They crossed the furious stormland of the black desert, lost among monoliths and raging winds. The cold princess and the king without a country. She led the way, her one hand gripping her spear as she strode the dunes. The black sands sifted and slid away like water, and the sky was dark with wind. They had lost the trail they followed, could see no more than a dozen steps before them. Violet lightning scarred the sky, and none could say whether it was day or night.
Chona found the cold did not bother her, not now. Her head was wrapped in cloth to keep the deadly sand from her face, but she could scarcely see. Prickles of red lightning crawled at the tip of her spear and over the steel rim of her shield, twitched at her skin. She leaned into the wind, feeling no pain nor fatigue. The poison that Khamag had poured into her body had not slain her, but had only drawn her into a different life. A colder life, without the hungers and failings of her old body.
That was the only reason she could walk as an equal with the giant who traveled with her. Kumura was a hulk of pale skin and muscles like iron. He feared nothing and no hardship seemed to touch him, save that his remaining eye, weak from years of imprisonment, could not bear the light of day.
The wind buffeted and clawed at them, and she struggled to remain upright. Over the moaning of the storm she heard the winding of the terrible horn, foretelling the pursuit of the deadly nomads of the Black Desert. Even in such a storm they would not turn aside, as their god of the dark skies drove them on, calling them to feed blood to the wind and the sands. They drove through the desert on their lean black steeds, and nothing seemed to turn them aside from the hunt.
Chona knew by now they could not shake the pursuit, and they would have to fight. She only drove them on to find a place where they might make a stand in the darkness. If they fought in the open they would be surrounded and cut down, separated and left to stumble alone even if they escaped death. Kumura was a beast, but he sought the same enemy, and he was the only ally she possessed. She would not give him up easily.
She struggled on, climbing a dune so steep she slid down with every step. It was hard to keep her balance with only her single arm, and she cursed Khamag once again, promising him she would take his own false arm in place of her own. Just as she was sinking knee-deep in the black sand Kumura caught her and hauled her up, his strength making her weight into nothing.
Together they crested the dune and looked down into a dark abyss as deep and featureless as the hollow of a sea-wave. Crimson and purple lightning slashed overhead, and in the sudden flare she saw a form in the darkness ahead that was more solid than the endless ocean of sand. Something stood there, ancient and sentinel in the desert. She pointed, hoping he had seen it – she knew his own sight was better in the dark than her own.
Together they waded down the slope, the horn coming again behind them, closer. Chona knew they would have to fight soon, and so she slung her shield off her back and pushed her severed arm through the straps. Even so she could not use it properly, so she had a strap that went around her neck to support the weight and let her keep it in place without a hand. Stormfire played across her spearhead, and she hoped that soon it would be dark with blood.
From the darkness ahead of them emerged black pillars of stone, and set across them a wide stone, forming a primitive arch. The stone was scoured by sand and stone, smooth as glass, and it flared with hidden colors in the play of the fell lightning. They both staggered under the arch, and beyond it there rose a stair, wide and half-buried in sand. Chona mounted the tall steps, looked back and saw shadows moving in the storm.
“They are here!” she howled, and Kumura turned. Across his back he bore the heavy executioner’s sword, and now he took it in his hands and braced his feet wide on the ancient stone.
Chona turned and braced herself, still half-blinded by the storm, spear ready in her hand. She saw the coursing of the desert beasts that were neither horse nor camel. They were long-necked and long-legged, and they moved almost like spiders as they came up the stairs. The riders on them were tall and robed against the storm. She saw only their eyes, blazing green in the dark. They bore long swords and barbed spears, and they rushed up the steps in a wave, howling for blood.
Lightning burned and thunder cracked the sky, and then Chona met the rush. A spear splintered against her shield, and then she parried the stroke of a sword and struck back, plunging her spear through a hooded face so that teeth rattled on the stone underfoot. The desert beasts reared and screamed, and she hewed at them, piercing their leathery hides until her spear-haft snapped in two and she drew her sword with a rush of steel.
She drew back so she and Kumura were braced close, so that no attacker could thread in between them. He hacked the animals down with great sweeps of his sword, and she had to give him room to strike. Her sword cut the legs from under one, and it tumbled back down, bleating and thrashing.
The nomads came against them, eyes glowing lambent in the storm, and she fought like a fury, cutting down three with scything strokes of her blade. Her shield turned their attacks, and her armor caught swords and spears until it was rent and she felt the wounds like stings. Her sword was red as she retreated up the steps, leaving the slain and wounded heaped behind.
