A dark day when Prince Kumura rode in sight of the city called Samzar. Of old a place where caravans came to sell their goods to be loaded onto ships and carried away to sea, it was a port city of ancient wealth and fabled for its beauty. It dreamed beside the deep sea, towers uplifted into the sky and domes gleaming in the faint light. A cloud lay over the city, a shadow that cut away the sun and the sky and left darkness to live within the streets and halls.
He rode to the hillside that looked across the plain to the gates of the city, and he saw a shadow lay over the earth, drawn like a line across the soil and the stone. Under the shadow the plants had begun to fail, leaves curling and the green leached from them, flowers wilted and closing. There was something unnatural here, and he sniffed the wind, not liking the feel of it.
He watched for a time, seeing that even at high noon the light of the sun did not properly fall upon the city, and that very few people passed in and out of the great gate. This was the storied Samzar of legends, and rivers of riches were said to flow in it like blood in a heart. But today there was hardly more than a trickle. He put his hand to his sword, tapped his fingers on the hilt, and then he laughed. It was fitting for a cursed prince to ride to a cursed city.
So he set his spurs to the horse and rode down into the valley of shadow. He felt the air go cold when he crossed the boundary into the darkness, and he thought he knew the feel of it. This was the same power that had given his old sword its magic. This was some scrap of the darkness that lived, and it had gathered in here and sought to work an evil will.
He kept his hand on his sword-hilt as he rode for the gates. The guards looked at him with hollow eyes and pale faces, and though he could see they were afraid of him, they did not question him. He wondered what manner of evils rode through these gates that they did not even ask his business.
The streets were empty, though he saw eyes peering from windows behind curtains and shutters. He followed the road, looking up at the high towers, rode through the plazas where gorgeous temples rose into the sky. Ravens scattered at his approach, and their cries rang on the stone. He saw bodies scattered here and there, the skin stripped from them, their limbs contorted into forms of agony. He wondered why no one cleaned the corpses away. It was plain some of them had been there for days, and yet he saw no rot, smelled no reek.
Kumura rode into a marketplace and found it hollow, the stalls abandoned and pillaged, the stands tumbled over. He rode through the silence, finding no smells of cooking meat, no cries of oil-sellers or perfumers. The market looked abandoned and left to fester.
At the center, beside a fountain that still trickled with water, he found a single beggar who hunched in his place and shook a bowl of scattered coins. He was bent and shrouded, so his face was hidden, and Kumura approached with watchful eye, thinking he was diseased, or mad.
“You there,” Kumura said. “Tell me what has befallen this city.”
The man shifted and peered up at him. “Strange manner of man you be, stranger still to not know the curse of Samzar.”
“Your queen was Chona, but she was deposed,” Kumura said. “The Left Hand cut her down and stole the body of the Tyrant from his tomb, and carried it away. This I know.”
“Then you know the beginning of the curse, pale one,” the man said. “We allowed the Left Hand to defile the tomb of the Emperor, and so we are cursed. A shadow lies upon this city. It fills the sky by day, so that we have no sun, and by night.” The man stopped and shuddered, worked his fingers together. “By night it stalks the alleyways and the empty places, and it kills. It strips the skin from those it finds unawares, and after their bodies will not mortify, nor will any worm or bird touch the flesh.”
Kumura grunted. Something that stalked and hunted was flesh, and flesh could die. Kumura knew the truth of that. Yet he would not simply hunt here in the streets; he would see what manner of ruler had come to stand atop this place.
He threw a handful of coins to the hunched beggar. “Then you had best stay off the street when night falls. Go.” He turned and rode up the hill, toward the palace that brooded over the silent city.
He followed the long road up the hill to where the palace stood. The light was dying, and so he knew the shadow would come soon. He rode to the gate and found it shut, hammered the hilt of his sword against the stout wood and called out for them to let him in. He had to beat on the gate a second time before a voice answered him from the wall above.
“Get away from here, traveler,” the voice said. “This city is cursed. Find refuge before night comes and claims you.”
“I fear no curses,” Kumura shouted back. “But you should fear me. Open this gate and let me in, before I batter it down. I have ridden far to see your city, and I bear news of Chona, your vanished queen.”
He waited, and he tested the gate with his hands to see whether he might in fact rip it down, but then it opened, and they ushered him inside, quick and frightened. They looked at the darkening city beyond him, watchful and afraid, and then they saw him plain in the light of the lanterns and they were afraid of him as well.
“Who are you?” they asked him. “What manner of apparition has come to us?”
