Bells rang from every tower in the ancient city of Samzar. From the high places where the sunset last touched the stone the great bronze bells tolled, and the sounds and echoes rang clear over the city, across the gorgeous palaces, through the busy market places, down the white avenues and streets, and out over the sea and the harbor thronged with ships from a hundred lands. The bells rang a dirge, for this was the last day of the king, and the very walls sang for his passing.
Vonkar was old, and had ruled a very long time. There were many who could not remember a time before he had sat upon the throne, and those who could were gray-haired and bent with age. Now they all told the stories they knew of the reign of the king. They told of his youth, when he had been a tall and valiant warrior, and of his wars against enemies near and far. They told of the voyages of the iron fleet across the sea to subdue far countries and bring back heaped treasures to swell the coffers of the palace.
They spoke of his young wife, taken late in his life, and of her tragic death birthing a single child. They lamented that the heir to the realm was only a young girl, barely grown, now robbed of the wisdom and tutelage of her wise father. They did not speak ill of the princess, for had not the line of kings been forged by Asherah herself? The very greatest of rulers out of the old ages, dead now these three centuries. Some of them hoped for a new age, a new golden era under the hand of a queen once again.
As the sky turned dark blue and then black, fires kindled all across the city. Thousands of torches lit and burned, lining the great streets. A candle burned in every window, from the meanest hovel to the tallest tower, and by the light of so many, the city seemed to glow with a strange fire.
By that light the great doors of the palace opened, and the funeral procession came forth into the night. Five hundred warriors on white horses came forth as the forward guard, spears high and plumes and pennons white for mourning. Then trumpets blew and a thousand slaves ventured forth barefoot and dressed in white, and they cast white petals to scatter on the road, lining the stone so that no foot might step and not touch flowers.
Then came a hundred toiling slaves with powerful arms and strong backs, and they pulled hard, singing a somber song as they labored to pull the funeral bier of the king through the gates and under the stars. As of old, the bier was a vast, wheeled shape, draped in thousands of flowers and a fortune in silks. Beneath it was made of gold and silver, encrusted with jewels, and upon it the body of the king lay within his gilded sarcophagus. Torches burned at the corners of the canopy that arched over him, and all who saw the shape of his death mask beneath the shrouds turned their faces away in respect.
Behind the funeral bier came more guards, all in black on black horses, to guard and shelter the living heir from the power of the dead. At the center of them, carried on a litter, stood the princess Chona, tall and pale and black-haired. It was said her eyes were blue, like those of her long-dead mother. Now she stood robed in white for mourning, straight and unmoving and veiled in silk.
Close beside her, all in black, as was his habit, rode the king’s closest counselor, Khamag. He was a lean, dark-faced man who spoke little and was rumored to be a wizard with dark powers. None could say how old he was, only that he was older than anyone who lived. The skin of his face was marked by mysterious tattoos of unknown meaning, and his left hand was made of silver. Ever he had been close to the king, and now he rode near to the princess, ready to help her as he had her father.
Now the funeral procession made its way down through the city, along the wide avenue lined with flames, until at last it came to the heart of the city, the great necropolis that had stood for centuries. There was the great round plaza, with the tombs of the kings and queens placed around it in a great arc. Some were grand tombs, some were modest; all faced inwards to the great crypt at the very center.
It was made from gold and jade, carved and worked and set with a hundred thousand jewels. There was more wealth in the great tomb than in a hundred lesser cities, and none would dare pry so much as a trinket from the walls, for it was the very holiest shrine in the world. Here the Great Emperor, the Sleeping Tyrant, lay in his shrine, and the kings of old, greater and lesser, all stood watch over him, as was sworn by all of them to do.
Facing the door of the shrine was the tomb of Asherah herself, all of black stone and bound with iron, set with black diamonds. Over ages, the rust had flowed down, and it was as if her crypt shed blood even now. The funeral cortege paused before the door of her mausoleum, and all stopped and bowed low to the Iron Queen.
Chona looked on the resting place of her ancestor and felt a great emptiness she could not articulate. She wished she could speak with the queen, ask her guidance, and her wisdom. She knew that the sword of fire was buried there in that sealed crypt, and she wondered again what it was like, how it looked and if the fire said to smolder within it still burned, even now.
They drew the king’s bier to a stop before the door of the emperor’s tomb, and the slaves knelt and pressed their faces to the stone. Now would come the most sacred rite to mark the passing of a king, and the shrine itself would be opened. Chona herself would look on the face of the Sleeping Emperor, and thus she would be anointed the heir to the throne. The crown of fire would be brought forth from the tomb, and with it, an age would pass.
