The rising moon was red upon the desolate horizon, and wind moaned around the tents and fires of the army. All around rose the foothills of the Ushramu mountains, stark and treeless, black against the jeweled sky. The camp spread out along the narrow river that snaked through this ancient valley, every tent staked tight against the night winds. Banners fluttered and snapped like the fires themselves, and the men around them drank their wine and looked up to the ruined tower that thrust black into the sky. The stories told of that tower were passed from fire to fire, and those who heard them for the first time shuddered and made signs to protect against evil.
In a grand black tent at the camp’s heart lamps were lit and voices raised. Inside was a panoply of stolen finery: rugs and tapestries, silks and jewels. Gold spilled carelessly from cedar chests, and lovely young girls lounged naked upon silken cushions, their only adornment baubles and trinkets ripped from the bodies of princesses and kings. Braziers of green copper breathed strange incense into the close air.
At the center of the great pavilion Sisyphus the Elamite, usurper and wizard, reclined upon his divan, resplendent in his black-jeweled robe. His shaved skull reflected the red lamplight, revealing the whorled tattoos that covered his scalp. Only a single scalp-lock of his black hair trailed from his head into a knot of braids. His eyes were dark as burned iron, lit by his terrible ambition and dark powers.
Ranged before him were his three lieutenants. Allaz, the nomad chieftain, whose cruelty nearly matched his lord’s. Artabanus, betrayer of Anu’s dead king. And lastly Davios, the westerner, the mercenary commander. It was he who spoke.
“My scouts have confirmed the Kashans are drawn up to meet us in the valley of Nush, two days from here. Nush is the only watering place for many days around – we will have to fight them there, and they outnumber us two to one.” He was a strong man nearing middle years, with close-cropped hair and the ancestral ferocity of his race, who once had ruled all the lands around.
Allaz, the giant nomad lord, spoke in his rough voice. “We will need to water the horses before the battle, they will tire too quickly without enough water.”
Sisyphus laughed. “Tonight I will gain us an ally such as neither you nor the Kashans have ever seen, and neither water nor the numbers of our foes shall matter to us. Do you think we camp in this accursed valley by chance? No.” He waved his hand, and the fires of the lamps blazed up azure for three heartbeats. “Tonight I will bring to life the Dead King of Eresh, and in his hand the Red Sword will sweep all our enemies before us.”
The three men looked uneasy, as ever they were with their lord’s dark magics, but they were silent. They knew the cruel death that awaited any who questioned Sisyphus the Usurper.
He pointed at Allaz. “Make ready a score of your bravest men! For we must enter the tower and complete our business ere the moon sets.” He turned to Artabanus. “Fetch the sacrificial victims from their wagon. Keep them chained, and be quick.” They rose and left the black tent, wrapped tight in their cloaks against the evil wind. Sisyphus stood to his towering, cadaverous height and turned to Davios. “You will keep here and watch over my army. Any man sleeping on guard duty tonight is to be skinned alive and fed to the others. I smell danger on the wind, and it is not just that accursed tower looming over us. Go.”
With this command he dismissed his last lieutenant and turned to his own black preparations, fevered eyes intent on his dark work. And without the winds howled like lost souls in Sheol, where darkness covers the secrets of the grave.
The winds grew colder as they ascended the steep path that led from the valley floor up to the base of the black tower. Unseen things fluttered past in the dark, and the wind keened like a mourner. Allaz’s warriors huddled tight in their cloaks and whispered charms to ward off evil spirits, and even the great chief himself was cowed by the black ruin looming above them as they climbed. Behind them Artabanus led the six shivering prisoners, linked by chains neck to neck, their thin bodies trembling in the cold night.
Before all went Sisyphus, his black robe whipped like wings by the winds, his feet sure upon the narrow track. In his hands he clutched a great black book, bound in the black-scaled leather of a river-dragon. At his side hung his hooked, fatal sword, whose very touch was the kiss of an adder, and the curved knife of sacrifice. His eyes shone with exaltation as he led the party onward, drawing them with the power of his will until they reached the top, and stood upon the ancient black stone shelf before the sealed door.
