Alone, bearing a burning sword and a broken helm, Shan stumbled into the cold northlands under skies of winter fire. She left behind her betrayed followers and a burning city, and now she was no longer hunter, but prey. It would not be long before the Tyrant himself came following, his blighted pale wights ranging ahead like hounds, and they would run her to earth.
The land she passed through was low and cut by a hundred curling streams, the ground boggy and festering with limp grasses and pale fungi. She fought through the mire, staggering through the shallow, cold waters edged with ice. The stars blazed overhead like a fortune, and from the north, the uttermost dark at the limits of her sight, came the crawling, many-colored fire she had heard of in tales, but never dreamed she would see.
It hung in the sky like curtains of shifting blue and green, casting a phantom light over the world below, and she knew that in that demon glow her blood would look as black as the ichor of the fallen. Ahead of her she saw mountains looming against the night, their shoulders cloaked in deep forest, and she did not know where to go for what she sought. She remembered the words of Chona, the fallen princess, but she did not know her destination. She could not follow the Tyrant to his end; now he was at her heels.
All through the long night she looked back, seeking a sign of the pursuit. She saw nothing but dark, and though she knew the Tyrant would be heralded by his pillar of smoke and frost, still she imagined she would be ambushed in the dark, would see the pale legions closing on her, their black mouths open and hungry. She gripped her blade tight, and she knew if it came to that she would battle them to the last, but there were too many of them. They would drag her down, and they would kill her, and then she would feel the cold power coming in to animate her body. She wondered if the fallen were simply dead, or if they still remained trapped within their corpses, screaming inside for release.
She was staggering with exhaustion when daylight came, but the rising of the sun was feeble in this land, and it did not come high above the horizon, glowed weakly through the slate-gray clouds. From a world of dark she entered a world of half-light that gave no comfort or warmth. It was said that of old the Tyrant and his armies came from this land, where there was never day nor sunlight, where even summer was a season of ice.
She fought on to reach the trees. Under cover she could find a place to hide herself and rest. She feared to stop, as the servants of the Tyrant did not need rest, but she could not continue any longer. At last the ground rose, and she clawed her way through the brush and taller grasses, and at last stepped under the shade of the trees.
There was no sign, only a sudden shadow, and she was borne down upon the earth. She screamed and fought, but there were at least three attackers. Her sword was taken, her hands bound, and then she was rolled onto her back. She looked up at three men in furs and leathers with marks tattooed on their faces, and she realized who they must be.
One of them spoke to her in a tongue she did not know, so she shook her head and spoke in her own speech. “Please, hear me! I come with a warning.”
One of them looked surprised, answered her with a grating, heavy accent. “You may not enter here. This is the place of the Khorig – this is the land of old, guarded by the Karkahd.” He thumped his fist against his own chest. “All die who trespass here.”
“The Tyrant comes,” she said, and she saw his face grow pale.
“What do you say?” He paused to speak to his companions, then shook his head. “You lie.”
“He has arisen. He walks here in a pillar of smoke and frost. He seeks the source of the cold power, and he will have it,” she said. “I have crossed my sword with his, but he is coming.”
They spoke among themselves again, and she could see they did not believe her. She tested the ropes that held her. They were stout, but she was very strong; she believed she might break them. But she did not want to fight these men. If the Karkahd still existed in this remote place, and still guarded the ancient gravelands, then she would need their help.
“He carries the ember blade, like a shard of red glass,” she said. “The cold is in him, and the fire.”
“You did not fight him,” the man said. “You cannot cross the ember blade.”
“Draw my sword,” she said. “It was forged from a shattered blade of red crystal. Look at it and tell me what you see.”
Scowling, the man spoke to his companions, and then he picked up her sheathed sword and inspected it. He took the hilt and drew a handspan of steel, and even that glowed with veins of red in the shadows here under the eaves of the forest. The heat that came from it shimmered in the air, and the men cried out and the man dropped sword and sheath together.
