Shan went into the forest with only her sword and a path to follow. The armies of the tyrant marched across the hills and grasslands and left a path of destruction in their wake. She followed columns of smoke and found only fire-blackened villages and scorched farms, the fire-scarred bones of those who could not escape hung from spearpoints. Always to the north she saw a pillar of smoke and ice in the sky, a marching storm that marked where her quarry stalked. She wondered what she would do when she caught him.
In the nights, when she huddled beside her fire against the unseasonal cold of spring, she wondered at herself. That she would set herself against the march of a dread conqueror from beyond death was foolishness, the dream of a child offended by death and injustice, yet the sword that dreamed beside her in the night gave the lie to that. She had forged a weapon from a shard of fire and blue-black steel. She had seen the enemies of flesh wrought by the arisen emperor. She would see what that keen edge would wreak upon them.
In old times, this land had been a desert, the hills growing more and more barren until they were naked and dry, buried in dust and bitter weeds. But the weather had changed, grown colder, and more rain fell, and the once-desolate lands that had been the center of the old empire were now forestland. The dunes became earth again, and the valleys once fit only for caravan roads were thick with trees and ran with narrow streams. She had heard stories that once the forests had dwelled only in the far northern lands, a place of colossal trees and deep vales hidden by mist. Like a waiting army, the trees had lingered until the time was right for them to return.
Shan had no horse, and only an old mail shirt for armor. She walked the forest paths with her sword slung over her shoulder, following in the wake of her enemy. Once deep in the hollow woodlands she saw fewer signs of their passage. Yet here and there she found the remains of their bonfires, and the bones of the slain they hung from the trees.