He laughed. “I am Kumura, the cursed prince of Utar. My kingdom is destroyed and my fate is a river of blood.” He ground his single hoof upon the stones. “Take me to the one who rules here.”
They took his horse, ragged and weary as it was, and he followed them deeper into the dark palace. There were few lights and few fires, and he saw only pale, frightened faces peering from the dark hallways. It had the feel of a palace in mourning, and he wondered what had happened here while Chona was gone.
They took him to a throne room lit by only a few lanterns, and there was no one on the seat of power. He waited, wondering if they would simply try to kill him. Guards came in, and they had the well-dressed but callow look of men who took money and gave little value for it save flattery. A guard captain came in, and a man who had the look of a commander of troops. The guard captain was cinched tight into his armor and had a red face and small eyes. The general was older and had gray hair, but his back was straight and his gaze was sharp.
Then a woman was brought in, and she wore white and was draped with jewels, but she looked as if she did not care for them. She was tall, but with delicate hands and a smooth face. She looked on the men already gathered with a flicking unease, and he knew then who really ruled here.
“What manner of man are you?” the old general asked. His voice was harsh, and Kumura looked at him and measured him. So this was who controlled the city.
“You come before us, demanding, deformed, claiming to have news of a dead woman,” the man went on. “I have half a thought to simply have you beaten from the city for your insolence.”
“I am Kumura,” he answered. “I was Prince of Utar, but that city is no longer. Now I am a man of no land. I rode as a companion to Chona, on her quest of revenge.”
“You have word of my cousin?” the girl said, half-standing from her throne. “Does she live?”
The guard captain spoke up then, his voice an unpleasant sneer. “Perhaps he should first prove that he is not some liar. The general will speak to him, my lady.” He looked at Kumura with his eyes slitted, as if they could not open all the way. It made his face look like meat.
The lady on the throne sat back, fear and anger flickering on her face. Kumura knew now what he needed to know. He came forward, his hoof striking hard on the stone, and he saw them see it and saw their fear. “I am the cursed prince,” he said. “Shut away for many years after I was struck down. Deformed.” The guards shifted nervously, and he smiled his thin smile. “The Left Hand came to my city, and broke the defenses, and my father, dying, entrusted it to me. I fought the invader, and almost died.”
He looked at the slim woman on the throne. “It was Chona who pulled me from the ruin, who saved my life. I went with her across the desert, across the mountains far to the west, until we faced the Left Hand and defeated him. I was nearly slain.” He drew his mail aside and showed the scar over his heart. “But revenge was taken for your city.”
“Does she live?” the woman asked, and Kumura nodded. “Perhaps she does, but she will not be returning. In her honor I have come, to see to the place she called her home.”
“You are not needed,” the general said. “Now you have told your wild tale, you may go.”
“You lie under a curse,” Kumura said. “I think I am much needed.”
“Enough,” the guard captain said, his lip curling. “Take this thing and cast it from the walls.”
The guards started forward, and Kumura drew his stolen sword, tested the rude edge against his arm. It was not a good sword, but it would still cut and kill. The guards came for him, and he laughed and threw down his cloak, and when they rushed on him with their short spears he came alive in their midst like an idol of warfare.
They were no match for him. He cut down two, splattering their blood on the stones, before his blade snapped apart. They tried to drag him down and he threw them aside, broke their bones with blows of his fists and smashed them against the walls. They were soft men, who loved pay and power but not war, and they broke before him like twigs.
The general tried to flee and Kumura caught him by his heavy cape, swung him against the wall and dashed out his brains. The guard captain turned to run and Kumura took up a fallen spear and hurled it at him, driving the steel point into the base of his spine so he fell, screaming.
The woman shrank back on her throne as Kumura walked slowly across the hall, the guards scattering before him. He took the spear that transfixed the guard captain and wrenched it out, silenced him with a stroke through his red face and left him pinned to the floor. It was suddenly quiet in the hall, with only ten dead men and a frightened girl, and the pale form of the cursed prince.
He turned to her. “What is your name, my lady?”
“I am Jhehana,” she said. “I am Chona’s cousin. When she vanished and was thought dead, they brought me here and put me on the throne. They did not name me queen, because they wanted to keep power for themselves. They promised they would crown me when the curse was lifted, and so they have done nothing.” She shook her head. “I have not been able to protect the city, no matter how I wish to.”
“Well,” he said. “You are a queen today. Show me the way to your armory, and I will see about ending this curse.”
“I . . . I do not know how to answer you,” she said. “Yes, you will have whatever you want.” She stood, but hesitated to come closer to him. “Why would you aid me?”