Sisyphus gestured, and a green light sprang from his hand, flickered like flame to illuminate their fearful faces. The savages of Allaz drew back with oaths to their stone idols far away – they feared Sisyphus’ power more than they feared any mortal doom.
The usurper bared his teeth, his face made even more inhuman by the eerie light. “Now we shall enter where no living man has entered for a thousand years. In the elder days the gods cursed the king of Eresh and took from him his name, took his flesh, made him a prisoner here within his tower. This was his realm.” The wizard gestured all around. “Once green and fertile, now accursed and blasted by the gods’ fury, and by the dark powers of ancient, unnameable races the king called up. He sought to make himself immortal, but he angered the gods, and made his kingdom into desolation.”
He held up the black book. “Here is the secret of his binding, and the secrets by which he may be loosed! By night! With blood!” He stabbed a lean finger at the huddled captives. “By moonset we shall march with him and his demonic servitors at our side. And the Red Sword in his left hand will drink the blood of our foes.”
He turned and held up a hand to the black door, spoke a single foul word that hurt the ears to hear it, and the door opened.
The camp below was quiet save for the flickering of fires and the muttering of men. The warriors huddled over their flames for warmth, drinking fermented milk and telling tales of battle. Davios the mercenary sat awake in his tent, studying maps of the country and planning the march, his men camped close around him, Allaz’s barbarians beyond them. Horses cried out and the guard dogs began to bay.
She came out of the night, dark against the dark. No guard raised a cry. She slipped through the night to Davios’ tent and flung open the flap, stepped inside on a billow of wind. He leaped to his feet, staring.
She was tall, this night she-wolf, tall as a man, long of leg and arm. Her hair was dark as her almond-shaped eyes, slanted like a tiger’s. She had dusky skin and a beautiful face, her features speaking of noble birth and perhaps something darker--a whisper of the bloody race of Scatha, the slaughterers of old. She was dressed in dark boots with silken trousers above, a black leather jerkin and cloak that swirled in the lamplight like wings. She moved like a lioness, easy and sure. Fingerbones adorned her breast and a necklace of teeth hung at her throat. He saw the sword at her hip and rose, setting a hand to his own blade. “Who are you?”
She spoke as though he had not. “Where is Sisyphus, the black sorcerer?” Her voice was deep for a woman’s, and stern.
Davios drew his blade. “Who are you, speak!”
She struck the blade from his hand with a slap of her hand, sent it spinning away. He reached for his dagger, but she was quicker. She took his arm in a crushing grip and then lifted him from his feet with her other hand closed tight on his throat. He managed a single shriek as his arm snapped before her iron fingers closed off his wind. He thrashed in her grip, unable to believe her strength, and then he remembered the tales of Sisyphus’ seizure of the throne of Aru, and he knew what it was that faced him. “Nitocris!” he gasped.
She smiled a cold smile and his heart froze inside him. She was Nitocris the Ekimmu. The daughter of Aru’s old king, who had died by her own hand rather than submit to Sisyphus, and who rose from her hidden grave as a monster of the night bent upon vengeance.
Her voice was iron. “Where is he? Tell me or I’ll do worse than snap your neck.” She bared her teeth, and he saw them sharp as a wolf’s. If she destroyed him with her bite, she would devour his soul as well as his life.
“The tower!” He gasped with his last air. “He went into the tower!” His heart quailed at what Sisyphus would do to him for this betrayal, but the ivory gleam of her teeth was too great a terror.
Suddenly the tent flap was rent aside and the entrance filled with Davios’ soldiers, swords ready. At the sight of an intruder they shouted and surged forward to the attack.
With a contemptuous twist of her hand Nitocris ended Davios’ life in a crunch of bone and flung him in the path of her attackers. It gave them enough pause for her to leap back a step and draw her own sword, and then they were on her.