The priests came forward, each of them with his staff held high. Carved from ancient stone, they were the keys to the great tomb, and they fitted them into the ancient gate, turned them, and then the golden portal opened, revealing the inner door of dark green jade.
Chona came down from her litter, and her white silk gown trailed behind her on the clean-swept stone as she approached the archway. She felt a tremble in her arms and legs, but she controlled it, walked upright and rigid as befitted a daughter of kings. She came to the inner door and drew forth the golden key that she had taken from around her father’s neck as he lay dying. In the faded light it gleamed soft and mysterious, an arcane and coiled shape.
She placed the key in the golden lock, and turned it. The ancient mechanism clicked smoothly and then fell open, and she shivered as she hung the key around her neck, and then placed her hands on the smooth, cool jade of the door. She bent her head and pushed, and for a moment she was certain she would not be able to open them, but then they swung inward, moving ponderous and silent on their hidden hinges.
Chona took no light with her, and she crossed the black threshold and stepped into the tomb of her great ancestor. The air was still and cool, yet she saw a light ahead of her, and she walked on the polished floor into the deeps of the crypt. There was dust on the floor, and she saw the prints of feet, knew they were the marks left by her father more than seventy years ago, and beneath them fainter marks made by other ancestors. Kings traced back to the first day of the Iron Queen.
In the central dome of the tomb she saw light, and she stopped there and looked up, saw the elaborately carved roof overhead, layers of delicately made stone carved and pierced and then covered over, so that no one ever saw it. The walls were inlaid with gold, and they cast back the light that blazed at the center of the chamber. There was a raised pedestal, and on it lay the sarcophagus of the emperor, and upon that lay the crown of fire, glowing eternally, here in the dark.
She found her hands shook as she mounted the steps to the dais, and there she saw the sarcophagus of the emperor, black with age and draped with black and red silks rotting through so they were tattered and threadbare. And there, upon the chest of the coffin, was the crown.
It was all of iron, made centuries ago by smiths of Asherah herself. It was far too large to be the crown of any mortal man or woman, and thus was the legend that Asherah had been a giant in life. The crown had four points, two on one side, and two on the other, and they were like shards of red glass, pointed and deadly-looking, and they blazed from within with inner fire. The crown was made to hold them, and in the center was an empty place where a fifth tine might be mounted, though none had ever been.
She felt the heat from it as she drew closer and looked on the impassive face of the emperor worked in the ancient silver of his sarcophagus. If she dared, she might open it, and look on him in truth, see the desiccated face that remained after so many centuries.
Then she heard screams from outside, and she turned back, looked toward the entrance. Her heart sped faster, and she did not know what was happening. A drift of some dark smoke coiled through the entrance, and she saw a figure there, moving like a shadow into the tomb. For a moment she did not know what it was, but then she saw the familiar face, the skin marked by tattoos, and she knew it was Khamag, her father’s counselor, said to be the wisest man in the lands ruled by Samzar.
He moved easily, his hood cast back, and she felt her heart speed that he had dared to enter here. She hurried down the steps, reaching out for him. “What is happening?” she said. “What is that sound?”
He smiled and put out his one hand, clasped hers strongly, and then he smiled a gentle smile. She smelled something acidic and bitter, and then her throat burned and she fell back, gasping and choking. She clutched at her throat, feeling her limbs grow weak and slack, her strength fleeing her muscles. It felt as though her blood had turned to ice, and she cried out at the pain, greater than anything she had ever felt before. Her voice joined the chorus of agony from outside, echoed from the walls of the ancient tomb.
“The stars turn,” Khamag said. “The years pass, and at last is the time when I may take what I wish, what I need to encompass my long-delayed destiny.” He went to the dais and took the crown. She watched in outrage and terror as he savagely ripped the four red tines from the iron and held them smoking in his silver hand like daggers. He cast the iron crown to the floor and it rang like the bells that had tolled for her father’s death.
She wanted to curse him, but her body was afire with pain, and she could barely move, could never have forced her lips to shape words. He looked down at her, an expression on his face that was almost pitying. “I am sorry, Princess, but the line of false kings ends here. Only the Sleeping Tyrant may rule over the whole of the earth, and I will see that he does. I will raise him from undeath, and then he will stretch forth his hand and the thrones of the earth will fall.”
He bent down and touched her face almost tenderly. “Breathe in the poisoned fumes. They will leave you paralyzed, but alive. They will kill you, but not yet. You will live long enough to see a new era birthed upon the world.”
Men in black cloaks and masks flooded the great tomb, and Chona lay paralyzed on the floor, unable to do more than breathe with the greatest, most terrible effort. She watched them affix chains to the emperor’s sarcophagus and then rip him free of where he had lain for three hundred years. They lashed iron bands around the coffin, and then they bore him up and carried him away. Desperate, furious, she tried to reach after them, but she could not move so much as a finger.
