Branded and exiled, Asherah rode south into unknown lands. She carried only her weapons and a burning desire for vengeance. Every morning the sun rose higher, until it lifted above the horizon, and she had to shield her eyes from the light of it for the first time in her life. She looked down from the high pass to the lowlands beyond that she had heard of but never seen. She knew the empire carved out with fire and steel by her ancestors stretched for many weeks in every direction, and yet none of the Karkahd had passed beyond the mountains for hundreds of years, save those who did not return.
Hers was the highest of crimes, for she had failed to protect the graves of the greatest of the kings, and had somehow also failed to give her life in the attempt. Wounded, she had ridden to the place called Ember, and she had warned her kin that the body of Druan had been stolen. They went forth to try and intercept the grave robbers, but they had lost the trail in the foothills, and no Karkahd could pass the mountains and return.
Asherah had failed, and so she was stripped of her armor and her torch, and her back was branded to show her crimes and that she was no long a part of any people. They gave her back her bow and spear and her sword, and then they gave her the choice of death in battle or exile for life, and she chose exile. They might think it was the coward’s choice, but she still harbored within her the desire to track down those who had defiled the valley of death, and make them pay with their lives, as she should have.
She knew at least one of her own kind rode with them, but no one believed her. Asherah knew she had taken his hand, but his body was not found, so she knew he lived. She swore they would not both live under the same sky.
The land descended into a long valley marked by slithering streams and stunted trees, dusted with less snow than she had ever seen upon the ground. She knew the lands she sought were warm, but she did not really know what that meant.
She hunted for the trail in the soft, wet earth, knowing that once the thieves left the northlands behind they would have less reason to hide their tracks, and she hoped to find a sign. They had to have come south, across the mountains, and into these empty lands where nothing dwelled but wild wolves and giant deer.
Asherah stalked the twilit realm with bow and arrow, and she found a yearling mired in the soft mud, struggling to get loose. Two arrows finished it, and then she used a rope to snare it and her pony to drag it free. She was glad to get her arrows back, as she did not know what kinds of wood they might have in these lands, nor when she would have time to fashion new shafts.
Skinned and gutted, the deer made a good supply of meat, and she left the kill site behind her, knowing the scent of blood would draw wolves. The wolves of this land did not know or fear man, and she wished to avoid them if she could.
She rested long enough to roast some of the meat over a well-banked fire and sleep a few hours, and then she moved on. Her path could not be straight, as she had to weave across the land, seeking the shallow places to cross the winding streams where they would have had to carry their heavy burden. They had not come for Druan’s treasure – they had come for his corpse, and the legendary sword within his coffin. She did not doubt why they would seek the ember sword, but she did not know why they would wish to take his body.
On the second day she found the trail, a path cut by many horses, clear and easy to see on the soft earth, and the heavy imprints of a sledge dragged through the mud. Her heart sped faster when she saw it, and she knelt down beside the trail and gave thanks to Ajahe that she was favored with the chance for revenge. The pain of her healing wounds was not faded, nor was the pain of her brands. She swore she would have revenge before the pain was gone.
Now that she had the trail, she followed it easily, day and night. The sky grew brighter, and the sun rose higher each day. It was strange, and Asherah had to cover her face to shield herself from the light. It was warmer, and the streams ran heavier and wider, until she came to a land of heavy forest and jagged rocks, and her passage slowed a great deal. It was harder to follow the trail, and she took to traveling at night, when she did not have to squint against the daylight. It was so warm she shed her furs, rode in only her shirt and leather breeches, her tall boots laced up over her thighs.
There was plenty of forage for her pony, and more than enough water. There was game, and she hunted easily. The woods were full of strange sounds, and she saw tracks she did not recognize. The sounds and smells reminded her she was in a strange land, and she was never at ease, sleeping with her sword close to hand.
On the tenth day, the trail led her between a pair of stone pillars that had been raised by man, though they were ancient and crumbling. Beyond them the trail became a path she could not mistake, and she rode more cautiously, bow ready with an arrow on the string. On the twelfth day, she emerged from the trees and looked upon a strange, primordial scene.
