wary and exhausted and half-dreaming as she looked at it. In her mind the city rose up around her as it had been when it lived. She imagined the streets clean and shining black, the buildings standing all around her in gleaming ebon arches and pillars and towers. She saw fountains and pools, carpets of red flowers, and people with dark faces dressed in glimmering barbaric splendor.
For a moment, the city breathed, its heart beat, and then it was gone, and Alzarra stood alone in an ancient ruined city, ten centuries dead. She looked into the arch at the base of the tower, and saw a glimmer, as of gold. She stepped within.
Here was a chamber that filled the whole of the tower's base, the domed roof looming above her. A greenish light shone down on all, making the carved black stone take on the aspect of reptilian flesh. Here was a stone crypt covered over with serpentine designs and words in a script no living man could read. The massive slab that covered it was cracked in two from ages of time and season upon season of floods that left the floor thick with dead weeds and caked silt.
Alzarra touched the sarcophagus, caressed the black stone, and then she gripped the edge and dragged the broken half aside and let it crash to the floor. Beneath it lay the remnant of a skeleton, all but worn away, yet still cased in a coat of scaled armor, surmounted by a gleaming crown, and in rotted hands it clutched a long and deadly blade.
She would not take the crown of a dead king, and when she touched it the scaled armor crumbled, the leather beneath long since rotted. But the sword, the sword came free into her grasp. The hilt was long, meant for a two-handed grip, and the scaled wrapping and golden fittings looked as fine as the day they were crafted. The blade glimmered green in the strange light, the steel dark, marked by patterns of crystals that looked like scales to her eye. She held it and felt the fine weight, the sweep of the balance. This she would take.
Alzarra turned and left the king where he slumbered, stepped once more out into the sun, and then looked up as an arrow splintered against the black stone beside her. There in the open plaza at the heart of Sagatheron, three figures stood and awaited her. They wore golden mail now dark with mud and their cloaks were tattered and stained with blood. Two of them held their long sabers at the ready, the third bent his bow anew.
"You have run far, accursed one, but now we have you, and your head shall go back with us to the Hall of the Slain." The one who spoke held up his sword and pointed it at her. "The rest of you shall remain here, a fitting end for your detestable flesh."
The archer loosed and she ducked back into the tower, heard the arrow ring from the archway. Then two more of them lunged at her from where they had crept on her unseen, and steel rang on steel in the dark of the tomb. The Lions were fabled swordsmen, but they had never faced an enemy as desperate and ferocious as Alzarra. One of them swept his long saber in at her throat and she parried with a flash of green sparks, shoved his blade aside and then turned and hacked at the other one and her stroke rang against his helm with a force that staggered him.
They both attacked at once and there was a snarl of metal, and then she reached out her scaled hand and caught at a throat, crushed it with all the strength she possessed, feeling the flesh part and blood spray out over her arm. She shoved the body aside and then she and the other man were sword to sword. She drove him back with a furious onslaught and they reeled out into the daylight again.
Alzarra realized her mistake just as another arrow sang and slashed across her back. Then the archer threw down his bow and empty quiver and drew his own sword. The other three rushed to close on her as the man she fought renewed his assault and held his ground. She pretended to fall back and then suddenly rushed upon him. In both her powerful hands the serpent sword sheared through mail and shoulder-bone in a gush of blood and he dropped to the stone almost cloven in two. She whirled with blooded sword to face the other three, when a hideous cry echoed over the jungle city, and they all hesitated.
Above them all, at the top of the tower, something stirred, and then screamed in wrath as it awakened. Alzarra saw something move, and then a horror as no man had seen in an age crawled from the ruins of the tower and into the light. It swarmed on many jointed legs, with a long tail tipped with a stinger long as a dagger's blade, but the foremost part of it was as a man, with two arms and a head, though not a head as any man ever possessed. Who could say what blighted pits of antiquity it had slithered from to dwell in this ancient city?
It crawled down the tower to reach them, legs clicking and clawing at the immutable stone, and then it reared up to a fearful height, an ancient and rusted sword in each hand while its head unfolded into a yawning, nightmare maw filled with rasps and fangs. The tail lashed like a dragon's, and then it came for them all. The corroded blades it clutched in clawed hands were jagged but still deadly, and it cut at them with furious speed, screaming as it attacked.
The fearful rush overwhelmed one of the Lions, and he was dashed to the earth and then impaled on the black spike of the stinger. It left him convulsing in its wake, shrieking as the venom devoured his flesh from the inside. Alzarra saw him twist hard enough to snap his own bones and vomit black blood across the stone.
