The snow screamed on the wind, obscuring everything, making the night a torrent of razor ice that clawed and froze and cracked apart. The fanatics of the Left Hand looked into the night, to the gate of the dead city. They held hard to their spears and shields, set their feet against the wind, and they listened as the tread of many feet drew closer. Again the blast of a battle horn ripped the darkness, and then the vanguard of a terrible army surged out from the night.
They were not men. They wore the shape of men, but they were not made of flesh; they were stone men, black and gleaming like glass, rimed with frost, and from their masked helms eyes blazed like lanterns. They made no sound, gave no cries. There was only the inexorable pound of their feet upon the earth, and then their spears lowered to make a serried wall of deadly points, and the two armies came together with a roar.
The attacking men were of stone, but their swords and spears were of hardened bronze, and they struck with inhuman strength. The warriors had great weight and size, and they smashed into the ranks of their enemy like a tide. Men were knocked back, impaled and crushed under stone feet. The men of the Left Hand fought like demons, but their blows rang useless upon stone skins and their swords and axes snapped like brittle ice.
The stone men tore through the lines and split the front apart, and then through the ranks of them came another shape. Tall and pale, dressed in blue-scaled armor and with a black sword in her dead left hand, Chona strode through her army of unliving warriors, and she let loose her war cry into the storm. From death she was risen to avenge her kingdom, and nothing would stand in her path.
In her veins she felt the unnatural life of the tomb guardians like a second pulse-beat, and they moved as she commanded. There were only a hundred of them, but they did not tire, nor bleed, nor feel fear. They were like a part of her now, like the hand of death she wore in place of her own. Cold fire burned in her blood, and she seemed to feel the quickening of the cold earth beneath her. The cold wind was sweet to her, and she did not feel the touch of the ice.
She came through her warriors and plunged into the heart of the battle, her black sword alive in her taken hand. It was long and heavy, but her strength had grown, and she wielded it easily. The hard edge cut singing through armor and bone, and left those she struck dead and savaged behind her, the blood that flowed from their wounds turning to crystals of ice that grew like spears from their veins. The edges of the cuts turned black with frost from the cold blade’s touch.
Chona would not be stayed, and the ranks of the Left Hand went down before her. There were many more of them than of her stone men, but they bled like men and died like men, while her warriors were bloodless and untiring. They cut a swath of destruction through the enemy like the stroke of a blade, with her at their head like the tip of a spear.
She lifted her horn to her lips and blew another blast upon it, the deep-voiced wail echoing into the dark, winding in among the coils of the wind until it was lost in the night and fell away into deep, forgotten places. She threw it aside and put both hands to the hilt of her sword. She cut and killed and killed until her arms were black with freezing blood, and then she saw the sword of fire blazing close before her, and she saw a rippling place of darkness that her eyes saw through, to the heart.
Kumura saw her and he laughed. His strength was fading, no matter the power of the sword in his hand, and now the curtain of snow was forced back and he saw a host of the stone men from the desert tomb. They walked as if they were alive, arms and weapons heavy with frozen blood from their foes, and at the head of them came Chona. From death by venom she returned in terrible vengeance, armed and armored like a queen, and the black sword in her new hand was a mate to the one he carried.
Between them the Left Hand stood like a shadow at bay, the wind whipping his black robes like flame and the sword of fire in his hand a shard of embers. Chona came for him without hesitation, and Kumura saw she was not affected by the darkness shed by his blade. “I am glad to fight with you again, Princess,” he said.
“And I you,” she answered. “Let us finish it.”
Her stone warriors drew into a ring around the three of them, and they turned their spears outward, so that none might enter and interfere, and so she and Kumura were alone at the center with the Left Hand, and he brandished his own blade and cursed at them. “Come and die, then. I was old when your ancestors were yet unborn. I have spilled blood for centuries and will for many more. You cannot overcome me, and I will not be denied my fate.”
“Your fate is here,” Chona said. “I will show you.”
She rushed on him quick as a shadow, and Kumura wrenched himself into motion, hurled the last of his strength into a desperate assault. The black sword sang their night song, and the wind screamed like a thousand years of the slain.