She stumbled, and Kumura pulled her up, drew her after him, up the steps and through the great arch. The nomads lay wounded or slain, and they faded into the dark. Chona saw around them the monoliths and obelisks of some forgotten and ruined city, half-buried in the sands and lost to ages. Lightning scoured the black sky as they reeled through the encompassing wind and the devouring sands. Together they pushed on, until they reached a wall. Chona felt along the wind-smoothed surface and felt the outline of a door.
“Help me!” she screamed into the building storm, and then she was using her sword to dig away the encrustation of aeons, trying to free the great portal that loomed over them both. It was Kumura who set his great strength against it and, with a heave of his iron-muscled body, he forced the doors open, revealing a pitch-black aperture that led into some unknown deep.
She did not hesitate, and she slipped through the opening and into blackness. Kumura came after her, and then he set his shoulder to the stone and forced it shut again, and at once they were free of the howling winds and the terrible sand. Chona fell to the floor, coughing and retching, and Kumura leaned on the unseen walls and heaved and spat out black. The sudden silence was enormous, and all she could hear of the storm was a faint groaning through the stone walls. Her hand still clutched her sword tightly as she sagged down upon the floor. Even her new endurance had limits, and she fell into a sleep of utter exhaustion.
Chona woke cold in the dark, and could not remember where she was. She sat up, felt her sword hilt in her hand and strained to see through the blackness. She heard Kumura shift and breathe. “Heard something moving around, not close.”
She ran her hand through her hair, still cursing her missing arm. Black sand shook loose from her hair and sifted down around her; she was covered in it. “Has the storm passed?” she said.
“I think so. It hasn’t been long,” he said. His voice sounded like something broken. Cracking bones in a pit.
She got up. “Let’s see.”
She heard him move in the dark, knowing he could see in the blackness easily. There was a scraping of stone, and then a sliver of silver light flared like a blade. She squinted and Kumura flinched back, and then he set his shoulder and forced the door wider. The wind was gone, and there was no sound, the desert lay motionless and calm.
Chona slipped out into the night. The sky was clear as new glass, alight with countless stars that blazed down in so many colors. The moon was a low-hanging crescent blade on the horizon, illuminating the black dunes in shining eldritch light. The shadows were absolute black, while the ridges shone like silver.
She walked out and looked for a sign of the nomads, but nothing moved as far as she could see. Then she turned and looked behind her, and she gasped when she saw the massive shapes of the lost city still as a necropolis in the deep night. All that remained were the half-buried forms of towers and walls, black stone worn down to smoothness over unknown ages of time here in this desolate place.
Chona climbed the steep slope and looked down a long, dead avenue leading into the center of the city, where some greater edifice still reared above the ruin. She looked at Kumura as he climbed up to stand beside her. “I have never heard of a city here in the Black Desert,” she said. “No legends, no tales.”
“Nor me,” he said. He leaned his butcher sword on his shoulder. “Let us see what there is to see.”
“Then we are of a mind,” she said. She cleaned her sword and sheathed it, slung her shield on her back, and together they made their way down the long empty street, looking at the wind-carved ruins of the city around them. Chona tried to imagine what it had looked like when it lived, if it ever had. The few doorways were tall and narrow, and she thought of the nomads, said to be reptilian beneath their black robes, speaking a language like no other and defending their ancient wasteland to the death.
Under a host of stars, they followed the dead road to the last ruin, standing above the sand, massive and black and all but featureless. They climbed a stair, and then came to another door. Once it had been carved, but time and wind had obliterated all but the most rudimentary marks. Kumura ran his hand over it, and then he burst it open with a single shove. If anything had sealed it before, it was long faded to dust.
They entered a high hall, the floor drifted with black sands and light filtering down through narrow embrasures. The hall was lined with square-cut pillars etched with detailed relief and marked by the carved likenesses of tall men with inhuman, elongated heads. The silence was oppressive as they made their way down the hall. Chona stopped when she saw marks in the sands ahead. “Something is here,” she said, drawing her sword again. If some desert beast laired in this place, she wanted to be ready to meet it.
