Village on the U'skar Steppes
A hallowed crack came bursting from thunderhead clouds, an entire formation sweeping across the U'skaran Steppes. Gadara listened to the Cosmic Serpent thrash amid the heavens, spitting lightning from its unhooked jaws, nebulous and all-consuming. Those fangs embedded themselves in the heavens, dripping necrotic poison into the dusk. The skies over Thearus turned black, a constant hail of lightning accompanying a torrential rain.
Shielded from the gale by walls of hewed lumber layered over cobbled stone, she heard the Wailing Widow screaming. Her cries swept through the insignificant village, but Gadara remembered the legends the U'skarite people feared more than the bellows of blackened storms.
To hear the cries of the Wailing Widow is to be marked. An uncommon phenomenon out here in these backward and primal lands, but an omen promising the violence of death to those scarred by the nightmare of her curse.
A crackle of firewood burning in the hearth called Gadara back from her musings. Her kindred's familiar voices came distant at first, but swelled in volume upon craning her head from the small slit between shuddered windows. A warmth capable of healing wounded spirits could not banish death's icy grip on her chest. Gentle laughter born amid conversation did little to shut out the shrieks ringing inside her skull.
A male's voice, whisper-thin, called her name. "Ghosts are wailing outside these walls, Gadara. The dead would beckon us to join them tonight. Should we believe the local legend, that is."
A shadow came passing over Gadara, its distinct black hue softened in the firelight. Her comrade, Mahir, approached to seat himself in the rocking chair beside her. She heard the worn out wood creak in protest to his relatively light build. He was whipcord thin, his robust physique appearing to have withered since she had last seen him several years ago. Garbed in the midnight robes of the Akarian Blades, clothes once snug upon his frame became creased and bunched where his flesh had become absent. Dark hair snaked down past his ears, cut roughly where he had shaven the strands back every few months on the campaign trail.
Gadara steeled herself. She dared turn toward him, searching for his eyes underneath the coiled strands. He had shorn it short by just enough not to conceal his gaze. All she found in the hearth's glow were pockets of shadow where eyes should be visible. In the darkness that lurked there, she almost fell into them and into an abyss with no chance of escape. Illusions of shade-tendrils writhed within the pits, almost sucking in her entire sub-consciousness like a whirlpool found in the ocean's depths.
Mahir appeared to notice her discomfort and called her name again. He extended his left hand in offering, pressing an object into her own waiting hands. "Gadara. Here, take this and wake up."
Gadara blinked, and the illusion came undone. Quiet conversation created from debating voices filled her ears. Reduced firewood crumbled deeper into the hearth. She listened for the cries of the storm and heard only the bellows of rolling thunder in the distance. Breathing deep, she swallowed the liquid contents of her brother's offered mug in one gulp. Gasping, her throat burned like she had put back a draught of molten fire. It banished death's snare on her soul for another day.
"U'skarite Hellfire Mead…" Gadara choked out the words. "Gods, Mahir, do I look like an adolescent boy who needs hair on his chest?"
Her elder brother's amused chuckles came grim and quiet, much like his reclusive nature since his Trial of Blades. Gadara couldn't fight back the memories of the powerful, wicked-sharp man who had been Mahir in the years of his youth. He had buried those years of himself before his departure from their home in Suann Sanctuary, in his prime years.
"U'skarites often believe their draught kindles a burning light in their souls. Once the Wailing Widow screams her curses, a wise man shall often knock one of these back to remove the curse of her vengeance."
Slumped back into her seat, sweat beads formed on her brow. Her vision became sharper than a hawk's, where she had expected her world to descend into a haze. Her pulse thumped in her wrists and her heart sang inside her chest. Her thoughts became uncluttered, organized into a semblance of order that helped her snap back to the present with refreshed eyes.
She said nothing, but nodded once in thanks. "That feels better. Goddess of Sorrow, but I can feel the winter cold recede before me. How did you know?"
Her brother lifted his head to better look Gadara in the eye. In the firelight, she glimpsed his eyes - his actual eyes, and watched them shine like gold veins running through obsidian stone. Uncaring, Mahir mirrored his younger sibling's slumped posture in the rocking chair.