The valley was immense and green, every rock and ridge covered in thick grasses or moss. On all sides the hillsides rose, and beyond them were mountains. The land was desolate but beautiful, looking raw and unfinished. Silver streams flowed across it, gleaming in the moonlight, and at the far end, on the shoulders of the hills, stood something she had never seen before. It was like a keep, but much greater, with many stone buildings all close together behind a great stone wall that surrounded it.
Under the stars, she rode across the valley, seeing the marks of the passage of her prey upon the ground, and she knew this was the place she sought. She tried to imagine how many people might live in a keep such as that, and she could not. It was so much bigger than anything she had seen in her life. She saw some small lights glimmering on the walls, and she touched the gold-caged ruby she wore around her neck and offered a small invocation of Ajahe. She would need the favor of the Goddess of Fire in this strange place.
Closer, the place was huge, towering so high it was hard for her to imagine it was real, or that human hands had raised it. Perhaps they had not. She pursued a man she knew was a sorcerer, with the power to make the earth open at his command. Could he command devils to rise and build such a thing?
And yet it seemed old and neglected, and she saw there were vines growing on the walls. There were cracks and broken places in the stone, and she saw the fallen blocks tumbled on the earth, sunk in the soil and overgrown with moss. They had lain there a long time.
There was a gate, and two great braziers flamed there, illuminating the night. By the glow she saw a forest of pillars that lined the way to the gates, and from each pillar a cage was hung with rotting iron chains. She saw dark shapes within, and soon she saw they were men, imprisoned in the cages with the bars spiked like thornvines. The ones farthest from the gate were no more than rotten corpses and bone, but the closer she came to the dark gateway, the fresher they became, until she heard moans of pain and privation, whispered pleas, and at last, curses upon the world and all within it.
She stopped and looked up, saw someone prisoned in the iron cage, and she struck the bars with her spear-haft. “You there, what place is this?”
She saw the whites of eyes looking down at her. “Who are you that does not know Vendhar? Your speech is strange – where do you hail from?”
Asherah could see him clearer, and now she saw he was the same type as those she hunted. A tall, long-limbed man with sallow skin and thin features. “I am Asherah, of the Karkahd. If you will answer my questions, I will set you free.”
“For my freedom I would answer any question,” he said. “Else my fate is to rot away here in this barbed cage. Ask.”
“You say this place is called Vendhar. What is it?” she said, looking up at the high walls with a kind of evil awe.
“The city of Vendhar was once the great northern center of the empire, but that was in the days before war split the kingdoms apart.” He shifted inside the cage. “Now it has been a ghost city for almost a hundred years, home to nothing but brigands and thieves, along with other, less savory outcasts.”
She blinked. She had heard of the places called cities, but she had never known what image in her mind to put to them. She looked at it and tasted the word, then she rapped on the cage again. “I am following a group of riders. They came from the far north, perhaps twenty horses, and they were not far ahead of me, I think. One of them was like me.” She tipped her chin up so he could see her face. “He would be missing a hand. And there would be another man with them, tall and ill-favored, in a robe that covered his face. They would drag behind them a sledge carrying something large.” She could not bring herself to speak of what it truly was; it seemed blasphemous.
The man nodded. “Yes, I saw a band such as that. Not like the trappers and traders who venture north from here. They were well-armed and they dragged with them something that seemed heavy. I did not see the one-handed man, but I remember the robed one. He was one of the sect of Nathigu, the God of Darkness. I knew him by his painted eyes. I felt my heart still in my chest when he looked at me.”
Asherah thought. She knew nothing of this man, and she could make great use of him, but she doubted he was trustworthy. She tapped the iron again with her spear. “Tell me your name, and what was your crime.”
He laughed. “I am called Tekru, and I am a thief. This is a city of thieves, and so I am here because I dared to steal from the wrong man. There are no honest men in this place, only robbers and brigands. I crossed the wrong one, I suppose.” He laughed again, bitter. “I was never a man to take heed of warnings.”