“Who made such a sword?” he said, struggling with the words. “Where did you gain it?”
“I forged it,” she said. “I did. The Tyrant Druanu came and destroyed my city, and I took a blade of red shard from Chona, his guardian, and with it I made this sword.” She flexed her arms hard, teeth clenched, and she snapped the ropes apart. The warriors stared as she freed herself, and they did not stop her when she picked up Kingbreaker and pushed it back into its battered sheath. “I come with a warning.”
The man looked at her, and spoke to his companions, and then he nodded. “Can you ride?”
“Yes,” she said, though she wondered if she could keep a saddle as exhausted as she was.
He grunted. “Then come with us.”
Glad to be on horseback again, Shan wedged her feet tight in the stirrups and drifted in and out of slumber while they rode. The cold and the dark seemed to fade away, and she dreamed of hard horizons, bleak places filled with crawling, pallid dead like worms in the flesh of the earth, and she saw that it would be the fate of the world if the Tyrant reached his goal. She dreamed of a wall of blue ice, and within it a face of hatred screamed to be set free.
They woke her when they reached the keep, and she woke and looked up at it, saw the ancient stone walls piled high in the old way, fitted stone to stone without mortar, small stones piled like the scales of a serpent. It was ancient, and she saw how ice hung on the masonry, and probably had for a thousand years. The towers were low and worn down, and yet lights glowed from the narrow windows, and she knew this was a place of life, here in this cold home.
She came down from the saddle, and everything seemed unreal and distant through her terrible fatigue. There was a cleanness to the feeling, for she could not even muster the strength to lie or even curb her tongue. Shan was worn down until only truth remained. She followed them into the bitter heart of the ancient keep, passing between the aged earthwork walls that reared at the edge, and then into the deep places. The halls were narrow, like the paths of a tomb, but there was a warmth here, in the stone.
She saw others, many faces all of them marked by tattoos, mysterious glyphs and symbols that marked secrets or deeds she could not imagine. They looked on her with hard suspicion, but they did not seek to prevent her. She heard whispers in her wake, but she did not understand them.
Down through ages of stone and piled earth, down steps and through a narrow arch, and then she saw a light ahead. They stopped and would go no further, only sent her on, and she wondered what she would face. Yet there was no strength in her now to be afraid, and she went through the doorway without slowing. She did not even set hand to her sword.
Inside, there was light, and a warmth she had not felt in these lands. She saw the chamber was high and domed, built of smooth stones piled one atop the other, now dark with years. At the center of the room there was a great dark stone that radiated undying heat, and in places it was cracked and there red light glowed through as when the iron is red for the forging. She touched her sword, and she felt there a humming resonation, and she knew then that this was the piece of the Burning Power had fallen, That Which Consumes. This was the star of fire from which the Emperor had taken his ember sword in a long-lost time.
Something moved, and Shan saw a woman emerge from the dark at the far side of the chamber and come towards her. She was bent and old, leaning on a cane, and she wore a pendant that glowed darkly, like a dying coal.
“So you come to us now,” she said, her voice like broken leaves. “You bear a piece of the Goddess herself, and you have forged it into a sword, as no one has ever dared to do.”
Shan was not certain what she should say, felt the thrumming in the hilt of her sword. “I have done what I have done. I will renounce nothing.”
“Nor shall you,” the woman said. “No one could have done what you have dared unless Ajahe allowed it, and gave unto you the strength to do her will.” She gestured. “Draw forth your blade.”
Shan drew the dark blade into sight, and here, so close, it seemed to blaze so much brighter, to yearn towards the fallen fire there before her. She held it up, and the red flame embedded in it seemed to crawl like serpents in the steel.
“It is the fire from the sky,” the old woman said. “It fell here a thousand years ago, and it has burned ever since. Yet the fire diminishes. That is the great secret we keep, for the fire of the Goddess must never fade, and yet it does, it dies when it was said to be eternal.” She leaned on her stick. “The days grow darker, the nights colder. The last times are coming, the final reckoning of all powers.”
