Dawn bled across the sky like fire, and the night ebbed away, and the city stood, laid bare in the light of morning. It was a dreamlike skyline of domes and towers girdled round with walls as high as six men, and behind it the sea dreamed in the half-light. A cold wind blew out of the deserts to the west, and the army on the plain around the ancient metropolis began to stir, like a beast awakening from slumber.
A thousand fires scattered in the dark were kicked out and smothered, pennants blew in the morning breeze over ten thousand tents. Men began to assemble in their ranks and formations, spears like jagged teeth or scales on the back of a dark, nameless serpent as they moved toward the walls. Fires blazed on the ramparts, and the defenders gathered as well, helms and swords alight in the dawn.
The army at the gates was made of forty thousand barbarians drawn from the bitter lands that bordered the seaside kingdom. A thousand years of rivalry and envy were made manifest in armored warriors hungry for plunder and revenge upon those who had lorded over them for too long. The civilized men of the city of Samzarah had misjudged their poorer kin, and now would pay the price of blood for it. Even now they hid within their alabaster towers and hoarded their riches and prayed for deliverance from the horde that hungered for their deaths.
Lines of spearmen hurled themselves against the walls, casting up ladders and iron hooks to try and reach the top. The gates faced a phalanx of armored men wielding a ram, and burning arrows fell as they battered against the gate. Archers sent their steel-headed shafts sheeting through the air, and the cries and screams of men rose into the day, and that was the sixth day of the siege.
Asherah was among the men at the gate, huddled behind a heavy wooden mantlet for protection from the rain of arrows and stones. In this army of hardland barbarians she did not seem strange. There were other women among them, especially archers, and they were glad of any hand raised against their enemies. She did not care for the city, or for their cause, only that the heavy-wheeled trail she followed led through the very gates she now assaulted, and if she had to fight a war to follow it, she would.
She joined the other archers loosing arrows at the defenders high above, trying to thin the hail of missiles sent raining down on the men at the ram. The bronze-headed beast hammered against the cracked and dented gate, and Asherah felt again her terrible urgency to get inside. She had to find the sarcophagus, and she had to kill the ones who brought it here.
Raised in a deadly land of her own, she was a finer archer than the rest of them, and again and again her arrows found their mark despite the small, quick targets high above. Once she loosed and there was a sudden splash and explosion of fire on the wall above as her target dropped a bucket of oil and it ignited. Flame poured down the wall like blood, and her compatriots cheered.
Arrowheads punched hard through the heavy wood of the mantlet, jutting out like quills on the inside. They sang as they fell in flights like birds, and the ram crashed against the gate. Asherah breathed in the smoke and the smell of blood and found she liked it all. She had hunted and dueled and killed, but this was her first true battle.
The ram struck again and the gate shuddered, and a great cracking sound came from it like lightning. Another stroke and the planks began to break apart. A great, howling roar went up from the host of invaders, and they began to beat spears and shields together in time with the blows of the ram, shouting for blood. It was like the whole army beat with a single pulse. Again it struck, and again, and then there was a hideous tearing sound and the gate separated and fell inward, falling to earth with an impact Asherah felt through her feet.
A roar went up from the army, and Asherah thrust her bow back into its case and drew her sword from her side. She would not be left behind in the rush; she would be among the first through that gate, because she had a purpose here much deeper than death or plunder. She leaped into the human tide rushing toward the riven gate, and she was caught in the press. With swords and axes ready the army rushed into the breach, and there the defenders met them head on.
The defenders were fine soldiers, with silver-gilt armor and tall shields. They fought with courage and with desperation, but they were no match for the hunger and ferocity of true barbarism, fed by hard life and blood oaths. The walls of shields and spears crashed together, and steel met steel. Axes split shields and helms, and the sound of swords on armor was like ringing bells. Blood painted the stones, and death began to howl.
Asherah was pressed so close she could hardly fight. A man fell against her, throat gouting red, and she took his shield and slipped it on her left arm, and then she was in the death-grip, where warriors stood face to face and fought until they died.
She was a better sword fighter than any man she faced that day, and her blade cut quick in under shield-rim and helm to sever tendons in the leg or to open bloody throats. She beat them back with the shield and cut quick and deadly, and she made a ring of death around her where none of the enemy dared come. She screamed her war cry and cut her way forward through the press, treading on the wounded and the slain, and then the enemy broke.
