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Archive for April 4th, 2012

The blade of Sharia was struck from a plate of obsidian, chipped to a razor’s edge, and magicked to be impervious to harm. The blade knew the hand of its owner, would come when called, and would turn in the hands of a stranger. It even had a self-developed semi-sentience incomprehensible to those who lacked the sense: to cut.

In the eons since its forging, the knowledge to create or destroy such items was found, lost, regained, and finally fled forever. Unbreakable, able to cleave any substance, and poisoned by time immemorial, its smallest cut slew the living. If annals of its deeds survived, they would tell the story of a million year old sword wielded by murderers, thieves, kings, and despots. In its time, the sword helped save the world, and helped cast it down, before its square-edged hilt found its way into Princess Sharia’s hand.

During its long and tortured history, the earth grew ever more exhausted by the depredations of its dwellers. As the sun darkened with age and exploitation, the earth cried out, but yet another round of savage warfare amongst the callous denizens drove the post-apocalyptic world to its last gasp of life. The air itself became a weapon in this final war until it too was burned up in unbounded wrath, stripping the earth of its protective embrace. The blade was lost during this time. It sank under the sands that drowned the doomed city of Nazerak when its last wielder, the mad Despot Zagnazerak fell at last into ruin and death.

What few survivors remained after this burning war trod a world inhospitable to life. They turned inward, and dug deep into the bowels of the earth, where fires burned eternal, and here they held onto a pathetic simulacrum of their former lives, rooting out a meager existence. Bent by the weight of destruction above, bowed by the cloistering caverns of their new life, and forever peering into the dangerous darkness that bound them, the survivors struggled for many long generations before feeling the diminished caress of the faded sun on their faces. When they emerged at last into the light of day, the world was an unrecognizable, inhospitable red desert, with barely enough air to fill the lungs, and a dark red sun blazing above. It was infinitely better than the tunnels they left.

A flame haired fey princess was born into that cursed world, in the ruins of a city itself cursed by transgressions of civilizations long-since turned to dust, her own fore-bearers chief among them. Her own royal family, most cursed of all, was doomed to spend eternity squabbling still over the deserted city against the descendants of their revolutionary foes.

Two folk, more alike than different, fought forever for control of a dusty ruin called home. What drove them but the sandy blood soaked streets, infused with countless generations of noble sacrifice? In these dark end-times, with a world wracked beyond all normalcy, where the laws of creation and the rules of existence were twisted beyond recognition, mystery was solace, ignorance strength, knowledge could mean death. Cursed by magic, blind to a better path, the descendents of Nazerak fought each other with the same passion as their ancestors without even knowing why.

Sharia the flame haired princess tore down the wide avenue, her sandals kicking up plumes of dust and sand behind her. Her eyes rolled and a smile was plastered on her cheeks as she dove over a fallen column and rounded a stone hovel, sparing one worried glance at the black yawning windows and the doorway spilling forth yet more red sand. She found herself in a sand-choked courtyard lined with ancient crumbling buildings. The sun above abolished all shade from the square. Behind her, the incessant thumping tread of the war dromedaries kept her running, searching for escape. In one hand she held her bent bone bow and her single remaining arrow, her quiver lost during the flight. Behind her three furious knights rode her down. The fourth lay in a pool of blood far away down the avenue, an arrow lodged in his eye. He was the young princess’ first kill.

It was madness to explore so near the enemy, and Sharia silently cursed her over-active curiosity for getting her into trouble. Her youthful vibrancy gave her strength, both real and imaginary, but it was a barrier to wisdom – and she was impetuous. A warrior of Nazerak needed to be bold, even a warrior princess, and she set out that morning to prove herself. There was no higher honor than to slay an enemy of her people, and when the squadron of enemy cavalry appeared, her instincts took over (whether by curse or by evolution, it mattered little) and she let fly before fully calculating the ramifications.

Now she found herself chased, hemmed in, and with no easy escape from the crowding ruins. Beyond the close-packed staring husks of the courtyard, the Ziggurat of the Tyrant rose with stepped sides high up into the afternoon sky to a broad flat top, marking the city center. Scanning ahead, Sharia saw no escape except to hide in the gloom of a ruined building. She chose the closest yawning entrance. Her legs pumped furiously to send her into the shadows, but before she passed into the shade, she heard the stamping dromedaries enter the alleyway behind. War harness jangled as her enemies leapt from their tall-backed steeds and drew their heavy blades.