They reached an inner door, and now she saw the true artistry that had been lost with this place. Inlaid with gold worked into the black stone, the door was carved in such fine detail and depth that it was like seeing scenes from a bizarre dream all in black and gold. She saw the city itself rearing high in the sun among mountains and trees, she saw a people with strange heads and the wrong number of fingers on their hands, and they all looked upward to a towering figure crowned with fire that reached down from the sky. A king of a vanished land, a god of a dead city and a dead race.
She almost stopped Kumura when he set his hands on the door, but in the end she did not. He braced the powerful muscles of his back and pulled, and with his iron arms he wrenched the portal open. The hinges groaned and cracked, and one of the great handles broke loose in his hand, but there was enough of a gap for them to make their way through.
Golden light shone out from the inside, and Chona kept her sword at the ready as she slipped through the door and stood in the hallowed hall where no human foot had trod for uncounted ages. She saw again the strange marks in the sand, and she knew that something not human walked here. She heard nothing, only the endless, aching silence so heavy it lay over them like a grave shroud.
She crossed a wide landing, and then she looked upon a chamber that stunned her to stillness. It was so vast and grand a room it seemed impossible, the roof overhead a great dome pierced through in a radiant pattern to let the light through, the gaps covered with some translucent, amber material that turned the starlight and moonlight above into a rich golden glow.
Down the wide stair, the floor of the chamber was ringed with ranks of statues worked in the likenesses of warriors, the ones nearest the walls standing sentinel, while the innermost rings knelt in the sand. They were of stone, yet so lifelike that it seemed they might rise and walk as living men if she blinked for too long. Some of them had tumbled over and lay stretched in the dust of fallen ages, the only sign that anything had stirred in this place for an aeon.
At the center, raised upon a dais, stood what looked like a tomb, complete with an effigy laid upon the top of it. It had the look of a man divided into many parts, each one separate and worked in the same black stone. She could not see from where she stood, and she took a step forward.
A slight slithering sound was all that warned her, and she turned as something armored and gleaming rushed from the darkness. It was like a scorpion, but so huge its head stood as high as Kumura’s, and the plated body that stretched behind it rushed forward on a multitude of legs. In a moment she knew the origin of the strange marks upon the floor – the marks of many barbed feet that left sign that belied the massive beast they carried.
A claw snapped for her with a shearing blow that would have ripped her in half, but she hurled herself backward, tumbled down the ancient steps and clung to her sword as the monstrosity rushed after her, an obscene chittering coming from the jagged parts of its mouth as they ground together hungrily.
It was almost on her when Kumura rushed in from the side and hewed at it with his killer’s sword. He hacked off two small legs, and it jumped sideways with a scream of rage. It struck at him and he parried, reeled back from the force of the blow, his sword ringing. The thing rushed on him, claws snapping, and Chona saw the tail coiled high behind it, the murderous stinger long and dark and dripping with venom.
Chona was on her feet, lunging for the beast. She hacked at the legs, trying to get past them to the body, but her own slim blade would barely mark the hard, armored limbs. It turned on her and the stinger lashed down with a speed that numbed her. The blow smote on her shield and splintered it, sending her down to roll away among the fragments. If she had still possessed a left forearm, it would have been broken.
She came up as the thing rushed on her, the claws snapping ferociously. She dodged one, parried the other, and then it clamped shut and broke her sword in half. The horrid, faceless mouth was before her, chewing and grinding, and she snatched her dagger from her belt and hurled it into that hungry maw. She heard the steel splinter and then the thing backed away, spitting out the pieces.
Kumura hurtled into the side of the thing with all his weight, crashing against it and knocking it sideways. It shrieked as his sword came down and splintered armor and flesh, spilling blackened ichor onto the stone. They tumbled together, Kumura’s butcher blade striking again and again until a lashing stroke of a claw dashed it from his hands.
Chona struggled up and grabbed the broken blade of her sword from the dust. It was better than no weapon at all. The thing flung Kumura back and she saw the tail coil in a spiral, readying to strike again. Heedless, she leaped down the steps and sprang, landing on top of the bestial guardian. Before it could shake her loose, she rammed her blade down and into one of the blisterlike eyes, bringing a gout of vile blood.
Screeching, it slapped her aside with a blow of its claw, and she fell hard on the stone floor, knocking over a pair of carved warriors. She twisted as the monster loomed over her, and then the tail uncoiled and struck her with terrific force. She felt a lance of agony through her chest, and the stinger punched through her armor and impaled her, filling her body with burning venom.
