The world was so much vaster than Asherah would have ever believed. She and her companion Tekru passed through the fallow lands below the frost, where the earth had been torn by ancient glaciers in their passing and left raw and dark beneath an iron sky. From there they entered rocky lands, with wide barren plains shadowed by jagged mountains. Under a crescent moon they left behind the northlands she had known, and rode into a land where the sun rose each day into a blazing sky.
She was glad when mists hid the sun, for the light was harsh to her, and she covered her face with her cowl when they traveled by day. But as the land grew rougher, and the cliffs rose on each side, there was more shade from the sun, and at last they descended into a long, steep valley between towering razor mountains, and reached a land of forest so deep it seemed to stretch forever in every direction, and she wondered how they would find their way.
The trees were huge and towered high over the path, the branches heavy and thick with mist. The carpet of fallen needles beneath the hooves of their horses was so thick they made no sound when they trod upon it. The land was silent and ageless, and she wondered if any human eyes had ever seen these deeps.
On the eighth day they climbed a long ridge beside the sighing of a great waterfall, tasting the mist in the air, and then they came to a place where the earth was churned and marked by the print of a great hoof. Asherah was amazed, for she had never seen a track so immense. It was the split hoof of a deer, but as far across as a shield, and the beast it suggested must stand as high as a great tree. Tekru saw it and shook his head, made a sign to ward off evil.
“We can dare no more. Here the path turns east, to take us out of this accursed land.” He pointed to where the mountains were cleft, and a pass was visible in the fog. “That way.”
“You said the red sands we seek are to the south,” she said. “Is there no way through?”
“The way south is swifter,” he said. “But only a madman would take it. From here the forest becomes something not meant as the domain of men. If you go south into those woods, you will not come out again.”
“I am already too far behind my quarry,” she said. In her mind she saw the face of Gathas the sorcerer, the one who stole the body of the emperor from its tomb and set her on this path. “I cannot delay.”
“Perhaps one such as you might pass through the forest, but do not risk it.” He gestured. “This way will take us back to the lands of men, and from there we may take a road to the south.”
“But it is the long way,” she said.
“As the path is marked, yes. But Vengru walks here, the ruler of the forest, the one who may be a god.” Tekru looked on the great hoofprint and shuddered. “He does not permit any to cross his land unmarked.”
She indicated the great track. “Is that he?”
“No,” Tekru said. “That is but a mark of one of his deer, those which he hunts.” He shook his head. “Do not think to attempt it. Come this way. This way leads to the city of Aga Shen, where we will fill our bellies and buy fresh horses and sleep in real beds. That way,” - he pointed south - “that way lies only death.”
She was silent for a moment, thinking he spoke wisely, but her duty pulled at her, the failing she must correct, and every day would be grudged by the powers that judged her path. And in truth, the forest drew her, the deep, mist-shrouded hollows lined by the immense trees, a land no other human eye had seen. She must allow nothing to stop her, not fear or hope for comfort.
Asherah turned her horse to point south. “You have served me well,” she said to Tekru. “I release you from your debt of life. Go now, as you will. Perhaps I will see you again.”
He sighed, then nodded. “Think no less of me that I do not come with you. I am not cut from iron, as are you.” He pointed southward. “Keep steady, and when you see the mountains, keep them to your left, and pass to the west of them. That will lead you to the lands you wish to find. Ask travelers for the way to Ushar, and you will find it.” He smiled. “If you come to the sea, you have gone too far.”
They parted and she rode south, down into the forest land. She looked once, to see him before he vanished, but the mist had already drawn in, and there was no sign. She nodded, firmed her grip on her spear and shield, and made her way into the wilderness. The trees closed in over her, and she looked up at them, amazed by their size. Some of the trees in her homeland had been big, but she had never seen anything like this. They were like the bones of the earth jutting up from the black soil.
Night drew down, and she did not stop. Now free of a companion who did not see well without light, she was free to travel in the darkness that was more home to her than any daylight could be. The mists were chill, but compared to the endless winter night where she had been born, it was like a paradise land unimagined. She cast back her cloak and rode down the long, winding slope, and into the deeps of woodland as remote as the gulfs between the night stars.