They were hard men, seasoned by battle and slaughter, but they were no match for her fury. Her first blow struck a man’s head from his body and sent it rolling into the embers of the brazier where it smouldered and sizzled. Blood gushed into the air as she met their rush in a crash of iron and flung them back by main force. They hacked at her, but their blades turned from her flesh. She struck through them and cut them down, one after another, and blood splattered on the silk walls of the tent.
Her sword was notched and blunted from the power of her blows, but their sheer force was still deadly. She hacked through armor and bone until her blade snapped. She threw it aside and fought with her hands, with all the awful strength of the undead.
A sword drove against her belly and she slapped it aside, caught the man’s head between her hands and crushed. He screamed horribly, dropped his blade to claw at her arms, but she only bore down harder until she felt his bones give under her strength. Gore burst from his eyes and poured from his mouth, and she pressed her mouth to his lips in an obscene parody of a kiss, drinking the life from him.
When she let him fall all was still, the air filled with the stench of burning flesh and bone, the copper reek of blood. Red painted the silk walls of the tent, and the floor was awash in bodies and gore. The slave girls cowered from her, and Nitocris took up a fallen blade and stepped out into the night. The men she saw ran from her as though she were death herself, and she smiled. The moon was high, and she could see the black tower above clear and brooding. She bared her fangs to the dark. Now she would have her revenge.
The interior of the tower was dark and smelled of the charnel pit. The light from Sisyphus’ hand revealed a sepulchral space of black, stained stone and thick cobwebs like the hair of strangled corpses. The nomad warriors followed him closely, gripping their swords and axes tight. Once out of the wind they lit torches and the firelight threw back the palpable dark. They looked around them, and shuddered. The walls were carven with blasphemous scenes, now covered with millennia of filth and dust, but what little was visible was hideous to see. Ancient, time-eaten shackles hung from the ceiling above the round pit in the center of the floor. A low wind blew from that fathomless hole, and it reeked of death.
Sisyphus approached the pit and looked down into the darkness. “Now we must hasten to appease the guardian of this place.” He gestured to Artabanus. “Bring me that one.” His dark finger pointed at one of the prisoners. A moan drifted up from the depthless pit, and the warriors shrank back.
Artabanus, his thin face pale with fear, dragged the man to where Sisyphus stood. The sorcerer beckoned. “Hurry, before it rises!” Impatiently he took the man’s hair in his fist and dragged him to his knees; his other hand passed his black book to Artabanus and then drew out his curved knife.
“Blood for the night-thing! For the devourer of all life!” He cried, and then he swept the blade across the man’s neck and blood gushed forth and into the pit. The floor trembled and he pushed the bleeding form off the edge to tumble into the vast dark. There came a rush of air, and a violent shuddering of the floor, and then a deep moaning. Then, all was silent again.
Sisyphus stepped back from the pit’s edge, beckoned to his men. The nomad warriors were wide-eyed and stiff with horror – not for the murder, for no act of blood was unknown to them – but for their supernatural dread of the unknowable. Artabanus was pallid and shaking, horror stamped on his features. But the black wizard was bright-eyed with eagerness for his goal as he took back his evil book. He crossed the black room and mounted the first of the wide steps of the stair that wound about the tower’s inner wall and led ever upward toward the pinnacle. “Come, we must reach the crypt of the accursed one before the moon sets, or all shall have been in vain. Follow me quickly, and do not stray from the stair. And if anything speaks to you from the shadows, do not answer.”
The moon was high when Nitocris came to the black door. She stank of blood and death, and fury burned in her dark eyes. The tower loomed overhead, dark as the places between stars, and yet filled with a brooding, inimical life. She did not fear it, but she sensed a power in this place, something unnatural and ancient, something that abided, and hated.