The Left Hand was not to be had so easily. He fought with all his deadly speed, and the sword of fire could not be broken or blunted. They met in a whirl of red flame and black steel, shedding sparks and smoke into the wind. Kumura’s wounds gnawed at him, slowed his limbs, made him weary, but he ground his teeth and drove himself on with the iron will that had always sustained him, and with his black blade he forced through his enemy’s guard and struck him a blow that rent his armor and spilled his blood upon the stone.
In fury, the Left Hand struck back with a speed he could not counter, and he felt the red sword tear through his damaged armor and impale him front to back, the sound of his flesh searing a terrible hiss in the darkness. He felt the burning pain pass through him, and then the night sword fell from his hand and rang upon the stones, and the darkness was cast aside.
Kumura fell back, looking up through the tunnel into the endless sky. He felt a moment of terrible wrath that he had been thwarted, so close to his revenge. A moment of fury and then it faded and he released it, like a hot iron from his hand. The stone beneath him was cold and hard, as the stone that had been his bed for so many years, and it was fitting that as he died, he at last looked upon the unfettered stars, and knew that he was free.
Chona screamed with fury to see her ally struck down, and she attacked with a renewed fury. The sword in her hand hissed and spat when it clashed against the burning sword, and it made a cloud of steam that caught around the two of them like a cloak as they fought. She drove the wounded Khamag back with a feverish assault, until the body of Kumura lay between them, and they faced one another across his corpse.
“Fitting,” she said. “This began with you and I – let it end the same.”
“End it shall,” he said, sneering at her, but she saw his gaze flicker to her dead hand, and she saw a moment of fear. He knew something of that hand, she was certain of it.
“I will take that sword from your hand,” she said. “It was never yours to hold, and I will return it to the grasp of the emperor. Your acts will not taint his rest.”
“His rest?” Khamag spat. “He chose to go into the earth, and now it is time to awaken him. I have seen him crowned in fire. I have seen him stride the world like a giant once again. The empire he built with fire and steel is gone, broken apart by petty rivalries and bitter wars. Once he ruled the earth – it is his time to do so again.” He held up the blade of fire. “You are a descendant of Asherah, who was my kin. The same oath of blood flows in your veins. You should walk beside me, and see this done. If you oppose me, you will end as he did.” He gestured to the fallen form of Kumura.
“I am a child of the line of Asherah,” Chona said. “And I remember that she spent her blood and her will to prevent you. She would have laid down her life to guard the sleep of the Tyrant, and I will do no less.” She pointed her sword at him. “And do not forget that I owe you for what you took from me. For my people, for my father, and for me. Blood must answer blood.”
The Left Hand looked long at her, and then he took his guard and waited for her. “Indeed. So it must be.”
She rushed upon him, then, and she clashed blades with the last of the Karkahd. Fire and ice flickered like lightning in a storm, and the wind screamed and howled across the city. The fanatics hurled themselves again and again against the ring of stone men, leaving their bodies scattered in a circle of blood and death.
Chona locked her sword against the red blade, and the heat of it lashed against her skin, making her flinch away, but she would not give back even a single step. Her dead hand was strong, as was her poisoned body, and she strained against Khamag, each of them grimacing and snarling as they pushed with all the strength they had. Steam rose from where the blades touched, like the breath of demons. Chona looked into his face, the ancient marks tattooed on his cheeks long faded to shadows, his eyes alight with wrath.
He shoved her back, but she kept their blades pressed together, and then her hand reached out – her one true hand – and she ripped aside the black robes and revealed the red blaze of the stone in his chest. Before he could draw back she dug in her fingers, feeling the awful heat of it pulsing against her skin, and she fastened her grip upon it.
He roared and grasped her wrist with his iron hand, twisted away to try and wrench free. She turned with him, her dead hand stronger, and drove the edge of her black blade against his neck. She saw the cloth of his hood freeze and fracture, falling away, and then the black steel touched his mail and froze it, splintered it apart into tiny crescents of frozen iron. At last the deadly edge touched his flesh, and she saw pallor claw across his skin like lightning.
He gasped, and she felt the flesh under her fingers go cold, and then it cracked like ice, and her hand broke through into his chest, and she grasped the hilt of the crystalline knife embedded there so long ago. She saw his eyes go wide, and in that moment there was nothing but fear in him, his long life at an end.
Chona ripped the red crystal free of him and he fell, blood pouring out of him, spilling across the ground, and her hand burned at the touch of the red dagger she had stolen from him. He struck the ground and his body broke, and he was suddenly like an old man, withered and frail, the fingers of his iron hand clutching blindly.