One by one, the voiced raised in agony outside faded away, and she knew the people were dying, and she would soon join them. She gasped for air, and it was harder and harder, each breath like forcing molten lead into her chest, even as her blood felt like congealing ice. She began to shudder and convulse uncontrollably, and her vision grew dark.
At the last, Khamag entered the shrine again, and he looked upon her with something that was almost sadness. He held up a vial of something colorless, and then he poured it upon the floor. When it struck the stone it flared bright green, and then flames began to devour it. “It began in fire,” he said. “Let it end so.” Then he drew his robe around himself, and he left her there.
The green flames hissed, turned red as they ate away at the very stone, and she watched as they spread to the ornate walls, began to claw their way up across the silver and gold, jewels shattering into pieces when the heat touched them. She felt the flames draw closer, even through her paralysis, and she gasped harder, tasting the acrid copper stench of the smoke. There was a great shuddering sound as the door was sealed, and she knew she was alone in this place of death.
But Chona would not give way. She breathed harder, feeling heat on her skin, and she called out with a desperate inner voice. She called on Asherah to give her strength to rise, she begged, and at last, she demanded.
She dragged in a long breath, and then she forced it out, and she looked at her hand and willed it to move, and it did. Her slack fingers clenched tight, and she felt the pain run through her like fire. The flames were close. She made a terrible, savage sound through her clenched teeth, and then she rolled onto her side, then onto her face, and she forced herself up with hands that she could barely feel. She shuddered and vomited poison onto the floor, and then she staggered to her feet in the burning shrine.
The unnatural fire was devouring the walls, and molten gold and silver poured down to form burning pools on the cracked and ancient floor. The air was filed with the glittering dust of broken jewels, and the heat was like the breath of a demon. Chona breathed in smoke, and gagged on her fury. She would not burn and die here, she refused it.
She crossed the floor, her white gown beginning to smolder, and when she reached the heavy jade doors, she grasped the golden handles and pulled hard on them. She knew the door could not be locked from the outside, because the only key still lay around her neck, close to her heart. The gold was hot, and she felt it burn her skin as she pulled.
The doors opened, and she staggered out into the night, gasping for breath. The fire swelled behind her, and she reeled away as crimson fire burst forth into the dark, illuminating a scene of death. The plaza was strewn with the bodies of the dead, warriors and slaves and horses all lying twisted and lifeless as though they had been cast up by an envenomed sea. Then the fire slammed the doors shut, and she fell in among the slain, and she knew no more.
She woke in darkness, and she did not know where she was. The night was deep and passing, and she looked up at the sky and saw the stars bright and blazing, looking down on her. She had been given the strength she wished for; now she must prove she was worthy of it. She staggered to her feet, feeling strange and cold, and she wondered what the poison fumes might have done to her while she lay here. The stones of the plaza were dusted with a fine black powder, and it lay on the faces of the dead in the starlight.
Across from the broken tomb lay the mausoleum of Asherah, and she saw it had also been broken open, and that filled her with rage. Chona drew a sword from the side of a fallen warrior, and she crossed the great plaza until she stood before the defiled crypt. Torches still burned in the sconces beside the broken door, and she took one and ventured inside.
She found the tomb of her ancestor, and the sarcophagus was cast down and spilled, the bones scattered and ground underfoot. Time had left little of the Iron Queen. Her armor lay darkened by age, and the sword of fire was gone, as she had known it must be.
Chona lifted the helm from the floor, seeing the scatter of broken bone that must have been the skull of the queen. She took the old steel armor and expected it to be too large for her, but it seemed Asherah had not been the giantess told of in the stories. With reverence and determination, she donned the black scaled mail, and then she set the helm on her head, knotting her hair up beneath it. Her line had been born as warriors; now she would find if she was worthy of it.
The palace was ablaze with light in the deep breath of dark before dawn, and Chona found the gate open, the guards slain in pools of blood. The halls were littered with the slain, and red painted the walls and columns. She felt rage grow in her with every step, at the sight of every dead face pale and still. These were her people, every one, and now they lay dead for no reason she knew. She swore she would call an accounting for each of them.
She heard voices in the throne hall, chanting that rose up and up, the beating of sword-hilts on the tables to make a rhythm. She stood in the shadows and looked upon the room where her father had held his court, and she saw now a court of chaos. A hundred men in black cloaks chanted and pounded the tables and the walls. The floor was scattered with dead, and at the center stood the sarcophagus of the Sleeping Tyrant, black as a piece of the eternal night.