He was silent for a long time. “Chona was my friend,” he said. “The only friend I ever had. She is gone, and I can do nothing to bring her back. She has her own fate to follow.” He knotted his fingers together until the knuckles cracked. “But I will do this for her. I will protect the city she loved. I can do that.”
She led him down into the deeps of the palace, and he was pleased to see the guards scatter at the sight of him. There was a heavy door, and then within it lay a wealth of armor and arms gathered from ages of kings of the city. Samzar was ancient, and touched upon many lands, and so there was a great fortune of all kinds of armor and shields, blades and axes and spears.
Kumura was pleased to look on it all, and he hunted through the heaped plunder of a thousand years. He found suits of armor so ancient they looked as if they should have been carved on the sides of tombs, some of them corroded away to nothing while they waited through centuries. He found many pieces that had been made for richness rather than quality, and he dug false jewels from soft copper fittings, bent golden hilts and crumpled silver shields.
Most of what he found was too small for him, as it had been forged for men, and not the giant he had grown to be. He scattered swords and daggers in his wake that were little more than toys to him. He took a lantern from the wall and went deeper into the room, searching for the war-gear he would need for a true battle.
He found the sword in a corner. It was immense and heavy, the blade strangely shaped and forged in a pattern of swirling, dark steel over lighter. He shoved a heap of spears aside and lifted it up, brushed dust from the blade. It was straight and heavy, but the edges were not symmetrical, almost as though it had been carved from a piece of something much larger. The hilt was long and made of bone, the leather wrapping long melted away.
Kumura held it up. “What is this?” he said. “Do you know?”
She looked at it. “That was made from the ram prow of the sea-king Eldruas, when he was defeated in battle many hundreds of years ago. It was made for King Uluru, who was said to be his son. He was a giant, like all the line of the sea-kings. When the ship burned on the shore, only the ram remained, and he caused it to be cut and forged into a blade, the hilt carved from the bones of a sea-monster.”
Kumura grunted, gave the heavy blade a few swings. He chopped it into a pillar and the edge bit the stone and came free unblemished. “It will do,” he said. “You say this king was a giant?”
“Yes,” she said. “His armor is there.” She pointed to the far wall.
He shoved through the piled weapons and scattered pieces of armor. Against the back wall of the chamber he found a suit of heavy plate armor forged to a massive scale. The steel was worked in detailed patterns that recalled the spray of waves, and it gleamed a dull green shade, as though it had been tempered somewhere far from the light of the sun. The helm had a fanged mask so that the wearer would seem a beast from the darkness, and the back of it swept up into two great horns.
“This will do,” he said.
He girded himself, the new queen helping him, though she did not know the ways of armor, and he had to show her. It was a strange suit, and he himself had to take the time to puzzle it out. He could not wear the left leg, because it did not fit his twisted hoof. He brought the sword with him, slung on his shoulder, and she followed him as he climbed to the battlements of the palace.
“You may not wish to follow me,” he said. “There will be danger, and death. If the death is mine, you will have no one to guard you.”
“I have survived this long with no one to truly guard me,” she said. “I will not cower.”
Kumura nodded, beginning to like her. They came to the high walls, looking out upon the city, and he saw how few lights glittered in the dark. “The curse comes by night,” he said. “That is what a man told me.”
“Yes,” she said. “It is shapeless and bloodless. It kills without mercy. People fear to set a fire, believing the curse will be drawn to the light.”
“I hope it is so,” Kumura said. He went to a watch-fire brazier, unlit and dark. He poured oil across the cold wood and then took a torch and lit it, stood while the fire erupted high and hot before him. He smiled, and then he kicked the brazier over and scattered flames across the top of the wall. He threw in more wood, cast the last of the oil upon it, and the fire roared up.
He drew in a great breath and bellowed into the dark, his voice thundering like the howl of some primal demon in the night of the earth. He beat the great sword upon the stone and roared again, and he saw the queen shrink back out of sight behind the battlements. Kumura laughed and roared a third time, and then he set the sword point-down and rested his hand upon it.
“No we will see what comes,” he said.
He stood in the light of the fire, waiting, motionless as a statue hewn from the rock, and something came. He heard a far-off moaning, like the last sounds of a dying man, and then he heard a slithering sound, the dragging of something heavy across the stone. He lifted his heavy blade, and he waited, looking through the dark he knew so well, and in which he saw keenly.