The coolness of the interior enveloped her as she passed under a tilting lintel and skidded to a halt in a sand-choked chamber. She turned to face the doorway and raised her bow, fighting to rein in her heaving chest as she took aim at one of the three cavalrymen. Slowly she backed further into the gloom while watching the troopers indecision. Her fingers itched to loose her last arrow, but with exhaustion came the realization of her dire predicament: she was cornered by three enemies, with one arrow left. The bone knife strapped to her thigh would keep her from selling her life too cheaply, but any price was too cheap for her. She was Sharia, a warrior princess!

Inching backwards, concentrating on her foes, her heel slipped in the sand behind her. She lost her balance, lost her grip, and the arrow shattered against the stone ceiling with a loud crack. She fell backwards, and her last view of the sunlit surface world was of three enraged warriors stalking towards her.

There was no more frightening place in cursed Nazerak than the dark and shadowy places. A nightmare world existed beyond the reach of the old sun’s faded rays, and fearsome creatures inhabited that domain, intent on destroying the sun-loving denizens of Nazerak. By day, Sharia’s people were compelled to make war amongst themselves, but at night, they fought terrors greater and more profound. Coming from the darkness, they feared deep in their bones a return to that benighted place.

She landed – hard – on her back at the bottom of a stone stair. Dropping the now useless bow, she rolled onto her stomach and lifted herself on hands and knees. It was dark, and she paused for her eyes to adjust, catching her breath as she reached back to massage her bruised back-side. Slowly a five pointed red star revealed itself in the sand. It was her hand. Sharia began to see its heat signature as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Soon she could make out shapes, detected cool breezes wafting past her from the darkness beyond the stairwell.

Behind and above Sharia was a fog of reflected light, dimming as three shadows rose up to block out the light. Before her a dark corridor stretched onwards. She stumbled up onto her feet and stalked forward. She heard the shouts of her adversaries. “You cannot escape! We are coming for you, foolish girl!”

Sharia ground her teeth, and halted her long strides to turn back and reply, “Come and get me then!” before setting off once more down the long dark hall. Sharia was without fear, but her hand holding the knife was trembling and all her senses screamed for her to get out of there. The same evolutionary mechanisms that allowed her to see heat traces in the darkness instilled a fear of dark subterranean places impossible for her to quell, but she would master it. Swallowing her fear with a gulp, she strode on. Her hands stopped shaking.

The featureless corridor, hewn from sandstone and gritty to the touch, sloped ever downwards while curving in a spiral that sent her deeper underground with every step. Tendrils of sand fell from hairline cracks, making the floor treacherous, but her long legs sped her journey downwards without difficulty. Behind her, the cavalrymen lit a lamp to help guide them through the darkness, but Sharia relied on her senses and stayed well ahead of the light they cast, fumbling through the dark descent. It was a test of courage, and if she could best them, she might live.

At the start of her descent she could hear the clinks and mutterings of her following foes. The sound became muffled then silenced as her heedless gait drove her onwards. A few times during her descent she passed open archways with similar corridors beyond, but they were generally choked with sand or had such awful stenches emanating from them that Sharia passed by without consideration. In places the corridor itself threatened to end in a cave-in of sand, but she always managed to push through and onward.

Eventually the spiraling sandstone tunnel unwound into a long straight corridor. The air was extremely dry and stung her nostrils with every breath. She had caught her breath back, but now thirst became her worst enemy. Her lips were cracking in the dry air, and like her muscles, her clothes were stiff from recent exertion. The silence was overwhelming, seemed to buffet her ears with expectation, but for what, she knew not.

The hallway widened and her footsteps made a peculiar ringing sound with every step. Brushing away some loose sand with her foot, she saw that the floor was carved of natural rock salt to resemble tiles. Soon the corridor opened up into a large circular chamber with a high-domed ceiling of sandstone. A dozen equally spaced doorways led into the room, but the most striking feature was the enormous statue of an armed warrior taking up the center of the room.

He wore armour of ancient design, with a plumed helm that nearly brushed the ceiling. He held a sword outstretched, though the blade lay shattered in the sand. The other hand was held palm out with three fingers extended – the sign for peace amongst Sharia’s people. The horizontal planes of the Hero of Peace were caked with centuries of drifting sand.