The door was ajar, and she pushed it open, the moan of its black-bronze hinges lost in the billowing wind. She stepped inside, sword in hand, smelled at once the fresh blood. The pit was still and black, and the stairs beyond it. She could see the passage of many in the dust upon the floor, but it was the smell of new blood she followed to the pit’s edge. Young blood, shed in fear. She sniffed, flicked her tongue to taste the air.
A groan rose from the pit and she stepped back, sword ready, as a wind began to blow from the deeps. She cursed herself for lingering, but she could not turn her back upon whatever thing lived in the pit. She heard chains rattle, horrid breathing, and smelled the overwhelming reek of the tomb. Nitocris, black queen of Aru, set both hands to her stolen sword and made ready.
Wind rushed up from the pit, and then the unseen thing burst forth from the underworld. It was like a bull and like a lion. It had four powerful legs and a lashing tail like a serpent, and it was huge – as big as six oxen. Its head was the head of a lion, but the eyes were burned pits, and the teeth were black and savage. Fresh blood dripped from its jaws, its shoulders and back were armored with scales like a dragon, but below hung mats of foul, gore-matted hair. And in the moment it rose Nitocris saw the worst thing of all: upon its back were four long scars like scorched earth, and she knew that this thing was one of the K’rubhim.
Born at the world’s making, they soared above the firmament on wings of gold. They had terrible power and did battle with the gods themselves. And this flesh-eater had once been one of them, the scars marking where its wings had been taken from it. She could not imagine what power could have so debased an immortal. But she had no time to wonder, as it turned to face her and bellowed like thunder.
It was huge, and powerful, and hateful beyond imagining, but Nitocris was swifter. She leaped from the path of its rush, barely evading the sickle talons upon its splayed, birdlike feet. The eyeless head lunged for her, teeth gnashing, and she brought her blade down upon its flesh in a great, two-handed blow. Sparks flew from the edge and scales parted, black-red ichor sprayed into the air, and Nitocris smiled. It bled, that meant it could die.
Filled with the lives she had drunk in the camp below, she rose up with awful vitality and smote it again as it pounced. This time her sword bit into its leg and struck hard against the bone. The thing shrieked and slashed at her with its talons, opening three deep wounds across her torso. Her blood, stolen from the living, flowed out and covered her, dripped to the floor. She reeled from the blow, caught herself against the wall. It roared and came for her again, webs and dust swirling around it in a storm.
This time she was ready, and the clawed limb that reached for her was too slow. She stepped in swiftly and cut down with all her unliving strength, both hands upon the blood-slick hilt, and the thing screamed as blood gushed from the wound. As it reared up she struck again, ripping open its side in a fountain of unnatural blood. It closed its teeth upon her left arm and lifted her from her feet, shook her side to side like a wolf. She screamed as she felt the awful tearing of meat and bone, and then she was flying across the room, rolling over and over on the smooth floor, blood gushing from the torn stump of her arm. She lost her sword and plunged over the edge into the bottomless pit.
The fingers of her right hand caught the edge and held on with iron strength. She strove to use her other arm, and then realized it was gone, only a stump streaming blood into the depths below. She could hear the thing breathing, growling as it tried to find her. She closed her eyes, marshaling her powers.
Suddenly the black jaws appeared above her over the rim. As it lunged she used every skein of strength in her body to pull herself upward and out, flinging herself over the void as no mortal could have done. She caught one of the dangling manacles with her hand and felt it begin to disintegrate the moment she laid hold of it, ancient iron crumbling like sand beneath her fingers as she swung across the pit. With a scream of metal the chain gave way and she landed hard upon the opposite side, rolled to a stop and lay there, weak from losing so much blood.
The thing screamed in fury and rose up, black blood trailing from its wounds. Nitocris rose and ran to where her sword lay shining and bloodied on the black stone. The thing reached for her with its hideous jaws just as she caught up her blade and carried through the motion into a sweep of her sword that bore all of her weight and power behind it. The edge struck the descending neck and bit clean through.
