(This story is the prequel to "The Red Sword's Lover")
In Anshan, the ancient city at the heart of Aru, the palace was lit by a thousand lanterns, and the scent of myrrh laced the air. Nitocris, only daughter of King Uresh, was to wed this night, and the city was dressed in its greatest finery. Kings of far lands, allies and foes, had all sent gifts to bless the marriage. There were fine silks from distant Gandara, gold and rich spices and resins from Maracanda. From Tyra came the famous blue dye, and from the Emperor in the north came a herd of six hundred fine white horses.
In her chamber, the dark-eyed princess was the center of a maelstrom of slaves and maidens. They hung her with silks and draped her with gold, and jewels gleamed in her hair and at her throat. The work of goldsmiths and jewelers crowned and bedecked her, and she looked lovely as a fever dream.
Her father came to see her as the sun lowered in the sky, dressed in his great robe of many colors. His hair was white and his beard rich and curled. He looked upon his daughter and smiled. “You are a vision of beauty,” he said. “The Goddess herself shall be envious, and Artabanus shall be lucky if Bal himself does not descend and carry you off.”
She looked on herself in the long, gold-rimmed mirror. Her dark hair was wrought into serpentine coils; her kohl-darkened eyes looked enormous. She was tall, with golden ornaments on her wrists and ankles. She was a strong girl.
Nitocris smiled at him. “My only regret is that mother did not live to see me wed.” She looked out over the city as it glowed in the sunset, the towers and domes lit golden as the sun lowered, shining on the river. “I would trade any or all of my fine rich gifts if she could be here for just this day.”
Uresh smiled and touched his daughter’s hair, his only child. “I would as well, my beloved. I would trade all.” He folded his hands behind him and looked out the window at his city. “I know this is not easy for you. You are of an independent mind.”
“I have chosen Artabanus,” she said. “He has respect, and grace. He will make a good husband, and a good king.” She looked at herself again, the mirror distorting her features just a little, so that she did not seem to be herself.
Artabanus, Prince of Luria, waited tensely in the darkened hallway. This was an all but forgotten corner of the palace, and few lights burned here. He was already dressed in his wedding finery, gold silks and silver arm-rings. He shifted uncomfortably. Impatient.
At last the shadows seemed to move and another man stepped out from the darkness. He was taller than Artabanus, and lean. He wore a black robe set with jewels and stitched with golden thread. Upon his shaved head were tattooed whorls and spirals, only a single scalp-lock remaining caught at his nape into a knot of braids.
Artabanus turned to meet him. “It is about accursed time, Sisyphus! The sun is setting and I must away to the ceremony at once! Is all in place?”
Sisyphus folded his long fingers together. “Indeed, prince. Your troops are placed just beyond the city. After the wedding my enchantment will cast all of the guards into a sleep from which nothing will wake them, and your men shall take the city without struggle. By midnight you shall be King of Aru.” He smiled, and it was inhuman. “Fear not.”
The prince turned away, unnerved. “Bring me the head when it is done. I would see the old man’s face and know it is accomplished.” He smiled.
“Do not discount the princess,” Sisyphus said. “She is said to be a lady of strong will.”
Artabanus waved a hand dismissively. “They are all said to be willful, but when Nitocris sees the head of her slain father, she will know her future lies in obedience.” He smiled again. “Tonight we become masters of a kingdom.” He glanced around, and then he strode away into the palace.
The ceremony was a pageant of light and splendor within the shrine of Ashara and Bal. The statues looked down in favor as Nitocris and Artabanus were joined together. Chimes sang and lutes played; a thousand candles lit the scene. The priestess in white swung her smoking censer, joined their hands, and blessed the union. Old Uresh smiled when the ceremony came to a close. Now his child would be happy, and there would be an heir to his throne before he passed away.
Artabanus lifted Nitocris in his arms and carried her from the temple and up the seventy steps to her rooms, now theirs whenever they dwelt in Anshan. Scented winds blew through the silken curtains as he bore her to the bed and laid her upon the silken sheets. He kissed her, smelling the sandalwood oils rubbed into her flesh. He drew her wrappings from her, touched her skin. Henna darkened her hands and feet, and her skin was rubbed with gold dust.
