Ashari rode to the city beside the sea like a queen upon a pilgrimage of fire. The sea of Azar glowed blue like a jewel in the red sun, the shadows of its waves violet as imperial porphyry. The stars reflected in the waters and the sails of the ships that crossed it shone white as wings. She smelled the water so close and breathed it in, an air so different from the great eastern sea beyond the empire.
On the white shores the city of Irdru rose like an idol carved from living ebony, the walls and towers gleaming black and polished so they shone. The city spread along the seaside in a great expanse she would not have believed had she heard the tale. It was as large a city as the imperial heart at Zur, though not so well-fortified. It looked like a city that lived and breathed, rather than a fortress of conquest. The towers were rounded and tipped by graceful spires, and she liked the look of them.
The road to the great gates was white stone, and thronged with the crowds of people who came and went and scattered before her. Astride the great form of her Mokol, she reared high above any who they encountered, and men and beasts alike hastened from their path. Her dragon left a trail of scattered flames on the road, as his burning venom dripped from his jaws. His heavy tread shook the earth, and she heard the screams of children and of beasts as they beheld her coming.
In her wake rode the Horane warriors astride their long-necked beasts of war. Eager to enter the city in their finery, they wore their richest war-gear, hung with gold and polished bone, their spears glittering in the sun. Behind them came the rest of the clan, moving with the pack animals and a vanguard around the women and the aged. The chief himself rode at the center of them, as a man in a dream.
They came to the gates, and the crowds parted to escape her path. A line of soldiers was there to bar her way, spears held read and tall helms drawn down over their faces. She sensed the fear in them, as did her steed, and he gave a growl of belligerence that shuddered the stones of the gatehouse and he spat fire upon the stone where it burned like a brazier beneath his dagger-toothed jaws.
A man in a silver-gilded helm came forward and held up his sword. “Hold there! You who come with a beast of destruction and warriors at your beckoning, who are you? If you come in war against the city of Irdru, you will find us not lacking in courage, nor in a willingness to spend our blood!”
Ashari soothed her steed and sat tall in the saddle, held up one hand in open greeting. “I do not come to war with you, fear not. I am Ashari, come from far to the west and into these strange lands. I am a lady of power and of stature, and I will be treated as such. I come not to shed blood, but in all my glory that you may know I am no trifling thing. I am come to meet your lord, for I am told he is another such as I.” With these words she drew back her hood and let them see the horns upon her head, and she saw the guards behold her with sudden fear.
The man knelt upon the ground, and planted his sword point-downward and his hands upon the blade in supplication. “Forgive, we did not know you were such a one. You are. . . you are of the Shedim like our lord?”
“I am, though I have long believed myself to be the last one who remained,” she said. The crowds had fallen silent, and her voice carried. The guards knelt down, and then the onlookers followed, lowering their eyes from the sight of her.
“It has been said our lord Ulthos is the last of his kind. Joyous to see it is not so. Of course we will welcome you to our city, and send heralds onward to cry the news. Our overlord will be filled with the joy of life to know you have come. Let all voices be uplifted.” He rose and called forth to the crowds, and a great cheer went up, yet Ashari sensed a thread of fear within it, and wondered at the root of it. One of her kind would have no need to rule by terror, but perhaps there was knowledge she did not possess. Judgement would have to wait until she met this Lord Ulthos.
People rushed ahead into the city, crying the news, and the guards formed into an escort of honor, and so she rode her dragon beneath the black arch and into the white-clad streets of the city of Irdru. Silken curtains and canopies of a thousand colors flew in the wind from the sea, and people looked down from balconies and high windows as she passed. The crowds shouted for her even as they gave back from the coming of her Mokol, and she tasted in a thousand minds the tang of fear.
The guards led her to the hill that went down toward the sea, and there, looking across the water, she saw the rocky island where the palace reared above the white bloom of the waves. It glittered in the red sun like blackened ice, and the soaring spires were delicate and lovely as horns.
A single, narrow causeway led across from the city to the great edifice, and she looked down to the waters as they crossed it and saw dozens of ships drawing close so those aboard could see her. Silver eels flashed in the shallows, and white-winged birds cried overhead as she crossed from land to the guarded island where one of her blood ruled a kingdom in splendor, and she looked up to the towers and wondered what kind of welcome she might find in this place.
She left her dragon and her warriors behind in the wide stone courts of the palace, and she let the servants lead her inside. Attendants gathered and swirled around her, and she was once more the center of all attention, and that pleased her. They took her to high rooms where windows looked out upon the sea, and they made her ready to meet with the overlord of the city.
They took her rough garments from her, and brought her to a deep bath where she at last washed the dust of weeks from her skin and scrubbed away the grime of her travels. They rubbed her naked body down with scented oils, and they polished hoof and horn both. They unbound her dark hair and combed it out, then piled it up again in braids and knots so she felt once more like a great lady.
The servants dressed her in fine silks and then decked her with jewels. They draped chains of gold around her neck and put rings on her arms and fingers, even on her horns. She let them take her sword away, and she wondered if they thought it would make her helpless. This other Shedim might be strong, but she found she did not fear him at all, and was unconcerned with walking uncovered and unarmed though this place.