Black gore fountained as the neck parted and the head came free from the body and tumbled over her into the pit. The great body sagged down upon her but she rolled aside and thrust it over, heaving the great bulk over the edge and into the yawning abyss.
Nitocris collapsed and lay long upon the floor, feeling the coldness of the death-sleep creep upon her. With a snarl she fought it off and rose to her feet. She would not sleep yet. The sword in her hand was blunted and twisted out of true by her power, but it would still cut mortal flesh. There was living blood up the stairs, and living blood would give back her strength. With doom in her dark eyes Nitocris set her feet upon the black stair.
They heard the roar of battle rising from below, felt the tower shudder and jolt beneath them. The nomads paused upon the stair, fear in their eyes. The prisoners quailed. Even Allaz looked fearful and clutched tighter to his sword. They had climbed the stairs in silence, passing empty, darkened halls and whispering chambers full of the silence of the grave. Now they stood, uncertain, looked to Sisyphus as the sounds of titanic battle ceased.
He frowned, puzzled. “It cannot be. We gave a proper offering to the guardian. It cannot be rising against us.” He seemed lost in thought, tapping his fingers upon his lips.
“It is the devil-thing, come for our souls!” one of the nomads hissed.
“Silence!” hissed the black wizard. He grasped the hapless man by the face, and the green flames of his hand suffused him. The nomad went rigid and convulsed as power ate into his flesh. The sorcerer glared with avid pleasure as the lambent fire ate away his skin and viscera and then hurled him to the floor as a blackening heap of bone and charring meat. The others leaped back, averting their eyes, all but paralyzed by terror.
He turned to Allaz. “Leave nine men here. They will guard the stair in case anyone follows us. The rest of you, hurry.” And he turned and went on. Allaz gestured to the men, and they obeyed. They would rather be torn apart by wild dogs than remain here alone, but they would suffer such a fate a thousand times before they dared go against the black power of Sisyphus.
The nine warriors waited in the torchlit stillness, eyes searching the dark of the stairs below them for any motion, ears straining for any sound. The flame light danced on sword-edges and axes, on the bronze scales of their armor. The vast emptiness of the unseen hall near to them was like a weight, and each thought he might hear voices whispering in the charnel darkness, though none dared speak of it.
She crept across the web-hung ceiling, clinging with the powers of her undead kind. She was a shadow, a whisper in the dark. Nitocris dropped among them as silent as the dusk, and in that silence the sound of her battered blade as it sheared through a neck was loud and awful. Blood splattered the ancient stone, which seemed to drink it, absorbing it like rain on thirsty earth. They had a moment’s vision of her, her beautiful face painted with gore, her fangs gleaming like lion’s teeth, the uplifted gleam of her blade. Then she breathed out her war-cry like the cold night wind from beyond the north. They reeled back from the sound of it, dropping their weapons to cover their ears, and their torches snuffed out as one.
Now they did scream, blundering in the dark, falling over one another. She feasted on them, hearts and livers, sucking the hot blood from their severed necks until she was glutted, filled with the strength of their bodies and souls. She sighed and shuddered in pleasure as their lives filled her. Her strength extended down the veins that trailed from her torn shoulder, to fill the empty ghost-limb with blood and life until it took shape. Nitocris flexed her new left hand, felt the power in it, all her wounds healed. She took up a fallen sword, a curved nomad blade, and climbed toward the top of the tower where she would sheath her steel in the blood of Sisyphus.
By the wizard-fire the last door that awaited them at the top of the tower looked to be made of dried blood, it was so rusted and corroded by time. Sisyphus set his hand against it and spoke a single word, and the door flew apart, dissolving into dust. Without hesitation he stepped forward and into the room beyond. Allaz and his warriors followed with fear in their hearts, and last came Artabanus, dragging the five remaining prisoners, all of them now shuddering with fear.