Once their line cracked, the entire front collapsed, and the wedge of invaders crushed through them and began to flood through the streets, more and more of them pouring through the broken gate, swarming over the dead, screaming into the city. More of them rushed up the inner stairs to the top of the walls, and the slaughter they worked there sent corpses raining down into the street from above.
Asherah left the sack behind, racing through the close streets, keeping away from knots of defenders and the crowds of people trying to flee the attack. She ran for higher ground; once again, she was hunting.
The city drowned in blood, and smoke from burning houses and burning dead filled the sky and cast a pall over the light of the sun. The streets ran red and bodies lay heaped on steps and floating in the sea, where burning ships glowed like funeral pyres. Screams were the chorus of the fall of Samzarah, and neither rich nor poor nor young nor old were spared.
Asherah climbed to the highest hill in the city, following a red street, past the palaces of princes and shrines to heathen gods. She followed the mark of the sacred fire, and knew she was on the trail she had sought for so long. She smelled them – the sweat of slaves, and the bitter brass stink of the sorcerer, and most of all, she smelled the burning glass scent of the desert thing.
The domed shrine was alone at the top of the hill among manicured trees and tended gardens. She climbed five hundred steps of polished porphyry, bloody sword in hand and notched shield ready, and she counted her breaths as she climbed. When she stood before the heavy iron doors she knew she could not open them, and so she looked up and saw the elaborate, pierced carving of the white dome, and she shrugged her shield into the grass and rudely cleaned her blade before sheathing it, and then she began to climb.
Raised in a land of ice and stone, she climbed the polished alabaster easily, and quickly pulled herself up to the edge of the dome. The outer dome was carved with elaborate designs in loops and whorls, and she was able to slip through one and into the space that bordered the inner dome. From within that came a blaze of light, and she heard many voices raised in a chant she could not understand. She moved closer and peered through the smooth stone carved into so many shapes, a delicate screen so huge and beautiful it was hard to imagine how it had been made.
The dome within was vast, the open floor laid out in radiating designs, all converging in the center where there was a raised dais. All around the dais were gathered men in red robes, bowed down and kneeling on the floor, raising their arms as they chanted. On the dais stood the wizard Gathas, who she had sought for so long.
Before him lay the sarcophagus of Druan, silver turned black with years, set with black diamonds ringed by the green corrosion of the copper fittings. The face molded upon it was strange and inhuman, and Asherah wondered if the dead lord within looked like that, if he was in truth a monster from the elder times. The stories they told of Druan made him seem a force of nature, a warrior none could stop, who could never be slain, so one day he simply went into the grave of his own will.
Gathas lifted in his hand something that glowed red, and she saw it was a dagger that seemed made from crimson glass that shimmered and pulsed in the firelight. He raised it high over his head, and then he brought it down and smote one of the hasps that held the sarcophagus shut, and the metal smoked and split apart.
Asherah felt a twist in her gut, realizing that he was about to do the unthinkable. He meant to open the sarcophagus and defile the emperor’s body, and she reached for her bow with a terrible rage. She set a shaft to the string and drew, sure of her target even at this distance. Then she remembered the arrow she had shot into him in Vendhar, how it had shivered to ash and not harmed him. She would not waste her first shot on a useless gesture.
Instead, she aimed at his hand, drawing the arrow to her eye and watching him. He lifted the dagger and cried out in his strange tongue, invoking some evil power, and as he was poised to strike, she let out a slow breath, and loosed.
Her arrow sped fast as a thought and lanced through his hand, sending the red dagger flying across the chamber to ring where it struck the floor. Gathas cried out in shock and rage, and the chanting ceased as all eyes turned to look at him. There was a silence, and Asherah rained arrows down into it.
She drew and loosed as quickly as she could, bringing down the robed worshipers one after the other. They scattered and ran, screaming, and she shot them through until she was out of arrows and the floor was littered with the slain. She shoved her bow back into its case, drew her saber, and then she hurled herself forward and crashed through the delicate stone lattice. Stone splintered and showered down around her as she fell to the hard floor, rolled, and came up with her blade flashing in her hand. She saw Gathas and she saw the shock that came over his face when he recognized her, and then she was running, cutting her way through those who would not get out of her way.