They kissed again, heatedly, and she trembled with eagerness as she pulled his clothing from him, touched his strong body. He kissed her neck, and her heavy breasts, touched her painted belly and the ring at her navel. He kissed lower, breathing her scent. He drew himself on top of her, and she opened herself to him in the sweet darkness.
Nitocris awoke suddenly, all sleep banished. The room was full dark, unlit save for a single lamp and a dusting of silver moonlight. Artabanus still slept beside her, his breathing slow and even. She touched him lightly, remembering pleasure. She smiled.
A sound came to her from beyond her doors, the heavy tread of many feet. She sat up, confused, made to rise when Artabanus’ hand caught her wrist and jerked her back to the bed. She turned to look at him, a question on her lips, when the doors burst open and soldiers flooded into the room. They were hard-fighting men in scaled armor and crested helms. They stepped in and bowed to Artabanus. One of them stepped forward. “My lord, it is done.”
Nitocris turned to her husband. “What is he speaking of?” Then she gasped as he struck her across the face.
“Silence!” He took her hair and dragged her face close to his. “My wife will speak when spoken to, never otherwise.” He smiled at her, and it was a cruel, unfeeling smile.
Her eyes welled with hurt. “You spoke tender words. You made oaths of love.”
He struck her again, harder, and she reeled back and fell to the floor. Humiliation burned in her at being so treated before common soldiers.
Artabanus laughed. “I have your kingdom, and the pleasure of your body. I want nothing else from you, save your obedience.” He turned to the door. “Where is Sisyphus?”
The soldiers parted and the tall man in black stepped through, something in his left hand. “I am here.” He smiled his evil smile. “And here is the King.” And he held up the severed head of Uresh, white hair matted with dark blood.
Nitocris looked upon her father’s face in horror, and the hair rose on her neck as fury began to burn in her heart. Betrayal stung, but wrath was the balm.
Artabanus turned to her, smug victory on his face. “And now I am King of Aru, thanks to you, my sweet.”
With a snarl Nitocris stood naked to her full height, dark hair blowing in the night wind from her window. With a serpentine lunge she reached out and snatched a sword from where it hung at a soldier’s side and raised it high. “Then you shall reign over all from an unmarked tomb, for I shall strike you dead with my own hand!” Artabanus leaped back as she swung; the blade bit into the ebon bedpost with a crack. Her eyes reflected fire in the dim light as she wrenched the blade free.
The Prince pointed. “Seize her! The man who takes the sword from her hand may have his way with her!”
The soldiers rushed at her in a mass. She leaped back, naked but for jewels and ornaments flashing in the torchlight, raised the sword high in both hands. The men came at her, hands outstretched to take her as easy prey.
The first man to come in reach of her died. She hacked down furiously at him and her blade glanced from his helmet, knocking his head to the side. With a cry she cut down at the exposed neck and the steel bit deep. Blood sprayed into the air and the soldier fell, choking. Another man lunged to catch her off-balance but she was too quick, turning her sword and stabbing the point into his face. She jerked the sword free and he staggered against the others, clutching at his ruined nose, blood streaming between his fingers.
They closed in and Nitocris slashed at them fiercely, keeping them at bay. She was no stranger to the blade, no easy captive or helpless maiden, and now fury fueled her sword. Another tried to grasp her and she rained fierce blows upon him with all her strength, cutting open his arms and face. She ducked low and slashed a man’s legs from beneath him, leaped upon another as he tripped over his fallen comrade and pushed her steel into his throat; he gurgled past his cut veins, twitching and falling as blood sprayed the room.
Angered now, the men drew their own blades and leaped to the attack, and with the savagery of a cornered wolf Nitocris met their rush. Steel flickered and crashed in the torchlight. She parried their cuts and stabs with all her speed, slashed at them furiously. Her blows were true and her arms strong, but they were armored, and more than not the mail turned her sword. She wore nothing but gold and jeweled finery, and soon she was cut in a dozen places, though none deep enough to kill.
She fended off two more assaults before another blade cut into her side, scraped on her ribs. She cried out, struck him so hard upon his helm that he reeled away. She turned barely in time to blunt a thrust at her belly, cut open his arm and shattered his nose with her counterattack.
