The crackling of dim fires resounded within the silence of the underground. Shoushan listened to the sound of her own leather boots thump against the earthen trail, winding through the darkness alongside that of her own hurried breathing. She darted up a lonely path, a hollowed dirt road, hemmed in with concave walls of earth and stone.
The smoldering light of torches guided her farther up the ascending road, still half unlit amid the fathomless dark. She measured every step taken forward in the uncertain lighting, the road shifting from pitch black to dimly lit to utter dark in an endless cycle.
Eventually, her world brightened with searing light the moment after rounding a bend in the path. Flickering, but intense burning fires emanated from a pair of gargantuan braziers, arrayed on either side of a looming doorway. Shielding her gaze behind the sleeve of her brigandine, Shoushan warily approached to study the entrance further.
A door carved out from ebony stone, a depiction of a gladius pointed in reverse and a corallis wrapped around its length with its fangs bared above the pommel emblazoned on its surface.
The Sigil of the Ashen Blades.
The ebony entrance was lying cracked open before her, the right door jarred aside just enough for a human to squeeze by. A stench like ancient death wafted out from the opening, mingling with dust and stagnant air. Creeping cold lingered about the breached doorway, reaching Shoushan even through the intense heat coming off the braziers.
And… a woman’s alluring voice, quiet like the dark, a coarse lilt to her every spoken word. The female hidden behind the open entrance appeared to be speaking quiet prayers.
Taking a deep breath, Shoushan entered through the jarred opening between the double doors. Her first attempt to push the breached door aside proved futile, requiring a strength beyond her ability to budge. She squeezed through instead, sliding her bare hands across the ebony stonework’s pitted and marked surface.
Whatever had passed through this abandoned shrine and left it a forgotten place had clearly invested a monumental amount of time to deface everything of the Ashen Blade’s heraldry.
Sparing a quick glance behind her, Shoushan caught a subtle disturbance echoing out of the dark behind her. The recent memory of her pursuers surfaced to the fore of her mind. She banished her doubtful thoughts about entering the tomb for sanctuary, almost throwing herself through the gap into a ruin of death.
The ancient, timeworn remains of deceased human beings snapped and crunched beneath her weight, shifting with Shoushan’s every movement. The fallen numbered in their scores, carpeting a floor of dark grayish-blue granite stone of the forgotten temple. All of them were garbed in the midnight uniform of the Ashen Blades, the presence of any foe that might’ve reaped them entirely absent.
The unburied dead lie scattered amid shattered and overturned wooden pews, embedded with discarded weapons. Shoushan took in the rest of the temple with a purposeful crane of her head, finding stonework monuments of Zahira, the Guardian of Silent Graves, dashed to crumbling ruin across the fractured granite floor.
Swathes of crimson blood painted the temple like a faded mosaic, the grander work scarcely intact, appearing like paint.
Shoushan waded through the broken remains of what looked like a vicious siege. Attempting in vain to avoid treading on the skeletons, she eventually gave up, lifting and casting aside the remnants of pews obstructing her path forward.
Through all the deafening clamor created in her wake, the praying woman within the heart of the abandoned temple continued her litanies, undeterred.
She looked up after her mind registered falling beams of golden light, creeping through the gaping chasms in the temple ceiling from the surface world above. Compromised through war, the ceiling appeared to sag beneath the crushing weight of the earth. As Shoushan ventured further into the temple grounds, she could feel the Southern Wastes’ searing heat banish the creeping chill raising the hair on her skin.
Unfamiliar voices barked within earshot from the way she had arrived, sounding distant from beyond the breached temple doorway. Rogues of the Black Syndicate, a notorious underground ring, half-criminal organization, and half-necromancer coven. They had quickly pursued her from Bethaka Sanctuary far above this forgotten sanctum of the Ashen Blades.
Shoushan had slain her fair share of them, cutting them down with divine wrath and her estoc, Severance.