When she was readied, they led her through the high halls of the palace, beneath gilded arches and among columns of black marble to the chamber where the overlord awaited. The room was guarded by soldiers in black armor, lances held ready, but she paid them no attention. She watched instead the crimson curtains that parted as she entered the room and walked down the long, polished floor to where a great throne reared above, and upon it reclined a figure like a demon from a fever dream.
Ulthos was powerfully built and immensely fat, his belly rounded and firm, his arms and legs thick and corded with muscle. His skin was red as blood, and his face was indelible, with massive, heavy features and deep-set eyes. His horns were huge, arching and coiling above him like a crown. His fingers dripped with rings, and his nails were long and sculpted, polished until they gleamed. His beard was twined with gold and set with jewels, and he stroked it as he looked at her.
She made no obeisance, for they were both children of the Sheda, the great race, and they did not bow to one another. She smiled at him. “I never thought to meet another of my kind. How great a gift it is to come upon one such as you in this place. Greetings to you, lord Ulthos of Irdru.
He laughed, a great sound that shook his massive form. “And I had thought that I was the end of the line of my people – of our people. I did not know another of the blood existed anywhere in the world beneath the red sun. Welcome to my palace, sister of my blood. Now we two, you and I, may indeed be the last of the Shedim, and a grand day that sees us united beneath the sun.”
“How did you come to be lord of this place?” she said. “I had never heard your tale, and where I come from, in the east, your name has not come.”
Ulthos laughed again. “How could I not rule such a place as this? The men who ruled this place were weak-minded, as are the fools who served them. It was easy to set my power upon them and conquer them. Their own guards threw the rulers from the walls and into the sea, and they made me their master. I have not been cruel, and the city has become great under my hand.” He gestured to her. “I have taken many of their women for my pleasure, but I never thought to have a queen.”
Ashari smiled. “You think I shall be yours?”
“Will you not? We may be the last of our kind in all the world. Shall we not take the opportunity to recreate our race? The two of us could birth a new generation of the Shedim – a new race of rulers to master the races of man. You cannot believe they do not need masters, for you have seen what they do.” He shifted his massive bulk on the throne. “They are a race of vermin. They build and build, but they never create anything that lasts. They tear down what they have made as swiftly as it can be raised. They are not worthy to be masters of the world.”
“And were we? If the Shedim were meant to rule the world, why are there no more of us remaining than we two?” Ashari looked around, and she wondered if he knew the histories as she did. She had delved deep in the archives of the empire and she knew the truth of what had become of her people. The Shedim had been a great race, filled with strength of mind and body beyond the powers of men. But once they had made themselves lords, they had turned upon each other. The race no longer existed because they had destroyed themselves.
Ulthos looked displeased for a moment, but then he shrugged. “So why have you come, if not for that?”
“I did not say,” she said. “It may be you and I may unite, but I will not decide that on a whim. I came to meet you,” she said, stepping closer to him. “It remains to be seen if I will stay with you.”
He laughed then. “Very well! We shall have a celebration then. I had thought I was alone and I find I am not, so there shall be feasting and drinking and music. Stay here and enjoy all of my hospitality, and then decide if you wish to remain in my city as its queen.” He held out a hand. “Join me.”
Ashari stepped forward and took his broad hand, and she smiled in turn at the touch. “Indeed.”
They spent the day in his bed, entangled and entwined. His girth did not affect his strength or his vigor, and there was the touch of minds as well as the touch of bodies. It was like an elixir after so long, and Ashari found she was almost drunk with it.
When night fell they went to the great high hall, with a domed roof that looked out on the stars and a floor of crystal that shimmered like water. It was thronged with courtiers and guards and knights and entertainers, and she sat beside him at the high table and watched as platters of food were brought forth and musicians played subtle and beautiful airs while dancers whirled.
Ulthos ate prodigiously to feed his immense body, and the food and drink were excellent. Ashari lounged in her seat and watched the entertainment while she ate finer food than she had enjoyed even in the harem. The broken moon shone down on them all, and she saw courtiers looking at her with envy or with fear. None of them could aspire to be a queen or a ruler in this place, not while Ulthos ruled, and only she could be his match.
She wondered at his rulership, and yet his court seemed well-dressed and richly-appointed. They had all that the lords of such a city could wish for, yet they were afraid of their overlord, more than they would fear one of their own race. She watched him close through the feast, wondering if he would show some sign.
When his plates were cleared away he filled his goblet with more wine and called for new dancers. They came to the open place before the throne and bowed, and Ashari saw trembling in their limbs and despair hidden on their faces. Ulthos smiled and beckoned her closer to him, and she leaned in to hear him. She saw each dancer bore a small, keen-bladed knife, and she felt a cold touch of apprehension.
“Now you will see the dance of the end. Under my power, they will flay themselves and each other as they dance, peeling away the layers of skin until they have nothing remaining, and yet they will dance on until they collapse. It is a thing you will see nowhere else.” His voice was thick with the anticipation of pleasure, and she felt herself recoil from it.
