(This is a sequel to Scion of the Black Tower and The Veiled Kings)
Alzarra Dragonhand was brought to the Ukar islands in chains, lashed to the mast of a reaver ship stained with blood under a horned moon that turned red with an oncoming storm. The horizon was dark, shot through with lightning, as all the seas from the Ukar to the Strait of Hazul surged and boiled with one of the great summer storms that scourged the tropical coast.
The ship swept through the dark water and into the protected harbor of the corsair stronghold, oars slashing the waves and the serpent head upon the prow rearing up with bared fangs. Alzarra stood with her feet braced on the deck, feeling it heave beneath her as the seas deepened. Her wrists were clasped by cruel steel manacles, and a heavy rope circled her body and bound her to the mast. She thought perhaps she could break loose, but not yet.
The men on the deck divided their attention between the oncoming shore, the darkening horizon, and the woman they feared more than either. She had slain a dozen men before they took her sword from her and bound her in place, and now they came to land and they knew they had to unbind her to bring her ashore. And they had to keep her alive, because she bore the mark of their ancient kindred – the left hand scaled like the back of a dragon from which she took her name.
They drew up at the ancient stone jetty, and they gripped her chains and hacked through the ropes, and she did not resist as they dragged her from the deck of the ship and onto the shore. She looked up through the mist-haunted sky and saw the savage stone towers of the ancient city reared in another age, now covered in vines and hung with jungle flowers. She walked, a prisoner, up the streets that led between the ruins, filled with men and women of a dozen nations, and she knew this was what she had come to find.
Here raiders came and found a place to hide. Here the old city of a forgotten empire was peopled by red-handed killers and reavers from all the young kingdoms of the world. She saw black-skinned men of Yvir and golden dancing girls of Memnor. She saw silks made in Maracanda and jewels ripped from the corpses of murdered lords of Zathar. She saw the tall warrior women of Shar with their iron eyes and ritual scars, the small and deadly men of Thray in their red armor and curved knives. Here was a world of slayers cast out by other lands, all gathered here in this hidden place.
They looked on her as she marched up the street, as though she were escorted rather than imprisoned. Her black hair was bound in many braids, and those who saw her dark eyes flash hid their faces from her sight. She was tall and long-limbed, with a great strength in her wide shoulders and a ferocity in her features no one could fail to see.
She looked at the great temple to which they took her, now a mere gathering-place for the pirates who ruled here. They marched her inside, out of the gathering wind, and into the great central space, now filled with a throng of hard-eyed rogues, all of them decked in stolen finery and bristling with weapons. Torchlight glinted on mail and the hilts of swords, the edged of daggers as men tested them with callused fingers. Here would be a testing, and then one way or another, there would be a blooding.
The man who stood in lordship over that throng was a giant man, with dark olive skin and cold black eyes. He wore a coat of black scales cut from a river dragon, and a hooked dagger in place of his missing left hand. He was Zaron, the Lord of the Serpent Brothers.
Alzarra looked at him as they placed on the table before him her sheathed and deadly sword, and the golden crown of the ancient kings she bore with her. He looked at them, but did not touch them. “Who are you?” he said, his voice deep and terrible.
Alzarra tossed her head. “I am Alzarra Dragonhand, Bane of Gazan, Slayer of Lions, and the Queen of Fallen Knar. This is my sword, Shamat, the Poisoned Blade, and my crown, taken from the tomb of the Dragon King.”
He seemed unimpressed. “I have heard the name Alzarra. By what right do you claim these names?”
Alzarra flexed her arms and the inks of her chains snapped apart as if they were made of dry clay. She shrugged the steel bonds away and held up her scaled left arm. “This is my mark. I am called Dragonhand for the mark of the ancient bloodline I wear. With this hand I have cut my way through a dozen kingdoms and hundreds of those who would bar my path. With this sword I slew the last of the Veiled Kings, and I have come to this place in search of my kindred. If you stand in my way, I will tread upon your bones as I leave you behind.”
The crowd trembled with barely-restrained eagerness, the smell of bloodlust coursing from them. Zaron stood up. “You understand what manner of challenge to give, flinging that in my face? You slew men of the Brotherhood, and for that you must die. But you claim a royal lineage, and so only a royal hand can strike you down.” He drew open his shirt and showed to her the scales upon his chest. “I also claim that lineage, and so I will answer your challenge myself.”
