Monday, November 20, 2017

The Emperor of Night

There was no day, here at the utter north of the world, in among snow-blanketed hillsides and evergreen forests. This was the cold land where the Old Empire was born when Druanu rose to become a hero of his people, and now he returned to this place a shadow of himself, driven by powers he could not overcome, and the swordmaker’s daughter followed him, with a horned helm and a blade made all of fire.

Shan waded through the deeps of the snow, following the path of blackened footfalls as it wound through the deeps of the valleys. The trees closed in overhead, and she was shielded from the baleful glow of the sky fires as she made her weary way. The sword warmed her flesh, but her heart was cold, her spirit worn and hollow from the deaths she had seen and encompassed to reach this place. She was tired down into her bones, yet she would not turn aside.

She entered a valley that stood silent and undisturbed beneath the blazing sky, and she saw the entrance marked by pillars of stone. They were ancient and worn, but they still bore the mark of the craft of man. Beyond the gateway was a place of hollow hills, and she knew she now entered the great secret of the Karkahd people, the ground they had lived and died to defend for a thousand years. This was the valley of tombs.

The graves were mounds raised over the fallen, marked here and there by stone monuments chiseled into ancient faces now all but worn away. Once stone guardians as well as flesh had protected this final resting place, but that was gone now. All of it was gone. The years had come and worn the lives of men away. The Karkahd were dead, dwindled from once mighty nations to a few savage remnants, and now they had died seeking to fulfill the task appointed to them in a dim age by a dead emperor who now walked as a revenant in his own kingdom.

She followed his tracks now, and she began to find his followers dead along the path. Pallid wights with hollow eyes and yawning mouths lay half-frozen along the trail, drained of the unearthly power that had made them live. Only the path of the Tyrant was plain, his footfalls melted through the snow, seared into the permafrost beneath like the touch of hot iron. She did not have to wonder where his path led; she could not miss it, nor could she miss that she was drawing closer to him, for now steam sometimes rose from the fresh marks.

She reached a long, narrow valley, and at the far end there was a sheer cleft in the hillside, like another gate, and this one was dark, almost covered over with trees and the fall of snow over ages, but she saw it, and she followed the footfalls of the Tyrant to it. There were bones grown into the wood of the trees that flanked the path, and she knew there had been a killing in this place on some long-ago night of blood and death. The sword lit her way as she followed the trail that led her into darkness, and up the jagged, rocky slope beyond, until she emerged into a new place, the heart of all darkness in the cold lands.

This valley had lain untouched by men for a thousand years, and there was nothing left here of the mark of man. The wall of ice that had once been the far northern bulwark had moved, crept down over long ages, and now it stood near, looming above her and lit as from within by the fires of the sky. Blue and green and red coursed within the glass-clear ice, shimmering like witchfire.

And there, like a dark blot against the clarity of the glacier, she saw the shadow of the Emperor, his shadow stretching long behind him, limned by the ghostly flames that coursed within the ice. He knelt there in the snow, a black outline hidden in the haze of ice and smoke that boiled around him. She felt power simmering in the air all around, a silence with an edge like steel that lay waiting to cut. Shan approached him slowly, her sword in her hand, placing each step deliberately. Now, at the end, he would be most desperate, and most dangerous.

She felt the cold emanate from him, saw it shimmer in the air when it met the heat given forth by her sword. It made mist in the dark air. He felt it, and he rose and turned to face her. She saw him loom over her as though he were a giant, his eyes blazing down upon her, and now she saw one of them was cold and white, while the other burned red like a coal. The aura around him was weaker, and the ice turned to vapor when it met the heat from her blade.

He lifted his hands, and in them he bore broken shards that glimmered like black ice. He still carried the pieces of the ember sword that had served him so long, and so well. Now it was nothing more than blackened glass, broken apart and powerless. Now his own power was failing him. The power that shrouded, and stretched out a cold hand to take all the life it could reach. That power was fading.

“Stop,” she said, not knowing if he could understand her words, for he came from a time when dead languages were still spoken across a younger world. “It is not you, Druanu, Hammer of the North, who does this. It is the power you contested with in your youth, and overcame, and yet you did not destroy it, and so it has waited, and now it would use you for its own ends. Dead, it refuses to rest. It is done, but it will destroy all it can before it gives way. Do not go to it. Come away. Lie down, and rest again.”

He shuddered, as if a wind tore at him that she could neither feel, nor see. The tempest around him died, and she saw him plain for the first time. His flesh was dark from years in his tomb, sunken and polished like glass. He turned his head and looked at her, and she saw that he wore a mask on his face, and through it only one eye burned – the cold one.