"U'skar is an ancient land. I know her secrets lie with those who have survived here for centuries upon centuries… who am I to turn aside the wisdom of those who walk hand-in-hand with death?"
"Brother," Gadara shook her head. "U'skar is not so bleak a place."
"U'skar is not bleak because of the scarcity of the land, Gadara. Her warlords and bandit raiders have sowed these steppes with blood enough to drown all the realms beneath crimson waves. You've never given thought to how a quaint village like this survives against those kinds of threats?"
Her blood simmered beneath her skin, rushing through her veins. She held Mahir's gaze and answered. "Are you going to tell me some manner of blood sacrifice provides for divine protection?"
Mahir shook his head. "No. I was going to tell you it simply does not."
"Gods, brother, must you be such a Child of Sorrow?" She accused. "The Mahir that I used to know…"
Her brother finished her words. "It's been many moons since either of us have seen him… You come searching for specters long fled from this world."
"That's not the truth." Gadara insisted. "And you know that. Look me in the eye and tell me you truly believe that you've shed all aspects of your past self. Can't you remember anything about our family before your departure?"
Mahir held her stare, furious eyes burning him from the inside. He answered, "It's an arduous task for anyone to remember such things upon entering the Den. I am not here to remind you of forgotten days… I am here to see that you and every warrior in your Akarian Blades, entrapped in this blighted land for six months, continue breathing to the next coming dawn."
"So much help you've been." Gadara cursed. "You're so great at your mission that no one has even come into danger. Do you believe some sudden threat is coming out of this storm?"
Her brother answered. "All I know is that the Wailing Widow screams for death tonight. But don't concern yourself with her disquiet songs… drink another draught of what I handed you, speak with your kindred, and rest well into the coming dawn. I will keep guard over you until sunrise."
"You aren't a lone warrior here."
Mahir turned his gaze away from her toward the hearth. "A week has passed since you first heard her screams and you've not shut your eyes since… Go to bed, sister. I would not want you to succumb to madness from delirious fear, and your lack of rest is compounding that. I shall keep watch."
Brow arched, Gadara studied the side of Mahir's face while he rocked back gently in the rocking chair. "Did you hear what I did before we started talking? Are you hearing it now?"
Her brother decided against responding.
"Does it not frighten or unsettle you at least?"
He broke his silence, after heaving his shoulders. "I remember the last time I was afraid, upon my descent into the Den… maybe one day I'll explain to you what I encountered and witnessed in those light-less depths, but take comfort in your elder brother's shadow. He has not truly known fear upon leaving that place."
A chill ran down the length of Gadara's spine, but she knew better than to ask him to elaborate further. She nodded once, climbing out of her chair to signal her brethren to rest while they could. As she stepped around her brother's rocking chair, she paused, glancing at him a last time. "Promise me you'll wake everyone if something happens. Don't go running out into the storm alone with your sword raised. Understand?"
Mahir did not return her stare, his eyes fixed on the embers belched from the hearth. "Should I run out into the pitch black night, no foe shall find me nor a blade gleaming. Oblivion will take them to the Gates of Her Palace, and the Goddess of Sorrow will take comfort in another offering given when due."
Sighing, Gadara walked toward her room at the far end of the house. She called out into the storm's wrath. "I hope your arrogance will not get us all killed. Only the foolish warrior believes himself strongest when alone…"
She heard a whisper-thin utterance at her back, almost inaudible.
"Fall gently into the gods embrace, dear sister, and dream of cherished times."
Amid the quiet cabin, Mahir rocked back in the rocking chair, and watched the hearth burn into the late hours of the night.
Another storm came soaring out of the northern sea. Coming ashore near the midnight hour, thunderhead clouds assailed the U'ral steppe village. The Cosmic Serpent thrashed amid the heavens, but its throes were all but spent before the morning's earliest hours. Rain, once torrential, had calmed into drizzling curtains dancing across the land. Thunder, once quaking, became gentle, rolling into the eastern lands over yonder as the storm pressed farther inland. Though her battering winds never ceased, the screams of a widow in mourning carried from the shore into the night.
