(This story is a sequel to "Scion of the Black Tower")
Alzarra Dragonhand came over the sea and to the faded city of Knar, riding the prow of a black ship with her dark sword at her side. She was tall; lean and hungry like a sea-wolf. Her skin was dark and her black hair was braided like a knot of serpents. Her left hand was armored with black scales, and thus was given her name, a name feared in a hundred cities and hunted across the endless expanses of the old empires.
The ship rode the gentle wind in between the towering pillars that guarded the harbor. Long ago there had been a great sea-gate in this place, but now the stone was stained green with age and crumbled down into ruins that slumbered like the shapes of ancient glory hidden beneath burial shrouds. Ahead of her she saw the city itself arising from the cold mists, like a shadow in a forgotten dream.
It was familiar to her, though she had never seen it before. Every line and arch and tower looked right to her eye. The city was dark in the overcast day, hollow with shadows and empty places. The waters of the sea gathered at the edge of the docks green with weeds and choked by refuse. The smell of neglect and rot drifted over the slack tide, and the waves were marked by the slumped ruins of proud buildings now long subsumed into the sea, crumpled beneath the march of the waters.
Knar was a dying city. Once the outpost of a great empire, it remained like a single bone of a rotted body thrust up from the earth. Roads and walls and kingdoms died away and yet it remained. Much of it was abandoned, with far too few people still dwelling in the rotted stone towers and the open-roofed ruins. The great edifices were stained with algae and lichens, dripping with moss in the constant wetness of the climate. Knotted trees sprouted between the stones, and vines crawled and hung everywhere she looked.
Alzarra stepped off the boat when it drew up to the ancient jetty. The waterfront markets were sullen and gloomy, the narrow pathways choked by hooded people going silent about their way. She drew her own cloak over her shoulders and her hood up over her head. But she made no effort to conceal her scaled arm, as indeed she never would. It was the mark of her destiny, and she would not hide it.
She made her way through the narrow streets, up the long, winding stairs between walls dripping with moss and hungry roots. Rats crawled in the broken ends of sewers and peered up through the drains, and the whole city stank of miasma and decay. She looked up, past the layers of filmy mist and low-hanging clouds, to where the dark towers of the Veiled Kings loomed over all like vast sentinels cut from dead stone. There, in those ancient halls, dwelled the last of the line that had made this city great in ancient days. There she would go, and allow nothing to prevent her.
She pushed through a night market hung with red lanterns, the narrow pathways filled with puddles edged by slime. She passed booth where merchants sold the loot of a hundred kingdoms. Treasures looted from the Deserts of Yrin and the Sea of Dead Stars. She smelled spices brought across the long routes from Memnor and Varr, saw idols worked in the likeness of the Eye in the Waste – that great brooding statue that guards the road across the vast deserts of Kalan. She heard music from Yvir, and smelled the spicy cooking of the small men of Thray. And she knew she was being followed.
It was too close in here for her sword, so she kept her scaled hand on the hilt while she reached down with her right and drew her long knife. She held it close to her side, under her cloak, so it was hidden. The night was filled with sounds and smells and voices in a dozen languages. Knar was a crossroads of so many fading places, so many forgotten peoples the world was leaving behind.
She found a dark, narrow alley and ducked into it, under a heavy fringe of hanging moss and into the blackness behind it. She waited there, poised like a hunting beast, and two men came into her view. They were low, squat men with cowls over their faces and heavy, glistening hands that gripped the hilts of their daggers, ready to draw them forth.
Alzarra did not give them time. She burst from the alley and with one strike she disemboweled the first man from crotch to throat and hurled him to the ground in a welter of his own spreading guts. The other one drew his blade and she saw it was saw-edged and dripped with an unknown venom. He lunged for her but she caught his wrist with her scaled left hand and gripped it with such strength that his bones broke and he cried out and let the poisoned blade fall. It rang on the wet stones, and the other inhabitants of the marketplace scattered to get away from her and her prey.
She thrust back the man’s cowl and looked on a bloated, membranous face without a nose. Two narrow, slitted eyes glared from the warty flesh, and the wide mouth yawned open and jabbered at her in an incomprehensible tongue. Alzarra put her dagger against the thick throat until the blade began to cut. “Tell me what you want,” she said, her voice like cold iron.
“You bear the mark,” it hissed in a thick voice. “You bear the mark uncovered for all to see, and for that you must die!”