Chona screamed, and then Kumura leaped in and his blade came down, splitting the beast’s head apart with a single terrible stroke. He ripped his blade free as the creature crawled away from him, thrashing and hissing, pouring ichor out upon the floor, until it crashed into the ranks of statues, tumbling them like toys, and collapsed into twitching death.
There was silence in the tomb once again, and Chona lay in a silence locked on her by agony. She tried to clutch at her chest, but she could not even control her limbs enough for that. She gasped and choked on her breath, her muscles rigid and clenched. She saw red, and then she could not see at all. She heard footfalls, and then Kumura lifted her from the floor and wiped away the blood she shed as tears.
She looked at him, a thousand screams trapped inside her, and then she fastened her iron will upon her voice and met his one-eyed stare. “Avenge me,” she choked out, and then one final spasm of pain consumed her, and she hissed through clenched teeth, spitting defiance as the darkness closed in on her, and buried her.
After an age she gasped in a heavy breath, feeling coldness creep through her veins like ice. She lay for what seemed an eternity in darkness, unable to move, unable to even feel her flesh. She breathed, and that was the extent of her power. Slowly, so slowly, she felt life begin to return to her body. She forced her eyes open and looked up at the domed roof of the great chamber, sun shining down through the porphyry, covering everything in gold like honey.
She tasted ashes, turned on her side and spat out dust. She was alone, laid with care on the edge of the dais that held the great tomb. Her limbs were stiff as stone, her flesh cold, and she felt as though she weighed as much as a woman carved from iron. She wondered how long it had been since the sting. Days? Longer?
Kumura was gone, and why should he not be? He thought her dead, so he left her here and went on. She would expect no less. She breathed deeper and felt some warmth return to her. She put her one hand under her armor and felt the sting, the terrible wound scorched by the power of the venom. How did she live? Was it some other effect of the poison she had breathed in the tomb of her ancestors? Perhaps it reacted with the sting of the scorpion-beast and left her alive, or perhaps it was simply not strong enough to kill her now.
She pushed herself up, her arms shaking. She expected to be hungry, or thirsty, but she felt no cravings, no emptiness. She was only cold, but she warmed as she moved. Here atop the dais was the effigy of the body in the tomb, carved into the black stone and inlaid with gold and jewels dimmed by ages of dust.
Chona had no sword, and her armor was rent and ruined. She cast it off and turned to the tomb. Perhaps this dead king had been interred with his treasures and war-gear. There might be something she could use within.
Strange how his body seemed to be divided – the arms separate, the legs and head as well. The effigy was made so, perhaps his body was whole inside the crypt, or perhaps this was just some custom of a vanished race. She set her hand on the tomb and pushed and pried at the heavy stone until she felt it shift. With all her strength she shoved the lid aside, and within she saw no sign of a body, only the ornaments of a ruler. A golden circlet studded with gems, a corselet made of blue scales and inlaid with gold.
And there lay a hand, only that, adorned with rings and bracer, the flesh black and smooth as stone itself. It lay beside a sword with a straight blade, the leather grip rotted away and the hilt greened with corrosion, but the black blade was clean and sharp. It would do. She wondered where the dead man had fallen, that his body could not be brought here and interred, only his hand remaining.
She looked at the hand. Not a king then, a god. A fallen god who was cut apart, and this piece brought back and entombed here in eternity. She wondered if he had been cut apart to preserve him, or to prevent him from being born anew. Her mouth was dry, and she felt a humming in her mind, like a distant song, tuneless and unending. She reached in and took up the severed hand. It was colder than it should be, heavy and rigid as iron. She looked at the severed end, and then, before she could think more on it, she pressed it against the stump of her left arm.
There was an instant of freezing cold, and then the dead flesh flowed over her arm and sealed it in place, and Chona cried out as sensation ripped through the new limb. She staggered back and fell from the dais, writhed on the stone floor as she felt cold blood flow through her veins, felt the dead hand move as it it were her own. The fingers twitched, and she gasped at the feeling it sent through her. She felt limned with a cold light, and she breathed out a cloud of mist into the dry air.
Slowly, shaking, she got to her feet. She lifted the new hand before her face, the flesh black and gleaming like ice, and then she clenched the dead fingers into a fist and a shudder passed through the chamber. Dust billowed, and stone cracked and shifted as a hundred stone warriors moved, stirring in their endless slumber, and then they moved as one, rising to their feet. They drew their shields in close and struck their swords against them. The beat of an iron heart enslaved to her new will.