Ignoring the statue, Sharia made a quick circuit of the chamber, sticking her nose down every corridor in hopes of detecting the scent of fresh desert air. Like earlier, none of the passages were promising: either choked with sand, dead of any breeze, scent or sign of life, or else they contained vile stenches that turned Sharia’s stomach and made her skin crawl. Returning to the corridor she arrived in, she could hear the far off ringing of footsteps approaching. She brushed away her footprints in the sand covered floor, then she walked with exaggerated steps toward the foulest smelling passage. Near the doorway, she pulled her knife and cut a buckle from her sandal. She tossed it into the doorway where it would be noticed, then ran to crouch behind the statue.

Sharia did not have long to wait. Soon enough the ringing tread of her adversaries assaulted her ears, and a few seconds later the three warriors burst into the room with wild staring eyes. Sharia held her breath and pressed up against the leg of the statue. The leader motioned one warrior to go left while the other circled around the right, checking doorways as they went. He then raised the small oil lamp he carried, and strode towards the statue, looking up at its massive frame and trying to decipher its enigmatic expression. Just then a warrior shouted and held up the sandal clasp.

“Go Get her!” he who must have been the captain shouted, and motioned to the hallway. The two warriors looked at each other and cautiously entered the corridor to disappear down its length. Sharia could not see the captain from where she crouched, but she heard his footsteps as he came nearer. She knew he would be able to detect her soon enough, and gripping her bone knife she prepared to pounce.

Sharia heard the captain mumble something under his breath as he came closer. Then his blade whisked out and struck the statue, first a tap on the chest then a scratch on the leg. She saw its edge dig a groove in the rock salt, and knew her chance had come. She leapt.

Sharia caught the outstretched arm of the statue, and used the momentum to swing her legs up and plant her feet solidly on the warrior’s chest. He flew backwards with a grunt and landed on his back in the sand, his sword dangling by the thong around his wrist. Sharia let the thrust carry her forward and landed on her feet straddling the surprised soldier. She couldn’t help but smile at her success, then her lips curled in cruelty as she prepared to plunge her knife down into her enemy. Her almond eyes blazed in anticipation of the kill.

The captain was not so easily defeated. He glowered up at her. “You shade-loving wench!” he shouted, as he found his heavy blade and swung it up and across his body, forcing Sharia to leap back. Instead of slamming into the sand on his other side, the captain used his formidable strength to change the trajectory of the blade, and heaved it around to scythe across his body in hopes of catching Sharia across the knees. She was forced to take another step back, and the captain regained his feet in a fast and fluid manner, despite – or due to – his carapace plate armor. Armed and armored, he was a formidable foe, and Sharia lost her advantage as quickly as she found it.

Three sweeping slashes in quick succession, right, left, right again, forced her back, until she felt the statue behind her. The fourth swing would have disemboweled the princess, but she swerved, and he struck the statue again, gouging deep into the earlier scuff. The Hero of Peace gave her a second chance and Sharia lunged forward and upward with all her strength, knife first. She aimed her slender shard of bone for his pale bobbing throat, but he pulled back and the blade bit into the curled edge of his of his breastplate and it snapped.

The captain chortled with glee. Savoring the moment, he used his free hand to slap Sharia across the face, while trying to pry his sword free. “This place is cursed, and so shall you…” he began, but was interrupted by a growl from the princess.

She was no longer smiling, with a thin river of blood trickling down her swollen lip to drip from her chin. Her lips curled into the snarl of a wild animal and she launched herself at him, fang and claw. Her wide eyes rolled and she fought like one possessed, arms flailing, teeth champing. The captain suffered for it, and red slashes appeared on each cheek, but Sharia could not bring his armored bulk down and he finally let go his stuck sword to aim a blow at her face that sent her sprawling backwards, eyes blurring and nose exploding in bloody pain. With a sickening crunch, the back of Sharia’s head struck the hard stone belt buckle of the Hero of Peace.

She heard ringing in her ears and did not know whether it came from the returning knights or her traumatic head injury. Slowly she sank to her knees, her strength fleeing in defeat, strive as she did to hold on to it. The knight advanced, madness gleaming in his eyes, hands like talons. Then he stopped.