“Better than you have said that,” she replied, and slashed his throat through with one hard cut. She let the bleeding body drop to the stones and cleaned her dagger on her cloak before the sheathed it. The poisoned knife lay in a puddle, the blood stain creeping over it, and she watched how the blood turned black when it touched the poisoned edge. With a sneer she stomped on the blade and snapped it in half. It would take more than this to keep her from the halls of the Veiled Kings.
The stair to the palace was long and narrow. It rose up from the sleeping streets and there was no rail or parapet, so there was a sheer drop to either side away into the mist that gathered below. Black-shelled crabs scuttled among the cracked stones, and dread-looking gray seabirds with straing red eyes watched her ascent. She climbed until she came to the tall doors that closed off the palace of the kings. There was no guard, and no sentry. She touched the deeply-carved bronze green with age, dripping with mosses, and she pushed the doors open with her scaled hand.
Within, the halls were silent, and she saw furtive motions from the corner of her eye as huddled servants cowled and shrouded hid from her in the shadows. The floors were drifted with silt, as if the palace had been flooded, and she saw among the debris the yellow glow of bone. She walked the silent halls with her hand on her sword, watchful.
She came to a stair, and she looked up and saw at the top of it a shadowed arch, and beneath it stood a slight figure covered by a veil so long it trailed upon the ground. The shape bore no sword not crown, so she climbed toward it, and when she was nearer she saw it was a young girl, small and light of frame. She stood with her hands gathered and folded before her, and Alzarra could only just see the outlines of her face beneath the pale silken shroud which covered it.
“Welcome, kindred to the blood,” the girl said, her voice very soft. “I can see upon you the mark of the serpent, but never have I seen one of the bloodline so tall and so strong. Nor ever have I seen one dressed for battle in armor and sword. Tell me, who are you? Where do you come from?”
“I am Alzarra, called by some Dragonhand, for this.” She held up her scaled left arm. “I am from many lands, and have been to many places. I have just come from ruined Sagatheron, where I fought a battle, and bore away the spoils of a tomb.” She drew her sword, slow so the girl would not take fright, and held it up. “This was the sword clutched in the hands of the dead king. Do you know of it?”
“The sword of the last king of Sagatheron,” the girl said. “It was named Shamat, the Poisoned Sword. It was said that the slightest cut of the edge would slay any not of the blood. Have you witnessed this?”
“I have not,” Alzarra said. She sheathed it slowly, careful of the fine edge.
“So you have cut no one with it?”
Alzarra laughed. “I have cut no one who lived long enough after to die of poisoning.”
“Oh,” the girl seemed surprised.
“I also took this.” Alzarra reached into her bag and brought out the golden crown, held it up so the light glinted on the raw jewels embedded in it. “I thought then on the stories of the veiled kings of Knar, and how they hide their faces so that their dragon blood is hidden from the unworthy. I came to show them the crown, and to seek the history of my race. Once we were a great people, but our cities were destroyed and our empire broken. I would learn what became of us.”
There was a silence, and the girl moved her hand as though to reach for the crown, but she did not. “Then you have come to. . . to study? To seek our archives?”
Alzarra laughed again. “I have come to see the Veiled King. Take me to him.”
The girl gasped and ducked her head. “No. You do not understand, that is not possible.”
“Why is it not? He is a king, take me to his throne hall. I would speak with him. I have come far and would not wait longer.” She gestured around her. “I see no one else waiting to attend him.”
“You do not understand,” the girl said. “No one sees the king. He admits no one. No one has looked on him in many years. He does not wear a veil to earn his name. All the kings of the blood have dwelled in the sacred throne hall, behind the veil that covers the entrance. No one sees them from the day they are crowned.”
Alzarra was becoming annoyed. “That may be true, but I am of the blood. I have come from far away bearing relics of our house, and I seek to meet with the one who calls himself the veiled king so that I may speak with him. I am not interested in strange customs and foolish rituals. I wish to meet your king, and I will meet him.” She glowered, and the girl shrank back.
“Forgive me, I do not wish to offend you. I will. . . I will convey your request. It is possible that once your quest is made known, the king might decide to see you after all. At least, he may speak with you, even if you are forbidden to see his face.” The girl bowed. “I offer you the hospitality of the kings of Knar. Rest here, in this place. I will have rooms prepared for you, and you will be treated as an honored guest. I will pass on your message, and perhaps tomorrow there will be an answer for you.”
Alzarra ground her teeth together. She had little patience with self-important lords and men who thought themselves above mere mortals, but she had come a kind of supplicant, so she resolved to treat with respect as long as she could. “Very well. But I will not wait longer than that. I am not a commoner to be put off to no purpose. I will not be treated poorly.”
