Part I of IV
Year 2995 of the Third Age
As Kharid Drozhna awoke from his rudimentary bed, he knew that today would probably be one of the greatest highlights of his life, or at least, the beginning of his true life.
It had been thirteen years to the day since he had been incarcerated into the secretive, deadly, and, as thought by the lesser tribesmen of Harad, insidious order of assassins who called themselves the Hasharii. Abducted from the shrieking arms of his criminal parents by his individualist mentor, the infamous Sumnem Vhyghor when he was but a newborn, Drozhna had spent the thirteen years of his life sheltered in the hidden stronghold and base of operations of the Hasharii Order, being lored and scholared in both the history of his masters and all of the bloody heritage of the Southlands, and taught the ways of the weaponry of his brethren from the earliest age he could hold a blade. And so though but a young adolescent now, Kharid could easily take the life of many men much older than he.
He quickly brought himself up from his slumber before quickly dressing and arming himself. Drozhna’s bed-chamber, just like every other novice’s, was a highly basic and minimal place, just holding the bare essentials of what they required – a few blankets to sleep in, a plain closet containing his personal garments and weapons, and a crude drain in the corner of his room as opposed to a chamber-pot. The walls let no hole let in the light of the outer world, and so all was completely black, though Kharid had long ago been trained to see in the dark.
Drozhna quickly caught the shimmer of a flame illuminating through the open archway into his room, and as his master Sumnem Vyhghor emerged into the doorway carrying a brand, he was already dressed and ready for him.
‘It is time,’ said Vhyghor, his volume just over a whisper. ‘Come with me.’
As Drozhna followed his master out of the room and down the corridors of the novice’s dormitories, he looked at the black tattoo scribed on the back of Vhyghor’s bald head. For every Hasharin must shave all bodily hair, though none but themselves knew this, for outside of their stronghold it was blasphemy for one of their code to reveal their face, and so only their eyes looked out from a deep hood and balaclava veil. Yet Kharid in his studies knew that the tattoo of the scorpion branded on Vhyghor heralded him as a highly-accomplished Hasharin, which only a few of their order received.
‘Have you appropriately prepared yourself?’ casually asked Vhyghor as he walked, not bothering to turn and address his pupil.
‘Yes, master,’ Drozhna quietly answered.
‘Good. If there is any mistake, it is no rumour that the Myr Unghal will slay you, even if you do survive the ordeal.’
Kharid continued to follow his mentor, undaunted. He remembered his teachings of the hierarchy structure of the Hasharii – at the bottom were the lowly servants and common soldiery answerable only to the assassins; then the novices such as Drozhna; then the fully-fledged Hasharii; then the elite and experienced agents such as Vhyghor; then the council of elders who governed their order, having survived all the harsh ordeals of their lifestyle; and at the height of the Hasharii was the Myr Unghal, or the Black Scorpion; yet above them all was their deity, their goddess, the Shadow Queen.
That was where Kharid was now going. On their thirteenth year of training, each novice would make their Venom Oath to the Shadow Queen in the audience of all of his order, and become a true Hasharin at last.
Sumnem at last led his student to a great iron door, a door which none of the novices were authorised to pass through until this day. Vhghor stopped at the entrance and turned to look his novice straight in the eyes, even bowing down to speak to him personally.
‘For good or for ill, little Kharid, your time as a novice has come to an end,’ said Sumnem, mustering all the scant feeling he could. ‘I doubt, however, that your path will end here, for there is something mighty about you – I saw it in your face from the moment I took you from your lawless family. I very much hope to fight side by side with you one day.’
Drozhna did not respond, but simply bowed low. His master was known for his often brutal and savage ways of dealing with his assignments, and Kharid was frankly embarrassed that he had shown such a display of emotion, however small. When he raised his head, he saw Vhyghor was now opening the doors and speaking in a loud tone to all the audience to assemble there.
‘I, Sumnem Vhyghor, elitist agent of the Hasharii Order, present to the elder council, the Myr Unghal, and all others gathered here, the novice Kharid Drozhna, who wishes to make the Venom Oath to the divine Shadow Queen. Are there any here who would prevent such an action?’
A subtle, yet powerful and commanding voice, husky and somewhat constrained, answered in the appropriate ceremonial manner, ‘I, the Myr Unghal, head of the Hasharii Order, tell you Sumnem Vhyghor that there is no objection to such an action, and I tell you Kharid Drozhna, to step forwards to the Altar of Venom.’
The iron doors clanged dully behind Drozhna as he passed his tall mentor into the chamber. This was the sanctuary of the Shadow Queen, the holy place of the Hasharii where worship and oaths were made and the council elders and the Myr Unghal convened for their most important discussions. An aisle led from the entrance to the Altar of Venom itself, which was a fountain, or a pool, of a strange green liquid that seemed to illuminate all about it in a corpse glow. Protruding from the waters was a high black and gold figure of the Shadow Queen herself, casting a dark cloak all about herself, bearing an unassailable helm upon her hidden head and pointing a long blade at any making their way towards her.