As the hours continued to pass, he removed a scroll hidden in his robes. Clutched between scarred fingers, creased and wrinkled parchment unraveled, coming past his knees as one continuous letter. Diligent in his boredom, he poured over the encrypted language scrawled across the parchment for the forty-third time in the last six months. He plucked each coded word from his memories, matching them in the vicious calligraphic scrawl where they lay embedded.Severed.
Take the Sudhari Blade hidden beneath the U'ral well.
Guard the sentries assigned to your station until the Southern Rain's first light.
Claim the Sudhari mount hidden in between life and death.
Listen for the Wailing Widow to guide you into that place.
Claim the head of your quarry and offer it to the abandoned shrine.
The Goddess of Sorrow shall know your due is paid.
Gadara and her unit of Akarian Blades had come to U'ral to cipher information coming through the U'skar-Gorum provincial borders. The kingdom of U’skar was harsh, ruled by warlords and their nomadic tribes. Great hordes of mounted warriors at their back, these warlords competed against one another commonly. As the cycles continued on and winter approached an end, the realms of Khios continent could see the change happening on these once neglected steppes.
From the Khiosian heartlands, the Cult of the Golden Sun spread enlightened thought among many chieftains and their tribes. Sworn to uphold the Commandments of Illumination, champions of the faith set aside their armies and kept their tribesmen about their tasks. The U'skarite leadership pitted themselves against one another in contests of martial strength and strategic cunning. Victors anointed themselves into positions of great consolidation, expanding their strength. Their defeated foes came to rest in the wilderness, the ancestral home of the U'skarites, never to be heard from again.
A sudden pounding on the cabin door tore Mahir out of his musings. Forgotten, the scroll slipped out of his hand when the door came crashing open from a stranger's broad shoulder. Climbing out of his rocking chair, his scarred fingers coiled around the hilt of the gladius sheathed upon his waist. A shortened blade came into Mahir's grip, locked into a coiling motion to cast the weapon from his palm.
A male of the U'ral tribe, middling of years, staggered over the toppled door. Garbed in thick layers of black silk under armor, he had a leather cuirass equipped over that. Mahir halted a hair's breadth from letting the gladius soar into the messenger's heart. If the U'ral warrior had noticed that Mahir had come mere seconds from killing him outright, he appeared too haggard to care.
A mask carved from the bones of a beast, primordial ferocity chiseled into its skeletal structure, concealed the warrior’s terror from a helmet of iron scales. He barked at Mahir. "Cavalcades riding across the eastern lands through the storm! Scouting parties have overtaken the watchtowers, their torching the outskirts!"
"How many?" Mahir sheathed his blade, thunder reaching a deafening crescendo.
The U'ral warrior shrugged, staggering back into the village beyond the cabin interior. "An endless sea of burning lights and mounted warriors…"
Mahir chased the U'ralite to the cabin doorway, but did not step beyond it. He shouted into the storm, his voice deadened amid lashing rain and wind. Urgent shouts and a clash of steel on steel answered him. Against the night, small lights blazed in U'ral's eastern outskirts. Several perished almost the moment he noticed them, their fires snuffed by the storm. Others continued to persist and consume, fanning higher and higher until the pyres became searing to the eye.
Gadara's voice came shouting at his back, followed by crashes and urgent commands in the Su'khanite tongue. "Mahir!? Damnable hell, what's going on?"
Gadara and her Akarian blades rushed into room, armed and organized around the hearth.
Mahir turned to her, shrugging. "Ensuing raid. Scouting parties have cleaned out the garrison watchtowers. Small skirmishes in the eastern outskirts."
Gadara looked her brother in the eye and nodded. "It's about time we took our leave then, brother?"
"About time your Akarian Blades head back south. I agree."
She caught the words he did not speak, that he did not intend to leave with them. Gadara stormed up to him, coming face to face when a lightning bolt fell from the heavens and struck the horizon over yonder with brutal force.
Her gaze burned the veil of shadow cloaked over his spirit. "Are you being called back to the Den of Vipers?"
"No." Mahir said, "I am commanded by their omniscient hand elsewhere."