She saw signs that once this land had been home to some kind of men, for the stones she passed were sometimes marked by carved shapes or burnt marks that made crude drawings. She wondered if primitive men still dwelled here, living like mice in the hidden places of this forest of giants. There were more tracks to be seen, the marks of immense hooves, and she wondered what kind of beast could hunt such prey. What was this thing called Vengru, who men said was a god?
There were no stars, here beneath the towering trees and the heavy mist, and she moved through a world without light or sound or time. It was a sensation she enjoyed. Time to time she touched the red jewel that hung around her neck, her ember now she was no longer a chosen bearer of the undying fire.
When dawn lit the world in shades of silver and gray, she smelled death and firmed her grip on her spear. She rode down the steep path and saw rivers of blood upon the earth, and then she followed them, hesitant, her horse snorting and shaking its head. It was a northland war horse, but it did not like what it smelled on the cool air.
She followed a river of drying gore and came through the mist to where a deer lay slain upon the forest floor, but such a deer as she had never seen. The head alone was longer than her body, and the antlers that stretched upward spread so far they could have spanned a longhouse. The eye she saw was dark, gone milky with death. The great throat was torn open, and from there the blood flowed like a river, still flowing though this beast had been dead for more than a day. An ocean of blood must lie within those veins.
The body was the size of a fortress, rising like a hill covered in dark brown fur. The hooves were as large as shields, and they had scored the earth in the throes of death, leaving great channels gouged in the soil. Asherah rode slow around the vast corpse, mesmerized by the sight of it, so otherworldly in its sheer scale. She began to feel as if she were not within a great forest, but rather in an ordinary one, and she had become very small somehow. It was a disconcerting feeling, but it was not easy to shake off.
On the far side of the body she saw that the guts had been torn open, and much of what lay within had been eaten. She saw how the flesh had been torn, and from the marks on the hide she could measure a bite vaster than on any other beast she had ever seen. On the churned earth, soaked in blood, was printed the mark of a great paw. Not the mark of a wolf, or a lion. It was a sign like that of a bear, but one so enormous as to defy her imaginings. It was a titan, whatever it was, and the print was not very old. This was the work of Vengru, then. And a beast so huge, mortal or not, might indeed be judged a god, and none would dispute it.
She looked at the tracks, followed them with her gaze as they went back into the trees. Her expert eye saw that one print was irregular, and from that she knew that the monster was crippled, and walked with a lamed foot. It would not have gone far, and it would not pass up whatever food it could find.
Now the silence of the forest became menacing, and she urged her steed along, pushing on through the trees even though both of them were tired. She did not wish to camp so close to the fresh kill. Deeper in the forest she might find a cave, or some other place that would offer some shelter, even from a thing such as that.
A splintering in the trees foretold it, and she stopped and listened, stilling her horse with a firm hand on the reins. She heard the sound of wood breaking, and then something distant made a sound between a snarl and a deep breath, and she almost felt the wind of it. There was a new smell in the heavy air, musky and bestial, and she knew that if she could smell it, it could smell her.
She dug her heels in, and her horse screamed as it exploded into motion, running through the shadows, tearing the carpet of dead needles underfoot, leaving a trail a child could follow, but no human was tracking them now. Asherah did not know the way, only gave her steed his head, let him run. She could not stop, now, to try and orient herself; they needed speed. Huge as it was, the beast would be ponderous.
The bellow came calling from behind them, sudden and furious, and she knew that it had their scent now, if it had not before. The sound of crushing branches came from behind them, and she began to hear the heavy footfalls. She could not tell if it was close, or simply very loud. Echoes were strange in this place, and some sounds carried a long way, while others hid in their hollow spaces.
They crested a rise, and she heard a rushing sound. For a moment she did not know what it was, but then it grew louder and she knew it was the sound of rushing water. They were drawing close to a river or falls, and she clutched her spear close as she hoped there was a way around, or across. Branches whipped at her face, and she flinched, but then when she opened her eyes she saw they were in a vast, open space.
Light streamed down from above, rays of sun shining ghostly through layers of mist. To her right a great wall of rock heaved up, a great cascade of silver water plunging down into a cloud of fog. Ahead of them, the ground dropped away, and she dragged back on the reins just as they careened to the edge, her horse stopping only a length away from the sheer plunge into shrouded depths where the unseen river roared in darkness.
