South of the city, the land became a marsh, thick with twisted trees and hanging moss, the sky hidden behind a layer of mist. The only roads through it were causeways lifted above the mire, and these Ashari avoided, for even now she often heard the horns of the legions as they marched, and she had to believe there were others seeking her with more stealth and guile.
So she haunted the wild lands, crawling through the muck and the tangled vines until her clothes were only a remnant and she was streaked with dirt. She had to cut her way through with her sword until the edge was all but worn away, and gradually she left the swamps behind and began to enter the Slannu Jungles themselves, the twisted and tangled wilderness that marked the southern edge of the Empire’s reach. It was bitter to her to flee as a half-naked fugitive, and she did not sleep well upon the bare earth, when she was accustomed to silk and comforts.
Here the land began to climb upward from the muddy river bottoms and into the highlands where mist filled the air and the trees stood tall and blocked out the feeble sun. She climbed, seeing broken jumbles of stone that had once stood as some kind of edifice, and then, as she pressed more deeply into the forest, she began to see true ruins. Broken towers jutted from the earth and loomed over her, trailing vines and bursting with fecund overgrowth. She saw spars of metal that lay impervious to corrosion, and she took a length of it and carried it as a spear, used it to pick her way in among leaning remnants of a bygone age.
On the third night she heard it, as the winds prowled through the high crown of the trees and the insects sighed and hummed from the undergrowth. Ashari had made herself a small shelter beneath an overhang of rock, and drawn down a fall of heavy moss to conceal her from seeking eyes. She had killed a small rodent with her makeshift spear and she ate it raw in her fashion, swallowing it entire and squeezing it down her throat. Something stirred in the trees that was not wind, and she heard a soft, whispering voice.
She froze, tensing all her muscles. Her sword was almost completely blunted, and so she reached for her metal spear and gripped it in her hands. The whispering was low, too faint for her to make out words, and it only sounded like a single person. She heard more rustling in the undergrowth, and then it was quiet.
She held very still, listening, peering through the dark with her golden eyes. She could see very well without light, but the jungle was so overgrown and heavy with mist that often she could see almost nothing. There was nothing, no sign of motion, nor any sound. The night insects fell silent, and that was ominous. Ashari breathed very slow, trying to make no sound, as though she did not exist.
A long time, and nothing moved, no sound came to her, but the night sounds did not resume, and so she did not relax. She waited, and still nothing, and slowly, the night began to stir again around her. She let out a long breath, and then she heard the whisper again, almost directly above her. Something leathery moved across the stone, and she heard the voice so close it was as though someone hissed into her ear, and yet there were no words, only a sound like a whisper that said nothing.
She trembled, hands slick on the spear in her hand, waiting for something to strike at her, or reach for her out of the dark. Through the curtain of moss she could see nothing at all, only the mists and heavy growth of the jungle. Above her, something shifted, and whispered nonsense, and breathed.
Then something crashed in the trees, and she heard the sounds of something else moving there, rustling in the branches. The whispering ceased, and she heard a sliding and something that clicked, and then she heard it moving away, whatever it was. The sound told her it was big, but that was all. It moved away, and she heard thrashing in the trees, and what might have been a scream.
She held still, breathless, awaiting another sound, but nothing came. Slowly, the night sounds resumed, and sometime before dawn, unknowing, she slept.
The next day, she moved much more cautiously, listening closely as she moved through the forest. The ground rose higher and higher, cut by deep chasms where rapids churned and roiled in darkness. The trees vaulted upwards and made vast, shadowed spaces beneath their crowns, and birds of a thousand colors flitted high above. Ashari saw lizards and snakes and monkeys high in the branches, and no signs upon the wet earth of the mark of any great beast.
It was afternoon when she found the place of slaughter. The smell came to her first – the thick, metallic stink of blood, and she slowed, walked with more deliberate care on her narrow hooves. She clung to the shadows and held her spear ready to strike. She slipped around the trunk of a heavy tree, and she looked through a veil of mist to a scene of butchery.
