Year 3000 of the Third Age
The midnight air of the desert plains chilled to the bone, but once again Kharid Drozhna awoke in heated sweats. Three years had passed since Talvir Vashnir had led his fellow Hasharin down to the secret chamber in the city of Abrakan, yet recurring dreams, or nightmares, returned to haunt Drozhna’s sleep.
He remembered passing with Vashnir, who ever wore his hood and balaclava in secrecy, through the iron doors under the emblem of the eye into a great subterranean hall devoid of outer sunlight. Yet, long lines of fire had run down the sides of the floor, burning on the extreme left and right from deep slits carved into the stone and filled with oil, though to Drozhna it had seemed as if the flames sprung from the ancient hells of the earth. Figures were scattered chaotically across the room, some dancing and chanting slowly, some writhing upon the floor in malignant pleasure, and some stood absolutely still. All, however, were draped in the shadows of the long black robes and cloaks they wore. Upon the walls and supporting columns were portrayed many emblems and depictions, but one theme dominated them all – the same eye that gazed unhindered from the entrance; the same eye that Drozhna had seen burning behind the Shadow Queen in his vision at the oath-making. At the end of the chamber was a raised dais, but it was hidden by a swathe of unadorned black veils, yet despite this Drozhna’s senses had told him that something unwholesome lay shrouded within them.
‘Vashnir, what are we doing here?’ he had asked, frantically. ‘These people look like cultists!’
‘You mean we look like cultists,’ replied Vashnir, and Drozhna had seen in his mind’s eye the venomous smile that adorned his face through his balaclava.
Ever since the Dark Tower of Barad-dur was raised in Mordor, its insidious Dark Lord had attempted to win the minds of the Haradrim to his cause. Yet because of their fractured nature, they had always been a difficulty to completely overlord, and so in the dark days of the Second Age the Cult of Sauron had been founded, secretly swaying the minds of those with the most authority in the Southlands to Sauron’s side, effectively turning the Haradrim into his slaves. To this day the ancient Cult still survived, though the Hasharii Order considered them their utter nemeses, for both sought to control the Lords of Umbar to their will. Though the Hasharii after the end of Gondor’s occupation of Harad were officially Umbar’s servitors, the Black Scorpion had ever extended his will to try and control them, but was often hampered by the exploits of the Cult of Sauron.
As Vashnir had led Drozhna through the gathered cultists towards the shrouded dais, he let fall the hood and balaclava from his face, which had almost stopped Kharid still in his steps, for he had never seen the face of his fellow Hasharin exposed. But what Drozhna then suddenly realised, like a cold wave, had succeeded in halting him; Talvir Vashnir was a woman. She caught his expression and addressed his shock with explanation; ‘When I was a young girl’, she had begun, ‘I managed to murder a Hasharin novice named Talvir Vashnir. Under the wishes of my mentor and disowned father, Venmal Javitakh, I took the boy’s identity and trained in his stead, unbeknown to all but Javitakh. Since that day, I have become Vashnir – I have become Hasharii.’
‘You know the rules of our order,’ Drozhna had stated, angered slightly in his surprise, looking at Vashnir as if he had not known her all his life. ‘This is blasphemy.’
‘Our goddess is a woman, is she not?’ purred Vashnir, the response obviously prepared. ‘And whilst I am Talvir Vashnir, I will always be regarded as a man.’
‘I should report you to the Myr Unghal,’ he had warned.
‘Yes. You should. Of course he himself would have some qualms with you being in such a place, would he not?’ Vashnir replied, and continued to walk towards the dais, and even in his doubt, Drozhna had followed her.
It was now dawn, and the heat of the southern sun begun to dissuade the coldness of the night. Drozhna had already packed away his sleeping rugs and set off towards the west, his back to the rising brightness. Though only eighteen, since the day he had beheaded the rebel Hasharin Raukazan in the forests of Dharan-sar his skill and respect grew increasingly, and now the Black Scorpion had entrusted him with a mission of such import that he would usually only send the more experienced and elite members of his order, such as the sly Venmal Javitakh or his own former mentor, the non-conformist Sumnem Vhyghor. But no, it was Kharid Drozhna who had been chosen, and so he would fulfil the wishes of the Hasharii beyond their expectations.
Azkahar was among one of the greatest cities in the Southlands, for it was famed for its independence in the time of Gondor’s occupation of Harad. For though the armies of the West were vast, the walls were so thick, the stores so stocked and the defence so vigilant that no force of arms or siege had taken it. The blood of the same men who defended it then ran true even to this day, and the line of Azkahar’s Kings was unbroken. Yet when the Lords of Umbar came to dominion Azkahar’s pride and solidarity fell under their supreme control, and the staunch Kings began to become dissident with the feeling of subservience to the port-city. But with their pride came arrogance, which had increased until the current King had declared independence.
Knowing from the past that force of arms was useless, the Council of Umbar had turned to the Hasharii. And so Drozhna now would have to succeed in what countless others before him could not – the slaying of Azkahar’s King.
The city itself lay in the north-west of Far Harad, the same distance from Umbar as Dol Amroth, and from the secret stronghold of the Hasharii Order it was too a tiresome journey. Even so, Drozhna had asked for no horse, wishing for the upmost stealth in this ordeal, for he knew that this mission would carve his name into the history of his order, and all of Harad, for centuries to come. But before he could overcome the King of Azkahar, he would have to overcome the restless dreams of what had transpired three years ago.