They heard another sound, a grinding all around them, echoing up through the floor. Sharia’s blurred vision returned to acute focus and she met the captain’s eyes and in each they saw mirrored the terror the other felt. For a moment the blind desire to kill one other was replaced by a deeper, more insistent instinct, one they shared. Fear of the underworld. For the first time in her short life, Sharia felt no desire to kill this stranger, these brethren, and she and he silently, suddenly saw a different way, an end to the senseless ceaseless slaughter. Then he was gone.

Sharia rocked forward and stumbled to her feet, and found an open pit where he once stood. Far below, the captain lay in a contorted jumble. She looked back to see the belt buckle, smeared with her blood, and noticed a small jewel, a ruby perhaps, depressed in its center. The ringing grew louder and she looked up to see the two remaining knights come stumbling down the hallway, clutching at each other like children, arms and armor momentarily forgotten. When they saw the princess they found their swords and their courage, and their eyes hardened into flashing diamonds in the flickering lamplight. Here was a foe they were worthy to face.

With a shake of her head and a sigh, Sharia’s gaze dropped back to the floor, and she noticed the handholds. Without thought the girl threw herself down the ladder. At the bottom a similar red gem created another grinding of gears and the trapdoor closed, thankfully before the two knights made it across the room. Yet Sharia knew it was only a matter of time before they discovered the ruby belt buckle of the Hero of Peace.

***

“Two down,” her sick mind informed her sardonically as she stepped over the corpse of the captain. She bent to pick up the little ceramic lamp and filled it with oil from the captain’s flask. When the lamp flickered to life, she found she was in a room shaped much like the one above, except this one was carved and polished rock salt. Shining like crystal, the chamber was a faceted dome with the stone ladder descending like a column down the center. Four carved archways, spaced equally, led from the room. There was a tinkling sound coming from each, and Sharia gasped to see small streams of water running down the center of each hallway to splash through grates at the threshold of each as they entered the chamber where she stood. She had lost her sense of direction, and so turned to the nearest.

Hundreds of ancient runes representing the phases of the moons, Lune and Satellite, adorned the arches, but Sharia took little notice and instead knelt to scoop up a handful of cool, crystal water, only to spit out the brine a second later.

“If only!” she muttered to herself, shaking her little fist in fury at the water. For once her composure threatened to break, and Sharia stamped her foot in anger, splashing water everywhere. It was cool on her hot pink flesh, and she sighed in pleasure in spite of herself with every splashing step.

Then she looked down to see her loose sandal and her scowl returned. The sandal flopped with every sodden step down the corridor and threatened to come off. “Just what I need,” she muttered, wishing she had grabbed the captain’s boots. Thoughts of returning to get them were quickly replaced by worry that the two remaining soldiers would find the trigger that opens the trap door. She held the lamp aloft and examined the walls of the corridor as she walked. The walls and ceiling were engraved with more symbols and frescoes. The majority of the carvings depicted crude scenes of battle and strife on the streets of Nazerak, and they were cut very deep and savagely into the rock salt. Looking closer, Sharia noticed the rough ravings obliterated earlier, shallower wall engravings that depicted a different city than the one Sharia knew, a beautiful place with tall buildings and smiling crowds.

Sharia found the engravings unsettling, and she concentrated on the path ahead until finally she saw another open doorway. A crystal salt portal once closed off the chamber within, but now lay shattered against the wall. She entered another chamber carved entirely of crystal salt, this one much smaller than the last. Benches and niches were carved into the walls, and in the center of the room was a long low slab of the same polished crystal.

Though the room flickered in the light of her lamp, Sharia could see a dull pink glow emanating from within the salt crystal table, exposing a deep crack within. The unnatural coldness of the table appeared to darken the room around it, and droplets of water condensated to drip from its sides and pool around its base, eventually trickling off down the hallway Sharia just traversed. Yet it was the figure lying stretched out on the table that captured her attention.

He was long and lithe like her, naked but for a thin sheet. With his long tapering ears and wide set eyes, she recognized him as one of the people of Nazerak, the first born. By his features and by the rough scar where one of his eyes should be, she recognized him as her first kill. By his pallid flesh, colorless hair and eyes, and his threatening expression, she knew him to be a shade, one of the terrors of the dark, and an enemy of her people: their curse. They called themselves her people’s dark cousins, and claimed that it was their duty to escort the living to the underworld, by killing them. A sinister grin crossed this one’s face as it regarded Princes Sharia with evil arched eyebrows.