Asherah cursed, and she turned at bay. The trees behind her shivered, and the branches waved and snapped aside, and then something out of primordial ages erupted into view. It towered over her, black as night and vast as a fortress. On its hind legs it came closer, forelegs threshing down the branches with claws as long as swords. She saw the terrible face of the thing, the eyes sunk deep beneath a heavy brow, the muzzle short and yawning with teeth as long as her arm.
It was not a bear, not anything from the natural birthing of beasts upon the world. It was something ancient and unknown, something that had long since vanished from the earth and clung to existence only in this one dark corner, where time had overlooked it, and it survived age upon age. It was hungry and terrible, and yet she saw a kind of feral intelligence in those sunken eyes, something about the brow and visage that was almost human.
Her horse screamed and reared, and Asherah knew there was no time to do anything but cast the dice for war. She gripped her spear tightly and drew her shield in close to guard herself. The beast reared up, high above her, exposing its belly, and she dug in her bootheels and charged.
Upon her bellowing steed she hurled herself like a bolt of lightning into the darkness of the monster’s massive form. She knew she would never reach it, and so she drew back her arm, aiming for the dark heart of the titanic shape, and hurled her spear with all her strength.
She seemed to see it all in a long moment, stretched and perfect in a slowness that was almost still. The spear arced through the misty air, the point gleaming with the keen of steel. It turned twice, light glinting on the edge, and then it struck home and bit deep and hungry. Even as it drew blood the beast lunged down and one great splay-clawed paw reached for her. Asherah tensed behind her shield, and then the blow struck like a hammer.
Her shield splintered apart, flinging shards in her face, and then she was torn from the saddle. Blood gushed in the air, and she saw her brave horse’s head ripped free of the neck, turning as it fell, blood pouring after it. Then the claws gouged into the body and lifted it, and as Asherah struck the ground the body flew over her head, coming apart like a doll with the force of the stroke.
She landed hard on the mossy soil, gasped once, and then she was up and moving, blood on her face, falling like rain. The beast roared and she ran for the ravine, pulling her bow from its case, clawing with her fingers for arrows as she raced along the treacherous edge.
There was a huge, moss-covered stone, and she all but fell against it, turned and set an arrow to her string. The monster was bent down, huge jaws working as it devoured her horse, blood streaming as the bones snapped. She drew the shaft to her eye, aimed, and loosed. The beast’s ear twitched as the shaft plunged into its neck, and then it heaved up, huge and furious and savage with pain.
It came for her and she dodged around the rock, reeled back and drew another arrow. The monster clawed at the stone and tore it free from the earth, sent it hurtling down into the ravine as Asherah loosed another shot, and another. She sent the arrows speeding into the huge body, but they seemed to have no more effect than if she wielded slivers of wood against a wolf. Against the black fur she could not even see where she had hit, and the few drops of blood that splashed on the earth leaked from the spear still embedded in the beast’s body. It was so huge even that seemed no more than a nuisance to it.
Claws like the scythes of chariots clawed at the earth as Asherah fell back, loosing arrow after arrow, and then she turned and ran when the thing was almost on her. She felt the heat of its breath, felt the wind as it clawed at her with its massive paws as she threw herself just out of reach. She staggered along the edge, looking for a way across the great crevasse, any way across. There was nothing so easy as a tree trunk bridging the gap, only leaning saplings and vines strung along the edge.
She saw it. On the other side a heavy, rotten tree hung almost over the edge, but the nearest extremity of the trunk might be within reach if she jumped for it. She would have to risk everything, throw herself into space and pray she could reach her target and that it would hold. But ahead of her the rocks grew sheer and wet with mist from the falls. She could not go that way.
Desperate, she drew her last arrow back, aimed as though the beast from nightmare aeons were not almost on her, and loosed. The arrow missed the deep-set eye and instead burrowed into the furred cheek, causing the monster to rear back, bellowing and clawing at itself until the shaft snapped off, leaving the deadly point buried in its flesh.
It gave her a moment, and she turned and threw her bow across the chasm, watching it spin through the mist until it fell into the undergrowth on the far side. Now she had to follow it. She did not give herself time to think; she just ran for the edge, tried to judge her steps, and then leaped into space with all the strength she had.