A hand came over the wall, and then another, and another. Something huge dragged itself into sight, and he looked upon an abomination of darkness. Over long years, the foul touch of the shadows had festered and rotted in unseen places, and at last it was given form. It had made itself a body from the bones of the dead, and now it covered its shape with skins torn from those it slew. It had many arms, and many mouths yawning in the stretched skin, but only one face.
It was no ghost of the great powers; it had no mind. It came for him with blind hunger, clawed hands reaching, and Kumura took his new sword in both hands and he hewed at it, cleaving away one of the long arms. It howled like something dying in a deep cavern, and it hurled itself upon him. He was dashed off his feet, dragged over the stone, and bone talons clawed at his armor.
It smashed him into a wall, and the stone broke under the blow. He thrust it away with all his more than human strength, and rammed his blade through the misshapen body. It did not bleed, but it knew pain. It wailed and struck him down, rending at his armor, seeking to tear him apart, to strip his skin away. He saw the blank, eyeless face with stretched jaws and seeking teeth.
With a roar of his own, Kumura hacked at it, cleaving deep rents in the hideous body, and then he drove his weight against it and sent it into the fire, and it screamed. The many-armed shape rose up, flailing, tearing at itself with many limbs, and then it hurled itself from the wall and vanished again into the night, crawling down the wall like an insect, leaving a trail of slime from its stolen skins.
Kumura breathed hard, leaning against the stone. His armor was battered and dented, but it had held, and the sword had done its work. He drew off his helm and took great breaths of the good night air. He turned at a sound behind him, and then saw it was the queen, Jhehana.
“Are you wounded?” she asked, her face pale and frightened.
He shook his head. “I was struck through the heart, once. Nothing but that is a wound.” He stood up, looked down on the dark city.
“Is it destroyed?” she said.
“No. I wounded it, and it fled.” He remembered the things Chona had told him of her home, and then he knew where he would find it. “Wait here, within the palace. I will finish it, and come back to you.”
“I will stay with you,” she said. “I am safest in the shadow of your sword arm.”
He grunted. “Very well. Come then, to the place of the dead.”
They went down into the silent city, and walked alone down the wide, hollow streets that echoed with their footsteps. He knew what he sought lay at the center, and so he followed the widest street he could find until it led him across a wide causeway and into the necropolis. Here the kings of Samzar lay buried, and here rose the great cenotaph of the Tyrant. Broken open and empty, it was a monument to another age, and he saw the door lay open, and a foul smell came from within.
“Here it has grown,” he said. “The last remnant of the darkness that brought it here. A memory, a phantom made into unclean flesh.” He drew down the visor of his helm. “Await me.”
He strode across the dark plaza and he threw the doors open. He took a torch in his hand, and he went inside, to the dark heart of the city. The space inside was vast and dark, echoing with cold breath and the small sounds of vermin. He knew it was not rats that haunted this place. The dais was there, where the sarcophagus of the Tyrant had lain for so long. He saw the beautiful walls, worked with silver and jadite and emeralds. The riches gave back a flickering green glow from the light of the torch, and by that light he saw the thing.
It rose up before him, unclean and mad and hungry. It yawned jaws at him, clawed at the air. He saw the wounds he had rent in its body, and he knew they would not close. It was not a god or a spirit – it was a memory made flesh, and it could be destroyed.
It came for him, and he thrust the torch into one gaping wound, saw flames burst up through the form made from corpses. It screamed and rushed on him with its claws flailing, and Kumura fought his great battle, unseen in the dark.
It dashed him against the walls, snapped pillars with his body and tried to rip his armor apart. He hewed at it with great sweeps of his sword, and the sea-wrought iron cut through the unliving flesh. He cut it apart, severing arms and then hacking into the misshapen body. It hurled him against the pedestal where the Tyrant had lain, and he wrestled it down, pinned it in place with his hoof, and he split the screaming skull with a last blow of his sword, the edge cutting through and splitting the stone beneath.
He stood for a moment, breathing deep, and he drew off his battered helm and cast it onto the floor. Slowly, and with some pain, he limped to the door, and emerged again into the clean night. The queen was waiting for him, and when he saw her, he was glad.
Flames blossomed in the empty crypt behind him. He watched them spread, cleansing, crawling over the silver and jewels and rich hangings, rising up until the inside of the tomb glowed like a forge-fire. He turned away and let it burn. It was a thing from another age, its time had passed.
“Is it gone?” Jhehana said, and he nodded. She put her small hand on his arm, and he felt something stir inside him at her light touch. They both looked up as the black shadow of the curse vanished, and the sky came alive with the endless river of stars.