“Hello cousin,” he smiled, rising on his elbows to regard her. “Who could ask for a better welcome than to be greeted by my slayer!” he laughed with glee, and rose to a sitting position on the table. His eyes cast about for something, and Sharia saw them alight on a bundle tucked into one of the niches along the wall.

“I slew you while you lived, I will happily slay your shadow,” Sharia swore, glancing about the room to see exits in the walls to the left and right of her, besides the one she entered through.

“Now, now, why such anger?” the shade spoke reasonably. He spread his hands open on his lap. “I just want to talk.”

“Your kind has nothing to say to me.” She eyed him suspiciously, deciding on her course of action.

“But we are alike, you and I. This is where you were meant to be, down here with me.” He leaned forward and began stretching atrophied muscles. “Let me help you.” His malignant smile showed he was bating her into a rash act, or stalling for time. Sharia did not care what his motives were, she wanted to get out of this place.

Before the shade could react, Sharia raced towards the nearest exit, grabbing the bundle as she ran past. The shade was slow to pursue, and Sharia ran out into a hall much like the others except the floor was dry. As she ran, she looked back but did not see her pursuer, so she slowed down to examine the bundle. It was a silk cloak, and wrapped within were a suit of leather clothing, all spikes and buckles, a ceramic jug of sickly sweet wine, which Sharia stopped to quaff without hesitation, and a pair of steel daggers, a real treasure. She tied the bundle of clothes over her shoulder. They would make an excellent trophy if she survived the day. She dropped the empty jug and kept the daggers.

Metal was all but gone from the world, and what remained had to be constantly cared for to prevent rapid corrosion. Many shades wielded these steel daggers, and it was a mystery where they got them. Even seeing a shade rise from the man she killed only increased the mystery of their origin.

Common wisdom said a shade rose for every one of her folk killed in cursed Nazerak (and uncommon wisdom whispered that no new babe was born to her folk until a shade was killed.) These dark cousins, confined to shadow by the poisonous touch of the red sun’s rays, were demented creatures and evil mirrors of their once living twins. Legends of their cunning and brutality made them the most feared of Nazerak’s inhabitants. Myths told of a time before recorded history, when the world was uninhabitable, and her progenitors had to fight and hide deep in the bowels of the earth beneath their city while the shades hunted them for cruel sport.

Sharia had no inclination for such contemplation and continued down the hallway, alert for any sign of pursuit. Knowing that the shade would be following, she tried to stay ahead of him without exhausting herself. Already she ached from running and fighting, but the wine gave her strength, and hopefully robbed the shade of the same. The thought of the wine made her grin, or maybe it was the wine itself. Her sandal continued to give her trouble, and she stopped to remove them and tie them to her bundle. Sharia spent the rest of her time in that dungeon barefooted.

Before long she heard the sound of a shattering bottle echo down the hallway. “You drank my wine! I will teach you manners!”

“Leave me be!” she hurled over her shoulder, and limped onward, but the shade kept pace, staying far enough back to follow without being seen.

Eventually he spoke again. “Let me have my clothes, I have no sun down here to warm my cold flesh!”

A few seconds later, she heard a reply – in front of her. “Cousin, is it you?”

She heard sounds of approach from ahead and froze. It was the captain, and his voice had a cold, calculating edge it lacked when she fought him before, while he lived. She had just decided it would be best to turn and confront the enemy she knew (and whose weapons she held) when she spied rubble strewn across the hallway ahead. Chunks of rock salt littered the floor in front of a collapsed section of wall, beyond which was emptiness.

Sharia the flame haired warrior princess stepped into the vast open area just as a third grinding echo reverberated through the rock salt dome. The fools above had found her bloody clue and opened the trap door to their doom, she realized. Two more lives, though they counted her an enemy, rested now on her narrow shoulders.

Once beyond the rock salt corridor, the sound quickly diminished into funereal silence. Casting her oil lamp high revealed a vast chamber of unknown dimensions beyond her little circle of light. The floor was of mosaic tile, so ancient and dust covered as to be completely indecipherable. Occasional columns of the same mosaic rose up into the darkness overhead.