Alzarra smiled. “I have crossed a sea and shed blood for nothing less.”
Zaron came down from his high seat, and the crowd drew back. Boards were pried from the stone floor to reveal a pit beneath, the walls studded with sharpened spikes and the floor stained with black blood. Zaron stripped to the waist and displayed his powerful torso, the scales on his chest like a breastplate. He leaped down into the pit and drew forth a long knife that gleamed in the torches.
Alarra shed her mail and then leaped into the pit herself. Now she wore only a silken shift around her hips and a leather harness to cover her breasts. She did not have a dagger, but one was cast down from above and she took it from the bloodstained stone. It was long, with a double-curved blade and an edge like a silver thread. She sighted down it. “Bow and I will let you live,” she said. “I would not kill one of my kindred if I do not have to.”
In answer he showed his bright teeth, and he leaped on her with a wild battle-cry that echoed the thunder in the storm outside. His long blade ripped for her throat, but even as he struck, his hooked left hand swept under for her belly.
Alzarra twisted aside from his wild slash, caught his hook with her scaled left hand and pulled him off-balance. Her own knife slashed and he caught it with his, the blades screaming as they locked together. He tried to shove her back but she kicked him hard on the inside of the thigh and he fell to one knee. He was heavier than she was, and he pulled hard and she had to let his hook go. Their knives sang as he rolled back and came to his feet. He bared his teeth. “You fight well. A good omen.”
She knew he expected an answer to distract her, so she opened her mouth as if to speak, was ready for his sudden lunge. They passed one another in a storm of blades and then danced apart. Zaron bore a red slash on his right arm, and he licked at the blood. “A scratch to awaken the blood!”
Alzarra watched him, circling. His first two gambits had been obvious; the third would be more subtle. He paced to match her, knife held close in to his body, his hook extended. She knew that was a trap, because if she struck the hook he would draw her out and strike when her guard was open. She moved in closer, breathing faster as if she were nervous, and then she lowered her knife and gave him an opening, wondering if he would take it.
His hook lashed out to dash her blade aside even as he turned in close, ready to stab, but she was too quick. She shifted her knife down and caught it in her left hand, and his thrust turned on her scales as she deflected it and jammed her own blade up against his groin, digging the point in just enough for him to feel it. Her right hand caught his hooked left arm and pinned him close, so there was no way he could escape without being gutted.
“We can finish this now,” she said. “Else I can finish you.”
He glared at her with fury on his face, and then he threw down his knife and she threw him back to stagger against the wall of the pit. She held up her blade. “I am Alzarra Dragonhand. I have passed the trial by blood, and now you will take me to the shrine.”
A murmur passed through the crowd, angry snarls and muttered curses. Zaron shook his head. “They do not like to end a challenge without blood. It is an ill omen.”
Alzarra pointed to the trickle of red on his arm. “There is blood. I have fulfilled the terms of the invocation. I bear the bloodline, and I have shed the blood of the one who challenged me.” She leaped up and caught the spikes that ringed the pit, climbed back out and glared until the crowd parted before her. She stalked through them to the table where her sword and crown lay. She took up Shamat and belted the long sword to her side, and then she took up the crown and held it high. “I will go to the shrine, and there it will be decided whether I am the one to wear the crown. Any who try to prevent me shall die, as have all who stood in my path.”
Zaron climbed out of the pit, and she watched as he reclaimed his coat and belted on his sword. “I will take you to the shrine,” he said. “But I do not think you will be pleased by what you find there.” He gestured for her to follow him, and thunder bellowed in the sky above.
When they left the ruin, the storm was still gathering, striding in lightning-lashed fury somewhere offshore in the night. The wind was hard and wayward, shoving against them as they went into the vine-draped street among the towering megaliths. Rain slashed down in sudden bursts, almost hot from the thunder forge in the sky above. The black clouds roiled and flared with the fires of the gods above.