On both sides of the aisles were auditorium-like steps, where sat all those Hasharii that had passed from their days as novices. As he walked, Kharid saw on his right a face he recognised, Garthik Inculdir, who had taken the Venom Oath roughly a year ago, and another on the right, Talvir Vashnir, who was only a month or so into full Hasharii placement. But the only man in this room who commanded any attention from Drozhna was the Myr Unghal himself, the Black Scorpion, standing on a platform-dais above the Altar of Venom, the council of elders in a semi-circle about him. The head of the order wore all-encompassing, infinitely black robes, and all his face was hidden by a long sharp mask of white, with two curved holes for eyes, but they did not seem like eyes, but holes into the very heart of the void.
Kharid had barely stopped before the altar when the Black Scorpion spoke again, reciting the old legend of their goddess, as was tradition:
‘It is said that the Shadow Queen came from the lost ziggurats of the deep desert to teach her gifts to those who were worthy, and in her debt they sought to aid her control all of Harad. Her first and greatest pupil was both her lover and her lieutenant, the Numenorean known as Sakalthor, but he was remembered as the Black Scorpion, for like her he could be no-one, he would have no face. He still survives to this day, for his garment and his legacy is passed from generation to generation like the teachings of the Shadow Queen herself, and so he is many, but none. And whilst his unending life of many generations and none remains, so does his connection to the Shadow Queen.
And so, Kharid Drozhna, both I and the Shadow Queen ask of you: are you worthy to be fully blessed by her teachings? Are you worthy to become a true Hasharin?’
‘Then I ask the mentor of Kharid Drozhna, Sumnem Vhyghor, to present the Gift of her majesty the Shadow Queen.’
Vhyghor appeared behind Drozhna, seeming to almost materialise by him, and he held a thick, obsidian goblet, which he deftly scooped into the Altar of Venom, making sure it contained the right amount of the strange green liquid.
‘Myr Unghal, the Gift is presented,’ said Sumnem.
‘Then I ask you Kharid Drozhna to drink from the cup of the Shadow Queen, and test yourself to see whether you are welcome to her embrace.’
Without an expression or emotion to reveal, he took the goblet from his master and swiftly drunk it all before passing the cup back to Vhyghor. No sooner had he clutched it had Kharid dropped to the floor and shook violently, though he made no sound, and that gave the audience much cause for wonderment. In the young novice’s mind he saw horrifying and sickening images flash before him, phantasms, some delusional, some truthful, all whispering and screaming all at once. But Drozhna was a master of his will, and he internally batted away the shapes, drawing a blade and slashing at the forms. Then, out of the swirling madness a vast, shadowed shape came up, utterly terrifying, in armour black and gold, a cloak black as night, an impenetrable helm and a sword drawn towards Kharid.
But he was not afraid. He lunged and struck at it, until their swords were caught together, and none could master the other. Suddenly, the figure laughed joyfully, and whispered in his ear.
‘Finally, I have found my champion! Kharid Drozhna, I take you into my arms…’
Kharid awoke, blinking excessively, his head panging hurtfully. He had survived the Venom Oath, and by the bewildered expressions on the faces he could now see, he had done it extraordinarily well. He clambered to his feet and stood up tall and proud before the Altar of Venom, and the Black Scorpion, struck silent, forced himself to speak:
‘Kharid Drozhna has taken the Venom Oath and gone into the embrace of the Shadow Queen. He is now a Hasharin.’
Without applause or appreciation, Drozhna turned and walked from the altar towards the iron gates, followed by his master.
Once the iron doors closed behind them, Vhyghor turned to his erstwhile apprentice, saying, ‘Kharid… that was extremely well done, my boy.’
‘What happened?’ he asked, now curious to what happened on the other side of his vision.
‘First of all, when the venom went into your system, you shook as every other has done, but you made no noise, which is very rare. Then the novice either dies, or passes through their vision and speaks the words the Shadow Queen says to them even as she speaks them, which is usually, “I take you into my arms”. But before that, you said, “Finally, I have found my champion!” Which has never happened before…’
‘What could it mean?’
‘That I do not know,’ said Sumnem, apparently troubled. ‘But I wager that the Black Scorpion and the elders will be discussing it long through the night, not to mention the gossip you will inevitably cause across the entire order. But time shall tell, Drozhna. Regardless, you are a Hasharii now; you are free to do as you will in this stronghold. You are my novice no longer.’
With that, Vhyghor turned and went back through the iron doors. Kharid thought to return to his chamber, but stood there for a moment, remembering the vision of the mysterious Shadow Queen, and the curious, burning eye that shone behind her.