She put out the lamp and continued blindly through the dead space, her previous foes left behind and forgotten for the moment as she continued on with a building sense of dread growing inside her breast. She walked towards her doom leisurely, and had time to catch her breath, to rest her aching thighs. For awhile, an insubstantial light danced around the edges of her vision, a green glow that settled and began to grow as she moved towards it. A set of wide stone stairs crossed her path and she found herself atop a raised platform. At each corner a green globe faintly glowed above a slender staff, but the center of the dais was enclosed by rows of close-set columns holding up a stone slab roof. It reminded Sharia of a shrine.

Curious, Sharia slipped between the columns to inspect the central nave. She found another rock crystal table, with a corpse laid atop. Once richly dressed and draped, time had reduced it to little more than a pile of dust so that it was only by recognizing the silhouette of a body that Sharia knew it what it was: two thin sticks for legs with knobby lumps where the knees once were; skeletal fingers clasped upon its breast; and a grinning skull rising from the dust of ages, eye sockets full of sand.

At its feet lay two swords crossed, heavy scimitars with wide cruel blades. Each was hewn from a plate of obsidian and knapped to a razors edge. Both were covered with a thick layer of dust, and whatever hilts, pommels, and sheathes once adorning them were gone with time, leaving the blades alone intact.

At the head of the sarcophagus sat rows of tall ceramic urns, broken and crumbled. The arrangement gave the impression of vast age. Only the strongest elements – obsidian, crystal, and petrified skin and bone remained of a rich entombment.

“I wonder who he is – er, was.” Sharia asked herself, as she moved towards the swords, hand outstretched.

She felt more than heard a thrumming coming up through her legs as she approached, and if it weren’t covered in a thick coating of dust, silt, and sand, she would have seen the crystalline block glowing from within as its nascent energies built up after uncounted eons of inactivity. Sharia couldn’t know this, but as soon as the girl stepped through the broken wall into this ancient tomb, arcane energies of antiquity began building within the sepulchre.

The prehistoric engines that drove the subterranean world beneath Nazerak woke Sharia’s deepest, instinctive fears, like the trapdoor before, and now the subtle energy of the tomb. She paused with her fingertips just brushing one of the blades, and looked closer at the heap of ruin stretched out on the slab. Were her eyes playing tricks, or was the dust around the corpse moving? As she watched, thin tendrils of dirt, silt, and sand began slithering up onto the desiccated corpse, filling gaps, adding girth to fleshless limbs.

Sharia watched in horror, and took a step backwards. Magic was at work here, and she had no love of magic. Sharia put her trust in things she knew: herself, her strength, her intuition. Her senses were screaming at her to leave this benighted place, but they had been telling her that non-stop since her first painful foray down those sandy steps. Now like then, she was trapped with no escape.

Suddenly a voice boomed, filling the cavernous chamber. Sharia was shaken by the sound, reverberating through the underground expanse to slam into her from above, below, and all sides. She staggered back another step and watched with disbelief as the corpse rose up off the slab, dropping bits of matter even as the tendrils of silt began twining up the floating body while it tilted to an upright posture.

“Whoso dareth disturb the slumber of the immortal Zagnazerak?” The words were a dialect so ancient Sharia could barely make out their meaning, but she knew the name. Zagnazerak the Cursed. Zagnazerak the Traitor, the Mad, the Destroyer. The last lord of a dying world, long, long dead.

Where the body lay on the table was outlined a broken crust of matter, and the white glow emanating from the crystal bathed the corpse floating above it in light. Bones were knitting back together. Clumping sand formed musculature as she watched. Swirling dust began to solidify into a golden skirt about the waist of the emaciated corpse.

Its eyes flashed to life like a pair of blazing fiery beacons, and it trained them on the warrior princess. “No mortal shalt behold my visage and suffer to live. Abase thyself, slave!” the voice commanded.

“I am no slave!” Sharia shouted, and raised her stolen daggers to charge. For the third time that day, Sharia prepared to sell her life dearly. To herself she mused, “This day cannot get any worse.”

“If thou dost live, bow to thy overlord,” the corpse intoned. “Mine awakening hast come. And so the world must be rid of all mortal life. Art thou, worm, the last of thy kind?”

“Not even close!” she retorted, and hurled a steel dagger at the specter. It slammed into Zagnazerak’s chest to the hilt. Sharia readied the other. The red globes shifted downward to momentarily cast their radiance on the knife, then the ghost of Zagnazerak raised his hands and his pair of swords flew into them, one black as night, the other pulsating with the same red light as the eyes of the dead king.