The girl bowed. “You shall not be. I will convey your request with all respect and all urgency. Come, I will show you where you may rest and await.”
The room was as ancient and dank as the rest of the palace, and Alzarra was displeased by the mold on the ancient walls beneath the discolored tapestries. She sat down on the low bed and carefully cleaned her armor and harness and weapons. She had traveled long over the sea and her gear was encrusted with salt and heavy with the damp air. The sword of kings she did not worry herself with, for it had endured ages exposed in the jungle, but her mail and dagger and boots were not so invulnerable.
She did not relax. She disliked being in this place, alone in a room they had chosen for her. The door was not locked and she peered out into the high, dark halls, looking for anyone watching her. It was too quiet and too still. She began to think that what she sought was not to be found in this place. If she sought the origin and the wellspring of her race, this did not seem to be a place for it. This place was dying, a gangrenous manifestation of the passing of years.
Sword in hand, she slipped out into the hall and sought a place of concealment. The stonework was heavy and bare of elaborate carving, but there were enough cracks and vines for her to climb up and perch herself in an alcove above over a high arch. One a statue had stood here, perhaps. Now Alzarra sat down with her poisoned sword over her knees and waited. She ran her hand over the steel, seeing the subtle scaled pattern embedded in the grain. Shamat. Well, that would be a good enough name.
She waited as the meager light of day faded in the halls, and the night settled with the calls of sea-birnds without and soft sounds within. Alzarra heard them and knew them for dragging footsteps. She did not move, only listened, and she smelled a musky odor beneath the damp stink of the palace. Her scaled hand touched the walls, and she wondered what other scaled hands had shaped this place.
More sounds, and she gathered herself as shadows filled the hall below. There were six of them, and then a few more from another passageway. They were heavy and squat, like the men outside in the city. These came prepared for battle, with shimmering mail armor and curved swords at the ready. She wondered if their blades were envenomed as well, and she imagined they must be.
The killers skulked to the door of her room below, and they gathered themselves at the entrance. Two of them drew long knives in their free hands and braced their shoulders against the door. Alzarra tensed like a crouching panther, every skein tight with purpose, her veins singing a killing song.
The men burst her door open and rushed inside, and Alzarra leaped down from her hiding place and rushed in among them with her sword held high and ready for the killing to begin. She struck them from behind with two great, ripping strokes that sheared through their mail and carved through flesh and bone beneath. Blood splashed the stone, and the dying began.
They turned on her, their small eyes glowing with reflected light, and their swords flickered greenish in the light of the lanterns. She laughed and met them as they rushed for her, and there was the clash of steel in the ancient halls. She parried their sword-strokes and struck back with her terrible, unstoppable strength. Her dragon sword snapped their blades and drove through their bodies, and in moments she was wading in their spilled blood. One tried to slip around and flank her, and she cut off his head with one blow and kicked his body aside to pulse blood out in a river. She killed another with a blow that rent him from shoulder to breast, and then the others turned to flee.
She let them, all save one. The last one was not away when she cut low and into his leg, dropping him screaming to the floor. She dashed the sword from his fist and pinned him there, foot on his chest, and he blubbered and writhed to get away. She put her sword down so the blood on the steel dripped onto his face, and he stilled, panting, staring from his flat, slumped face with his ratlike eyes.
“You,” she said. “Who are you?”
“We are the guardians of the bloodline,” he gasped. “We protect the sanctity of the king, and the line of kings!”
She looked at his flat, almost noseless face. “You have some of the blood in you, though it is not doing you any great service.”
“We are of the fallen line, we are the guardians, blessed with the barest drop of the blood.” He glared at her. “You are a thief. You have stolen the bloodline of the ancient kings, and you have the crown. We must have the crown!”
“You’ll see the crown when I see the Veiled King.” Alzarra reached down and dragged the man to his feet, ignoring his whimpering at his wounded, bleeding leg. “You’re going to take me to him. Now.”
“No! No outsider may enter the presence of the king! It has never been allowed!” He thrashed, trying to get free, and she cracked his head against the wall to make him stop. He cried out and clutched his head. “No one! No one may look upon the king!”
“I will look upon him, and if I do not like what I see, I may cut off his head as well!” Alzarra gave him a shove and sent him stumbling over the corpses of his companions. “Now march!”