He made a sound, and it was like a beast howling in some lost abyss. He clenched his hands and the pieces of his broken sword cut his skin, cracked apart and sifted down like black jewels. He rose up, and he towered over her like a giant out of dreams. She held up the sword, not to threaten, but as a talisman to ward him back. She knew the heat would keep him from her.

It did not. He pressed forward against the radiant warmth and grasped the blade of Kingbreaker with his bare hands. She saw his long, dark fingers clutch the blade, and she thought he would try to wrench it from her, but he clung to it, and she saw smoke boil up as the steel seared his ancient flesh. He made another low sound, a cry of agony, and he shuddered all over, his desiccated skin cracking apart. She saw the wound she had given him glow like a river of hot coals, and then he bowed his head. When he lifted it, the cold eye was gone, and she saw only the bright one.

He gave another cry and released the blade, fell to the snow, his hands smoking where they touched it, hissing with the great heat. He choked, and it was such a human sound she found it more frightening than all the bestial howls and bellows she had ever heard him give voice.

When he spoke, his voice was dry and jagged as stones in the earth, and colder still. His words were harsh, and she could just barely understand him, so ancient was his speech. “So much time. A long dream, and now awake.” He looked at her, and she felt she stood at last in the presence of a man, not a monster. “It calls me,” he said, his voice desperate.

“It lies,” she said. “It has used you for long ages.”

“The night god. The cold god,” he said. “It came in my youth, and I fought it. I thought I had won.” He looked to the glacier, looming near and suffused with colored fire. “It is there.”

“You did win,” she said. “But you did not destroy.”

“It lived in me,” Druanu said. He reached up, slowly, and he clawed the decayed armor away from his chest. There, on his dark flesh, she saw four glowing points like embers. “But here is the last of the power that would oppose it. It sought to devour all, but it cannot. It is too weak.” He dug his smoking fingers into the iron-hard flesh and drew forth what glowed, and Shan saw another glassine dagger that blazed with fire and light, like the one she had crushed to forge her blade.

“I have carried these for too long, let them be set free.” He drew out another, and another, until he held all four in his dark hands. Shan felt the heat that washed out from them, saw them sear his dead fingers. She did not know what he meant to do, but then he closed his hands around the blade of Kingbreaker, pressing the ember knives to the steel, and he squeezed down with all his ageless strength.

Driven by his will, his dead hands exerted their terrible power, and the crystal shards cracked apart. Shan flinched from the sparks that shot into the air and trailed down to melt the snow, but she did not draw the sword away. Druanu crushed the crystals and ground them to powder upon the steel, and she saw the veins of fire in the dark blade grow brighter and seem to flow with new light, and he knew the power of the one was drawing in the other four. She felt the heat and the seeming weight of the sword grow greater in her hands.

As the shards broke apart they lost their fire, their ragged edges slicing the Tyrant’s dead flesh, until they fell to the snow as blackened fragments and Druanu’s hands were savaged and cut to the bone. Her sword glowed like a sullen star, and he fell back into the snow, his ruined hands hooked like claws before him. He breathed out a last stream of smoke.

“All the fire is yours,” he said. “Mine is fading.” He looked at her with an eye that was simply human beneath the blackened mask. “Do not let it take me again.”

She knew the cold power was rising again, filled with fury and vengeance, and she knew it would control him and use him as a weapon against her. She lifted the red blade and held it there for a breath, bright against the haunted sky. She struck once, severing the Tyrant’s head, so that it fell into the snow beside his body, and it smoked there, the ancient flesh smoldering and at last withering away. So fell Druanu, the Sleeping Tyrant.

Something screamed deep in the heart of the glacier, and then the earth convulsed and the wall of ice fractured, the crack racing up across the pristine face. Shan stepped back, the sword in her hands like a bonfire. Something dark moved in the ice, something old and alive and depthlessly cold. She saw something reach toward her, and then a hand burst through the ice and sank long fingers into the earth, like claws.

The arm was immense and white, the skin sunken and hanging. The fingers were hooked and the ends fleshless, showing black bone tips. The ice erupted, and Shan reeled back among the trees as something monstrous heaved itself out of the glacier and emerged into the flickering, baleful light of the sky fires.

It was the shape of something human, but sunken and twisted and malformed. The flesh was white and hung like rags upon a black skeleton that jutted through like spears of dark glass. Ice slid down in a cascade that struck the ground and sent up a billowing cloud of ice shards that washed over her and hid the thing from her sight.