She could not say how many men had died here. Torn and severed pieces lay scattered across the clearing, and a ruined wall stood close by, all but painted with blood. There were no corpses, no bones or heads, only scraps of flesh strewn in the green moss. Flies rose in a cloud that swarmed around and made a hideous din, and Ashari turned away from the mess and covered her mouth. The heat of the jungle was not kind to flesh, and the smell of rot was already rising.
She looked back because she had seen no men in this part of the world, and she did not know what manner of men they might be, or if she might encounter more. There was little remaining to tell her of them. She saw a hand, and the dead fingers lay entangled with a green glass charm on a leather cord. Choking back revulsion at the smell, she went closer and took the amulet, held it up to the light as she backed away. It glimmered like a captured eye.
She noted that the forest was quiet again, and she quickly crept back into the densest undergrowth she could find, and she held still there, breathing slowly and silent, listening. One by one, the voices of the jungle fell silent, and then she heard the whispering again.
It seemed to have no fixed source, to come from everywhere and yet nowhere. She heard rustlings in the trees, and though she strained to see, there was nothing there, only the shifting of sun through the leaves, and then it moved away, and the sound trailed off into the distance. The silence it left behind filled slowly with the tentative songs and sounds of the jungle.
Now Ashari knew this part of the jungle was haunted by something she could not see, but only hear. She might have thought it insubstantial – like some manner of phantom – except it had the power to kill. It was true that the sounds and the slaughter might be unconnected, but she would not wager her life against that. The forest would not fall silent for some harmless creature; the silence that followed it spoke of fear.
Now she moved more cautiously. The land rose around her in spires of rock and jagged remnants of ruined towers, and it was harder going. She slipped through the shadows, moving as quietly as she could. She was in the domain of some creature, and she had to keep moving until she was free of it. She listened for the sounds of insects and birds in the trees and reassured herself with it.
She had to force her way through a narrow defile, pulling vines and branches out of her way, pushing through, and then the ground crumbled beneath her hooves and she found herself sliding downward on a collapsing slope. She grunted and rolled, falling hard against rocks as the crumbling hillside rolled around her and swept her down into shadow until she hit hard at the bottom, rocks rattling and crashing down around her.
Ashari held very still, panting to catch her breath, listening. She was in a kind of hollow sheltered from the sun, and all around her stood metal pillars corroded green and covered in vines. The soil under her was damp and loose, and it was strewn with white bones. A skull lay under her hand, screaming silently, and she jerked back, began to claw for her spear when she heard a quick step and turned, found herself facing the point of a down-curved sword.
The man who held it was young – almost a boy, really – and he was thin and shaking. He wore a loincloth and little else but bone-bead ornaments. There was a stripe of blue paint across his eyes, and he held the sword to her neck with a trembling hand.
“Stop there, devil,” he said in heavily accented speech. “I am come to slay the whispering demon. The slaughterer in the trees. You. . . if you are not that which I seek, then I will not allow you to prevent me.” He blinked and swallowed hard, and then he met her gaze.
Staring into his eyes, she felt her power fasten upon him, and she smiled as she saw his gaze grow hazy. She touched his sword with two fingers and pushed it aside from her neck, and then she stood slowly, never taking her eyes from him. “Ease yourself,” she said. “I am a friend. I seek no trouble in this place. I only wish to pass onward and escape this land.”
The boy breathed easier, and she stepped back from him, let her grip on his mind and senses ease. He was no danger to her, and she saw no need to harm him, yet she wanted to know why he was here. “Who are you?” she said.
He lowered his sword. “I am Vul, son of Aras.” He swallowed. “I am of the Serpent Clan. My father and his sword-brothers were sent on a quest by our shaman to seek out the Whisperer in the high lands, and to destroy it.” He looked away. “I begged to be allowed to go with them, but my father said I was too young. But I would not be left behind to chew roots. I followed, but now I have become lost in this place, and I have seen no sign of my father or his men.”