Seven had fallen to her blade, dead or wounded. They drew away for a moment, gathering their strength for the rush that would overwhelm her. More men flooded in through the doorway. Nitocris felt her strength ebbing as she bled, felt her chest burning with her exertion. Her sword dripped red, but she could not fight them all. They would take her, and kill her, or take her alive for humiliation. She looked across the growing wall of armored fighting men at Artabanus, his once-beloved face now hateful. The stranger Sisyphus stood beside him, his face a mocking mask of evil.
She put her hand to her side and caught her blood as it fell, flung it upon her husband where he stood behind the protection of his men. “This my blood be upon you! The stain of my death and my father’s! This my curse upon you! That my avenging spirit will never rest until you are slain! Your armies will not save you, nor riches, nor lies!” She drew herself up against the weakness that dragged at her. “I, Nitocris, now Queen of Aru, lay my blood-curse on you, with my death!”
Quick before they could rush her she turned the sword and grasped the blade, set the point to her chest. With a scream of rage she hurled herself upon the ranks of her enemies, the weight of her body and theirs driving the blade through her body. The point pierced bone and flesh and transfixed her heart. She gave a final, weak cry and sank to the floor, eyes open and empty in death.
The men stood still, making surreptitious signs to ward of the evil of her curse. Artabanus came closer and looked down at her body, nudged it with his foot. He turned to his commander. “Take the body and bury it in some forgotten place below the palace. See that no one knows the resting place of Nitocris, see that no one mourns, that no one sees. Make sure it is finished by dawn.” And he turned away from his bloody bride and strode away into his palace.
They stripped her finery from her, took her wedding jewels and golden ornaments, pulled the fatal sword from her body. Even in death she was beautiful, and one of the men caressed her lingeringly before his captain rebuffed him. They wrapped her in the bloody sheet from her marriage-bed, tied her body into a silken bundle that still dripped red.
Down and down through the still palace the five men carried her body, into the deepest places where no light shone. The tower they came to was ancient, and had stood empty for more than a hundred years. They forced open the door, descended the black steps, and stood at last within the cellar at the very root. In the spider-haunted darkness they turned the flagstones back and dug in the cold clay earth to hollow out a grave.
The man who led them looked long at the faint outline of that lovely face beneath the silk, then turned away and gestured to the others. They laid her corpse in the cold earth and covered it over, then they laid the stones back upon the floor and trod upon them until nothing could be seen, only the dust disturbed upon the floor.
Weary now, muttering charms to ward away the evil presence of the dead, they ascended back to the palace above. They went to the courtyard where their commander waited.
“It is done?” He asked.
The commander nodded and other men seized the five from behind, forced them to their knees. One by one their heads were cut off, their blood staining the white stone. The commander took the heads and went to present them to Artabanus, to tell him that no one now knew where Nitocris, the dead queen, lay buried.
The mourning was brief, for the people of the city dared not mourn too long or too loud their king and his daughter, not beneath the watchful eyes of the soldiers. Artabanus held court within the white halls of the palace, his counselor Sisyphus beside him, and all came to bow before him and none dared voice the dread suspicion that burned in the breast of every citizen – that there was royal blood upon their new king’s hands. Nitocris had vanished, and none dared question where she had gone, what had happened to her, or indeed, if she still lived.
It was nine moons after the death of Uresh and his child when the king called Sisyphus to attend him in the chamber where he held council. The sorcerer arrived late, coming in his own time, wrapped in his black robe. Artabanus met him with four soldiers in full armor, and his expression was dire.
“You think you can deceive me, wizard?” The king’s tone was cold.
“Deceive you, sire?” The sorcerer’s espression turned sly. “What do you mean?”
“I mean the alliance you have made with the nomads of the east. Did you think I would not know? That I would not notice such a blatant attempt at treason?” His face was furious and dark, his jaw set.
“Treason, my lord? I only anticipated your next move, and made it for you. With the nomad warriors you shall have enough men to challenge the Shathians upon the battlefield. Surely you do not think that I-”
Artabanus cut him off. “You are attempting to raise an army to rival my power, to take my throne! I no longer need you, wizard, and so you shall fall! Take him!” He gestured to his men.