Their venomous brood had swarmed after her, provoked like a disturbed hornet’s nest. She had quickly lost them in the dark beneath the township, finally stumbling upon her destination after another hour of treading through the dimly lit underground.
Eventually, Shoushan approached the temple altar. It seemed swept clean of dust and detritus, a neatened stack of skulls placed upon it in offering. Recent kills, she wagered, another soul had clearly reaped vengeance for their fallen kin here.
It reminded her of the Sanctum of Swords between time and space, her mother Karyan Akara’s domain, the very place she had met her end at the blade of her firstborn daughter and her companions.
She searched the abandoned temple of Zahira for any sign of the praying woman, still speaking aloud into the silence. Yet Shoushan found no sign of her beyond the echo of her voice. Closing her eyes, she listened to her every word, attempting to trace the sound of the woman’s voice to its source.
Her prayers resounded throughout the quiet temple, emanating from every nook and crevice.
“Amid the tranquility of emptiness, I find solace…
“Amid the darkness within the soul, I keep fragments of my shadow locked therein…
“Amid a quiet place, I’ve found another semblance of self, far from both the illusions created by sun and moon…”
Opening her eyes, Shoushan called out into the emptiness.
“Forgive me for wandering in without being invited,” she said, “but I’ve come seeking haven.”
A moment’s silence reigned over the temple grounds.
“A bold request to make from a disciple of the Art of Death,” the woman replied, “to grant sanctuary to an unfamiliar soul. You could at least tell me your name, traveler.”
“I won’t share my name with someone hidden in the shadows, but… I am grateful for your protection.”
“You don’t appear disarmed to me,” the woman proclaimed, “and I detect a searing heat from within your soul… Forgive the morbid atmosphere of this ruin, there is little in the way of comforts and a warm fireplace. All that remains is death, reminding us that concepts like lineage, birthright, and heritage mean little at the end of one’s life. The reaper claims our souls and our blood spills all the same…”
The sound of a baying mob approaching the temple entrance came through the doorway, echoing from within the emptiness.
“I’d hate to end our conversation on an urgent note,” Shoushan said, “but–"
“Caretaker,” the woman interrupted, “call me caretaker. Are you fearing the corallis’ deathly bite? You could escape the temple through a myriad of lesser exits. Yet I fear your pursuers will discover your presence here before long and hunt for you. You’d be better off eliminating the threat and leaving their bodies here within our forgotten sanctum, hidden from plain sight.”
Looking back over her shoulder, Shoushan came halfway into the movement, finding an intact statue looming over the altar. A fierce likeness of a manticore, all swollen musculature beneath a stone replica of fur. Rearing up from behind the beast was a serpentine tail, crowned with a corallis’ head, appearing locked away in time.
The lion body lifted its hind legs, stooping down like a feline attempting to conceal itself before oblivious prey.
It extended Shoushan the impression that the beast leaning down to accept offerings placed on Zahira’s altar.
Hostile voices spilled through the open doors like an audible wave of sound. It became everything that Shoushan could hear for a moment. Alerted to the presence of her hunters, she spun around on a heel, taking up Severance with midnight leather gloved fingers.
The deafening grind of stone against stone resounded amid the silence, the breached door sliding back with incredible resistance beneath what sounded like half-a-dozen warriors shoving the gate aside.
Half a dozen warriors clad in ebony silk garments, a golden filigree decorated with ornate patterns of bright yellow gold. Vermillion Sphere emblems emblazoned on their chests, the sapphire corallis appeared wrapped around its circumference and bearing fangs at any standing before them in challenge.
“Our Guardian of Silent Graves is a stern, but forgiving mistress. She won’t turn away from an innocent bystander in need. Very well, traveler, I will aid you in your cause.”
Gentle footfalls echoed out from behind the manticore and the temple altar, ascending a stairwell hidden beneath them. Out from behind the other side of the altar, a darkling figure emerged into the dimmed light.