“Yes,” Shan said. She did not know if it was true, but she could not be certain, after all. There were forces at work here she could not reckon, and the end of a great war that had raged for centuries, and perhaps longer. “The Tyrant is risen, Druanu the Conqueror. He has been roused from his long sleep of death, and now he walks the land like a ghost out of old ages. With him comes an army of the dead, pale and terrible and blank-eyed. They are not far behind me, and I was told he seeks the final place – the place where the Cold Power began.”
“And that place is close,” the old woman said. “There is the valley that remains forbidden, where no one may go. There was the wall of ice stretched down from the north, and there was something never spoken of, which only Druan saw, and lived.”
“He will come here, with all his force, all his power,” Shan said. She stepped closer to the fallen star. “He will come for the last of the power here. He already devoured all that remained of the rest of it, the other piece. Now he will come for this.” She felt the heat emanating from the stone. “I think he is weak, he hunts for every scrap of the old powers he can find, he devours them to maintain his life. He is terrible, but he falters. I believe he can be stopped.”
“You have power there, in your hand,” the woman said. “Now take the rest. Take it and use it against him, or he will devour it.” She gestured to the glowing dark stone. “I have foreseen this age, the age of the ending of the old world. Come and begin it.”
Uncertain, Shan stepped closer to the stone. It was taller than a man, and as wide, jagged and irregular. Many pieces had broken from it over the ages, but what remained was still strong, if it was hidden deep inside. She felt the heat bake against her like a force. It waxed and waned, pulsing like a heart, and she imagined it was a kind of heart. She saw in her mind’s eye two beings falling from the sky, tearing one another to pieces, the pieces falling far apart, leaving them weakened and dying, always aching to be rejoined. To finish their battle.
She drew back her arms and then she plunged the sword into the stone. The dark steel cleaved the rock, and she felt the heat roar up the blade and sear against her hands. She gritted her teeth and endured, because she was the daughter of a smith, and her hands were inured to great heat, and felt it little, though this was strong.
The rock sang a low song as she pierced it. It moaned deep inside, and then the heat coursed through the metal and with a terrible sound the stone split asunder. Shan drew back her sword, now glowing like iron from the forge, and she felt the terrible heat crawl across her skin, rippling her hair.
“Now you are armed with the fire of the Goddess,” the old priestess said. “Now we shall gather for a battle that will end all battles.”
Shan took the horned helm to the forge, and she set to work. There were silent apprentices who worked the heavy bellows, and they kept the fire stoked hot for her. She dared not sheath her burning sword, only laid it upon a stone table where it glowed like red iron, and then she took up a hammer and turned her hands to the craft she knew.
The helm was cracked as by a great blow, and she could not repair it without remaking it, which she had not the time to do. So instead she beat out two long strips of iron and she heated them to a red glow, and then she hammered them down into straps across the helm, covering the split and riveting them in place. It healed the damage, and it made the helm stronger for it.
She laid the helm on the horn of the anvil and beat it to a better shape, crafting it to fit her more closely. It was a large helm, for a large man, but by her arts she narrowed and then flared it, smoothed dents and undid scratches and gouges in the steel, until it was as if it had been new-made. She did not heat the helm itself, working cold so the steel would remain hard, and then she planished it against the hard anvil, so the steel turned dark and hard and ready for war.
At the last, she took up the dark helm, the crest crowned with ancient horns, and she held it so the firelight glowed upon the steel, and she was pleased. She set it down beside her sword, and then she nodded. “Bring armor,” she said. “I will be well-fitted with war-gear before the battle comes.”
The war drums pounded under a dark sky, and the northern horizon lit up with baleful fire as the armies of the Tyrant darkened the earth like a stain of blood. They came toward the keep, screaming their joy of death into the frozen night, their blank eyes yearning toward a cold end as their talons reached for the warmth of living flesh. The defenders of the last keep hunkered low upon the ancient walls, spears and bows and swords ready to hand, and fires lit everywhere in iron braziers to drive back the night.