They climbed up through the jungle darkness, feeling the incoming storm build until it was like a hand closing about them. Alzarra felt her hair stand up on her head, and when she touched the hilt of her sword green sparks burst from under her hand.
They reached a wide plaza beneath the looming towers of the ancient city, the ground covered in creeping moss and mushrooms that stood as high as her knees. Alzarra looked ahead and saw the Shrine of the Serpent that she had come so far to reach, and yet between her and the fires of the summit she sensed a growing menace.
Zaron drew his saber and nodded. “There are those who believe in the prophecies, and those who will kill to see that they never come to be. Those of the Brotherhood who would prevent you will try and kill us to keep you from the shrine.”
“You as well?” Alzarra said, drawing Shamat in a hiss of scaled steel.
“I failed to kill you in the pit – they will blame me,” he said. “Now we must conquer or die.”
They came out of the darkness, a wave of corsairs boiling with rage and hedged with steel. They came rushing with swords and daggers bared and flashing green with stormfire. Alzarra saw their eyes glowing in the night, and then she howled her wrath and met them sword to sword. Shamat swept through them, and blood gushed in the darkness.
They washed over her like a torrent, and she fell back, scything them down with great two-handed blows. Wherever her blade bit flesh the skin turned black and the venom in the ancient steel burrowed through their veins. They hacked at her with saber and dagger, and she soon bore a dozen small wounds. She wore no armor now, had only her quickness and her skill to preserve her. Shamat was a terrible war engine in that battle, shearing through meat and bone. Alzarra left a trail of dead as she backed across the vine-hung plaza.
She crashed against Zaron, back to back, and together they cut a path through the brigands. He was quick for a man his size, and a deadly fighter with saber and hooked left arm. He parried, countered, and left men stumbling on their own guts as he fell back. Beside him Alzarra was a whirlwind, sending her deadly blade in great sweeping arcs through the enemy, shearing off arms and hands and heads.
In the flash of lightning he pointed his red blade to the far side of the plaza, where two statues of rearing serpents stood silent guard. “We must pass the gate. They will not follow us beyond it!”
Alzarra laughed and nodded. “Do not fall behind me, for I will not wait for you!”
She rushed on her enemies and cut them down, she reaped them like bloody grain before the scythe-blade, and trod upon their dying bodies. She clove flesh with her sword and splintered bone with the savage blows of her scaled hand. Zaron followed and together they cut a red path through the fury of battle and left a path of the dead behind them until they passed between the serpent stones and gazed back upon the ruin left behind them.
The corsairs hurled curses upon them, but they would not pass the gate. Alzarra heard the moans of those dying under the venom of her sword and turned her back on them. She looked up the steep hill with stairs cut into the rock and, looming above it, the shadowed cyclopean monolith of the Shrine where the histories and legends of her people had brought her at last.
Here the corsairs had begun as outcasts of tainted blood, dwelling here in this place of forgotten peoples and lost glories. Here they had brought whatever remained of their race – the artifacts and records they had managed to save – and they put them in the Shrine to guard them from the claws of time. They lived as raiders, sailing the warm seas in their small ships, killing and stealing.
They dwindled, the bloodline fading, and then more men came – outcasts, criminals, wayfarers. New blood coursed through old veins, and as new ships came to become the core of a new fleet, the serpent standard was raised, even as the reason for it was largely forgotten. Now she was close to the heart of it all, and she would not be stopped.
The storm raged above, and she and Zaron staggered through sheets of rain and lashing wind. Lightning cracked the sky with fire, and Alzarra hacked her way through the dense vines, stepping over roots thick as her leg. The higher they climbed, the more ancient the ruins, and the more neglected they were. Vines and creepers covered the stone, blotting out the worn glyphs and reliefs, blurring the lines of the pyramids until they seemed a part of the jungle itself.
At last they came to the great archway of the Shrine, rearing high overhead in the storm-lashed dark. Serpents were carved upon the stone, as if they coiled around the great pyramid itself, scaled and armored, worn with time yet still vital, as if they might come to life.
Alzarra did not hesitate; she ripped down the great vines with her left hand, cut those she could not tear loose, and she pushed into the darkness held within. Rain coursed down the stone walls, washed over her feet, and lightning illuminated the sky in blazes and flashes of fire. Inside, it was dark as midnight, and she groped her way, ready for whatever guardians there might be, Zaron following like a shadow behind her.