Asherah set her spear against the heavy iron lock and dug it in, twisted it until the steel bit into the soft metal, and then she smote it and the lock gave way. The door swung open and she stepped her horse back as Tekru climbed down with an agility she had not expected. When he dropped to the ground he stumbled a bit, then he made a small bow, as though she were a lord.
“I have never seen one of the Karkahd before,” he said. “I had heard they were all beasts of the night, with fangs for teeth and flame for eyes.” He looked at her warily. “You are here because they robbed a grave.”
She looked at him with a sharp glance. “What would you know of it?”
“I know the land in the north is forbidden, and you Karkahd guard it. You protect the tombs of the old Emperors and their royal kindred, and there also you guard the tomb of the Old One himself, Druan, the Sleeping Emperor.” He bent his knees and stretched. “They came from the north, they were bearing something heavy, and now you are here. They stole something, and you are sent to get it back.”
She nodded. “Something like that, yes.” She touched him on the shoulder with her spear. “I would have use for a guide. For a man who knows his way in this place. Will you help me?”
“I would have use for someone to protect my skin until I can escape this city,” he said. “I mean to go south into kinder lands, and so I must pass through this place of cutthroats. Keep me alive, and I will guide you as well as I can.”
“A bargain, then,” she said. She took some cooked deer meat from her pouch and tossed it to him, and he began to devour it without complaint. “Come, the trail of my enemies leads here.”
The gates of the city stood open, and Asherah was surprised to see the great wooden doors fallen and covered over with moss and weeds. This city had been neglected for a long time, and she wondered what Tekru had meant by a war. She had known that the armies of the emperor Druan went forth in the old days and conquered as far as the seas that lay to the south and the west, as well as the deserts that lay to the east. She had heard the stories of shining kingdoms laid out beneath the stars, all subject to the great Emperor himself. She knew nothing of war, or different kingdoms battling one another.
“Why do you call him the Sleeping Emperor?” she said, looking on the vine-scrawled walls of the city, the narrow alleyways and curtained windows. The whole place had a dank smell, and the scent of many people clustered in one place, like a camp after a long storm.
Tekru shrugged. “They call him that because they say he will rise again. They say he is not dead, but only put himself into a long slumber, and someday he will awaken and rule his empire again.” He waved his hands. “It is only a story.”
They rode through the streets, and she saw there were places where trees grew up through the broken stone, roots coiling up over the crumbling walls. Leaves lay scattered on the ground, and she wondered at this place. There was no snow upon the earth, and the air was so warm, she could barely believe a paradise such as this would ever be so neglected. It was inexplicable and it made her nervous. She kept a firm grip on the haft of her spear.
“This god of darkness you spoke of, is there a shrine here in this city?” She saw firelight glimmer in windows and through haunted doorways, and she had the strange feeling of being surrounded by multitudes of people, and yet there was no one to be seen. She sensed gazes on her from hidden places, and it made the hair stand up on her arms.
Tekru shook his head. “No, but there is a temple of the Fire Goddess that the sons of Nathigu defiled and overthrew. If that black magician means to work some evil, that would be a place he could choose for it.”
Asherah turned and looked at him. “They dared?” She felt a sick anger inside her at the thought of it. What manner of men were these?
He flinched a bit from her anger. “There has been a war now, for many years. The Cult of Nathigu came up from the southern jungles, and soon there were many adherents. The priests are all sorcerers, and they spread fear like a plague. In many places they have taken the shrines of Ajahe and made them their own. They cast down the idols, and slaughter the priests.”
Asherah shook her head and spat. “Only women may become priestesses of Ajahe. Only Druan was her chosen son.”
Tekru shrugged. “Our ways are different,” he said. “Your lands and your people are only legend here.”
“Not legend enough,” she said.
