The Horned Brotherhood rode north through the forested lands, along the deep-cut streambeds and in and out of hollows and the shade of the great trees. As they went farther, there were more paths, and then the paths became roads paved with ancient stone. Shan rode at their head, and they followed her, even if they did not speak it openly. Bror was at her side, and that drew even reluctant followers in her wake. They followed him, and they followed the legend they made of her and the sword of fire she carried.
There were villages and towns here in the rough country, and not one did they find that was not burnt black and smoldering, the earth dark with ash and the bodies of the dead. Corpses were impaled on spears and left behind as a warning to those who might follow. Shan cut them down with her own blade, and would not turn aside.
There were survivors, men and women, those who had hidden, or who had been away. Hunters and foragers, wanderers and children, cowards and those who were wise enough to hide. They followed, and Shan welded them to her gathering band. They gathered fresh horses and scavenged armor and arms. Children foraged for food, hunters brought meat. Those who could take up spear and sword did so, and marched.
Once all this land had been a great wasteland, and in the center was a forbidden, dark heart of the forest where no man set foot. The trails that led there vanished in the undergrowth, but there was the ghost of a great road, long buried under sand and earth, marked only by the stone pillars that had once measured distances across the waste, long before the time of Druanu, before the empire. That was the path that Shan followed, because it was where the footfalls of her enemy led.
The trees grew taller and shut away all the light of the sun save for a few scattered touches like gold coins cast upon the forest floor. The sounds of the midnight wilderness grew more terrible, and in the night they heard the calls of mighty beasts and strange birds. They saw tracks upon the earth that no hunter could name. They would have turned aside, but Shan did not turn aside, and no man found he could let her go where he did not dare.
The ground fell, leading downward into a valley hidden by the colossal trees. Shan felt the breath of the forest cool and yet oppressive, like the exhalation of a sleeping beast. It was quiet here, and the deeper they descended into the shadowed lave, the more eerie the silence became. There was no sound of birds, no rustle of small beasts in the leaves underfoot. She smelled something like rot, but ancient and hidden. She felt something had lain here in this place a very long time, unseen, and now shunned by man.
At night, around their fires, the dark seemed to crush in around them, forming a solid mass like the roof of a cavern overhead, the silence terrible and palpable. Shan wished she could turn back, and the mutterings of her companions told her they would be glad if she did. But on the earth she saw the black-seared footprints of the Emperor, and she knew he had come this way. The world lay elsewhere, with ancient cities to the east and the west – all the vast jeweled panoply of the lands Druanu had ruled in his life almost a thousand years gone. He was not going to where men dwelled, to where the kingdoms of the earth reared to the skies in testament to the power of men. His path led into the north, where the beasts that served him dwelled in eternal darkness.
They pressed on, and in the eternal twilight that lived beneath the forest canopy they began to see the marks of an ancient civilization. Pillars stood in the shadow of the trees. Roots lay draped over the remains of stone walls, and statues worn into featureless smoothness stood covered in moss and buried by vines. They descended into a hollow in the earth lined with stone, and the sound of rushing water drifted through the trees, mist haunting the air.
Shan dismounted and led her horse, picking her way among roots as thick as a man’s leg, smelling the rich, dark scent of the forest all around her. She passed between pieces of a broken wall, jutting from the soil, and she realized she had stepped into the remnants of some vast, domed hall, the golden roof long fallen in and buried. Within there were not grown trees, only stunted remnants seared black with fire.
She touched her sword-hilt, and it pulsed against her fingers. There was something here, something of otherworldly power. Her horse shied away, and she let it go, watched Bror take it and hold the reins. She motioned for him to stay back, and then she drew her dark blade and felt it hot and alive in her grip. It called her, and she followed.
The trees had been burnt down to coal, and they were like pillars of black rock, hewn from some age before time. Stories said there had been a ruin here, a place fallen and abandoned long before the Tyrant came to rule the world. She wondered who had dwelled here, and what manner of men they had been. She wondered if her enemy had scorched these trees, but no, it had happened long ago.
Smoke rose from something at the center, and she walked carefully, listening for the smallest sound. She heard the wind in the trees, and the distant rush of water, and then she came to the place of the fire. There was a black stone as dark as volcanic glass, and she saw what looked like bones embedded within it. It had been broken, and pieces lay scattered on the ground. She bent down and saw what remained of a face, though it was not the face of any man. Distorted and dead, carved from black glass and dull red bone that even now glowed softly in the half light.
Shan looked up at a small sound, and Chona stepped from behind a blackened tree and faced her across the burned ground. “It is done,” she said. “The last of the power taken.” She held out her black sword and pointed, and Shan saw the mist drifting from the blade. “Or perhaps not the last.”
Shan’s burning sword seemed to shift in her grasp, and she stood up, cautious and watchful. She felt the heat coming from her sword. She said nothing.