The room was vast, with a high, domed roof set so far above it was almost invisible to them. Into the walls were cut alcoves as tall as a man, and in each alcove slumped a desiccated corpse, mummified by ages. At the center of the chamber, on a raised pedestal, was an ornate stone sarcophagus gilded with silver and copper now turned black and green by ages of time. Dust rose and curled in the air as Sisyphus strode unhesitatingly to the pedestal, his path lit by green fire. He stopped at the foot of the sarcophagus and gestured impatiently. “Allaz, you and your men guard the doorway. Artabanus, bring those sniveling fools here, and quickly! We have no time to waste.” The nomad lord gave silent thanks to his tribal gods as he took a position near the entrance, as far from the crypt as he could, while Artabanus dragged the chain of stumbling men to where Sisyphus awaited beside the ancient tomb.
The wizard laid his dark book upon the stone of the coffin and opened it, sifting pages carefully. As Artabanus came close, he could see the sarcophagus was surmounted by a carved lioness’ head, her mouth wide in fanged hunger. The sight made him shudder. The encircling ring of mummies seemed to move in the fitful firelight – to watch them – staring out with the hate of the dead for the living.
The black wizard seized one of the prisoners with his iron grasp. The man screamed as Sisyphus drew out his curved knife, but the shriek ended as he buried the blade in the man’s chest and ripped him open. Blood gouted and pooled on the ancient floor as he pushed his hand inside the dead man and wrenched out the still-quivering heart. He let the body fall and held up his gruesome trophy, began a sonorous chant in some unknown tongue, with words that seemed made for some voice other than human.
“Elikoi! Elikoi! Kammadda addat!” he shouted and placed the still-beating heart into the mouth of the stone lioness, where it slid from sight as though devoured. Green light sprang up, suffusing the pedestal and the sealed tomb. The nomads shied away, dividing their vigilance between the door behind them, and the bloody rite of the black sorcerer.
One after another he proceeded, cutting open the screaming prisoners and laying their hearts in the stone beast’s maw. The smell of blood filled the air with the stench of slaughter, and with each heart the sarcophagus blazed more brightly. Now red light suffused the green flame, crawling along the corroded copper like a living thing. Soon four bodies lay sprawled and lifeless upon the chill floor, and the last writhed in the wizard’s grip as he raised the knife.
The nomad nearest the door stood awash in fear, the doorway behind him forgotten. Now he gasped as pain lanced through him. He looked down just as his knees buckled, and saw a foot of red steel emerging from his chest. Blood filled his mouth. The torches all died into curls of smoke, leaving the scene lit only by the hellish green and red glow as the others turned.
They saw the point of the blade transfixing their companion, and then saw the steel rip upward impossibly, cleaving him in two from chest to shoulder, sending blood fountaining into the dark air to spatter the walls. The body fell and revealed behind him stood Nitocris, the Dark Queen of Aru in all her wrath.
Artabanus, who had been her husband in life, leaped forward with his sword already in his hand. “Kill her! Cut off her head! Kill the unclean thing!” Allaz shook off his fear and raised high his sword, shrieked the war-cry of his people; his living warriors answered him, and all sprang to the attack.
Nitocris met Allaz’s assault and their blades sang together, striking sparks. Two others hacked at her, but their blades would not cut her pale flesh. She laughed like the night-storm and flung Allaz back with her inhuman strength. He crashed to the dusty floor, stunned. The others closed upon her and she met them with both hands on her sword-hilt, scything the curved blade with all her power. She whirled and sparks flew from the brazen scales of nomad armor as she sheared a man in two, screamed her battle-lust as his severed torso sent a sea of red coursing about her feet.
They drew back from the fury of her onslaught, and quick as a viper she turned and ripped into them with great sweeps of her sword. She cleft a skull and her blade snapped in the bone when she wrenched it free. The last men attacked as one, and now, with her bare hands, she tore at them. She ripped and battered at them, hurling them back broken and bleeding.