The great red sword fell from his grasp and rang on the stone, and there was a roar of thunder and the sky closed in over them, and everything was buried in darkness, and the howl of the wind.
With their master fallen, the fanatics broke, and her stone warriors crushed them with sheer weight and relentless strength until their corpses lay strewn upon the ground in a blanket that covered as thoroughly as the snow, and blood seeped into red pools that froze into black ice. Chona did not aid them, only guided them as she might control her own breathing, until the screams had faded, and the last of the faithful had either been slain or scattered into the dark.
It was the deep of night, before the first gray light of dawn begins to gather itself beneath the horizon, and the wind stilled and the snow fell soft and gentle all around. Chona looked down at the wreck of Khamag, and she spat on the broken corpse. She ripped the iron hand from his arm and crushed it beneath her feet until it was ruined, and then she put away her sword of winter, and she lifted up the sword of flame.
The stone hilt burned against her hand, and she resisted the pain and looked on it once again. The sword of her ancestors, now hers to hold once again. It was not a beautiful weapon. It was like a shard of glass, jagged and uneven, but from within glowed the fire and light that gave it power. The fire that never died, the immortal sword of the sleeping tyrant himself.
She looked down upon Kumura, and she felt a sorrow that he had never known anything save imprisonment, and then vengeance. His life had been hard, and she had wished he might live to find another way. But now he lay dead and cold, the snow already beginning to bury him. She turned away. This city was already a tomb; now it would be a resting place for many.
The tomb of the ancient king lay open to the sky, snow already beginning to dust the sunken flesh of his face. The four red jewels burned in his chest, awaiting the last one, and she looked at it in her hand. What would happen, if she put the last one into his heart? Would he arise and live? And if he did, what manner of life would it be? Would he be what he had been, or would some other force animate his body?
Chona could not know, but she resolved she would not do the evil work of Khamag for him, now he was dead. She would do what she was sworn to do since before her birth, the oath of her bloodline – to guard the tomb of the emperor.
With great reverence she laid the sword of fire upon his chest and clasped his iron-hard fingers around the hilt, as they had been the day he died. Then she laid the last crystal dagger on his chest and stepped away. She did not need to speak, and she had no words.
Her stone warriors came and set their hands to the broken and twisted silver of the casket, and slowly, with their great strength, they bent it back into a form that covered the emperor once more, so he was shielded from the elements. Her warriors had the power to bear his sarcophagus back into the northland where he was first buried, but to what purpose? This place was remote enough, and feared already by living men. Here the ancient lord would rest, and here she would guard him.
Her warriors moved into a ring of iron around the body of the emperor, and they stood straight and immobile with their spears jutting outward in a jagged barrier that would repel anyone who came near. Chona looked on them and nodded. This would be good enough. This would be her place. So long as the emperor slept, she would sleep beside him.
Something glittered black in the snow, and she bent and lifted Kumura’s sword of darkness, mate to her sword of cold. She drew her winter blade in her dead hand, and the night blade in her right. Together they surrounded her with a shroud of freezing darkness that covered the tomb, the stone men, and this place in the dead city heaped with the bodies of the slain. She stood at the head of the sarcophagus and crossed the blades before her, and she felt the cold come through her like creeping ice.
The snow fell, and then her limbs grew heavy and stiff. She closed her eyes, and she let the darkness cover all, and then the snow fell all around and began to carefully bury everything. She heard no more, and felt no more, frozen in place as the world grew older.
The stars turned. The cold never faded, and the city of the dead was buried under a blanket of snow. The tomb of the emperor was shrouded in white, yet a dome was kept clear over it by the heat that radiated from within the silver sarcophagus, the heat of the sword of fire. The men of stone were buried, Chona was buried. No one trespassed upon that place.
In that place, time seemed meaningless. There was no spring, no summer, only thin days and long nights. When the snows came, the skies were heavy and dark, and when they were clear, the stars burned in the heavens like a crown. Year upon year, uncounted.
The sword of fire burned undimmed in the hollow dark inside the sarcophagus, the hands of the sleeping tyrant clasped around the hilt. They were dark and hard as iron, smooth as glass. Like stone, they lay frozen, until in a long night when the wind bellowed like a demon, they moved. They closed hard upon the hilt of the sword, and in the long dark, the eyes of Druan opened, filled with fire.