Offering - Revised
‘Oh amphetamine parrot.’ Voshki wheezed, exhausted from constant pursuit. ‘amphetamine parrot - amphetamine parrot - amphetamine parrot!’
Voshki fled for her life through the subterranean city of Suannir - the Den of Vipers to the locals. She fled from the higher echelons of the settlement built across the earthen walls of a nigh endless chasm. Her escape hinged on hidden routes through the old strongholds constructed on the chasm floor.
The urchin navigated forgotten halls made treacherous by crumbled debris. She charged through every cracked open door into cobweb infested rooms and abandoned dungeons of the Den of Vipers. She tossed old dining tables and leveled decrepit bookcases to stall her pursuers. She leapt through the gaping hole in the dungeon walls back into the twisted maze of the Den.
Voshki had no choices left. She had no leads save only a direction. She had no solace of a definite safe card to draw and play. If she were shunned and turned away from the only refuge, she would be fed directly into the hands of the V-
A half-collapsed door within proximity of her burst open. A lean figure of dark caramel skin emerged - garbed in black leathers and fiery robes emblazoned with gold. Off footed by her own surprise, Voshki slipped and lost her footing amidst the scattered debris, then tumbled to a violent halt.
The Viper rattled with mocking laughter and seized her by the collar.
Voshki twisted in his reckless grip on the scuff of her collar, tearing the fabric of her rough spun clothes. She somehow struggled onto her feet and grasped the dagger hidden in her clothes. She lunged into her captor - a glimmer of steel in her hand thrust upward into her assailant’s throat. She buried the dagger to the hilt in the Viper’s neck and twisted for good measure.
As the Obsidian Viper choked to death on blood and steel - Voshki relinquished the dagger and resumed her flight. Several voices ushered into earshot - so near that their breathing echoed through the cavern. The sound of their footfalls in urgent pursuit hastened her to the height of her limits.
Voshki escaped the claustrophobic confines of the abandoned stronghold through the old dungeons. She descended into the caverns underneath even Suannir’s forgotten and buried ruins. She reached out with bloodied and grasping fingers for any purchase to find her way forward.
The Vipers screamed their blood curdling threats as they continued to gain ground on their quarry. A light flickered in the darkness, so intense that it caught nearby shadows aflame. An invisible force snuffed out the light after a moment.
An explosion of flames took her by surprise. Voshki lifted her hands in pitiful defense of being reduced to cinders as the flames washed over her. Tongues of fire lashed about – but nothing burned her. Her pursuers screamed – more from actual terror than death.
Voshki did not realize that her eyes were shut until her ears ceased ringing. She peered through the acrid smoke wafting from braziers embedded on vine-coated walls of weathered stone. Crystalline waters streamed through ornate drains near to overfull. Onyx doors marked with calligraphic characters stood in front of her.
Armored footfalls approached her from behind – hesitant.
‘Encircle her.’ One of the Vipers commanded. 'Don’t stand so idly! Do your damn jobs!’
The Obsidian Vipers scurried to obey, but their eyes continued to steal glances around their enigmatic surroundings.
‘Don’t just gawk at her, fools!’ He commanded again. ‘Seize her!’
An armored boot kicked Voshki across the temple and onto the stonework. Several more vicious kicks made her double over on her side in pain. Scarred, mutilated hands seized her by the arms and pinned them behind her back. She felt the heated burn of rough rope being pulled tight across her wrists.
A morose voice crept out of the dark behind the gang of thugs. ‘What’s happening out here?'
The Viper nearest the source scrambled forward with an open palm raised.
‘Halt!’ He screamed, but Voshki detected a note of terror behind all his bluster. ‘Back the way you came, hag! This doesn’t involve you.’
‘Are you jesting?’ Another Viper questioned his comrade. ‘Skewer her and let us move on.’ He spat in the direction of the mysterious voice.
Their commander began to issue orders. ‘Faris, guard the girl! The rest of you, encircle our hero here and silence her protests.’