Just as she was about to leap to the platform, a flash of steel almost cut her throat, and she sprang back, parrying another blow. For a moment she traded sword-strokes furiously with an assailant she did not even have time to see, and then she was forced back and found herself ringed by steel and face to face with the traitor Karkahd. The tattoos on his face marked him as a son of Sultai, and her rage flamed inside her at the sight of him.
In place of the left hand she had taken from him months ago, he wore a new hand fashioned from steel plates and copper skeins, and in it he gripped another dagger of red glass that fractured the light into flashes of fire.
He rushed in upon her, and she darted away from him, cut down two more men who tried to bar her way. She could not let them surround her and hem her in, or she would die. She saw others gather to follow him as he pursued her, and she saw three of them also bore the red knives taken from the desert thing. Five of them then, a stolen hand made into blades of fire.
She caught up a sword from a man she had slain, and she faced them with two blades as they came upon her. The false Karkahd led the rush, and she found herself forced back by his quick and deadly sword. The others were too slow and too clumsy to be much of a danger to her, but they tried to circle and flank her, ready for a stab in her back with their daggers of blood-red crystal.
Asherah was so close to her goal, and she felt her frustration rise with every moment. She beat at the guard of her opponent with all her strength and skill, and yet she could not force her way past him. One of the others came too close on her right and she sidestepped, turned quickly, and ripped him open with two quick cuts of her left-hand blade. The red dagger fell ringing to the floor and she stomped hard on it, hoping it would snap under her boot, but the crystal did not give, only seared the leather with a sudden hiss.
The false Karkahd lunged in close, binding her sword out of the way, and his red blade came in for her. She twisted, and the burning dagger glanced from her armor, cutting away some of the iron scales with its keen edge, but then she twisted to the left and his steel hand could not follow her, for it was stiffer than a true hand. He tried to shift his grip, but she was faster. She forced his blade out of line, gave when he tried to push her back, and when he lost his balance she ran him through the guts.
She ripped her saber free, blood pouring down the steel as it ran from the wound. Before the others could recover she turned and cut one of them down, her blade shearing clean through his shoulder to wedge in his breastbone. She used her foot to force him off, and the corpse sprawled on the floor in a gush or red as she turned to face the last one. He looked at her with an expression of rage and terror, raised his red dagger and screamed. She shoved her left-handed blade through his chest and left it there as he fell to the bloodied floor.
As she turned back to the dais a hand caught her ankle and pulled her back. She looked down and the traitor was there, his flesh hand holding her while his left drew back to strike with the dagger of fire. She did not have an opening to strike or parry with her sword, so she let it fall and dropped onto him, and they wrestled across the blood-splattered stone. He had a terrible, fevered look in his eye, and he fought with a feral strength. Blood poured from the death-wound she had given him, and yet his vitality did not fail.
She held his left arm back from her while he groped and struck at her with his free hand. All she saw was that needle, glassine point coming closer, and she could feel the terrible heat of it baking against her face. In desperation, she took one hand from his arm and strained to keep the blade back with one hand while she clawed for her own knife, drew it out, and stabbed for his throat.
He caught her wrist with his right hand and they strained together like that, teeth bared and clenched. She wrenched, trying to get around his guard, but their blades touched and she watched from a finger-length away as the red knife cut slowly through the steel of her dagger, leaving a glowing red line where the metal had parted.
He rose up to get better leverage, blood streaming from his mouth and nose, and he gave her enough room to bring her knee up and into his gut wound. He screamed in agony, and she braced her leg against him and threw him off. He landed hard on the floor on his face and she scrambled to her feet, seized up her fallen saber, and turned to face him.
He lay motionless, and wary of a trick she hooked her foot under him and rolled him over. His face was blank and empty, his mouth open and his eyes wide. The steel hand was clenched before him, the red dagger driven through bone and into his heart. She smelled the flesh searing at the touch of it. Asherah took a moment to spit on the corpse, and then she turned to the dais.
There she saw Gathas looming high over the sarcophagus, and as she watched he lifted his hands and shouted a word that hurt her ears and shook the very air. The silver lid of the coffin buckled and warped, and then it exploded upwards in a spray of hot metal shards.