Khamag stood before the throne, and as she looked he held up the glowing shards of the crown in his silver hand. Four men knelt before him, stripped to the waist and heads bowed. One by one he reached down and scarred their shoulders with the burning red crystal, and then each of them took one of the shards as a dagger in hand. Smoke rose from the braziers and the spilled lamps, and the smell of blood and seared flesh was bitter in the air.
Chona had been raised with knowledge of sword and spear and bow, but she could never defeat a hundred men. The best she might hope was to draw them off and then gain a chance to strike at Khamag, to cut him down and avenge herself upon him. She looked for a way to distract them, and she saw the great tapestry that hung upon the wall, covering all of it, as long as a warship. It showed the great invasion when Asherah came from the sea with her fleet and seized the city and began the dynasty.
She took a lamp and bared the flame, and she reached up and touched it to the cloth. It was silk woven with silver and gold, but it caught fire swiftly. She splashed the oil on it and the flames slashed up and across, consuming the whole hanging before the men even saw it, so intent were they upon the strange ritual before the throne.
Just as they saw the fire and began to cry out, Chona leaped from the darkness, and her sword flashed like silver in the red light. She cut through the three heavy ropes that held up the tapestry, and with a roar the vast billow of flaming cloth fell upon the men below, covering them in a shroud of flames.
Screams filled the air, and in moments the hall dissolved in terror and confusion, and smoke boiled up and obscured their sight, so none of them saw Chona as she darted across the open floor, leaped the table, and rushed in among the four men before the throne, under the eyes of Khamag. She would not hesitate, and she struck murderously, her long blade shearing off the first man’s head clean and sudden. Blood gushed and the others leaped up, their red daggers glowing in the dimness.
One of them lunged for her, blind, and she hacked into his shoulder, sent him down in a welter of blood. The next one stepped in too close and she cut through his knee, left him screaming in his own blood. The last one slashed at her and the red blade scored her armor, but it did not cut through. She plunged her sword through his body and ripped it out in a cascade of red.
Then she faced Khamag and saw him looking at her with a cold, measuring eye. “So, it seems there is strength in the line of Asherah still unspent.” He drew his own saber and faced her easily, no fear in him at all. He had a fluid grace and assurance, and she wondered if she could slay him. She determined to try.
Their swords met in a storm of steel, and she knew at the first moment that he was a better swordsman than she was, better by far. He drove her back with fierce strength, and she had to use both hands on her sword to match him. Her one advantage was that he could not use his artificial hand, for it was too slow to wield a blade. She circled him, and they fought up the stairs behind the throne, toward the looming tall windows where the sky was just beginning to pale.
“I will have your life for this,” she said, breathing hard. She ached in every limb, but she would not stop now. “You betrayed me, and my father, and our people. I will see your blood spilled.”
“My life?” he said, and he laughed. Their swords rang together, and she felt the shock making her hands go numb and weak. The hall was filled with his men, and now that the fire was out they began to gather before the throne, hemming her in. She could not spare them a glance, but she knew they were there. There would be no easy escape from this.
He struck her a terrific blow, and she barely met it on her steel. She lost her footing and fell to one knee, and then he struck again and her sword flew from her hands. She felt a keen pain in her left arm, and then she saw that he had cut it clean through, leaving her only a stump. She cried out and clutched it, waiting for the crimson flood, but none came. Steam rose from the exposed veins, and the blood that came was cold.
“I will show you my life, before you die,” he said. His silver hand came up and ripped the front of his robe open, exposing his chest. In the center was embedded a glowing red stone, like a ruby the size of an egg, and the flesh around it was blackened, and burned.
“Asherah herself took my hand,” he said, holding up his silver limb. “And then, when she came against us again, I fell upon the fifth dagger. It went into my heart, and yet I did not die. I lay long in the hollows beneath the tomb, and then I arose again, filled with an unholy life. I have waited these many years for the time to come at last, and now I will raise the Sleeping Tyrant, and begin a war that will never end.”
He came for her with his sword held high, and she threw herself away from him. She crashed against the window and broke through. She saw a last flash of his blade, the evil stone in his chest like a baleful eye, and then she was falling, twisting through the air, and she fell into the waters below the palace, was swept out with the tide, and vanished into the sea.
Night was falling when Chona dragged herself from the sea. The wind was cold across her skin, and she shivered. Her flesh was cold and pale, and though she had lain for a day beneath the water, she did not drown. The poison she had breathed, her nearness to death, had worked some change upon her, and she was no longer what she had been.
The armor she wore was heavy, but she would not abandon it. The helm was lost, her sword was lost, and her kingdom was lost. She cradled the stump of her left hand, and she was hungry, and alone. As the last light of the sun fell away, she held up her right hand and clenched it into a fist. Far away to the south she saw the lights of the city that had been her home. Now all she possessed was ancient armor, and one good hand. She swore to the goddess of fire that it would be enough.