She saw a motion from the corner of her eye, and she turned just as two men leaped to drag her from her horse. There was no room for her spear, so she thrust it at them crosswise and they seized it. She let it go and they fell back, giving her time to unsheath her saber. The steel flashed in the moonlight as she turned her horse and struck down at them. They were big but slow, and she cut one of them from shoulder to heart and cast him back in a gush of blood. The other one put up his hands to shield himself and she cut them off, filled the street with his screaming.
More men rushed from the shadows, and two of them grappled with Tekru. She spurred her steed and dashed them aside, kicked one in the teeth and then turned as the mass of them closed in. A boy grabbed her horse by the bridle, but he did not know northern steeds and had two fingers bitten off for his trouble.
Asherah leaped in among them, her horse lashing out with hooves and teeth while she laid about her with blooded steel, and in moments three more of them lay dying on the stones, the others scattering, taking their wounds with them as they fled. She flicked blood from her sword and watched to see if they would return, then she cleaned the steel and climbed down, retrieved her spear.
When she mounted again and turned back, she saw Tekru watching her wide-eyed. “You are a great killer,” he said. “I have never seen such quickness with a blade, and in the dark.”
She laughed. “I come from the land where there is no sun, only an eternal dark. This is bright enough for me.” She prodded him with her spear haft. “Come, show me this temple, for this wizard and I have unfinished business.”
The ground rose toward the center of the city, and Asherah looked around at the evidence of fallen grandeur. Once this place had been something to marvel at. There were columns and statues overgrown with vines and fallen into heaps of broken stone. She saw the arched gateways of buildings that might have been palaces out of legend, now cracked and slumped and fallen. Trees thrust up through the fractured stones of the plaza at the center of it all, and there stood the temple, grander than anything she had ever seen, even in decay.
A line of pillars flanked the path to the entrance, many of them broken and fallen, and she saw light within, shining through the high arch. She came down from her horse and tethered him to a column, knowing he would kill anyone who tried to steal him. She gripped her spear in her hands and glanced at Tekru, saw him hanging back.
“Come,” she said; he cursed to himself and followed her. She crept on silent feet, slipping through the long dark to where the glimmer of fire shone from within. She saw etched on the vine-scrawled stone the sign of the Fire Goddess, and she touched the ruby she wore around her neck. She would consecrate this temple anew with the blood of the defilers.
She heard chanting, and the sound of a single voice uplifted in a terrible invocation. A stair rose to her right, cutting into the rock as it led upward, and she followed it, seeking a vantage point. When she emerged she was beneath the cracked dome that roofed the shrine, shadows and flame dancing over the faded tiles that decorated the stone. Asherah crept to the edge of a stone parapet, and looked down from the high gallery to the floor below.
The center of the temple was a great, round open space, and at the center of it stood something that Asherah had never seen, and it took her a moment to even make sense of it. At first she thought it was a sarcophagus, but then she saw the wheels and realized it was an enormous vehicle. It was as tall as three men and gilded all over with gold and jewels, so that in the dim light of the lamps it glowed like fire. It was as long as three horses or more, and at the front of it were long chains fastened to a multitude of naked slaves, who it seemed were meant to drag it forward on its three sets of wheels. She could see that the stone floor was buckled and cracked under the weight.
On the top of the thing was worked the likeness of a man, etched all over in gold, and on the sides of the beast flamed a representation of a flaming sword made from inlaid rubies. She realized then that this was a mobile casket made to carry the tomb of Druan. They had dragged him here to place him in this new tomb, but it was wheeled, so they meant to take it further.
Around it were ringed the men who had stolen it; she knew them by their armor and their faces. At the center was the tall shape of the wizard, and he was gesturing and invoking, as though he meant to raise the emperor himself from the dead. The thought gave her a chill, and she laid down her spear and took her bow from its case. She could slay him from here, and end this.
She set an arrow to her string and bent the bow. It was an easy shot, and she had no doubt of her target, but then she saw something else. It was a dark man with a hooded face, but he was missing his left hand, and she knew him for the traitor, the one she had maimed before. She could not allow him to escape. If she returned with the body of the dead king and the head of the betrayer, she might yet win back her place. Her aim shifted, and she hesitated, unsure of who to strike.