The Obsidian Vipers unsheathed their weapons, wicked blades laced with dark crimson venom. They stormed forward and cornered the patch of outlying darkness untouched by torchlight.
‘Offerings for the Lady of Misery and Sorrow.’ The voice proclaimed in low undertones.
‘Join the Black Descent then, cowards.’
‘Enough…’ The grizzled viper commanding the rabble pointed toward the hazed outline of a woman eclipsed by shadow. ‘Break her limb by limb. Bring me the head when you’re done.'
One thug charged in to cave the skull of the insubstantial figure. A brutal hack from his club withered the illusion into shades of wet mist. None of them had noticed their leader's severed head tumble from his shoulders until it smacked the ground with a wet thump.
The remaining vipers regarded the corpse with a begrudged disbelief. A fell chill breezed into them as they readied their weapons for another assault.
Two of the henchmen charged with war cries on their lips. The woman neatly lifted her slender blade and parried a reckless hack of a nicked and tarnished weapon. Her physical form seemed to meld into the shadows as she stepped around the vicious swing of her other attacker.
The spiked club gripped in both hands cleaved harmlessly through insubstantial mist. Instead, the reckless blow caved in the teeth of the Viper who had charged in with him. Knocked out of consciousness, one of his comrades mercifully ushered him from the mortal plane.
‘Thrice-cursed will each of your deaths become.' The woman coalesced between her assailants and answered with an effortless flurry of cuts.
One Viper’s weapon clattered to the ground, an urgent hand over the wound gouged into his heart. The bruiser with the gore-slick club staggered and wheezed out an agonized scream as his torso began to fall apart.
‘Begone from this place.' The woman demanded of the three remaining souls seized by horror. ‘The Black Descent has claimed more than its share.''
The Vipers heard her command and scrambled to obey. The one named Faris considered the adolescent girl in his grasp. He relinquished Voshki deliberately, then vanished into the shadows after his brethren.
‘And what manner of stray has wandered into my domain?’ Her mysterious savior cooed from out of the dark. ‘Another troublesome adolescent fleeing the venomous bite of the viper. The Lady of Misery and Sorrow must watch over you. The sacrifices made here are worthy of her dark blessing.
‘Tell me, who are you?’ A woman garbed in quilted armor the shade of dark storm clouds stepped out of the shadow. Polished steel plates reinforced her armor in the form of gauntlets, greaves, and pauldrons.
Endless falls of raven black hair fell to the small of her back and spilled over her shoulders in a mess of serpentine coils. Four similar scars – a form of ritual scarification – were etched over her left emerald eye. In the dim light, her right eye shone as a dark veined silver.
Voshki hastily slipped from out of her bound restraints. She picked herself off the blood-slick stone and ignored the splattered gore caught in her clothes. She bowed her head out of submission, kneeling among the dead offerings claimed by Alastrine, Goddess of the Underworld.
‘I am nameless.’ Voshki replied in hushed undertones. ‘I am only a passing shadow. I would join the ranks of the Ashen Circle and learn the ways of its warriors.’
‘Amusing, an aspirant?’ Her savior considered the thought. ‘We shall see how bad you truly wish for that.’ She snapped her fingers and the braziers lit on the wall were extinguished.
‘I am Shoushan.’ She called from the shadows. ‘Do you fear what dwells in the night? Does your heart shiver in terror at the thought of death? Does your mind become your enemy, when faced with a threat that you cannot trace with mortal eyes?’
Voshki felt her heart still within her chest. ‘Of course not.’
Shoushan filled the abyss with echoes of amused laughter. An oppressive silence filled the emptiness it left behind.
‘Perhaps there may be some potential there. To what degree we shall need to discover. I bid you welcome, Voshki of the Ashen Circle. Never betray hidden knowledge and avoid death in her every guise. Those are the only rules that you should abide by.’