“I would ask that you not do such a thing,” she said. “Not for my entertainment, nor for anyone’s. Cruelty without purpose is bestial.”
“And are humans not beasts?” he said lazily. “They are less than we, less than the lives of the animals we eat for our food, for animals have purpose, and most humans have none. I will destroy them for my amusement, as I always have.” He gestured, and she felt his power take hold of the girls. “Begin.”
Ashari met his power with her own, and the dancers wavered, light glittering on their knives as they swayed and expressions of horror washed over their faces. The musicians stood poised, instruments still and waiting, ready for the dance to begin.
Ulthos rounded on her, his expression grim. “Do not,” he said.
“I will,” she said. She tensed, bracing herself, and then he turned the full strength of his inner power upon her. It was strong, and in a moment she was buffeted and reeled back out of the chair onto the floor, hands before her. He was much stronger than she was, moreso than she had expected, and he forced her back with sheer power.
He rose from his throne, slow and ponderous but mighty. “I will not be denied in my own hall!” He battered at her defenses and she closed her eyes, cried out as she barely held him back. She could not withstand much more of his assault, and she did not know what would happen if he forced his way past her defenses. He might simply burn out the parts of her mind he did not wish to keep and leave her an obedient slave for the rest of her life, and at that thought she recoiled with dire revulsion.
Desperate, she reached out her mind to her dragon where he slumbered and called for his aid. She only had a moment to touch his mind before Ulthos slammed the channel closed and loomed over her. He reached down one huge hand and grasped her neck, lifted her from the floor so she dangled, gasping and pulling at his iron fingers.
“I have been indulgent with you,” he said. “But no more.” He put his free hand on her head, fingers pressing, crushed upon her mind with all his strength, and Ashari screamed. The pressure was immense, and she held him back with desperate strength, quivering with the pain of it, fighting him in every fiber of her mind. In a moment he would break through and then she would be over.
Thunderous footfalls shook the hall, and the courtiers screamed and scattered as the wall was smashed apart as at the stroke of a bettering ram. A pair of great tusks sheared through the stone in a cloud of fire, and Ashari felt the presence of her Mokol in her mind, joining its strength to hers, resonating within her mind.
Ulthos turned in shock as the dragon thundered into the hall, shattering columns with great sweeps of its tusks. Flaming venom dripped and flowed across the floor, sendng up black plumes of smoke. Ashari took the moment of his distraction and wrenched herself free of his grasp. She fell to the floor and thrust him back with her mind, feeling new strength flow between her and her steed.
Snarling, her beast lunged forward, and Ulthos flung up a barrier with his mind, forcing the dragon to keep back. Ashari saw it in her inner eye as a wall of interlaced light that glowed like white-hot iron. She coughed, holding her throat, but she knew she did not have a moment to recover.
A sword lay close to hand where a guard had dropped it, and she took it up, feeling the balance alive in her hand as she stood. Ulthos contended with her dragon, but could only keep him back. When she added her own strength to the battle he reeled away, fell against the throne and held himself up, battling against them with his inner strength.
She pressed him down like a crushing hand, and forced herself ahead through the storm of his will. He was focused upon the flaming jaws of her companion, and did not divert enough power to keep her back as she struggled through. Only when the sword flashed in her upraised hands did he see his danger, and he turned his strength against her in a blast that was almost enough.
Ashari howled and brought the blade down, cutting halfway through his heavy throat with a single stroke, sending dark blood gushing across the floor. He gagged and his power began to fail. His hand clutched at his opened neck and so her second blow sent his head tumbling from his shoulders as well as a scattering of severed fingers.
His power died in a sudden flare, and she felt his mind fade like the ember of a dead fire, flickering, then gone. She caught her breath in a half-sob, for he had been one of her kind, and it was a moment of pain for her to feel his last thought flicker across her mind. Perhaps he had been the only other of her kind remaining in the world, she did not know. Yet it had been their ancestor’s doom to destroy one another. It seemed that, at least, had not changed.
She stood for a moment, blood running down her arms and dripping from her blade. Her Mokol came to her side and sniffed at the body of the overlord of Irdru, and then it grunted and began to devour his corpse. She turned away. It was fitting, let there be no memorial for him. No monument, no grave. She walked to the shattered wall where the doors had been and looked out.
The courtiers huddled here, not certain what to do, or whether to flee. She saw the fear on their faces as she stood there bloodied and victorious. They were disheveled and pale, their eyes glittering like coins, jewels like scales upon their bodies. They murmured at the sight of her, and she wanted to use her power to sway them, but she was exhausted, and could not even feel their thoughts.
“The queen!” someone cried, and then another and another. The dancers she had spared came and prostrated themselves before her, and the cry went up on all sides. “The queen! The queen!” Ashari let the sword fall from her hand and closed her eyes. The irony was fierce, as they gladly exchanged one despot for another. Yet she would not prevent them. She had come here intending to place herself in power, she would not shy from it now. She held out her red hands and they bowed before her, and their cries of adulation mixed with the bitter scent of blood.