The last man rose up before her, eyes wild with berserk fury, sword lifted high. She caught the blade in her hand as the blow descended, wrenched it him, and then punched her hand forward and through his ribs. He screamed and convulsed as her questing fingers closed upon his throbbing heart and ripped it free.
Then Allaz was upon her. She ducked his first savage blow, flipped the sword she held and caught the hilt. His next attack rang as she parried it. He snarled at her across their crossed blades. And in the bright metal of his sword she saw the furtive shape of Artabanus creeping behind her. With a snarl of her own she flung the still-beating heart into Allaz’s face, then whirled as gracefully as any temple-dancer.
Her blade lashed out and severed Artabanus’ arm at the elbow. It dropped to the floor, still clutching his sword, and he fell back screaming. She whirled back just in time to meet Allaz’s next stroke. She hacked at him, and their blades struck sparks as they clashed together again and again. He was a mighty swordsman, as massive as he was powerful, and they hammered their swords saw-edged as they battled across the grim floor. Finally, as their blades met yet again, Nitocris lashed out and shattered his sword with her fist. As he stumbled she set both hands to her own sword and scythed his head off.
He staggered grotesquely, but she seized his headless body and bit into his throat, sinking her teeth through vein and cord, filled her mouth with his hot warrior blood. She drank from the fountain of his life until it was drained, then let him fall to the floor, crumpled and destroyed.
Her limbs hummed with new strength as she turned to face her enemy, the blood that painted her black in the hellish light. Sisyphus stood beside the sarcophagus, his right hand holding the bloody knife, his left, the throbbing heart of his last victim. He met her gaze and laughed as he cast the final heart into the bloodied maw of the lioness.
With a roar of fury Nitocris pounced upon him, vaulting over the stone tomb, her sword lashing his knife blade to pieces. He leaped away from her, drawing his own hooked blade with an adder’s quickness. She was quick as death, strong as time, but Sisyphus was no stranger to the blade, and his blows were quick and strong as he met her murderous slashes and cuts. He parried and evaded her, slipping away from her blows. Blood drooled from her fanged jaws in the extremity of her fury, and she snarled like a lioness.
He fended her off, sparks flying where edge met edge. Her blade was notched and dulled, but his sword was of no ordinary metal. It had been made in a distant age far to the east. The metal of its edge was a potent venom, and would kill by the merest whisper of a cut. But Nitocris was of the undead, and no longer feared mortal poisons. Her strength was untiring and vast. She dashed his blade aside one last time and slashed, and the black wizard screamed, clutching his wounded chest.
Nitocris stepped to stand over him as he fell, the point of her sword at his throat. He looked at her and began to laugh. “Do you think I would expose my soul to your hunger? Or my blood? Both are far from here. By eldritch secrets I have removed my blood, my heart and other vitals and placed them where even you will never find them. You may strike down my body, but my spirit will rise anew.”
Nitocris swept up her blade for a final stroke. “And yet still you shall scream when I cut you down.”
Sisyphus gibbered gleefully. “So think you, night-demon. But it is you who will scream yet. Mittakka utala! Mish kaadda toh!” In a voice that cracked with utmost strain, the black sorcerer uttered the final words of his incantation.
The tower shook, and red light ran like blood over the stone walls, flooded the alcoves and the slouching mummies. With a crack like thunder the lid of the sarcophagus shattered, bursting upward and out as a great figure rose from within, a towering form limned with crimson light that dripped and ran like molten steel. Wrapped in its armor, crowned with gold and iron, with the Red Sword in its left hand, the King of Eresh arose from the grave.
Even Nitocris reeled as a soul-blasting hunger engulfed the room, an unseen wind of utter cold and echoing screams of endless horror. Sisyphus laughed like a man insane. “At last! At last! Arise!” He struggled to his feet, picked up his poisoned sword and pointed it at Nitocris. “Destroy her!”