Sisyphus showed no fear, no surprise. The two nearest men drew their blades, and the black wizard gestured, stabbing his lean fingers into the air. The two men stopped, staggered, their swords clattering to the floor. Artabanus watched in horror as they fell to their knees, clutching and digging at their chests. One of them turned toward the king, and his face was a mask of choked agony. Sisyphus clenched his fist in the air, and the two men screamed as their chests exploded from within, splattering crimson across walls and floor. Blood pulsed horribly from their torn-open ribcages as their hearts wrenched their way out of their own accord.
The other two men screamed in terror and fled from the room, letting their swords fall unheeded to the bloody stones. Artabanus leaped back, drawing his own blade, eyes wide and shocked.
Sisyphus stepped over the twitching bodies, seemingly oblivious to the carnage. He smiled. “Did you think I would be so easily taken? Ahhhhhh, my friend, how sadly you overestimate your own importance. Did you think it was I who needed you? I have found you useful until now, but with the nomads as my allies and your men and subjects too afraid to rebel, I have no further use for you.” He drew forth his hooked sword. “The people of this realm already hate you and suspect you murdered the king. They will welcome your death. They will think me a hero.” He grinned a wolf grin. “Until they learn better.”
Artabanus held his sword ready. “Come and try then, wizard – you will find me no easy prey!”
Sisyphus nodded toward Artabanus’ blade. “Look to your sword.”
The king looked, saw not his blade but a writhing cobra that reared and spread its fatal hood. He flung it away with a cry and saw it clatter to the floor, a sword once again. Then Sisyphus was at his throat with his evil blade.
Artabanus fell to his knees. “Spare me, I beg you. I will serve you without question, only spare me.” His hands shook and he closed his eyes. “Spare my life.”
“Your fallen bride had more courage than you. I will spare you, and use you as I wish, but lest you think to betray me-” He drew the edge of his blade across the side of the king’s neck. Artabanus felt a dreadful paralysis wash outward from the slight wound, felt himself sway on the edge of unconsciousness. Then Sisyphus touched his fingers to the wound and spoke a short, ugly phrase and the feeling passed, leaving only the cold cut in his skin.
The wizard stepped away. “The edge of my sword is a most fatal poison, as you no doubt felt the merest touch of. Only my charm holds the venom in abeyance. If you betray me or displease me, I shall loose it, and you will fall dead in moments. Or if I am slain, the spell also shall fail, and you will die.” He laughed. “Get up worm. Tomorrow you shall declare me the king of all Aru.”
Artabanus bowed his head, burning with fury and humiliation. The cut upon his neck ached coldly. “Yes. . . My lord.”
By night two soldiers walked alone through the halls of the palace, looking furtively around them, as they were speaking of things forbidden for them to know.
“It is true,” said the one. “They buried her in all her wedding finery, gold and jewels and silver all over her. A fortune. But the – Artabanus declared that all of it go into the earth with her.”
“Easy enough for him.” said the other. “He has riches in plenty.”
“Yes, but we do not. Why should only he and Sisyphus have all the spoils? We took this city without shedding one red drop. We had all hoped to be turned loose upon the city for even a few days, but we got nothing!” The first soldier was young, and known to be a greedy man.
The other was some older, and had less ambition. “Ahh, we can still take what we want from any of the citizens. I need coin or a woman – I just take what I like.”
“But I am speaking of real wealth. A fortune in gold.” His eyes were alight with avarice.
“And you know where it lies, this hoard?” The other man was interested now.
The first soldier leaned close, glancing about to see that they were not observed. “A servant told me he saw the men who bore away the body, saw where they took it. After, the men who buried her were executed so no one would know where she lay. So this servant kept silent for fear of his life.”
The other man was skeptical. “But he told you? Why?”
The younger soldier laughed. “A knife can be more persuasive than any word. He told me after I swore I would not kill him if he gave me the secret.”
“And did you?” The other man spat upon the marble floor idly.
The young soldier laughed again. “What do you think? I killed him, so no one else would learn the secret. So?”
The older man looked at him. “So?”
“So let us go and see if it is true.” The younger man watched his companion with bright eyes.
“All right, we will.”
They made their way into the lower reaches of the palace, carrying torches to light their way. They passed down ancient corridors and through silent doors heavy with dust, until they could begin to see the tracks of others through the dust upon the floor, and knew they were on the track. Excited, they slipped quietly down the hallways and finally pushed aside the ancient door. The steps led down into darkness, and a smell of decay lay thick in the air. The younger soldier drew away, covering his face.