Shoushan snapped her fingers again. Dormant braziers ignited back into life. Voshki searched the corridor and found her waiting by the onyx doors. ‘Come, Voshki, and step into these hallowed halls. We will see if the clandestine arts are meant for you.’
Seven Years Later…
Black Solitude Forest
Old Myria Empire
'To kill a queen shall be no simple task…'
Forked tongues of bruised light bristled in the bellies of storm clouds. Thunder cracked open the midnight skies and a deluge descended from the heavens. A cold wind howled out of the Black Solitude Forest to assail Drake's Bridge.
Ceaseless rain flooded the ravines beneath the ancient bridge. A lonesome road wound through the hills over yonder into the moorlands beyond. A solitary tower – more fortress than a token platform to maintain a vigil from – guarded the Heartlands of the Old Myrian Empire.
Constant rain crashed over Voshki and soaked through her black cloak and leather armor. She stood alone on the Drake’s Bridge.
‘Arshavir!’ Voshki challenged. ‘Arshavir, you coward! Come forth and face this challenger!’
The reinforced doors were reverently pushed aside after a moment of silence. She caught glimpses of ancient and moss-covered stone behind the great doors. Lit braziers bathed the tower’s interior in fire born light until everything within the tower became obscured.
Voshki observed a guardian emerge into the storm. His calm stride mirrored a Sage’s patient wisdom. He exuded the confidence of a warrior who knew no peer. He closed the entrance behind him with due reverence and locked it under key.
Brazier vases hidden under the bridge blazed against the storm – belching smoke and fire.
In the bright light, the Immortal’s laminar armor gleamed like obsidian. Unsullied chainmail filled each perceivable weak point in his armor. Lavender robes fluttered where the chainmail and laminar came to an end on his person.
Voshki met the calm gaze behind the Immortal’s crimson plumed helm. In silence – she pushed a gauntlet through the folds of her cloak. The Crowned Prince – her wicked long spear – was unveiled in the bright light of the fires.
Arshavir unsheathed his scimitar – a weapon that reflected the light of the fires with a prismatic sheen. He ended his calm stride and charged in answer to Voshki’s challenge. She felt his armored footfalls quake the ancient cobblestones beneath her feet. His impressive speed belied his bulk as he stormed forth against the wind and rain.
Voshki lunged into the Immortal to draw first blood, her siren’s scream a sharp contrast to Arshavir’s sonorous shouts. She thrust the Crowned Prince home to punch through and shatter his heart. Each strike in her onslaught was parried without effort on her foe’s prismatic blade.
Voshki avoided each serpentine strike of Arshavir’s wicked sword. She weaved around the broad warrior, his laminar thick enough that the bone cutting thrust into the small of his back only propelled him forward as he hurtled past her.
Arshavir pivoted on his foot and caught the Crowned Prince a mere breath from severing his head. He pushed the long spear aside and stepped into Voshki’s guard for the fatal blow.
Voshki had a preemptive hand on the hilt of a handheld crossbow. She leveled her aim subtly, her weapon hidden under her cloak. She pulled the trigger and heard the bolt loose with a whistle.
Arshavir cried out – struck in his right eye by the bolt and rocked off his feet. He was flung onto the bridge back-first. A sharp crack punctuated his fall.
Four nameless warriors clad in black leathers came out of the shadows. Arshavir frantically attempted to find his feet as they approached him. A spear thrust into his right thigh pinned him in place. A crossbow bolt to the chest sprawled him back out onto the cobblestone bridge. A wicked blade hacked into the meat and bone of his sword arm.
The remaining warrior glanced in Voshki’s direction for an affirmation. She extended him a brief nod. He seized the Immortal by the strands of his plumed helm and made a jagged cut across Arshavir’s throat with a poisoned laced dagger.
‘Well done.’ Voshki acknowledged. ‘Black-Bane Kindred, move out!’
‘Tough bastard…’ Faris kicked the Immortal’s corpse onto its stomach. ‘Pompous fool was miserable by the end of all that.’