The entryway gave onto a vast inner chamber, the roof held up by coiled columns festooned with glowing lichens and waving fungal growths. The floor itself seemed alive, and she realized it teemed with serpents – more than she had ever seen. They slithered and slid across the stone in an ever-shifting carpet, and at the center of the room arose a pedestal, and upon that was a sarcophagus chiseled from translucent green stone, and a light glowed within it like a fallen star.
Zaron fell back with an oath, but Alzarra did not stop. She waded forward, and even as she was about to step upon the snakes they drew back. She put her foot down on the stone floor beneath and their coils slid around her ankle. They raised their heads to look at her, some of them spreading heavy hoods. She saw among the many coils, some as big around as her waist, and she knew that some monstrous creatures swam in this eerie chamber.
They did not try to prevent her. She walked among them and they slid away for her footsteps, allowing her to pass. They flicked their tongues against her legs, and some of them coiled up her body and draped across her shoulders. She made no move to stop them, even when she felt serpent breath on the skin of her face.
She mounted to the dais, and she stood then before the smooth sarcophagus. The carving upon it was meant as a likeness of the body within, and there she saw the face of a woman, regal and beautiful, fixed in stone in a past age against the ravages of death. She touched the smooth face of jadite and felt the contours of the exquisite craft that shaped it, and then she gripped it and shoved the lid aside so she could look upon the face within.
The body that lay revealed was only bones, flesh long moldered away. She looked on the skull dark with time, and she saw that the light from the sarcophagus was not from the stone itself, but from a green jewel that lay fixed on a golden chain. It was a smooth green gemstone that blazed with a mystical inner light, almost like a captured fire. The chain lay draped across the ribs of the skeleton, and in one bone hand lay a scroll case all of ivory long turned black in the tropical ages.
Slowly, she reached down and took up the stone, the chain unwinding like a snake in her hand. It blazed like a star, and she thought she heard whispers of it down inside, a hidden voice that spoke truths no one remembered, but that she would soon learn.
Alzarra hung the stone around her neck, and then she took the scroll case and opened it, drew out the tough, yellowed parchment inside. She knew the script of the ancient kings of Sagatheron now – she had spent years studying it since the day she took up the sword and the crown. She knew the letters as if she had written them herself.
She read there the last chapter of the story of her race. Of the fall of Sagatheron in fire and blood, the cliffs cast down by dark sorcery and the flood driving out the survivors. How they scattered to many lands, and in each place their bloodline dwindled, and faded into degeneracy and monstrosity. It seemed that nothing could prevent that, and so the successor kingdoms failed, and died. The blood of the Serpent mixed with the blood of men, and so grew diluted, and weak.
Alzarra lowered the scroll. Here was written the end of her people. Time had passed, and now no pure child of the bloodline remained. The future was not in the quest for some forgotten racial purity, but in the strength that remained behind. The children of the serpent who bore the mark upon them. They bore a hundred names, in a hundred places. They were cursed and driven out and murdered and burned alive, all for the half-remembered memory of a people they had once been – a race of conquerors. Conquerors they had been, and that they would be once more.
She came down from the dais, bearing the green stone that whispered to her of power and memory. She held in her hand the memories of her people, and it made her tremble with the power of that simple thing. From such a seed, she would grow an empire. She walked through the serpents that parted like a sea before her, until she met Zaron where he stood, wide-eyed and in awe. She touched the scales on his bare chest. “Are there others among the corsairs who bear the mark?”
“Yes,” he said. “Not many, but enough.”
“Help me gather them. Then we will gather more, from every land, from far corners. Wherever our brethren hide and skulk from those who hunt them, we will go, and we will strike. I will forge a new race from the ashes of the old. The Serpent Kings cannot be reborn as they were, but we who carry their blood will be a new race, a new line. I will be the first.” She took the golden crown and placed it on her head. She looked back at the ancient sarcophagus. “From your hand to mine,” she said low. “I will honor you.” She beckoned Zaron, and together they left that place, and she walked with her head high, the first of the Serpent Queens born new upon the world.