"Gods, brother, tell me you're headed anywhere but into the spear tip of an entire army?"
His response did not come quick as he considered on what to tell her. Several moments passed before Mahir pointed his chin toward the rocking chair he had sat in throughout the night. "On the floor near the chair I claimed for the night. A weathered and scribbled over scroll should lay discarded near the hearth. Read through the encrypted orders for yourself. You'll have your answers then."
Gadara gestured to her unit of eight Akarian Blades, dressed in the same midnight silk uniforms, golden yellow sashes tied around their waists. She commanded them, "Don't let him take a step outside that door…"
He watched her retrace her steps back toward the hearth, sweeping the area Mahir had mentioned. Her eyes glew against the hearth’s flames, sharpened still from the Hellfire Draught she had knocked back before. Her eyes settled on the scroll, discarded where he said it would be, and snatched it up in her leather gloved fingers. She glanced over the encrypted contents once, twice, and another seven times, calm even in the face of bloodshed spilling nearer into U'ral's heart.
Her features became scrunched, her brows arched in askance. "I don't understand these orders, brother. Find the Sudhari mount between life and death? The screams of the Wailing Widow will guide you into that sacred place? Whose skull do you need to place on the abandoned shrine in offering?"
"Does it matter, Gadara?" He asked. "None mentioned you being involved in any of this, aside from needing my protection until this moment. I cannot leave with you, but wait another moment and you'll never leave this land alive. Head back south, sister. I shall buy you enough time to ensure your escape."
Gadara cursed, "To the Gates of Her Palace with your orders… You'll abandon your mission and come with us or the Akarian Blades stand their ground. Your orders are not a mission,. It's a resignation and an honorable mention of your self-sacrifice."
Despite himself, a smirk tugged on the edge of his lips. "An Ashen Blade should be more certain about her purpose… should I fall into death's gentle embrace, Alastrine shall light a beacon to guide my way to the Gates of Her Palace."
"And her children never languish in the halls of death for long." Gadara finished the Alastrinite phrase. "Faith aside, you cannot expect some reincarnation to come to your rescue. I've witnessed no one - Ashen Blade or no, somehow come back to haunt us from the dead as living flesh once more. Our Queen of the Severed Hand only benefits from that belief."
Overcome with a smug confidence, he fixed Gadara with a smile. Realization dawned in her eyes that she knew Mahir understood something about that relationship she wouldn't comprehend without his confession.
"Then show me." Gadara insisted. "I shall stand beside you against this horde."
Mahir's smile twisted into a frown. "Show you what?"
"You buried your past upon your descent into the Den," Gadara reminded. "You've said nothing of what changed you, not in all these several years. I need to understand the Mahir standing in front of me, and I will not accept no for an answer."
"We don't have time to debate this, Gadara." He heard himself become insistent. "I can hear the screams of the dying coming nearer to us."
Gadara gestured toward the first mounted warrior coming through the storm. He galloped hard through the winding roads, slicing a gore-soaked blade across the throat of an innocent woman attempting to flee.
"Our time to depart has past." Gadara declared. "Are we going or not?"
His hand forced into the direction he least desired, Mahir sighed through his nostrils, but consented with a brief nod. "Follow each command I give you and make sure your Akarian Blades follow them to the letter. Stragglers will be left to their fate, so don't fall behind. Our mission is not a simple task, but to claim the head of a warlord known by the name of Dikran."
Gadara winced upon hearing the name. "The Black Tiger of U'skar?"
"Second thoughts? You could always try your hand at leaving despite the growing odds."
"Please, I've claimed my share of skulls in my own time. We're following your lead here. So let's stop idling beside this burning hearth where everyone can see us."
Mahir gestured for them to trail behind with a beckon of his hand. "Gather near around me, and let the Goddess of Sorrow veil you behind night's shadow."
He planted one step forward, and the night lurched into life around the Ashen Blades. Behind him, he heard Gadara gasp in alarm. He swept his arm out in front of him before she could fight against the shadow’s writhing tendrils. His vision lurched once again, as the void between time and space yawned open, and the landscape of the physical world torn out from under them in a blur of all-consuming abyss.