“I have awaited you,” Chona said, her face pale as a phantom here in the eternal dusk. “I knew you would follow. My master knew of the death of his servitor, and I knew you would come, so I have awaited you myself. You will be honored to die by my hand alone.” She smiled with her thin lips. “I owe you for the wound you have given me.” She drew down her black robe and showed her white flesh, the wound still fresh and black, the edges seared. “The wounds of the Left Hand do not heal.”
Shan held up her sword before her, the trails of the red dust glowing in the dark gray steel, twined among the coils of its making. “You will find that this bites more deeply than a crystal shard.”
She saw Chona understand, and her eyes widened for a moment. “You blasphemer, you will pay for what you have done – or what you have undone.”
“This sword is named Kingbreaker,” Shan said. “You were only a princess, but that should do well enough.”
“You do not know what you face,” Chona said. “You do not know what you seek to undo. We take our part in a legend that began long ago, and far from this place.” She stroked the hilt of her other sword with her dead glass hand. “You cannot undo what has already been done.”
“You can be undone,” Shan said. “No ancient stone will prevent it.” She kicked the remains at her feet.
Chona’s perfect face showed no feeling. “You think this tale began with the rise of the Emperor? It did not; it began in another age, long before his birth. It began when two great powers fell through the sky as they warred with one another. That Which Devours, and That Which Shrouds.” Her pale eyes looked far away, through the weft of the world. “They warred as they fell, deathless fire against eternal cold, and then they broke in pieces, and they plummeted in ruin to the earth below, but not whole.”
She pointed with her black sword at the broken stone. “Here fell the son of the far fire, severed from the great sphere of his power. He fell here, and long he lay, alone and dying, waiting for his strength to be brought back to him.” She showed contempt on her face. “It never was. The fire dimmed, until long ago a black wizard – a servant of the dark – came and stole the left hand – all five fingers – and would have used them to raise the Emperor from the grave, to fill his cold sleep with the fire of life. He failed, and his servant failed.”
“You slew him yourself,” Shan said, watching her closely. “That is the story. You followed him to the city of the dead, and there you both vanished. You are here, he is not.”
“He is not,” Chona said. “I was the last of the line of Asherah, the Iron One. I was the last who still lived to protect the Emperor, and so I struggled to do so. I fought and bled.” She bared her white teeth, held up her left hand. “I was maimed, and marked, and poisoned, and raised from the sleep of death myself to accomplish that task, and I did. The one named the Left Hand was undone, and I was frozen in place to stand eternal guard over the Emperor’s tomb.”
“And now he has risen, and you do his work,” Shan said. “You kill and despoil for him.”
Chona’s placid face twitched, and for a moment she looked lost. “I am of the bloodline, I am sworn to obey,” she said. She held up her black sword.
“He’s not who he was,” Shan said. “He’s risen as a blight on the world, as a plague. He was dead, so whatever walks in his skin isn’t what he once was.”
“He is the King of Winter, and of Burning,” Chona said, but her eyes darted side to side, as though she were searching for something. “That Which Shrouds fell in the far north, away from the haunts of man, and it took long ages to burst free. It shed blood to bring servants to work its will, it raised up an army of the night, and now it has done so again. The army of the cold that will join with the Emperor and cover the world.”
“You’re hollowed out,” Shan said. “I don’t know what you are, but now you’re just filled with dark, and I have to let it out.”
“I am a sister of the dark now,” Chona said, and her voice was slow, almost made of despair. “My hand is the hand of a frozen king. My heart is ice. My blades are winter and night. I am a beast of the eternal dark, and I will kill at the command of the arisen Emperor.”
Shan swallowed as the woman closed on her, the dim light gleaming on her armor, making her look like a woman carved from frost. She tried to see in her the woman out of legend – the woman of ferocity and will, when all that remained now was a shell. Chona reached down with her black left hand and drew her other sword, and it was a perfect mate for the first – keen and straight and black as night, and when it was free in her grasp it stole the light, and Shan found herself trapped in darkness.
In her hands Kingbreaker smoldered like embers, and it gave out a small light she could see by, like a candle in the depths of night. She backed away, listening, waiting. She heard no sound at all, only the breath of wind, and then the servant of the fire came for her out of the blackness.
Chona moved like a storm, whirling and terrible, her blades almost invisible in the darkness. She flamed white as the moon, her eyes silver, and she attacked with murderous fury. Shan parried, fell back, and parried again. Sparks flamed where the swords met, and they turned to stars of frost as they fell to the ground.
Shan backed away, defending herself, trying not to stumble in the darkness. Her sword blazed up bright when it struck, and it moved like a live thing in her grip, seeming to help her parry and counter. She was strong, but not so fast as the cold woman, and that dead black hand possessed its own more-than-human strength.
They fought in darkness, in among the charred trees and broken stone. Shan put all her effort into defending herself from the furious onslaught of the superior swordswoman, and she was soon breathing hard, the air cold in her chest. It was cold this close to the pale woman, and her breath fogged in front of her face. She backed against one of the burnt trees and felt the solidity of it, almost like stone. Desperate, she threw herself into an attack, hammering at Chona’s guard.