A young woman of dark chestnut skin and lustrous falls of braided obsidian hair emerged from out of the shadows with the rest of the Black Bane Kindred - Voshki’s infamous band of clandestine sell swords. A belt filled with various flasks and crossbow bolts was slung over her left shoulder. In her right hand was a hand-held crossbow. Her left hand cradled the hilt of a wicked dagger sheathed on her hip.
‘Hey.’ Anoush called out to Faris and snapped her fingers. ‘Show some respect to your enemies. It's an ill omen.'
Faris pitched his head back and rattled a mocking laugh. ‘Truthfully, whenever I wish a woman to rebuke me on matters of war, she’d be more than welcome to prove the bite behind her words.’
‘Faris.’ Voshki spared a brief glance over her shoulder from where she stood by the watchtower’s oaken entrance. ‘Goad Anoush again and I’ll have you tossed over this bridge. I am certain you would appreciate such a merciful death over the one that Old Myrian received. You believe the males under my command would follow you? You’d be gravely mistaken after they realize you’d never be able to pay them a silver coin in return for their loyalty.’
Faris spread his arms wide and made a deep bow of surrender. ‘Your command is my oath, Voshki. Anoush understands that I only jest about her abilities. I respect her, yourself commander, and every woman in this unit like they were siblings of my own blood.’
‘Enough.' Voshki rolled her eyes. ‘Get over here and breach this watchtower!’
‘Commander?’ Faris rushed his fingers through his kempt raven hair and sighed. ‘Arshavir has been this bridge’s sole guardian for the last eleven years… despite his ferocious reputation-” Faris gestured to the maimed corpse splayed out on the bridge’s stone brickwork behind them. ‘He has fallen. Never shall another man of his like return for the rest of our days. Let the watchtower stand here abandoned till it collapses in upon itself.’
Voshki dangled a bloodied key from its iron-linked chain. ‘Always decide with certainty, my Second. All I know in this moment is that Arshavir locked the entrance behind him, so that no soul may enter but he. Something tells me that avoiding this tower would be some nuisance for us in the end. I would rather see what lies before us and ensure our lives remain unspent on the break of another dawn.
‘Kindred of the Black-Bane.’ Voshki addressed her unit - no more than two scores in number. ‘Brethren, you know that I am not one for rousing, heroic speeches. What urgent words could I speak that would hasten all of you to inspiration?
‘All of you are children of the Southern Wastes, of the Kingdom of Sukhan. Each of you are the hardened elite of a land filled with constant strife and bloodshed. We have commended our souls to Alastrine - Lady of Misery and Sorrow, Goddess of the Underworld.
‘What is there to fear? An endless fall through the Black Descent? Is such a fate so different from the dark depths of the Royal Den, where all of us eked out a murderous existence?
‘Do as you have always done to persevere and survive. Do this and victory shall be ours to reap! Thieve & murder, till the halls of Ember Hearth Palace run red with Old Myrian blood!’
The Black Bane ushered one deafening cheer and approached the oaken entrance of the solitary tower with axes in hand. Voshki removed herself from their path as her most experienced warriors began to cleave into the doors.
Midnight rapidly approached and the Black-Bane’s work was only beginning tonight. Already a hidden trail of death, cloaked in darkness across half of the Old Myrian Empire was left in the wake of their passing. Of the scores of kin that had fallen behind or separated from the sellsword band, each had claimed their own lives to ensure the concealment of their mission and peers.
Only cold corpses were left behind as minor pieces of a much grander puzzle. Cold corpses, and the Wailing Widow Banners that billowed over sites of particular significance to the Black Bane’s losses and their overwhelming successes. None would understand the origins of the banners, for they hailed from a far distant land.
Only a handful of the Black Bane had endured to this point, but Voshki was determined to spend their lives stubbornly to ensure their swords reached the Autumn Queen of Old Myria, locked away in her opulent palace in the heart of the northern moorlands.
Voshki sighed. ‘To kill a Queen shall be no simple task…’