A Sukhanite woman approaching her middle-age stepped around the unadorned altar to stand before Shoushan. Ritual scarring marked the soft caramel shade of her skin like quill-thin engravings, created with blades and not an artist’s brushwork.
Shoushan studied the woman and noted an underlying strength to her physical frame underneath her uniform. Every ounce of her was whipcord musculature between swollen and heavily defined.
She kept her midnight black hair of a cobalt hue braided along the left side of her skull. A twisting cascade of combed strands flowed down the right side of her face to the end just shy of her collarbone. Lustrous eyes of a garnet shade stared from a chiseled face, complimented with faded lips like pale roses.
The Ashen Blade looked Shoushan over with curious eyes.
“You’re not quite what I imagined after hearing so many stories about you.” Caretaker raised her hooded head to assess the royal princess standing before her. “I’m honored to meet with the Heiress of the Carth Dominion…” Her sentence trailed off. “However, I’m not too welcoming to the Black Syndicate storming into Zahira’s abandoned house.”
Shoushan didn’t avert her gaze from the female Ashen Blade. She knew that Caretaker was attempting to read her at a glance, but was struggling to look past her stoic countenance.
“A second time that a Child of the Sun can say that she’s fought beside a mythical assassin from the Southern Wastes. We’ll have to share our stories around a hearth once we’ve dealt with the syndicate’s thugs.”
Shoushan assessed her surroundings, both the Black Syndicate’s formation and the terrain. Her enemies advanced at a cautious pace, striding through the temple interior to close the distance between them. Their numbers flickered erratically, disappearing amid the shadows, only to manifest again beneath pillars of sunlight.
Together, their ranks un-sheathed wicked blades from their scabbards. A wild assortment of daggers, hooked swords, and long knives.
“I would grow accustomed to us Ashen Blades, Heiress.” Caretaker glanced up into Shoushan’s emerald-and-silver eyes. “You’ll be meeting many more here in Sukhan. Sooner than you may think… strike them down, my kindred blades!”
Shoushan detected subtle clinking sound from the nooks of the ruin. Darts of shadow flew through the dimmed air, barely visible to the Syndicate henchmen even as three of their number spasmed to the ground. Feathered missile bolts, Shoushan noted upon nearer inspection, unleashed from a crossbow contraption. Arcs of blood lashed out through the air, raining down on the moldering and recently fallen alike.
As five sentient shadows–Ashen Blades–detached from the darkness within the temple, the Black Syndicate recognized their peril, and charged headlong to come to grips with their enemies. Guttural shouts and quiet breaths of effort echoed throughout Zahira’s abandoned sanctum where silence had reigned once.
Shoushan lowered her estoc to lift an open palm, conjuring a fusillade of firebolts at the foe. A tremulous force rocked her back with each successive burst of her unleashed magic, quaking the temple floor beneath them all.
Golden and ebony clad rogues weaved around the burning flames, even as the scattered ranks behind them became ignited. Pitiful howling filled the air as the Black Syndicate warriors caught in the blast, writhed until nothing remained but cinders.
A deafening clamor of honed steel tested against steel resonated throughout the abandoned ruins, the Ashen Blades gliding into the wading foe. Both factions laid into each other with ruthless abandon. The midnight clad assassins cut down another handful, landing quick blows with precision. The Black Syndicate’s remaining warriors assumed a compact formation, managing to deflect the first pair of Zahira’s disciples with a weight of blows.
The first pair of Ashen Blades committed to an organized retreat before committing to their assault, even as the Black Syndicate intercepted their effort to regroup with well-timed spear thrust.
An Ashen Blade cried out, the female Sukhanite half leaping, half tumbling onto the temple floor. A thick expulsion of blood erupted from her mouth upon her smashing into the remnant of a shattered pew. Already weeping from a fountain of blood spilling out from between her ribcage, the Sukhanite keeled with a ragged gasp...