“Uugh! We have found it. What a stench!” He coughed.
The other man shrugged; he had been upon many battlefields. “I have smelled fouler. Let us go down and see about this treasure.” He set his foot upon the stair.
“Wait!” The younger man held him back. “There is an evil feeling here, I feel as though I am watched by unseen eyes.”
“Bah.” The other one scoffed. “Now you are being foolish. Now that we are here you are afraid? Would you turn back now?”
The young one looked around at the unhallowed walls. “I – I would. There is something fell here. Let us be away.”
The other one shrugged him off. “Wait here then, and I will go.” He lifted his torch high, and went down the stair into darkness.
The young soldier waited alone in the silence, listening for any noise from below. Now he felt foolish for his unreasoning fear, and took a breath to call to his companion when a scream rent the still air. A high, harsh scream of a man in terror. It rose to a shriek and then died, cut off. Silence returned.
His heart pounded in his chest, his hands shaking with fear. He called out, then called out again. Nothing answered. He drew his dagger and peered down the steps, seeking the light of the other torch. Nothing stirred.
Then rage filled him as he realized the other man was mocking him, had made that unearthly shriek just to frighten him. With a sneer of anger on his face he descended the steps quickly, harsh words ready on his lips. But when he reached the silent floor of the old tower his words died on his tongue.
His companion lay upon the floor face down, arms outflung. A few of the flagstones lay pried up around him, and the dagger in his hand was bent at the tip. He lay with his face almost within the hole he had made, and he did not stir, save a soft twitching in his legs. The young guard took another step closer, holding his torch higher, and saw at last the horror that had birthed the scream. In the dark he had not seen it at first, but a slim pale arm rose from the hole and was wrapped tight around his companion’s neck, pulling him down. And at last over the smell of rotting he smelled the copper stink of blood.
With a cry he turned to flee and tripped upon the stair, fell heavily and yelped at the flare of pain in his leg. The torch fell and blazed up, igniting the ancient cobwebs that laced the curving walls. They smoldered and burnt like hair, the dim light squirming up and around like worms of fire. He heard another sound and turned in horror to look at the grave.
The body rolled aside, eyes open and blank. The boy stared in terror as the stones and earth heaved, and again, and then a figure burst upward from the charnel earth and stood naked and bloodied in the crawling light. She was beautiful and horrid, streaked with blood both old and fresh, trailing her shroud and the soil of her tomb. And he knew her for Nitocris, the dead queen of Aru, risen from her hidden grave.
She turned to look upon him and he saw her teeth, long and deadly as those of a lioness, and he screamed. And when she came for him, his desperate cries for mercy echoed unheard in the charnel labyrinth, until they stopped.
It was the grand banquet hall of Aru, lit all around with fire and finery. Pillars rose to the height of eight men and held up the great cedar beams of the roof. The great table, a bowshot long, was laid with all manner of delicacies and rare foods to delight the tongue and amaze the eye. Naked serving girls, painted with kohl and gold dust, carried the trays of fish and iced peacock, the stuffed pig and candied dove.
At the head of the long table sat Sisyphus, draped in his jeweled black robe, and at his right side Artabanus, resplendent in his blue and crimson silks. On the wizard’s other side sat a brawny hulk of a man in tanned leathers and barbaric ornaments, his eyes cold as a tiger’s. This was Allaz, chieftain of the nomads, and a fearsome warrior with his heavy sword ever at his side. All down his side of the table ranged his warriors, rough-hewn men of the great steppe. Horsemen born and blooded, with a fearful reputation for torture and ferocity.
Sisyphus raised his golden chalice; light glinted upon the ram’s-head molded upon it. “My friends, in a few days we shall march upon the king of Shathia and lay him low, and then all the lands from here to the great Erbuza mountains will bow to me. And you, Allaz, shall profit by your wisdom.”
Allaz showed his teeth. “It shall be great to fall upon the Shathian betrayers, to bathe in their blood and rape their women. This is what pleases me.” Even Artabanus shuddered at the man’s terrible gaze.
Sisyphus met the bloodthirsty smile. “Indeed, my friend, it shall also please me to see your wishes fulfilled. I will provide endless masses of prisoners for your rites, and your gods shall be pleased.”