Howling, Asherah leaped to the dais and looked on the corpse of the great emperor himself. Dressed in his armor, his flesh was black with years, his face sunken and hollow, his eyes empty. In his hands he grasped the hilt of his great word, the ember blade, the shard of the star, and it was not as she had imagined it. It was not a forged or shaped blade, but a piece of crystal broken loose and glowing with heat. The edge was jagged and the blade was not completely straight. The hilt was a heavy stone carved into shape and wrapped in leather turned black with centuries.
She lunged for the sorcerer, and he stabbed his fingers out toward her. She felt a burning pain lash through her body and she fell back, gasping. She almost pitched down to the floor, but she managed to overcome the pain and keep her feet. He sneered at her and reached into the sarcophagus, and then he lifted up the sword of fire.
As soon as he grasped it, he grimaced, and she saw smoke trail up from the flesh of his hand as the heat from the fallen star burned him. He clutched the hilt with both hands and hissed through his teeth, and Asherah took the moment to leap upon him.
Her sword lashed for his throat, and he parried clumsily with the sword of flame. It was plain he was no warrior, and even as the edge of the ember blade scored her own with glowing notches, she drove him back until he fell from the dais and almost sprawled on the floor. She leaped on him and rained down blows that he only barely kept from his flesh. She pressed him, giving him no chance to use his magic against her.
She got through his guard, scored his arm, then slashed along his side and made him curse. He had no time to mount his own attack, for she gave him none. He wielded the fiery blade with both hands, hissing with the pain of it as he fought her. He was slow and clumsy, not a man who knew the blade, and she knew it would only be moments before she pierced his guard and struck home. Wizard or not, she would sever his head and see if that did more than a simple arrow.
He reeled back from her assault, and then he simply ran, leaving her behind for a moment until she could catch him. He cried out and made a complex sign in the air with a glowing finger. The mark shimmered, hanging there before him, and then the air seemed to ripple and she saw it open as it had in Vendhar – she saw a portal in the air, and through it she saw a storm-lashed coastline, waves crashing against iron-gray rocks. She heard the rushing of the sea, smelled the salt smell she knew only from stories.
Gathas lunged for his escape, and she raced after him. A last, desperate slash and she cut open the back of his leg and brought him down to his knees. He turned and she dropped her saber and caught his hands. Together they struggled for the ember blade, even as the city around them burned and the spray of a faraway sea dashed them through the unnatural gateway hanging in the air.
He was strong, and Asherah was exhausted, but he was no fighter. He clung to the sword and tried to drag it away from her, out of her grasp, but she drove a knee into his belly and he hunched against the pain, lost his balance. They were face to face, gazes locked over the red edge of the sword, and then she set her foot on him and shoved hard.
His grip broke, and she came away with the blade. She reeled, off-balance, and then she felt cold air and realized what was happening just as she fell through the sorcerous portal and fell hard on a cold, rocky shore under a leaden sky. She heard the roar of the sea and the cries of birds, and then she looked back and saw the gateway hanging in space, the red shrine looking vivid and unreal in contrast to the bleak strand she found herself on. She heard the wizard curse aloud, and she tried to get up, get back and through. But there was a crash like thunder, and the gateway closed, and she was alone in a strange land, the sword of her ancestors burning in her hands.
Asherah went south along the cold shore, the sword of fire slung over her shoulder, bound in wet strips of cloth to hold it. The sea washed endlessly, and there was a low haze over the sky, so she could not see far, could not see sky or sun or stars. She did not know where she was, how far his gate had brought her, and she wondered if he knew himself. Perhaps in his haste he had simply conjured an escape, not caring where it led. If that were so, then he would not know himself where she had gone. He might follow her, or he might not.
But she could not remain where she was, and so she struggled along the stony beach, seeing low green hills to her right, a few bare islands out to sea on her left. Birds cried in the rocks, and she saw shells littered from their feeding.
At last she crested a rise, and she looked on a rude village of stone houses, gathered there on the shore. Moss grew on the round dwellings, and smoke issued from the short chimneys on top of them. She saw racks of fish hung over fires to smoke, and she saw sealskins stretched for tanning. There were small, dark people with narrow eyes in among the houses, and some of them saw her, looked at her curiously. Asherah shouldered her burden and started forward. She would find where she was, and then she would begin her hunt again.