But the red figure did not move. The withered flesh of its face opened wide and revealed the sharpened teeth. A dreadful, soulless cry echoed through the chamber, and the attendant corpses stirred in their funeral cerements. The Red King turned to face Sisyphus and lifted the Red Sword. It was a long blade, leaf-shaped and with a narrow waist, like the blades of the ancients. It gleamed crimson in the hell-light.
“Who dares command me?” The voice was like the crushing of bones.
The wizard stood clutching his wound, eyes wild. “I do! I who made the offerings as was told in the sacred writings! I have raised you and I may command you, Red King! Destroy my enemy!”
A sound came from the towering nightmare shape, a long and grating sound like nothing of the world or beneath it, and it was a moment before Nitocris realized it was the unholy King’s laughter. “You have not made proper offerings. You command nothing! What use would the Red Queen of Eresh have for the hearts of men?” With those words the apparition stepped from the sarcophagus and seized the wizard in her right hand, the dreadful sword lifting in her left. Her eyes shone with fire beneath her golden crown. The blade lifted for the death-stroke, and Sisyphus howled.
“No! No! You will not have me so easily!” He screamed as the blade descended; there was a flash of green fire, and the Red Sword cut only his empty robe.
The Red Queen screamed her fury and turned to face Nitocris. “You have awakened me to my suffering. For that you shall be destroyed, and the lives you have devoured shall be mine!” The Red Sword lifted anew, and the mewling dead closed in.
Nitocris leaped away from the Queen, away from the awful blade, and cut her way into the press of the unclean dead who came for her. Their flesh was dry and tough, but her strength was as tireless and mighty as ever. She hewed at them, cutting open their horrid bodies and letting forth the worms and stinking rot that filled them.
She cut them down, scything off heads and arms, cleaving them in half. She left a swath of destruction in her wake, and behind her the Red Queen came striding, lit from within like an ember from the furnace of the underworld.
Nitocris’ sword snapped, driven too far by her strength. She flung the useless hilt in the face of the foe bearing down upon her and prepared to meet the unnameable with her bare hands. She set her feet and felt something shift beneath her, looked down and saw Artabanus’ sword, still grasped in his severed hand. She snatched it up, tore his dead grip from it, and prepared to meet her enemy.
The Red Queen came upon her like a storm of death and flame, but only coldness washed over her as she evaded the first cut of the Red Sword. With a desperate cry Nitocris lunged and caught the hilt of the red blade and strove to wrench it from the Queen’s grasp. For long moments the two strained together, pushing and heaving, and the sword, upright, trembled but did not move.
Then Nitocris twisted and pulled, slipping aside, and hurled the Red Queen against her stone crypt. The gilded stone shattered, and the Queen crashed into the wreckage, fell to the black floor, and lost her grip on the hilt of the sword. Nitocris raised the blade high in both hands for a single instant, and then drove it point-first through the Queen’s breastplate, though her shriveled heart and into the floor. The tower itself rang like a gong, and the remaining mummies fell into lifeless dust as at a stroke.
Nitocris leaned heavily upon the sword’s bone hilt, recovering. The red glow faded until all was nearly dark, only the blade and the Red Queen’s eyes still lit with unholy fire. As she braced to pull forth the sword a dead hand came up and caught her wrist. Crimson fires burned in the undead eyes, fading quickly.
“Take it. Use it. Feed it.” The once awful voice was barely a whisper.
Nitocris leaned close. “Tell me its name.”
“Utukku, the Butcher of Souls.” And the light died, leaving only cold, and bone.
The night passed, and the army, led only by the one-handed prince of Aru, turned and retreated southward. The day was grim and the sun beat down like a hammer upon the still, black tower. The winds blew, dust rose and fell. The sun westered, and set.
When the night came all was stillness, even the wind was quiet, as if cowed. And when the moon rose the door of the tower opened and Nitocris stepped forth, dark eyes alight with purpose. The wizard had escaped her, at the end, but he would not escape again. She stepped out into the night, and in her hand was the bone hilt of the Red Sword once named Utukku, the Butcher of Souls.