At the center, still in the shadows of the dark, the Tyrant walked like a phantom, surrounded by the whirlwind of ice and of fire, searing the snow with his tread, the ember sword in his hand. He haunted the back of the tide of death, eyes alive in the blackness as his wraiths went forward to work slaughter upon those people who had once been his own.
The enemy came on like a dark wave howling, and the defenders lit their arrows with stinking pitch and sent them blazing out into the dark. Mangonels hurled oilskins against the earth, and when the oil caught the enemy blazed up, screaming, flailing as their unnatural bodies were destroyed. The Karkahd knew how to fight this enemy of old, and they fought with fire.
Heedless of flames or death, the enemy rushed onward, blackening the earth, clawing through the snow to reach the walls, and then they hurled themselves against the fortifications with a shock that every defender felt through the stone.
They rained fire and steel down upon them, arrows and burning oil slaying dozens, and then scores. They heaped high in a bulwark of corpses that writhed and shuddered as they were destroyed, but nothing stayed them. The dead piled higher, until the wights could use the bodies of their fallen as a ramp to claw to the top of the wall, and then battle was joined at hand, steel against steel, flesh against cold.
Shan met them at the top of the wall. She wore black-hammered iron armor and on her head was the ancient helm crowned with horns, and she wielded the sword of fire. It was like a flare of molten steel against the darkness, and none of the enemy could stand before it. They clawed to the top of the walls and Shan hewed them down, the white-hot sword reaving through their flesh, splitting their armor and splintering their axes and their swords. In the face of the terrible heat they could not endure, and they shrank from her as before the blaze of the sun.
She hurled them back from the walls, but she could not be everywhere at once. The wights died in windrows before the walls, but they cast away their twisted lives without hesitation, and they hammered against the gates, splitting the ancient wood, falling under the burning oil, then trod upon by new waves of the mindless assault. The gates were battered, torn, and at last they began to give way.
Shan knew she could not prevent them by slaying them; she had to face their master, and so she leaped down into the path of the gate so that when the planks gave way and the pallid host came writhing through, she was there to bar their way. She split their tide of ravening hunger, even as the other warriors who stood with her began to die.
The descendants of warriors for a thousand years, they sold their lives at a high cost, each leaving a ring of surrounding dead as they hacked and slew and butchered until they were borne down and ripped apart. Horns and drums split the darkness, and the many-colored fire blazed overhead, looking down with cold eyes upon the field of death.
Shan cut her enemies down in the arch of the ancient gateway, until their burning corpses were heaped before her. She saw too many faces stretched and defiled, and she saw some that she knew. Men who had followed her, and who now came screaming for her blood, driven by a power out of ages of darkness. She howled as she slew, until they shied back from the burning power of her sword, and she held it up like a brand and roared her challenge into the darkness.
The horde parted before her, and she heard the footfalls of doom treading upon the frozen earth. A shadow darkened the flame-lit horizon, and then he came to meet her. He walked like a storm, his eyes alight with flame and crowned by whirling frost. He bore the red shard of his sword in his hand. Druanu, the Sleeping Tyrant, came against her in the heart of war.
The heat from her sword shielded her from the cold wind that lashed around him. He seemed to tower over her, grown massive in his undeath. His sword came down and met hers and the blades shrieked together and flared with a cresting wave of fire that incinerated the bodies that lay heaped around her. He pressed her back, and his power crushed in the archway of the gate and brought it cascading down around her. She fell back, stones ringing on her armor.
Shan turned and ran up the steps set into the inside of the wall, and then when he came in sight she leaped and struck down at him. He saw her and turned, not fast enough. Her blade gouged his shoulder and across his chest before she fell hard to the ground. The Tyrant reeled back from her, molten blood coursing from his wound. It hissed upon the earth where it fell, sending up poisonous fumes.