As Vashnir and Drozhna had passed through the varied cultists, they seemed to look upon the young man with a silent awe, or realisation, to which he was still unsure whether it brought him unease or enjoyment.
Just before they had reached the dais cloaked in veils, Drozhna at last demanded more information from Vashnir; ‘Before you show me whatever mystery you have hidden under that dais, woman, tell me why have you brought me here? Why are you associated with the most hated nemeses of the Hasharii Order?’
‘Must I tell you then?’ she had smiled; half seductress, half tormentor, all trickster.
‘I demand it,’ Drozhna had ordered stoically, for the impatience inside him had burned into anger.
‘Very well,’ she had replied as her grin became a ghost in her companion’s sudden show of wrath. ‘I, and many others that you could not even comprehend among the Hasharii – secretly and unbeknownst to the Myr Unghal or any also not affiliated – have joined with the Cult of Sauron, because we have been enlightened by a truth the lesser agents of our order deem blasphemous.’
‘Evidently with good reason,’ Drozhna had remarked.
‘Spare me, Kharid. It is simple prejudice and unflinching tradition that divides us.’
‘Then tell me this truth, Talvir. Enlighten me.’
Vashnir had sighed hesitantly before continuing. ‘In the Second Age, a Numenorean Lady disguised herself as a king as she attempted to conquer all of Harad. She had failed, but her power made her a valuable target for alliance – alliance from the Dark Lord, Sauron. In return for friendship, she was given one of nine rings that made her immortal, and a vassal-captain of Barad-dur. She has had many names over the millennia – Lady Adunaphel, Once Vain, the Quiet, the Knight of Umbar, the Silent Lady, but to we Hasharii she is called the Shadow Queen. Towards the end of the Second Age she created the Hasharii Order as her personal acolytes, to be a more subtle way of her controlling Harad, and so though we secretly manipulate the Lords of Umbar, so she puppeteers us. Yet as she is the servant of Sauron, so it must be that the Venom Oath is made not directly to her, but to Sauron, and so those of us among the Cult are the only true members of the Hasharii.’
It had taken Kharid a long time to acknowledge such information, and in his memory, it had seemed like hours. To this day he was surprised that his initial reaction was not denial.
‘The simple question, Drozhna,’ Vashnir had said with absolute seriousness, ‘Is whether you choose to obey your oath to the Shadow Queen and join the Cult of Sauron, or to obey the Myr Unghal and the short-sighted of our order.’
‘You are asking me to choose between my religion and my duty, Vashnir. It is no simple question.’
‘Perhaps it is easier than you think it to be. I deemed you worthy of the truth, but what do you deem of the truth?’
Drozhna’s mind had convulsed in a turmoil of doubt. ‘I will not join the Cult, but I will not betray you to the Myr Unghal. I need time to think, a long time. That is what I deem.’
‘Very well,’ Vashnir had said, a little disheartened he had not instantly joined. ‘You may take all the time you need, for the Cult of Sauron is timeless.’
Drozhna had turned and walked to the iron door, yet as he had walked he had sworn he could feel the gaze of the great eye emblems inscribed across the room. Yet before he went, he had forgotten to ask Vashnir one more question; ‘What is behind the veils on the dais?’
‘The Shadow Queen,’ Vashnir had answered. ‘That is where her throne is. Often she comes here for ceremony, and today is such a day. But you will see her soon, Kharid. She will be waiting for you. It is true what you said at your oath-making, you know. The words she conducted through you; that you were her champion.’
Without a sound Drozhna had stared at the veils in disbelief, awe, amazement and terror. The image of staring at the hidden dais, the lines of fire framing it on either side, and what kind of form would be sat behind the curtains haunted Drozhna’s mind ever after. With his face as pale as a hungering spirit he walked with great pace to the iron doors, and the gaze of the Shadow Queen weighing upon his back was the heaviest burden he had ever borne.
Dusk settled once again upon the sands of Harad, and as Drozhna watched the horizon devour the sun he saw it illuminate the distant shape of the city of Azkhahar. He would rest one more time before he came to his destination, though he knew in his sleep the images and thoughts of his encounter with the Cult of Sauron would return, and the lingering question of which side he would choose.
He gripped an object held closely in the midst of his swathing robes, and decided to inspect it as he had done many times before on this journey. It was a curious, orb-shaped device, but with a lid like a lamp, kept tightly and securely on. He had strangely found it in his bed-chamber at the Hasharii’s hidden stronghold when he had awoken on the day he was to leave for Azkahar. It had been delivered to him with an informal note written in precise characters.
I have been informed of the monumental task you are about to undertake, and as a peer I congratulate you and wish you success. I am, however, to remind you that it has now been three years since you have discovered the truth. This is a token handed to you from the Shadow Queen herself; a hallowed gift indeed; one which I hope shall persuade you somewhat. She advises you to use it after you slay the King of Azkahar – simply open and leave it in the city once the deed is done, though take care to stay far away from it once the seal is opened.
He returned the object back into his robes and looked ahead at the silhouetted towers of Azkahar, and in his mind saw himself become higher than any of them, an overbearing legacy on Middle-earth. However, what foundations he would be raised upon was a decision he would soon have to make.