The other woman gave back, and then the cold sword smote on Shan’s shoulder and sheared through the links of her armor, sent cold piercing into her flesh. She saw the night blade coming for her throat and she dropped like a stone. The black steel passed over her head and bit deeply into the tree, fixed there hard for only a moment. Chona gathered her strength to wrench it loose, but before she could, Shan swept her own blade down and chopped off the black arm that grasped the sword.
Chona screamed, reeled back from her while cold fog poured from her wound. The black hand fell to the earth as the eldritch darkness was banished, and Shan saw the sunken fingers claw at the soil like a fallen spider. She brought her foot down on it and crushed it like frozen meat, feeling the cold bite even through her hard leather boot.
The pale woman fell, the stump of her arm tucked in close to her side. Shan saw blood so dark it was almost black drip from the flesh, steaming in the air. Freed from the ensorcelled darkness, the half-light of the forest hollow was almost blinding. Shan heard cries go up, and she glanced back to see her followers gathered there at the rim of the ancient dome, watching her.
The night sword smoked where it was fixed in the trunk of the scarred tree, and something in her mind whispered to her to take it up, to use the power of it against her enemy. Instead she brought Kingbreaker down hard against the flat of the black blade, and she was glad to see the fell sword snap apart, the hilt falling to the earth like a dead hand.
Chona gasped, backing away, holding her cold blade out before her. Shang winced at the pain from her own wound – her arm was almost numb, and she feared how much pain there would be when the numbness faded. She advanced on her enemy, slow and wary. She knew a wounded serpent could still strike a fatal blow. “Cast down your sword, and I will spare you,” she said. “You served the Emperor, but he has become corrupted by dark powers. You can be free of him.”
Chona shook her head. “No, no I cannot be free. The voice is in my head. That Which Shrouds has taken me. In my youth I bargained with it for the power to take my revenge. I thought I could be the master of it. I thought I could hold on to myself.” Her laugh was bitter. “I did not understand the eternal cold. The eternal strength that chills and engulfs and devours as surely as any fire.”
They met again, and their blades sang a terrible song as they ground their edges together, shedding sparks and ice in equal measure. Chona struck with her adder speed, but she was weakened, and Shan met her attacks and forced her back. Shan was gasping for breath, red-faced and exhausted, but she would not stop. The heat from her sword seemed to rise, and Chona shied away from it.
At last, Shan hammered against her guard and the black blade fell from her hand. It smote point-down in ancient stone and pierced deep, stood smoldering as if fresh from the forge. Chona cried out and fell to her knees, shrinking back from the heat of the breaker of kings.
“Renounce the Emperor!” Shan said, stepping closer with her blade ready. “I will spare your life.”
“There is nothing to spare, and what remains I beg you to burn away.” Chona drew aside her armor and showed the burnt wound where the red dagger had scored her flesh. “I am unmade – let there be no risk of longer life for me. Match this wound and see that I burn.” She looked at Shan with her pale eyes pleading. “Save the Emperor. Save what remains of him from the fate he marches toward. If he reaches the tomb of the Shroud, in the glacier far to the north, then he will become unstoppable, and the world shall be covered in darkness. A new age of blood and ice. Do not let it be.”
Slowly, Shan looked at her, then nodded and raised her sword again. “I will not.” She sighted down the dark blade, the heat glowing against her skin like the touch of the forge, and then she drove the sword into Chona’s chest, piercing her through. The blade hissed when it touched her flesh, and black blood boiled from the wound. The pale-eyed princess gave a long gasp, her teeth bared, and then she slid backward and crumpled to the earth.
They raised a pyre, there in the ruins. And as night fell, they laid the cold body of Chona upon the heaped wood and Shan stood before it and looked on the still white face. She wanted to speak, to tell her men what this killing meant, and in speaking she might understand it. But Shan was not a woman of words, and she did not know what she could say. She looked up, high into the dark boughs of the trees, and she saw there the sliver of the moon glimmering through the leaves.
She thrust Kingbreaker into the pyre, and the heat of the blade kindled the wood. She stepped back and watched the flames glimmer, crawling through the stacked wood like serpents in the dark. The wind grew stronger and the fire burst upward and enshrouded the body of Chona, of the line of Asherah.
Bror stepped and stood close to her. “What of the other sword?” he said. He gestured, and she looked at the cold blade driven into the rock. She had struck her sword against it, but without the strength of combat she could not so much as mark it. It was too dangerous to leave here, and yet she feared to grasp it. “When the fire burns down, we will raise a cairn here,” she said. “A mound over the grave, as of old. We will bury the sword as well, and let no man seek it after. Let all men remember the despair of Chona, and fear to take up such a dark power.” She sheathed her own sword, and she feared it now as she had not before. “Let it be buried, and never unearthed.”