The other two men fought desperately, parrying the deadly swords and the ripping claws of the thing's forelegs. She saw their counter-strokes glance off the black carapace without making the slightest mark. It turned and swept at her with its tail, knocking her off her feet, and she rolled aside just as the stinger came for her, scarring the stone and leaving a trail of smoking venom.
She leaped up as the tail coiled for another blow and hewed down upon it. The supernatural edge of the serpent blade severed the tail with a single stroke, and the beast howled in wrath. It cut down one of the Lions with a sword-stroke that ripped him in half and sent the pieces flying into the hungry flowers, scattering blood. Then it turned on her, jaws clashing like spears.
It attacked, and Alzarra met it stroke for stroke. The dead king's sword chewed pieces from the ancient blades with every cut and parry until one of them shattered. She lunged in and ripped across the monster's belly, spilling out a cascade of yellow viscera and a torrent of black blood that bit her lungs with acrid stench. The thing bellowed and hammered at her guard until her bones rang with the power of the strokes, and then its other sword snapped off at the hilt and she cut once, ferociously, taking off head and arm both at once.
The destroyed thing writhed away from her, legs hammering against the stone as it staggered, collapsed, and flailed at the air, black blood pouring out of it. She reeled back from the stink of the thing, and only saw the flash of the sword coming for her at the last moment. She flung up her own blade in a desperate parry, and then she and the last of her pursuers faced one another on the field of death.
"Now you will die, abomination," he said, breathing heavily. She saw the exhaustion in his eyes, even as the fanaticism drove him onward. He set both hands on his heavy saber and attacked her, their blades singing and screaming together. They fought in a circle, sparks scattering, gashing one another with small wounds. She dented his helm, and cut his corselet in a dozen places.
Berserk, he cut straight down from above with all his power, and she met his attack and shoved it aside, then smashed her scaled fist into his face. When he staggered she hacked off his right arm. Sword and hand both dropped to the stone as he clutched at the stump, and then she drove her blade through him, golden mail links snapping under the deadly edge.
She ripped her sword loose and he fell, staining the black stones with his blood. Nearby flowers leaned closer, seeking to drink the coursing red from his failing body. He groaned in agony and Alzarra set her foot on his helm, shoved until the straps broke and it tumbled free. She looked down into his bloodied, ashen face as he coughed red foam into his black beard.
"Now," she said. "Before you die you will tell me why you hunted me across half the Old Empire, even to this foul place. Speak!"
"You are abomination," he said through clenched, bloody teeth. He clutched his severed stump in his other hand and red ran through his fingers. "We will hunt you, all of you. The mark of the serpent shall be extinguished." He looked at her left hand, the monstrous one, and she held it up, streaked with black and red blood across the black scales.
"This? You hunt me because of this?" She stepped closer and put her foot on the wound in his belly. "Speak!"
"Do not pretend you do not know the truth!" he spat, drooling red. "When the gods cursed Sagatheron the black monsters fled to all lands, and mixed their evil blood with the most debased and depraved of humanity. You are the black offspring of that union! We, the Lions of Gazan, will hunt all who bear the mark, until we extinguish your line from the face of the earth!"
In a fury, she gripped his hair in her scaled left hand and with the sword she sawed through his neck and ripped the head free. She watched his blood course over the stone, stepped away as the twisted plants writhed toward the body, flowers like mouths seeking to drink. Blood dripped from the head, and the face twitched, finally stilling in an expression of fixed and unending hate.
She held the head up, looked into the dead face. The hair clutched in her scaled fingers. Now she understood the sense of familiarity she felt in this place. This was the city of her ancestors, the Serpent Kings of Sagatheron. Their bloodline, diluted over so many ages since their empire was flooded and washed away, ran in her veins.
What other lands did they flee to? Now she thought on the Veiled Kings of Knar, the Serpent Corsairs of the Ukar Islands - whispers and rumors and legends. Now she knew them for her kin - perhaps others who were born with the mark of the serpent upon their flesh.
She went back into the tower, to the tomb of the Serpent King. In the dark she placed the head upon the stone as an offering, and she took the crown from within the crypt. It gleamed of uncorrupted gold set with black and crimson jewels, the tines made of the white fangs of long-dead monsters. She drew it down onto her own head, and walked from that place bloodied but unbowed. She took a shirt of golden mail from a dead Lion, and when she stood she was no longer a wanderer, or a fugitive. She was Alzarra Dragonhand, the sword and crown of her lost race.
Blood and ruin behind her, she turned away from the north, and from the Black City, and she went south into deeper jungle, toward the sea. There she would find a ship to take her away from this land and into others, where she would seek out the other descendants of her bloodline, and then perhaps what was lost, could rise again. A new chronicle of empire carved in blood and steel by her own hand.