Ashari thought on the savaged bodies in the jungle behind her, and resolved not to speak of it. She should persuade this foolish boy to return to his home. His tribe would suffer grief enough without his death added to it. “Tell me of this Whisperer,” she said. “What is it?”
He shook his head. “No one has seen it. It is a sound, an evil that haunts the forests. It seems to speak, but none who have heard its voice can understand it. It moves in the trees and in the dark, never coming forth into the daylight. It kills. The dead bodies found torn asunder tell us that.”
Vul pointed down the slope, deeper into the hollow. “There is said to be a shrine somewhere here in the ruins, deep down in the shadows where the sun never touches. The ancients worshiped it there, or some other vanished people. They raised a great dome that housed an altar, and they gave human sacrifice to their unseen god. Our shamans says it is not a god, but a demon, and that it must be slain so its dominion over men’s hearts can end at last.” He looked at her, his pale blue eyes frightened, and lost. “But I fear it is not a thing of flesh, but something like a spirit. Something no blade can kill.”
Ashari thought of the dark, coiling presence the emperor had summoned, but then she thrust that thought away. “If it hunts, and kills, then it must eat. If it eats, then it is flesh.” She turned, and the faint light winked on the green stone she wore, and Vul’s eyes widened.
“That stone! Where did you find it? It belongs to Taru, one of my father’s companions.” He reached out his hand for it, and she caught him and held his fingers. He looked her in the eye and she set her power on him.
“Do not think of it,” she said. “Do not remember it. It is not here.” She pulled it from her neck, breaking the thong with a hard pull. She pressed it into his hand. “You found it in the forest, and you must take it home.” She stared hard into his eyes. “Take it back to where you came from. Home.”
“Home,” his voice repeated, as if from far away. His fingers closed around the stone, and as they did something heavy moved in the trees, unseen, and she heard again the whispering in the shadowed green.
She caught his arm and dragged him stumbling into the underbrush, while he stammered and blinked, coming back to himself. She cursed and covered his mouth to quiet him as she heard something massive shift and stride in the gloom. She saw something move and tried to follow it, but it was as though she tried to follow an illusion, seeing only flickers of something here or there.
Vul shook himself and gripped his sword. “It’s here!” he hissed, and something whispered in answer. He pushed himself up and she gripped his arm.
“Wait!” she whispered, breathless and with her heart pounding.
“I came to face it! I came here!” He pulled away from her and staggered into the open, both hands grasping his sword. He set himself and began to turn, looked around him, waiting to see his enemy. Ashari wanted to cry out, to call him back, but she did not. She held her breath and watched, and waited in dread.
She heard the movement in the branches, and heard the whispering grow louder. Again she caught glimpses of something, but could not discern a shape or anything besides flickers of movement. It was driving her mad that she could not see what hunted them.
Vul turned in slow circles, sword thrust outward, breathing fast and desperate. The green stone hung from his fingers, forgotten, and the light glinted on it as he turned. The whispers almost laughed, and then something reached down from above, and Ashari saw something slender and hooked before dagger points stabbed through the boy and blood gushed out, ran down his body as he convulsed.
His sword dropped to the earth, and then, in a frozen instant, Ashari saw it. It was a spider, vast and slender and deadly, its body longer than three men together, and its legs spanning an enormous reach. The front limbs were tipped like spears and thick with barbs that sank into flesh and did not release. She stared as it lifted Vul to its sawing mandibles and tore him apart, raining blood and pieces of flesh down on the black soil.
Even as it moved she saw patterns and designs and colors shift across the surface of it. It wielded a fiendish camouflage, blending to match the world around it, making itself all but impossible to see as it prowled among the branches. She saw the cluster of blisterlike eyes on the armored head, and she wondered how well it could see. It did not seem to see her.
It finished devouring the boy, and she felt a helpless rage well up inside her. The boy’s father, and now he himself, had been eaten by this monstrous thing that haunted the highland forests. No one was going to be able to ambush a creature like this. It was too clever, and too deadly.