The beast lunged after her, and she saw the shadow and felt the wind as the claws slashed at her, so close she could have touched them, and then she smashed down into the branches of the fallen tree. Covered in green moss and coiled fungi, the wood disintegrated under her weight, and she clawed for purchase to stop her fall. The bark came apart as she dug her fingers into it, and then she snagged on a heavier branch that did not snap loose, and she swung there, dangling over the fall into the chasm, seeing nothing below but a layer of mist and hearing the roar of the river down its unseen path.
Then the shadow fell across the ravine, and she looked up to see the titan looming over her. She stared with a kind of sickened awe as it stepped across and planted one rear claw on the far edge of the chasm, sending broken rocks and earth sliding downward. It braced itself with one long arm and leaned down with the other, reaching for her.
The canyon was thick with vines, hanging all over the rotted trees and slung across the span. That terrible paw lashed down for her, and she jumped, caught a trailing vine, and clung as she swung away. The stroke of those claws shattered the rotted tree into fragments that plunged down into the deeps. The beast roared, twisting itself to try and reach her, moving for a better angle.
Ashera’s heart hammered in her chest, and she saw no way to escape from this. She screamed and reached for her sword, determined to pay the beast one more wound before she fell. Then she looked up at the rear leg braced on the edge of the ravine and saw that it was bent at a strange angle, and she remembered the tracks that said one of the beast’s feet was crippled. She saw the way it was pressed sideways against the rocks and knew that was the creature’s weak point.
It struck at her again, brushing her with an awkward blow that set her swinging, and she could not hesitate. She gripped the vine and climbed, scrambling upward toward the primordial monster that blotted out the sky above her. It growled and shifted, trying to see where she was going, its own bulk impeding it as it hunted her. Blood from the many arrow wounds dripped down on her like rain.
She caught a heavy root and heaved herself up. She felt hot breath on her, slaver dripping down as those massive jaws came close, and then she drew her sword in a flash of bright steel and slashed viciously at the beast’s crippled foot, cutting deeply into the scarred flesh. Blood rushed out in a torrent, spraying into her face.
There was a roar that almost blasted her from her grip, and then the thing’s wounded leg gave way, crumpling under the weight. The whole massive body fell against the side of the ravine, and then broken stones and dislodged earth cascaded over her. She clung tight to the root and to her sword, eyes closed, as the massive body fell past her.
She opened her eyes, just long enough to see that huge, scarred face fall past her own, feral eyes ablaze with rage. Vengru, god of the forest, clawed for a grip on the sides of the ravine, but his talons shredded the earth and did not slow him.
The trailing point of one claw caught her under the arm, tore open her armored cuirass as it ripped down her side. She screamed in agony, but she held on, and her cry of pain became one of furious triumph as she saw the monster plunge down below. It fell through the mist, and she heard the bellows of its fury as it plunged down, down, into the chasm, until it was gone.
It took her a long time to climb up from the chasm, pulling hard through the pain of her wounded side, her bloodied sword held in her mouth. She clutched at roots and sought out stones that were fixed well enough that they would not simply come loose, and at last she dragged herself over the edge and lay there, breathing hard. She was awash with exhaustion and pain, her limbs shaking with the nearness of her death. She lay with her eyes open, because when she closed them she saw the jaws of the forest god open to engulf her.
She lay there a long time, wondering if she had the will to go on. At last she rolled over and sat up. Her armor was ruined, and she pulled it off, tore up some strips to bandage her wound. It was hard to reach it, but she packed it with moss and then tied it up. Moss cleaned her sword, and then she sheathed it and went to find her bow. It hung where it had landed, snared on a low branch, and she plucked the string and grimaced. It would be agony to draw, and she had only five arrows left. Those would have to be enough to bring down game so she could eat. All of her supplies were lost with her horse, crushed and devoured, or on the far side of the ravine she could not cross.
Asherah took her ripped armor and draped it over her shoulders, as she would not leave it behind. She made her way into the forest, heading southward through the mist-shrouded trees like the pillars of the sky. Behind her, in the deeps of the ravine, she imagined a bloody god nursing its wounds and dreaming of revenge, while she left that place behind with a slow and heavy tread.