The barbarian drank deeply, slammed down his cup. “It will please me to drink naught but Shathian blood for a year and a day. Perhaps then I will have drunk my fill. I shall have my fill of blood at last!”
A commotion stirred at the other end of the hall, a ripple of outcry. Sisyphus stood, and his brow furrowed in puzzlement. Warriors of the steppe rose and turned to see; Artabanus felt a chill down his back, as though something cold touched him.
A figure, robed and hooded so nothing could be seen of it, passed down the long hall. It walked hunched over and its tread was slow. It passed the rows of men, looking to neither side, head down. And those it passed drew away, wrinkling their noses at the smell of blood and death that haunted it. Soldiers stepped to bar its path and it stopped, very near to Sisyphus and Allaz. Artabanus stared across the table at it, premonition raising the hair on his arms.
Sisyphus spoke with coldness in his voice. “Who are you who comes unbidden into my hall? Without petition, without proper obeisance? Speak!” Silence stretched out for long moments, all eyes upon the mysterious figure.
Slowly, it straightened, standing tall as any but Allaz. The form beneath the robe was a woman’s shape, and Artabanus reeled back, choking on a shout of warning. Suddenly, the figure threw off the robe and stood revealed, naked and terrible. Nitocris’ eyes burned with underworld fire, her flesh pale from her months in the grave, and blood stained her lips, dark and red. She had found treasures long forgotten in the black catacombs below. Now in her right hand she held a long and heavy blade of ancient forging, black with time and trailing webs like a shroud.
Sisyphus stood bolt upright, face paling. Artabanus set his shaking hand to his sword-hilt, mouth dry and his heart cold. Even Allaz, who had never seen her, stepped away from the dark power that seemed to emanate from her. She lifted the heavy, two-handed blade as lightly as a reed.
“I will speak.” she said, and all fell silent at her low, deadly voice. “I will speak of my father the king, murdered by your hand. I will speak of my life, stolen from me by a man with no honor, a man who feared to face me sword to sword.” Her lion’s teeth glittered in the lamplight.
Artabanus summoned up all his courage. “Be silent, demon!”
But she was not silent, never wavered. “Shall I speak of the dark land of the dead? Shall I speak of the black and charnel labyrinths I have crossed? Of the torments I endured? Of the monsters I fought and overcame in the shadow-lands so that I might rise from my grave and stand here?”
Her voice rose and thundered and the lamplight shied from her. “And now I stand here and I say you shall all have your fill of blood this night! But I shall never have my fill, until I drink yours from your living veins!” She brought up the great blade and brought it down upon the guards in a great sweep that cut one in two and bit deep into another, sending blood gushing forth in a shocking torrent. Sisyphus leaped away, reaching for his sword, shouting for his men to keep her back from him. But it was the nomads who rushed to attack.
They were men who feared ghosts and devils, but feared nothing that they could see and touch. They drew their swords and took their battle-axes in hand and rushed upon her, eyes gleaming for the kill.
Nitocris met them with great sweeps of the ancient battle-blade, and wherever her sword struck, she left men in bloody wreckage. Her strength was inhuman, the tireless strength of the undead, and the heavy sword scythed them down. Men fell with arms severed and gushing, heads split open. They rained blows upon her, but her flesh turned their steel, and they made no wound or mark.
They pressed in all around her, a hundred warriors screaming for battle, and she leaped upon the table, lifted her blade high, and sent it reaving down among them. She hacked off both arms of a man who sought to drag her down, split a skull to the neck and wrenched the blade out in an arterial spray. Blood painted her skin, splattered into her open mouth and she drank it down.
Sisyphus drew away, caught Artabanus. “We cannot oppose her with steel! Have your men bring torches and oil. We must have fire!”
Artabanus turned to look upon the bloody melee, at the great dark sword cutting down men like wheat. “What has she become? What is she?” His eyes were huge with terror.
The wizard pushed him. “She is become Ekimmu, the accursed dead! A walker of the night and a drinker of blood! Only fire or the sun will destroy her! Go!” he commanded, and Artabanus ran to obey, fear upon his face.