The chanting grew, the sorcerer leading the men with him in a call and response, speaking in a tongue she did not know. She took a breath, trying to decide, and then the one-handed man turned and looked directly at her. She saw the tattoos on his face, like the ones she bore herself, and she saw the sudden fury in his dark eyes, and she loosed.
The arrow sped fast and deadly, and the man twisted aside even as it flashed by him, piercing a hole in his cloak. Asherah set another shaft and drew just as the wizard turned, anger printed on his face, and she sent her second arrow speeding for him. She saw it drive straight into his chest, and then smoke rose from it and the shaft shivered into ashes.
The sorcerer screamed a command and the rest of the men leaped up, stunned and grabbing for their weapons. Asherah hurled her own war cry back at them and began to rain arrows upon the crowd, cutting down three of them before they even began to move. Steel flashed in the lamplight and they rushed for the stairs. She shot three more of them, and then the wizard held up his hand and clenched his fist.
She felt the stone under her feet convulse, and then the gallery collapsed under her, and she slid down in a torrent of broken stone. She lost her bow, covered her head with her arms, and rolled as the collapsing masonry pummeled her. She hit the floor in a cloud of dust and groaned, feeling pain all over. It did not slow her down.
Asherah was on her feet in a moment, saber flashing free in her hand, and then she saw the mocking, arrogant face of the sorcerer as he turned away from her. He opened his arms, and there was a blaze of light. As she watched, a gateway seemed to open in the air, shimmering and afire. She saw a place of terrible light, felt heat wash over her, and she saw pillars of stone and red sands.
A lash cracked, and the groaning slaves pulled on their chains. The great tomb lurched into motion, and Asherah rushed for it, realizing what was happening here. She spat out stone dust and staggered on broken rock, and then the warriors closed in on her.
In the hell-born light of the eldritch gateway, she met them sword to sword. Steel sang and flashed as they tried to cut her down, and she parried their deadly strokes and then cut them down with terrible ferocity. They were not prepared to face her on equal terms, and to her they seemed slow and clumsy.
But they held her back, and she saw the moving sarcophagus flicker and glow as it passed through the portal. The sorcerer followed it, and the one-handed traitor, sparing her a murderous backward glance. She expected the warriors to break off and follow, but they threw themselves into battle, heedless of their lives. She cut down five, leaving four. She saw one of them clutch his neck as he was dragged back into shadow, and she glimpsed Tekru’s face as he throttled the man.
That left three, and even as they faced her, the gate blazed like fire, and then collapsed on itself, leaving them all in the dim light of the lamps only. The dark was Asherah’s ally, and she fell upon them like a wolf. She sheared off a head, then an arm, and then the last man fell back, slashing desperately to keep her away. She cut his leg from under him, dashed his sword out of his hand, and then opened his guts.
“Where have they gone?” she snarled, and when he did not answer she trod on the innards that spilled from his body, ground her heel until he screamed. “Where!”
“Gathas will preserve me!” the man choked. He drew a dagger. “I serve the Great Gathas!” He plunged the blade into his own throat, and died in a torrent of crimson.
She swore and swept his head off in frustration, kicked it across the chamber, then she turned at a motion and found herself holding Tekru at the point of her sword. She scoffed and released him. “The name Gathas, does it mean something to you?”
“I have heard it,” he said, his voice shaky. “He is a wizard from the southlands.” He gestured to where the gate had been. “That wizard, I do not doubt.”
“I must know where he has gone,” she said.
“I know,” Tekru said. “I saw the red sands and the towers of stone. That is the land of Ushar, in the Red Desert. It could not be any other place.”
“Where is it?” she said, cleaning blood from her blade.
“It is far from here,” he said. “Many weeks to the south, across dangerous lands. It will not be an easy journey.”
Asherah sheathed her blade and spat out the bitter taste of disappointment. “Show me the way.”