She shifted under the leafy undergrowth, and she saw the monster shift, as though it sensed her motion. She felt something hard beneath her hand and realized it was her makeshift spear, fallen and now found. She grasped it, looked at the looming killer so close to her, and realized she would never have a better moment to strike.
Ashari was no human, and perhaps the fact that she did not smell human had protected her. Also, she was stronger and faster than a human, and so she leaped to her hooves as swift as she could, and drew back her arm. The thing recoiled from the sudden motion, but not fast enough. She hurled the sharp-pointed shaft of metal with all the power she had.
It pierced like a javelin, punching through the armored carapace and drawing a thick, white ichor. The whisperer skittered backward, making a long, low hissing sound. Ashari lunged out from hiding and caught up Vul’s fallen sword from where it lay, painted with his blood. The immense spider hissed and ripped the spear loose with a clawed limb, and then it came for her with fury.
Those dagger limbs lashed for her, and Ashari fended them off as best she could, striking sparks when she parried them. The wound on the thing’s body did not seem to slow it, and she was forced back, using her quick surefootedness to evade the deadly rushes and the lashing hooks. It did not bother trying to hide now, it only attacked with feral energy, and she was hard-pressed to keep it from her.
It sprang on her full-force and she hacked at it, severed one long limb, and it fell. She was face-to-face with it for a moment, and even as those razor jaws reached for her she sprang away and felt the ground slip under her. The slope pitched her backwards and she fell down another slope, rolling and tumbling as the creature leaped after.
She fell into the dark hollow, trees rising up on all sides, and no hint of the red light of the sun as day faded to night. Here luminous lichens clung to the black boles of trees whose roots heaved up like buried limbs, and at the center of that mist-veiled place was a white, domed shrine, the stone of it going green with moss and growing fungi.
Ashari staggered to her feet and reeled back, off-balance, until she put her back to the cold stone and watched as the monstrous predator rushed down upon her. She was heaving for breath, heart pounding with excitement and terror. She gripped the bloodied sword in both hands and she waited. It came for her, closer and closer, and then its huge, hideous face came for her, eyes like boils upon its chitinous skin. There was nowhere to flee.
All she could do, when it loomed close, was meet those dead eyes, and hurl her inner power against the mind that lurked behind them. She didn’t know if she could exercise her will upon it, if it would be too primitive, or too strong, but in a moment the whole immensity of the beast hesitated, and faltered. The hideous face of it came close enough to touch, mouth parts churning and grinding against themselves. She felt its breath on her skin, smelled the slaughter stench of the boy’s scattered blood, and then she remembered her anger.
“Come closer,” she said. “Closer. Yes, like that.” She held out a hand to beckon it, and it came close, until she could touch the cold, dead armor that sheathed its body. It whispered to her, breathy and horrible, speaking nonsense as it pressed close to her.
Slowly, carefully, she slid the point of Vul’s sword into its mouth, between the scraping mandibles, and then she took a long breath and set both hands on the hilt. With a quick, convulsive motion, she drove the point inward and upward, piercing through the head and the brain. The great body gave a shudder, and the immense spider gave a breathy sound and staggered backward, its legs folding beneath it as it collapsed to the steaming earth and lay silent.
Ashari took a great, shuddering breath and bent down, breathing slowly, feeling as though she might vomit. She almost expected another sound – more whispering – something else to come and seek to devour her. It was quiet, now, and the enormous, dead beast was even more repulsive than it had been in life. She went to it, grasped the sword, and drew it forth. It was smeared with ichor and with blood, and she cleaned it on a mossy tree. She would need it.
The green stone lay gleaming on the forest floor. It must have tangled in the creature’s mouth when it devoured Vul, and she picked it up, rubbed the blood from it with her thumb. She wished there was more she could do for the boy’s shade, but there was not. She put the amulet around her neck, took the sword in hand, and she left that place, climbing out from the dead hollow, away from the dead hunter, and then outward into the clean, singing night.