Her bloody sword cut red through the air, destroying all who stood to bar her path. She butchered the nomad warriors and the soldiers of Artabanus, and neither courage nor armor saved them. Corpses heaped up behind her as she hacked her way through the mass. She had slain a score, then two dozen. The maimed lay bleeding and screaming in her wake, dismembered and crippled; they cried for mercy.
Sisyphus stretched forth his hand, muttering arcane verses. His powers could not affect the undead, but there were other ways to stop her. With a sound like burning fat, the table itself exploded into flame. The covering curled and blackened in an instant, the foodstuffs sizzled and flamed, and the very plates began to melt with the heat.
The flames twined around Nitocris and she screamed in fury. The warriors opposing her fell back from the fire and suddenly her way was open. She ran down the burning table and leaped to the floor to face the black sorcerer, black sword in her hand dripping with gore. Her hands and feet were still dark with henna spirals from her wedding day, and blood painted her nakedness from head to foot. Her eyes were shining, reflecting the red light of the fire. She snarled. “I shall take your head, as you did my father’s!”
Her first mighty blow rang upon his blade and their battle was joined. Behind her the table blazed high, transforming her into a red-cloaked outline of bloody intent. The bodies of the fallen, dead and wounded, caught fire and burned, filling the air with the sickening reek of burning flesh. She cut at him again and again, their blades sparking off one another. The wizard was not her match in strength, but his hand was quick and he parried her attacks, circling away from her.
At last he found a moment to counterattack, laying open her arm; she snarled and forced him back with heavy two-handed blows. And Sisyphus felt the first pangs of true fear when he saw that his sword’s venomed edge had no effect.
She touched the wound, sniffed it. Then she laughed. “No venom can slay the dead!” She hacked at him and he met the blow on his own sword, the force driving him to his knees even as her sword snapped in two from the impact. Seizing the moment, he lunged upward and drove his blade through her body, heard the ripping of her flesh as the point came out her back.
Nitocris staggered, then her ironlike fingers closed on his neck, squeezing the breath from him. He met her gaze, smelled the charnel stink of her grave as she bared her teeth and squeezed his throat. He choked, clawed at her fingers, twisted his sword inside her body, but she was as immovable as stone.
With a snarl, she drew back the jagged broken blade of her sword and stabbed it into his belly, reveling in his scream of pain. She twisted it, seeing the blood begin to bubble from his mouth. With a last grunt she ripped the blade across his belly, opening him up and spilling his entrails down between them in a torrent of hot blood. She let him fall.
Nitocris watched him write in agony, clutching at his belly, trying to gather the ropes of purple intestine and push them back inside. She flung away the broken blade and pulled the wizard’s sword from her body, took the black hilt in her bloody hand. “Now, sorcerer, I will cut your head off and keep the skull for a bowl, as the nomads do.” She raised the sword and Sisyphus, holding the wreck of his belly, began a coughing, bloody laugh.
The walls of the great hall began to lick with fire, flames crawling up the great pillars toward the roof. Oil poured in through the windows, touched the flames, and ignited into lakes of fire. Nitocris snarled and Sisyphus laughed.
“You will burn here, Nitocris! Your unlife ends here! But I am not so easily felled! I will live on, and rule your kingdom!” He laughed again, spitting blood down his face, and she slashed for his neck. But the sword struck the stones and sparked, and only Sisyphus’ empty robe fell to the floor, already smoldering from the heat.
Nitocris cursed and flung the evil sword away from her, turned to the great doors of the hall, now crawling with flame. She rushed to them and set her hands to the blazing wood and glowing bronze, screamed with the burning as she threw her strength against the barrier. The massive doors heaved and shuddered, and fire crawled up her arms and singed her hair. With a final shout she bent her back and forced them to give. Wood cried out and metal shrieked as the great doors split and crashed to the earth on a shower of flame and sparks. And Nitocris went out howling into the night, an avenging spirit whose hunger for blood would never have an end.
She stood upon the windy cliffs as dawn began to tinge the night sky. Her wounds had healed, and she was naked and whole. Far away, the lights of Anshan glimmered, and the blaze of the great hall burning was still brighter than the glow of the coming sun. Nitocris looked to the glowing east, whence came her new enemy the sun, and then turned her face to the west, where even now night dwelled. She would take shelter from the sun, and learn to live far from dawn. And now and ever after, night would be her dominion, and her sword.