“I am undying and thou art dead already!” the dead king said, flinging a blade at her, faster and with more power than Sharia thought possible. She had just time enough to raise her dagger, but the glowing sword sliced through her steel like it was paper and through two columns behind her as it whizzed past. She heard it clatter to the floor far out in the darkness behind. She also heard the groan of the shifting weight of tons of rock overhead, as the slab roof settled on two less supports than before.

The corpse of Zagnazerak raised his empty hand high and called forth “Simak!” Then he cast the other blade.

The black blade flew towards her, and Sharia had the speed, agility, and presence of mind to bend backwards while striking upwards with the pommel of her sundered knife. She struck the blade on its flat as it flew towards her, and altered its course just enough. Rather than taking off a third of her skull, the flat of the blade – instead of its edge – struck her forehead. Sharia and the blade crumpled to the floor together.

Bleary-eyed, Sharia tried to focus as the first blade came careening back from where it lay out in the darkness beyond, shattering another column in its path to Zagnazerak’s open hand. Skeletal fingers closed about the hilt, and the glow of the blade intensified, sword and eyes pulsating in rhythm. Sharia reached for the blade that lay atop her. She found the rudimentary hilt of obsidian, which bit into her fingers when they closed about it, drawing blood as she gripped the sword with all her strength. Though she couldn’t focus her eyes or her thoughts, she somehow managed to drag herself to her feet.

Zagnazerak pointed at her and shouted “Skarn! To me!” the hilt began sliding through her fingers and with sudden fury she screamed “No!” The blade listened. It settled into her hand. “Skarn,” she whispered through battered lips.

Sharia squared her shoulders and took the heavy blade in both hands. Her eyes slowly raised to face the fiery orbs of her foremost foe, and she glared at him balefully. “Your time has come,” she spoke slowly and took a step forward.

“Ingrate!” the ghoul bellowed. “Thou wilt pay for thy folly!” and he hurled his glowing obsidian blade at the warrior princess. Filled with righteous wrath, Sharia side-stepped and batted the sword away mightily. An explosion of light and sound blasted forth when the two swords struck one another, and Simak went twirling through the air while Skarn held firm. This was not the first time the two blades sparred, nor would it be the last.

The red scimitar struck another column on its flight, and this time a groan erupted from above, followed by an avalanche of sand. The whole platform tilted as massive weight shifted.

Sharia the warrior princess had a single minded drive to destroy the evil before her. Ignoring the distressing signs around her, she leapt up onto the crystal table. Even as the re-animated corpse of Zagnazerak flung out an arm and shouted “Simak!” the blade of Sharia was slashing the space between them to separate his arm from his body.

It fell to the table twitching, foetid dust spilling from severed arteries.

Sharia wasted no more time on the outraged corpse, but leapt from the table and chopped through two more columns on her way out. The red glowing twin of the blade of Sharia, Simak, flashed past her on its flight to Zagnazerak. Both sword and master were buried under the collapsing stone roof when the few remaining columns crumbled to dust.

Sharia ran back the way she had come. She knew not whether she had defeated her supposedly immortal opponent, and did not care. She was ready to feel the crimson rays of the sun on her skin, and nothing now could stop her from returning to her home, to the desert ruins of Nazerak, to the world above.

She was surprised to find her two dark cousins had abandoned their hunt, and flew past the break in the wall towards the exit. Her bare feet splashed through the trickling water as she returned down the hall towards the exit. No longer the hunted, Sharia raised her blade in anticipation. She heard sounds of conflict ahead and dashed into the rock salt vault to see the pair of shades attacking their erstwhile allies. They each had a steel dagger and were passing a pot of wine between them as they backed the over-matched and terrified warriors into a corner.

With a screech Sharia descended upon the shades, and they had no chance. Her fury was matched only by the impossibly sharp edge of her blade, and soon two more corpses littered the sandy floor of the chamber. She looked up to see the terrified expressions of the two warriors, and noticed again how young they were. She smiled, not without warmth, through broken, bloody lips, blackened eyes, and with a purple bruise on her sun-pinkened alabaster forehead that would fade over time but never fully vanish. She called it her first kiss.

“It is your lucky day.” She spoke with calm certitude. They eyed her warily, bleeding from dozens of shallow cuts.

“Know that Sharia, warrior princess of Nazerak has spared your life this day.” So saying, she turned her back on them and left the underworld for the sun above.

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