She rushed on him, her sword uplifted to kill, and when she struck he blocked her with his ember blade. Again the edges screamed together, and then at long last the shard of fire gave way and snapped apart, shattering into pieces that fell like burning stars.
Horns blasted from beyond the walls, and Shan heard the drumming of thousands of hooves upon the earth. The Tyrant reeled away from her, bleeding and weakened, and she pursued him. She swore there would be an end to this. The world would be cut free from these dark powers, all of them.
Beyond the walls the host of her enemy still boiled like a surging sea. They were atop the walls, they were in the keep as well as without, killing and dying, painting the ancient stones with blood. There were too many of them, too many to defeat. She rushed after the Tyrant and a wall of pale bodies crushed in to force her back. They threw themselves upon her blade, burning and dying to keep her from their master. The ground shuddered, and then she saw.
The hillsides darkened with horsemen, thousands of them. They charged down with spears and shields ready, advancing under clouds of burning arrows. It was the brother nation of the Karkahd, the people of Sultai, come to avenge their ancient failure, to give their lives to stop the abomination who walked in the body of their ancient king.
They crashed into the horde, and the sounds of battle became a roar that drowned out all else. Shan was pressed back into the keep by the force of it, the wall of black-mouthed monstrosities reaching for her. She hacked and killed and burned and killed again, until she had to climb onto the bodies to find room to fight them. They tore stones from the walls, pushed them down in spills of stone, and they slaughtered every living thing they could reach with a desperation that drove them on to destruction.
From her piece of the walls Shan saw the riders of the Karkahd reaping the host down like grain, even as the keep filled with death. She saw the Tyrant move through the horde, and she saw his power rip the walls apart as he came. She fought to reach him, but it was like being awash in a sea of foes, and she could not get closer.
Something bellowed in the dark, and the sounds of the battle changed. Shan saw dark forms emerge from the primal forest, staggering shapes like nothing born in the light. Beasts formed from darkness lurched from their hiding places, and they fell upon the riders like living siege towers. Shan had faced such a thing at the lost keep, but now there were a score of them wading through the battle, slaying everything within reach. The sky fires lit the whole scene with blazes of green light, and she saw it flicker on tusks and fangs and the gleaming points of spears.
She heard the Tyrant howl, and when she turned to see, he was at the center of the keep, and he tore the stonework open with his hands, bellowing desperately, and then the great old tower slumped and began to crumble. Shan saw the stones fall in a rush that came closer and closer, and then it fell upon her, and she was crushed under, and buried.
She woke in darkness, the heat from her sword warming her where she lay buried. She fought to get free, pushed the stones away and crawled out into the dark. The wind was high, and it howled down from the north with frozen teeth. Her armor was dented and rent from many blows; she was wounded in a dozen small places, and she tasted blood.
The keep was destroyed; nothing remained but a wreckage of stones and crushed bodies. She saw both men and wights buried in the rubble, broken swords and spears, crushed helms and shields. The sky still glowed with green fire, and she could see enough once she was loose. She stood with pain in the wind and looked out over the battlefield, and she saw devastation.
As far as she could see, there was nothing but the slain. Horses, men, beasts, all lay in waves as upon a shore, washed there by the tide of death. Blood was frozen upon the earth, gleaming black in the lambent glow of the sky. Around her the light of her molten sword made a sphere of red gleam, the only place of seeming warmth in all the world. Nothing moved; there was no sound save the deadly wind.
She staggered down from the heaped stones of the fallen keep, and she saw there the black, seared prints of the Tyrant. She saw they left the field of war and went north toward the last place, the valley where no man transgressed. Alone, his army slaughtered, nothing left alive behind him, still he went on, drawn to that place where first evil fell upon the world.
Cold and wounded, Shan knew she could not allow him to reach it. Her blade still glowed with the power it had taken from the fallen star, and that power alone gave her hope to stop him. He had come seeking that very power, to devour it, and now he would be weakened. Alone, with fading strength, she would find him, and then he would end.