She forced him, staggering, through the empty halls, seeing trails of blood left by the wounded who fled before. Before they reached the hall he began to wheeze and clutch at his throat, his eyes turning dark and dripping blood, and then as they entered the antechamber outside the throne hall, he gave a fatal gasp and fell dead at her feet.
Alzarra looked up and saw the veiled girl awaiting her at the top of the steps, or perhaps it was another girl – she could not say. She climbed the broad steps with her bloodied sword in hand, and the girl did not try to prevent her, merely drew aside and bowed low. Alzarra left her behind and entered a long hall, high and arched, and at the end there hung a pallid veil of silk, slowly moving in the stifled air of the palace.
Down the long hall, past alcoves inset with images of kings past carved from alabaster. The oldest were dark with time, yet the most noble in feature. As the ages passed, the likenesses of the kings became more abhorrent, more deformed, and then there were no more, only empty pedestals overgrown with slimy fungi and lichens. At last she came to the veil, and she reached up and ripped it aside, strode at last into the forbidden throne hall of the Veiled Kings of Knar.
It was a vast space, lit only by guttering lamps and a few narrow windows high on the walls to admit the light of the stars. There was a great throne against the far wall, so overgrown with vines and encrusted with calcite that it seemed a relic of the deep seas. Shells lay scattered on the floor and crushed as under a great weight.
Alzarra turned her gaze from the empty throne and instead looked on the great pool of water that dominated the center of the chamber. It was thick with weeds, the edges green with algae and stinking of sea salts. A ripple spread across the surface, and she put both hands on her sword as something huge moved under the slack waters. It swirled, and heaved, and then the great form beneath heaved into sight, and she looked upon the last of the hidden tyrants.
It towered in the darkness, dripping with water and glistening with beslimed scales. The hunched back was jagged with a spined frill, and the heavy head swung side to side as the immense, dark eyes sought her in the gloom. It was human in form but misshapen, and twice the size of any man. One arm was long, the other short and undersized. The spine was twisted and spiked, and the great jaw did not fit together, hung open and drooling. It hissed and waded toward her, and she knew, then, what had become of the once-mighty veiled kings.
There had been too few with the bloodline, and so to preserve it, they fell to inbreeding. Perhaps the servants were allowed to cross with humankind, but the royal house was forced to breed with itself over and over, through centuries, until all that remained of the line of kings was a succession of deformed monstrosities, hidden away from the people they were born to rule.
It lunged out of the water with a howl of tormented fury, and the long arm lifted the jawbone of some deep-sea creature like a saw-edged axe. Alzarra leaped aside as it smashed the weapon down and shattered the tiles of the floor. The creature stank of a thousand years of drowning, and she felt her blood seethe at the insult this mindless creature was to her once-high bloodline. They had come to guard and coddle it, feed it and rule in its name, until they would kill any other who bore the mark of the bloodline to preserve the last thread of this decayed house.
Alzarra gripped the sword named Shamat and hewed at the scaled hide, ripping open a long slash in the bunched thigh, parting the thick scales in a gush of blood. The things howled at her and turned to strike again, and they fought in a sudden whirl of fury across the floor. Stone was rent and shattered and fell to the floor, splitting the tiles. Alzarra ducked the stroke of the jawbone and then struck it, cutting it cleanly through. The king struck her with the back of his hand and dashed her against the wall. He lunged and pinned her down, yawning his malformed jaw to bite.
Her scaled hand struck his teeth like a mailed fist and snapped his teeth, sent him reeling back in pain, and she dragged her sword up and drove it into his belly. The king shrieked in her face as she pulled the blade across, opening his guts for the night air.
He ripped free, fell to the floor, and began to drag himself for the water with daemonical energy. Alzarra sprang up and ran after him. At the edge of the water she caught him, and he turned in a welter of his own spilling guts to fight her. His claws raked at her flesh, ripping links free from her mail, drawing her blood to mingle with his.
She struck a terrible blow and sheared off his long arm just below the shoulder, and jets of blood shot out and flooded over the water, coloring it with the black royal ichor. He threw his head back to scream and she swept her blade hissing through his throat. She cut off his cry and he fell back, pouring his life out into the waters that birthed him.
She stood there, breathing hard, smelling the hard stink of spilled blood. At last she took the crown from her side and held it up, then washed it in the blood and rinsed it in the waters. This was not the home of her race, this was not where she could learn the history of her people, and how they might be remade. This was a tomb. Once she had refused a crown, but now she set it on her head and walked out of that charnel place. Ever after she would be counted as the last Queen of the fallen city of Knar.