Shan felt it moving, even when she could not see it. The earth shook under her as it crawled free of its prison. The ice blinded her, and she saw the tiny crystals turn to steam when they met the radiating heat of her sword. The thing made a long, hollow sound, like a howl of uttermost hunger, and then she saw its face emerge from the fog. It was fleshless and long-toothed, and one eye was a blackened ruin while the other was a frozen sphere of white. It moaned in the depths of its starving need, and she knew she looked on the face of the Night God, the Hunger God.

It clawed for her with one arm, dragging itself through the trees, branches snapping off as it forced its way through them. Shan fell back, and she saw that blinded skull turn to follow her. It could sense the heat from the blade, and it yearned for it. It wanted the power that remained of the burning one, even as that power could be used to destroy it.

It crawled after her, and Shan saw that the other arm was only a stump that it used to dig at the snow. Behind that, the massive body was gone, only a blackened spine trailing off like a dead tail, with no legs remaining, no organs that could be called that. It was a hunger without a body, only sustained by the terrible will that had kept it alive for so long, clinging to the half-existence that was all it had left. Now, at the end, desperation drove it to motion, the need for the power within the sword – all that remained of the other force that fell from the sky.

Shan backed against a boulder, looked and saw she was against a slope made of great, tumbled stones, and she had nowhere else to go. The thing clawed through the trees, splintering wood before it. Deformed, ruined, weakened, still it would crush her if it caught her. The least remnant of that terrible strength would be too much for her, if she let it fall upon her frail flesh.

She climbed, backing up the slope, clawing her way up the pile of rocks, her boots skidding on the snow and ice. Shan was exhausted, and yet she did not falter, pushed herself higher and higher, and the thing followed. The rocks beneath her feet shook, and she looked back and saw the one-armed god crawling after her, jaws open, yawning, reaching. It was driven by an ages-old hunger she could not imagine, and it slithered after her. Boulders ripped free under it and rolled down, ice splintering off them, but they only slowed it.

It was close, she could feel the cold that came from it, feel the freezing breath that washed from its jaws. The great, clawed hand came for her and she leaped aside as it slammed down, shattering rocks and sending pieces tumbling down the slope. Before it could draw back she sprang in and struck with both hands on the hilt of Kingbreaker.

The edge bit cleanly through the disintegrating flesh, and then it bit through the bones and sparks flashed out. The impact shivered up through her hands and she fell back, almost numb from the blow. The thing shrieked and its single hand fell away, severed and smoking. Shan tried to catch herself but she slid downward, bounced hard off another boulder and fell toward that yawning black mouth.

Blind, it howled, and she dropped toward it, turning slow in the air, and with her last strength she caught herself with her feet braced against the skinless black bone of its face. She stared into that white frozen eye, and then she struck.

There was a sound like breaking stone, and the sword she had forged sheared through bone, and then the skull of the dark god split apart. There was a sound that was not a sound, a scream that echoed down from lost aeons as through an endless sky, and then the shadow out of darkness fell back and away from her, streaming back blood from its ruined head. Shan tried to stop herself, but she slid down after it, in among the breaking, shattering bones and the flesh turning to ice and breaking apart.

She rolled and tumbled down the long slope, and the body of the dark god disintegrated around her, curling up and away like burning leaves, until she landed hard at the bottom among the ruins, and sent up a plume of ash like charred paper. She looked up as it rose around her, glowing embers rising up and up, higher than they ever could have reached, and then the wind came and tore them away, and as she watched the phantom glow of the sky fires overhead faded away, and was gone.


She walked out of the northland, alone. The sword in her hands glowed with a dying fire, and she knew it would one day fail. For now, it kept her warm as she left behind the frozen lands. The God of Darkness might be slain, but the ends of the earth were still a place of night, and of winter. She found a horse wandering the wilderness, and then she rode. The land was empty, and when she passed the place where the battle had been fought, snow had already buried the dead.

Shan went to the heart of the old fortress, where the fallen star had lain so long and burned for so many ages, and found it empty, and silent, and cold. She took her ember blade, and she drove it into the heart of the cracked stone, and she left it there. It was the last fire of a power older than man, and she would not take it with her back into the lands of life. The war between the consuming fire and the engulfing cold was ended, and she resolved to let it die.

Her horse was weary, and so was she. She cast off the horned helm and left it behind her, for she had seen enough war to last her whole life. She rode south, away from the lands not made for life, and toward the warmth of the sun.

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